Back in mid-September, NVIDIA announced a new platform called Tegra Note that aimed to not only bring $200 Tegra 4 slates to the market, but excellent stylus support using NVIDIA's DirectStylus technology, a "groundbreaking" camera experience, and superb audio as well. That's a tall order in a $200 device, but NVIDIA has proven that when it sets out to achieve a goal, it's generally successful at delivering on the promises made.
The first Tegra Note device is now available for pre-order, and it comes to us from tablet newcomer EVGA. I'm sure the bulk of you have heard of this company because of its video cards (where it undoubtedly works closely with NVIDIA), so it shouldn't come as too much of a shocker to see it become the first Tegra Note partner. We also know that PNY is working on its own Tegra Note variant, and HP leveraged the platform for its Slate7 Extreme that's due out later this month.
While a $200 seven-inch tablet is far from unheard of at this point, NVIDIA is looking to bring some of the features of higher-end devices – like the Samsung Galaxy Note line – at a much lower price point. The standout feature of Tegra Note is without a doubt its stylus support, where the goal was to bring active-like support with a capacitive stylus. And in that respect, they've absolutely delivered. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but the Tegra Note 7 simply has the best stylus input I've ever used outside of the Note line. And it's half the cost.
With that, let's dig in.
- Display: 7-inch 1280x800 IPS with DirectStylus input
- Processor: 1.8Ghz Quad-core Tegra 4
- RAM: 1GB
- Storage: 16GB
- Cameras: 5MP Rear shooter, 1.3MP front-facing camera
- Ports: MicroSD, headphone jack, microUSB
- Wireless: 802.11 b/g/n
- OS: Android 4.2.2
- Dimensions/Weight: 199 mm x 119 mm x 9.6 mm, 320g
- Battery: 4,100mAh
- Price: $199
- Buy: Preorder - NewEgg
- DirectStylus. This is hands down the best experience I've ever had with a passive stylus. It's awesome.
- It's crazy fast. Tegra 4 isn't slow, so Tegra Note isn't slow. Makes sense, right?
- Cool accessories right out of the gate. I love this. There may only be a couple of things available – a cover and pack of styli – but it's still cool.
- Good speakers, better placement. We all love front-facing speakers because they just make sense. Tegra Note not only has front speakers, but also a neat little bass reflex port to offer that extra oomph.
- The display. This is actually the worst thing about Tegra Note, which is unfortunate since it's such an important part of the overall experience. It's not the worst I've ever seen, but it could be A LOT better.
- It's kind of thick and heavy. It's thinner and lighter than the 2012 Nexus 7, but it's definitely thicker and heavier than the 2013 model.
- The buttons are too recessed. This bugged me more at first than it did after I got used to it, but the buttons are hard to find before you get accustomed to their exact placement.
Build Quality and Design
The overall look and feel of the Tegra Note 7 is quite different than other devices we've seen lately. Instead of being an uninspired black slab, the Tegra Note has some soul. Love it or hate it, it's got a different look about it – very industrial in my opinion.
The center piece of the back reminds me a lot of the 2012 Nexus 7, though a bit more "dramatic," as the indentions are both deeper and wider. The top and bottom pieces on the back are just a smooth black plastic. I actually really like the design here – it has a certain badass edge to it. I dig that.
Flipping over to the front of the device, you have very large speakers at the top and bottom (which actually makes the tablet seem longer than it is) along with some pretty hefty bezels. It seems that Tegra Note takes after Kai in this way. The right side of the unit is where you'll find the stylus bay, volume rocker, and microSD card slot; the power button, headphone jack, microHDMI out, and microUSB ports are along the top, the cover spine slides into a slot along the right side, and the bottom houses a neat little bass reflex port that works alongside the front-facing speakers to give a little more oomph to the audio experience. My one gripe with the overall design is with the volume rocker and power buttons: they don't protrude from the sides as much as I'd like, which makes them a bit difficult to find without looking because of the curved sides and top. The camera "hump" is also just below the power button, so more often than not I found myself pressing on it and wondering why the tablet wouldn't turn on before realizing I wasn't even pressing the button. It's a slightly derp moment when that happens, but I can't decide if that's on my part or NVIDIA's/EVGA's for the awkward button placement.
When it comes to build quality, the TN7 is a solid hunk of tablet. Everything feels really well made and put together – there's no flex to speak of, nor does it creak, snap, or pop on any given spot. It's as solid as solid can get in the tablet world. It also has a slight heft to it (it's 320g), which gives it a reassuringly sturdy feeling without being too heavy. The overall size reminds me a lot of the 2012 Nexus 7, though it's about 20 grams lighter and .8mm thinner. Still, if you're familiar with the 2012 N7, then you already have a good idea of how Tegra Note feels.
The only thing I'd call "questionable" about the build is actually EVGA's logo on the back – as you can see from the images, it had already started peeling off (look at the "G") after just a few days.
This is by far the standout feature of Tegra Note, and one of the things NVIDIA is most proud of. That pride isn't without reason, either – the stylus support on TN is absolutely unprecedented when it comes to a passive pen. The only other devices I've seen that can compare is of course Samsung's Note series, but even the Note 8.0 is roughly $150 more than Tegra Note for a similar level of input support.
The stylus itself is thin, yet comfortable, and has an angled tip which makes it possible to dramatically change line thickness not only by applying varying levels of pressure, but also by changing the angle of the tip. It's incredibly versatile. And best of all, it's passive so replacing it should be extremely affordable should the need for that arise. There will also be a pack of styluses available shortly after release that offer different tips if that's what you're into; it's also worth noting that any passive stylus should work with Tegra Note, though I found that most of them had much too large of a tip to be any sort of usable. The included TN pen definitely offers the best experience.
If the stylus is the highlight of the Tegra Note experience, the display is definitely the lowlight. That's interesting to me, as the stylus and display work together so closely. It's confusing – I absolutely love the stylus and the features provided by it, but the very thing I use the stylus to interact with hampers the whole experience.
So, what's up with the display? It's clear that it's a cheap panel (to be fair, this is a $200 tablet and not everyone can subsidize the shit out of products like Google), so colors are washed out and just bland. Whites look yellow, and blacks are just kind of... gray. Nothing is as vibrant as it should be. And it makes me sad.
It's also 1280x800. In a world where 1080p is becoming the norm, this is definitely lower than one would expect, but that doesn't make it unusable. For the most part I don't find it any harder to look at or read on than the 2013 Nexus 7's 1080p display, though text is certainly less crisp. But it's still legible and doesn't look awful, so I'm OK with that. Let's not forget that not too long ago 1024x600 was average on a 7-inch tablet. That's a place I never hope to visit again.
Past the poor color reproduction, however, it's not the worst display I've ever used. It's far from Nexus 5-good, but it's definitely not Acer A100-bad, either; it's certainly usable for most applications, and the slight discoloration isn't something that you notice right away unless you're accustomed to looking at 1,500 different Android devices every single day. You know, kind of like a guy who reviews gadgets for a living. Wink, wink.
But seriously, while I'm disappointed in Tegra Note's display (because my normal daily driver is the 2013 Nexus 7), I don't find it to be a deal breaker and found it relatively easy to get acclimated to.
Aside from superb stylus support, the audio experience is something else NVIDIA is quite proud of with the Tegra Note design. The device features front-facing speakers that are quite capable of putting out some legit sound, but they're also accompanied by a sort of bass reflex port to give music, movies, and games that little extra oomph.
In actuality, the combination of dedicated bass port and front-facing speakers makes a pretty major difference in the audio quality. Tegra Note probably gets louder than any other tablet I've heard, and while the sound is still relatively "thin," it still seems to pack more power than one would expect. I wouldn't fire it up thinking you're going to hear Jambox-quality sound coming from tablet speakers, but it's still far above what we've all come to think of as the "norm," and they're definitely powerful enough to make watching movies and playing games a pleasurable experience.
NVIDIA has talked up the camera functions of Tegra Note quite a bit, touting it as a "groundbreaking" camera experience. In a move to back that claim, it did something a little interesting: it brought with it a camera application that was previously exclusive to iOS. Dubbed Camera Awesome (or Camera! in the app tray), this is not only the stock camera app, but the only one installed.
Before we get into the software features, however, I want to point out two things: A) NVIDIA's AOHDR (Always On HDR), which is really the standout camera feature using Chimera Computational Photography Architecture that leverages the power of Tegra 4 to enhance photos, wasn't enabled on review units – it's coming via OTA at a later date. Secondly, most of the pictures in this review were taken with a second Tegra Note tablet, so you've actually been looking at its camera work the entire time. Surprise!
With that out of the way, let's talk about what Camera! is all about. Overall, it's a pretty decent camera application, offering many of the features you'd expect to see in a much-better-than-the-super-basic-stock-Android-camera... camera. It has a few different shooting modes, including burst mode, HDR, continuous burst, and panorama. It also has settings to adjust ISO, white balance, and exposure – all pretty standard.
But it's about more than just the camera – Awesome also has a built-in photo editor. It has an "awesomize" button that allows you to basically give images a quick touchup using a slidebar, but it's also packed with transformation effects, filters, textures, and frames. Honestly, Camera! could probably get its own review.
Overall, Tegra Note seems to be pretty capable of capturing some nice images despite only having a 5MP rear shooter. I was also impressed with the indoor photo quality. I'm looking forward to seeing how much better the camera experience gets post-AOHDR update. Here are some sample images aside from all the product shots in the review.
Note: The exposure ring was moved to different locations in the bottom three images, showing that you can drastically alter lighting with little more than moving a finger.
Like NVIDIA's SHIELD, Tegra Note is only packing 16GB of storage space. Right out of the box, that leaves 11.55GB accessible to the user, which isn't really a lot of room for books, magazines, games, and the like.
It also features a microSD card slot that's capable of handling cards up to 32GB, but that's only useful if you plan on packing it with movies, music, or other consumable files from your own collection. Like I said on the G Pad 8.3 review, 16GB simply isn't enough for a tablet. I'm beyond ready to see 32GB storage capacities become the norm on larger devices.
I have a confession to make: I didn't have time to accurately gauge the Tegra Note's battery life. My initial unit was faulty so I had to get a replacement, and there was a delay in the FedEx shipment, so I didn't actually get the replacement unit until yesterday. Instead of making some crap up or "guessing," I've opted to update this review after I've had a few more days with the replacement unit. Not ideal, I know.
If you're interested in my feelings on the battery, check back in a few days, as I should be able to update by then.
Update: OK, now that I've had a few more days to play with Tegra Note, here's my assessment on battery life. I basically liken it very closely with the 2013 Nexus 7, in that I can get about eight hours of on-screen time between charges pretty consistently. That includes gaming with a Bluetooth controller (mostly Dead Trigger 2), and some lighter gaming (Total Conquest) for about an hour or so, lots of reading and web browsing, and watching videos – you know, this stuff that tablets are basically built for.
On the other hand, the standby battery life isn't all that great – it can easily lose 20-30 percent overnight, mostly due to Wi-Fi. I found that killing the Wi-Fi at night (or using something like Battery Widget Reborn to do it automatically) conserved a lot of juice, keeping the overnight drain to about eight or so percent.
Tegra Note devices are set to ship with a couple of accessories available right out of the gate: extra styli and neat book-style cover. The latter is pretty cool, as it just slides into a slot on the side of the tablet, so it adds very little thickness overall. It functions not only as a cover, but it also folds up to make a stand; the coolest part about that, though, is the fact that the back of the tablet is magnetized so the cover just sticks to it. Makes it incredibly easy to turn it into a stand. If you plan on buying Tegra Note, go ahead and add the cover to the cart as well – you'll be glad you did. It's killer.
And of course there's controller support. Right now NVIDIA is working closely with NYKO to ensure the PlayPad and PlayPay Pro offer a seamless experience on Tegra devices, but other controllers should work well too, including PowerA's new MOGA Power options.
On the surface, the Tegra Note appears to just be running stock Android. That's basically the case, but of course NVIDA has made some NVIDIA-ish changes to the system as a whole, some in form, but most in function. Since it's basically a stock feel, let's take a closer look at what's "under the hood," so to speak.
The majority of the changes made the Tegra Note on the software level can be found tucked neatly within the settings menu. The usual suspects for a Tegra device are here – like Miracast Wireless Display, for example. But since this is an NVIDIA device, you'll also find some specific gaming options here, like controller options. At this time this entry is pretty barren, as it just offers options to use the right controller stick as a mouse (like SHIELD) and pointer speed calibration. I asked if NVIDIA is going to bring button mapping software to Tegra Note and was told they're looking into it, so that could show up in a future update.
There's also a Power Saving option that allows the Tegra 4 chip to be manipulated to maximize performance, offer a balanced experience, or save battery. Like other tablets that have offered this (or a similar) feature, there's a tangible difference between "battery saving" or "maximum performance" and "save battery." If you really need to get the most out your tablet, however, the latter is definitely the feature to go with. It caps the number of usable cores to two at 1.8GHz and drops the FPS (frames per second) limit to 30 – in other words, it's probably OK for browsing the web or reading, but if you want to play games this isn't the best setting to use. For those who are curious, here's the full breakdown of each option:
- Max Performance: 4 Cores, no frequency limit, no FPS limit
- Balance: 4 cores, no frequency limit, 60 FPS cap
- Save Battery: 2 cores, 1.8GHz frequency limit, 30 FPS cap
Clearly each feature has its own specific use case, and I found them all to work very well for the intended purpose.
Thanks to NVIDIA's DirectStylus technology, the display offers pressure-sensitive stylus compatibility that's also incredibly fluid. Handwriting on TN7 is a very pleasurable experience, as the palm rejection is top-notch and the input flows naturally. Drawing is also a pleasure, as you can easily decide how think or thin lines should be based on how hard you press. You know, just like with a real pen/pencil/other writing utensil.
When you pop the included stylus out of the bay, the DirectStylus launcher automatically opens, offering up two options out of the box: Tegra Draw and Write. More applications can easily be added to this menu if you have others installed that take advantage of a stylus (really any app can be added, but it seems silly to add things that don't at least leverage the stylus). Two new options also appear in the navigation bar: stylus-only mode and a screencapture/annotation tool. As the name suggests, the former disables all input that isn't from the stylus, while the latter is something like LG's QuickMemo or Samsung's Screen Write. It allows you to write directly on the screen, select certain areas of the screen to save, or both. It's simple and easy to use, yet powerful enough to do the things you'd likely need it to do.
In the settings menu, DirectStylus has a few options of its own, too. You can select the app to launch when the stylus is removed (the DirectStylus Launcher is the default option), and toggle the draw and eraser cursors, which are both pretty self-explanatory.
You can drastically alter line thickness simply but turning the stylus
There's also another option, which may not immediately make sense: pen-to-touch delay. I reached out to NVIDIA to find out exactly what this does and received a wonderful explanation. Instead of paraphrasing it, I figured it only made sense to just quote it directly:
With the Tegra Note 7, we've employed a combination of several different methods to achieve robust palm rejection across different usage scenarios.
One thing that we observed when conducting user tests was that depending on the user’s writing habits, if they repositioned their palm while drawing or writing, a small part of the palm may contact the touch screen surface before the rest. And, occasionally, that touch might look like a finger. We discovered that, by adding a delay, “pen-to-touch delay”, where non-stylus events are temporarily suppressed during and after a stylus event, we greatly improved the performance of palm rejection for end users.
While the default value is set to '0.5 sec', given that not everyone's writing style will be the same, we've given the user the option to increase or decrease the delay period, based on personal preference.
So, basically, the pen-to-touch delay lets you essentially "adjust" the level of palm rejection based on your particular style of handwriting. That's awesome.
Stock Android and Updates
While NVIDIA may still be somewhat of a newcomer to Android device manufacturing, one thing's clear: it knows that users want timely updates. So with Tegra Note, it plans on taking a Google-like stance to updates. While other manufacturers will be putting out Tegra Note devices (much like LG built and released the last two Nexus phones, and ASUS the last two Nexus 7s), NVIDIA is putting itself in charge of pushing out software updates (much like Google does with Nexus devices). This means manufacturers don't have to build the software OTA builds themselves – NVIDIA is already doing the heavy lifting here. As a result, the company is promising timely updates, which is something that it has already started proving it's capable of with SHIELD.
While EVGA's Tegra Note is launching with Android 4.2.2, NVIDIA has already stated the 4.3 update will be coming in December, along with some new features. Considering how well it's been supporting SHIELD since launch, I'm inclined to believe that we'll not only see this update, but also 4.4 sooner than other manufacturers are able to push something out. This is, of course, my own personal speculation and shouldn't be taken as a quote from NVIDIA.
Pairing something as powerful as the Tegra 4 with only 1GB of RAM seems like such an oddity to me – it's like building a Windows PC with a Haswell i7 and only sticking 2GB of RAM in it. Still, Tegra Note purrs along nicely and I didn't actually feel that 1GB of RAM, so that's a good thing. I bet it'll really sing when it gets KitKat.
But really, during "real world" use, I didn't notice any sort of slowdown. The Tegra 4 is blazing fast, and that shows in Tegra Note. No slowdown, no lag – just blazing speed, all the time. Gaming is, of course, a killer experience, but so is basically everything else. Dead Trigger purred right along with "ultra high" graphics, and everything from web browsing to watching Netflix went off without a hitch. The interface isn't heavy or sluggish (which definitely helps with the limited RAM), so there's really nothing more to say about it – it works, and it works well.
You skipped the rest and came straight here, didn't you? It's the final thoughts that you're interested in, the bottom line. I can respect that (though there really is a lot going on with this tablet, so it's worth reading the entire review).
But what you really want to know is if you should buy this over something like the Nexus 7. That's a good question, and also a difficult one to answer. Price-wise, the Nexus 7 is about $30 more than the Tegra Note, which is really a negligible difference. Performance-wise, I'd say they're on par with each other. It's the finer details that really make this a hard choice.
The Nexus 7's display absolutely smashes the Tegra Note in every possible way – colors, crispness, resolution; the works. However, Tegra Note's DirectStylus support is killer for anyone looking for some sort of pen input outside of the Note line. The TN7 also has superior audio and a better camera, though those things aren't what sell tablets. They're just nice to have along for the ride.
With NVIDIA spearheading the updates itself, the TN7 probably won't be too far behind the Nexus 7 when it comes to sporting the latest version of Android (let's say three months – that seems like a fair timeframe). That in itself makes the choice even more difficult.
So it really comes down to one thing: do you want to draw and/or write on your tablet? Is stylus support important to you? If so, buy the Tegra Note 7. The subpar display is unfortunate, but it's not awful. An extra gig of RAM would've been nice, but it's not a deal breaker. Playing games is nice on the Tegra Note 7, and I even think it provides a better experience than the Nexus 7.
If browsing the web and reading are the main use-cases for your tablet purchase, then it's hard to beat the Nexus 7. Really hard. The display is absolutely beautiful and is just a pleasure to look at. If that's the main factor when determining which tablet to buy, get the N7 – you won't be disappointed.
At the end of the day, I think the Tegra Note 7 has a place in the market. There are a lot of users out there who are desperately seeking superb stylus integration, and Tegra Note is for those people – it's absolutely the best experience you can get outside of the Note series, and I'd even go as far as saying that it may be better at some things. I really hope to see NVIDIA build on this platform and make it better moving forward – fix the things that are "wrong" with it and expand. Maybe make an eight inch version or a new seven incher with a higher resolution screen and a couple gigs of RAM. Something more high-end.
But for now, I think this is a great start.
You can pre-order EVGA's Tegra Note from NewEgg starting today.