If you ask us, Samsung began marketing its Samsung Galaxy Note on the wrong foot. It was a smart move anticipating reactions to its oversized 5.3-inch screen when it first launched in Europe, but the problem with claiming that the Galaxy Note is a phone/tablet hybrid (a "phablet", if you will) is setting the expectation that it will be able to reduce your tablet dependence, or obviate the need for one in the first place. While that might be the case for casual tablet users, or for the tablet-curious, the Galaxy Note is firmly and unquestionably a Galaxy smartphone first. In the meantime, "phablet" has become a (fun, if meaningless) catchphrase for a product for which the manufacturers can't seem to decide what spin will net the most sales.
And where does that kooky-cool throwback S Pen stylus come in? The Galaxy Note's wand can take screenshots, jot your notes and respond to pen pressure — all good stuff. Yet, if you never release the S Pen from its snug plastic tunnel, you won't miss out on the Note's essential smartphone features.
So forget worrying about the Galaxy Note as a tablet, and think of it as the phone that it is. A good phone, too. If you like the idea of an oversized Galaxy S II device with a high-quality 8-megapixel camera and a huge honking screen for watching movies, reading ebooks and doing other things that you might do on a smartphone or a tablet, then this is a great device. If you enjoy the artistic promise of digital sketching, you might likewise keep it in the running. However, if 5.3 inches seems too ungainly for your hands, then leave this one be, and seek out its smaller cousins, the still large Samsung Galaxy S II, for example.
Which Samsung engineer accidentally spilled Miracle-Gro on a Galaxy S I? That's what the Galaxy Note looks like, in the nicest possible way. At 147mm tall by 83mm wide by only 9.7mm thick, it resembles a shingle with rounded edges.
The 5.3-inch HD screen on the Samsung Galaxy Note is a real whopper. That extra-large pen accessory is much more comfortable than the original stylus, but it costs an extra $50.
Let's kick things off by addressing the elephant in the room: the Galaxy Note's size. The footprint is big, no doubt about it, and it's a bit of an awkward strain to hold in smaller-sized hands. There's no way this baby is slipping into our jeans pockets, but it's fine for a purse.
Although it's a big phone, it's pretty easy on the eyes, and the slim build keeps it looking light and lean. As with the rest of the Galaxy series, the Note's body is made from plastic materials. This doesn't make for the particularly premium experience that we would expect at this price, but we can't complain about the general aesthetics.
While plastic may not seem upscale, it does offer its own brand of durability over glass parts that can shatter, or paint that can chip off metal fixtures. It weighs a chunky 178g, but that heft also lends it a greater sense of structural strength.
The Galaxy Note's crowning glory is its 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED screen, with its 1280x800-pixel resolution (that's WXGA, by the way). Samsung's family of AMOLED screen technology always looks bright, vivid and saturated in colour. The Note's behemoth is pretty similar, although pixel density appeared a little lower, and the image was noticeably softer and less bright than on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which also has an HD Super AMOLED display. Photos looked crisp and alive, videos played back smoothly on the large, high-def screen and ebooks were easier to read than on smaller smartphone displays.
The Samsung Galaxy Note's HD screen (left) isn't quite as sharp or as vibrant as that of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
The rest of the phone looks a lot like others in the Galaxy S II family. You'll find a 2-megapixel front-facing camera above the screen; below it, there are the four customary touch-sensitive navigation buttons for Menu, Home, Back and Search. The volume rocker is on the left spine, and the power button is on the right. On the bottom are the the Micro-USB charging port and the hollowed-out slot for the Note's S Pen stylus. You can plug your headphones in to the 3.5mm jack up the top. If you're worried about losing it, the S Pen clicks firmly into place and stays there.
Interface and slap-happy tricks
For navigation, you've got the most recent version of TouchWiz, Samsung's custom interface that rides over Android; in this case, Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Samsung is fully expected to update the Note to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, although there's no public timeline yet.
There are a few extra goodies in addition to the TouchWiz and Android 2.3 Gingerbread mainstays.
As a reminder, here are some things that you can do with TouchWiz: pull down the notifications menu to access system settings; pinch the screen to see an overview of your seven customisable home screens; and cycle through them crazily fast by holding down and swiping along the row of dots. On the Note, you can also take a screenshot by swiping the edge of your hand left and right across the screen. The latter didn't always work seamlessly, and may take a little getting used to. It felt a little unnatural to us, and we can't see ourselves using that method, but having an extra way to perform a task never hurts. (You can also capture a screenshot by pressing the Power and Home buttons, or by using the S Pen.)
Screenshot swiping isn't the only gesture that Samsung has added. Rotate your finger over a gallery photo, and the image will rotate, too. Shake the device to trigger a search for Bluetooth devices. Then there's my favourite: flip the phone over or press your hand over its face to pause a song or video, or to mute an incoming call. These are all fun, clever ways to interact with the device in addition to the usual finger-tap settings.
S Pen stylus and memo apps
Let's move on to the phone's most controversially thrilling facet: the stylus. Physically, it's a wisp of a thing, just a couple of inches tall, with a button on the side that serves as a shortcut to perform a handful of tasks. The S Pen is reasonably comfortable in the hand, but it's so slim and light that holding it sometimes feels like grasping at air. There's also the distinct possibility that once it's unsheathed, it'd be easy to drop or misplace.
We won't lie. Writing with the S Pen, as the stylus is known, takes some getting used to, but it also adds some neat tricks.
You can buy an S Pen accessory called the S Pen Holder Kit that will look just like a larger, thicker ballpoint pen. It costs US$59.99, and comes with an additional S Pen. We've read that as an acknowledgement that the S Pen could feel more natural in the hand.
The memo apps are where most of the creative action happens. Tap twice on the screen while holding down the S Pen button to pull up Quick Memo, a fast way to start jotting a note. You can later retrieve the memo from the more sophisticated S Memo app. Both let you draw, handwrite notes and annotate websites; S Memo also supports voice recordings and typed text, for instance, but it won't launch from the pen. Apps optimised for the S Pen cleverly respond to 128 different levels of pressure. Harder strokes leave thicker lines, and you can press lighter for shading. Just take care where you put your hands; the wrong placement could create unwanted pen lines.
The handwriting-to-text tool works some of the time, but it helps if you don't scrawl.
The apps offer a great alternative to the rigidity of typing, and system integration is reasonably good. For example, you can add a handwritten Quick Memo note to a calendar event. You can write with the S Pen in almost all text fields; you turn that on when you tap the pen icon on the Samsung keyboard. Writing is a little strange at first, since there's some lag in seeing your strokes appear on the screen. While we hardly have the world's most elegant handwriting, the S Pen made it look even more scrawled. It takes a little time to pick up certain navigation shortcuts and work your way through the various apps; we found ourselves becoming frustrated at the beginning, but you'll probably adapt as you grow more used to the environment.
We do like the tool for converting handwriting into text. It works better the more neatly you write, and it won't work perfectly every time. We also appreciate the undo and eraser tools in the memo apps, as well as the setting for lefties.
Although we've said that the S Pen isn't necessary for using the Galaxy Note (unlike those styluses of yore), there are some advantages beyond keeping your greasy, grimy digits off that huge smudge magnet of a screen. Samsung has programmed a pair of memo apps to work with the S Pen, and is encouraging other developers to create their own compatible apps, as well. There will be about 20 of these apps at launch.
The S Pen isn't for everyone. First, there's the learning curve of creating legible notes. We also have yet to see if it can fit our particular work flow after the novelty wears off. We can, however, see how artists and people with more free-flowing thought processes might appreciate the flexibility with which they can express their ideas. We especially see the benefit of quickly and easily creating and sharing digital sketches on the fly, like these caricatures that Samsung used at CES to publicise the Note.
One of the Galaxy Note's most important smartphone features is its 4G LTE radios, which make it one of US network AT&T's faster phones for uploading and downloading data (though there's no word yet whether the Note will be compatible with Telstra's 4G network). It's also got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS; text and multimedia messaging; and Android's penchant for integrating social networks into your virtually limitless address book. You'll find all of Google's usual apps and services, like Google Maps with turn-by-turn voice directions, Gmail, Search, Google Music and YouTube.
Video playback looks great on the huge screen.
Apps are a huge part of the Note's experience, especially those created for the S Pen. In addition to the aforementioned memo notes is a game called Crayon Physics.
Samsung adds its own app package to the Galaxy Note, including its typical Kies Air and AllShare apps for sharing multimedia (like your photos, videos and doodles) with your desktop and DLNA-compatible devices, respectively. There are also the Social Hub and Music Hub for organising tools around Facebook and Twitter social networking, and listening to podcasts and tunes.
Amazon Kindle for ebooks, Qik Lite for video chats, Polaris Office, Pulse, Mini Diary and Yellow Pages Mobile are other apps that have been preloaded onto the Note. The European version of the Note is home to S Planner and S Choice, which are two other S Pen apps.
One of the best features of most phones in the Samsung Galaxy S II line is the 8-megapixel camera. Not all cameras of this calibre can pass muster, but image quality on the Galaxy Note is admirable, and full-size photos look good off-screen, as well as on the HD display.
The 8-megapixel camera and 2-megapixel front-facing camera stand up to Samsung's usual quality for the Galaxy S II family of phones.
The camera contains all of the usual shooting and white-balance presets to take action shots and panoramas, and detect smiles in a variety of lighting scenarios. It also has anti-shake, blink detection, autofocus and a timer.
Front-facing cameras are great for video chats and the odd self-portrait, but you'll get your best-quality shots from the rear camera. Still, Samsung generally does a nice job with the 2-megapixel shooter, and the same is true for this one. Test photos taken indoors with a good amount of natural light looked good, even when blown to full size on the computer screen. The camera naturally didn't capture extreme detail, and we could detect some digital noise when we peered closely, but colours displayed smoothly and were true to life.
Colours looked true in this excellent outdoor landscape shot.
Video capture and playback are also a big deal on the Galaxy Note; the HD screen can do both in 1080p. The high-definition videos look fantastic when played back on the 5.3-inch screen, although we would love to see some HD-optimised apps on here like the ones on Verizon's LG Spectrum, which has a Netflix HD app that sources HD videos by default, when they exist.
These toys, photographed inside away from natural light and under harsh artificial bulbs, were fairly in focus and richly coloured.
Recording video is straightforward. As is typical, the app keeps many of the camera settings, but also includes a shorter, lower-quality setting for taking videos specifically for MMS. The Galaxy Note has 16GB of internal memory for your application and multimedia storage, and allows for up to 32GB more through a microSD card.
We tested the Samsung Galaxy Note (GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz; 2100MHz LTE) in San Francisco using AT&T's service. Call quality was pretty good in our tests so far. At full tilt, volume is a little low, but we had no trouble hearing in a quiet setting. Call clarity was admirable, with no discernible background noise throughout a 20-minute test call. There was something just a little off in how voices sounded. It was hard to identify properly, but they just weren't quite as rich or as clear as we've heard on other phones.
According to our test caller, our voices didn't sound fully natural, or like us. Instead, he said we sounded a bit hollow and echoed, as if we were speaking from within a can or underground. He also thought that we sounded a bit muted at the higher frequencies, although volume was no problem, and the line sounded very clear.
We tested the speakerphone by holding the phone at waist level. Volume was very loud, but we'd rather turn it down than not be able to turn it up. Our caller's voice sounded buzzy and hollow, and he reported the customary speakerphone echo and flattened voice quality, but had few other real complaints. On the whole, the speakerphone was very effective — we understood every word during a long conversation in a relatively quiet environment.
Battery life is a big question mark on a handset with such a power-hungry display, and it's to Samsung's credit that the Galaxy Note has an extra-large 2500mAh battery to complement its extra-large screen. We'll be performing our own drain tests, but, as an indicator, the Note has a rated battery life of 26 hours of talk time and a rated standby life of 40 days. However, take these numbers with the heaping qualification that you're unlikely to see such longevity if you're using the device for multimedia streaming.
There are two main questions at hand: is the Samsung Galaxy Note a phone worth buying, and, if so, can it satisfy the need for a tablet?
So long as you're all for supersizing, we can emphatically answer "yes" to the former. It has all the high-flying specs that we loved in the original Galaxy S II, but an even larger, HD Super AMOLED screen. While its size could make carrying the phone awkward, the screen real estate is ideal for interacting with HD games and multimedia, and for reading websites and ebooks.
When you add in the S Pen, there's so much more potential for creative drawings and games. Whether it's little more than a party trick or whether you'll use it on a regular basis depends on you. We think the screen size, rather than the stylus, will make it or break it for most buyers, but we do worry about the long-term comfort and security of the skinny pen if you don't feel like dishing out for a US$50 pen-holder accessory — a price we feel is a lot to ask.
Given the 5.3-inch screen, some people could indeed find the Note to be a workable smartphone/tablet hybrid device, or at least those who have casually considered buying a more budget tablet. Depending on the tablet size you'd be eyeing, a 5.3-inch screen is a far cry from a 10.1-inch display. There's really no comparison on that level, but there is an argument for people considering a 7-inch tablet. Still, with so many options already available, we can't help but think that the Galaxy Note will remain niche.