In regards to this AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note review, we, the writers, editors and readers of Android Central, hereby stipulate the following:
- It is a BIG smartphone. Anyone who says differently is just wrong.
- Not everybody's sold on using a stylus; nor will everyone ever be - and that's OK.
- If we never see another Galaxy Note press release, it'll be too soon. (Unless it's the one saying it's being updated to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.)
- Anyone who calls the Galaxy Note a "phablet" in an un-ironic manner should be unmercilessly ridiculed even more than they likely already are.
Seriously. It's BIG. We know it. We get it. Nothing we say will change that fact.
So what it is about the Galaxy Note that's made it so popular? Samsung's shipped more than 1 million so far. That's different than "sold," but a million is not a small number. And will that popularity translate over to the North American markets? Will Samsung's aggressive marketing win out? Will it just be too darn BIG for our American sensibilities?
It's a smartphone. A BIG smartphone. With a stylus. Not so hard to wrap your head around. But wrapping your hand around it? That's another matter.
A BIG, beautiful display. Fast processor. Great software tweaks. The optional stylus is nicely hidden away when not in use. Has access to AT&T's new 4G LTE network.
It's friggin' HUGE for a phone. Not quite comically so, but it's certainly a handful. Launches with Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread instead of the newer Ice Cream Sandwich. Does not have NFC.
If the 5.3-inch display isn't too BIG for you, and if you don't have to have NFC, and if you're willing to wait for an update to the latest version of Android, the Galaxy Note is a great OVERSIZED smartphone. That sounds more negative than it should. But save for the stylus and SUPER SIZE, at its core it's a very solid Samsung Android smartphone.
Inside this review
Pop the Galaxy Note out of the standard (read: boring) orange and white AT&T packaging, and it doesn't look all that different from ... well, a normal phone. You've got the classic Samsung design. BIG display, rounded corners and capacitive buttons at the bottom. Sure, it feels a little bit BIGGER than our current daily driver, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. But we already know that it's BIGGER. So that's not a huge surprise.
The heft of the Galaxy Note isn't a shock, either. The phone feels nicely balanced, and the weight seems to be proportional to the overall size of the phone. The damn thing's just WIDE and TALL. Otherwise, things are exactly as you'd expect. It looks like a smartphone. It feels like a smartphone...just BIGGER.
The display in and of itself is plenty impressive. And at 5.3 inches diagonally, it damn well better be. (Can you imagine the poop storm otherwise?) The Galaxy Note's got 800x1280 resolution. That's the same as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 -- a traditional tablet -- in about half the size, for nearly double the pixel density. Colors are vibrant and blacks are black.
There's s 2-megapixel front-facing camera just above the display and four capacitive buttons (menu-home-back-search) below the display. Samsung's always been great in the display department (it owns the AMOLED market, after all), and that continues with the Galaxy Note.
Like we said, the Galaxy Note has a traditional Samsung smartphone design. The power button is on the right-hand bezel and the volume rocker is on the left.
The top of the phone has the 3.5mm headphone jack and a secondary microphone.
The bottom bezel has the microUSB port and main microphone and the silo for the S Pen (hereafter referred to as the stylus, because that's what it is). The stylus fits neatly into the phone. You can feel that it's there if you rub your thumb along the edge of the phone, but it's just as easy to forget about it. That's good design.
Around back is the EXPANSIVE battery cover, speaker port, 8-megapixel camera and flash.
Pop off the battery cover and you've got the 2500 mAh battery, SIM card and microSD card slot. That's it. Looks pretty normal, except there's room for the parts to breathe. No weird mechanisms. No weird releases here, just plenty of SPACE.
The obvious question: How does it feel in the hand? BIG. IT's too big for proper one-handed use. But then again, that's something we've had to get used to with the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus. It's just taken BIG to a new level here.
The other dilemma is what to do with the Galaxy Note when you're not using it. It'll fit in your pocket, most likely, unless you're wearing Size 0 jeans. (In which case, more power to you and you've probably got a purse anyway.) Samsung's got a bunch of case accessories, too, so you can properly protect that gorgeous display.
It was a year ago when HTC introduced the Flyer tablet, which also sported a stylus. It wasn't quite dead on arrival, but it had one major flaw, on which the Galaxy Note has greatly improved. What's different? Two major things, really, neither of which really involves actually using the stylus.
First is that with the HTC Flyer, you weren't actually guaranteed to have the stylus when you bought the tablet. In many cases, it was sold separately. The other strike against the Flyer was that once you had the stylus, there was no elegant storage solution.
The Galaxy Note is meant to be drawn on and used to take notes. That's part of the reason it's so BIG. The stylus stays hidden in the body of the phone when not in use, and that's perhaps the No. 1 way Samsung's improved on the stylus experience. If you want to use the stylus, it's there. If you don't, it's not in the way but you won't accidentally leave it at home.
Rule No. 1 to get someone to use a weird feature, make sure it's available all the time. Samsung's accomplished this. with the integrated silo.
The stylus itself is a simple enough proposition. It's a slender pen-type thing with a tip and a single button. Touch it to the Galaxy Note's screen, and it does stuff. That's oversimplified -- you can do a bunch of stuff with it -- and it also ignores the fact that this isn't just a plastic pen that touches a display. The stylus is as important as the digitizer (the part that actually recognizes the input) in the display itself. The Galaxy Note's stylus and digitizer are made by Wacom, a long-recognized leader in digital input. So it comes as no surprise that the stylus works really well on the Galaxy Note. It's not perfect -- there's still a little bit of lag when you're writing notes or drawing. But for gestures, it works great.
Oh, and if you need a stylus with a little more girth to it, Samsung has an "S Pen Holder Kit" -- essentially a standard-size pen that the stylus slips into. It's actually pretty nice - with your thumb hitting right where the button is on the stylus. The catch is you have to make sure to line it up properly.
What (else) is under the hood
The internals of the Galaxy Note really aren't any different than that of a more traditional smartphone. The AT&T version has a dual-core 1.5 GHz processor from Qualcomm and 1GB of RAM (with about 731MB available for apps and what not). AT&T's Galaxy note also has a 4G LTE radio in addition to HSPA+ for data.
The Galaxy Note has a 2500 mAh battery. That's a little more than 50 percent more juice than you'll get in a traditional smartphone. (Though it's still a smaller capacity than that of the Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX, with its 3300 mAh battery.) And the kicker is that the Galaxy Note has a removable battery, so you can keep a spare handy if that's how you roll.
Battery life on the Galaxy Note is quite good. It's important to remember that it's got a LARGER-capacity battery than what you're probably used to, but that doesn't change the fact that even with a HUGE (and HIGH-resolution) display, the Galaxy Note not only rocks hard -- it rocks well into the night. Standby time was very impressive. If you forget to plug in the Note overnight, you're not going to wake up disappointed. (Or, at least it won't be the Note's fault.) LTE data, though, still chews through a battery at a pretty good clip.
By now you've noted that the Galaxy Note doesn't have Samsung's Exynos processor. If that sort of thing keeps you up at night, well, better reach for the warm milk. In our usage, the Galaxy Note performed just fine. The user interface was as smooth as it's ever been, and apps worked as expected.
Something that's not under the hood is near-field communication. That's the sexy little short-range radio that lets you do things like mobile payments and "bumping" to share contacts or webpages or whatever. There actually are some NFC files buried in the Galaxy Note's ROM, but that's not necessarily an indication of dormant hardware. We see phones share code all the time. And unlike AT&T's Galaxy S II, there's no mention of an NFC antenna baked into the battery casing. At least we're not being teased too badly.
Probably the strangest feeling you get about the Galaxy Note is that save for its SIZE, it acts just like most every other late-model Samsung smartphone we've had through these offices. OK, it acts a little better, thanks to the customizations for the stylus. But the point is you don't get a grossly different experience than what we've seen from Samsung in the past six months or so.
You've got seven home screens by default. They've got perpetual scrolling -- that its, when you get to the far left screen, you just keep going 'round the bend to the other side. (Or you can scroll to the right, if that's how you roll. Weirdo.) You can rearrange or remove home screens if you want.
You add and remove items to the home screens in the usual way -- long press on the home screen to see the options. Samsung's excellent tweaks via its TouchWiz UI shine through here.
AT&T's loaded up the Galaxy Note with a bunch of preloaded apps -- bloatware, if you will. Sure, there are the regulars like Amazon Kindle and Kik Lite, but you've also got a bevy of AT&T apps like myAT&T, AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T FamilyMap and AT&T Ready2Go. Some of those are just stub apps that take you to the Android Market, but they're no less annoying. (And unlike, say, Motorola's UI, you can't hide unwanted apps from the app drawer.)
As far as stylus-ready apps go -- they're all ready. Web browsing is especially fluid, though having the stylus in your hand makes pinch-to-zoom a little awkward.
Samsung's got its S Memo application preloaded. It's an easy way to take notes either with traditional handwriting, or you can use the stylus on a keyboard. Swype is preloaded, and it works great with the S Pen.
Fun fact: Hold the S Pen button and double-tap on the display to quick-launch S Memo Lite.
All in all, the software experience on the Galaxy Note is pretty much like that of any other recent Samsung phone; that's not a bad thing, either.
The Galaxy Note has a front-facing 2MP camera and a rear-facing 8MP camera. Samsung's done quite well with its camera optics and software over the past year or so, and the Galaxy Note is no exception. The camera app has plenty of options but remains easy to use. We'd love to see a quick-launch option from the lockscreen, though, like on other phones. A physical shutter button would hurt on a device this SIZE, but that's not a deal-breaker.
Warning: Images below open in a new window in full resolution
The front-facing camera
The rear-facing camera
Other odds and ends
A few things not to miss:
- GPS locked on quickly and easily.
- The speakerphone is LOUD. Not sure if that has anything to do with resonance and the SIZE of the phone, but we're pretending it does.
- Phone calls sound good. Yeah, you look a little silly with this 5-inch thing held up to your face; either get over it or use a headset.
- Get ready to be asked "What is that?" (Or, "Dear, God, what is that thing," depending on who's asking.) It's a conversation starter. (Though not necessarily a deal-closer.)
- You've got three keyboards preloaded -- the stock Gingerbread keyboard, Samsung's keyboard, and Swype. You can also load your own.
- The backlighting on the capacitive buttons (at least on our review unit) is a tad inconsistent. Not a big deal, but noticeable.
The Galaxy note has USB OTG (On-the-Go), which is a suppliment to the USB 2.0 specifications that uses a master/slave architecture to allow things like USB flash drives and computer mice to be attached to the USB port. Using a special microUSB to USB Standard-A adapter, you can plug a flash drive full of music or documents into your Note and access them the same way you would if there were on your SD card.
So what's the BIG deal?
I tried to fight it. The Galaxy Note is HUGE. It's got a stylus. Two things I've been fine without. And other than that, it's nothing we haven't really seen before. So why the hell can't I put it down? That's the $65,000 question.
At the end of the day, I think the Galaxy Note's appeal comes down to a few things:
- The stylus is there when you need it, and invisible when you don't.
- The stylus is pretty responsive. Not perfect, but good enough.
- Using the stylus is mostly intuitive. That is, you can use it to unlock the phone. To swipe between home screens and active on-screen menus.
- The apps that take advantage of the stylus do so pretty well.
- The optional "S Pen Holder Kit" -- which turns the thin stylus into a more traditionally sized pen -- works very well. But guess what -- I managed to lose it. That's why being able to slip the stylus into the phone is important.
What's not the BIG deal?
The Galaxy Note is GIANORMOUS. It's THIN (and it damn well better be), but there's there's no denying that thins thing take some square footage. Like we said at the outset, you've got to get over that. Otherwise, why the hell did you buy it? That said, it's not all skittles and beer. A few things about the Galaxy Note that got our goat:
- Once again, we've got a phone that's waiting on Ice Cream Sandwich. That's not to say the Galaxy Note isn't a perfectly capable Gingerbread device, but the principle of the thing is starting to wear thin.
- For as intuitive as the stylus can be, it is frustrating that it doesn't work on the capacitive buttons. We get that we're talking about different technologies here. It's not just that the stylus interacts only with a capacitive display. Intuitively, you expect it to work with the capacitive buttons. Having to learn when to press the button on the stylus means you've lost that intuitiveness.
- There's still a pretty limited number of apps that can really take advantage of the stylus. Or, rather, they use it as a stylus and not as the S Pen with extra functionality.
And perhaps that's the real question; will developers create enough new apps to take advantage of this technology. We've seen other .. interesting ... design choices hit the streets in hopes that developers would follow, most notably with the Kyocera Echo and its dual screens and the Samsung Continuum with its secondary notification display. In both cases, the phones hit the streets with the promise that developers would work their magic and create new applications to justify the hardware.
In the cases of the Echo and the Continuum, that developer support never happened. We'd argue that neither device had the full weight of Samsung behind them, whereas the Galaxy Note obviously does. And it has the added advantage of also serving as a traditional smartphone, albeit an OVERSIZED smartphone. So even if additional developer support for the stylus never really takes off and we don't see more S Pen-optimized apps, the Galaxy Note is still a more-than-capable device.
At the end of the day, perhaps the Galaxy Note's SIZE really is the deciding factor and not the stylus. It's BIG, for sure, but the Galaxy Note is a great Android device regardless.
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