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Life with Samsung's Galaxy Note

Phone or tablet? Does it matter?

Oh my, what's this? A smartphone review on TR? Fret not; we aren't turning into yet another sparkly gadget site. We were, however, curious to get some hands-on time with the Galaxy Note, which has got to be one of the largest smartphones (or smallest tablets) ever created. Samsung happened to volunteer a unit for us to look at, and well, one thing led to another.

The interesting thing about the Galaxy Note is that it fills a void between typical smartphones, which don't get much bigger than 4" or so, and entry-level tablets, most of which have 7" displays. I've always thought of tablets as being too big to carry around all day, but you can't deny that smartphones are much less convenient for things like web browsing, video playback, e-book reading, and games. It's not that you can't do all of those things on a phone; it's just that a nice, big display makes them so much better.

Now, most tablets can't make or receive calls. The Galaxy Note, on the other hand, is a bona-fide 4G phone. Unless your name is Stephen Wozniak, there's no need to carry another, smaller device for voice communication. To top off the convergence bonanza, the Galaxy Note comes with a stylus, like the Palm Pilots of old. Samsung appropriately includes a note-taking and doodling app on the device. The capacitive touchscreen will still recognize your finger, though, so you don't have to use the stylus if you don't want.

We've noticed that a lot of people—real people with jobs and families and normal-sized pockets in their clothes—seem to be using the Galaxy Note, and they're not afraid to look a little silly when using it as a phone in public. There must be something appealing about this chimera of a device, so we decided to investigate. Let's see what all the fuss is about.

First impressions and specs
Here's the Galaxy Note in all of its glory, showing off the TouchWiz UI Samsung lays over the Android 2.3 operating system, otherwise known as Gingerbread:

Quite a handsome little device, isn't it? But there's nothing little about the Galaxy Note. That fact becomes apparent as soon as you set it down next to a regular smartphone like the iPhone 4. Granted, the iPhone 4 is a bit on the small side; larger Android and Windows Phone devices with 4"+ screens are commonplace nowadays. There's still no question that the Galaxy Note is substantially bigger than typical handsets, though.

Happily, the Galaxy Note is nearly as slim as the iPhone 4. The Apple device is 9.3 mm thick, while the Samsung measures 9.65 mm at its thickest point. Some folks might be able to notice the third-of-a-millimeter difference in regular use, but I could not. In fact, because the Note has tapered edges, it actually feels a little more slender in my hand.

The Galaxy Note's display spreads 1280x800 pixels of Super AMOLED goodness across a 5.3" panel, which absolutely dwarf's the iPhone 4's 3.5", 960x640 LCD. The difference isn't just obvious from a size standpoint. The Samsung display has more vivid colors, higher contrast, and deeper blacks. It really looks gorgeous. You can sort of see the difference in the picture above, but such things are hard to illustrate with photographs. I recommend trying out a Galaxy Note in person, if you can.

As nice as the AMOLED display looks, there is a small caveat. The panel has a sort of screen-door thing going on, where pixels appear to be laid out in a honeycomb pattern with dark gaps in between (likely due to the display's pentile subpixel layout.) The effect isn't bothersome when you're watching videos or playing games, but text looks slightly fuzzy, especially with small fonts. See above. On the iPhone's LCD, text looks cleaner and more like a printed page.

In addition to its gargantuan display, the Galaxy Note is loaded with other hardware. Here's a rundown of the key specifications:

Processor 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon
Display 5.3" super AMOLED with 1280x800 resolution
Software Android 2.3 with Samsung TouchWiz interface
Storage 16GB integrated
Ports 1 Micro USB 2.0
1 analog audio headphone port
Expansion slots 1 microSD slot (up to 32GB)
Communications 4G LTE
HSPA+ 850/900/1900/2100 (up to 21 Mbps)
EDGE/GPRS 850/900/1800/1900
802.11n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 3.0 + HS
Camera 8-megapixel rear with LED flash
(supports 1080p video recording)
2-megapixel front
Input devices Capacitive touch screen
Advanced smart pen
Dimensions 5.78" x 3.27" x 0.38" (146.9 x 83 x 9.7 mm)
Weight 6.28 oz (178 g)
Battery 9.25Wh (2500 mAh) lithium-ion

Just about every type of wireless connectivity is covered. That includes 4G LTE, which gives the phone oodles of bandwidth even when there's no Wi-Fi access point nearby. Just to give you an idea, running Speedtest off the 4G connection in downtown Vancouver, Canada, we averaged 59Mbps of downstream bandwidth and 7Mbps of upstream—slightly quicker than our cable connection.

Samsung outfits this bad boy with a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor clocked at 1.5GHz. The Snapdragon S3 uses Qualcomm's own Scorpion CPU cores, which are ARM-compatible but, the company says, capable of higher clock speeds and higher vector performance than ARM Cortex-A8 or Cortex-A9-based designs. The chip also features an Adreno 220 graphics processor, which supports Flash 10 and WebGL. According to Qualcomm's website, the S3 is used in devices including Samsung's own Galaxy S II phone and Galaxy Tab 8.9 tablet.

The Note's rear-facing camera has a cool eight-megapixel resolution, and it's capable of 1080p video recording at 30 frames per second. Even the front-facing camera is respectable: it's a two-megapixel model that will show off your pimples in those vanity Facebook pics. I suppose the 16GB storage capacity isn't extraordinary, but Samsung allows you to expand it via a microSD slot tucked under the rear cover—something you can't do on an iPhone.

Somehow, despite all this hardware, the Galaxy Note weighs in at a shockingly reasonable 6.28 ounces. That's not a whole lot heavier than the iPhone 4, which tips the scales at 4.9 ounces, and it's way lighter than 7-inch tablets like the Kindle Fire, which is a whopping 14.6 ounces. If your pockets are big enough to accommodate the Galaxy Note, you won't need to pull up your pants every five minutes.

Some people may, however, wonder if that's a Galaxy Note in your pants or if you're happy to see them. Yes, this device does have a rather... substantial outline.