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 1280×800 pixels of Super AMOLED goodness across a 5.3″ panel, which absolutely dwarf’s the iPhone 4’s 3.5″, 960×640 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 1280×800 resolution|
|Software||Android 2.3 with Samsung TouchWiz interface|
|Ports||1 Micro USB 2.0
1 analog audio headphone port
|Expansion slots||1 microSD slot (up to 32GB)|
HSPA+ 850/900/1900/2100 (up to 21 Mbps)
Bluetooth 3.0 + HS
|Camera||8-megapixel rear with LED flash
(supports 1080p video recording)
|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.
I was a little disappointed to discover that, five months after the release of Android 4.0—which all the cool kids call Ice Cream Sandwich—the Galaxy Note still ships with Android 2.3. Samsung hasn’t released an Ice Cream Sandwich update for the device, either. Android 2.x isn’t bad by any means, but speaking as an iPhone user, I’ve always found it a little clunky. The UI animations aren’t always perfectly smooth, the widgets aren’t terribly nice to look at, and call me crazy, but I swear the OS feels slow even on relatively powerful devices like the Note.
To its credit, Android does certain things iOS can’t do. Home-screen widgets allow you to quickly enable and disable Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, maneuvers that require a trip into the Settings app on the iPhone. Voice dictation has been a standard feature for a long time now, whereas Apple still doesn’t offer that functionality on devices older than the iPhone 4S and iPad 3. The Facebook integration (which syncs information from your Facebook friends list to your address book) is very handy, as well.
I suppose Android is more of a geek’s platform in many respects. Google exposes considerably more configuration options and information about the system than Apple does, and users are given free rein to replace default apps if they so choose. The Google Play store also seems like less of a walled garden than the iTunes App Store. Or, at least, app rejections don’t make headlines quite so often.
It’s just too bad that the Note doesn’t run Ice Cream Sandwich yet. According to the guys at SammyHub, who found a post on Samsung’s Norwegian Facebook page, ICS isn’t coming to the Note until next quarter.
On a big honkin’ phone like the Galaxy Note, the web browser almost beckons you. There’s something delightful about touching your way through the web on any device with responsive input, and a large display makes it all the better.
As you’d expect, the Galaxy Note requires a lot less zooming and panning than smaller phones. In fact, in landscape mode, you can almost get away with not zooming at all when reading TR. Sadly, most sites identify the Galaxy Note as a regular Android phone, redirecting the user to a stripped-down, mobile version designed for much smaller screens. While some sites provide a link that switches to the full-fat flavor, not all are that accommodating, which can become a little annoying. Ice Cream Sandwich puts a “request desktop site” option right in the browser, but it still can’t be configured to request the desktop versions of web sites by default.
Panning and zooming in the Note’s Gingerbread browser is very smooth overall. For some reason, however, I noticed a lot of checkerboarding when tracking around graphics-heavy pages. The effect can be a bit disconcerting, especially since the checkerboard pattern doesn’t always go away until you’ve taken your finger off the screen. My first thought was to blame a video memory limitation (this thing is, after all, driving a 1280×800 display), but we’re talking about a phone that can run snazzy-looking 3D games at the native resolution. So, I don’t know.
Speaking of games…
One would expect any graphics-heavy application to be beautiful on such a large display, and the Galaxy Note doesn’t disappoint there. 3D games like ShadowGun (pictured above) and Blood and Glory look gorgeous. They run well, although the experience falls short of seamless fluidity in both cases. Less demanding 3D titles, like Heliodroid 3D, are definitely smoother. In all cases, though, the big screen delivers more than just delicious eye candy: it gives you more room to position your fingers without covering up the image or touching the wrong controls by accident.
Sadly, not all titles natively support the Note’s 1280×800 display resolution. Some games are going to look blurry because of the scaling required, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
On the video front, the Galaxy Note has a YouTube app, and the Note also happily plays most non-streaming video formats like WMV, DivX/XviD, and H.264 via the included Videos app. I got pretty much the same experience with the standard-def XviD, 720p MP4, and “high-quality” YouTube videos I tried: smooth but not 100% fluid playback, with occasional dropped frames that didn’t compromise audio/video synchronization. Although playback seemed slightly more fluid on my iPhone, the picture quality was a lot better on the Note. That display’s contrast ratio and color reproduction really are something to behold.
The giganto display makes the Galaxy Note compelling as an e-book reader—maybe not as your primary reading device, but certainly a good Kindle or Nook substitute for public transport and waiting rooms. Google sells books through its own Play store, and there’s an Android version of Amazon’s Kindle app that works rather well. I’ve used the Kindle app on my iPhone, but the cramped screen and the small number of words per line can get to be a little uncomfortable. The Galaxy Note doesn’t suffer from the same problem, and reading is surprisingly comfortable. The fact that Samsung gives you a quick rotation lock shortcut in the notification slide-down area is definitely a plus.
Now, there is a substantial downside to the large display.
If you’ve ever texted or Googled or Yelped on the go, chances are you did so with just one hand: fingers clasped around your phone, thumb hitting all the necessary buttons and keys. Your other hand might have been occupied carrying a shopping bag or keeping you steady in the bus or subway. Good luck replicating that with the Galaxy Note. The thing is just too friggin’ big for one-handed typing, at least with my medium-sized hands. Unless you have lumberjack mitts, typing comfortably without losing your grip on the phone is going to require the use of both hands—or of the voice dictation facility, but that might get awkward in public.
Speaking of awkwardness, there’s a definite and very palpable dignity cost to making a call in public:
Yeah. Using this thing gave me flashbacks of the big phone guy from old Trigger Happy TV episodes.
Don’t get me wrong—call quality on the Galaxy Note is fine, and the earpiece speaker is plenty loud. It gets much louder than the one on my iPhone at the maximum setting, actually. But this device feels sort of unwieldy when I hold it up to my face, and the sheer size of it is pretty much guaranteed to attract stares. If you’re happy to flaunt your geek cred in front of everybody (or have long given up any sense of self-respect), then that won’t bother you. Anyone else may want to invest in a quality Bluetooth headset.
So, what about that stylus? Is it a godsend or a gimmick?
Samsung calls it the S Pen, and it tucks discreetly into the lower right corner of the phone’s chassis. When inserted all the way, the stylus is completely flush with the edge of the phone, and there seems to be no way it could slide or get pulled out by accident. You will, however, need a serviceable fingernail for extraction. Pianists and overly stressed individuals may take issue with that requirement, but everyone else should be happy.
The S Pen is just over four inches long and very thin, so maneuvering it requires some dexterity. The slickness of the touchscreen’s glass surface doesn’t help matters at all. Neither does the fact that you can’t steady your hand by resting it on the screen, because the phone will register that as input. Then there’s the issue of input lag, which is very much noticeable when you’re trying to write or sketch something quickly.
At the very least, using the S Pen requires practice and dedication. At worst, it may feel frustrating and pointless.
Frankly, I don’t see much of an upside. Samsung’s included S Memo app lets you jot down notes and doodle, but it doesn’t translate handwriting into text. A handwriting recognition button does appear next to the space bar on the on-screen keyboard, but the handwriting input pane that comes up only recognizes one word at a time. Also, whether writing in cursive or print, I found the handwriting recognition to be very much hit or miss. Unless you lack a pair of functional thumbs, typing is going to be considerably quicker.
As for doodling, well, that’s always enjoyable, but I found the aforementioned input lag and display slickness ruined the fun somewhat. You just don’t have the accuracy that you do when sketching on paper.
Battery life and other knick knacks
Considering the phone’s large display, fast processor, size, and weight, I didn’t have particularly high expectations about the Galaxy Note’s battery life. The device didn’t surprise me.
When left almost completely untouched, with Wi-Fi and 4G enabled but Bluetooth turned off, the Note ran out of juice in about a day and a half. When I made use of it more often—mostly browsing the web, downloading and trying out apps, watching YouTube videos, and the like—battery life got down to less than 24 hours.
This is one of those phones you’re pretty much going to want to charge every night. Users who make a lot of voice calls, play a lot of games, or need to use the phone as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot will probably want to keep the charger cord handy and maybe buy a spare battery, as well. Thankfully, unlike Apple with its iDevices, Samsung gives users unfettered access to the Galaxy Note’s lithium-ion battery compartment. Swapping batteries in the middle of the work day shouldn’t be a big deal.
Before we render our verdict, let’s talk briefly about the accessories Samsung throws in the box. You’ve got a USB-to-Micro USB charging cord, a USB-to-AC adapter (which can pair up with the aforementioned cable when there’s no powered USB port nearby), and some in-ear headphones with spare earbud tips. The headphones have a remote with a little built-in microphone, volume control, and mute/call-answer buttons, just as one might expect.
The earbuds offer passable audio quality with music—there’s just enough bass, but mids and highs sound a little compressed. There’s next to no bleeding, though, so you can crank up the volume without having to worry about bothering the people around you. Of course, as with any phone sporting a standard 3.5-mm jack, you’re free to use your own earbuds.
I’ve gotta say, I was a little skeptical about the Galaxy Note when it arrived at my door. I’d seen people using it, and the concept of a jumbo smartphone seemed a little goofy to me. I thought my iPhone 4 fit in my hand just right, and although I wasn’t opposed to the idea of something slightly bigger, a 5.3″ smartphone just seemed… well, too big.
After using the Note for about a week and a half, I think I’ve warmed to it. Now, it’s my iPhone that feels too small. I love the Note’s huge, gorgeous AMOLED screen, and I love how remarkably thin and light the handset is. My feelings about Android 2.3 remain unchanged, but the prospect of an eventual Ice Cream Sandwich update makes the Note all the more compelling. Yes, the stylus is a bit of a gimmick. So what? You can just leave it tucked in and forget it’s there.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of dealbreakers for me. The first one is that, because of its large size, the phone doesn’t allow me to type one-handed comfortably. That makes it awkward to use on the go. The second is the so-so battery life. My iPhone will happily stay on standby for three days or more, so I can get away with forgetting to charge it every so often. The Galaxy Note isn’t as forgiving. I do appreciate that Samsung had to make compromises to keep the device light with such a big display and fast processor, though, and I think it did a good job of balancing those considerations. Also, I expect the Galaxy Note’s battery life might compare more favorably to some of the newer 4″ Android handsets on the market today.
There’s the issue of pricing to consider, of course. AT&T charges $299.99 for the Galaxy Note with a two-year contract. That’s a little pricey. When you can get a Galaxy S II for $99.99 and a Kindle Fire for $199, you might think twice about shelling out three Benjamins for a jumbo smartphone. (The Galaxy Note can be had for $199.95 in Canada, but that requires a three-year contract.)
If you put a gun to my head right now and asked me to choose between a 7″ tablet and the 5.3″ Galaxy Note, I’d go with the Galaxy Note. 7″ tablets seem to fit an awkward niche, too small to replicate the usability of 10″ tablets yet too large to fit in your pocket comfortably—and with no voice calling capabilities. The Note fits in your pocket, has a higher display resolution than the Kindle Fire or RIM PlayBook, and has a large enough display to make web browsing and e-book reading comfortable.
I wouldn’t choose the Galaxy Note over my iPhone, though. The issues with one-handed typing and battery life bother me, and for now, I still prefer iOS to Android 2.3. Oh, and I like not drawing attention to myself when making phone calls.