review Just how big can a mobile phone screen get before it’s too big? That’s the question posed by Samsung’s latest flagship device, the Galaxy Note. Smartphone display sizes have been steadily creeping upward since the launch of the original iPhone, and it’s almost become a game beween vendors to see who can come out with a bigger-screened device. For now, Samsung’s got that one in the bag, as the Galaxy Note comes with a jumbo 5.3″ display.
Naturally, the jump in screen size means the Galaxy Note is also a lot larger than the typical smartphone, and the question remains as to whether Samsung has pushed the envelope a little too far. Is the Galaxy Note too big to be a phone and too small to be a tablet? Or has Samsung has managed to create an entirely new category of device that’s versatile enough to replace both devices? Read on to find out.
Imagine the Samsung Galaxy S II, only larger, and you’ll have a fair idea of what the Galaxy Note looks like. We got the white version of the Note in for review, and it’s very similar to the white Galaxy S II, complete with the smooth white plastic on the front and back, silver frame, and single home button sandwiched in between the menu and back touch-sensitive buttons. For such a honking big device, it’s still pretty light at 178g, and has a reasonably slim 9.65mm profile.
But is it too wide to be usable as an everyday phone? That really depends on how you like to hold your phones. If you prefer one-handed use, then you’ll struggle with the Note, as it simply isn’t possible for your thumb to reach all parts of the screen while keeping a firm hold on it. You can adjust your grip to give your thumb more reach, but you’re asking for trouble – the slippery surface of the Note’s backplate mean you’re just as likely to see all 5.3″ inches go crashing to the ground. With two-handed use, the Note becomes a lot easier to use, and we found ourselves using our left hand to cup the Note’s bottom and our right hand to interact with the touchscreen.
Holding the Note to our ear during phone calls did feel silly the first few times, almost as if we’d taken our shoe off and started talking to it, and reactions to the Note were almost always along the lines of “Woah, that’s massive”. After a few days of using the Note, however, we felt less conspicuous using it out in public.
The Note comes at an interesting time for Android devices, when quad-core processors, the latest Ice Cream Sandwich operating system and 4G connectivity are starting to appear in all of the flagship smartphones and tablets from each vendor. The Galaxy Note offers none of those features (it has a 1.4GHz dual-core processor, runs Android 2.3.6, and has 850/900/1900/2100 HSPA+), but it makes up for these shortcomings by offering a couple of features that you won’t find on other devices.
The main attraction on the Samsung Galaxy Note is undoubtedly its plus-sized 5.3″ screen. This boasts a tablet-like 1280 x 800-pixel display resolution, and it’s blessed with Super AMOLED
HD technology that gives it vibrant colours and deep black levels. But it’s not quite as detailed as the Super AMOLED Plus screens found on the Galaxy S II and the Galaxy Tab 7.7, and despite the exceptionally high pixel density, you can still see some fuzziness on text when you look closely. Still, all those extra pixels mean you can fit a lot more on the screen, and once you get used to all that extra wriggle room, it’s hard to get back to using a regular smartphone.
Samsung has made the bold move of bringing the stylus back – a small bit of plastic we thought we’d seen the last of. But the Galaxy Note doesn’t rely on stylus input like the old Palms and Pocket PCs. Since the Android operating system, paired with a capacitive touchscreen, has been designed from the ground up to be used with touch, using the stylus is a bonus rather than something that’s strictly necessary. Stylus input makes it possible to be precise with things like drawing and handwriting (both things that are clumsy on a capacitive touchscreen), and the larger screen size of the Note makes these tasks even easier.
The Galaxy Note’s stylus is kept in a small silo in the bottom right corner, and you can use it for entering text using handwriting recognition, snapping screenshots, and using the bundled stylus-friendly apps. The handwriting recognition feature works well – the recognition is fast and accurate, and the writing that mirrors your stylus input gives the illusion that you’re writing on the screen. It come with a couple of preloaded apps to use with the stylus, namely S-Memo and Crayon Physics.
S-Memo lets you create a mix of handwritten and text-based notes using a variety of different pen tips and thicknesses (although the stylus isn’t pressure-sensitive), and if you take a screenshot, it automatically opens within this app, and giving you the added ability of cropping and erasing things out of the image. Crayon Physics is a cute game with a weird soundtrack that has you drawing lines and shapes on the screen to solve puzzles. There are also a handful of free “S choice” apps in the Samsung Apps store that are designed to work well with the Note’s stylus.
The rest of the Note’s features are typical for a high-end smartphone. It has 16GB of internal storage that can be supplemented with a microSD card, a high-quality eight-megapixel camera that’s identical to the one on the Samsung Galaxy S II (along with a front-facing two-megapixel camera for video calls), 802.11n Wi-Fi and A-GPS, and supports both USB OTG and HDMI output using optional adapters.
For the most part, the Galaxy Note is a reasonably swift performer, and will happily juggle multiple apps without slowing down or spitting out errors. But it does pause longer than other similarly-spec’ed smartphones every time you unlock it (roughly 1.5 seconds), and it’s also a little laggardly returning to the homescreen. These concerns may sound petty, but when you consider the number of times a day you’d typically perform both actions on your smartphone, even a little bit of lag can be irritating. The Galaxy Note didn’t feel anywhere near as snappy as the Galaxy Nexus for day to day use, and yet it trounced the Nexus in the Quadrant benchmark (which measures graphics performance) by 1773 points, with a score of 3823.
The Note’s tablet resolution puts it in fine stead for web browsing, as it lets you read webpages in their desktop formatting without having to do too much zooming in and out. Using the default Android browser, it achieved an impressive Rightware Browsermark score of 81,792. This is close to the Apple iPhone 4S’ score of 87,424 (higher numbers are better), but trails behind the Samsung Galaxy Nexus’ score of 96,015.
If you can get over how conspicuous it feels to hold the Galaxy Note up to your head, you’ll be rewarded with crisp-sounding phone calls that are more than loud enough using either the earpiece or speakerphone. We’re a little annoyed by the placement of the external speaker on the rear of the Galaxy Note though – it’s sufficiently powerful for hearing ringtones in a noisy environment and personal playback of music and movies, but it gets muffled whenever you sit it on a flat surface.
Samsung has equipped the Note with a generous 2500mAh battery, although the large screen and speedy dual-core processor means that power users won’t be able to squeeze much more of than a full day out of it. It’s mainly the screen that gulps up battery – with light use (2.5 hours of screen-on time, half an hour of calls, Wi-Fi on but not active and screen set to auto brightness), the Note lasted for one day and 12 hours.
The Galaxy Note isn’t a device for everyone. Its large proportions will turn most people off from using it as a phone, and those that specifically want the larger screen size of a tablet aren’t likely to be satisfied with the Note’s “smaller” display. But we do think that there’s a magical in-between type of user that just wants the one device that can do both, and the Galaxy Note fits that niche splendidly.
It’s a good-looking device with a gorgeous screen, good performance, and battery life that’s just as good as any other high-end smartphone. The stylus input we could live without (although there are some people that will find this feature appealing) – ultimately, it’s the larger screen size with tablet-like display resolution that makes the Note such a compelling device.
The Samsung Galaxy Note is currently available from online retailers like MobiCity and Expansys AU, and Vodafone confirmed via its official Twitter account in mid-February that it would be “coming soon” to the network.
Jenneth Orantia turned her back on a lucrative career in law to pursue her unhealthy obsession with consumer technology. She’s known for having at least half a dozen of the latest gadgets on her person at a time, and once won a bottle of Dom Perignon for typing 78WPM on a Pocket PC with a stylus.
Image credit: Samsung