The Samsung Galaxy Note is a hybrid smartphone/tablet that has a 5.3-inch Super AMOLED display, Google's Android OS, dual cameras with LED flash and auto-focus, and 4G LTE wireless networking. It also comes with a pressure sensitive S Pen that promises to transform the way you interact with (and enter text into) your smartphone. Whether it fulfills that promise is another question.
At the time of this review, it is available from AT&T for $300 with a new two-year contract and a minimum $20 a month data plan.
The Galaxy Note ote is probably the largest phone you've ever seen. It measures 5.75-inches long, 3.25-inches wide, and just under half an inch thick. It's relatively thin and light, but it's so wide that it's a little hard for me to grip in one hand. It's right at the upper edge of comfort, and while it just barely fits in my pocket, it's so big that I have to take it out before I sit down or it sticks out so far as to be uncomfortable.
Even though it's very large, it isn't too heavy, weighing in at 6.45 ounces. By comparison the latest iPhone weighs in at just under five ounces, so the Galaxy Note isn't that much heavier. Since I like my devices to feel substantial that's not a problem for me; the size is a bigger (so-to-speak) issue.
The back of the phone is slightly textured for improved grip, with a very subtle pattern. It's not really visible unless you're looking for it, and the edges on the pattern are soft enough that they don't bite into your skin (as has been an issue on some of the other phones I've reviewed recently).
Design-wise, it looks fairly similar to many recent Android phones. It's basically black, with a silver bezel and silver accents around the camera lens on the back. Carbon Blue and Ceramic White versions are also available from AT&T if you'd like a little more color in your life.
The Galaxy Note has the largest display I've ever seen on a smartphone, 5.3-inches, with a 1280 x 800 (WXVGA) Super AMOLED screen. As you might expect, photos and video look absolutely spectacular -- this would be a great phone for media buffs who like a larger screen. Text is sharp and clear too, whether you're talking about printed text or handwritten memos.
The screen is capable of eye-blinding brightness if you like, but I found that the automatic brightness setting generally worked the best for me, indoors or out. I did turn up the brightness a bit when I tested the phone in direct sunlight, but the Note was still usable even without that extra step.
The Note doesn't have a physical keyboard, so you'll be tapping on the virtual on-screen keyboard on the touchscreen display. Thanks to the super-size screen, the virtual keyboard is also extra large and very easy to use, with big keys and lots of space between them. I was able to type very quickly indeed with my thumbs, and didn't have any trouble at all. I was able to type fast enough that I found it simpler to just tap out what I wanted as opposed to using the built-in word completion feature, which isn't usually the case.
Of course this device is called the "Galaxy Note", so you also have the option to enter text with a stylus instead of typing with your fingers. Just tap the small icon between the period and the return key on the bottom right corner of the on-screen keyboard, then use the included S Pen to enter your text. It works well, though it isn't as fast as typing, at least for me. I had to fuss with picking the right words using the word completion utility, with capitalization, etc. And while I will never be accused of having good handwriting, I do generally print clearly and large enough that I've never had any complaints -- perhaps that goes back to my Palm OS Graffiti days.
Other Buttons & Controls
There aren't a lot of buttons on the Galaxy Note, which makes sense. Why bother when you've got a huge screen and a stylus? The power button is near the top of the right edge, and the volume controls are close to the top on the left edge. The headphone jack is on the top, not my preferred placement, but understandable considering that the S Pen is housed on the bottom edge of the Galaxy Note, next to the charge/sync port. That's it, aside from the four standard touch buttons underneath the display.
The S Pen itself deserves more attention. It's very light, made of plastic, with a translucent white top and a single gray button about a quarter of the way up from the tip. It's fairly comfortable to hold, being a little thicker and a little longer than the Palm OS and Nintendo DS styli I've used in the past, but much thinner than the mini capacitive stylus I sometimes use with my iPad. It fits very securely in the silo, so as long as you fully insert it into the phone each time you are unlikely to lose it.
The Samsung Galaxy Note is powered by a dual core 1.5 GHz processor that's definitely up to the task; I didn't experience any annoying slowdowns, crashes, or other problems. It got a score of 1956 on the Quadrant benchmark test which is lower than I expected, especially considering how pleased I am with the Galaxy Note's performance.
This smartphone debuted running Android OS 2.3 (Gingerbread), which is not the newest version of Google's operating system. Still, Samsung has promised to offer an upgrade to the latest version, OS 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
The feature that separates this from tablets is that the Galaxy Note can make phone calls. In testing with AT&T's network, call quality is excellent, one of the best I've reviewed recently. There weren't any background noise issues and each caller sounded right, not flat, sick, or otherwise washed out. I could hear and be heard clearly, to the extent that one of my callers wouldn't have believed that I was using a cell phone if they didn't have the caller ID to prove it.
The large screen is also a bonus here, because it was very easy to dial my contacts manually without mistakenly hitting the wrong number. And if you're a world traveler you'll be glad to know that the Galaxy Note is a quad-band world phone, so it will probably work no matter where you find yourself each week.
This device can connect to AT&T's 4G LTE network, and speed tests showed that it takes full advantage of it. According to the Speed Test app, the Galaxy Note had download speeds between 11.6 and 13.8 Mbps, upload speeds of 12.0 to 13.7 Mbps, and 51 to 65 ping. I found AT&Ts 4G LTE network to be consistently good in my area, even around my office (which is typically a dead zone). WiFi and Bluetooth work just fine, too.
Facebook is pre-installed on the smartphone and works just as expected; there's also the optional Social Hub app which does a good job of consolidating all of your online social activity in one app. It works with Microsoft Exchange email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
The email and web experiences are Android-standard, though again the large screen is nice because it minimizes scrolling and allows you to see more in one place. Web pages are a little easier to navigate, and the same is true of email, since you can see more of your inbox at once. Web pages also load very fast, thanks to the 4G LTE network. The overall experience was pleasant and one you might actually seek out, whether than viewing your smartphone as a last resort for obtaining important information on the go.
You'll find all of the standard PIM apps such as Calendar, Contacts, Calculator, and Clock, plus the Mini Diary (a personal journal) and a voice recorder.
The S Memo lite app is also included, which is designed specifically for use with the included S Pen stylus. It offers a choice of four different pen types, a variety of line thicknesses, and seemingly infinite color choices for use as your personal memo pad, note pad, shopping list, and art/drawing/sketching app as well. It works just fine, though the average person won't be able to create any stunning pieces of art. You can share your drawings on Facebook if you like, or email them to yourself or to your friends and family as well.
Polaris Office is included for all of your Microsoft Office-compatible file viewing needs, and it works exactly as expected. It's integrated with the Box.net online file storage service, or you can view email attachments or files that are already located on a memory card.
Navigational duties are handled by Google Maps as well as by AT&T Navigator, though the latter requires either a $2.99 day pass or a $9.99 monthly subscription fee that is added to you phone bill. Whichever service you choose, location results are generally fast and accurate, with plenty of POI information that will direct you to the nearest Starbucks, gas station, bank, or whatever else you might be looking for.
Both the standard Android music player and the Google Music app are preloaded on the Galaxy Note, and they work fine. I was slightly disappointed with the external speaker, however -- at low volume music sounds rather flat and tinny, while at higher volumes there is a lot of distortion. Sound is better with headphones, but of course it's nice to have both options.
If you're a reader, you'll be glad to know that both the Amazon Kindle app and the Google Books app are preloaded. You'll also find a copy of Crayon Physics, which is a stylus-based game that is actually pretty fun, and easier to play with the stylus than with your finger, since you have to draw an escape route through each level.
The Galaxy Note is equipped with two cameras, a 2 MP one on the front for videoconferencing and an 8 megapixel on the back with auto-focus and LED flash. The camera is capable, taking very nice shots under a variety of conditions, but it is rather slow to focus so you stand a good chance of missing the moment if you're trying to capture fast action shots.
The Galaxy Note is equipped with a 2,500 mAh battery that is up to the task of keeping me connected and entertained throughout the day. Even though 4G phones tend to drain very quickly, the handset got me through the entire day and into the evening every day. It had to be charged every night, but unless you're an extreme power user, you shouldn't have any trouble at all.
Considering the large size of the Samsung Galaxy Note, careful consideration is required in order to determine if it's the right smartphone for your needs. I found the big screen to be more of a draw than the actual S Pen stylus, but I would be less likely to buy it because I need something highly pocketable, not something that I would have to carry in a purse or gear bag.
The stylus is a unique addition, but of limited utility for anyone who is already comfortable using a touchscreen and/or a virtual keyboard to enter text. It's fun to use for drawings and such, maybe a quick grocery list, but digital artists and hardcore notetakers would likely be happier with either a larger tablet or a Bluetooth keyboard.
If you're willing to make the commitment, however, the Galaxy Note is a powerful device and a good performer.