Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Neither. It's a tablet. Or a phone. Or both. We really don't know – but it has some of the best specs around and Samsung's hoping this will ship by the bucketload.
The Samsung Galaxy Note is a phone / tablet hybrid that doesn't really sit in any category - we've reviewed it as a smartphone simply due to the fact it can make calls, but Samsung is definitely trying to create a new category of device with this 5.3-inch screened behemoth.
It's funny how mobile trends can change. Just a few years ago, manufacturers were falling over themselves trying to outdo each other to to provide the smallest handset in the world. Motorola got them pretty thin with the RAZR line and Samsung's own D500 was titchy.
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Then something happened and big became cool. Yet, we don't seem to mind any more.
Just as well really, because the Galaxy Note is just that – big. Falling somewhere between the tablet and phone goalposts, it's not as enormous as pictures may imply. But it is larger than your average smartphone.
Its dimensions come in at 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm yet, at 178g, it's fairly light considering how heavy it could have been. This is a trait we've come to expect with the Galaxy line with both the Samsung Galaxy S and Galaxy S2 handsets also being light as a feather.
To look at the Note, it looks just like a larger version of the S2. The front is incredibly minimalist with only a Samsung logo and homescreen button visible to the eye (the homescreen button is a little more rectangular than that of the S2, almost in an effort to make it seem less iPhone-like.)
The front facing 2MP camera and light sensor are there but almost impossible to see on the black model. The left hand side holds only a volume rocker, the top houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and there's a power/lock-unlock button on the right. The micro USB charging and syncing port can be located on the bottom.
The 8MP camera with LED flash is located in the centre of the rear portion in the same way it is on the S2 although, bizarrely, Samsung has, once again, chosen to have the actual glass covering of the lens protruding.
We can't understand why it's not recessed as this merely makes the already vulnerable camera more prone to being scratched when the Note is placed on a surface.
The speaker is located near the bottom of the rear and just above the dock for the 'S-Pen' (i.e. fancy stylus) that Samsung appears to be so excited about.
The crowning glory of the Note is the screen: 5.3" of WXGA goodness (1280 x 800) and it is a belter. Samsung has always been renowned for its good screens with even the Galaxy S giving us that wow factor last year.
We were bowled over by the S2's Super AMOLED Plus but the Note just blows that out of the water. 285ppi is what it gives us and not only are colours vibrant and sharp, but it looks easily as good as anything that Apple produces with a 'retina' label, even though it's obviously a lot bigger.
Under the hood, you'll find a dual-core 1.4GHz processor powering this beast and either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage (which you can also expand by another 32GB with removable memory.)
A 2,500mAh battery should give you plenty of juice – but considering the size of the screen, which is always the biggest drainer, it may not go as far as one hopes.
It's difficult to see just who the Note is aimed at – mainly because it's hard to give it a label and put firmly in the camp of being just a phone or just a tablet. Samsung claims it's the kind of device a lady could carry around in her handbag but it doesn't feel like something that has been solely designed with the girls in mind.
The nearest device we can think it compares to is the HTC Flyer though that's been out a while now and is already being reduced in price. For some buyers it could very well be a choice between the Galaxy Note and Galaxy S2 and with the only real differences being size and the 'S-Pen', there's not much in it.
At the time of writing, you can pick the Note up sim-free for a shade under £600 which places it firmly at the top end of the spectrum and comparable with an unlocked iPhone 4S 32GB.
You can of course pick one up on contract as well – but due to its specs and positioning, it's not something you'll get for free unless you're willing to pay more than £40 a month. And that's on a two year deal.
The Galaxy Note runs Android Gingerbread 2.3.5 out of the box and has Samsung's own excellent TouchWiz skin living on top.
It's almost identical to the version on the Galaxy S2 though has some minor tweaks. For example, to take advantage of the extra screen real estate, there are now five icons to a row rather than four. You'll also find a little blue glow when you scroll to the top or bottom of a menu.
Plus there are a couple of new live wallpapers and when adding widgets, you now go back to the beginning of the list when you reach the end rather than just not being able to go any further.
The Note offers the usual multiple Android homescreens with the ability to delete or rearrange them but not add any more than seven in total.
You can pinch in to show an overview and navigate to what you want that way or you can swipe from left to right. Doing so at the bottom of the screen where the page number is displayed will get you between screens even faster.
Widgets can be displayed in any place – and in any way. Samsung offers the ability to resize them although this only allows you to do it to certain ones (compared to some third party launchers which let you resize everything and make it look low-res).
There's also a rather snazzy ability to resize web pages by holding your finger on two points and tilting the phone towards or away from you. It looks cool but is completely pointless since you can just pinch to zoom to do the same task more effectively.
Whizzing between homescreens is fast thanks to that processor though we did notice that the more we filled it up with apps, the longer it would sometimes take to go back to the homescreen when hitting the home button from within an app.
Not so much that you'd become annoyed with it, but we were looking out for it having experienced the same delay on the S2.
Pulling down on the Android notification bar gives you access not only to your notifications but also a really helpful shortcut menu that will let you toggle things like wifi/gps/Bluetooth/sound/auto-rotate.
It's similar to the offering we get in HTC's Sense but is more easily available on the TouchWiz implementation. We would have liked the opportunity to customise this a little and add our own shortcuts though.
Application drawers can be a little hit and miss on Android handsets depending on the vendor but TouchWiz is one of the good ones. Apps can be reordered as you like and can even be placed into individual folders although it's a little more convoluted than the automatic dropping system of the iPhone.
Here, you have to go into editing mode and then create your folder and drag them in. Crucially, you also have to do options->save afterwards. If you don't and just hit the home button like an iPhone user, prepare to see all your changes disappear which can be annoying if you've just spent ten mins doing a little bit of app admin.
Apps can also be deleted easily via the drawer in editing mode rather than forcing you to go through the settings menu as some Android handsets do.
It's a great, intuitive system and fantastic for new users. It may lack the feeling of having your hand-held that an iDevice gives a novice but after 20 mins of playing around with a Note, even the most amateur of Android users will be comfortable with how it all works.
Contacts and Calling
What do you mean you want to make phonecalls on the Note?! Have you seen the size of this thing?
Well, actually, it is possible. Although we laughed a year ago when some people tried to use the Galaxy Tab as a phone with a Bluetooth headset, it's not altogether that ridiculous to do so on the Note.
Yes, it is large and you do look like you're holding a small paperback book to your ear but this is destined to be used as a telephone as well as a portable computer and, as such, comes with the full Android phone app installed.
Contacts are handled with typical Android flair (in that they are excellently managed and synced with Google for extra security). TouchWiz goes that little bit further by adding small but very welcome enhancements.
It's almost identical to the offering of the S2 with the only visible difference being that as well as the four tabs you got before (Keyboard, Logs, Contacts and Favourites), you now also have a Groups tab visible, where before you had to scroll for it.
Groups of people can be created or edited on the Note itself (something earlier Android handsets wouldn't let users do) and messages sent to all of the members in one go making it extremely handy for organising events.
Samsung's added Facebook and Twitter integration which means that you can have photos and details of contacts pulled in from your networks as well as your online address book.
You do have to 'join' them manually which can be a bit time consuming if you have lots of contacts though and we feel HTC has a bit of an edge here considering it manages to link contacts of its own volition, leaving the user to merely sign its recommendations off.
Various tabs within a contact will allow you to look at recent histories and you can also view similar info through the logs tab. You can view everything (i.e. texts and calls) or specific fields like missed calls, dialled calls, received calls.
If you've had a text conversation with somebody, it shows every time you exchanged a message but is cumbersome to wade through.
Making phone calls was easy as pie too. Although we felt stupid holding the handset up to our ear, the actual quality of calls was on a par with the Galaxy S2: excellent. There was no interference and the noise reduction worked brilliantly.
We had no issues whatsoever with maintaining a signal during a call. Nor did we have any problems with volume levels. And boy, is that speakerphone loud!
The front video camera allows you to make and receive video calls but we found that when we used it to call other phone users, they could see us but we couldn't see them, which wasn't an issue when using third party solutions like Tango, so clearly something Samsung needs to fix in future updates.
This being an Android device, you cannot fault the amount of messaging options.
Firstly, there's Mail and the Note comes with two options built in. One is the standard, excellent Gmail app found on all Android handsets whilst the second is Samsung's own Mail app which accommodates Gmail as well as virtually every other POP3/IMAP and Exchange option you care to chuck in its direction.
The Samsung mail app is pretty good though and gives you the option to tweak various aspects from the font size to the colour of the inbox display (although Tiny really isn't what it claims to be.) Turn the Note on its side and you'll get a split view, which is a nice touch.
Unfortunately, push Gmail doesn't seem to work on this app (it does on the Gmail app though) yet you can set it to poll every five mins at least if that's important to you. A Mail widget gives you one touch access to all the messages in there.
On top of that, you can always add your own messaging solutions too. There are the obvious ones like Facebook and Twitter (plus third party versions) and then the other excellent additions like Viber, Tango, WhatsApp, Windows Live Messenger and Skype.
The beauty of Android is that once these apps are installed, they all show up as options within the contact card when you call up a person's name.
Samsung's Social Hub is present too though we're not overly impressed – mainly because, although it looks like a good idea on paper, if you follow lots of people on Twitter and Facebook, the amount of information in front of your eyes can get a little too much.
Typing on the Galaxy Note is fairly pain free. It comes with the Gingerbread keyboard as standard though this can be easily replaced with a third party alternative should you so wish or Swype which Samsung seems very fond of. You can use it as a QWERTY keyboard or change to an old style phone keyboard with XT9 prediction.
Tapping messages out of on it is, erm, manageable with one hand but unless you have mitts the size of the moon, you'll find it more comfortable with two.
There is also the option to use the 'S-Pen' to write notes on a virtual pad in exactly the same way as we used to years ago on stylus-driven devices like those from Windows Mobile.
Heaven knows why anybody would want to do this as it doesn't seem to be the most comfortable or user friendly method but there are bound to be some fans.
Eitherway, you're spoiled for choice to communicate with others which is a much better position to be in than not having enough choice.
If there is one area where you'd expect a device like the Galaxy Note to excel, it's the internet. And we're pleased to tell that it doesn't disappoint. This was how the internet was meant to be seen and there are no compromises here.
The browser is Samsung's take on the stock Android option and is the same as that found on the Galaxy S2 – albeit with a couple of cosmetic differences.
For example, whilst bookmarks are still accessed by a tab right next to the address bar, there's also a shortcut to get you to your multiple windows plus dedicated back and forward buttons on screen.
That feeling of a desktop browser is reinforced by the way you're given the name of the site and its page info at the top of the browser app above the address bar – just like you get on a computer.
This being an Android device from Samsung, we'd be shocked if the Note didn't deliver Flash internet and we're delighted to say it is here – all present, accounted for and working beautifully. Pages – even those with heavy flash elements – loaded well and look beautiful on that large, vivid screen.
By default, you'll get a whole screen view when you first visit a site and although it's too small to read, once you zoom in, you'll have no such problems.
Tapping to zoom works well as it should as does pinching. Text reflow isn't great – or indeed, it isn't there – and we found that on some sites, we had to scroll back and forth to the end of the line to read what was being said.
The TechRadar page took four seconds to get up on Wi-Fi although the green loading bar didn't disappear until nearly 12 seconds in.
This was because the browser was still rendering flash though the actual page was ready to navigate once those initial four seconds were up and we were able to go about our business.
Trying the same experiment over HSDPA took another two seconds to get the site up but again, we were able to ignore the flash loading and browse away. Teasingly, the Note is 4G LTE enabled but until that's all up and running, the mega fast HSPA+ is all we have to go on in the relevant areas.
There is still a limit on the number of windows users can have open with eight being the maximum but they're easy to switch between and you're even treated to a coverflow-style animation.
Bookmarks are easy to add and you can even put them on the homescreen as widgets with the latest page image as your icon. It's all very well thought out, easy to use and the beauty is that it works so well, you just don't really notice the browser as you whizz through the net.
If you're one of those who buys a device like this because of the media capabilities, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven with the Note in your hands. This is what media devices should look like.
That's because of one thing – that screen. Watching videos on here is a pleasure. Not only because of the size but also because the resolution is so good and it's not so heavy that your hands are likely to get tired by holding it for long periods of time (unless you're weedy).
We love how you can stream the audio to a Bluetooth headset too so can enjoy movies completely wire-free and there's even an outdoor setting to make it easier to see in bright sunlight though it cranks the display up so don't expect your battery to thank you.
The range of file types supported is impressive too: MP4, M4V, Xvid, DivX, AVI, 3GP – in fact, not once did we get the dreaded 'file type not supported' error message. You can also edit your videos from within the app and add various effects to them as well as trimming and doing some basic work.
The music app is stock Android with that Samsung look and it does the job well enough, allowing you to create playlists on the fly or filter your music by artist, album etc.
We downloaded the third party PlayerPro which we found to be much more effective but different apps will suit different tastes and needs here. Both allow you to tweak equalizer settings and the like.
Crucially, with a mimimum of 16GB storage space already included before we start adding media cards, the only challenge we faced here was figuring out how to fill it all.
Streaming media is a cinch thanks to DLNA and you can have your music photos and videos sent to a compatible device (like a PS3) in no time at all.
If you're lucky enough to have a compatible networked telly, you can also do it directly using the Samsung AllShare app built into the Note. We found it to be OK – but not brilliant.
Loading lists of files took ages (literally, we went off and boiled the kettle from scratch, came back and it was still loading!) and it seems to have issues with files on the external memory but this appears to be an issue with the app rather than the Note itself since we've experienced it on the S2.
Streaming via Bluetooth, however, was not an issue and we happily played music to the car stereo without wires for an entire journey. Sound quality with A2DP was flawless. And to top it all off, Samsung gives us an FM radio. Not a big, cutting edge inclusion – but one we're always glad to see.
Battery Life and Connectivity
On paper, the Galaxy Note should give amazing battery life since it has a 2,500mAh power pack in there. In practise though, while it is good, it's not necessarily amazing. But it all depends on your use.
It's hard enough to match the manufacturers' estimates at the best of times because individuals have their own needs and demands placed on their devices. Perhaps tellingly, Samsung hasn't even bothered to put estimated talk and standby times on the specs page of the Note website.
Those who use this as their phone will get through juice a lot quicker than those who carry it around in a bag as a tablet and are more economical with their usage, and have fewer apps sipping away data in the background.
Our testing involved the former and we were easily able to eke a full day of moderately heavy usage.
The Note came off charge at 5:45am and was used for about an hour of catching up on Twitter, reading the headlines etc and checking emails. We also took a handful of photos.
Over the course of the day, we did an hour's drive with music streaming to the Bluetooth car stereo, watched an episode of Spooks on the screen, played a couple of games for about 20 mins, listened to the FM radio and music applications for about 20 minutes and got through about 90 mins worth of web browsing. At 7pm, we were down to 15% and then that dropped to 7% by 10pm (with very little usage).
That's pretty much on a par with what we get from an S2 with an extended 1900mAh battery pack but we're not surprised because although the battery is larger, so is that screen. And boy, does this display love to guzzle battery power.
You're tooled up for connectivity with all of the usual suspects in here from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to HSPA+ and DLNA.
Although Wi-Fi did lock on, we weren't massively impressed with the signal strength. We've always found the S2 to be not as capable of getting a full signal as an iPhone (even when placed on the router) and were shocked to see that the Galaxy Note's signal was even weaker.
It didn't affect browsing at home but this could be an issue in larger areas when hunting for (and trying to stay connected to) hotspots.
You can also use Wi-Fi for Wi-Fi direct (think Bluetooth file transfer but using Wi-Fi connection instead) and there is Samsung's Kies software for transferring media which allows you to do it via the actual computer programme or over wifi using a web browser. It's all very advanced, easy to use and works as it should.
If you have a USB stick, you can actually connect it directly to the Note and read from it (via a micro USB adapter) which is a great addition and makes this even more of a computing device than just a phone.
If you want to share your connection, you can tether by cable or by making this a mobile hotspot - but beware: networks will think it's Christmas if you go tethering crazy and use this in place of your broadband connection.
Maps, Apps and the S-Pen
When King Steve of Jobs announced the iPhone, he uttered the words: "Who wants to use a stylus? Yeuch!" and ever since, the stylus has been on death row.
Along came iOS and Android which were both finger driven, Symbian ditched its need for a stylus and even Windows itself – which loved styluses – decided it was time to kill them off.
So what on earth is Samsung doing bringing the stylus back? We honestly don't know. Although Samsung HQ will probably have a fit when they see us referring to it as a stylus rather than the marketeers' favourite, the 'S-Pen.'
The 'S-Pen' has been the main focus of the marketing drive for the Galaxy Note. The adverts concentrated on drawing on the screen and even at the Note launch party in London, it was the pen that ruled the show.
It's a touch sensitive jobby which can feel a bit weird after years of capacitive screens using the fingers. We found it to be quite temperamental in that sometimes it would register presses and at other times, it wouldn't.
And in the space of the week or so we were testing the note, the majority of time, we forgot it was even there, despite the fact it has over 100 levels of sensitivity baked in.
A few times, we took the 'S-Pen' out of its little dock at the back and we had a play. We tried to see what the fuss was about and waited for a bolt of lightning to crash down and show us how we'd been missing some revolutionary technology. But it never came.
We'll not knock it – the 'S-Pen' is good if you want to draw on your Galaxy. Or if you'd like to amend a photo and put a bit of writing on. Or write your signature on a message. Or show someone a webpage with annotations. But revolutionary, it is not. And pointless, it is.
We just can't see the point in writing a shopping list out by hand on a screen when you could type it in half the time or dictate it using a third party app.
In terms of other apps, we're glad Samsung has continued to see sense and get rid of its own brand of mapping software on the Google-powered phones – Google Maps is excellent and doesn't need a competitor on these sorts of devices.
The new 5.0+ Google Maps application runs faster than a chocolate-covered pig through GreaseTown on the Samsung Galaxy Note, with elements like vector-based graphics zooming in and out with no hint of slowdown, and the 3D models of certain cities jumping out without a hitch.
The sat nav functionality was equally impressive and although it's all still in beta, it's still excellent. This really is a credible alternative to a full sat nav solution and we couldn't fault it in the slightest.
The other usual Google suspects are there (Talk, Latitude, Places etc) as well as a few Samsung-own treats like the Music Hub and Readers Hub which help you get more content.
Samsung has its own appstore in there too but it's not worth the memory it takes up with nowhere even close to a fraction of the offerings on the Android Market in there.
It does also include fantastic photo and video editing apps to play with your home made content which are intuitive and fun and a full version (Yep, full, not trial) of Polaris Office is bundled which is a nice touch.
Voice Search is provided courtesy of Vlingo and is an upgraded version of the app found on the S2. Before, it provided you with a handful of functions but now you can even tell it which music to play or update your social networking status from the app.
We thought it was pretty cool beforehand but fell in love with it all over again on the Note. It does lack the prowess of Apple's Siri, but can handle a good 70% of the functions at least of Apple's effort - but not in the same fun 'Will I need an umbrella' contextual kind of way.
We have a widget for that. It takes a little time to acclimatise to your voice and accent and could do with sounding a little more human when it speaks back to you but on the whole, it is pretty quick at adapting and a definite plus for the Note.
The Samsung Galaxy Note is definitely a device worth considering if you're a media and internet fiend. Three recently announced that its users do more browsing than calling on phones these days and if you're one of those types, this could be a perfect choice. It's fast, it's intuitive and although there are compromises we found them acceptable for a device like this.
The screen on the Note cannot be beaten. It is both clear and vibrant but also nice and big and we've always been fans of Samsung's TouchWiz skin which is one of the good guys in the world of Android customisations.
Contacts management is slick and easy to use, which is often overlooked in today's dual-core environments, and despite being super-huge, the call quality comes across clearly.
The 'S-Pen' seems completely pointless and a bit of a damp squib, and there is no doubt that the Note is big. Some will love it, but we get the feeling that the majority will give this a wide berth, making the Note a device for enthusiasts.
And don't forget it's essentially a tablet hybrid version of the Galaxy S2, which is likely to be a lot cheaper to own. And we can't work out why the camera is in such a scratch-attracting position - seems a bit dangerous to us.
There are very few things we can complain about with the Galaxy Note. Samsung has taken what is already a brilliant handset and built on it to make an even better one.
The problem is – is it a handset or is it a tablet? Will users be carrying this around as well as a phone? In our mind, forget the 'S-Pen' and just concentrate on this being a large phone and PMP and you can't go wrong. And then, the only choice you have to make is "is it too big for me?"
It is a pricey device – but you can't deny it's a premium product and that shows not only through the specs but also the build quality.
We can't see Samsung successfully creating a new product category with the Galaxy Note though - we just can't imagine that many businesspeople who hate paper and love media enough to consider carrying this around, even if it doesn't replace a smartphone.