Without a doubt, the Samsung Galaxy Note is the biggest smartphone you’ve ever seen. It’s still nice and thin (just 0.38 inches), so don’t worry about flashbacks to the Zack Morris phones of yesteryear. Still, why would you want such a big screen in a phone? Samusng has a few ideas, some of them brand new.
With a 5-inch screen, the Galaxy Note blurs the line between phone and tablet. Any function that benefits from extra screen space effectively gets an upgrade on the Note, and there are a lot of them. Still, let’s be clear: you buy this device from AT&T with a contract. It has a built-in data connection (4G LTE, thank you very much) and — oh yeah — it can make voice calls over wireless networks. This is a phone.
The Note’s sheer size has both advantages and disadvantages. With more real estate, the menu screen has room for 30 app icons. That’s amazing, though it’s kind of too many — looking for an app in a 5×6 array definitely makes it a bit harder to lock on to a target. Reading, however, is a better experience than almost any phone, letting you get through lots of text in emails and articles before you need to scroll. If you’re a slow reader, though, you’ll need to increase the time before the screen goes dark from inactivity.
The Stylus Returns
Besides the gigantic screen, the Note has another piece of hardware that stands out from the multitude of smartphones today: a stylus, which Samsung calls the S Pen. As all of Twitter has observed, its presence feels more like an odd throwback than a bonus, Still, it’s important to note that you can completely ignore it (or lose it) and still use the Galaxy Note just fine.
Physically, the stylus is unremarkable, and it looks like any number of stylii from the past 15+ years, with one difference: there’s a button. The stylus has no battery, but somehow the Note knows when you’re pressing it, giving your taps an extra dimension of functionality (more on that in a bit). The S Pen is married to the Galaxy Note — it won’t work with other touchscreens, failing to get any response from the other phones and tablets on hand in the Mashable offices.
So what sort of tricks can you do with the delightfully retro S Pen? First, there are several drawing apps (surprise, a few are preloaded) that let you get your stylus on, like Touch Physics clone called Crayon Physics, where you draw objects to coax a ball across the screen to hit a star. Cute — and addictive.
But the app Samsung wants you to use the most is S Memo, which you can call up while running any app (even the phone) by holding down he stylus button and double tapping. That way, you can stop and take notes — handwritten notes — anytime, anywhere, no matter what you’re doing. Samsung even throws in handwriting-to-text software to translate your scribble into something intelligible.
In practice, the concept isn’t as good as, um, on paper. As a reporter, I often have to take notes, but writing on the Note feels alien after using an actual notebook. You can simulate an actual pen better with a $50 accessory, but the whole idea just feels better suited for quick Post-It-type messages. Even for those, I’d wager most smartphone users are so good at dashing them off with their thumbs that S Memo would just be redundant. The handwriting recognition is far from flawless as well (shown in the photo below — click to see it larger).
Let’s talk software. The Note runs Android 2.3.6 (a version of “Gingerbread”), and it comes with a good chunk of bloatware from AT&T and others. You can uninstall some of those apps, of course, but it’s a chore, and if you’re used to iOS, you’ll wonder who the hell filled your phone with a bunch of junk before you even opened the box.
Specific to the Note — indeed, all Samsung devices going forward — is something called AllShare Play. Samsung snuck out this cloud-sharing service at CES, which automatically uploads photos, videos, music and even those silly S Memos to the cloud, letting you access them from any device. Check that: any device that can run AllShare, which only includes PCs and Android portables. Per usual, Samsung has no interest in cultivating any favor with Mac or iOS users.
AllShare allows sharing to the cloud or directly to any DLNA device, which is nice, although that’s really a feature just for hardcore power users. Ultimately, I don’t see anything so compelling about AllShare that I would use it over Google’s built-in cloud integration.
Just one example: after I set up my Google account on the Note, every single photo and video I took on the last Android phone I reviewed was right there in my gallery app. Google Music works similarly. Why would I use something that does the exact same thing in a more limited way?
Big on Detail
All that said, Samsung says it considers the Galaxy Note a “superphone,” and it’s definitely got the guts to match. The Note packs a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, and it can also access AT&T’s budding 4G LTE network, giving it some incredible download prowess.
When I ran the Speed Test app, I was able to 12.1 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed sitting at my desk — that cranked up to 32.8 Mpbs near a window. One test even went as high as 50 Mbps. Remember, though, that there are few phones on AT&T’s high-speed network now, so that will probably go down a bit as more LTE phones are sold. But it’ll always be immensely faster than 3G.
Does such speed and processing power give you a lot of practical benefits? If you do a lot of file transfer, especially video, to and from your phone, absolutely (though you should pick your data plan carefully if so). However, after streaming a few YouTube videos, I saw lots of pixelation in supposedly “high quality” versions available on mobile. You can see what I’m talking about below in a screencap from the recent trailer for The Avengers. Up top is a close-up of Robert Downey, Jr. on the Galaxy Note; below, the same moment on the iPhone.
The Note’s pixelation may have had something to do with YouTube itself (Vimeo looked better), but it’s demonstrative of how the guts of your phone only open up potential — a lot of things need to align to really take advantage of them.
Is It Notable?
The Galaxy Note is a lonely giant among smartphones, certainly. For all the capabilities and extra breathing room that bigger screen bestows, there’s a clear trade-off in gracefulness. The Note is an unwieldy beast — if you have small hands or just wear jeans a lot, it probably isn’t for you. For those tall enough for this ride, however, the Galaxy Note’s tricks aren’t really exciting or game-changing, at least outside of a Super Bowl commercial. At the end of the day, it’s just a really big phone.
Corrections: This review initially had the wrong spec for the Galaxy Note’s processor — the correct spec is 1.5GHz. Also, it misidentified the game that Crayon Physics is similar to — the game I was thinking of was Touch Physics.
Samsung Galaxy Note, Default Lock Screen
The Samsung Galaxy Note has a 5-inch screen, positively massive for a smartphone. Note the choice of imagery.