This review appeared originally in Frequent Business Traveler on April 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
Ever since smartphones added touch displays and ditched physical keyboards there has been a steady trend towards increasingly large screens. With the Galaxy Note, Samsung has presented a serious challenge to all other companies who would dare to compete with them in the phone size race.
It is in many ways a well designed and executed smartphone, but ultimately it is one of the most frustrating mobile devices I have had the pleasure of reviewing because its sheer size limits its appeal and utility. It is a phone for people who really want a Kindle Fire but don’t want to carry around two devices, or those who never actually put their phones in their pockets, and huge handed giants (NBA players maybe?).
HOW BIG IS IT?
To be clear, the Galaxy Note is huge. Its 5.3” screen is crystal clear, and shines when used in an environment that allows for two handed operation. The screen is a 1280 x 800 Super Amoled, and is stunning when you are using a game or app that showcases its bright colors and deep contrasts.
The Galaxy Note is relatively light (178 grams) and slim considering its size. The dimensions are 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65 mm. For comparison, the Galaxy Nexus S II, its predecessor, is 125.3 x 66.1 x 8.49 mm and weighs 116 grams. While the Note is significantly larger than the iPhone 4S , it is actually only 0.35 mm thicker.
The weight and slimness of the Note is admirable, however, the device ultimately feels somewhat fragile. The back panel of the Note is a practically paper thin plastic panel, which, although lightweight, does not give you much confidence in terms of durability. I can easily imagine the panel breaking if you are not careful when removing it to get at the SIM and SD card slots. Dropping a smartphone is never a good idea, but the Note in particular, feels as though it would have trouble surviving anything but a light impact. This is unfortunate, because it also very hard to operate one-handed without risking an accident. Held in the hand, offerings from Motorola and Apple feel much more solid, but considering its size there is no denying the sleekness of the Galaxy Note.
SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE HARDWARE
The Note is bursting with power and zips along quickly as you switch between apps and load pages over AT&T’s 4G network. Android 2.3.6 runs smoothly and without lag on the dual-core 1.5 Ghz processor. Even the strange S Pen stylus is oddly useful for some tasks.
As on other Android devices, there are four capacitive touch buttons that line the bottom edge of the phone, allowing access to settings, home, back, and search functions. Strangely, these buttons do not work with the S Pen, making it impossible to use only the S Pen when navigating the device. I ended up pointlessly tapping the back button with the stylus many times, before I would remember that I had to use my finger.
On the upper right side is the power and sleep button, and on the upper left side are the volume controls. Having these controls in the same spot but on opposite sides is not ideal, as I would inevitably pick up the phone with my right hand, and end up accidently changing the volume setting with my thumb when putting the phone in sleep mode. Not a huge problem, but if you always keep your phone on vibrate it can be annoying to accidentally turn the volume up and not realize it until you get a call.
The top of the phone has the 3.5mm headphone jack, and along the bottom the microUSB charging slot and storage for the S Pen. The S Pen slot is designed well; I did not have any problems getting it out quickly when I needed it and it was unobtrusive when I did not need it (which was most of the time). On the back of the device there is a single speaker, which has a surprising high sound level. Using the speakerphone was great, I could keep the Note a few feet away from me and hear every word, and I had no complaints from anyone about the clarity of the call.
The Note is equipped with an eight megapixel camera on the back with 1080/30p HD video recording, and two mega pixel camera on the front for video chatting. Both do perfectly fine as far as phone cameras go, although the inclusion of a dedicated camera button would be nice, as the Note is so large that it is virtually impossible hold the camera and hit the photo button one handed.
The S Pen is an interesting addition for the device. It actually works pretty well for taking notes in either the included S Memo app or in Evernote, and making notes on top of screenshots and pictures could potentially be useful. For example, I took a screenshot of my neighborhood in Google Maps and then put an X over my house and drew an arrow showing how to get there from the nearest subway. You can’t shake the feeling though that the S Pen will make more sense for a larger device, such as the upcoming Galaxy Note 10.1. The available apps that are designed for the S Pen should increase when Samsung releases the S Pen Premium Suite of stylus-optimized apps, which the company announced would be bundled with the coming upgrade to Android 4.0.
USER INTERFACE AND SOFTWARE
The Galaxy Note runs Android 2.3.6, and Samsung has announced its intent to upgrade the Note to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) sometime in Q2. The delay is par for the course for Android devices running carrier modified versions of Android, so it is not unexpected. In the case of the Note, however, the upgrade may be more important, as Ice Cream Sandwich promises to do more to unify the experience of Android tablets and smartphones. For a device that is confused about which it class of mobile device it wants to be, delivering a more tablet-like experience will make it more appealing.
As always with customized UIs, when I set up the Note the first ten minutes were spent clearing away the TouchWiz widgets that crowd the screen and drain the battery. Basic functionality is incredibly smooth, with nice touchscreen gesture support for calling from the contact list (swipe left to call, swipe right to text). Texting and e-mailing is really easy to accomplish on the large screen, assuming you hold it two-handed. One-handed operation while typing is not impossible, but is not ideal unless you have large, long thumbs.
The Note shines for gaming and multimedia. The games I downloaded from Google Play (the rebranded Android Market) ran fast with not lag, and the large screen made controlling the games much easier than the somewhat cramped experience of smaller phones. Youtube videos looked good, as did video content on Web sites.
Google Maps looked amazing on the huge screen, and the size meant that I did far less zooming in and out and panning across the map as I used it. Because I could hold it in one hand while walking, it was better for pedestrian navigation needs than a tablet.
Interestingly, I actually began using voice commands for the first time when testing the Note, mainly because of how often I found myself in situations where I wanted to use the device one handed but did not want to risk dropping it. All the voice features actually worked well, although I’m not sure that they make up for the bulky size.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite the legal issues that Samsung has run into regarding alleged copyright infringement of Apple’s patent, the two companies could not be approaching the mobile device market with more different strategies. Apple sells one size of iPhone and one size of iPad, and consumers can take it or leave it (they mostly take it). Samsung veers wildly in the other direction and offers every conceivable size of smartphone and tablet. They offer Galaxy Tablets in 7”, 7.7”, 8.9”, 10.1”, and now the Galaxy Note smartphone in 5.3” and Galaxy Note tablet in 10.1”. Once you factor in the connectivity options (Wi-Fi only, 4G, 3G) the options become dizzying.
The Galaxy Note exists on the bridge between Samsung’s smartphone business and its tablet offerings, and almost pulls off the trick of being both. Unfortunately, it is destined to be a device for only a certain breed of consumer. It is simply too large to appeal to everyone, and does not quite replace a tablet in your device library. Despite its size, amazing display, and snappy response, if you are a heavy tablet user, the Note still feels like a phone. And frankly, unless you never put your phone in your pocket, or wear looser jeans with the extra cargo room, the Note is destined to be carried in a bag of some sort
More casual tablet users or those who are aggressively trying to reduce the number of gadgets they carry around might be happy using the Note for both. Heavy travelers might find that they could lighten their load by leaving their full-size tablet at home, while still enjoying the large display for reading, maps, and Web surfing. The Note may also find a niche market with heavy gamers. Business users or artists may fall in love with the S Pen for taking notes and sketching out ideas. Those with freakishly large hands will rejoice that Samsung is finally thinking of their needs.
Personally, the Galaxy Note grew on me and I find its display and extra screen real estate a fair trade off for its admittedly ridiculous size. However, any interested buyers would be wise to try one out before making the purchase. It will delight some, and alienate others, so buy with caution.