Samsung Galaxy Note
- Excellent performance
- Enormous, high-res Super AMOLED display
- S Pen is a clever, no-compromise addition
- May be too large for some
- Awkward to use for voice calls
- S Pen button rather small
Samsung's Galaxy Note is massively good but simply too massive for some.
If you were holding out for a device that bridges the gap between smartphone and tablet, you'll want to take Note. It's an absolutely massive Android handset and a high-res pocketable tablet rolled into one. If you have the hands to support it, it may just be the best thing to happen to mobile devices since the capacitive touchscreen. You can take notes, doodle between (or during) meetings and make phone calls. Those calls can be placed using the built-in earpiece and mic, or via a Bluetooth headset, which we would recommend. Holding something this large up to your ear can be rather unpleasant -- and unsightly.
If you've used a Samsung Galaxy S II, then you're already familiar with the Note -- the design is quite similar, though it's significantly larger, measuring 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm, compared with 125.3 x 66.1 x 8.49mm for the GS II. It's significantly heavier too: 178 grams (6.3 ounces) compared to its 116g (4.09-ounce) predecessor. There's an eight megapixel camera with LED flash on the back and a two megapixel shooter up front. The Note may be awkwardly large for some functions, but snapping photos feels natural enough. There's also 1080 / 30p HD video recording, with support for MPEG-4, H.263 and H.264 codecs. You can store all that multimedia on the 16GB of internal memory, expandable by up to 32GB with a microSD card -- both of which can be accessed via the micro-USB port. There's also Bluetooth 3.0+ HS support and 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi.
With support for 21Mbps HSPA+ (850, 900, 1900, 2100Mhz), LTE, EDGE and GPRS (850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz), the Note is first and foremost a mobile phone -- one that would be quite happy on AT&T if you wanted to import. You could carry it in one pocket with your celly in another, but you don't need to. It's running Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) powered by a 1.4GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos processor, which performed incredibly well during our benchmark tests (more on that later). The Note offers a full suite of sensors, including an accelerometer, compass and barometer, along with proximity and light. There's also A-GPS and GLONASS for enhanced positioning -- even in Russia.
There's an earphone grill up top, just above the Samsung logo, followed by ambient light and proximity sensors to the right, then a front-facing cam near the edge. A single rectangular button at the bottom peeks out from beneath the display, flanked by touch-sensitive backlit return and menu controls. On the top right of the sleek silver bezel you'll find the power button, with a 3.5mm headphone jack up there too and volume slider on the left. The micro-USB connector is centered at the bottom, just to the left of where you slide in the S Pen. That's flush with the Note's flimsy plastic rear panel, which will only need removing when you want to insert a SIM or microSD card -- or swap out the generous 2,500mAh battery.
1280 x 800 pixels in a smartphone display is quite a feat, and it's just as impressive to behold as it sounds. The Note's 5.3-inch Super AMOLED screen is incredibly bright, vibrant and detailed, thanks to its 285ppi resolution. It doesn't have the highest pixel density in the world (the smaller Galaxy Nexus trumps it slightly, as does Apple's Retina panel in the iPhone 4 and 4S), but it's enough to make graphics amazingly smooth -- you'll have a hard time seeing individual pixels with the naked eye. Viewing photos and graphics, web pages and even newspaper articles in PressReader is quite the treat when you have this much visual real estate to work with.
Colors on the Note pop just as they do on the GS II, that eye-pleasing contrast and saturation we've come to love from Samsung's AMOLED displays, and little vibrancy is lost when viewed from the side. However, color accuracy does start to wander a bit. This is indeed a PenTile display, just like the upcoming Galaxy Nexus, and so there are more green sub-pixels than any other color. This gives everything an ever-so slightly sickly tinge, especially when viewed off-angle. Still, you'll have no problem watching videos or reviewing your sketches with a group of friends -- assuming none of them are hue purists.
If you fall within the camp of smartphone users that absolutely swears off onscreen keyboards, the Note's display may just win you over. A larger display means larger keys, which are easier to see and simpler to tap accurately -- if you can reach them. You can also use the S Pen to replace the keyboard entirely, letting you write in individual letters or entire words. Character and handwriting recognition isn't perfect, but it is quite good. When we scribbled "hello" as you can see in the picture below it was recognized perfectly, though less common words (particularly web addresses) were a little less reliable.
Loudspeaker / earpiece
The Note's speaker sure is loud, though Samsung hasn't pulled any magic tricks out of the hat here when it comes to audio quality. Do you like listening to music or watching movies through tinny desktop speakers? Well, then you might not mind the Note. There's nothing exceptional about the little tweeter inside here besides its volume, so you'll want to take advantage of that 3.5mm headphone jack whenever possible. The only accessory Samsung included with our review sample was a UK power cord, so we can't speak to the pack-in headphones the company will provide, but unsurprisingly our own pair worked just fine.
There's an FM radio app, just in case you run out of stored tunes or want to leave the playlist generation up to a professional. You'll need to plug in a set of earphones to use as an antenna and our generic buds naturally seemed to do the trick -- though we could only pull in a half dozen stations while standing next to a window in Central London, and the ones that we did get were mostly static.
If you do plan on making phone calls with the Note, you can expect average performance. We placed a few test calls -- some local and some across the Atlantic -- and things sounded just fine on both ends, though not overly crisp. Callers on the other end of the line were barely able to distinguish between calls made using the earpiece and those placed with the speakerphone, even when speaking a foot or two away from the handset. The Note's strengths clearly lie in what you can do with that generous display and S Pen, though it's a perfectly functional phone just the same.
It's safe to say that the device offered more than acceptable performance. That's to be expected, as it appears to be using the same sensor and camera getup we've loved in the other Galaxy S II iterations thus far. During our indoor shoot, the camera was able to balance color and exposure properly with most subjects in still mode. The autofocus worked well most of the time and the built-in flash popped with the correct amount of power -- our subjects were not blown out. We needed to stay a few inches away from subjects in order to get the camera to focus, even in macro mode -- so don't expect to be able to snap extreme close-ups. Also, noise was an issue in darker scenes and the camera was unable to compensate for low light in some areas.
In video mode, noise was a problem too, but in a different sort of way: the mic seemed a bit overboosted, picking up quite a whoosh with the slightest hint of a breeze. When filming, the camera had a difficult time focusing and exposing at times, with some elements left soft or overexposed. White balance was generally acceptable, but it did take a few seconds for the camera to adjust when moving quickly between scenes.
Software and S Pen
Next up are some gestures that can be executed by holding the button on the S Pen and swiping. It's worth noting that button is practically microscopic. Our fingers often had a hard time finding it. But, once located, you can hold it down and swipe up from the bottom of the screen to emulate pressing the menu button. Swipe on from the right to emulate the back button. There's no gesture replicating Home, but since it's an actual, physical button here you can always just stab at it with the stylus -- or a finger, we suppose.
The phone has an integrated quick note function, which lets you pull up a sticky-size memo pad from any page on the device. Simply press the S Pen button and double tap -- you can make a note, save it and pull it up easily later. The pad doubles in size when you access if from a dedicated app, giving you more space to make additional doodles. Like all of the drawing applications, you have a selection of pen styles, sizes and colors to choose from.
There are a variety of unique apps designed to take advantage of the S Pen, including the preloaded S Memo app, which collects your quick memos and provides a platform for creating longer form notes, and a handful of downloadable apps, available through the S Choice store. Hello Crayon is designed for children to create colorful sketches with crayons and markers in a variety of colors -- it may have been created with kids in mind, but we still had a good time scribbling with it. Hello Color Pencil is quite similar but, as you've possibly guessed, swapping crayons for colored pencils. There's also Hello Chalk, and you can surely infer the medium of choice there.
Other than that we're looking at Android Gingerbread -- a bit of a shame as the onscreen buttons in Ice Cream Sandwich would work much more cleanly with the S Pen. The UI has certainly been Touchwiz'd, but as with the other recent Galaxy products we're fond of the customizations here.
Performance and battery life
The Galaxy Note may slot squarely in between a phone and a tablet in terms of physical dimensions, but when it comes to performance we're happy to report it leans much closer to the latter than the former -- in many cases surpassing even that class of devices. We ran it through the gamut of typical benchmarks and found nearly everything predictably out-pacing this device's Galaxy S II predecessor.
In quadrant this husky phone threw down a 3,998, compared to the GS II's 3,200. Linpack single and multi found 64.30 and 95.66 MFLOPS, compared to 55 and 81. Nenamark 1 and 2 resulted in 57.67 and 32.8, it hit 51.77 at Neocore and ran through SunSpider in 2,902ms. These are very, very good scores, out-classing the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in most cases and really raising the smartphone bar.
|Galaxy Note||Galaxy S II||Galaxy Tab 10.1|
Battery life is phenomenal. While you'd expect solid performance from a 2500mAh battery, it's having to power a massive screen (both in terms of size and pixel count) and ultra-fast CPU -- energy vampires for sure. Our battery rundown test (playing a video in a loop starting from a full charge) achieved an impressive 9 hours and 36 minutes, putting the Galaxy Note right into iPad territory.
The Galaxy Note is one of those devices that you'll either completely love or totally hate -- its sheer size alone will certainly be a barrier for those with smaller hands (or pockets). With the Note, Samsung has managed to create one of the world's largest smartphones, but cunningly it's also an incredibly compact tablet with a high-resolution display -- the same as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet -- without the high-resolution footprint. It's compact enough to slip in your pocket and powerful enough to replace both of your portable devices. Still, it won't be for everyone. This is one case where you'll definitely want to get your own hands on one before signing up to any two-year commitments, if only to see if it will fit in your hands as well as your budget.
Note: At this time Samsung has not provided US availability or pricing. The Note will go on sale in Germany on October 31st, and the UK on November
Update: Others are reporting a date of the 3rd for the UK now. A bit longer to wait, but it'll be worth it.
James Trew, Sharif Sakr and Myriam Joire contributed to this review.