Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

The Samsung Galaxy Note is among a rare breed of smartphones that need no introduction. It's polarizing, memorable and single-handedly responsible for the popularization of the term "phablet." It's also the indisputable king of that category, having recently defended its throne against LG's Optimus Vu. Aside from the Note's sprawling display, much of its appeal lies in the tight software integration with the S Pen stylus, which endows the phone with notepad-like functionality.

The first (and second) time we reviewed the Galaxy Note, it featured Android 2.3. Since then, it's received an update to Android 4.0, along with a new set of productivity apps dubbed the Premium Suite. Now as the phone arrives at T-Mobile (for $250 with a contract and after a $50 rebate), we're taking the opportunity to review not just the new variant, but in this case, the latest OS as well. You already know much of the Galaxy Note's story, but now the question remains: just how much of the text has been re-written? Let's find out.

Gallery | 25 Photos

Samsung Galaxy Note for T-Mobile review

Hardware

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

We first met the Galaxy Note at IFA nearly a year ago, so its arrival at T-Mobile is quite tardy indeed. Like the AT&T version, it's based on a dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 that's part of Qualcomm's previous generation of chips. We'll discuss performance in greater detail a bit later, but suffice to say this modest hardware, transplanted to support T-Mobile's bands, leaves us with a phone that no longer feels cutting-edge.

If you were to run down the spec sheet and compare the Galaxy Note on T-Mobile to its AT&T sibling, you'll be hard-pressed to spot any meaningful differences. Both phones offer 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage and an empty microSD card slot. As ever, the Note has a beefy 2,500mAh battery, and we're happy to report that its NFC hardware remains intact, too. As we've alluded to, the only worthwhile difference in this particular Galaxy Note is the new-found support for T-Mo's AWS infrastructure. This time around, you'll find 42Mbps HSPA+ connectivity across the 2100MHz, 1900MHz, 1700MHz and 850MHz bands.

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

Cosmetic stylings reveal a similar story: for better and worse, this is the same US variant of the Galaxy Note that you've already gotten to know. Button placement remains the same, along with the location of the camera pod, sensors and S Pen. While it's hard to ding Samsung for demanding consistency across its US lineup, we genuinely prefer the physical home button of the global Galaxy Note, which was eschewed in favor of an all-capacitive scheme for the US variants.

Gallery | 46 Photos

Samsung Galaxy Note for AT&T and T-Mobile meet LG Optimus Vu

Unfortunately, the location of the speakerphone grille also remains the same -- as ever, its placement directly adjacent to the S Pen makes it difficult to feel around for the stylus. Also, a charging / notification light would've been a welcome addition. All in all, though, these are minor quibbles, but Samsung could've used this refresh as an opportunity to make these improvements, and it's a shame that didn't happen. As for the one cosmetic difference you will notice, T-Mobile's logo sits up top, in place of AT&T's branding (naturally).

It goes without saying that the Galaxy Note's massive 5.3-inch display is by far its most polarizing feature -- you'll either love the added real estate or resent the extra girth. This is the same 1,280 x 800 Super AMOLED screen used on all the models, which is to say it's of the PenTile variety. All told, the sub-pixel layout means little in practice, as text appears sharp and colors are incredibly vibrant. It's worth pointing out, however, that display technology has advanced since the introduction of the Galaxy Note, and the difference is plainly obvious when you compare the phone to newer contenders like the Galaxy S III and One X. While we'd previously marveled at the bright whites of the Note's display, it appears somewhat murky with predominant yellow and blue tones when compared to newer, more advanced handsets. Don't let this serve as too much of a deterrent, though: unless you hold the two phones side-by-side, the Galaxy Note's display is still utterly drool-worthy.

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

With respect to the Galaxy Note's hardware, we're left with one final elephant in the room: its physical size. If you're familiar with the AT&T variant, you already know what to expect, as T-Mobile's is exactly the same, down to the sub-millimeter. As we've said, it's not for everyone: those with large hands will likely be overjoyed by the jumbo-sized proportions and the expansive virtual keyboard. Those with smaller hands, meanwhile, may struggle at first to maintain a proper grip. That said, while the handset may strike some shoppers as slightly unwieldy, anybody intrigued enough should be able to adapt quickly enough.

Galaxy Note (T-Mobile) Galaxy Note (AT&T) Galaxy S III (T-Mobile)
Pricing $250 (after $50 mail-in rebate) $250 $280 (16GB), $330 (32GB)
Dimensions 5.78 x 3.26 x 0.37 inches (146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm) 5.78 x 3.26 x 0.37 inches (146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm) 5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 inch (136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm)
Weight 6.34 oz. (180g) 6.34 oz. (180g) 4.69 oz (133 g)
Screen size 5.3 inches 5.3 inches 4.8 inches
Screen resolution 1,280 x 800 pixels (284ppi) 1,280 x 800 pixels (284ppi) 1,280 x 720 pixels (306ppi)
Screen type Super AMOLED HD Super AMOLED HD Super AMOLED HD
Battery 2,500mAh 2,500mAh 2,100mAh
Internal storage 16GB 16GB 16GB / 32GB
External storage None included, MicroSD None included, MicroSD None included, MicroSDXC-compatible (up to 64GB)
Rear camera 8MP, AF, LED flash 8MP, AF, LED flash 8MP, AF, LED flash, f/2.6
Front-facing cam 2MP 2MP 2MP
Video capture 1080p 1080p 1080p HD
NFC Yes Yes Yes
Radios GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHz); UMTS / HSPA (850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100MHz) GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHz); UMTS / HSPA (850 / 1900 / 2100MHz); LTE (Bands 4 and 17) GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHz); UMTS / HSPA (850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100MHz)
Network speeds DC HSPA+ 42Mbps LTE; HSPA+ 21Mbps DC HSPA+ 42Mbps
Bluetooth v3.0 v3.0 v4.0
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 MSM8660 Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 MSM8660 Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960
CPU 1.5GHz dual-core 1.5GHz dual-core 1.5GHz dual-core
GPU Adreno 220 Adreno 220 Adreno 225
RAM 1GB 1GB 2GB
MHL Yes (special adapter needed) Yes (special adapter needed) Yes (special adapter needed)
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n 802.11 a/b/g/n 802.11 a/b/g/n
Operating system Android 4.0.4, TouchWiz UI Android 4.0.4, TouchWiz UI Android 4.0.4, TouchWiz UI

Performance and battery life

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

Much of the goodwill surrounding the Galaxy Note is due to the fantastic performance of the original, global model, which packs Samsung's homegrown Exynos processor. Still, the story changed a bit when we reviewed AT&T's variant, which is based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon S3. While the phone's performance remained respectable, it simply couldn't match that of the original. This is true for T-Mobile's version as well, which features the very same internals as the AT&T model.

Galaxy Note (T-Mobile) Galaxy Note (AT&T) Galaxy S III (T-Mobile)
Quadrant 3,347 3,598 5,032
Vellamo 1,320 1,353 2,360
AnTuTu 6,354 6,530 6,868
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 2,661 2,769 1,764
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 33 34 54
CF-Bench 6,520 6,523 8,759
SunSpider: lower scores are better.

In real-world usage, the Galaxy Note is a capable performer -- albeit, not a very graceful one. While apps often open quickly, transitions and animations often stutter. Similarly, web pages often load and render without hesitation, but you're bound to notice slight hiccups during pinch-to-zoom. Curiously, the T-Mobile variant consistently delivered lower benchmark scores than its AT&T counterpart, though the difference was negligible. Compared to faster phones such as the Galaxy S III and One X, it's hard to classify the Galaxy Note as a powerhouse. It's a shame, then, that Samsung didn't update the T-Mobile variant with a Snapdragon S4, which could have secured the Note's place alongside other top-tier devices. Instead, you'll need to ask yourself whether the unique advantages of the Galaxy Note outweigh the performance hit.

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

Despite the massive 2,500mAh cell, battery life is stil just a bit better than average. In our standard rundown test, the phone managed to stay alive for a little more than eight hours, which is directly on par with AT&T's model. Similarly, during real-world tests with moderately aggressive usage, we could typically expect 28 hours of uptime before needing to scramble for an outlet. Overall, T-Mobile's Galaxy Note should be sufficient for people who already charge their phone each evening. If you forget, though, you'll be kicking yourself the next morning.

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

On the whole, call quality for T-Mobile's Galaxy Note is adequate, though if you have particularly discerning tastes, you'll likely prefer AT&T's variant. Every time we a call placed over T-Mobile, we noticed a small amount of distortion and echo in the background, and while we were always able to carry on a conversation without much trouble, it was a constant annoyance that we were never able to escape. It's worth mentioning, however, that we also perceived a subtle but persistent hiss from the earpiece on the AT&T version, which we didn't notice here. Even so, though, we found that hiss on Ma Bell's model easier to ignore. Although we weren't able to test the feature, it's also worth pointing out that the Galaxy Note for T-Mobile supports WiFi Calling, which may eliminate these voice quality concerns. This is a free service that allows users to augment their coverage in spotty areas and place unlimited calls without affecting their monthly minute allotment -- not too shabby, and you can only find it on T-Mobile's version.

Camera

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

At this point, you're likely familiar with the 8-megapixel camera of the Galaxy Note, which is the same fantastic setup featured in the Galaxy S II. Needless to say, it's hard to take a bad photo with this phone, and it's easy enough, even, to capture truly gorgeous shots. Not only is the camera a solid performer in auto mode, but those who wish to fine-tune their photos will be delighted to find advanced features that include light metering, EV and ISO controls. Better yet, the interface of the camera app is completely customizable, which allows you to pin your most frequently used settings to the main screen, mitigating the need to dig through menus.

Gallery | 53 Photos

Samsung Galaxy Note for T-Mobile sample shots

Not only does the camera capture an incredible amount of detail with accurate color reproduction, but its sensor is capable of taking in an appreciable amount of light -- so much so that you'll often be able to forego the flash in low-light settings. The camera's performance at nighttime is similarly impressive, which is further enhanced by the optional night scenery mode that captures HDR photos. Naturally, there are a number of other goodies to discover, such as the ability to take panoramas and macro scenes. Touch to focus is also in the mix, as is face detection, blink detection and an auto timer.

The Galaxy Note is capable of capturing video at 1080p, though by default it's set to record at 720p. While both modes deliver excellent imagery, we generally found the 720p setting to be the preferable of the two, which we perceived as being more lifelike and natural. Make no mistake, the Galaxy Note is no slouch with respect to its performance in 1080p, but unless you have a specific need to record at the higher-res setting, you're best off sticking with the default. Regardless of your shooting mode, you'll be glad to know that the internal microphone captures a great deal of sound with good clarity.

Software

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

Before diving into the new features contained within Android 4.0 for the Galaxy Note, let's get one thing out of the way: while the new software brings a number of useful additions, the overall changes to the user experience are rather subtle. In other words, if you'd managed to get caught up in the hype of an entirely new lease on life with Ice Cream Sandwich, you'll be in for a bit of a letdown. Much of this is due to the fact that Samsung's TouchWiz dominates the user interface, which underwent only minor revisions with the transition to Android 4.0. That said, the phone embraces a number of Ice Cream Sandwich's marquee features, including Face Unlock and Android Beam. There's also a new utility for monitoring your data usage.

Gallery | 57 Photos

Samsung Galaxy Note for T-Mobile screenshots

While we've historically railed against custom Android skins, we're hard-pressed to pooh-pooh the Galaxy Note. Not only is the interface handsome and functional, it's tailored for this large-screen device in ways that stock Android just isn't. This includes not only the spacious icon layout, but also the custom widgets and non-standard apps, (calendar, etc.), which make the overall experience feel cohesive -- and dare we say it -- special.

It's no secret that the S Pen is the cornerstone of the Galaxy Note, and much of Samsung's work to improve the software experience can be directly tied to the S Pen itself. You've likely heard of Premium Suite by now, which consists of S Memo, S Note and an add-on app known as My Story. While S Memo remains largely similar to the previous version on Gingerbread, Samsung introduced a clever new widget that allows users to quickly jot or type notes, as well as take voice dictations. Meanwhile, while My Story is a nice concept that allows users to easily send fanciful greetings to others, it's limited in its usefulness, as it only allows you to interact with My Story users. Perhaps it's for this reason that the app isn't included by default on the Galaxy Note and must instead be downloaded via Google Play.

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

Naturally, this leaves us with S Note, which can best be described as S Memo on steroids. While you might be scratching your head, wondering why Samsung didn't make these two apps one and the same, S Note is significantly more complex, and thus, takes much longer to load. All new notes are based on templates such as greetings, diary entries, recipes and travel logs -- and man, are they graphically intensive. That said, you'll be hard-pressed to find such extensive content creation apps available on other smartphones, and the ability to combine text, imagery, drawings and written annotations is one of the most compelling features of the Galaxy Note.

Not only can S Note be used for play, it also brings serious productivity features such as an equation analyzer, shape recognition and integration with the Wolfram Alpha logistics engine. Oddly enough, this component can't accept entries from the keyboard, and instead, you'll be forced to write all queries by hand. Those who prefer jotting down notes as opposed to typing them, however, will greatly prefer S Note over S Memo, as the more powerful app brings the ability to convert handwritten words to text on-the-fly. This easily trumps the method in S Memo that requires you manually invoke handwriting recognition.

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

By default, the T-Mobile Galaxy Note uses Swype as its keyboard, which is a rather perplexing decision, seeing as how Samsung's own keyboard is vastly superior -- save for the ability to trace words, anyway. Not only does the Samsung keyboard take advantage of the extra real estate by providing a dedicated fifth row for numbers, it's also context-aware in that it presents a dedicated "www. / .com" key in the web browser. Users will also find the ability to write their text entries with the stylus, which is just one more way that Samsung's software has been thoughtfully integrated with the Galaxy Note. Finally, new in the latest software release is the option to condense the keyboard on either the right or left-hand side of the screen for one-handed text input -- a feature that's been extended to the phone dialer as well.

At the end of the day, while Samsung's revisions in this latest software release are by no means revolutionary, they provide enough refinement to keep the Galaxy Note among the most intriguing and compelling smartphones available today.

Wrap-up

Samsung Galaxy Note for TMobile review

We're more than a little disappointed that Samsung didn't take the opportunity to update the Galaxy Note with modern internals ahead of its debut on T-Mobile. What was once a premiere superphone is now beginning to show its age. As such, T-Mobile customers who insist on top-notch performance are left with no alternative other than the Galaxy S III (and to a lesser extent, the One S). That said, for those of you who appreciate the Galaxy Note's innate advantages -- namely, its productivity features and beautiful, spacious display -- Samsung's super-sized smartphone remains peerless.

Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Note (T-Mobile)

Pros

  • Beautiful display
  • Excellent camera
  • Top-notch S Pen productivity apps
  • Cohesive user interface

Cons

  • Performance is no longer cutting-edge
  • Lacks notification light
Summary

While the Galaxy Note's specs no longer feel bleeding-edge, we've yet to see a pen-enabled phone as pleasant to use as this.