The Galaxy Note is running a TouchWiz'd version of Android Gingerbread -- 2.3.6, to be precise. As Android customizations go TouchWiz is among the lightest, and we didn't find ourselves minding it. In fact, the camera app here and the custom widgets and controls tend to make the phone a little nicer to use. We had no complaints there.
However, the extra resolution and dimensions of the screen aren't always well-handled. When it's good it's good, like the home screen, which offers five columns of icons rather than the standard four. More icons is a plus when your phone is stuffed with apps, as most phones are these days. And, of course, mobile web surfing with this many pixels at your disposal will put you right off WVGA phones for good.
The Gingerbread build here just doesn't feel comfortable -- stretched out in some places, squished down in others.
Many apps, though, simply don't handle the resolution well. Signing in to Netflix, for example, gives you a giant sea of crimson with two tiny login boxes floating in space. Buttons in some apps, like the reply button in Gmail, are awfully tiny compared to other controls, like the comparatively giant Archive and Delete buttons at the bottom of the screen.
This mish-mash of large and small graphical elements is hugely disjointing. The Gingerbread build here just doesn't feel comfortable -- stretched out in some places, squished down in others. It clearly wasn't meant to run on a display this size. This leaves us longing for that Ice Cream Sandwich build that we're told is coming soon
The biggest piece of custom software here is S Memo. Hold the S Pen button and double-tap anywhere to create a new memo, or do a long single tap to capture a screenshot which you can doodle on. We could definitely see this being useful for grabbing a picture of something and then scribbling a note and sending it off to a co-worker -- say, making a comment on a home renovation or the design of a wedding dress. But, given how much trouble we had in writing legibly with the S Pen, best keep it short.
You can also hop into S Memo directly and create things like picture collages. Images can be inserted from the Gallery or taken directly from the camera, moved and resized and then, of course, scribbled upon. However, it's worth noting that once you save and exit your note all those layers are compressed -- you can no longer resize individual images. That's slightly annoying, but they are at least easily shared as flat image files.
We were, however, disappointed to find that the app doesn't really do much with the stylus button. We could see it working as a quick toggle to switch between drawing and erasing, for example, which would save going back up to the top menu all the time. As it is the button is really only good for initiating gestures.
Performance and battery life
We were a bit concerned when we learned that the AT&T Galaxy Note would not be rolling with Samsung's own 1.4GHz Exynos processor and would instead have a 1.5GHz Snapdragon chip inside. The clock speed may be higher but the performance is indeed lower. You can see the full results in the benchmarks table below, proving this phone measurably lags behind the international release that shipped first, too.
Apps load quickly and things are generally responsive on the device, but the annoying stutters and random pauses that plague lesser phones are definitely noticeable here. It is still a quick device, though not nearly as responsive as the Galaxy Nexus or, indeed, the elder Note.
Sadly that decrease in performance doesn't come with an increase in battery life. A healthy 2,500mAh cell lies beneath the flimsy (and scratch-prone) battery cover here, far larger than your typical smartphone. (The most recent Galaxy S II, for example, has an 1,850mAh pack.) But, longevity just fell on the long side of average, with the phone managing eight hours and eight minutes on our standard rundown test in an HSPA+ area. That's with LTE enabled but not connected, as there's annoyingly no way of disabling it. (Even dialing *#*#4636#*#* doesn't work.) The previous Note managed a healthy 90 minutes longer.
However, we can't argue with the network performance. AT&T's LTE network is still blissfully underutilized by the teeming masses, leaving plenty of bandwidth for those lucky few early adopters. Testing in and around New York City we saw download speeds as high as 34Mbps and uploads as high as 14Mbps. Average speeds were closer to 22 down and 12 up -- very healthy indeed. Again, overall signal strength with the Note is good and we had no problem grabbing and maintaining a strong signal.
We've already spent quite a bit of time with the international version of this phone, but what was once a bit of a niche device -- would-be owners facing hefty import duties and confused looks from friends -- has now gone mainstream, with the Super Bowl commercial
to match. That kind of exposure will have a lot more people wondering if this kind of thing can work for them and for many we think the answer is yes, it could work quite well indeed.
The Note is big, but not unmanageably so. Those with small hands might find it a bit unwieldy at times, but even if your glover has you written down as XS you shouldn't rule this out completely. After a few hours with the Note you'll very quickly become accustomed to the size, and once you have you won't want to go back.
With the decrease in performance and battery life here, the international release is still the better phone overall, and we can't help but be disappointed by that. Still, given the relative affordability of the US release of the Note ($300 on-contract) and its ease of availability, we certainly wouldn't blame you for heading to AT&T and ordering yourself an American Superphone. It's one of the best phones of any size on the market today, regardless of what market you're in.Myriam Joire contributed to this review.