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Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and Note 10+ hands-on

Two sizes, but no headphone jack.
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It's very clear to Samsung who typically buys a Galaxy Note. Usually, this is a person who knows how much RAM and which graphics processor are in their phone. The typical Note owner also loves using a stylus to jot down reminders or sketch on-the-go and appreciates the big screens that are characteristic of the series. In fact, Notes have only gotten larger since the first model with its 5.3-inch display. But with the release of the Note 10, Samsung wants to reach more people, and it's found a way to expand its appeal. For the first time, the Galaxy Note will be available in two sizes -- the Note 10 and the Note 10+.

A smaller Note

Given the Plus naming, it's tempting to think of Samsung's divergence from the one-size Note as the company simply releasing a bigger Note 10. But really, Samsung is making a smaller version of its powerhouse flagship. Just look at the screen sizes of all the Notes since the original launched: 5.3 inches, 5.5 inches, 5.7 inches (four years in a row), 6.3 inches, 6.4 inches. They've only gotten bigger as the years have passed. This year, we'll get the first shrinking in the series with the 6.3-inch Note 10, while also getting another bump in the 6.8-inch Note 10+. The funny thing is, I didn't know how much I wanted a mini Note until I held one.

Gallery: Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and 10+ hands-on | 25 Photos

Both the Note 10 and Note 10+ feature what Samsung calls an "Infinity-O" display. This is an all-screen device with a small punchout circle to house the front camera. Samsung first tried this on the Galaxy S10 and S10+, but those devices had the hole on the top right of the screen. On the new Notes, it sits in the center of the top edge, which feels less obtrusive and doesn't get in the way of indicators for WiFi, battery level and such.

The Note 10+ packs a quad HD+ display into a body that's 0.03 inches thinner and 0.17 ounces lighter than the Note 9, which had a smaller 6.4-inch screen. Meanwhile, the Note 10 is only slightly larger than the Galaxy S10 despite packing a panel that's 0.2 inches larger. Its edges are slightly curved, making the display feel like it melts away into the sides.

I have to give Samsung credit here. I've never liked the Note's rectangular aesthetic, but the company did good with the Note 10. It streamlined the overall design and made the display cutout about 26 percent smaller than the S10's. Oh, and in its effort to declutter, Samsung got rid of the headphone jack (boo) and the dedicated Bixby button (hurray!). The result is subtle, but the Note 10+ definitely feels sleeker than the Note 9.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

Both Notes feature a Dynamic AMOLED panel that's HDR10+ certified, meaning you can expect rich, vibrant colors and wide dynamic range. A good display is par for the course for Samsung by now, but I'm still impressed by them.

I do need to point out, though, that the Note 10 runs at a relatively low full HD+ resolution, which is irksome in a phone that costs $950. Last year's Note 9 had a quad HD screen and only cost $50 more. The Note 10+ starts out at $1,100, and in addition to the bigger and sharper screen, that money gets you a bigger battery (4,300mAh vs 3,500mAh), more RAM (12GB vs 8GB), and a microSD card slot. Yep, the Note 10 doesn't offer expandable storage so you're stuck at 256GB, while the 10+ also comes in a 512GB model.

Still, in spite of those flaws, the new Note 10 was the most intriguing to me. I've always liked the S Pen; the stylus is one of the best on the market, but I didn't want to be saddled with such a large handset. Having it on a smaller phone seems great, but I really wish it were cheaper.

More S Pen tricks

Obviously, the primary reason you'd use the S Pen is to jot down your thoughts or to navigate the big screen. Over years of refinement, Samsung has pretty much nailed the writing experience -- it's responsive, smooth and comfortable to use. With the Note 9 last year, the company added Bluetooth and turned the stylus into a remote for photo-taking or managing presentations.

This year, Samsung builds on those features by adding an accelerometer and gyroscope to the S Pen. This means the Note 10 can detect gestures like flicking or swinging in addition to just button presses like on the Note 9. This isn't brand new, by the way -- these so-called Air Actions debuted on the Galaxy Tab S6 last week. The Note 10 just offers them in the smaller S Pen.

First, let's go over what you can do. Say you're using the camera and you whip out the S Pen. On the Note 9, you could click to take a picture or double press to switch between the front and rear cameras. With the Note 10, you hold down the S Pen's button and flick upward to swap cameras. You can also swish from side to side while pressing down the button to change to a new shooting mode, or draw an arc to zoom in. And, as before, you can click once to snap a picture.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

These gestures worked well on the Tab S6 that I tested out last week. In fact, with all that swishing and flicking, I felt like I was wielding a wand and almost yelled out "Wingardium Leviosa!"

But on the Note 10, where the S Pen is a lot smaller and thinner, it was trickier to maneuver. Flicking the stylus up, down and side-to-side went smoothly enough, though the Note took a bit longer to register the action than the Tab S6. But when it came to the "rotating" motion you're supposed to use to zoom in on a subject, the system fell apart. The onscreen indicators say you have to rotate the S Pen clockwise to zoom in, and counterclockwise to go out, but after a while, a Samsung rep came over and explained I would get better results by drawing an arc. He also pointed out that the software we were using wasn't final, which might account for the delays I noticed.

Air Actions will be compatible with an array of apps like PowerPoint, Calendar and some media players. Samsung opened up the SDK for these actions last week when it launched the Tab S6, though whether developers go to the trouble to support them remains to be seen. The remote controls ended up feeling gimmicky on the Note 9, so I have my doubts about the actual utility here.

Smarter scribbles

An update that seems genuinely useful is the handwriting recognition and indexing that Samsung added. It uses the neural processing unit (NPU) on the device's Snapdragon 855 chipset to translate and convert your scribbles on the fly. Once you've written down your thoughts, for example, you can export them to Microsoft Word via the Samsung Notes app. It takes almost no time at all for the conversion to happen and you can quickly share the document with a colleague. The system will also recognize things like dashes or bullets and format accordingly.

Not only that, you don't have to actively hit convert for your scrawls to be searchable later on. The Notes app recognizes what you've written regardless and indexes everything so you can find the to-do list you made just by searching for a specific task.

After I wrote down a shortlist using the Samsung Notes app on a demo Note 10+, I tapped on my words on the page and a box popped up. It showed what the phone thought I had written and was surprisingly accurate. It made a few mistakes, showing "spen" instead of "S Pen" and "note mining" instead of "note writing." But I should stress that my handwriting is horrific and I'm impressed the algorithm recognized as much of it as it did.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

Video capture and production

Note owners are power users. They also tend to take quite a bit of video and might appreciate new features like live focus in video recording. This adds bokeh and other special effects around your subject's face while you're capturing footage. It seemed to work well in a demo. The phone quickly and accurately recognized the subject's face and applied background blur to the footage in real-time with no lag.

Samsung also added a feature called Zoom In Mic, which uses the Note 10's multiple microphones to target the audio coming from a specific point in your frame. Say you're at a park and zoom in on a band playing in the distance. The phone will focus on the instruments and bump up the volume from them while minimizing the noise of passersby behind or around you. It sounds interesting, but we'll have to wait for a more thorough test to really tell if it works.

Another tool we didn't get to try out was the improved native video editor, which lets you combine clips into a single timeline, trim them andc add transitions, background music and animations. You can use the Note 10's S Pen to scrub through your timeline more precisely. You can even export your work straight to social media, so you can create the perfect Instagram video without having to download a whole other app.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

One new feature I did check out, AR Doodle, isn't particularly useful, but it is fun. Basically, this is an expansion of Live Message on the Note 8, which let you draw on pictures and send them as animations to your friends. AR Doodle lets you take a photo or video, then pin drawings to a person or object in the scene. The Note 10 will spatially map the room and save where you dropped your drawings, so when you return to the same room, your doodles will reappear, as if they've just been sitting there where you left them. It'll also recognize the faces of people you've marked up, so the same doodles will show up on them again when they re-enter the scene. It was fun watching a tiara and necklace follow my head as I bobbed around for a video, but I doubt I'll use this often in the real world.

Bridging the desktop gap

Samsung also wants to make it easier for you to use DeX, its Android-based desktop multitasking setup. Previously, you needed to connect an external monitor and keyboard or mouse to use this mode, which would let you run multiple apps in windows that you could resize and stack on top of each other the way you would on a computer's desktop.

With the Note 10, though, you can run DeX on your Windows or Mac laptop by plugging your phone in with a USB-C cable. It's easier than digging up a separate monitor and keyboard, and it loads in its own window pretty quickly once connected. DeX runs like a native program, and you can access your phone's files, gallery and apps. You can drag and drop media between your laptop and phone, open up your messages and type up replies, too.

This all sounds very handy, but if you've already connected your phone to your laptop, copying files is as easy as accessing your mobile storage as a drive. As for texting people from the desktop, you can already do that via Android Messages in your browser or Microsoft's Your Phone. What DeX offers here is just a unified interface for you to do all this from. Samsung said the actions you perform in DeX are processed on the phone, so you won't be leaving data behind (as long as you weren't transferring files).

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

Another way the Note 10 bridges the gap between phone and PC is through a feature called Link to Windows. This is a button built into the Settings shade of Samsung's One UI, and it toggles a connection with your Windows 10 machine so your phone's notifications will show up on your PC's screen. On other phones, you can do this by installing an app, but it's built in on the Note 10.

The promise of PC games on your Note

One of the most compelling features coming to the Note 10 is something Samsung is calling the Play Galaxy Link. It wasn't available to check out during our preview, but the idea is that, after installing some software on your PC, you'll be able to wirelessly stream any game to your Note. Samsung hasn't shared whether this would be purely over WiFi or if it would also work over LTE and/or 5G. This is seriously exciting for me as I would love to play Overcooked or if I'm ambitious, League of Legends on my phone. There are a lot of questions here though, like what types of input or controllers will be recognized? And how this will compare to the likes of NVIDIA's GeForce Now? Or the army of other game streaming services on the horizon.

According to Samsung, the Note 10 also packs the world's slimmest vapor-chamber cooling system, as well as an AI-based Game Booster that optimizes settings like frame rates and resolutions based on the game you're playing. Solitaire would get a lower framerate than Fortnite, for example.

Everything else

It's telling that Samsung made almost no mention of the Note 10's cameras during our briefing. The setup here is similar to the Galaxy S10+ -- there's an ultrawide lens for landscape shots, as well as a zoom lens that a Samsung rep said has slightly bigger aperture than before. The Note 10+ has an additional depth sensor similar to the S10 5G that can be used for AR effects and apps. Upfront, the 10-megapixel selfie camera has the same resolution as the S10+, but has a smaller aperture of f/2.2 compared to f/1.9.

Other features from the S10+ are here as well, like Wireless Powershare, which lets you charge other Qi-compatible devices by placing them on the Note 10's back. Samsung also upgraded the power tech so you can get from zero to 100 percent charged on the Note 10+ in about an hour with the included 25W charger. Both Note 10s are available in an assortment of finishes like Aura Glow (a purple-green gradient reminiscent of Huawei's P20 series). Aura White and Aura Blue, with S Pens in matching colors.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

Some of you may be hardcore Note fans already dying to order the new flagships. Good news, you can do so starting August 8th, at 12:01AM ET, when preorders open. The devices will be in stores on August 23rd, so the rest of you can go check them out yourselves before splurging that $950 (or $1,100 if you pick the bigger Note). Meanwhile, we'll be expecting our review units before they go on sale, so stay tuned for our full review.

Catch up on all of the news from Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 event here!

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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