Samsung Galaxy Note review: The smartphone that ‘Samsunged’ Samsung

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You know what they say about guys with huge phones… They’re compensating for tiny data plans. Samsung’s Galaxy Note is a giant smartphone. Or a teeny tablet. After using AT&T’s version of this device for several days now, I’m still not quite sure which is the case. It handles voice calls like a cell phone and it runs Google’s Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread smartphone operating system, but it feels very much like a tablet and it includes a stylus, which hasn’t been seen alongside a smartphone in this hemisphere for quite some time. Somehow, however, Samsung manages to pull it all together into one interesting package that might not have been worth the $10 million introduction, but it could certainly find a niche in today’s supersized smartphone market. Maybe.

The Inside

Samsung’s Galaxy Note has plenty of room for cutting-edge technology within its cavernous case, and though we are on the verge of seeing the first crop of quad-core smartphones unveiled next week at the annual Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain, the Galaxy Note has specs that will still pack a punch once the dust from MWC clears.

A dual-core 1.5GHz processor powers the Galaxy Note and it does a fantastic job of allowing the user to dart around Android 2.3.6 with ease. Scrolling in several apps that are notoriously problematic on Android devices seemed noticeably smoother on this handset than on other Gingerbread phones, and I haven’t really managed to trip up the Galaxy Note even with a number of apps running in the background. Of course there are exceptions thanks to poorly made applications like the official Twitter app, but issues that lie in the hands of developers certainly can’t be blamed on the Note.

The Galaxy Note includes 16GB of internal storage and another 32GB can be added thanks to microSDHC support. And that external storage might come in handy considering all the extra apps and services that come pre-installed on this device. Beyond the AllShare DLNA sharing app, City ID, Amazon Kindle, Facebook, Samsung Social Hub and qik Video Chat, there are a number of AT&T-brand apps that come on the Galaxy Note. Included among them are AT&T Navigator, AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T U-verse Live TV, YPmobile, AT&T Address Book, AT&T Messages, myAT&T and AT&T Code Scanner.

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but the Galaxy Note only has a 2,500 mAh battery. “Only” is an odd word to be using in reference to a 2,500 mAh smartphone battery, but Motorola managed to squeeze a 3,300 mAh power pack into the significantly smaller DROID RAZR MAXX. The Note’s big beautiful display could’ve used a bit more juice than is currently afforded by the 2,500 mAh battery pack, and I was able to get about a day of usage out of a single charge. Compared to the 60 hours I was getting out of the RAZR MAXX, the Note was a bit disappointing.

An embedded 4G LTE radio is also found within Samsung’s Galaxy Note, and it too could have used some extra juice. AT&T’s LTE service is plenty fast — I saw speeds in and around New York City that reached as high as 18Mbps down and 5Mbps up — but 4G connectivity is another feature that takes a toll on battery life.

UPDATE: A typo in the paragraph above was fixed to reflect peak download speeds of 18Mbps, rather than 8Mbps as previously stated.

The Outside

The Galaxy Note isn’t just the largest smartphone Samsung has ever made, it’s also the most solid. In fact, it’s not even close.

I regularly take Samsung to task with regard to the quality of its hardware, which has historically been sub par compared to rival devices. I often call Samsung phones “diamonds in the rough” because the displays are always so fantastically vivid while the hardware that encases them is typically reminiscent of a $10 Playskool toy. I probably explained my position best in my Galaxy S II review this past October: “Mounting Samsung displays in the cases that often surround them is akin to mounting a flawless 4-carat diamond on the base of a ring pop.”

The Galaxy S II improved matters a bit and the Galaxy Nexus is a marginal improvement as well, but the unibody aluminum cases on some HTC smartphones or the glass and the brushed aluminum construction of the iPhone 4S puts this South Korea-based vendor’s hardware to shame.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note is a different beast. The company still opted for plastics over more desirable materials for the exterior construction of the handset, but the result is infinitely more solid than other Galaxy phones.

The Note has a good weight to it. It’s light for its size, thankfully, and the back of the device is made of solid glossy plastic as opposed to the flimsy textured plastic Samsung has been using in a number of its smartphones recently. I generally prefer a soft-touch feel on smartphones but the solid hard plastic works well on this particular device. The bezel around the edges of the phone is hard plastic as well, and the face is glass.

The top edge of the Galaxy Note is home to a standard 3.5-millimeter audio jack as well as a small secondary microphone for noise cancellation. The right edge holds only the power/lock/unlock button and the left edge has the device’s volume rocker. The bottom of phone includes a microUSB port, the device’s main microphone and a slot in which the “S Pen” stylus sits securely. On the back of the Note lies the camera lens and LED flash, as well as a small opening near the bottom for the speaker. Like so many other Samsung smartphones, the Note does not take great still images despite its 8-megapixel sensor. They’re adequate as long as lighting is decent, but I found 1080p HD videos captured by the Galaxy Note to be far more impressive than photographs.

On the front of Samsung’s Galaxy Note sits a massive 5.3-inch Super AMOLED display with 1,280 x 800-pixel HD resolution. A thin slot for the ear speaker is positioned above an AT&T logo to the north of the display, and sensors are positioned to the right of the speaker along with a front-facing camera for video chats and self portraits. Beneath the screen, there is a Samsung logo along with the four standard Android navigation buttons.

A side note regarding this phone’s display: in 2012, there is just no excuse for launching a new smartphone without an effective oleophobic coating on the screen. The Galaxy Nexus picks up far less grease than the Galaxy Note, so it is quite clear that Samsung and its manufacturing partners are capable of making a handset that doesn’t look like its owner used it to fry bacon after just a few minutes of tapping and swiping.

The Upside

The high definition Super AMOLED display on Samsung’s Galaxy Note is absolutely breathtaking.

Samsung smartphones are known for their stunning screens and the Note is no exception. And although the display on this handset is a “Super AMOLED” and not a “Super AMOLED Plus,” it is easily one of the most gorgeous displays I have ever seen on a smartphone.

The Galaxy Note’s 1,280 x 800-pixel HD resolution gives remarkable clarity to images and videos, and the colors shown off by Samsung’s AMOLED panel are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Combined with the massive size of the 5.3-inch display, the Galaxy Note affords a viewing experience unlike any other smartphone in the world. Watching streaming video is an absolute joy on the Note, and flipping through high resolution images is a pleasure as well. I also enjoyed reading books on the Galaxy Note using the Kobo app and Amazon’s Kindle app. While I find most phones far too small to be used as an eReader, this handset is a different story.

Most reviewers may disagree with me, but I also found Samsung’s S Pen stylus to be a great distinguishing feature on the Galaxy Note. Bear with me.

In Samsung’s booth at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, the company had a station set up where artists equipped with nothing more than a Galaxy Note and an S Pen would draw show-goers who were willing to sit and pose for a few minutes. The resulting drawings were often phenomenal, and I couldn’t believe anyone was able to create them on a smartphone, by hand, with nothing more than a stylus. Even still, it was probably the most ridiculous things I saw at CES this year, and I saw more dumb gadgets than I care to recount.

Artists are not going to buy the Galaxy Note to create digital masterpieces on the go because there are much, much better tools for the job. But even though the advent of capacitive smartphone touchscreens placed the mobile stylus on the endangered species list, there are still some great uses for a digital pen on a smartphone.

For one thing, handwriting recognition is still a big deal in several regions with complex written languages. Note-taking in any language is an enjoyable experience with the S Pen as well, and there is something to be said for owning a device where you (or your child) can draw pictures or add a personal touch to photos that can then immediately be emailed or delivered via MMS to friends and loved ones.

Samsung did a great job with its implementation of the smartphone stylus. For one thing, the S Pen has a unique feature that allows it to easily switch back and forth between duties as a writing implement and duties as a tool for navigation. A single button is all the S Pen needs — hold the button and swipe to perform a number of gesture-based controls, or release the button and use the stylus like a pen to draw or write. Users can also hold the button on the S Pen and tap twice on any screen to open a new blank note, or hold the button and long-tap on any screen to take a screenshot. That’s right, the Galaxy Nexus is a Gingerbread phone that can capture screenshots without the need for an SDK and a 37-step how-to guide.

The Downside

There is really no way to sugarcoat this and even if there was, I wouldn’t want to. You need to be warned: the Galaxy Note is too big.

This gargantuan handset cannot be comfortably operated with one hand by a normal-sized person or even a fairly large person. Not even close. I have dropped the phone at least half a dozen times just trying to scroll through a Web page with one hand. It’s also too big to comfortably type while holding the phone in landscape orientation. I asked several people to try and no one who did enjoyed the typing experience while in landscape orientation at all. Several people also complained that the phone was too top-heavy while typing in portrait orientation, though I personally didn’t find that to be the case.

Not everyone cares about how the world views them, but I have never seen a smartphone that draws peculiar stares and full fledged laughter like the Galaxy Note. Holding this beast to your face while on a phone call in public will result in awkward stares. Not “maybe” or “might,” but “will.” It just looks silly.

When I showed the phone to my wife and to friends, the reaction was always the same. First, confusion… What is it? Next, disbelief… You’re kidding. This is a phone? Finally, laughter… Ha! There’s no way I could ever carry this thing.

The Galaxy Note does not fit into the pockets of an average sized woman’s jeans. Considering the current state of fashion — Skinny jeans? Really, guys? — it probably wouldn’t fit into some pockets of an average sized man’s jeans either. I even found a few clutches in my wife’s closet that wouldn’t house the Note, and I have a couple pairs pants that just barely could contain this smartphone’s massive frame.

If you’re in the NBA, this is the perfect phone for you. If you rarely use your phone as a phone and you would rather carry a (barely) pocketable tablet than a puny smartphone, you’ve met your next handset. If you’re taking a trip to Brobdingnag and you want to show off some modern tech to the natives, the Galaxy Note should be your device of choice.

If you’re an average sized human looking for a smartphone, you should probably look elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

Android fans looking to turn heads should look no further. Short of luxury brands like Vertu and handsets encrusted with gems by third parties, there probably isn’t a cell phone on the planet that will attract more attention than the Galaxy Note. During my time with the device, I was approached by a number of people eager to figure out exactly what I was tapping away on. Most of them, however, seemed to walk away more confused than they were to begin with.

Samsung basically just “Samsunged” itself.

My sincere hope is that this is the turning point in the giant smartphone trend, and that we will now see smartphones shrink back down to manageable sizes. Having a handful of plus-sized handsets on the market is a good thing. Choice is a good thing. Smartphones like the Galaxy Note and LG Vu have taken things too far though, and they are well-suited to such a small subset of smartphone users that they likely need not exist.

If the Galaxy Note was about 20% smaller, it would be a fantastic smartphone. If it was 20% larger, it would be a terrific little tablet. At 5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches, however, it’s an answer without a question.

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