The Samsung Galaxy Note is an oddity: while technically a smart phone, its gigantic 5.3-inch screen pushes it towards tablet territory (and away from being pocketable); there's even a stylus for sketching and making notes. Is this Android-powered beast a mere curiosity or a brilliant new breed of device?
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Note?
If your heart is set on a compact phone, then this is easy to answer: no. While it's thin and surprisingly lightweight, the sheer size of the Galaxy Note means you'll need to be sporting clown-style pantaloons if you want to comfortably slip it in your trouser pocket. This is a phone that demands to be carried in a bag.
It's also not the phone to be seen with if you want to look ultra-cool. Again, the size makes you look daft -- or even Hobbit-like -- when making or taking a call. We were frankly loathe to pull it out in public every time it rang (maybe that says more about us than the Note). It does give you the air of, say, a nomadic start-up entrepreneur when you're perched in the pub busily tapping away with the stylus on that 5.3-inch screen.
There are bigger issues to consider too. First, the battery life isn't particularly impressive: we didn't even get 12 hours' moderate use out of a full charge. You won't want to wander too far from a power socket, which casts some doubt on the phone's claimed notepad-plus-planner-plus-phone-plus-entertainment-device-on-the-road credentials.
As with many Android phones, the Galaxy Note comes laden with bloatware. There are several apps here that the average user would never go near. The homescreens are a mess out of the box; buy the Note and you'll likely spend a good portion of your first hour reorganising the whole lot, dumping apps and widgets and making the homescreens, well, a little more like iPhone homescreens.
But enough of this negative talk. The Samsung Galaxy Note is certainly not without its strengths, most of which revolve around that giant 5.3-inch screen -- the largest on any smart phone around. Not only is it big, it's also beautiful. The 1,280x800-pixel resolution makes for a retina-slicingly sharp image, and the AMOLED technology serves up beautifully rich colours and near-bottomless black levels.It's brilliant for web browsing, games and video, but there's more to it than that. Thanks to the stylus, you can use the screen as a jotting pad for ideas and even sketches. We're not going to pretend that the stylus is perfect -- you won't be doing any technical drawings on the Note -- but that ability to actually scribble down an idea or just a shopping list is a valuable asset.
Add into the mix the versatility of the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, 16GB of built-in storage, a reasonably speedy dual-core processor and the 1,080p-compatible 8-megapixel camera, and you have a very, very Note-worthy (sorry) smart phone. If you can live with -- or embrace -- the size, the Samsung Galaxy Note is well worth considering.
As the display is the Galaxy Note's chief selling point, we'll start here. After all, if the screen doesn't cut it, the whole shebang is a complete disaster.
At 5.3 inches in size, this screen is larger than any we've seen on a smart phone before. By comparison, the display on the Samsung Galaxy S2 is 4.3 inches in size and the iPhone 4S screen is a piffling 3.5 inches. Out of the recently-launched phones, only the HTC Sensation's 4.7-inch display comes close.
It's also insanely sharp, thanks to its 1,280x800-pixel resolution, boasting 285 pixels per inch (ppi). That's not quite as crisp as the iPhone 4 and 4S's 330ppi screen, but it's not far off. Viewing the screen from a normal distance, individual pixels are barely discernible and text is beautifully clear.
The screen uses Samsung's beloved AMOLED technology too, so colours are gorgeously rich and saturated, while black areas of the screen actually look black rather than dark grey, even when you're sitting in a dark room. So videos and photos look nothing short of stunning here.
As you'd expect from a high-end smart phone, the screen uses capacitive multi-touch technology, and very responsive it is too. But it's not all about your fingers: Samsung has included a stylus -- or 'Advanced Smart Pen'. While it's easy to see this as a regressive step (who needs a losable, loser-ish stylus when you can use your finger?), we found ourselves using it more often than we'd expected.
You can actually draw reasonable sketches and jot down handwritten notes, although the accuracy is a little off due to the capacitive nature of the screen. For instance, using the stylus to tap on tiny, tightly-spaced links on full web pages can prove irritating as the link above or below is often selected instead of the desired one.
The Galaxy Note runs on the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, but Samsung has overlaid the stock user interface with its own TouchWiz UI. Some may disagree with us, but we've always found it to be one of the best non-standard UIs. Its appearance here doesn't change our opinion: the multi-touch interface is beautifully reliable, with the standard pinch-to-zoom controls working like a dream. Only the merest flick of your finger is required to scroll.
You can place two fingers on the screen and tilt the phone to zoom when in the web browser. Inventive, perhaps, but we found it a little awkward -- not to mention unnecessary -- when you can simply pinch to perform the same feat.
Unlike many Android phones, the touch sensitivity of the screen rarely causes moments of frustration. To put it simply, if you're used to the excellent touch capabilities of an iPhone, the Galaxy Note won't disappoint -- it comes very close.
Notifications appear via icons at the top left of the main homescreen. Dragging this bar down with a finger presents a handy list of your recent emails, social media updates, app changes and so on.
Is it perfect? No. We picked up on a couple of quirks, which some commenters might say is pretty much standard for an Android device. For instance, if you want to delete an app, you hold your finger on its icon until a trash basket appears at the foot of the screen. Then you drag the icon onto the basket and… nothing. The app just remains where it is and you have to delete it using another, more complicated method.
The Galaxy Note has seven customisable homescreens, plus a persistent app bar at the bottom of the screen with space for five app shortcuts. With the factory settings, the homescreens are as follows:
- 1. Features a clock at the top, Accuweather and Google search widgets and six app shortcuts: S Choice; Readers Hub; Social Hub; S Planner; Google Maps; and Android Market (we'll discuss the apps below)
- 2. Features S Memo documents (again, we'll talk about this below)
- 3. A calendar/planner
- 4. AP news widget and email inbox
- 5. Images widget, a couple of web browser shortcut widgets, a Yahoo! Finance stocks widget and space for five more app shortcuts
- 6/7. Empty and waiting to be loaded with apps and widgets of your choosing
Flicking between the homescreens is fairly painless.
We can't say we're a huge fan of this out-of-the-box layout, as we'd rather have the apps on the second or third page, but this being Android you can customise and tweak the arrangement by dragging and dropping icons fairly simply. It does take a while though, and the amount of bloatware on this phone is quite irritating, if not entirely unexpected.
When it comes to pre-installed apps we're a fan of the less-is-more approach: let the user decide what he or she needs and download and install accordingly, rather than dump everything but the kitchen sink on a device and assume they'll be impressed.
While bloatware may be an unfair term for the apps pre-installed here, there are things like the Crayon Physics game, Google Latitude and Video Maker apps that relatively few users will require. Viewing the whole lot and knowing you'll want to cut half of them out is somewhat daunting.
Powered by a dual-core 1.4GHz ARM chip, the Galaxy Note certainly doesn't want for processing power. Running the benchmarking app AnTuTu revealed the phone to be a truly impressive performer in comparison to its Android-powered brethren. Its overall score put it above the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2, Motorola Xoom and LG Optimus 2X, with its CPU speed proving the main advantage.
Benchmarks are all well and good, but how does it perform day-to-day? The answer is very nicely, thank you very much. Apps open swiftly, and any sluggishness in response seems to be down to the speed of the web connection rather than the Note itself.
The processing power and large screen do contribute to one significant drawback: short battery life. As with many smart phones, you'll want to keep your charger handy if you own the Note. We got less than 12 hours of use from a full charge and moderate use -- some web browsing, a spot of gaming and general pottering about with apps and games.
While we wouldn't expect a powerful smart phone to last several days on a single charge, the speedily-depleted battery does put a dent in the Galaxy Note's ability to perform as Samsung bills it: a do-it-all smart phone and entertainment device that boosts your productivity as an old-school notepad.
Zipping around town making and taking calls while using the Samsung apps and huge screen to take notes, draw diagrams and share ideas is a great selling point -- but that all falls down if the battery croaks before the working day is done. You'll need to be fairly careful about your usage if you want the Note to stay as active as you are.
The Galaxy Note sports a number of Samsung apps, some of which should prove popular. Social Hub puts your emails, texts and social network updates (limited currently to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) in a single app: the latter in a Feeds tab and the rest in a Messages tab.
S Choice serves up a collection of Samsung-sanctioned apps, downloadable outside of the usual Android Market interface -- but aside from the always-handy Evernote, there's not too much to get excited about.
S Planner is a tidy planner and calendar app which looks the part on the Note's large screen. It can be synced with Google Calendar, Microsoft Exchange and Facebook (for events).
Then there's S Memo, which is one of the highlights, due to the way it sells itself on the Note. Basically it allows you to create memos using text (typed or handwritten), sketches, sound recordings, maps and pictures. These can then be shared in various ways, including on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Evernote, MMS or email.
In many ways this app is the “heart” of the Note, and one of the chief reasons to buy it -- the screen and stylus make it easy to quickly jot down an idea and share it.
Another noteworthy app, in light of the recent excitement over the iPhone 4S and its Siri voice-activated personal assistant, is Voice Talk. Open it and intone the key phrase -- “Hi Galaxy” by default, but fully customisable -- and you'll be able to open apps, send texts or update your Twitter status through the power of your voice alone.
While we never found ourselves compelled to turn to it -- the Note's user interface is painless enough -- and it's not as impressive at performing your instructions as Siri, it works fairly reliably.
One of the great things about Android is the way apps will generally scale nicely to fit the screen resolution; this means most of them look the canine's cajones on the Note. If you're used to playing Angry Birds on a 3.5 or 4-inch screen, you're going to be amazed at the crispness and clarity of the game on this 5.3-inch 1,280x800 display.
Likewise, it's much easier to get an idea of your surroundings when Google Maps is displayed at the same resolution as on your average laptop screen, as it is here.
The processing power on offer also means that apps run smoothly; we never experienced any sluggishness with the Google or third-party apps used.
A smart phone wouldn't be a smart phone without an 8-megapixel camera with 1,080p HD video skills these days, and that's just what you get here. But while the spec is impressive on paper -- there's autofocus and an LED flash thrown into the mix -- we weren't particularly wowed by the quality of stills and videos produced.
For the camera, the only setting of any note you can tweak is the exposure value (why not white balance too?). You can set the focus point by tapping your finger on the screen, but neither of these things are going to go far in convincing any halfway-creative photographer that this is a serious camera.
It's a point and shoot number and produces shots that will look fine on Facebook; they aren't going to be gracing your local gallery. There's too much noise visible. A 2-megapixel front camera is also included for self-shots, video calls and the like.
The video mode is similar in its simplicity, offering three modes (normal 1,080p, MMS-friendly and self-recording, which uses the 640x480-pixel front camera), exposure control and three special effect settings (monochrome, sepia and negative). As for the finished results? Well, it's 1,080p at 30 frames per second, but don't expect results that will rival a Blu-ray disc: the tiny size of the sensor means, as with stills, you can expect to see a fair amount of noise in your clips, unless you do all your filming on beautifully sunny days.
That big, beautiful AMOLED screen is just crying out to be lavished with high-quality video, and with 16GB of storage space plus a microSD card slot allowing you to add another 32GB, there's plenty of room for lengthy DivX, XviD and WMV files.
After watching an AVI episode of Boardwalk Empire on the phone, we can confirm the Note has real chops when it comes to video playback. The AMOLED screen makes for a beautiful, punchy image, even with highly-compressed material like this. The size means you're not straining your eyes to pick out details. We're not fans of watching films on a phone screen -- it cheapens them too much -- but the Note is almost good enough to convert us.
The music player app is basic and has that annoying tendency to put album tracks in alphabetical order rather than sequence them correctly. But audio quality is more than acceptable and there's an equaliser if you're into fiddling with settings.
We also liked the fact that Samsung's Music Hub app lets you download tracks you've already purchased from 7Digital's locker, but this is mainly because it meant we could download a truckload of tunes straight away. If we didn't already have a 7Digital account we wouldn't be quite so keen. We can also confirm that the Spotify Android app works like a dream on the Note.
Design and build quality
The Galaxy Note follows a standard Android phone template: front dominated by a touchscreen with three buttons located just below: a physical home key and two touch-sensitive buttons dedicated to options and taking you back a screen. There's a volume rocker on the left side of the phone and a power button on the right.
Socket-wise, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack up top. A proprietary USB port covering charging and data transfer duties is on the bottom edge, alongside the hole for stylus storage (which keeps the stylus adequately secure and snug). The front of the Note features a 2-megapixel camera and phone speaker, while the back has the main 8-megapixel camera and LED flash.
The entire back plate can be prised off with a fingernail, allowing you to get at the battery and slots for SIM and microSD cards; you'll have to remove the battery to insert or remove a microSD card, so hot-swapping is out.
We've come to expect top-class build quality from Samsung Galaxy phones, and that's the case here. The Galaxy Note doesn't have the brick-like solidity of an iPhone or iPad -- shake it and you'll hear a slight bit of rattling from the backplate and stylus -- but it's undeniably a premium-level piece of kit.
Thanks to its 5.3-inch screen, the Galaxy Note is the largest smart phone on the block, and while it's surprisingly thin and light, it's sheer size causes some problems.
Firstly, it's hard to fit in your pocket: while we succeeded in jamming it into our jeans, it was far from a comfy situation and you'll probably want to keep it in an inner jacket pocket or a bag. Secondly, it's impossible to look anything other than silly when making or taking a call on this beast. Investing in a headset is a good idea if you're planning on buying the Note.
The huge size of the Galaxy Note is the main reason to buy it: no other smartphone has such a big, beautiful screen. However, the size also creates a number of issues, short battery life and sheer unwieldiness being chief among them.
If you can live with these drawbacks, you'll find that this is one of the most powerful Android smart phones around, tackling apps and media with aplomb.
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