Big. This thing is big. In a world where electronics are being shrunk on a nano scale, Samsung has gone off and created something a little bit different. The Galaxy Note is a 5.3 inch phone, but equally could be viewed as being a small tablet; a microtablet if you will. Dell tried this last year with the Streak which was not a great success. So while the Note is not ground breaking, is it revolutionary?
One thing that certainly sets the Note from the rest of the pack is the Samsung made 1.4GHz dual core Exynos processor. This is a powerful upgrade on the chip that made waves at the introduction of the Galaxy S II earlier this year. Also, there is the 2500mAh battery which promises iPad like longevity to fuel your media consumption. Certainly there is a lot to ponder with this Android beast.
For once the ‘hands on’ section requires both hands on to justify the phone. As soon as you take it out of the box the device strikes you as possibly the biggest phone you have ever seen. Thankfully the worry subsides quickly, but you cannot escape the width at all. The Note may only be less than 10mm thick, but the width of 83mm means that those with smaller palm spans will probably be restricted to using two hands to use it effectively (i.e. one hand to hold and the other to operate the screen).
To emphasise the point, we have compared the sizes with the original Samsung Galaxy S. Side by side, a 4 inch phone will fill your palm, while something the size of the Galaxy Note will fill your hand. Despite this, the Note does not make portability a difficult prospect. It will fit into a suit jacket pocket with ease, and I would anticipate not even get a reaction if placed into a suit trouser pocket either. That said, initial impressions of the phone did inspire us to start a range of tweets on the subject of the Galaxy Note being so big that…. Well, you can figure the rest out.
The 5.3 inch HD Super AMOLED runs at a resolution of 1280 x 800. In comparison, the iPad 2 offers a resolution of 1024 x 768 which should emphasise how impressive the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note is. The display is razor sharp and although there is a controversy about the phone offering the ‘old’ Super AMOLED display over the AMOLED Plus, but I cannot notice any problem with it. The display colour does seem to be slightly over saturated but it is nothing that would cause alarm. There are also three screen modes; Dynamic, Standard and Movie depending on your mood.
Screen aside, the Galaxy Note is an enlarged version of the Galaxy S II in most respects, with a power button on one side of the phone and volume rocker on the other. The obligatory ‘home’ key is flanked by ‘back’ and ‘menu’ soft buttons, and the microUSB port is on the bottom. Headphones are taken care of at the top, and the phone offers a pretty decent set of noise cancelling ‘cans’ in the box. It is only a shame they come in white but that is nitpicking.
The build is solid as a rock, with no flex or creak in the chassis. Much is said about Samsung in this department and we find it largely unfounded, especially with their premium range of products. For example, some reviews point out the flimsy nature of the battery cover but how many times are you going to be taking it off? There is no reason to score the Note lowly on construction, and furthermore, any additional metal in the device would probably count against it by making it too heavy to use easily. Samsung have got this spot on with a good weight when considering the screen size. One colleague pointed out it weighs less than her Blackberry. ‘Nuff said.
The stylus, or S Pen as it is known, hides within the body of the Note in the style of a PDA from yesteryear. It is approximately four inches long and features a button on one side. There are two primary uses of the button; to take and anotate screen shots and to call up the S Note Lite application and unlike the Stylus offered with the HTC Flyer tablet, the S Pen can be used in any aspect aspect of the Galaxy Note as the primary pointing device. You can use your finger or S Pen to suit the task which means you will find it being pulled out of the body more often than not.
The Galaxy Note is a very fast beast. Multitasking seems natural unlike less powerful devices where you get the impression that you are waiting for the memory to catch up. Everything on the Note is instantaneous and for some reason, enabling all animations seems to give better performance (surely my perception gone mad?). It is great to find a device that operates with an immediacy which shows off Android at its best.
According to the AnTuTu benchmark, the Note gives the best score attributed to a phone in their chart. Our Galaxy Note pegged a very healthy 6425 which beats the S II nicely and makes a mockery of devices such as the Motorola Xoom and last year’s Nexus S. That said, with a boot to dialler time of 37 seconds, it is not the quickest to start up, but who’s complaining?
The built in 16 gigabytes of memory goes a long way to getting you started, of which just over 11GB is available for storage. There is also the option to expand this via a microSD card of up to 32GB.
Battery wise, the Note breaks new ground by being the first Android phone we have seen to last well beyond a working day. We hammer our phone batteries, and it is not uncommon for us to kill a Galaxy S stone dead within 12 hours, so to find the same activities lasting through until the following morning is a major plus. If you were conservative, I could see you getting a few days worth out of it, especially by switching off 3G and data syncing. But that is not a compromise that this phone forces you to make, which in turn makes it a perfect partner for someone who needs an constantly connected business phone.
Games and movies look stunning in high definition, with fine detail and incredibly fast acceleration. Take a spin once around a track on the free to download Asphalt 6 HD game to see why. When Google gets around to offering high definition content via its film rental service, Note users will be in for a real treat, but conversely content from the likes of BBC iPlayer can look too blocky; something that is not as evident on smaller screens.
Camera wise, the on board 8 megapixel sensor does a great job of taking still and video footage, albeit with a fair amount of noise creeping in. 1080p high definition video can be recorded, and even indoor performance is pretty decent. Make no mistake, this is not going to be a cheap way of starting a film career in the director’s chair as the footage clearly has “home video” stamped all over it, but for what it is intended for (i.e. home video) it does the job alongside most modern high end devices these days.
Snaps are colourful but have a tendency to become noisy, especially at lower light. The camera is not up to the standards of Sony Ericsson’s Exmor technology, but it is more than adequate for most situations. The other thing to be careful of is the over exposure which has a tendency of occurring. On the front is a 2 megapixel camera for vanity shots and the option of video calls/Skype chat.
This phone takes some getting used to. It’s great but weird in that lots of the screen elements are large, like the keyboard, which is off putting at first. But when you look at text in the web browser, every thing is a more “regular size”. It works quite well but you expect everything to be a similar size on a smaller screened device. Kindle books, or the built in Kobo e-book reader give a good user experience, and for once you could actually have the inclination to read something on your phone and enjoy the experience.
The larger aspects can be a boon to usability: the built in Swype keyboard behaves as it should, but now you are afforded the flexibility of being really slapdash when composing text, missing letters quite widely. Also, it speeds things up incredibly as you don’t have to slow down to compensate for the lack of space. Coincidentally, if you are not a fan of Swype, we would recommend downloading the SwiftKey X Tablet app a try. It works very well with the large screen when in landscape mode.
Speaking of which, the accelerometer and gyroscope are very good. I am sure the speed of the processor helps a great deal but the screen is always responsive and seems to have the right balance between flipping when you want it to, but staying in portrait mode long enough to forgive you when you lay it down horizontally on a flat surface.
The pen can be fiddly in use and on more than one occasion we have found accidentally clicking on the button which nullifies the drawing capability. It can be set up for left or right handers but whether you will find it usable for handwriting will probably come down to whether you are susceptible to dragging your hand over paper, or in this case the screen. We suspect that despite the screen’s 5.3 inch size, it still might be slightly too small for flowing handwriting.
The inbuilt note apps are well integrated though, with a good range of usable widgets, such as the highly full screen calendar and task widgets (left), which are part of the fabric of the TouchWiz 4 user interface. The S Note Lite app is available with a click of the S Pen, and it a versatile note taking facility. Despite an early promo video indicating Evernote integration, this is not present here which is a shame. As a backup, there is the option to automatically sync the Samsung S Memo application with your Google Docs account but this lacks the finesse of Evernote. Though it does not impact the functionality of the phone greatly, it can be a problem if you expect to sync with multiple platforms, however, the Google Docs platform is arguably more applicable to the corporate environment.
As a user that frequently installs third party launchers such a Go Launcher or Launcher Pro, TouchWiz 4 is a major step up form the previous version 3 that featured on the original Galaxy S. Widgets are large and fill the space afforded to them without creating large transparent bezels. In particular, the picture frame widget is wonderful, offering a picture frame the resizes and crops images effectively; dedicate a home screen to a full 5 by 5 size widget and you have a beautiful looking digital photo frame for your desk.
Samsung has included three Hubs; Social, Music and Reader. These give the user the option of staying in touch of their social networks or purchasing e-books and music. The Music Hub is powered by 7 Digital and offers an excellent range of albums. In a similar vein, the Kobo powered e-book store is equally adept at delivery Tom Clancy to your device. The only fly in the ointment is the Social Hub which is mediocre at best. It does not come close to the functionality offered by TweetDeck and we would advise a swift visit to the Android Market to remedy the situation.
For media streaming, Samsung have bundled the AllShare DLNA app which worked well enough with our Son TV, although I do wonder how many people use this functionality. Vlingo voice recognition is again present, and this time has more tighter integration in the handset and can be activated via a double click of the menu button. There is also a ‘car mode’ which recites instruction back to the user when engaged. Vlingo works well enough, but seems to hit and miss dictated commands in equal measure.
Other embellishments include a nifty desk clock with alarm functionality and the ability to dim the screen according to your tastes. There is a desk dock also available for the device which doubles up as a stand when a bedside clock is needed. The large screen and freely available Google Navigation also means that if you partner the Note with a good in-car mount, you have a very effective Sat Nav. And funnily enough, Samsung have an official one available. Clever Samsung.
I’m not going to pigeon hole or mark down the Samsung Galaxy Note based on its size. In a similar vein to last month’s Sony Ericsson Mini Pro, the Note is aimed at a specific market and will not appeal to the average smart phone user. And this is why giving the Note a score is somewhat meaningless. Certainly, you can give plaudits for the incredibly fast performance, or the clear, vivid screen but if your hands don’t feel at home when you hold it, the cutting edge technology inside the phone will not make any difference.
The stylus may be a bit of a red herring. The idea has been tried before, and certainly Samsung seems to have been looking at the needs of the business user or those who want to interact more with their devices. I think , largely, they have succeeded but if the S Pen interface is not taken on board by programmers, this will remain a niche input mechanism.
At the very least, the Note is a big entertaining piece of kit that works on many levels. Samsung have also confirmed that the Galaxy Note will get the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich so in essence it is future proofed. On top of it being very powerful with a great battery, it is an excellent device for media hogs and business users that need extra flexibility from their main phone. Just bare in mind you might need to grow bigger hands to accommodate.
AndroidGenus Score: 9/10 – Excellent
Build and features: 9/10 – Excellent
Performance & Battery: 10/10 – Excellent
User Interface: 9/10 – Good
The Samsung Galaxy Note is now available for free from Vodafone on a £36 per month tariff, including 600 cross-network minutes.
UPDATED: 19/11/2011 – Included additional information on the camera performance.