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Samsung Galaxy Note review

The ultimate converged device or just a 5.3-inch gimmick?

Note: Our original review was of the unlocked, £499.99 ($784) GSM Galaxy Note. We've updated the review to reflect our impressions and tests of the $299 (with contract) AT&T model as well. Check out the Connectivity and Software sections, in particular, to see the biggest differences between the two devices.

There once was a time, commonly referred to as the pre-iPad era, when people questioned if there really was a gap between laptops and smartphones for tablets to fill. The two established device categories seemed to have too many overlaps in functionality to permit a separate product type to exist between them. Today, that question has been answered emphatically by the wildly popular tablet market, but the challenge of trailblazing new form factors remains and has been taken up by Samsung with the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note. Too small to be considered a tablet and too large to be deemed a phone, this new Android device seeks to demonstrate the value of its unconventional size as well as its own credentials.

Samsung has built the Note atop its extremely successful Galaxy S II platform, though much as it did with the Galaxy Nexus, the company has added some significant upgrades. The Galaxy Note has a higher-resolution display, a much larger battery, and a new S Pen stylus, making it more potent and versatile than a simple oversized GSII handset. So it’s bigger, badder, and carries a small stick — does that make it Samsung’s next great mobile device?

Video review

Video review


Hardware

Hardware

Is it a tablet or a phone?

Arriving in a white, smartphone-sized box, the Galaxy Note goes to great efforts to convince you that it really is as portable as a phone. It’s not. The bezel around the display is minimal and the 9.65mm thickness is practically the same as on the latest iPhone, but there’s just no way to shrink that 5.3-inch display. Pocketing the Note is an exercise in either frustration or denial. Oh, it will fit inside your pants pocket, but try walking around with it there and you’ll see that fitting inside a space is only half the battle. You’ll need to either take to wearing blazers every time you go out or accept that you won’t be able to comfortably transport the Note somewhere around your body.

On the flip side, the thin, bump-free profile of the Note makes it extremely easy to slip into a handbag, backpack or briefcase. If you’re thinking that the same can be said of the slimmer tablets on the market, you’d be right. I don’t consider the Galaxy Note to be much of a portability upgrade over Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 7.7, which was introduced alongside the Note at IFA 2011. That being the case, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I consider the Note more of a shrunken-down tablet than an outsized phone, in spite of its ability to take calls.

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The experience of carrying out a call on the Note is actually surprisingly good. I’d contrast it against the 4.7-inch Titan from HTC, which feels awkward and a bit clunky, whereas Samsung’s tabletphone can be held up and used more comfortably. That doesn’t mean it’s any competition for a regular phone, however: like most smartphones, the Note warms up during a long call, heating half of your face in the process, and there’s the social aspect to consider. Human society has yet to evolve to the point where it can witness a person holding up a massive slate of technology to his ear without attempting to make a bad joke about it.

Has the resolution of a large-screen tablet and the portability of a small-screen tablet
Whatever it is, at least it's not a Dell Streak

Design

Physically, the Note holds no surprises. A rigid frame, finished in chrome, keeps it together, while a single glass pane covers almost the entire front. This all-glass approach for the front of the handset is growing increasingly popular among smartphone makers, and you can easily see why: it’s attractive and makes the device look more cohesive. There are no dedicated areas for buttons, display, and sensors, they all meld into one. On the unlocked version of the Galaxy Note, two capacitive Android keys frame the home button, which along with the earpiece grille is the only disturbance to the glass facade. There’s a nice bit of travel to the home key and it can be recognized by touch, so it’s a bit of a downer that AT&T enforced the usual four Android keys — all of them capacitive and under the glass pane — on the Galaxy Note LTE. (Of course, there may have been legal reasons for the change, as well.)

Aesthetically, those capacitive buttons are the only difference between the Galaxy Note's unlocked GSM model and the AT&T variant, along with an AT&T logo above the display that forces the Samsung logo down to the bottom. It lends the phone a slightly more crowded feel, and AT&T users are certainly missing out on the better of the button layouts.

No alarms and no surprises


Flipping the Note over to its back, you’ll find another of Samsung’s now familiar paperthin rear covers. It attaches to the case with a series of small latches — there are three of them at the top and bottom, two on the side next to the power button, and six more on the other edge. These little nubs appear fragile, but I wasn’t able to snap any off even in my clumsiest moments with the Note, so I’m going to trust that Samsung knows what it’s doing here. On the other hand, the latches do leave their notches a little too easily. A shallow (and I should stress, accidental) drop of the Note unfastened one corner of the back cover. It’s not a major nuisance, though, and I can’t complain about the general sense of durability that the Note conveys. There’s a tiny bit of creaking you can generate if you try hard enough, but it’s solidly put together.

The location of the power button is an issue. It sits near the top of the tablet’s right shoulder, diametrically opposite the volume rocker, which led to me either pressing both keys at the same time or admitting defeat and holding the Note in one hand and pressing the power button with the other. You might think that a small foible, but do it a few times over the length of a day and you’ll understand why I consider it impossible to call this device a phone. The Nexus S has a very similar arrangement for its side buttons — and I’m generally a fan of Samsung’s side-mounted power key — but it’s about half the width of the Note, which is why it doesn’t have the same problem.

You’ll have noticed the stylus silo at the bottom rear of the Note by now, it’s for the S Pen stylus, which you can read more about in its dedicated section below. All that needs to be said about it at this point is that it fits into the slot with a reassuring click, is easily accessible when you want to extract it, and has a curved top that ensures it doesn’t disturb the Note’s rounded bottom.

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Display

Display

The one thing Super AMOLED was missing was high resolution, and now it's got it
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Samsung’s leadership in mobile OLED displays is well established, and the Super AMOLED-equipped Galaxy Note serves only to reinforce it. Contrast on this tabletphone’s display is simply incredible, with deep and menacing blacks juxtaposed against strong, vibrant colors. It’s frankly a struggle to express how delightful an experience it is to watch a movie or play a game on a screen like this. A common complaint against AMOLED displays has been that they oversaturate the picture, but Samsung has a screen mode adjustment that lets you choose between three levels of saturation. Still, the company seems to have improved its default setting as I was happy to use that instead of the desaturated Movie Mode that I preferred on the Galaxy S II.

The absence of the word "Plus" from the end of the Super AMOLED branding will tell you that the Galaxy Note has a Pentile Matrix display, meaning that instead of the usual RGB grouping, its subpixels are arranged in a ratio of one red and one blue subpixel for every two green ones. Under a magnifying glass, you’ll see this gives the display a brickwork-like pattern, which has a negative impact on fine-grain detail and can make high-contrast edges appear softer than they are. That’s long been a good reason to avoid the Pentile RGBG layout, but I honestly can’t see any such issues on the Galaxy Note. Its 1280 x 800 resolution deserves the credit, as it leads to a 285ppi pixel density, essentially making the downsides of the subpixel arrangement too small to be discernible. If you want the very best AMOLED display, though, you’ll have to look to Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 7.7 — it has a Super AMOLED Plus screen and looks simply phenomenal.

Galaxy-note-shortcuts

The high resolution of the Galaxy Note has a number of obvious benefits: the browser, email, calendar, messaging, and maps applications are all loaded with much more information, while 720p movies can be enjoyed at their full quality. Beyond scalable apps, Samsung has also opted to expand its TouchWiz UI to five columns of icons per homescreen, giving you masses of flexibility to work with.

In keeping with its Galaxy S II heritage, the Galaxy Note comes with a Gorilla Glass pane protecting its S-AMOLED display. The screen’s sensitivity to input, whether by touch or the included stylus, was pretty much perfect.

Battery life

Battery life, reception, and audio

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The 2,500mAh battery inside the Galaxy Note is enormous for a smartphone, and the tabletphone’s overall endurance compares favorably as a result. In my time using it in place of my regular handset, I could regularly go from the start of one day to the end of the next without recharging the Note. Looking at the Android battery level monitor, there’s a discernible stepped pattern — long period of very gradual discharge, punctuated by steep drops when the device is active — which can be explained by the power consumption of the display. Basically, the Note will last multiple days if kept mostly idling, but strenuous activity will limit it to just a few hours.

Our browser-based battery rundown test ran for 4 hours and 45 minutes on the Note, falling short of what full-sized Android tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 are capable of. Still, it’s a respectable performance that’s in line with what you might get from a conventional smartphone. Additionally, let’s not forget that the Tab 10.1 has a pretty huge 7,000mAh battery powering its 10.1-inch screen.

Because of its extremely bright display, which is easily readable even at the lowest setting, I put the Galaxy Note through our battery test a second time, this time with all brightness controls (including Samsung’s arcane "browser brightness" setting) minimized. Contrary to my expectation, that didn’t lead to any appreciable improvement in battery life. When my colleagues tested the AT&T variant of the phone, we expected a drop-off in battery life, but got almost none — it ran about 4 hours and 30 minutes over LTE on our battery tests.

I can offer few complaints about reception quality, but that’s partially because conditions were in my favor — I live in an area with generally decent coverage where it’s hard for a phone to really screw up, and my US colleagues tested the Note on the relatively uncrowded AT&T LTE network. Audio quality during calls on the Note isn’t sublime — it’s not bad, it just wasn’t impressive in my experience — which also isn’t helped by the awkwardly high position of the earpiece. The best advice with this device is to carry out calls with a headset, anyway, and Samsung thankfully bundles in a very decent one, equipped with in-ear buds and an in-line mic with integrated music controls.

Maybe I’m just being optimistic here, but it’s my suspicion that Samsung is trying to keep up with HTC and its Beats venture by including the improved earphones. Whatever the cause, the Note comes with a set that I’d actually be happy to use full-time. The lone loudspeaker on the back can get muffled easily, though to its credit, it maintains clear output all the way up to 15 (the max volume in Samsung’s custom music app). I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the sound it produced, which should be considered an important aspect for a large-screen device that will serve entertainment purposes as often as any other kind.

US Variants

Now is a really good time to buy an AT&T LTE phone, assuming you live in one of the few markets where the super-fast network is currently live. We tested the Note in New York City, and while the network isn't quite as unpopulated as when we saw download speeds up to 60 Mbps on the LG Nitro HD, it still blazes: we got download speeds between 7 and 17Mbps, and upload speeds up to 5Mbps (though uploads usually hovered around 1Mbps). The network's reliability is also an enormous upgrade over the carrier's 3G network, which also means LTE should be a must-have for your next phone if you're an AT&T customer.

The Note also automatically connects to AT&T Wi-Fi networks (they're in Starbucks, and the like), a fact I quite liked — it works seamlessly, and anytime you can get decent speeds without the battery drain of LTE is a good thing. You can also tether the phone or use it as a hotspot, but that's a separate plan from AT&T.

T-Mobile's version of the Note connects to the carrier's HSPA+ network, and while it's not quite as fast as LTE, speeds are still commendable: download speeds spiked as high as 13Mbps, and uploads went at about 1-2Mbps. The device is largely the same as the LTE version, and has been bolstered by the huge Android 4.0 software upgrade the Note has received.

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The Note's display is huge for a smartphone, but so is its battery
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Camera

Camera

Richly detailed 1080p video and still images
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The Galaxy Note’s 8-megapixel camera looks and performs very much like the one on the Galaxy S II, which is good news if you’re after high image quality and easy operation. Samsung has its own custom camera app, but nothing about it will feel too alien to cameraphone users: you have a comprehensive set of adjustments and tweaks, and toggles to switch between front- and rear-facing cameras and between still and movie modes.

As with any camera, the best results from the Galaxy Note will be obtained under good lighting conditions, but it does a decent job in low light as well. While noise and graininess make an inevitable appearance when lighting is poor, the built-in LED flash works well and the camera does a good job of measuring exposure correctly. I didn’t have to retake any pictures because of motion blur. Color balance is mostly accurate, though the camera sometimes gets it wrong and is also occasionally guilty of oversaturating images during processing.

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Operating the Note’s camera is mercifully quick, whether you are switching modes or taking a quick series of pictures. It’s not as rapid as the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy Nexus, however. At full resolution, the images taken with the Note can exhibit blotchy patches where noise reduction has been applied, but the camera still captures and maintains plenty of detail — web-sized pictures from it come out looking wonderful.

Samsung believes the Note is the ultimate expression of versatility and convergence, allowing you to leave all other devices at home. I partially agree with that assessment: yes, it represents the very cutting edge of technological convergence, but no, it won’t replace more specialized tools. A paper pad will still be the quickest and most reliable way for you to take notes, a tablet of above 7 inches will give you a richer user experience without being much bulkier, and Samsung’s own Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus can match the Note in performance while fitting more comfortably in the pocket.

The Galaxy Note fails to make a compelling case to replace any, let alone all, of its targeted handheld devices, but that doesn’t make it a bad tabletphone in itself. Not at all. Its dual-core processor is a legitimate powerhouse, the 8-megapixel camera oozes quality from every shot, and the WXGA Super AMOLED display is both gorgeous and dense enough to make you forget about its Pentile roots. It’s only the one-size-fits-none form factor and some software troubles that hold the Galaxy Note back from being a truly memorable mobile device.

Samsung believes the Note is the ultimate expression of versatility and convergence, allowing you to leave all other devices at home. I partially agree with that assessment: yes, it represents the very cutting edge of technological convergence, but no, it won’t replace more specialized tools. A paper pad will still be the quickest and most reliable way for you to take notes, a tablet of above 7 inches will give you a richer user experience without being much bulkier, and Samsung’s own Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus can match the Note in performance while fitting more comfortably in the pocket.

The Galaxy Note fails to make a compelling case to replace any, let alone all, of its targeted handheld devices, but that doesn’t make it a bad tabletphone in itself. Not at all. Its dual-core processor is a legitimate powerhouse, AT&T's LTE performance is stellar (though the software bloat is annoying), the 8-megapixel camera oozes quality from every shot, and the WXGA Super AMOLED display is both gorgeous and dense enough to make you forget about its Pentile roots. It’s only the one-size-fits-none form factor and some software troubles that hold the Galaxy Note back from being a truly memorable mobile device.

Samsung believes the Note is the ultimate expression of versatility and convergence, allowing you to leave all other devices at home. I partially agree with that assessment: yes, it represents the very cutting edge of technological convergence, but no, it won’t replace more specialized tools. A paper pad will still be the quickest and most reliable way for you to take notes, a tablet of above 7 inches will give you a richer user experience without being much bulkier, and Samsung’s own Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus can match the Note in performance while fitting more comfortably in the pocket.

The Galaxy Note fails to make a compelling case to replace any, let alone all, of its targeted handheld devices, but that doesn’t make it a bad tabletphone in itself. Not at all. Its specs are still adequate, T-Mobile's HSPA+ performance is stellar (if you have service), the 8-megapixel camera oozes quality from every shot, and the WXGA Super AMOLED display is both gorgeous and dense enough to make you forget about its Pentile roots. It’s only the one-size-fits-none form factor and some now-outdated hardware that hold the Galaxy Note back from being a truly memorable mobile device.

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