Samsung is announcing not one, but two versions of its flagship Galaxy Note 10 smartphone: the regular Note 10 and the jumbo Note 10 Plus. Really, though, you should think of the Note 10 Plus as the traditional Note — it’s virtually the same size as last year’s Note 9 and continues the tradition of the big-screened, super-powered, stylus-toting smartphone. The Note 10 is something new: the Note’s stylus and power crammed down into something a little closer to the size of the Galaxy S10.
The Note 10 starts at $949 and comes in just one configuration: 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The Note 10 Plus starts at $1,099 with 12GB RAM / 256GB storage and you can spend $100 more to get 512GB of storage. Both are available for preorder today and will ship on August 23rd. There will also be a Note 10 5G available for preorder on the 23rd that will be exclusive to Verizon for “a limited time,” but Samsung had fewer details to share about it ahead of its Unpacked event today.
Samsung’s Note line has had a few different identities over the years. It was the phone that led the way on big screens, a stylus-focused note jotter, and there was that one version that exploded and was recalled. Lately, though, Samsung has tried to position it as a spec monster — the absolute top of the Android line. That’s a harder case to make in 2019, with current devices like the OnePlus 7 Pro and Huawei P30 Pro already available with very comparable internals. Even Samsung’s own mainstream Galaxy S phones have shared processors and cameras with the Note line for the past couple of years.
So Samsung needs the Note 10 to compete on something other than mere screen size and specs, especially if it wants to justify that sky-high cost. From what I can tell after about an hour of poking and prodding it, Samsung is betting on three things: build quality, that new smaller size, and a classic pile of new Samsung software features.
The Note 10 is metal and glass like every phone, but Samsung has put a huge emphasis on overall fit, finish, and build quality. You might be able to get comparable or better specs from another Android phone, but you’re unlikely to find anything quite this nice to look at or hold.
It’s the culmination of a bunch of Samsung design trends: the bezel is about as close to gone as possible on the top and bottom — and completely gone on the sides thanks to a curved screen. The hole-punch for the single selfie camera is smaller than even on the Galaxy S10. The fingerprint sensor is hidden away under the screen (it’s slightly higher up on the body than on the S10, but unfortunately no bigger). The cameras are lined up in a vertical row off to the side as on the iPhone, but there are three of them so it doesn’t look like a straight copy. Even the S Pen stylus is nicer now, with a unibody design.
Most of all, these look like Notes. The edges are squared off instead of rounded, the stylus is sitting there in its silo. The Note 10 Plus is still really big, but also really thin — Samsung has done a good job making such a large phone not feel as unwieldy as other big boys.
I am, as I mentioned above, more enamored with the smaller Note 10. It has all the same design notes, but in a device that’s just slightly wider than a Galaxy S10. If you’ve been wanting a stylus (these people exist!) but not a massive phone, it could be worth a swing by a store to at least check it out.
There is no headphone jack — Samsung says it used the extra space for more battery. It was nice when Samsung was the rare holdout keeping the headphone jack there, but apparently all nice things die. Samsung is including USB-C headphones in the box, but not the dongle, which costs $9.99.
Samsung dropped the headphone jack, but it also dropped the extra button it has put on recent phones. The Bixby button is gone — it’s instead integrated as a long-press option on the power button (and no, you can’t replace that with the Google Assistant). A double-press of the power button still launches the camera. All the buttons are aligned on the left side of the phone, which is a little odd, but not hard to get used to. Lefties might even love it.
It comes in four colors, all prepended with the word “aura” to connote that everything has a kind of iridescent shimmer to it. The ultra-reflective “halo” is my favorite (and also the closest to a trend Huawei kind of started), while the blue color will only be available at Samsung and Best Buy.
The screens are, predictably, gorgeous HDR10+ certified OLEDs — though I didn’t get a chance to really analyze them. Samsung hasn’t mentioned anything about fancy refresh rates, which means the OnePlus 7 Pro probably will keep the crown for smoothest scroller.
Samsung says the Note 10 Plus has a 4,300mAh battery and the smaller Note 10 uses a 3,500mAh battery — but it hasn’t done the testing yet to turn those capacities into battery life estimates. Both sizes are a step up from the 4,100mAh and 3,400mAh found in the S10 Plus and S10, respectively. Both phones also use standard USB PD for high-speed charging (in addition to wireless, of course), and the Note 10 Plus can work with adapters up to 45W (though the fast charger included with the phone is not nearly this powerful).
Samsung made only trifling changes compared to the cameras on the Galaxy S10. There’s a single selfie camera on the front and three on the back: wide, regular, and telephoto. Samsung has added a time-of-flight camera to the Note 10 Plus, but isn’t using it for much yet in the main camera.
What is more impressive — at least if Samsung’s keynote is any indication, are the new AR doodles and the 3D scanner. What I saw in the demo was pretty iterative, but in its presentation Samsung showed the ability to draw objects in 3D space and have them persist there — or attach to a person’s face. It also showed a full 3D scanner, which creates a file you could 3D print or use to put 3D characters into your photos. It wasn’t exactly super accurate, but it did look like a heck of a lot of fun to use.
Samsung put more effort into the video capabilities of the Note 10. It added its background-blurring Live Focus as an optional effect and made the video stabilization feature ping the sensors more often to improve that effect. But I’m most excited to try the new zoom microphone feature. Using three microphones to beamform, the Note 10 will try to isolate audio to only come from where you’re pointing the camera. Samsung also beefed up the native video editor in its Gallery app. But if you’re doing anything more than quick work, you probably want to use Adobe Rush.
The S Pen has picked up even more capabilities than it had before. It can still operate as a remote for things like triggering the camera shutter or advancing PowerPoint slides, but now Samsung has added a gyroscope and accelerometer. That lets you wave it around like a little magic wand — but in my simple test, it was a little laggy and weird. Right now, it works best with the camera app, letting you switch modes and zoom in and out. Samsung says it will release an SDK so more apps can use this feature, but that doesn’t mean anyone will actually develop for it.
DeX is getting a big upgrade — and this might be the thing I’m most excited about, strangely enough. If you’re not familiar, DeX is a desktop interface driven directly by a Samsung phone when you plug a monitor into it. New this year: apps for both Mac and Windows. That means you can plug your phone directly into your computer and get a window with all your phone apps in it. You can drag and drop files to and from it, too. DeX was always a sort of silly, aspirational idea that few actually used in the real world, so making it convenient on the laptop I’m already using is potentially really interesting — if it works well, anyway. Unfortunately, Samsung says these apps won’t work with the S10.
Samsung has also built in support for Microsoft’s “Your Phone” feature from Windows 10, letting you toggle it right from the quick settings. There’s a new version of its game optimization software that supposedly uses AI to optimize your phone’s settings to the game you’re playing. (My S10’s game optimization feature wants to crank things to the max when I open up the NYT crosswords app, so this is an overdue change.) The screen recorder lets you annotate videos with the S Pen. There’s a new option for PC gamers to use their Samsung account to stream games from their Windows PC and play them on their Note 10.
Samsung’s software features always tend to veer into gimmicks and nearly every one I’ve mentioned here could be put in that category if you’re not feeling very charitable. But some of them — especially the new DeX app — could end up being surprisingly useful. We’ll need to review them all before we can even begin to guess.
So that’s the Note 10 and Note 10 Plus. I’m most intrigued by the smaller one, but I have no idea what the Venn diagram of people who want styluses and people who want smaller-sized phones looks like. I suspect Samsung doesn’t either, really. Having two sizes does give Samsung a way to avoid the primary criticism levied against the OnePlus 7 Pro: it’s just too big of a phone for most people to deal with.
Does all that justify a price that’s somewhere between $950 and $1,200 in a world where the OnePlus 7 Pro costs $700? It might — and again, we have to review the thing to know — but that doesn’t mean it will be an easy sell for Samsung. But that has always been the story with the Note: lots of people doubt it will work and they’re often proven wrong.
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Updated at 4:34PM ET with details from Samsung’s keynote presentation.