Name: Samsung Galaxy Note
Type: Android Smartphone
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price: £499.91 from Amazon, SIM-free
The Samsung Galaxy Note, AKA the Samsung Galaxy Personality Crisis. Is it a smartphone? Is it a tablet? Is it some altogether new-fangled tech beast? And is it any good? All these questions and more answered in our full review!
Samsung’s Galaxy Note is gigantic. If you thought the HTC Sensation XL was big, or even Samsung’s own Galaxy S II, you’ve got another thing coming. The Note is Texas big. Brian Blessed big. With a 5.3 inch screen, it sits somewhere between a smartphone and tablet, while never really feeling quite like one or the other. It’ll fit in your hand relatively comfortably, and will cover half your face when making a call.
Big doesn’t mean heavy though. Like the Galaxy S II before it, it’s very light for its size, weighing just 178g. Despite being so large, it will fit in a generous trouser pocket, though it’ll fit more comfortably in a jacket pocket or bag.
The trade off here of course is that whopping screen. While an iPhone may sit snugly in a shirt pocket, it offers nothing close to the visual bang that the Note does. Thanks to 5.3 inches of WXGA (1280 x 800) Super AMOLED Plus goodness at 285ppi, there’s little to match the Note’s screen in terms of clarity, brightness and vibrancy. A 1.4GHz Exynos SoC (system on chip) processor is onboard, and is basically a slightly souped up version of the processor found in the Galaxy S II. As a result, the phone swipes through screens without any difficulties, and showed very signs of lag.
Measuring just 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm, the handset adopts a fairly minimalist approach to design. A single hardware button sits on the bottom of the Note’s front, with a power switch on its right edge, a volume rocker on its left, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge and a recess to tuck away the Note’s true USP, the S-Pen stylus, along the bottom edge. More on the S-Pen later, but for now take comfort in the fact that, thanks to a large 2,500mAh battery, you’ll get easily a day’s worth of use per charge, even with the screen running at its brightest.
The S-Pen stylus
Touchscreen phones were meant to kill off the stylus, right? The late Apple boss Steve Jobs’ personal bug bear has even been dropped by long-time supporters Microsoft with Windows Phone 7, but Samsung still see a place for the stylus, resurrected here with the Note as the S-Pen.
Despite a major part of the marketing of the Note (the combo of a large screen and pen-like device is supposed to kill off the need for paper and pencil) the S-Pen proves little more than a gimmick. Though it’s comfortable to hold and slips tidily away into a recess on the underside of the phone, it’s practically pointless.
You’ve got note taking apps pre-installed and ones for jotting down doodles, but this is nothing new in and of itself. The note taking app could have had some decent application were its handwriting recognition up to scratch, but in reality it’s prone to mistakes and slower to use than simply tapping out a message on a keyboard. The S-Pen may well have 100 levels of sensitivity, but it still sometimes didn’t register input, and the software tended to lag slightly behind our preferred scribbling speed.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to sign documents properly from your phone, and annotate the odd image or website, but it’s a mostly needless addition.
Calling and Messaging
It may be gigantic, but the Note is still a phone at the end of the day. You’ll look like a plonker holding it up to your ear, but it’s not as ridiculous as using, say, a Galaxy Tab as a phone. Your best bet is to pair it with a Bluetooth headset, though that’s not a necessity, providing you’ve got reasonable mates who wont twist your arm too much for the size of your phone.
The dialler is pretty much standard Android fare, but has a few Samsung stylings of its own. Along the top of the app are tabs for the keypad, call logs, contacts, favourites and groups. You can manually attach Twitter and Facebook info to contacts too, though it is not handled quite a slickly as HTC’s Sense manages to.
If you can brave putting the Note to your ear, call quality proves excellent, with no interference and clear noise reduction. Signal strength remained consistently high too. As you’d imagine, the phone is a perfect fit for video calling apps, using the Note’s 2MP front-facing camera.
For email, you get the standard Android Gmail client with is always excellent, and Samsung’s own Mail app which can also pull in all manner of POP3/IMAP and Exchange accounts you may use. It also makes full use of the large screen, offering a split, two-pane view of your messages when put in landscape orientation.
The standard Gignerbread keyboard is here for email and SMS messaging, but with the screen the size it is, you’ll only comfortably be able to tap out messages with two hands. Of course, you could use the S-Pen, but as we stated above, that’s just as clumsy.
Interface and apps
Just missing out on Ice Cream Sandwich, the Note is running Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) out of the box, with Samsung’s light TouchWiz re-skinning over the top. Again, if you’ve used a Galaxy S II, you’ll feel right at home, with “Hubs” collecting apps for social sites like Twitter or Facebook, gaming portals and apps in the Gaming hub, book buying and reading apps in the Reader hub and music and media playback in the Music hub.
As with all Android phones you get ample ability to customise the experience, and Samsung offer a strong array of live widgets (many of which can be resized) for displaying information at a glance across the seven homescreens. Pinching the screen gives an exploded view of all seven homescreens at once, letting you jump quickly from one to another. It’s a little fiddly, but apps can be arranged into folders too.
Drag down from the top of the screen and you’ll be presented with the Android notifications bar, housing all your email, app, or social network updates. Samsung place a quick settings toolbar in here too, which is handy for quickly accessing GPS, Wi-Fi and profile options.
All the usual Google apps are onboard, including Maps, Talk, Latitude and Places, and you get access to the Android Market app store for grabbing new software. Voice control comes courtesy of a premium version of Vlingo; it’s not quite as fully featured as Apple’s Siri, but you can quickly train it to navigate media and jump to contacts with the power of your voice alone.
Samsung’s Internet browser is the star of the pre-installed app line up though, and again that’s mostly thanks to the quality of the screen in the first place. It’s so big as to make full screen browsing not far off the experience you’d have with a tablet device, with eminently readable, crisp text and vibrant images. This being an Android device, you have none of the Flash woes that hamstring Apple’s devices when it comes to browsing.
The extra screen real estate allows for a few useful additions to the browser UI, such as dedicated page forward and back buttons, as well as dedicated button for jumping between open tabs. There’s even static page name info above the address bar. Though text reflow could at times be a little erratic when pinching and zooming on pages, it’s still the closest we’ve come to a desktop browsing experience from a pocketable device.
Media playback and Gaming
The Galaxy Note really comes into its own when it comes to media playback. With a screen this big, and this gorgeous, it’ll be a godsend come lengthy car trips or when you’re stuck for something to watch in bed. Grab something like the Netflix movie and TV streaming app and you may find yourself glued to the Note all day long. There’s even a setting that pushes the brightness levels of the screen even further for viewing in direct sunlight, though be prepared to take a noticeable knock to your battery level as a result.
Samsung have done a good job of providing solid file-format support with their video player, with the device expertly handling everything we threw at it, including MP4, M4V, Xvid, DivX, AVI and 3GP file types. Throw in DLNA support and you’re sharing video to and from the Note to all manner of devices, making it an expert media experience. Samsung’s video playing app even allows for some basic editing work to be done, which is handy if you’re looking to upload to YouTube directly from the device.
Though competent enough, the music player is basically stock Android with a slight re-skinning. You can muck about with EQ settings, and get album cover artwork, but for a deeper music organisational experience you may want to download a third party app.
Gaming on the Note is also really strong. With a powerful processor and impressive screen, you’re approaching iPad levels of playability. This was best illustrated with a quick game of the Grand Theft Auto III Android edition, where there wasn’t a hint of stutter and the the virtual control pad didn’t impede the view of the action in any significant way.
Still Camera and Video
The Note uses an identical 8MP rear camera as that found in the Galaxy S II. That’s no bad thing, as that smartphone was capable of some superb shots. Thanks to the dual-core processor, you can boot the phone up from off and be in the camera app shooting snaps within little more than 5 seconds, which is great when you’ve got to capture a fleeting moment.
Images are crisp and detailed, with accurate auto-focus and colour reproduction. You also get a decent array of manual controls such as ISO settings, as well as Panorama modes and plenty of scene selection settings to scroll through to add a smidgen of Instagram-like cool to your shots.
Despite its strong image capturing chops, the Note is hardly the ideal snapper though. As it’s so large, it’s actually quite cumbersome to hold when taking a picture. With no dedicated shutter button, you’ll be tapping away at the screen to take shots, which means you have to hold the over-sized device in some quite awkward positions. The size of the screen also makes it far too easy to accidentally brush it while taking a photo, leading to unintentional shifts in focus.
Video shooting still impresses though, with Full HD recording at 1080p/30fps possible. The results are sharp, and the image stabilisation does a good job of keeping moving images from being too jumpy. It suffers a little from noise in dark scenes though, and sometimes takes a little longer than we’d have liked to find a sensible point of focus using AF.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note has all the trappings of a great phone. Its re-skinned version of Android gingerbread is understated and makes useful changes. Its screen is gorgeous to look at and a joy to use. Its processor allows for demanding multitasking and its camera offers both detailed still photography and clear HD video capture. However, its main selling point (its large screen) is also its downfall, as it’s just impractical as an everyday device. It’s just too cumbersome to replace a smaller, more versatile smartphone. Also, the Note’s S-Pen is a massive disappointment, a gimmick that doesn’t really add any useful functionality to an already-responsive UI and touchscreen combo. While it’s a superb multimedia device, its going to take a person with very unique needs for it to be their ideal smartphone.
By Gerald Lynch | February 8th, 2012