Samsung Galaxy Note: AT&T's jumbo phone wants to make the stylus cool

With a 5.3-inch screen and a tricked-out stylus that can take screenshots and let you freestyle drawings and notes, the LTE-ready Samsung Galaxy Note is an interesting take on the familiar Android smartphone.

LAS VEGAS--It was only a matter of time until Samsung announced the U.S. version of the Samsung Galaxy Note, the phone maker's largest smartphone to date.

Already available in Asia and Europe, AT&T's take adds two other things: support for AT&T's 4G LTE network and a faster 1.5Ghz processor.

Our crew did get some good hands-on time with the Note, which also has a stylus and some unique interactive features. But before we get into that, let's review the specs.

Specs
What sticks out most is the Note's 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED screen (1,280x800 pixels), which looked clear, colorful, and gorgeous. As with the international version, it packs an 8-megapixel camera, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and a large, 2,500mAh battery to help support that huge, hungry screen.

It also felt light and thin for a phone of this size, not much thicker than that of the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket. I often rebuke Samsung for making light, plastic handsets, but in this case, a weightier device would turn off more prospective buyers. Since I now see a lot of phones with 4.5-inch screens, the Galaxy Note no longer strikes me as cumbersome, and it felt comfortable enough in my smaller-size hands.

The Note is, of course, and Android phone, but here's where some of you stop cheering: it'll ship with Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread. I expect AT&T to upgrade the phone to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich sooner rather than later. Samsung's TouchWiz interface rides on top.

The Note will ship in two colors: carbon blue (which almost looks black) and white. We'll update with pricing and availability when we have it.

What's up with the stylus?
The stylus is pretty much how I remember one to be: light, narrow, short, and flimsy. Oh, it takes me back. Unlike those wands of yore, this variation--known as the S-Pen--works with a capacitive rather than resistive screen, so it's responsive to your fingertips as well as the pen tip. In addition, it has a button on the bottom that triggers some interesting results.

From the memo app on the Samsung Galaxy Note
From the memo app on the Samsung Galaxy Note Lynn La/CNET

Push the button twice while holding the stylus to the screen and it'll pull up the Quick Memo app, which lets you do fun things like draw, hand-write notes, and annotate Web sites. Although it's not a feature everyone would glom onto, I know many people who would enjoy the app's free-form aspects.

Developers will be happy to know that Samsung plans to release the SDK in the near future, so more apps can take advantage of the stylus. One already comes preloaded on the phone, a game called Crayon Physics.

You can also use the stylus to create a screenshot, and I should also mention that an accessory is in the works--shaped like a real pen!--that you can drop the stylus into for more comfort.

Slap-happy effects
Beyond the stylus, there are some tricks you can do with just your hands, like swipe your hand left and right across the screen to trigger image capture, and turning your finger over a Gallery image will rotate it. Shaking the device triggers a search for Bluetooth pairings. Lastly, there's my favorite addition: slapping (or pressing) your hand over the phone face to pause a song or video as it plays. (Lifting your hand resumes the music.)

So: A phone or a tablet?
Samsung is trying to sell the Galaxy Note as a new product category of phone/tablet hybrid. (A "phoblet," perhaps?) On account of its size, it borders on awkwardly large for a smartphone, but small for a tablet. Yet its screen is slightly larger than the smallest tablet, the 5-inch Dell Streak (which, incidentally, bombed).

To me, the answer is easy. The Note is a phone that fits right into the design aesthetic of the Galaxy family, with a few extra elements to make it friendlier to mediaphiles and the large-handed. Without a doubt, the blown-out screen size lends itself well to a multimedia playground, to strain-free browsing, and typing with the knowledge that any errors you make are entirely of your own doing.

As for the stylus, it adds more than just a chance to relive the early days of smartphones by trying to hook in a note-taking element and some extra functionality. Still, I'm not convinced how successful that'll be, and how I'd incorporate the stylus into my workflow. I can see people who are visually expressive wanting to annotate, crop, and navigate, and I can see germaphobes relishing a tool that will cut down on smudgy finger grease.

At the end of the day, those attracted to the Galaxy Note's more extreme dimensions and extra tool will find a familiar Galaxy phone. Should the stylus strike you as gimmicky (as it does me), the rest of the features--from LTE to that larger battery--thankfully give it a solid base to stand on.

 

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