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After Galaxy Fold fiasco, Note 10 may be the hero phone that Samsung needs

Commentary: The Note 10 could still help Samsung recover from its foldable phone disappointment.

Angela Lang/CNET

In a reversal nobody expected in February when Samsung announced its first-ever foldable phone, it could be the rumored Note 10 and not the Galaxy Fold that becomes the highlight of Samsung's six Galaxy phones for 2019. After Samsung delayed the Fold after five early review units malfunctioned, the Fold is no longer the brightest star in Samsung's galaxy. 

The Note is usually the height of Samsung's smartphone efforts, but 2019 was supposed to be different, with the Note 10 taking a backseat to the $1,980 Fold as this year's splurge device. But with the Galaxy Fold undergoing scrutiny as Samsung gets to the bottom of issues that affected at least five review units, it's the Note 10 that could put Samsung back on the right track amidst a flurry of phone releases.

You might ask where the Galaxy S10 5G falls into all of this. The 5G version of Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus arrives on Verizon May 16 for $1,300 before heading to other carriers. It's already made headlines with one battery issue in South Korea.

Yet, I don't see it as major Note 10 competition. Expensive, it doesn't have a stylus and will only be as fast as the 5G network it's riding on. The other "extras" -- a larger screen and battery, and depth sensing cameras on the front and back -- don't do much yet to justify the price. Note fans, however, have long been cited as Samsung as being the most loyal, the power users who crave maximal storage space and flexibility through the S Pen.

ReadThe Galaxy Fold needs an S Pen. Here's why it can't have one

While the Galaxy Note 10 lacks the Fold's sex appeal, it should have everything the S10 5G has and more -- including plenty of competition from Apple's next iPhone and phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro

Here's how Samsung can make the Note 10 a winner.

ReadSamsung's best way out of the Galaxy Fold mess: Suck up to buyers

Fix the screen 'eyeball' notch 

If wallpapers of robots and basketball players don't make you chuckle, you might be ready to see Samsung experiment with a different design for that front-facing camera. On the S10 phones, the selfie camera takes the form of a circular cutout shifted to the right side of the screen, or a horizontal oval, in the case of the Galaxy S10 Plus.

While it won't get in the way most of the time, it is noticeable when the screen is white. Notch cutouts and cameras that pop up are other solutions, but they've also got their share of critics and proponents.

Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc.

Embrace the one-eyed camera.

Angela Lang/CNET

Still, the Infinity-O display that offsets this hole-punch design isn't universally loved, which gives Samsung a chance to try again.

ReadWhat the Galaxy Fold's screen crease, notch and air gap are really like to use 

Deliver secure 3D face unlock

Samsung's secure iris scanner predated the iPhone's Face ID, but now that Samsung's removed it from Galaxy phones, you have the in-screen fingerprint reader as your only biometric...and after months with the Galaxy S10 Plus, it's more miss than hit for me. 

We know that Samsung is at least flirting with the idea of a 3D face unlock secure enough for securing mobile payments, because it gave the Galaxy S10 5G a 3D sensor on the front and back. What's it for? Not face unlock, at least not yet. Samsung said it's there for AR purposes and maybe some improved depth photography, as with the new Huawei P30 Pro, which has a time-of-flight sensor (TOF) on the back.

samsung-galaxy-s9-face-iris-intelligent-scan-unlock-2

Samsung took the iris scanner out of the S10 phones.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Rumor has it that Android Q could fold in this technology -- after a month with Android Q, we haven't seen this yet, but it's typical for Google to hold back some surprises until the final launch in fall. 

If that happens, the Galaxy Note 10 would be perfectly positioned to be Samsung's first phone to incorporate secure face-scanning software baked in. Remember that Android's default face unlock is there for convenience, but isn't secure enough for mobile payments.

We need a real standalone night mode camera

The main camera is Samsung's Galaxy phones uses a dual-aperture lens that automatically changes apertures to let in more light when it detects you're in a darker environment. In my experience, which dates back a year to the Galaxy S9, results are ok, but the clarity and details produced by the Pixel 3 and Huawei's P30 Pro  are in another league entirely.

Samsung said there's a Bright Night Shot mode in the Galaxy S10 Plus, but it kicks in automatically. That's not a bad thing on its own, but it means you can't control when you get those dramatically bright night shots. It also means that Samsung isn't using the same approach to capture and process those shots, which requires up to five seconds. 

Now playing: Watch this: P30 Pro and Galaxy S10 cameras compared
5:41

Samsung is well aware of the competition and has been said to be working on its own take, however, it's unclear how much of a patch this will be versus a complete solution that can generate similar results as Huawei and Google, if not better. The Note 10, which has traditionally been Samsung's pinnacle release before Back to School and holiday shopping kicks in, would be an appropriate, launch pad, if not a belated one. And how about boosted video quality? Let's dish some of that up, too.

Read: Could the Note 10's camera really flip up?

Let's not forget about camera zoom

Huawei's P30 Pro also earn top marks for their incredible zoom ranges: 5x optical zoom and 10x hybrid zoom. The results are incredible. The Galaxy S10 Plus, meanwhile, has a 2x telephoto lens, which is certainly convenient. Photos are "good," but you're not getting the same astounding quality as Huawei's upper crust lens with "periscope" zoom

Other phones, like the Oppo Reno 10, are getting in on the act with 10x hybrid "lossless" zoom. If Samsung doesn't pump the gas, it'll get left in the dust.

huawei-p30-pro-10
Angela Lang/CNET

An accurate in-screen fingerprint sensor

The ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint reader on the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus is, in theory, a wonderful application of ultrasonic technology (think ultrasounds) to securely unlock your phone and authenticate mobile payments. 

In practice, it's a little slow and largely inaccurate, requiring multiple attempts to unlock the phone. It also doesn't work as well as promised if you've got wet or greasy fingertips. And one of the biggest security claims, that you can't trick it with a fake fingerprint, has just been challenged by someone claiming they have.

The Note 10 is another chance to tweak the software, or work with Qualcomm, which supplies the ultrasonic tech, on some other fix.

Now playing: Watch this: Why the Galaxy S10's ultrasonic fingerprint reader matters
2:48

5G speeds could happen; a two-tiered approach is best

Phones with 5G support are inevitable, and Samsung clearly wants to get ahead. Making the Galaxy Note 10 a 5G phone make sense. Even better would be if there are both 4G and 5G options, as with the poor Galaxy Fold. 

The 4G version would help keep costs in check for Note fans who aren't ready to be 5G guinea pigs as those networks find their feet. There are several other reasons why being the earliest 5G adopter isn't a great idea, one of which is that today's 5G chip inside the phone, which takes up space and locks the phone to a single network. 

Qualcomm, which makes the 5G chip as well as the Snapdragon 855 processor inside the Galaxy phones, is launching an upgrade later this year that will make 5G phones sleeker and also able to cruise multiple carrier networks. It's possible the Note 10 will be the first phone to use it.

Now playing: Watch this: We tested Verizon's new 5G network
8:24

What about a foldable design with S Pen support?

I can speculate with absolute certainty that the Galaxy Note 10 won't be a foldable phone like the Galaxy Fold. But it's worth thinking about how the S Pen, Samsung's digital stylus, could work with a foldable screen. Especially since that feels like a foregone conclusion for a future Samsung device. 

What if your Note 10 did this?

CNET

On the one hand you have the Note, whose S Pen takes advantage of a large screen by allowing for navigation, writing and drawing. On the other, the foldable design opens up the largest screens on a cellular device.

The nature of the foldable screen as an expansive surface with Android support for up to three active windows at a time, makes it a fertile ground for a digital pen.

Whether a future foldable Note would be called the Galaxy Fold Note or simply a Galaxy Fold with S Pen support, it could provide extra utility along the lines of Apple Pencil support for the iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface pen. 

An S Pen on a foldable Note would also differentiate it from other foldable phones such as the Huawei Mate X or a future foldable iPhone.

What's on your Galaxy Note 10 wish list?

Originally published April 8.
Update, May 2: Adds new commentary.

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