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Galaxy Note 10's biggest innovation: Going smaller and cheaper

The Galaxy Note line was always for die-hard Samsung fans unafraid of jumbo phones. Now there’s a version for the rest of us.

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The Galaxy Note Plus is still for power users. The smaller Galaxy Note 10 is for everyone else. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Back in the day, having the smallest possible phone was a status symbol. Ben Stiller, playing the namesake Zoolander character in the popular 2001 movie, carried around a flip phone the size of a lighter to show how important he was. Steve Jobs, when introducing the first iPhone in 2007, noted that the 3.5-inch device "fits beautifully in the palm of your hand." Today, there's Samsung's Galaxy Note 10

Samsung kicked off the jumbo trend in 2011 -- complete with a 5.3-inch screen, massive for the time -- and the entire phone market changed. Since that time, virtually all handset makers have increased their smartphone sizes, even if phone makers can now cram a larger screen into a smaller package. Apple, which long resisted a bigger phone, revitalized its iPhone sales by introducing the big-screen iPhone 6 in 2014, and it now offers the iPhone XS Max with a 6.5-inch display.

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On Wednesday, Samsung again supercharged its Note lineup by offering a 6.8-inch Galaxy Note 10 Plus. The device sports a bigger screen than last year's 6.4-inch Note 9 but has a physical body nearly the same size. It starts at $1,099, $100 more than last year's device. Offering a Note with a larger screen and higher selling price isn't exactly what you'd call shocking. Phone prices have been increasing across the industry, and people are upgrading less often. 

But in a move that seemingly goes against what the Note stands for, Samsung introduced a second, smaller version with a 6.3-inch screen housed in a body that's smaller than last year's model, and just slightly larger than Apple's iPhone XS. And it dropped the price by $50 from the Note 9. 

In a world where smartphone screen sizes and prices seem to be on a never-ending climb, Samsung has realized that while people may want premium features, not everyone wants a massive, ultrapricey phone. The move could open the Note franchise up to a broader audience and transform the gadget from a high-end niche device into something anyone would consider. 

"The person who will gravitate toward the Note 10 Plus is the classic Note user," said Suzanne de Silva, director of product management for Samsung Electronics America. "The new-to-Note users will gravitate toward the Note 10. We made it more compact and accessible to those consumers who always wanted one but didn't want the bigger screen."

Bigger isn't always better 

Large-screen phones have been linked to repetitive strain disorders in hands, and they stretch the limits of purses and pockets. Yes, the bigger displays afford a better viewing experience when watching a movie or playing games. But not everyone needs a phone that can double as a serving plate. 

Still, over the past several years the industry has acted that way. Companies crammed their best bells and whistles into their biggest phones. If you wanted something like two camera lenses on the back of the device, you had to shell out for the larger device -- even if you didn't really want a bigger screen.

When Apple first rolled out larger screen phones in 2014, it introduced two different models, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch 6 Plus. The only major difference between them was the screen size. The following year, the iPhone 7 Plus had a distinct advantage over the smaller iPhone 7: It had two rear cameras, with one offering 2X optical zoom. 

Samsung has also put better technology in its bigger phones. With the Galaxy S10 lineup from earlier this year, the 6.4-inch Plus model has two front-facing cameras, while the regular 6.1-inch S10 has only one. The bigger device also has a higher-capacity battery (a 4,100-mAh battery compared with the Galaxy S10's 3,400-mAh one).

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The Galaxy Note 10 fits in your pocket?

Angela Lang/CNET

The Note 10 Plus does have some technological advantages over the regular Note 10, but they're not features most users would miss if they opted for the smaller device. That includes a removable microSD card slot, a bigger battery and a fourth camera on the rear for augmented reality video and drawing. And the Note itself loses the headphone jack.

Power users may notice the difference, but they're the people who'd likely want the bigger screen anyway. For the rest of us, the smaller Note 10 will likely be good enough. And now that Samsung has finally gone smaller with a new device, other vendors could follow suit. 

"There's an unmet need for a fully functional yet smaller phone," Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez said. "Samsung is a trendsetter, and I do believe we'll see others offer a range of sizes to ensure that they aren't missing any market share opportunity."

Smaller hands rejoice. 

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