Samsung Galaxy Note (T-Mobile) review:

Samsung Galaxy Note (T-Mobile)

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S Note is a new productivity app on the Galaxy Note. Josh Miller/CNET

T-Mobile has also bequeathed the Note its usual complement of apps: there's Bobsled messaging, T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile HotSpot, various account management apps, and visual voice mail. You'll also find Amazon, Lookout security app, Zinio, and Slacker Radio. TeleNav's navigation app is there, along with Polaris Office, and Mini Diary.

Motion controls are deep on the Note. You can take a screenshot by swiping the edge of your hand left and right across the screen. (You can also capture a screenshot by pressing the Power and Home buttons, or by using the S Pen.) If you rotate your finger over a Gallery photo, the image will rotate, too. Shake the device to trigger a search for Bluetooth devices. Then there's my favorite: flip the phone over or press your hand over its face to pause a song or video, or mute an incoming call. These are all fun, clever ways to interact with the device in addition to the usual finger-tap settings.

Camera and video
One of the best features of most phones in the Samsung Galaxy S II line is the 8-megapixel camera. Not all cameras of this caliber can pass muster, but image quality on the Galaxy Note is admirable, and full-size photos look good offscreen as well as on the HD display.

The camera contains all the usual shooting and white-balance presets to take action shots, panoramas, and detect smiles in a variety of lighting scenarios. It also has anti-shake, blink detection, autofocus, and a timer.

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The studio shot has brownish corners, but the image is in focus. Josh Miller/CNET

Front-facing cameras are great for video chats and the odd self-portrait, but you'll get your best-quality shots from the rear camera. Still, Samsung generally does a nice job with the 2-megapixel shooter, and the same is true for this one. Test photos taken indoors with a good amount of natural light looked good, even when blown to full size on the computer screen. The camera naturally didn't capture extreme detail, and I could detect some digital noise when I peered closely, but colors displayed smoothly and were true to life.

Colors looked true in this excellent outdoor landscape shot.

Video capture and playback are also a big deal on the Galaxy Note; the HD screen can do both in 1080p. The high-definition videos look fantastic when played back on the 5.3-inch screen, though I would love to see some HD-optimized apps on here like the ones on Verizon's LG Spectrum, which has a Netflix HD app that sources HD videos by default, when they exist.

These toys, photographed inside away from natural light and under harsh artificial bulbs, were fairly in focus and richly colored.

Recording video is straightforward. As is typical, the app keeps many of the camera settings, but also includes a shorter, lower-quality setting for taking video specifically for MMS. The Galaxy Note has 16GB of internal memory for your application and multimedia storage, and allows for up to 32GB more through a microSD card.

Call quality
I tested the quad-band Samsung Galaxy Note (GSM 850/900/1,800/1,900MHz) in San Francisco using T-Mobile's service and made more than a dozen calls during my test period. Call quality was variable. It sounded nice and loud at maximum volume, but I wanted more in reserve for louder environments. The background sounded clear when the other end of the line was perfectly quiet, and they sounded natural, though fuzzy around the edges. Every time my caller breathed, typed, moved something, or spoke, I could hear a faint ringing in the higher register, like a set of tiny bells.

On his end of the line, my chief tester said I sounded flat and a little tinny, but agreed that I sounded natural. At the higher registers, he heard distortion to the point of distraction.

Samsung Galaxy Note call quality sample Listen now:

I held speakerphone at waist level. Volume was plenty high on my end, but voices sounded a little thin and stretched. I liked that audio sounded warm without hollowness or echo. My caller said that speakerphone sounded good, and had the same observations as he did for the standard call.

The Galaxy Note's 1.5GHz dual-core processor does just fine opening apps, loading movies, and playing back media without flickering or stuttering. I tested 4G data speeds in San Francisco and in several Silicon Valley cities. T-Mobile's 4G speeds didn't reach AT&T's peaks, but for the most part they held steady in the 8-11Mbps down range according to diagnostics measured by the app. Speeds peaked at 18 and 19Mbps and fell flat in dead spots at 1Mbps or less down. T-Mobile's uplink speeds can't compare to AT&T and Verizon's double-digit uplink speeds. In my tests, the Note achieved uplink speeds from less than 1Mbps to just over 1Mbps up.

Samsung Galaxy Note with Android 4.0
Diagnostic tests ranged from a high of 19Mbps down to lows of under 1Mbps down, but usually hovered in the 7-12Mbps range. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In my real-world tests, CNET's mobile-optimized site loaded in 7 seconds, with the desktop site loading in a slow 47 seconds on the first attempt, and 18 seconds on the second attempt, after I cleared the cookies, browsing history, and cache. It took fewer than 4 seconds to bring up The New York Times' mobile site and 14 to switch over to the full view.

Battery life is a big question mark on a handset with such a power-hungry display, and it's to Samsung's credit that the Galaxy Note has an extra-large 2,500mAh battery to complement its extra-large screen. During our battery drain test, the device lasted 8.65 hours. Samsung reported 26 hours of talk time and a rated standby life of 40 days. However, take these numbers with the heaping qualification that you're unlikely to see such longevity if you're using the device for multimedia streaming.

According to FCC radiation tests, the Galaxy Note has a digital SAR of 0.19 watts per kilogram. The FCC's limit is 1.6 watts per kilogram.

There are two main questions at hand: is the Samsung Galaxy Note a phone worth buying, and if so, can it satisfy the need for a tablet?

So long as you're all for supersizing, your answer to the former is mostly yes. The Note has the high-flying specs that we loved in the original Galaxy S II series, so it's strong where it counts. While its size will make carrying the phone awkward for some, the screen real estate is ideal for interacting with HD games and multimedia, and for reading Web sites and e-books. When you add in the S Pen, there's more potential for creative drawings and games. Whether it's little more than a party trick or if you'll ever use it on a regular basis depends on you. I think the screen size, rather than the stylus, will make it or break it for most buyers, but I do worry about the long-term comfort and security of the skinny pen if you don't feel like dishing out for a $50 pen holder accessory -- a price I feel is a lot to ask.

I also think that the starting price will be a tougher sell for those who are also considering the Samsung Galaxy S3, which costs less for the 16GB version and costs the same for a 32GB model. Given the Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch screen, some people could indeed find the Note to be a workable smartphone/tablet hybrid device, or at least those who have casually considered buying a more budget tablet. Depending on the tablet size you'd be eyeing, a 5.3-inch screen is a far cry from a 10.1-inch display. There's really no comparison at that level, but there is an argument for people considering a 7-inch tablet, as well as a 4.8-inch phone like the Galaxy S3. Still, for artists and those who like the idea of a larger, multipurpose device, the Galaxy Note will score points, even if some features, like the S-Pen and the clunkier way the note-taking apps work, could use some attention.

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