Samsung Galaxy Note review: Samsung Galaxy Note

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MSRP: $299.99

The Good The Samsung Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch HD screen is ideal for showcasing multimedia. It has 4G LTE, a great 8-megapixel camera, and a souped-up S Pen stylus that brings new ways to interact with your phone.

The Bad The Galaxy Note's S Pen is small, has a delayed response, and requires a little training to use. The phone will be awkwardly large for some, and it doesn't fit easily into pockets.

The Bottom Line With its huge screen and throwback stylus, the Samsung Galaxy Note is a polarizing smartphone that winks at tablet territory. Those who like their screens XL will find a top-notch device that lets multimedia shine. The S Pen adds some artistic potential, but for some, the phone will just simply be too big.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

If you ask me, Samsung began marketing its Samsung Galaxy Note for AT&T on the wrong foot. It was a smart move anticipating reactions to its oversize 5.3-inch screen when the unlocked version first launched in Europe, but the problem with claiming that the Galaxy Note is a phone-and-tablet hybrid (a "phablet," if you will) is setting the expectation that it will be able to reduce your tablet dependence, or obviate the need for one in the first place. While that might be the case for casual tablet users, or for the tablet-curious, the Galaxy Note is firmly and unquestionably a Galaxy smartphone first. In the meantime, "phablet" has become a (fun, if meaningless) catchphrase for a product for which the manufacturers can't seem to decide which spin will net the most sales.

And where does that kooky-cool throwback S Pen stylus come in? The Galaxy Note's wand can take screenshots, jot your notes, and respond to pen pressure--all good stuff. Yet, if you never release the S Pen from its snug plastic tunnel, you won't miss out on the Note's essential smartphone features.

So forget worrying about the Galaxy Note as a tablet and think of it as the phone that it is. A good phone, too. If you like the idea of an LTE-ready Galaxy S II device with a high-quality 8-megapixel camera and a huge honking screen for watching movies, reading e-books, or doing other things you might do on a smartphone or a tablet, then this is a great device. If you enjoy the artistic promise of digital sketching, you might likewise keep it in the running. However, if 5.3 inches seems too ungainly for your hands, or if you balk at the thought of spending $299.99 on a smartphone, then leave this one be and seek out its smaller AT&T cousins, the still large Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket and the Galaxy S II.

Which Samsung engineer accidentally spilled Miracle-Gro on a Galaxy S II Skyrocket? That's what the Galaxy Note looks like, in the nicest possible way. At 5.8 inches tall by 3.3 inches wide by only 0.37 inch thick, it resembles a shingle with rounded edges, only one that comes in "carbon blue" (which looks black to my eyes) or "ceramic white." I reviewed it in blue.

The 5.3-inch HD screen on the Samsung Galaxy Note is a real whopper. That extra-large pen accessory is much more comfortable than the original stylus, but costs an extra $50.

Let's kick things off by addressing the elephant in the room: the Galaxy Note's size. The footprint is big, no doubt about it, and it's a bit of an awkward strain to hold in my smaller-size hands. There's no way this baby is slipping into my jeans pockets, but it's fine for my purse. I'm still a bit on the fence when it comes to my own usability. Operating it one-handed is a limited venture--it's much harder to draft an e-mail message or shoot off a quick text with one hand on the phone and the other holding a wrist strap on the bus. On the other hand, I appreciate the roomy virtual keyboard, which cuts down eye strain and gives fingers plenty of space to hit a digital key. This could speak volumes to my lack of skill as a virtual typist, but the keyboard width didn't prevent me from making mistakes, and I eventually switched from the Samsung keyboard in my e-mail client to the Android keyboard and Swype.

Although it's a big phone, it's pretty easy on the eyes, and the slim build keeps it looking light and lean. As with the rest of the Galaxy series, the Note's body is made from plastic materials. This doesn't make for the particularly premium experience that I feel $300 should buy, but I can't complain about the general aesthetic.

While plastic may not seem upscale, it does offer its own brand of durability over glass parts that can shatter or paint that can chip off metal fixtures. It weighs a chunky 6.3 ounces, but that heft also lends it a greater sense of structural strength.

The Galaxy Note's crowning glory is its 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED screen with its 1,280x800-pixel resolution (that's WXGA, by the way). Samsung's family of AMOLED screen technology always looks bright, vivid, and saturated in color. The Note's behemoth is pretty similar, though pixel density appeared a little lower and the image was noticeably softer and less bright than on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which also has an HD Super AMOLED display. Photos looked crisp and alive, videos played back smoothly on the large, high-def screen, and e-books were easier to read than on smaller smartphone displays.

The Samsung Galaxy Note's HD screen (left) isn't quite as sharp or as vibrant as that of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

The rest of the phone looks a lot like others in the Galaxy S II family. You'll find a 2-megapixel front-facing camera above the screen; below it, there are the four customary touch-sensitive navigation buttons for Menu, Home, Back, and Search. The volume rocker is on the left spine, and the power button is on the right. On the bottom live the Micro-USB charging port and the hollowed-out slot for the Note's S Pen stylus. You can plug your headphones into the 3.5mm jack up top. If you're worried about losing it, the S Pen clicks firmly into place and stays there.

As with the international version of the Note, AT&T's Note packs an 8-megapixel camera with flash. The microSD card slot beneath the back cover holds up to 32GB of your goods.

Interface and slap-happy tricks
For navigation, you've got the most recent version of TouchWiz, Samsung's custom interface that rides over Android; in this case, Android 2.3 Gingerbread. AT&T is fully expected to update the Note to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, though there's no public timeline yet.

There are a few extra goodies in addition to the TouchWiz and Android 2.3 Gingerbread mainstays.

As a reminder, here are some things you can do with TouchWiz: pull down the notifications menu to access system settings; pinch the screen to see an overview of your seven customizable home screens; and cycle through them crazy-fast by holding down and swiping along the row of dots. On the Note, you can also take a screenshot by swiping the edge of your hand left and right across the screen. The latter didn't always work seamlessly and may take a little getting used to. It felt a little unnatural to me, and I can't see myself using that method, but having an extra way to perform a task never hurts. (You can also capture a screenshot by pressing the Power and Home buttons, or by using the S Pen.)

Screenshot-swiping isn't the only gesture that Samsung added. Rotate your finger over a Gallery photo and 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.

S Pen stylus and memo apps
Now let's move on to the phone's most controversially thrilling facet: that stylus. Physically, it's a wisp of a thing, just 4.1 inches tall and 0.2 inch thick, with a button on the side that serves as a shortcut to perform a handful of tasks. The S Pen is reasonably comfortable in the hand, but it's so slim and light (just 0.1 ounce, rounded up) that holding it sometimes feels like grasping at air. There's also the distinct possibility that once it's unsheathed, it'd be easy to drop or misplace.

I won't lie. Writing with the S Pen, as the stylus is known, takes some getting used to, but it also adds some neat tricks.

Samsung says you can buy an S Pen accessory called the S Pen Holder Kit that will look just like a larger, thicker ballpoint pen. It costs $59.99 and comes with an additional S Pen. I read that as an acknowledgment that the S Pen could feel more natural in the hand. A little later this week, I'll be taking a much closer look at drawing and writing with the S Pen over longer periods of time, including with the larger Holder Kit pen in hand, so stay tuned.

The memo apps are where most of the creative action happens. Tap twice on the screen while holding down the S Pen button to pull up Quick Memo, a fast way to start jotting a note. You can later retrieve the memo from the more sophisticated S Memo app. Both let you draw, handwrite notes, and annotate Web sites; S Memo also supports voice recordings and typed text, for instance, but it won't launch from the pen. Apps optimized for the S Pen cleverly respond to 128 different levels of pressure. Harder strokes leave thicker lines, and you can press lighter for shading. Just take care where you put your hands; the wrong placement could create unwanted pen lines.

The handwriting-to-text tool works some of the time, but it helps if you don't scrawl

The apps offer a great alternative to the rigidity of typing, and system integration is reasonably good. For example, you can add a handwritten Quick Memo note to a calendar event. You can write with the S Pen in almost all text fields; you turn that on when you tap the pen icon on the Samsung keyboard. Writing is a little strange at first, since there's some lag in seeing your strokes appear on the screen. While I hardly have the world's most elegant handwriting, the S Pen made it look even more scrawled. It takes a little time to pick up certain navigation shortcuts and work your way through the various apps; I found myself becoming frustrated at the beginning, and expect that I'll adapt as I grow more used to the environment.

I do like the tool for converting handwriting into text. It works better the more neatly you write, and it won't work perfectly every time. I also appreciate the undo and eraser tools in the memo apps, as well as the setting for lefties.

Although I've said that the S Pen isn't necessary for using the Galaxy Note (unlike those styluses of yore), there are some advantages beyond keeping your greasy, grimy digits off that huge smudge magnet of a screen. Samsung has programmed a pair of memo apps to work with the S Pen, and is encouraging other developers to create their own compatible apps as well. There will be about 20 of these apps at launch.

The S Pen isn't for everyone. First there's the learning curve of creating legible notes. I also have yet to see if it can fit my particular work flow after the novelty wears off. I can, however, see how artists and people with more free-flowing thought processes might appreciate the flexibility with which they can express their ideas. I especially see the benefit of quickly, easily creating and sharing digital sketches on the fly, like these caricatures that Samsung used at CES to publicize the Note.

Other features
One of the Galaxy Note's most important smartphone features is its 4G LTE radio, which makes it one of AT&T's faster phones for uploading and downloading data. It's also got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS; text and multimedia messaging; and Android's penchant for integrating social networks into your virtually limitless address book. You'll find all of Google's usual apps and services, like Google Maps with turn-by-turn voice directions, Gmail, Search, Google Music, and YouTube.