After a fairly successful worldwide debut, Samsung is bringing its supersize Samsung Galaxy Note to T-Mobile on August 8. Its big 'n' tall dimensions are the elephant in the room, an uberlarge Samsung Galaxy S II series phone that dances into tablet territory so much so that many have taken to calling the 5.3-inch Note a "phablet." I rant on this elsewhere, but let's just agree that it's a large-screen phone with a stylus that you can use to unlock some interesting-but-far-from-perfect artistic and productivity tools.
T-Mobile's version of the Galaxy Note comes with a rendition of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich built in, and rides on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 4G network, its fastest. S Note and S Memo apps are also on-board, with new features that expand on the power of the itty-bitty stylus. As for the rest of the phone, the Note's 8-megapixel camera, 1.5GHz dual-core processor, and 2-megapixel front-facing camera continue to do well. For most, the question of the Galaxy Note comes down its sheer size -- do you want a bigger screen you can doodle on or use to take notes, or is it simply too large and unwieldy?
Starting August 8, T-Mobile is selling the Galaxy Note for $249.99, after a $50 mail-in-rebate and with a new two-year service agreement.
Which Samsung engineer accidentally spilled Miracle-Gro on a Galaxy S II Skyrocket? At 5.8 inches tall by 3.3 inches wide by only 0.37 inch thick, the black handset resembles a rounded roof shingle. The footprint is big, no doubt about it, and it fits awkwardly in my smaller-size hands. It protrudes from front and back jeans pockets, but fits fine in my purse. I'm still a bit on the fence when it comes to my whether it would be useful for me.
Operating it one-handed is a limited venture even with the special keyboard setting turned on; it might be difficult to keep a hold of the phone the bus. On the other hand, I appreciate the roomy virtual keyboard, which cuts down eye strain and gives fingers or the stylus 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, the Note is 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 $250 should buy, but I can't complain about the general aesthetic. Plastic may not seem upscale, but 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 display is pretty similar, though pixel density appeared a bit 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 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. The Galaxy Note packs an 8-megapixel camera with flash, and the microSD card slot beneath the back cover holds up to 32GB of your goods.
Android 4.0 and TouchWiz
Samsung and T-Mobile may have blessed the Galaxy Note with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but under the layers of Samsung's customized TouchWiz interface, it looks and acts a lot more like Android 2.3 Gingerbread. One difference is that you can press the home button to see a list of recent apps pop up. You can also transfer URLs, maps, and contact info from one NFC-compatible phone to another using Android Beam (turn it on in the settings.) Since many of Ice Cream Sandwich's best new features are visual overhauls, it seems like very little has changed from Android 2.3 to Android 4.0. I personally have mixed feelings about TouchWiz, and I'm ready for a change to an Android OS layer more in line with Google's vision.
S Pen and note-taking apps
The Galaxy Note's throwback stylus 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. Physically, the wand is 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.
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.
There are several related, but strangely separate writing apps where 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, hand write 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.
Then there's S Note, which is new to the U.S. Galaxy Note phones. It's takes S Memo a couple of steps further with a few more flexible features, including being able to hand write mathematical formulas and turn sketched shapes into straight-lined renditions. The controls are more sophisticated, but I wish Samsung just consolidated these features into one app you can access different ways. You can read more about S Note and the S Memo widget here.
Regardless, 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.
There's also the question of how well the S Pen does at actual writing and drawing. In other words, is it as sensitive as pen and paper, and is it a satisfying replacement? I answer that best here, but the bottom line is that I'm very particular and found myself frequently frustrated at incompletely written words, accidental button presses, and awkward writing angles.
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 mitts 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.
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.
Beyond the 4G HSPA+ network, there's 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, plus other basics like the music player, calculator, calendar, and clock.
Apps are a huge part of the Note's experience, especially those created for the S Pen. In addition to the aforementioned memo notes is a game called Crayon Physics. Samsung adds its own app package to the Galaxy Note, including its typical Kies Air and AllShare apps for sharing multimedia (like your photos, videos, and doodles) with your desktop and DLNA-compatible devices, respectively. There are also the Social Hub and Music Hub for organizing tools around Facebook and Twitter social networking, and listening to podcasts and tunes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Speedtest.net 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.
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.