Samsung Galaxy Note (T-Mobile) review: Samsung Galaxy Note (T-Mobile)

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MSRP: $749.99

The Good T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy Note comes with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the S Note app, and a 5.3-inch HD screen that's ideal for showcasing multimedia. It has 4G, 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 with Android 4.0 is a polarizing smartphone that winks at tablet territory. Those who like their screens extra-large will find a top-notch device that lets multimedia shine. The S Pen adds some artistic potential, but for some, the phone will simply be too big.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy Note is almost identical to the AT&T version. As a result, portions of this review come from the AT&T review. I assess differences in the OS, apps, call quality, and performance here.

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.

T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy Note comes preloaded with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but looks like Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note
The S-Pen is small and plastic, but firmly tucks into the phone. Josh Miller/CNET

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.