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Samsung Galaxy Note 7: Ready for the rumble of the jumbos

Samsung helped blaze the trail for supersized phones. Now it hopes its latest phone will help it fend off Apple's iPhone Plus line.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Size matters" jokes aside, the importance of the jumbo phone is no laughing matter.

Korean tech giant Samsung, after all, was the first major player to wager on supersized handsets, unveiling the original Galaxy Note five years ago. At the time, critics ridiculed its 5.3-inch display as technology run amok.

But a funny thing happened. You started staring at your screen a lot more. And it wasn't just for surfing the web. You streamed videos, looked at Instagram photos and played games. As the years passed, Samsung's phones kept getting bigger and the number of skeptics kept getting smaller.

You can quibble over how innovative Samsung is (Apple fans certainly would) but there's no question it turned the phablet -- a hybrid of a phone and tablet -- into a no-kidding phenomenon. Thanks to Samsung, you or someone you know is carrying a phone that can barely fit in their pocket.

Looking to supersize your phone? Every company has an option. Even Apple.

Now Samsung is back to reclaim its phablet crown, stolen by the iPhone over the holidays last year. To do that, the company on Tuesday took the wraps off the Galaxy Note 7, a phone with a 5.7-inch display and packed with standard features like its S-Pen stylus, as well as additions such as an iris scanner for another layer of security. The Note 7 even has a bigger screen than the iPhone, but houses it in a smaller body.

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Samsung's Galaxy Note line is critical to Samsung's success because of the growing consumer interest in phablets. An estimated 630 million phablets will be sold this year, up 12 percent from a year ago and outpacing the broader market of phones, according to Strategy Analytics.

Galaxy Note customers are its "most loyal base of customers," said Justin Denison, senior vice president of product planning and marketing for Samsung's US business.

"They have an innate need for their device to keep pace with the way they live," he said. And the ridiculously large screen, he said, helps them do that.

You know what they say about large phones...

The Galaxy Note 7 is packed with many of the same features as February's Galaxy S7, but comes with updated software and new features like an iris scanner for enhanced security and a faster USB-Type C port. The Note's marquee feature, the S-Pen -- a stylus that lets you "draw" and interact with the Note -- is more accurate and has more bells and whistles like the ability to translate foreign text.

Again, you may quibble about the sanity of including a stylus in this, the smartphone era touched off by Apple's Steve Jobs, who famously said "Yuck, nobody wants a stylus." But it turns out some people actually do.

"What I like the most is that Samsung turned what could have been a gimmick into a tool that end users can see themselves using," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.


The Galaxy Note 7's new S-Pen is also waterproof.

Josh Miller/CNET

The only hang-up may be the price. AT&T's version will cost $880 and T-Mobile will sell its Note 7 for $850. That's a tough sell when even the iPhone 6S Plus starts at $750. Verizon and Sprint haven't unveiled their prices yet.

That's especially true at a time when cheaper -- and even bigger -- phones offer a competent experience, according to Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen.

Still, Samsung should be feeling good about its prospects. Last week, it posted its best quarterly profit in two years thanks to its Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge phones. It was the more expensive S7 Edge that was the most popular Android phone in the first half, according to Strategy Analytics.

The Note 7 could also lure iPhone 6S Plus users, given its larger display but smaller body. Samsung didn't hesitate to make the comparison.

"They won't have to compromise between a big screen and a big device," Denison said.

This story was originally published at 8 a.m. PT on August 2, and has been updated at 9:12 a.m. PT on August 3: To include prices from AT&T and T-Mobile.

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