Samsung Galaxy Note throwdown: A big phone or small tablet?

Swollen screen sizes push smartphones further into tablet territory. Two CNET editors engage in verbal warfare over what the heck kind of device the Samsung Galaxy Note really is.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy | Team leadership | Audience engagement | Tips and FAQs | iPhone | Samsung | Android | iOS
Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Jessica Dolcourt
Brian Bennett
6 min read
Samsung Galaxy Note

Chances are you've at least heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note, the big 5.3-inch mobile gadget that can either be used like a tablet or like a traditional cell phone. So said Samsung in its splashy Super Bowl ad that blatantly took a swipe at Apple fanboys.

In the meantime, tech journalists are still arguing over where the Note, with its S-Pen stylus and extra-large screen, fits in the field of mobile technology products. Judging from an extremely unscientific sample of New Yorkers, the shopping public seems confused as well. Here at CNET, editors Jessica Dolcourt and Brian Bennett have engaged in more than one heated debate over the Galaxy Note's status as a convergence device.

Jessica's position is clear--the Galaxy Note is a phone with some extra features, but it isn't a tablet. Brian on the other hand, strongly sees it more as a hybrid that can knock out the need for a separate, larger device. We break down our relative positions here.


Jessica Dolcourt: The Note is a big phone, almost too big to comfortably hold, but I can slip it into my back pocket when it isn't in my purse. The dimensions alone make it large for a phone, but not totally unreasonable considering the proliferation of 4.5-inchers (and more) out there. The 5.3-inch screen here is far closer to phone territory than it is to the smallest "standard" tablet size you see--7 inches. (I don't count the 5-inch Dell Streak tablet, unless it's as the exception that proves the rule that nobody wants a 5-inch tablet.)

CNET editor Brian Bennett finds that the Samsung Galaxy Note is a easier to handle on NYC subway trains than a big 10-inch slate. Sarah Kiino

Brian Bennett: In my view, portability depends on which angle you approach the Note. I think of it as a mini-tablet since it squeezes all the essential abilities of a bigger 10-inch Honeycomb slate into a 5.3-inch machine. That may not sound like a lot, but it makes a huge difference on my daily commute. I see people on the subway grappling with unwieldy iPads all the time and it's not pretty. There's a reason strap-hangers give old-school newspaper readers dirty looks. As a traditional phone, the Galaxy Note's size is comical since the point of a handset is to put it bluntly, fit in your hand. I've come very close to dropping the Note onto harsh city sidewalks when gripping it one-handed. As for jeans pockets, fuhgeddaboutit.

Operating system

JD: It runs off Android 2.3 Gingerbread, not Android 3.0 Honeycomb, so Samsung intended it to primarily be a smartphone. There's only one app that nods to tablet behavior, and that's to show a reading pane in the official e-mail program when you turn the phone to landscape mode.

BB: That's true, Gingerbread in place of Ice Cream Sandwich is a letdown, but it won't be long until we see ICS on tablets and phones. Still, as I said before, so far I've been able to use the Galaxy Note to tackle my morning tablet ritual. This consists of reading newspaper apps, and flipping through a bunch of news articles compiled by Pulse and Google Currents. Then I switch over to audio podcasts provided by Google Listen for the walk to the office.

Video playback

JD: Watching videos is excellent on the Note's large screen--relative to a phone. Not bad if you're trying to keep your movie preferences to yourself, but a thumbnail compared to a 10-inch tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or iPad.

BB: OK, you got me there. It's hard to make the case that the Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch display can compete with the iPad or even Samsung's Galaxy Tab devices with huge 10.1-inch screens. However, the Note's Super AMOLED display looks mighty fine, with great viewing angles and eye-popping color, and you don't have to worry about Peeping Toms eying your screen.


JD: It's the same story with e-reading. I opened up a book in the "Game of Thrones" series to test it out. I sure didn't have to hold the phone as close to my face as other smartphones, but for longer reading sessions, it can't compare to a larger screen that's easier to read and requires you to turn fewer pages.

BB: I'm sorry, but I disagree entirely. Where I do most of my reading, on subway cars or in coffee shops, the Galaxy Note's smaller size is less of a hassle to handle. It's also less conspicuous than whipping out a big, bad, 10-inch slate for all to see. Of course, I concede that reading content on a larger device is easier on the eyes and makes more sense for hanging at home on the couch or in bed.

Samsung Galaxy Note
A $50 pen accessory makes the S-Pen easier to use for taking notes. Sarah Tew/CNET


JD: There's no default browser setting to serve the desktop version of a Web site rather than the mobile-optimized version of the site. Compare this to tried-and-true Honeycomb tablets (or even the Gingerbread-based Kindle Fire), which give you the Settings option to set desktop mode.

BB:True, this is annoying and, like many Android smartphones, forces you to find the option to toggle on the desktop version of a site from within the Web page itself. Once you do get things full-size on the Note's screen, it's a pretty nice view.

Corporate wingman

JD: I admit I'm slipping over to Brian's pro-tablet stance on this one. I see far more tablets and laptops being used for work in the conference room than I do mobile phones. While typing may not be quite as comfortable on the Note than on a full-size tablet, Google Docs apps, plus handwriting on the stylus, plus the larger screen do offer a better alternative than a standard phone alone, and you don't have to worry about undocking that laptop or remembering to grab that tablet. It could work.

BB: Samsung makes a big deal over the Galaxy Note's capability to take quick handwritten notes. I admit this is an area that sorely needs the electronic revolution to catch fire. So far, though, trying to scribble on the Note like I would with a traditional pen and paper isn't really workable. Honestly I'm getting Windows Tablet PC flashbacks all over again, complete with my scary handwriting made worse by a slippery screen surface.

Samsung Galaxy Note
The accuracy and usefulness of the Galaxy Note's handwriting recognition software is still up in the air, but works better the neater you are. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Battery life

JD: Tablets are known for long battery life, which is essential for e-reading and for playing movies and games. Even most Android tablets can get between 8-9 hours. If you're connected to the 4G LTE network every day, you probably won't get there.

BB: Even so, you can always flip the Galaxy Note over to airplane mode when juice runs low. Even smarter, charge it when not in use. Be kind to the Note's battery; it's tackling mainly tablet tasks, plus it serves as a phone when you need one.

Cellular connection

JD: It has a cellular radio. For sending and receiving calls. That makes it a phone. 'Nuff said.

BB: I see where you're coming from, JD, since the fact that buying the Galaxy Note requires a pricey AT&T 4G LTE data subscription on top of a voice plan. But riddle me this; what's a device that looks like a tiny tablet, feels like tiny tablet, and is best used as a tiny tablet? Guess what, that's a tiny tablet.

The two of us may never stop bickering about where the device stands. And we are continuing to see if the Galaxy Note's expanded features hang together on a day-to-day basis. What we do agree on is this: while some people are really going to find the Note's extra-large size appealing, there will be many more who find it too unwieldy and just plain-old big. Despite your size preferences, the 4G LTE speeds, call quality, cameras, screen quality, and internal components are satisfying and high-end, even if you never whip out the stylus to take a single note or doodle.

The latest is that Samsung is going to be betting big on the Note, possibly unveiling a 10.1-inch version this month at Mobile World Congress, which would solidly hurl its S-Pen stylus into indisputable tablet territory.

Where do you stand on the Galaxy Note--too big, too small, or just right?