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Samsung is hours away from launching its new Galaxy Note, rumored to be the Galaxy Note 10 with a 6.3-inch screen, and an even larger Note 10 Plus with a 6.8-inch display. Today, we may take the Note line for granted, but when the first Galaxy Note launched in 2011, it was met with derision. In those days, the Note was considered too damn big.
For example, when the original Galaxy Note launched, the Samsung Galaxy S's 4-inch screen was about as big as anyone wanted. It took Samsung's marketing clout to convince us all to give large-screen
a try. Today, speculation about 6.3-inch and 6.8-inch screens isn't such a shock. After all, the Galaxy
already has a vast 6.4-inch display. The new Notes would just be a little bigger.
This inching toward ever-larger screen sizes matters because of the way the screens themselves affect the way we use phones. Fast data speeds have made on-demand maps navigation, streaming video and gameplay so ingrained in our daily habits that Google and Apple had to devise tools to keep us from staring at our screens for too long. When you do everything on your phone, the large, sharp screen you do it on becomes paramount.
"When I first saw the original Note, I thought it looked ridiculous -- I even called it a 'dork flag'," said Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight. "Ironically, one of my more enlightened colleagues loved it and started using it, much to our amusement in the team. Turns out he was right on the money."
Samsung's new phone was attractive enough, but it was heavy, thick and overgrown. Its wacky S Pen stylus also raised eyebrows, a callback to the pre-iPhone days of Palm Pilots and other PDAs -- personal digital assistants -- that used a complex writing system to turn strokes into letters.
In my Galaxy Note review, I called Samsung's pioneering device a "kooky-cool throwback," mostly out of nostalgia for the Palm Pilot stylus I sometimes messed around with as a teenager when my dad wasn't using it for work.
Samsung's premise with the S Pen was simple: no handwriting shortcuts to learn, you just picked it up like a pencil and started to write or draw. With the software licensed from Wacom, best known for its digital pads and pens for creative professionals, the first S Pen responded to 128 levels of pressure, which meant you could control line thickness and shading with the weight of your hand. (The Note 9 has 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity.)
Writing wasn't the best experience on the original Galaxy Note. My handwriting, which is already unrestrained, became even messier. The Note wouldn't register pen strokes near the screen borders, slicing off my freeform notes and doodles as they crept close to the edge.
The 4.1-inch stylus itself was so light and thin (0.2 inch thick), I was constantly worried I'd drop it. Put it down on a desk, and it often rolled away.
"I thought that the stylus was a step backward in UX [user interface], but I guess time has shown otherwise!" said Wayne Lam, director and principal analyst at IHS Markit.
The stylus may have been the Note's wild card feature, but at the end of the day, the phone was always about the screen. I wrote in my original review, "I think the screen size, rather than the stylus, will make it or break it for most buyers." I also said that the stylus would keep the pricey Note locked in as a niche device in a crowded field.
It was the Note's screen size that ultimately propelled it. I didn't foresee it then, but people who bought the Note accepted that they'd have to sacrifice the portability of a smaller phone to get the benefits of a larger display -- and the attitude was catching.
Rise of the supersize screen
For all its hype, the Galaxy Note wasn't actually the first large-screen phablet. The Dell Streak, a 5-inch phone-tablet hybrid that launched in 2010, predated the Note. It had Android, Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities (and no stylus).
At the time, people prized portable sizes, and "feature phones" (you might know them now as "dumb phones") were still as common as smartphones like the
, if not more so. We thought it looked ridiculous holding the Dell Streak next to our ears to make a call, but we liked the web-surfing and multimedia benefits levied by that larger screen.
Using apps, reading e-books and typing on a roomier digital keyboard were all easier on these early phablets. Samsung just did a better job than Dell at selling the benefits of a sizable screen, and at making the Note feel like a phone first and tablet second, and not the other way around.
When the Galaxy Note 2 launched in 2012, I remember asking Samsung what people liked about the then still-experimental Note line, and what kind of backlash it received from making such a large phone. The Note was a niche device, Samsung acknowledged, but customers loved the larger screen, specifically being able to write instead of type, and jotting down thoughts. Samsung said it was especially popular in Asian countries, where Galaxy Note owners often wrote characters by hand.
"The original Note was a breakthrough product because, as the first 'phablet,' it introduced people to large screen smartphones and demonstrated how useful and computer-like a smartphone could be," said Bob O'Donnell, research president at Technalysis.
Spurred by the Note's early, small success, Samsung began experimenting with increasing the size of its Galaxy S phone screens. The trend toward larger phones had already begun (that year's 3.6-inch HP Pre 3 was already considered far too small), but the brand's investment in the Note year after year helped accelerate screen growth.
It wasn't long before the Note got direct competition, like the 5.9-inch HTC One Max, which we described as proof that phones could get too big, and the LG G Stylo, which had a stylus of its own.
, Samsung's most serious competitor (and in 2011, the gold standard for smartphones), stubbornly hung on to smaller screens, introducing the first 4-inch iPhone in 2012, the iPhone 5, and its first large-screen iPhones in 2014, the 4.7-inch
and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. Samsung, meanwhile, was already on the 5.7-inch
Galaxy Note 4
Small phones are dead, but the Note is still niche
There's no doubt that the Galaxy Note helped pioneer and popularize the large-screen phone. It helped prove the benefits of a bigger screen for watching videos, reading stories and surfing the web, but also the need to balance a big display with a smaller body. Screens were getting bigger, but that meant the rest of the phone was, too. Something had to give.
Over the years, the thick black bezels surrounding the display started shrinking, and the home and navigation buttons below the screen began to disappear. In-screen and rear-mounted fingerprint readers, and face unlock all help expand screen size while reducing clutter on the phone face.
Inside the devices, the emphasis was on creating more space for bigger batteries to power those ever-growing screens. Smaller processors and camera modules helped make room. So did fixing the batteries in place (removable batteries take up more space) and, more recently, killing off the 3.5mm headphone jack.
is the culmination of its large-screen ambitions, with a 7.3-inch display that folds down into a thick phone. Although troubled with screen problems days before its intended launch (the Fold will now sell in September), Samsung sees its foldable phone's enormous internal display as the ultimate fulfillment of the large-screen-but-portable phone dream.
Like the first boundary-pushing Note, the Galaxy Fold attempts to mesh the benefits of a tablet with a device that still acts very much like a regular phone. (In fact, we wonder how Samsung will keep the new Galaxy Note 10 from being overshadowed by the Fold.)
Large-screen phones are now the norm, but the Galaxy Note's other major contribution, its stylus, hasn't stuck. Note buyers are loyal, Samsung says. But in an era when most everyone types and few people write, the act of holding a pen, even a digital one, feels even more like a "kooky-cool throwback" to the written word than it did when the Galaxy Note first emerged.
Samsung proved that large screens rule the day. With the Note 10, the phone-maker has another attempt to write the S Pen's future.