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Samsung Galaxy Note

February 19th, 2012
Samsung gambles that going big will win in smartphones.

Samsung made much ado of the Galaxy Note during the Super Bowl: the massive 5.3-inch screen and pen were tickets to "freedom" from the comparatively tiny iPhone. But are size and handwriting giving smartphone owners real choice, or is it an attempt to shoehorn the phone/tablet crossover into a market that doesn't want it? Our review of the Galaxy Note will find out if it's rethinking smartphones or just rewinding back to 2006-era PDAs. Samsung made much ado of the Galaxy Note during the Super Bowl: the massive 5.3-inch screen and pen were tickets to "freedom" from the comparatively tiny iPhone. But are size and handwriting giving smartphone owners real choice, or is it an attempt to shoehorn the phone/tablet crossover into a market that doesn't want it? Our review of the Galaxy Note will find out if it's rethinking smartphones or just rewinding back to 2006-era PDAs.

Design, display, and the pen

All of Samsung's high-end smartphones from 2011 -- which, despite the North American street dates, includes the Galaxy Note -- share a common formula of a minimalist design with rounded corners and edge-pushing screens that provide only slightly more than the minimum space needed for controls. It's not an exciting design, but it's tasteful and well-built. As usual, the back battery cover is just a thin plastic shell, but as on other phones, it has Samsung's Hyperskin (really just a finely-textured surface) to help with grip. The controls are the standard, competent, four-point touch-sensitive Android layout, a change from the very conspicuously iPhone-like international version with its large, physical center button.

But here, that texture is necessary because the phone is big. Very big. If you're a man with average-sized hands, the Note is just barely fits well enough to be held in one hand. While it's tolerable for us to hold during a half-hour phone call, there's no question that it could be too big entirely for anyone with smaller hands. Even as a data device, you often have to hold it two-handed, and there's no way for your fingers to reach every part of the screen without shifting position. And despite what you might think, it's not necessarily easier to type with a larger screen. Some of this is software, which we'll touch on later, but we found that there wasn't much advantage over even an iPhone for typing speed.

Moreover, it's just hard to see the Note fitting into some pockets or, for that matter, lifestyles. It fit into our average-sized jeans, but we wouldn't want to include much else; anything smaller or tighter and it would be awkward. There's no way to avoid looking slightly ridiculous on a call, either. By comparison, even the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus looks small and socially acceptable, and the iPhone appears almost dainty. We asked several men and women we know, some of whom use Android and some who don't, and all of them thought the Galaxy Note was unwieldy and strange to use in public. That's not a good sign for Samsung when it's the company's new hero phone in the US.

Inside, it's slightly more upbeat. The 16GB of built-in storage and microSDHC card slot are familiar, but it now has the NFC (near-field communications) of phones like the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus for reading tags, pairing devices, and making mobile payments. There's also a very high capacity 2,500mAh battery, whose performance we'll see soon enough. We're somewhat disappointed in the processor choice: in what's believed to be a conflict between the LTE-based 4G chip the Note is using in North America and Samsung's Exynos processors, the American and Canadian versions use a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which has downsides we'll see soon enough.

But while we grouse about the display's 5.3-inch size, what we won't complain about is its visual output. It's using the same Super AMOLED HD technology as the Galaxy Nexus, which to us is mostly a positive. The PenTile layout, or an RGBG (red, green, blue, green) pixel array, does create a slightly fuzzy look, but the dense 800x1280 resolution minimizes the effect even with such a big screen. Both it and the Galaxy Nexus share the same color traits, which is to say an exaggerated but still very pleasing look. The iPhone 4S is technically more accurate, just not as exciting. Having the wider aspect ratio does wonders for reading and sheer workspace, so if you feel the narrow displays most phones are limiting, you'll be satisfied here.

The Note's namesake S Pen input is mostly a software story, but the hardware bears mention. Samsung's stylus doesn't require any power of its own but manages to have pressure sensitivity and a button for extra features, such as taking a screenshot by touching the screen with the button held down. It's comfortable enough to use, and it has the advantage of talking to a Wacom-based digitizer system like those in dedicated drawing tablets.

There's a fairly convenient slot for the pen, but we couldn't help but be reminded of one of the late Steve Jobs' well-known complaints about having to remember to take out, use, and put away a stylus: just having to recall it can be a bit of a nuisance. We were careful with the pen, but at $40 for a replacement unit, it's a very costly mistake if you lose or break it.

Android 2.3, TouchWiz, and the Android 4.0 upgrade

If you've seen our review of the Galaxy S II, you'll be well-prepared for the Galaxy Note. Despite it now being a year since the S II was unveiled, the Note has the same combination of Android 2.3 and TouchWiz, albeit with minor changes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since it leads to a fairly smooth experience, if one that feels a little too much like that on the iPhone at times. We most like Apple Exposť-style home screen overview and the ability to unlock directly to a missed call or message, although the new, slightly Android 4.0-like unlock method doesn't have either a camera shortcut (as in 4.0) or the ability to unlock to a third-party app, like in Apple's iOS 5.

Some of the deeper support for landscape-mode apps makes more sense on the larger screen of the Galaxy Note than it did on the SII. As long as you adjust the font sizes, the non-Gmail e-mail client and the Social Hub are potentially useful ways to quickly scan multiple messages by seeing both the list and previews. Most of the motion controls are more novelty than anything, though, and we still question the needs for both Samsung Apps and the Social Hub given that the built-in Android Market and individual social networking apps both do the job better. Social Hub doesn't include Google+ support, which is becoming increasingly important for Android users.

In spite of its coverage, the big screen does backfire in a few ways. Significant parts of both Android and TouchWiz aren't optimized for the larger screen, so elements are either oversized and waste screen area or are hard to reach without moving your hands. Swype is active by default and provides the autocorrection that Samsung's own keyboard doesn't, but apart from not gaining much from the larger screen, we noticed a tendency for it to accidentally interpret taps as swipes and occasionally insert short words (usually US state acronyms) on its own.

A few apps are new in the Galaxy Note edition, although their utility is somewhat debatable. S Choice is what amounts to a curated selection of titles from Samsung Apps, which after a few explorations and downloads saw apps that were mostly non-exclusive (Skitch, for example) or mediocre quality. Mini Diary gives a basic way to juxtapose images and notes for a personal history, but there's not much to it -- and it strangely doesn't support the pen. We'll cover the key S Memo app in more detail, but the only other app that's truly useful is the S Planner, a nicely visual upgrade to calendaring that still supports Google Calendars but which is more fine-grained. We actually prefer the tabs and other organizers Samsung uses for sorting schedules than the multi-touch "stretch" of the calendar in Android 4.0.

Some extra apps fill out both expected and welcome roles. AllShare media sharing lets you send content to a DLNA-equipped TV, a PlayStation 3, or a similar box. Our favorite is Kies Air, a way to wirelessly send media, call logs, and other content to and from a computer on the local network through its browser. To some extent, though, it's almost needed: at least with our Galaxy Note, a USB connection would only allow using the Windows-focused Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) and couldn't let us directly copy from Mac OS X, even with Google's own Android File Transfer app. A Galaxy Nexus doesn't have this issue, and it's notable that an iPhone can now conduct a full, automated sync with iTunes over Wi-Fi.

Voice recognition through Android Voice Actions and the bundled Vlingo app has lost its luster in a post-Siri era. Samsung doesn't have Android 4.0's improvements for continuous voice input and suggestions. Vlingo can technically do more in some areas than Apple's system, such as launching an individual app, but it's an incredibly stiff interface by comparison. It can't really address natural language and doesn't understand anything about context, or even in some cases bring up common requests the way you'd like. Ask "what's the weather in Austin?" and it will just run a web search for the phrase; you can set an appointment, but it won't check if there's a conflict and let you give a simple "move it to two" to adjust the timing. That and having to launch an app or trigger a widget, instead of having voice commands truly built -in, really discourages voice use.

Some of this would be solved through Android 4.0 itself, but that raises its own questions. Samsung has promised Android 4.0 updates for its higher end devices, including the Galaxy Note, in the near future. The first upgrades for Samsung's line could show before the end of March. However, Samsung is known to take a long time for upgrades and isn't always consistent. The Continuum, a Verizon phone from late 2010, only just got Android 2.2 in February 2012, a year and a half after it was made public. The only surefire way to get newer versions of Android in a timely way is to get a Nexus phone, and there's no guarantee the Note will get long term support after 4.0 arrives.

Until the Galaxy Note moves to Android 4.0, then, apps like Chrome for Android are off limits. Critics argue that fragmentation on the platform is exaggerated, but it's the absence of major new apps like Chrome that shows a splintered platform in action.

The pen and S Memo

Ostensibly the phone's reason for being is its pen input. After rooting through the interface, though, there's precious little to actually run with it. Samsung has a pen development kit, but as of February there was still little in the way of apps. We wouldn't count on third-party help for what's a sub-platform of one manufacturer's Android devices; anyone who has owned a Kyocera Echo can attest to the pitfalls of putting faith in support for hardware that doesn't have a guarantee of success or future support.

Apart from the photo editor (more on this soon) and a simple if interesting copy of the draw-to-win game Crayon Physics Deluxe, the core pen app on the Galaxy Note is S Memo. In truth, it's an all-purpose drawing app that fulfills both artistic drawing and notes, including ones typed with the familiar on-screen keyboard. The app doesn't have a particularly broad set of tools, although it does have a surprising amount of control over the pen type, the drawing width, and the color. Along with the pressure sensitivity in the pen, it can recognize speed as well, and you'll create drawings that have effects more akin to real paper, such as lines that thin out as you lift the pen tip. We've created work that reflects our (limited) ability and seen considerably more creative work drawn live by others.

Actually settling down to draw underscores some limitations of the pen system itself. There was a small but frequently visible amount of lag between drawing and action. Precision can be just as much of an issue depending on what kind of content you're creating, and we found it hard to be accurate without moving slowly. It's hard to tell how much is Samsung's own doing versus the inherent differences between drawing on a capacitive touchscreen with a plastic stylus instead of paper. The friction and immediate natures of paper, brushes, and pens aren't there, so it still feels slightly unnatural.

Consequently, the S Pen at its best feels more like a nice-to-have extension of the Galaxy Note than a core component, and that's a shame. What's supposed to be a rethink feels more like a bolt-on extra. We'd have preferred that Samsung have a whole suite of apps and a truly mastered drawing experience before it declared a truly different experience.

Performance: device, 3G, and 4G

Subjectively, the Snapdragon processor (which Samsung never publicly acknowledges) only has a limited effect on perceived speed, although it's noticeable. TouchWiz is still very fluid, more so than some pre-4.0 implementations; still, we noticed that the Exposť-like view and other occasional transitions were slightly jittery where they were fast on the Galaxy S II. The Galaxy Nexus (and to some extent, the Nexus S) has an advantage in boosting some 2D apps. While it needs to be enabled, you can insist that hardware graphics acceleration be used for every 2D app, giving apps like Twitter that tend to bog down on Android a lift in speed that just isn't an option on Android 2.3.

Most modern Android games are still designed to run well within the parameters of average phones, so it wasn't surprising to us that games like Wind-Up Knight ran smoothly. Behind the scenes, it's apparent the Galaxy Note's chip isn't as fast as Samsung's own Exynos. Quadrant Standard hit a score of 2,581, or about 20 percent slower than the 3,216 of the Galaxy S II. The more gaming-oriented Neocore benchmark from Qualcomm itself showed a 55.7 frames per second average instead of the 59.6 of the earlier phone. Either is somewhat disappointing for a phone that was released several months later than the S II and yet is supposed to carry a price premium.

Cellular network performance is another story. Not surprisingly, LTE network performance is almost stratospheric if you're in a good coverage area. We were on Telus' fledgling network in various parts of Ottawa and managed between 20Mbps to a very high 36Mbps downstream, and between 7Mbps to 12Mbps for uploads. Lag time was down to as little as 28ms, where it's not uncommon to get ten times more latency on a 3G network. Performance on AT&T, Bell, or Rogers can vary sharply, but we've had the opportunity to try LTE on all of these networks, and can say they at least sometimes match what we saw here. It's good enough to match a very good landline in nearly every respect.

We did have some opportunities to try the HSPA+ support, which still goes up to 21Mbps. As you'd imagine, it's not as brisk as LTE, although we got very respectable performance of up to 7.7Mbps down, 2Mbps up, and lag at 50ms. If you have to fall back to 3G (which some carriers still call 4G), it's still very acceptable.

The catch with LTE, of course, is having it available. Telus had very literally switched on its LTE network the week before we were trying the Galaxy Note, and access to it was patchy. A trip downtown saw LTE go on and off enroute our destination, and LTE that we had in our home territory on Rogers wasn't yet there with Telus. This will change, but it's a reminder of why LTE isn't yet a mainstream feature. Even Verizon's network in the US still leaves out a large number of cities and still leaves holes where it drops down to 3G. AT&T's is smaller still and will be until sometime in 2013. Don't be afraid to get a device it you're not in an LTE area; just be aware the network isn't quite the panacea it seems to be.

Camera apps and image quality

The imaging app is still that from TouchWiz 4.0, and is arguably still one of the more powerful available. It's a careful blend between simplicity and control that can be completely hands-off if you like but lets you fine-tune the behavior. You can set the ISO sensitivity levels, the white balance, and the metering in addition to easier features like scene presets. Our only real issue was the curious decision to set the default video resolution to 720p rather than the maximum 1080p given that there's no frame rate differences.

Another repeat of the Galaxy S II comes in the camera system, which borrows the same eight-megapixel rear sensor and two-megapixel front sensor as the back. Again, this may not be a real problem given that the S II's cameras performed relatively well most of the time in still photos. It's very much possible to get the coveted shallow depth of field and soft backgrounds that photographers crave from macros and other close-up shots. Colors are generally accurate, if a bit muted, and the images are clear. We even managed a few truly workable low light photos.

With this in mind, there are a number of signs that the camera is less of a performer than the one in the iPhone 4S or its close cousin in imaging terms, Sony's Xperia arc. The Galaxy Note's camera in some outdoor scenes can produce a "burnt" look where edges are darker; we suspect it's either being too enthusiastic with detail enhancements or just has a problem with these color contrasts. We'd draw more attention to a tendency to blow out highlights. And low-light ability, while it exists, just isn't on the level of the iPhone or Xperia, either of which can produce a usable shot in a uniformly dim (though not pitch black) scene where the Galaxy Note left much of the shot in darkness. We found the flash almost too bright for any close subjects.

The use of the earlier camera and Android 2.3 together reintroduces something that the Galaxy Nexus (and iPhone 4S) was trying to banish: shutter lag. Capture a photo and there's always a gap between the press and the image showing on screen, although it's small enough that you keep a sharp picture. Suffice it to say that you won't be snapping rapid-fire shots during a concert or a sports event like you would with either the new Nexus or the iPhone 4S.

Samsung does make up for these deficits to some extent through a surprisingly robust photo editor app. It's no Photoshop, but it does let you crop, grab selections, apply filters, and adjust qualities such as saturation. The pen gets one of its precious few extra uses here, although it's mostly for drawing a lasso selection to cut out a specific object.

Video quality is generally solid and once more draws parallels with the S II. Any image quality positives and drawbacks persist into movie-making. There's something of the "tower of Jell-O" (rolling shutter) effect that makes subjects appear to wobble, and video in lower light tends to blur faster than it would elsewhere. All the same, the Note's video is still very acceptable, and we remain surprised with the audio quality inherited from the S II, which can pick up subtle sounds like footsteps.

Call quality and battery life

As odd as it is to hold the Galaxy Note up to one's head, we can at least commend Samsung for keeping the same voice quality as on the Galaxy S II. It's very nearly ideal on both ends: clear, reasonably loud, and gentle on the ear for long periods. As a speakerphone, arguably the more common use for a phone this big, it's not especially loud, but it's certainly adequate.

Longevity is a definite wildcard with a device this size; there's equal opportunity for it to be exceptional and terrible. Thankfully, it's very much on the positive side, although it also has one of the widest gaps depending on use. Moderate use, primarily in the evening and on 3G as well as Wi-Fi, is where it truly shines: we got 36 hours of being unplugged before the charger warning came on, and we still had 20 percent power left that (if used consistently) would have pushed us to 43 hours.

Even so, the 2,500mAh battery can't entirely escape current-generation LTE's tendency to crush battery life. In a second day of heavy use, including a large amount of primarily LTE-based Internet use and photography, we had just a few percentage points of battery left after 13 hours. That's longer than the 8.5 hours of 4G use we've heard for Motorola's Droid RAZR MAXX, and it's enough for some users to get through a workday or a long evening out without panicking as to whether or not the phone will last the night. If you're willing to accept a giant phone, you don't have to wait for healthy 4G battery life.

Wrapping up

The Galaxy Note feels like the culmination of the mindset that has pushed many Android manufacturers since 2010. It's the peak of a view that bigger numbers are always better, whether they're really necessary or not. At this point, there is virtually no place else for Samsung to go in screen dimensions after the Galaxy Note: any bigger than 5.3 inches and the device would practically spill over into tablet territory. As it stands, it's clearly a data device first and a cellphone a distant second.

It's for that reason that it feels like Samsung is at once trying too hard and not trying enough with the Note. Technically, many of the admirable underpinnings of the Galaxy S II are here. The suddenly less comfortable form factor, the questionable advantages of the pen, and the slightly slower performance all end up diminishing what in the seemingly more modest S II was an ideal balance. In some ways, the pen feels like it came about as a justification for the screen size oneupmanship rather than an integral part of the design, a theory supported by the lack of pen-aware apps.

There are some advantages, such as LTE support and battery life, but we would still gravitate towards either the S II or, more likely, the Galaxy Nexus. Either was still designed around the mission of having a solid smartphone first, a device meant for both data and voice that still factored portability into the equation. The Galaxy Note has seemingly hit the wall creatively and is looping back to the pre-iPhone days. Samsung's team appears to have forgotten that pens came with old Palm and Windows Mobile phones because their creators hadn't had the foresight to adopt capacitive multi-touch displays, not because the pen was speaking to some inner need.

We'd still say the Galaxy Note is a good device, but it's a niche device; not the kind that would merit a 90-second Super Bowl ad that may have cost as much as $10 million to air. At $300 on contract with AT&T ($200 on a three-year Canadian term), it's also a big commitment to make if you're not already completely sold on the size and features.

We're not as jaded as Steve Jobs, who proclaimed that "they blew it" if you saw competitors bring out a stylus, but we also don't see any danger to the iPhone, either. As of fall 2011, Apple was the top individual smartphone maker with no more than a 3.5-inch screen to boast about. If screen size alone mattered, Apple would be marginal. Making a good smartphone isn't about arbitrary screen sizes -- it's about smart design and fully realized software. The Galaxy Note, while an interesting experiment, shows that Samsung needs to slow down and adjust its priorities to reflect this philosophy.

- Huge screen area for reading, the web, and some apps.

- Very long battery life for a current-generation LTE phone.

- LTE gives blazing Internet speeds; HSPA+ a fast fallback.

- Good photo and movie quality.

- Strong camera app and photo editor.

- Pen useful for some people.

- TouchWiz, S Planner bring a few extras.

- Futureproofing with NFC.

- Screen is just too big for many.

- Pen ultimately a niche tool; not enough apps.

- Expensive.

- Still on Android 2.3; Vlingo no match for Siri.

- Slower than the Galaxy S II.

- LTE coverage still small.

- Rear camera not quite as good as the best.