Mobile
Brought to you by

Samsung Galaxy Note Review: Size Does Matter

The Samsung Galaxy Note is of particular interest for three reasons: it has a ginormous screen, it’s designed to be used with a stylus, and it sits in a category of devices that has seen more than its fair share of failures. It may sound like a niche product on paper, but Samsung designed the Galaxy Note for the masses, and it’s already moved a ton of them. It turns out there’s a lot to like about the Galaxy Note, and it all starts with the shamelessly large screen.

Why It Matters

The Galaxy Note (GT-N7000) is Samsung’s attempt to fill what it thinks is a 5.3-inch hole in the market that consumers don’t realise exists. The world’s largest smartphone maker has created an unconventional stylus-wielding device that aims to replace all your single-purpose gadgets and become “the ultimate on-the-go device”. In this respect, the Galaxy Note does a fine job, but it’s very much a smartphone first and a tablet second.

After admitting that it wasn’t doing well in the iPad-dominant tablet market, Samsung appears to be hedging its bets with the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note and a 10.1-inch Galaxy Note tablet. The news has been good so far: Samsung shipped two million Galaxy Note devices in six months and plans to sell 10 million units by the end of the year. That’s nowhere near iPhone numbers, but it’s doing better than expected considering the Galaxy Note’s unusual proposition as a hybrid device that’s neither this nor that.

Mobicity and Kogan have been selling direct imports since late last year, but the Galaxy Note was only officially launched in Australia with Samsung’s blessing two weeks ago. Optus and Vodafone were first off the block, although Telstra will have the advantage with its HSPA+ dual-channel tech once it gets the go-ahead to sell the Galaxy Note in April.

This category of 5-inch devices is yet to tell a success story — the Dell Streak 5 bit the dust less than a year after it was released, and the LG Optimus Vu has been relegated to the South Korean market. What can Samsung do that the others couldn’t?

What We Like

First of all, it’s enormous. The Galaxy Nexus, which we thought was a big phone, is positively dwarfed by the Galaxy Note. It’s by far the biggest smartphone I’ve ever used. But it’s not so much the size of the device itself that gets us excited — it’s the size of the screen. The Galaxy Note boasts a giant 5.3-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen with a resolution of 1280×800 pixels at 285 pixels per inch. Sure, it’s no retina display, but it will seduce you in a similar way.

Technically, it’s a PenTile display. I’m not usually a fan of this cost-cutting subpixel arrangement, but the resolution and pixel density is high enough that my eyes can’t tell the difference. Teeny tiny text renders clearly, images are bright and well saturated, and there’s not a hint of dimness in the display. Samsung’s included a setting in the Galaxy Note to change the saturation level (dynamic, standard and movie), but I’m very happy with the default colours I see on the screen.

The larger screen means you can see more on the screen in one go, which in turn means you have less scrolling to do. You spend less time hitting the back key on the on-screen keyboard because it’s covering something, and reading long documents of text becomes easier on the eyes.

The capacitive touchscreen is also protected by Corning Gorilla Glass, which is not to be overlooked on a phone that’s too big for the jeans pocket and likely to end up in the handbag with the keys.

Unsurprisingly, the Galaxy Note has a plastic body that makes it look like an oversized Galaxy S II, but it has plenty of other things going for it to justify its premium price tag. And it’s not altogether a disappointment since it offers the kind of durability that will ensure its survival through minor bumps, unlike another certain phone.

The Galaxy Note’s slate form factor weighs in at 178g, which feels heavy in your pocket but light in your hand. In terms of hardware buttons, there’s the home button sitting as expected underneath the screen, the power button is up on the right-hand side, and the volume buttons are positioned high — perhaps a bit too high — up on the left-hand side. If we had anything to grumble about here, it’d be the lack of consistency when it comes to positioning volume and power buttons on Android smartphones. But that’s not the Galaxy Note’s problem to deal with alone. There’s a headphone jack on top, a microUSB port on the bottom for charging, and the S-Pen fits neatly into the underside of the phone, out of the way, minding its own business. It’s integrated so well into the chassis, you’ll miss it if you’re not looking for it.

Photo taken with Galaxy Note, vintage filter applied.

The back is taken up almost entirely by the battery cover, which is subtly textured for a better grip and understated look and feel. The rear camera that sits up the top shares the same specs as the camera on the Galaxy S II, taking superb 8MP photos and 1080p video that rival the performance of my Canon point-and-shoot. The camera software lets you adjust exposure, set a timer, apply effects, change resolution and ISO, enable anti-shake and blink detection, plus there’s a panorama shooting mode that performs better than any panorama app I’ve tried in the Google Play store, both paid and free.

There’s also a 2MP front camera for half decent self portraits and video chat images — a nice change from the crappy VGA secondary cameras that we’ve learnt to make do with over the years.

The Galaxy Note comes packed with a relatively large 2500mAh li-ion battery, and it’s yet to completely die on me from a flat battery, even with all my constantly updating widgets, push notifications and compulsive social networking. It’s not the biggest battery to be ever put in a smartphone, but it’s big enough for a full day’s worth of work and then some. On the days when I only use the phone intermittently, I won’t even bother charging it overnight; instead I’ll connect it to my computer via USB when I wake up for a quick top up. I’ve even gone ahead and adjusted the menu and back button light duration to ‘always on’ — it turns off after 1.5 seconds by default and you end up blindly stabbing at where you think those buttons are positioned. Most days, however, the battery will get down to about 25 per cent and demand to be plugged in.

I have noticed that the battery depletes faster when I’m using the S Pen to draw and muck around with the S Memo app, but that’s probably a combination of the CPU working overtime to render my random drawings, convert my handwriting to text, and having the display on continually while I’m doing all the above.

If I had to pick one thing that makes the Galaxy Note stand out — aside from the ginomous screen — it would be all the different combinations of shortcuts and gestures you can use to improve your workflow. There’s an unavoidable learning curve in mastering all the little tricks and tips, but it’s pretty cool once you get the hang of it. Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 skin plays a big part, and the Galaxy Note is probably one of only a few cases where I’m willing to agree that the OEM’s custom UI enhancements benefit the user.

There are heaps of shortcuts and gesture-activated controls you use, whether you’re using the stylus or your fingers. There are shortcuts to system settings in the pull-down notification menu, and being able to zip through the different home screens by holding down the indicators above the dock is more efficient when you’re accidentally tapping on widgets as you’re trying to swipe past them. You can also swipe left and right on contacts to call and send text messages, there are three different ways you can take a screenshot and much, much more. TouchWiz 4.0 also introduces motion-activated shortcuts that let you tilt to zoom and pan to edit. It’s definitely worth your while making note of all the different tips and tutorials that pop up on the Galaxy Note along the way.

TouchWiz isn’t perfect, though. Not being able to move the home button from its fixed position on the right-hand side of the dock is presumptuous, and I’m confused as to why the application menu’s Grid View is not sorted alphabetically.

The Galaxy Note lets you choose between the default Samsung keypad (with optional XT9 predictive text) or the popular Swype. The default keyboard makes the most of the extra screen real estate and adds the numbers 0-9 above the keyboard. You can even optimise it for one-handed operation, but it’s only worth it if you have big hands to begin with, since it just shrinks the keyboard’s width by one-sixth. Hardly enough to make a difference.

S Memo is the Galaxy Note’s flagship app and this is where the S Pen’s purpose becomes apparent. Its range of functions and customisation is impressive: you can add images from the gallery or by taking a photo, add clip art, paste items from the clipboard or even insert a map. There’s a range of different backgrounds you can choose for your notes. You can add a voice note to any memo, lock the note, share it, export it, print it, add tags, link notes to your calendar, or set it as wallpaper or widget. You can type text into notes using the on-screen keyboard, draw using a variety of writing implements, including ballpoint pen, market, paintbrush or pencil, in any colour and width.

Pressing the button on the S Pen and tapping twice on the screen pulls up S Memo lite for instant note-taking. Pressing down harder with the S Pen causes it to draw a stronger line, just like it would if you were using a real pen. You can shade drawings by pressing lightly with the pencil tool.

Samsung says you can annotate websites and PDFs, but short of installing third-party apps, the only way we could get this to happen is by taking a screenshot and then using the built-in editing tools. We suggest you download Soonr Scribble, optimised for the Galaxy Note, to annotate other documents, like spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides.

The Galaxy Note comes pre-loaded with Polaris Office and a game called Crayon Physics Deluxe, but Samsung’s app store is worth checking out for apps and games optimised for the Galaxy Note. The apps that you see in the ads for the Galaxy Note needed to be downloaded from the Samsung app store, like Zen Brush, OmniSketch and iAnnotate PDF. Some are free, some are freemium, and some will ask for a few bucks up front.

If you’re on a PC, you can use Kies to transfer files from the Galaxy Note to your computer. There is a beta version of Kies for Mac, but at this stage it doesn’t appear to support the Galaxy Note.

What We Don’t Like

The Galaxy Note is not 4G enabled in Australia, which is a shame since it would have made for a truly compelling buy given the device’s modus operandi. The next best thing would be to use the Galaxy Note with a Telstra SIM so you get dual-channel HSPA+ connectivity — a slightly faster version of 3G on the Telstra network.

It also only ships with Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread). Samsung said that Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Note, which will include native stylus support, has been pushed back to Q2, and the update is expected to include a ‘Premium Suite’ that will bring new productivity apps and upgrades to the existing S Memo app.

The sheer size of the device will turn off a lot of people. It’s over an inch wider and longer than the iPhone 4 (but only 0.4mm thicker). And once you make the commitment to the Galaxy Note’s 5.3-inch screen, going back to a something smaller for whatever reason will probably leave you feeling dissatisfied.

Using the Galaxy Note one-handed was intolerably awkward in my lady hands, but it was the perfect size for using with two hands since each of my thumbs only reaches about halfway across the screen comfortably. And if you like to put your phone in your back pocket, it’s not a good idea with the Galaxy Note — in my jeans it only just fits width-wise and sticks out over the top of the pocket prominently.

Handwriting on the Galaxy Note, whether you’re using your finger or the S Pen, can be a disappointing experience. My handwriting is more neat when I’m using my finger, not the stylus; it’s too thin and short to use comfortably. And there’s nothing that the S Pen can do that your finger can’t. Fitting more than a couple of words on one line isn’t easy, and writing legibly takes practice. Handwriting recognition is nice and quick, but it gets it wrong most of the time, so you just end up not bothering with it at all. It also won’t work if you try to convert something you’ve handwritten in landscape mode. It’s really one of those things that sound cool in theory but doesn’t translate well in real life.

The dual-core 1.4GHz processor lags occasionally, but it’s consistent in where it happens. The built-in video editor loves to crash, the 3D gallery can get jerky, and sometimes it will take a couple of goes for it to register your swipes when trying to unlock the phone. But every device suffers hangups, and these ones aren’t so bad all things considered.

What I’m really shaking my head at is the Galaxy Note’s weird 5×5 home screen layout, thanks to the wide screen aspect ratio. There are some widgets that won’t fit to the width of the screen, unless you install a third-party launcher, and to me that’s a big oversight on Samsung’s part. Y U NO FIT?!

Should You Buy It?

The Galaxy Note is a great smartphone by itself, even if you don’t use the stylus, but the screen is just a little bit too small to call it a worthy tablet replacement.

The kind of people who will benefit most from the Galaxy Note are creative types who draw as part of their day-to-day workflow and aren’t afraid to use a stylus. S-Pen functionality is well-integrated into apps like the S Memo, but you can do everything using just your fingers as well.

We strongly recommend that you have a play with the phone before purchasing one. If you’re in Melbourne, you can get some hands-on time at the new Vodafone store on the corner of Bourke and Swanston St, or ask staff at any Optus or Vodafone store.

If it turns out you are willing to take on the challenges of learning how to use the Galaxy Note and its S Pen, then you’re in for a rewarding and productive experience, not to mention a smartphone that gives you functionality like no other smartphone out there.

You can pick up one of these babies from Mobicity for $649, Kogan for $539, or Optus and Vodafone on $79 caps. But it may be worth waiting until Telstra puts it up for sale in April if you want dual-channel HSPA+ connectivity. Or you could buy one outright and bring your own prepaid Telstra SIM.

Specs

OS: Android 2.3.5 (Android 4.0 expected Q2)
Screen: 5.3-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen (1280×800)
Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9
RAM: 1GB
Storage: 16GB internal (up to 32GB microSD)
Dimensions: 146.9mm x 83mm x 9.7mm
Camera: 8MP rear (1080p HD video), 2MP front
Battery: 2500mAh
Weight: 178g