It was once said that if a phone or tablet used a stylus its hardware designers had blown it. It was also said that if the software on that device contained a task manager that coders had similarly missed the mark. The Samsung Galaxy Note on AT&T contains what many would consider a stylus and, if you hold down the Home button, you're presented with what can only be described as a task manager.
So the Galaxy Note, Samsung's massive 5.3-inch "superphone," is critically flawed then, right? No. It is, in fact, one of the best phones to hit the market since another Samsung powerhouse -- the Galaxy Nexus. It's a device with a lot to love and is the kind of phone that would make almost every Android aficionado swoon. However, with its massive 5.3-inch display and generally understated styling, it isn't for everybody. We reviewed it before in European guise, but now read on to see if AT&T's $300 LTE version of this big brute is just right for you.
Let's get this out there right away because it will surely be your first impression: the Galaxy Note is a big honkin' phone. While something this size that can make phone calls isn't exactly unprecedented (see: the Dell Streak 5), this is a footprint that has proven too large to fit into many consumers' lifestyles. That could definitely change here. What initially feels cumbersome and unwieldy quickly becomes natural and, just like 4.3-inch smartphones made 3.5-inchers seem petite, a few hours with the Note will leave those 4-inch devices seeming rather more compact than before.
That size is thanks to the 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED panel up front, with a 1280 x 800 pixel count. We'll talk more about that shortly, but we can't resist spoiling ourselves by saying it's one of the nicest displays we've yet seen on a smartphone -- even if the dimensions here extend well beyond what's considered average. What's truly new is on the inside, a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor. That's a step up in clock speed from the 1.4GHz Exynos processor in the original Note, but as we'll see in the performance section below, the speed of the device has not been similarly up-rated. (There we go spoiling things again...)
That processor is paired with 1GB of RAM for short-term duties and 16GB of storage for archival purposes, though there is an empty microSD slot waiting should you need a little more room ahead of the fifth season of Mad Men. It offers 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0+ HS support and, for longer-range data communication, supports GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz), UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+ (850, 1900, 2100MHz) and, of course, LTE (bands 4 and 17, if you're keeping track).
The dimensions provided for the Note are the same as the international release -- 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm (5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches) -- so any fears that the new silicon inside might have resulted in even more to love on the outside can be safely put to rest now. It is, however, just a tick heavier, tipping over at 183 grams (6.45 ounces) compared to its predecessor's 178. Perhaps it indulged in an extra bag of peanuts on the long flight over.
The camera array hasn't changed: 8-megapixel sensor paired with an LED flash around the back, capable of capturing 1080p/30 fps footage, while a 2-megapixel shooter is peeking out at you from the somewhat generous bezel above the display on the front -- right next to the mirrored AT&T logo that now comes duly attached.
On the bottom of the screen are the typical four capacitive buttons found on American Android devices -- Menu, Home, Back and Search. This marks a change from the international release, which had a single physical Home button flanked by Menu on the left and Back on the right. We prefer that layout to the capacitive arrangement we get here, but sadly it seems the carriers prefer the button-free look. Those capacitive inputs light up with the screen, which on the dark Carbon Blue Note makes them much easier to see. In direct light, though, the backlight on the Ceramic White Note actually makes the buttons harder to spot. Plus, with that hue there's an annoying glow around them where the backlight leaks through.
On the top of the right side is the power/lock button, opposite that on the left side is the volume rocker. Up top, slightly offset to the right is the 3.5mm headphone jack and, on the bottom, smack in the middle, is the micro-USB port for charging and MTP data exchange. But, there's something else tucked in down there: the S Pen.
Though it may look like a stylus, and despite feeling like a stylus, and even if it gives you flashbacks to your Windows Mobile days we encourage you to remember that this is not a stylus. At least, it isn't if you listen to the Samsung party line. This is an S Pen.
What's an S Pen, then? Well, it's a battery-free capacitive and pressure-sensitive plastic pointing stick that's built upon Wacom technology. Basically, it's a stylus. Yes, it's smaller than the wand you get with something like a Bamboo tablet, but the styling is at least reminiscent of the bigger ones. New on the US version of the S Pen is a gray button, which is slightly easier to find than the all-black version shipped internationally, but still almost impossible to locate by feel. The slightest little ridge or bump on the button would have been a welcome addition. (Those who spring for the white Note will, naturally, get a white S Pen with a gray button.)
You can hold the button and do a long press on the screen to capture a screenshot, do two taps to bring up the S Memo application to make a note. You can also use it to perform gestures to replicate the Android buttons -- hold and swipe up for Menu, down for Home and left for Back. You'll be doing this a lot because the stylus annoyingly can't be used on the capacitive buttons at the bottom of the display. Prod or poke at them with the thing all you like, they won't respond.
Thankfully, the S Pen works with just about everything else. It can be used to just mimic finger taps on the screen with greater precision, which we found most enjoyable for gaming. Titles like Fruit Ninja were a little more fun with a real weapon to wield, while physics-based games like World of Goo were that much easier.
Annoyingly, though, actually writing with the thing is a challenge. Ostensibly, this phone was designed to replace something like a Moleskine notebook that many journalists stuff in their back pockets, but writing legibly with the S Pen is a difficult proposition. You must write far larger than you would with a pen on paper, so what might have been a few lines of notes can take a few pages of an S Memo. Of course, with 16GB of storage you can have as many pages as you like, but collating them later proves a bit of a challenge.
Writing is a bit easier with what Samsung is calling the S Pen Holder Kit -- basically a hollow pen into which you can slot an S Pen. It's roughly Sharpie-sized and makes the writing experience more pleasant, but for something of a steep cost: $50. That's for a pen that doesn't write on paper and has no means of actually attaching to the Note. It does, however, come with an extra S Pen, which go for $30 on their own. Yes, you'll be wanting to take extra care to make sure you don't lose yours.
If this phone is too big it's only for the sake of making room for that display. It is, again, an HD Super AMOLED panel measuring 5.3 inches diagonally and sporting a resolution of 1280 x 800. Now, phone displays with 720p or greater resolutions aren't exactly unheard of these days (hello, Galaxy Nexus), and the 284ppi pixel density here won't set any records either (hello, iPhone 4S), but when it comes to the quality of a display you can't just look at numbers.
This is a non-Plus display, meaning it uses RGBG sub-pixels. This PenTile arrangement was the subject of many lamentations when the Galaxy Nexus was announced, that presence of extra green sub-pixels causing some display purists to lose sleep, but we didn't find much to complain about here. Yes, we would certainly prefer a Plus display, and the color reproduction would surely be better if it were, but what's actually in the phone is beautiful.
Because it's an AMOLED display the contrast is phenomenal -- true blacks and searingly bright whites. Viewing angles are very good, though we did notice a strong shift to blue at particularly extreme angles. And curiously, Samsung (or AT&T) opted to not include the "Screen mode" option found on the international Note that lets you select from three color settings on the display. So, you're stuck with the default.
Call quality and speakerphone
While we quickly got comfortable holding the 5.3-inch Note in our hands, even after living with one for some time we couldn't help feeling self-conscious holding it up to our head to make calls. Unless you've been blessed with a particularly large cranium the Note is going to look a little... large held up to an ear.
That said, should you need to make a call here, the Note is a very willing partner. Quality is good and, with the phone never struggling for signal, we came through loud and clear to those on the other side of the device. Even on speakerphone we were heard without a problem, though we do have one complaint: the speaker's location. It's less than a half-inch away from the S Pen's little cubby and we constantly found grabbing at the opening for the speaker with our fingernail when trying to pull out the stylus. We'd have preferred one or the other placed on the opposite side.
This is the same 8-megapixel sensor and lens getup that we saw back in our original Note review, and indeed the same as can be found in the Galaxy S II. Left on full-auto the camera does a good job of adjusting for color and brightness. As phone-sized camera sensors go this one fares well even when light is at a premium and will not leave you disappointed in most situations.
That said, the experience is even better here thanks to the bigger screen. What you get is basically the world's biggest viewfinder this side of a tablet, making framing and eyeball adjustments for exposure easy. Yes, we've said our piece about how taking pictures with tablets is more of a chore than a joy, but the Note is just small enough to be manageable.
The biggest piece of custom software here is S Memo. Hold the S Pen button and double-tap anywhere to create a new memo, or do a long single tap to capture a screenshot which you can doodle on. We could definitely see this being useful for grabbing a picture of something and then scribbling a note and sending it off to a co-worker -- say, making a comment on a home renovation or the design of a wedding dress. But, given how much trouble we had in writing legibly with the S Pen, best keep it short.
You can also hop into S Memo directly and create things like picture collages. Images can be inserted from the Gallery or taken directly from the camera, moved and resized and then, of course, scribbled upon. However, it's worth noting that once you save and exit your note all those layers are compressed -- you can no longer resize individual images. That's slightly annoying, but they are at least easily shared as flat image files.
We were, however, disappointed to find that the app doesn't really do much with the stylus button. We could see it working as a quick toggle to switch between drawing and erasing, for example, which would save going back up to the top menu all the time. As it is the button is really only good for initiating gestures.
Performance and battery life
We were a bit concerned when we learned that the AT&T Galaxy Note would not be rolling with Samsung's own 1.4GHz Exynos processor and would instead have a 1.5GHz Snapdragon chip inside. The clock speed may be higher but the performance is indeed lower. You can see the full results in the benchmarks table below, proving this phone measurably lags behind the international release that shipped first, too.
Apps load quickly and things are generally responsive on the device, but the annoying stutters and random pauses that plague lesser phones are definitely noticeable here. It is still a quick device, though not nearly as responsive as the Galaxy Nexus or, indeed, the elder Note.
We've already spent quite a bit of time with the international version of this phone, but what was once a bit of a niche device -- would-be owners facing hefty import duties and confused looks from friends -- has now gone mainstream, with the Super Bowl commercial to match. That kind of exposure will have a lot more people wondering if this kind of thing can work for them and for many we think the answer is yes, it could work quite well indeed.
The Note is big, but not unmanageably so. Those with small hands might find it a bit unwieldy at times, but even if your glover has you written down as XS you shouldn't rule this out completely. After a few hours with the Note you'll very quickly become accustomed to the size, and once you have you won't want to go back.
With the decrease in performance and battery life here, the international release is still the better phone overall, and we can't help but be disappointed by that. Still, given the relative affordability of the US release of the Note ($300 on-contract) and its ease of availability, we certainly wouldn't blame you for heading to AT&T and ordering yourself an American Superphone. It's one of the best phones of any size on the market today, regardless of what market you're in.
Myriam Joire contributed to this review.