I recently utilized my AT&T equipment upgrade offer, signing a new 2-year contract and upgrading from a Samsung Galaxy S (Captivate) to the newly released Galaxy Note. The Note’s claim to fame is its gigantic 5.3-inch display. This phone/tablet tweener size has caused the media to dub the device a “phablet” and some reviewers to quip that it fails to fulfill either role well. The other controversial feature of the Note is the presumed-throwback inclusion of a stylus, bringing to many minds the late Steve Jobs’s famous hatred of such devices. Given its uniqueness, the Note has been very polarizing in the tech press.
Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first. Aside from its two glaringly different features, the Note is spec-wise like a larger Galaxy S II Skyrocket, featuring:
- Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) with imminent upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich
- Dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor
- Super AMOLED screen
- 8MP camera and 2MP front-facing camera
- Support for HSPA+ and LTE
- 16GB internal storage and micro-SD slot for additional storage
I don’t want to dwell on the ways in which the Note is normal. The call quality is great. The cameras perform admirably, although the shutter speed on the 8MP camera is sometimes slow. Performance is great, and this is the first Android phone I’ve played with that is as stutter-free as the iPhone has been for the past 4 years. Battery life is solid – the screen is a huge drain, but Samsung put an equally huge battery in the device, so it’s pretty much a wash on that front. The Note easily lasts a day worth of heavy use without recharging. The LTE is blazing fast here in Austin, TX. One speed test showed 40Mbps download and 12Mbps upload, which is slightly faster than my cable Internet connection at home.
All-in-all, this is basically a state-of-the-art Android phone (minus the Ice Cream Sandwich, which is coming). You’d be hard-pressed to find better hardware specs on any phone, whether from Cupertino or Seoul.
Now for the big question… the elephant in the room… is the phone too large? The answer is DEFINITELY MAYBE.
First, the Pros. The screen is gorgeous and you won’t be getting readable 1280×800 resolution in your pocket any other way unless you’re stuffing a netbook or iPad in your cargo pants. Since getting the Note, I no longer dread mobile browsing.
Next, the mere facts. It’s bigger than a regular phone – by a lot. You WILL look ridiculous if you hold it up to your head and talk on it, which is why I use a Bluetooth headset. I have no trouble at all fitting it in the large front pockets of my loose pants, but if you’re a skinny-jeans wearer you’ll be carrying it in your purse or bag.
Finally, the Con. The phone is a little too big to use one-handed (i.e. like most people use their phones). Other reviewers (maybe with bigger hands) have brushed aside this complaint with “you get used to it.” Well, I’ve been using the phone heavily for almost a week now and I have not gotten used to it. I cannot reach the left or top sides of the device one-handed without nearly dropping the device and/or touching portions of the screen I did not intend. In fact, I can’t even reach the “Home” key comfortably. While it’s aggravating not to be able to reach the upper and left home-screen icons one-handed, the biggest headache is that you cannot type one-handed either with the stock Android keyboard or Swype. I’ve been able to arrange my direct-dial contacts such that I can call any of them one-handed, but one-handed texting and emails are out.
My three word summary of the stylus is “dorky but cool.” Most of the stuff they show people doing with the stylus in the Note commercials are stupid; who are all these people creating scrapbooks and annotating maps? The best use of the stylus is clearly for drawing mustaches where they do not belong:
Seriously, though, the best uses of the stylus are day-to-day things. Jotting down quick notes. Taking a picture of a waveform or diagram on my laptop screen, then marking it up real-time to explain a concept to a co-worker. Also, the action of the stylus is amazing. Some reviewers have complained about input lag and poor sensitivity; I have experienced no such thing. It is the same technology used in Wacom drawing tablets and is far more similar to that than the credit card signature pad at the local grocery.
My biggest complaint is that the button on the stylus is practically unusable. The button allows the user to use on-screen gestures to take actions, like going “Back” or taking a screenshot. The button itself is very difficult to find without visually inspecting the pen; there needs to be a tactile dot to help find it. Once found, it is uncomfortable to keep the pen in an orientation with the button under your thumb. This is because the button is too close to the tip of the pen, forcing the user to hold the pen unnaturally. I have mostly given up on the button and the associated action gestures.
Overall, I like the phone. The hardware is unquestionably good, and it will have Ice Cream Sandwich pretty soon. For me, the advantages of the big screen (the easy readability and huge resolution) outweigh the main disadvantage (one-handed typing). Mostly because I’m never really in a situation where I need to type one-handed. The stylus is gimmicky but I like it. Plus, it’s hidden away so I don’t have to use it if I’m in a situation where I’m trying to look cool (like a high-society party or the opera or some such).
Despite being personally pleased with the phone, I’m concerned about its larger market viability. Despite Samsung’s big marketing push, the strangeness of the device may end up keeping it a niche product.