The Samsung Galaxy Note is perfect for data centric consumers (review)

Summary:The Samsung Galaxy Note is either a large phone or a small tablet, but whatever you want to call it I think it is fantastic for the data centric consumer.

Last week I reported that the Samsung Galaxy Note passed 5 million in sales and Samsung later confirmed that this was sales to consumers and not just shipments out from their factory. I briefly saw the Note at CES, but was now very intrigued to get more time with one so Samsung sent an eval unit to me the next day. After just three days I was so impressed that I ordered my own Galaxy Note on Saturday.

I didn't put this review on my Smartphones & Cell Phones blog because I consider this device more of a data-centric tablet than a phone. Then again, AT&T sells it with a phone contract and people are using it as their phone. If I considered it a phone then it would have been in at least my top five of 10 best smartphones to kick off 2012. However, I don't plan to use the phone functionality much and see it taking the place of my 7 inch Android tablets so am considering it a small tablet. People have started using the term "Phablet" for this device as it is a phone-tablet hybrid. You can check out a few photos of the Samsung Galaxy Note, screenshots of the device, and pictures taken with it in my image gallery.


Image Gallery: Check out photos and screenshots of the Samsung Galaxy Note and a couple sample photos I took with it.
Image Gallery: Galaxy Note retail package
Image Gallery: Galaxy Note and the S Pen

In the box and first impressions

The Galaxy Note comes in a typical AT&T package and the box really doesn't seem that big. When you open the lid you will see the Galaxy Note taking up nearly the entire length and width of the box. AT&T and Samsung include a Quick Start Guide, the Note, a USB cable, and USB charger/adapter. The eval unit is the Carbon Blue one with a back that is nearly black with very subtle dark blue color to it. Samsung sent along a brown Note Flip Case and that is what I have been using since I pulled the Galaxy Note out of the box.

The Galaxy Note is definitely a big phone, but after turning it on and seeing the display I soon forgot about the size. The HD Super AMOLED display is gorgeous and for those who use their devices for email, browsing, media, games, and more the size is desirable and beneficial. Samsung makes some excellent hardware and the Galaxy Note reminds me a bit of their latest Tab devices.

Specifications

Specifications for the Samsung Galaxy Note include the following:
  • 5.3 inch HD Super AMOLED display at 1280 x 800 pixels resolution with Corning Gorilla Glass
  • 1.5GHz dual core processor
  • Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread
  • GSM Quad-band: 850/900/1800/1900MHz
  • UMTS; Tri-band: 850/1900/2100MHz. Supports up to 21 Mbps HSPA+
  • LTE; Dual Band: Band 4 & Band 17
  • 16GB internal memory, microSD card expansion capability
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8 megapixel camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording capability
  • 2 megapixel front facing camera
  • Bluetooth 3.0, WiFi, GPS, barometer, and compass
  • TV out via MHL adapter
  • 2500mAh battery with stated 10 hour talk time
  • Dimensions: 5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches and 6.28 ounces

I understand that NFC is in the device, but that AT&T has not enabled the functionality. I enjoy using Google Wallet with NFC on my Galaxy Nexus to buy things and also use NFC to scan my Orca transit card to see how much I have left on the card. I hope AT&T eventually enables this, maybe with the ICS update, but think that developers will probably enable this if it doesn't get the update officially.

I was very pleased to see that Samsung put a good camera in the Galaxy Note since they dropped the ball with the Galaxy Nexus, especially after the Galaxy S II already had a great camera. I also love that there is a microSD card slot for up to 32GB more memory capability as I plan to load this up with lots of content.

Walk around the hardware

The defining feature of the Samsung Galaxy Note is obviously the large 5.3 inch display that dominates the front. You will also find a good quality 2 megapixel front facing camera above the display and four Android capacitive buttons below the display (Menu, Home, Back, and Search).

The volume button is on the left side, the power button is on the right side, the microUSB port is on the bottom, and the 3.5mm headset jack is on the top.

The 8 megapixel camera and LED flash are found on the upper back of the Note with the mono speaker and S Pen silo on the bottom left of the back. The speaker blows away the crappy quiet one on my GSM Galaxy Nexus and is good enough to even allow me to listen to podcasts in my car. The back cover is similar to the Galaxy Nexus and made of rather flimsy plastic material where many snaps are required to place it on the back. Under the cover you will find the SIM card slot, microSD slot, and 2500 mAh battery.

The edges are rounded and the device is quite thin at 0.38 inches. While it is wider than just about every other smartphone out there, if you use it more as a tablet replacement you may find it is just about perfect for portability and usefulness.

The Galaxy Note supports LTE on AT&T, but unfortunately LTE is not yet available where I live and work. Thus, I see the 4G indicator that means I am connected to AT&T's HSPA+ network. I am regularly seeing download speeds in the range of 5.6 to 8.4 Mbps, which is plenty fast for most activities. I look forward to seeing LTE roll out soon though.

Walk around the software

The Galaxy Note currently has Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread loaded on it, but an update to Ice Cream Sandwich (known as the Premium Suite update) is promised to take place in the 2nd quarter. I hope that AT&T doesn't hold this back too much since I am really looking forward to the advanced S Pen functions that are being added. Gingerbread works well though and it is still a great device with this version of Android.

Unfortunately, AT&T went a bit crazy (don't they always) and loaded up a bunch of bloatware on the Galaxy Note. However, I quickly found out that you are allowed to uninstall these apps so it is really only a minor inconvenience and there does look to be a couple of useful utilities, such as AT&T Code Scanner. You will find most of these apps on one home screen and they include AT&T Messages, AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T U-verse Live TV (be careful here, you only get 7 days free and then it is $9.99/month), AT&T FamilyMap (again, this is a $9.99/month service), myAT&T, AT&T Navigator (once again, this is $9.99/month, but there is a free limited version available), AT&T Ready2Go, mSpot Movies (I prefer Google Movies), and YPmobile.

Samsung includes utilities and apps such as AllShare, Crayon Physics game (S Pen optimized), Kies Air, Samsung Media Hub, Mini Diary, Polaris Office, Qik Lite, Social Hub, Task Manager, Voice Talk, and Voice Recorder. Kies Air is a pretty slick utility that lets you manage your device and transfer media via a web browser on your computer when you have your Note connected to the same WiFi network. Voice Talk is a service provided by Vlingo and is an excellent service that enables you to use your voice to perform tasks such as voice dial, send a text message, navigate, create a memo, play music, update your social network, open an app, record your voice, and more.

For those readers who are considering the Galaxy Note for work, you will be pleased to hear it is SAFE (Samsung Approved for Enterprise). This means that the device includes support for Mobile Device Management (MDM), on-device encryption (ODE), Exchange ActiveSync for corporate email/calendar/contacts (EAS) and Virtual Private Networks (VPN). It also comes with Polaris Office so you can view, edit, and create Office and Google documents on the go.

Is the S Pen useful and what do other reviewers think? »

What's up with the S Pen?

When the Galaxy Note was first announced we saw a lot of people slamming the idea of a stylus in 2011 and asking if Samsung thought it was silly to go back to the days of the Palm PDA. This S Pen is actually much more advanced than a simple stylus and uses Wacom technology to offer 256 levels of pressure sensitivity with no requirement to power the pen. Samsung released the SDK for the S Pen and entries for the S Pen App Challenge were submitted until yesterday. Samsung is offering $205,000 in cash prizes to the best Galaxy Note apps that integrate the S Pen functionality and I am hopeful that this will result in many apps that offer enhancements with the S Pen.

Samsung includes S Memo and S Memo Lite on the Galaxy Note. S Memo is the full note taking application, but they also include a slick utility with S Memo Lite. By holding the S Pen button and double-tapping on the screen you launch the Lite version for quick note taking. The Lite version doesn't support photos or audio (you can add them later in S Memo), but you can open this utility in any app and even see the application waiting for you to return to it below the memo. You can share and even print memos you create with S Memo too.

I previously purchased SketchBook Mobile when there was a one day sale and never used it much on my other Android devices. However, with the S Pen, this application is a very high powered drawing utility from the makers of the powerful AutoCAD software application we use in my engineering office every day.

The S Pen can also be used to help you interact more naturally with games. For example, you can use the S Pen to play Fruit Ninja and accurately slice away at fruit. The S Pen functions as a finger alternative so you can use it to even enter text with the integrated keyboard, select items, and anything you use your finger for. It is a bit more precise than your finger so apps where you are trying to select fine details should work better for you with the S Pen. It doesn't activate the four capacitive buttons below the display and I found this a bit annoying at times as I had to jump down there with my finger to press those buttons.

As a soccer coach for my youngest daughter, I found the Soccer Coach's Clipboard app and think it will serve me well while trying to explain drills to my players at practice and in games. I used my iPad before, but it is large and a bit dangerous to carry and keep on the pitch. With the Galaxy Note, S Pen, and this app I think I found a way to easily animate diagrams for my players.

Funky things to do with the Galaxy Note

As I was reading all the documents I could find on the Galaxy Note and trying to see if this was the device for me I came across a few rather functions that are fun and a bit quirky.
  • Screenshots: In the past, capturing screenshots with Android devices was a major pain as you had to have the SDK on your computer and jump through several hoops. You can use the S Pen to capture screenshots by pressing and holding on the button and then holding the pen on the display for a couple seconds. Did you also know you can karate chop your way to a screenshot without the S Pen? Place your right hand perpendicular to the right side of the screen in a karate chop or military salute position and then sweep left across the display. Left-handed people can use their left hand and sweep to the right. It does take a bit of practice as your finger may sometimes swipe the display left or right.
  • Palm Graffiti: Are you an old Palm PDA user who reminisces about the good old days of Graffiti? With the Samsung Galaxy Note you can download and install the free Graffiti or $2.99 Graffiti Pro software from Google Play and use Graffiti with the S Pen for all your text entry needs. I gave it a try, but it has been so long since I used Graffiti that I forgot many of the basic letter gestures.
  • Brightness adjustments: If you have auto-brightness disabled then you can move your finger right and left across the top notification bar and adjust display brightness.
  • Motion controls: The Samsung Galaxy Note supports motion controls so you can perform various functions simply by moving the device. For example, you can silence the ringer by placing the Note face down, you can enlarge or shrink photos by tilting the device towards or away from you, and you can use panning to help you arrange your homescreen panels.

Usage experiences and pricing

I have read quite a few reviews and most of them write that the device is fantastic, but it is too big. I am 6 feet 1 inch tall and have medium to large sized hands and find the Galaxy Note very comfortable to hold and use. It is a big phone, but since I am using it more for its tablet functions I find the large size to be the major benefit of the device. The display is gorgeous and to optimize the pen experience you really do need a device with a large display. I thought my Galaxy Nexus was large at 4.65 inches, but it seems small compared to the Galaxy Note.

I thought my wife would hate the Galaxy Note and find it too big, so I was surprised when she kept on taking it from me and stating how nice of a device it was. She would like one that is paired to a Bluetooth headset since she makes more phone calls than I do, but she does appreciate the size of the display and how useful it is to people who are more focused on data activities.

I have the evaluation Galaxy Note tricked out with widgets, shortcuts, and folders and will make even more customizations when my personal one arrives. I find everything flows well on the device and playing Angry Birds Space is a blast. I do look forward to ICS with the task switcher and other Android optimizations, but will still enjoy the current TouchWIZ UI as well.

Samsung sent along their brown protective flip case and I have the Note in that all the time. The case is unique in that it replaces the back cover of the device with a leather flap that covers the display. It makes the Note feel more like a small notebook and offers just the right amount of protection needed to place the Note in my pocket. I ordered the orange flip case for my own device, available for $29.99 from Samsung or about $20 on Amazon.

I purchased my Samsung Galaxy Note from the Amazon Wireless Store for $249.99 (a $50 savings over buying it directly from AT&T). I ordered the Carbon Blue one, which is the one I reviewed, but may stop by the store soon to check out a Ceramic White one since I haven't had a chance to see that one in person yet and may switch to it. You have to purchase a voice calling plan and a minimum data plan so I went with the 450 minute plan and the 3GB data plan for now. I would love to just buy a data plan and then pay per minute for phone usage, but don't see a plan like that. T-Mobile has a 100 minute plan with unlimited data at Walmart that I wish AT&T had as well.

Other reviews of the Samsung Galaxy Note

Go back to the beginning »

Topics: Hardware, AT&T, Laptops, Mobility, Samsung, Tablets, Telcos

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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