We're becoming used to seeing smartphones with large screens around the 4in. mark — stretching to 4.3in. for the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S II and HTC Evo 3D, or even 4.7in. for the HTC Titan and Sensation XL. Now Samsung has pushed the envelope further with the Galaxy Note, whose 5.3in. screen puts it mid-way between a very large phone and a very small tablet. But does the compromise work?
Arguably, for the price, you'll be choosing the Samsung Galaxy Note instead of either a phone or a tablet, so depending on your needs it's going to have to fullfill the duties of one or the other.
As a phone, the Galaxy Note is vast: at 82.95mm wide by 146.85mm deep by 9.65mm thick, it's too large for most pockets, while its weight of 178g will be noticeable in any pocket that can accommodate it. It's also far too big for anybody to reach across the touchscreen for one-handed use. And although you can hold it to your ear to make a phone call, you'll look faintly ridiculous doing so.
On the other hand, the screen size makes for some excellent ergonomics. At 5.3in. across the diagonal with a resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels, activities like web browsing and document reading are a delight. The screen size feels particularly right for web browsing, in both portrait and landscape modes. Data entry using the on-screen QWERTY keyboards is also a pleasure thanks to the well-spaced keys.
The 5.3in. Galaxy Note: is it a large phone, or a small tablet?
These activities are enhanced by absolutely superb image quality thanks to Samsung's Super AMOLED technology, which delivers a clear, sharp, bright and crisp display. Coupled with the screen's 1,280-by-800 resolution, it's wonderful to use.
Held in the hand, the Samsung Galaxy Note is perfectly sized and weighted to feel like a small notebook into which you make jottings with a stylus. To this end, Samsung has come up with the S Pen, which we'll examine later.
Looks-wise, the Galaxy Note is every inch a Samsung product. There's just one button beneath the screen, which takes you to the principal home screen — of which there are seven in total. The button is flanked by Android Menu and Back icons that light up when you tap them, but only very briefly. Above the screen is the Samsung branding and a lens for the front-facing 2-megapixel camera.
The main camera at the back is an 8 megapixel unit with LED flash, and the backplate, also Samsung-branded, is lightly stippled to give better grip. The backplate is very thin and flimsy, and we're concerned about its robustness. This matters because you need to remove it — and the battery — to access the microSD card slot.
The sides of this very thin device (remember, it's just 9.65mm thick), have buttons and connectors where you'd expect to find them on a smartphone. There's a microUSB connector on the bottom edge, a volume rocker towards the top of the left edge and a power switch towards the top of the right edge. The top edge carries a headset jack.
There's also a stylus housing on the bottom right edge, of which more later.
The Galaxy Note's curved edges and general look and feel are very reminiscent of the Galaxy Tab (tablet) and Galaxy S II (smartphone).
The Galaxy Note has an impressive spec sheet, headed by a 1.4GHz dual-core processor. The 16GB of internal storage is a touch disappointing — a leading-edge device like this should really have 32GB. That said, there is a microSD card slot for adding further extra capacity.
It's a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE phone with HSDPA mobile broadband support up to 21Mbps (download), which exceeds the throughput available on any current UK network. There is GPS, and Google Maps look stunning on the 5.3in. Super AMOLED screen. The 8-megapixel camera shoots 1080p video. Flash is supported, and streamed video looks superb.
The operating system is Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), and Samsung puts a familiar skin on top of this. There are seven home screens for populating with widgets, and the high screen resolution allows for plenty of shortcuts and widgets. What's usually a row of four shortcuts across the bottom of a Samsung-skinned home screen becomes a row of five here.
There is a range of what Samsung calls 'motion controls' on offer. When web browsing, for example, you can hold the screen at two points and tilt to zoom in and out. You can also shake to scan for Bluetooth devices, hold a home-screen icon and move the device left or right to move the icon to a different screen, or turn the device face down to mute the ringer. We rather like the first and last of these, but the other two seem of limited value.
The real innovation, though, comes in the shape of stylus input. We've already noted the stylus slot on the bottom right edge — Samsung calls the stylus the 'S Pen'. You can't use any other stylus on the screen, so don't lose the S Pen. It has a small activation button near the tip; hold this and double-tap on the screen and an app, S Memo, opens up onto which you can draw as well as add text via the on-screen keyboard.
The Galaxy Note comes with pressure-sensitive S Pen technology
The pen is pressure sensitive, so harder presses result in thicker lines, although we found this a little less definite than we'd like.
We had no trouble using the pen to write notes via S Memo, although it's limited in scope. You can turn handwriting into editable text, but it's a multi-step process and we found it faster to use the on-screen keyboard.
A number of other apps take advantage of the stylus. S Planner lets you create calendar entries and make links to S Memo documents. You can tweak photos in various ways with Photo Editor, including drawing on them with the S Pen. Mini Diary converts handwriting to text while making entries (alternatively you can use the on-screen keyboard). You can also add location information and photos to diary entries easily.
There's also a game called Crayon Physics, which requires you to draw on-screen to complete puzzles. This all adds an extra dimension to the conventional notion of a smartphone or tablet, but whether it has legs remains to be seen.
Third-party apps may yet take advantage of the stylus in novel ways, and one built-in feature gives a hint of this. Hold down the stylus button and tap the screen, and a screen grab is taken and made available for editing. You can share edited images easily, so any web page, photo, map or other on-screen item can be instantly augmented and emailed off to a contact.
We'd like to see more of this kind of innovation. A few apps are already available from Samsung's app store, accessible via the S Choice app, but they tend to be simple drawing or text-creation apps.
Elsewhere, the Galaxy Note offers a range of apps we've seen Samsung bundle before. Polaris Office is great for creating Word, Excel and PowerPoint-compatible documents, there's an FM radio, Kies Air caters for managing data on the device via a web browser, Allshare for DLNA, Social Hub for Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn management, and the Reader's Hub which brings together PressDisplay, Zinio and Kobo for ebook, magazine and newspaper reading.
Enterprise features supported on the Galaxy Note include Sybase Afaria (mobile device management), on-device encryption, Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, Cisco WebEx (web conferencing) and VPN (via Cisco AnyConnect, Juniper Junos Pulse, F5 Networks BIG-IP Edge Gateway).
Performance & battery life
Powered by a 1.4GHz dual-core processor, the Galaxy Note is a responsive device. Given its huge 5.3in. screen, battery life is more of a concern, to which end Samsung has equipped the Galaxy Note with a 2,500mAh battery.
Samsung doesn't quote battery life expectancy at its web site, but we were quite impressed with its longevity. We expect a smartphone to need a battery charge every day, and would have settled for that with the Galaxy Note. However, with frugal use of features we got closer to two days between charges, which is excellent.
The Samsung Galaxy Note is a great piece of kit: the screen is large, vibrant and responsive, and the device is a good size for using 'notepad style' with the S Pen.
However, in everyday use the Galaxy Note turned out to be neither fish nor fowl. It's too large to carry around as an everyday smartphone, but isn't as useful at home or in the office as a full-sized tablet.
We also have an issue with the S Pen, which feels slow and laborious to use rather than intuitive. At the moment, the S Pen doesn't offer enough extra functionality over a standard touchscreen to be a real draw. Yes, we'd like a Samsung Galaxy Note, but we're not sure how it would fit into our portfolio of devices.