Jan, 16 2015

The Samsung Galaxy Note has long been the object of controversy in the mobile world. Ever since the device was officially announced last year at IFA, we’ve basically seen two camps form when it came to the Note — those that say it’s too big, and those that say it’s just right. And while we can bicker and scream on who’s right or wrong, who has more “manly” sized hands, and who is just trying to overcompensate for Freudian purposes, it all comes down to one fact: the Samsung Galaxy Note is huge. This is, without question, the single biggest reason why the phone has gained so much attention from the tech media but the question you should be asking yourself is, “Is the phone too big for you?” Well hopefully we will be able to answer that question, as well as cover some of other things that make the Galaxy Note so special in our review.

Hardware and Looks

The Galaxy Note largely follows Samsung’s Galaxy S II line pretty closely, in terms of looks and specs. For the AT&T release, Samsung decided to opt for a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor (instead of their own Exynos) but everything else is standard GSII specs, like 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage with micro SD card slot, 8MP shooter, 2MP front facing camera, micro USB/MHL port, Bluetooth 3.0 and compatibility with AT&T’s blazing fast LTE network. The real draw is in the Note’s huge 5.3-inch 1280×800 resolution Super AMOLED display (Pentile). While I can hate on Pentile as much as the best of them, the “checkerboard effect” is barely visible thanks to the uber-high resolution display. Because the DPI is set to low, you can see more mail, tweets, pictures and icons onscreen at one time, with less scrolling and panning around.

The Note’s stylings are where I had the biggest issue with the device and while beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, I found the Note’s looks to be bland, boring and uninspired. I suppose the Note’s looks can be described as conservative and professional which, I’m sure, is the target market Samsung is aiming for. And although I never thought I’d say this, I would have like to have seen Samsung include the Galaxy’s line’s trademark “hump” on the back (soft touch battery cover from the T-Mobile GSII would have been nice as well).

S Pen (Stylus)

Call it retro, but Samsung is officially looking to bring back the stylus with their new Note series of devices (a bigger tablet is in the works), introducing the world to their all-new “S Pen.” Unlike your average capacitive stylus, the S Pen features a button along the side of it that when pressed, enables certain secondary functions. Pressing the clicker on the S Pen and long pressing anywhere on the screen will take a screenshot that can be annotated using the stylus. Or you can bring up a quick note to jot down your thoughts using Samsung’s note application, by pressing the clicker and double tapping anywhere on the screen no matter which application you’re in.

As previously mentioned, Samsung has included a robust note taking application called S Memo that is specially designed for the S Pen. You can quickly jot down notes, have them transcribed into text, sort them in stacks or folders, add voice notes — it pretty much covers all the bases if you’re going to be using the Note for, well — taking notes. In my experience with S Memo, it was a tad bit buggy with a few force closes here and there and I did notice some lag. The software is really early so we’d expect things to get tightened up in an update down the road.

Whether you love the stylus or hate it, nobody is forcing you to use it. It’s simply an added option that if you decide to forgo, can be easily forgotten and tucked away inside the device. Options are always good.

Camera

Since the original Galaxy line, Samsung has been known for having one of the best camera sensors in Android. And just like the smaller Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Note with it’s 8MP shooter is no different. Here’s a few sample shots for you to check out.

Battery Life and Performance

Battery life is always a pretty big deal when dealing with Android devices and thankfully, it’s just another area where the Samsung Galaxy Note excelled. I was easily able to crank out a full day — that’s 24 hours — of moderate to mild use, with good AT&T coverage in my area. When making a trip to LA where AT&T’s LTE is in full effect, there was no notable battery drain even after watching YouTube videos and surfing the web on the highway (I wasn’t driving, I promise). Just pure fast data moving at the speed of thought (something I’ve been sorely missing on Sprint).

Performance is where I found the Galaxy Note to be a bit lacking. I understand the device is pushing almost twice the amount of pixels as the Galaxy S II, but I did notice some lag here in there when either opening applications or surfing the web. This could have a little something to do with the device using a dual-core Snapdragon instead of Samsung’s own Exynos (like in the international version) and possibly the software could use a bit more tweaking. I’d imagine once the device is upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, performance will be vastly improved when the Note is finally firing on all 2 cores.

Software

No matter how much you hate manufacturer skins, there’s not much you can do. They’re not going anywhere. Ever. Like all Galaxy devices, Samsung has chosen to adorn their device with their TouchWiz skin that not only changes up the look of stock Android, but adds extra functionality and increased performance as well. The version of TouchWiz in the Galax Note is actually a little different than what we’ve seen on the Galaxy S II devices, adding small changes throughout. Buttery smooth orientation animations, resizable widgets and an all new lockscreen are just a few of the new changes that come with the new version of TouchWiz. I’ve never been one to fancy the look of TouchWiz but there’s no denying the performance enhancements it brings; silky smooth near 60 FPS scrolling throughout the OS. One of things sadly missing from the Note (and is present in the Epic 4G Touch) was the Screen Mode option (apparently available in the international version) in the display settings. Not exactly sure why all Samsung SAMOLED devices don’t have this option but it was disappointing to see this left out of the Note. Being able to turn down/max out the amount of color saturation on your SAMOLED device is one of the best ideas since.. well, SAMOLED.

All of Samsung’s usual TouchWiz apps made the cut as well as the expected carrier “bloatware” courtesy of AT&T. I counted around 4 Samsung apps, 7 AT&T apps, and a few preinstalled 3rd party apps like Qik Lite, Amazon Kindle, YPmobile and Crayon Physics. The Galaxy Note is also running the latest version of Android 2.3.6 and this seems to be my biggest gripe with the device. Gingerbread is in no way cut out for a device with a 1280×800 display. 5 rows/5 columns of icons make the homescreen look cluttered, widgets are no longer centered correctly, some objects are stretched out, others are really tiny — it’s pretty much a mess. For lack of better comparison, it reminds me back when the HTC Flyer launched with Android 2.3 back in day (thankfully, they had the sense to upgrade to a tablet OS). Gingerbread just isn’t well suited for a device with a 720p display and in fact, was never intended to run on something with a resolution and display this large. AT&T/Samsung did mention that they will be updating the Galaxy Note to Ice Cream Sandwich in the coming months, so we hope this will fix some of those UI issues.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note is a device going through a major identity crisis. I’ve heard many thoughts on the subject and when talking about “At what size does a phone become a tablet?,” I believe an objective opinion can be made here. I’ve been asked, “Can the device fit in your hand?” and the answer is unequivocally, yes. Doesn’t matter if you’re a boy, girl, Asian or American, the Note will most certainly can fit in just about anyone’s hand.

But the better question to ask is, “Can the device be fully operated using only 1 hand?” or even “Comfortably operated using 1 hand?” and to that — coming from a 6’2 blogger — the tragic answer is it cannot. And that’s what I believe makes a phone a phone. It has to provide one hand operation, without the need to have to pull out the other (except to perform secondary functions like pinch-to-zoom or when typing, although Swype kinda solves one of those problems). Just like a medieval 2-handed claymore, you can definitely hold it in one hand but to properly wield it, you’ll need to get a good grips with 2 hands. In that respect, the Galaxy Clay- er, Note is a tablet.

And that was the one thing going through my head the more I used the device.The little tablet wants so hard to be a phone, that it falls short on its most notable feature — its large screen size. It’s sad because I would have considered it to be a near perfect device if it was simply running a tablet OS instead of a phone one. And let’s just dwell on that for a second. This whole time Samsung was caught up showing everyone their “world’s largest phone,” I feel it could have better been marketed as “the world’s first tablet to fit into your pocket: The Samsung Galaxy Note 5.0.”

But don’t get me wrong. Overall, as a smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Note still gets high marks in almost every area and make no mistake, anyone would be lucky to carry one in their pocket. But even though I’ll always look back on the Galaxy Note with much admiration, I’ll always remember how much more the Galaxy Note could have been if it was simply true to itself — a pocketable tablet.

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