We know this one’s a little late, but we thought that while we eagerly await Samsung’s Galaxy S III to show up on our doorstep and with the Galaxy Note 2 supposedly around the corner we should at least finally do a Samsung Galaxy Note review. The phone/tablet, or “phablet”, hybrid has sparked polarising opinions amongst smartphone users regarding both its size and the viability of its capacitive stylus.
Despite all nay-sayers the Galaxy Note has managed to make a huge impression on the smartphone world and stands as the greatest example of how outside-the-box products can not only find their own market, but also generate competition and shake up some of the more established market standards. The best example of this is perhaps its screen size. At a whopping 5.3 inches the Galaxy Note’s display seemed almost comically huge upon its release, especially compared to its contemporary 4.2 inch Galaxy S II. Now, however, the Galaxy S III has been released with a 4.8 inch screen and it’s outselling just about any other device in history.
Physical Design of the Samsung Galaxy Note
The Galaxy Note may not seem like it at first glance, but it’s an impressively sized phone. It’s large dimensions, so-sized as to accommodate its 5.3 inch display, are so commonly proportioned to one another that the Note almost seems of normal size. However, once you pick it up or place it next to another handset it becomes apparent why the note is seen as a phone/tablet hybrid, or “phablet”.
The overall design isn’t particularly noteworthy. The very standard form with curved corners and relatively thin profile is a familiar sight. As are the 3 buttons below the display; capacitive Back and Menu buttons with a central hardware Home button.
Comfort-wise, the Note is unexpectedly un-cumbersome. That isn’t to say that we didn’t encounter any problems due to its size, but it was definitely easier to use, hold and carry around than expected. In the hand, for instance, it was fairly easy to hold for things like texting and browsing. However, once you held it up to your ear it became very apparent that you were talking in to an oversized phone which led to some mild discomfort and feelings of appearing silly or comical. It just didn’t quite feel right talking in to something that big.
In the pocket the Note was generally fine. Its thin profile allowed for it to be carried around without constantly reminding us of its presence. Occasionally when sitting down or leaning forward we did notice it, but it was rarely an issue.
All of this being said, folks who wear tight jeans, or anyone of a smaller stature, will definitely have to make up their own minds on the Galaxy Note. While surprisingly comfortable to use, please note the “surprisingly” part of that statement. The Note isn’t an awful, unwieldy device, but we definitely think that most folk would prefer something a little smaller. Even we had to admit that we were more at least with a 4.7 or 4.8 inch device.
Display and UI
The 5.3 inch, Super AMOLED 1280x800 HD display of the Samsung Galaxy Note is still fairly impressive, despite the fact that the device has now been out for some time. Colours and vibrant, blacks are clear and whites come out relatively clean; although not as clean as what we experienced with the HTC One X.
The UI was a fairly standard Samsung affair, running TouchWiz 4.0 over Android Gingerbread 2.3.6. We were, unfortunately, unable to upgrade the Note to Android 4.0 Ice Cream sandwich in our area and on our carrier. This was a real shame, as the Note has some great S-Pen updates that have been enabled for ICS users, on top of the general updates that ICS itself brings to the table.
The basic UI was smooth and roughly comparable to what one would experience on a Samsung Galaxy S II. Overall the non-stylus related functionality was exactly what we have come to expect from an Android handset in this range.
The capacitive stylus, or “S Pen” turned out to be something that we loved. It didn’t always work perfectly, but it didn’t have to. The pen itself adds so little to the ultimate size of the Galaxy Note that there would have been no point in not including it. As such it ended up offering occasional perks for those situations where we needed it and when we didn’t it was neatly hidden away inside the phone.
For general, every-day uses the S-Pen has 2 main uses:
- Screen capture & edit
- Note taking
The S-Pen’s Screen Capture & Edit is one of those little bits of functionality that we never knew we needed, but are now having difficulty living without. Screenshots are nothing new since the release of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), and it’s true that Androids have always been able to edit photos and images. However, the Galaxy Note makes the whole affair so simple that we noticed ourselves grabbing screen images, editing them and sending them off to our friends with surprising consistency. It’s as easy as holding down the button on the side of the S-Pen and then an elongated press & hold against the display.
See a funny image in an article? Grab a snapshot, circle the image and send it off. Feel like going out for dinner after work? Grab a snapshot of a venue in Google Maps, circle it, add “Meet at 8?” and MMS it to your friends. There’s also the unendingly comical option of drawing moustaches and horns on all of your friends after taking a snapshot of them.
Holding down the S-Pen’s button and double-tapping the screen takes you immediately to the S-Note service. This is basically your standard built-in note-taking service, but with ample S-Pen support. You can write by hand, draw images with a variety of different colours and brush-types, or simply type in text if you want. We can see this sort of thing being particularly handy to students, or anyone else that carries around a little scribble pad for note-taking.
Like we said, it isn’t the most useful function in the world and it’s definitely not a deal maker or breaker when it comes to overall functionality. However, it’s certainly nothing but a check in the positive column and it definitely, on the occasions where you’d need it, makes life just a bit easier.
We would like to quickly point out that the S-Pen did feel a little off when it came to pin-point accuracy. Ours tended to register just slightly up and to the right of where it touched the screen. It was easily enough adjusted too, but it was enough to throw off the ability to do detailed drawings with any particular ease; casual artists be warned.
Another small issue is that the S-Pen did not register for the Back and Menu buttons. It might not sound like much, but when you’re been using the S-Pen as your primary source of input for something but have to keep switching to finger tapping just to press the buttons it really breaks up the smooth user experience. It’s a small change, but we’d really like to see this addressed when the Galaxy Note 2 comes out later this year.
Music and Media
The Galaxy Note offered a fairly standard Android music experience. As per usual its included ear-buds were of questionable quality and comfort, but not overly horrible. With better earphones we found sound quality to be more than acceptable. The Music app, as always, was easily navigable, fast and well laid-out.
Video on the Note was fairly impressive. The high resolution meant that the larger screen didn’t detract much from image sharpness. Colours were vibrant, blacks were sufficiently dark and whites came our fairly well. Due to the bigger screen we found it much easier to get immersed in whatever it was that we were watching, really giving the impression that the Note is a much more video-centric device than others we’ve reviewed. Of course we would have liked to see a slightly higher resolution, but for a phone like the Note who’s successor is fast approaching announcement we think that 285ppi is more than acceptable.
Keyboard and Browsing
The Keyboard of the Galaxy Note isn’t anything special at its very core. Yes, it’s fast and responsive, but it’s nothing more than we’ve seen on many other devices. Software keyboards these days are generally more than adequate to the task of keeping up with speedy typists and switching between letters and symbols with acceptable speed.
Why the Note’s keyboard did stand out was once again due to its sheer size. Typing on the note was so easy that it was almost comical. Both two handed and one-handed typing was a total breeze.
One small issue was with Swype. In portrait mode one can generally use the thumb on the hand that is holding the device to swipe around, leaving the other hand completely free. This is just not possible on the Galaxy Note, as very few people will be able to reach across the entire display. However, if you don’t use Swype or if you don’t employ the one-handed+thumb method then you shouldn’t have anything but a great experience.
The browser was fast. Over 3G it loaded pages faster than on most other devices we’ve tested and over WiFi it was almost unparalleled.
Of course the browser also benefitted from the large display that allowed both text and images to be viewed clearly without cramming too much information in to a small space.
We did encounter one small issue with in-browser zooming. The first time we powered the Galaxy Note up pinch-to-zoom and Samsung’s patented tilt-to-zoom worked fine. However, after reformatting the Note and setting it back up again zoom no longer worked in any form within the browser. We found this curious and couldn’t find mention of it anywhere else on the internet. If anyone else out there is having the same problem we suggest reformatting your phone and hoping for it to come out the other side working properly.
When zoom did work it worked quite well, although not perfectly smoothly. Due to the moderately impressive pixel density of 285ppi text was still sharp at full zoom and pictures still came out well.
Switching between tabs could sometimes see a bit of lag, but for the most part it was hassle free. The added perk of switching between tabs by zooming out when you were already fully zoomed out was a nice touch and really made tab switching much easier. This ability still functioned even when pinch-to-zoom was mysteriously unavailable.
Camera and Battery Life
The 8MP camera of the Samsung Galaxy Note wasn’t anything special. It wasn’t terrible, but we certainly weren’t wowed by it, either. It took good photos on well-lit days and dropped in quality as lighting levels dimmed. Photos with flash came out a little intense, with each photo concentrating way too much on the foreground, even more so than most digital cameras. Flash also caused a fair bit of discolouration, leading to photos with a bright bluish-white centre of focus that left everything else in comparative darkness.
We’d rate the video capture similarly. Once again during the day it was find and it became less usable as the sun went down. It captured movement at a distance fairly well, but struggled with fast, up-closed movement. This is very standard of a device from the Galaxy Note’s time of release and price-range.
Battery life was surprisingly great. We never once ran out of juice in the middle of the day, even when using apps fairly intensely. Once we deleted most of the superfluous Home Screen widgets that battery life extended even further, with us usually finishing the day with a third of the battery left or more. This was a definite relief, as we expected the larger screen to be a significant power drain.
The WhistleOut Opinion
The Samsung Galaxy Note is a solid device with a well thought-out concept aimed at some more specific areas of the market. It’s not a device for anyone, but folks after a more media and internet-centric experience on a device where phone calls are a secondary or tertiary concern should definitely give some thought to the Note.
The S-Pen was fun and useful, although we’d like to see its accuracy improved with the GNote 2, as well as the ability to tap the capacitive buttons with the pen.
The intimidating size will be enough to throw off more than a few potential buyers and with good reason. While the Note is surprisingly un-cumbersome, it can still be a burden at times. Those of small stature, or of tighter pants will find easy use and comfort to be issues.
However, anyone with large enough hands, or who’s more than happy to use both hands with their phone, shouldn’t have a problem.
All up the Samsung Galaxy Note is a great device and we can see how it’s managed to have the impact on the industry that it has. Would we suggest grabbing one? Probably not right now. The only reason for this is that the Galaxy Note 2 should be out by the end of the year (we’re hoping for a September/October announcement), so there’s not too long to wait until either prices drop or a better option is available. You also, like us, may find yourself in a position where you cannot upgrade the Note to ICS, which is a pretty big issue that should hopefully soon be resolved.
Of course, if you can’t wait and you’re willing to take the Note’s drawbacks and potential issues in your stride then go ahead. We honestly loved the Note and we’ve been left extremely eager to see what Samsung has in store for us with its successor.