The Samsung Galaxy Note introduces a new class of handset which features a huge 5.3” display. Internally, we call this a “fablet”, but the Galaxy Note has truly been designed as a handet. As such it is pocketable (yes, even in jeans pants), can make calls and pretty much acts like a big Galaxy S2 – we think that this is a parallel that is the easy way to think about the Galaxy Note.
Beside the obvious difference in size, the Samsung Galaxy Note also comes with a stylus. As you know, this feature has had a mild success in the past, but some people are more comfortable with a stylus, and you’ll see that the Galaxy Note’s size does change the stylus game when compared to its ancestors. Finally, the AT&T flavor of the Galaxy Note features 4G LTE – but also HSPA+, and 3G, which is a nice, gradual slope in terms of network performance. In this review, will cover how it feels to use the Samsung Galaxy Note in the real world. Ready?
5.3″ Super AMOLED HD display 1280 x 800 Pixel
5.78″ x 3.27″ x 0.38″, 6.28 Ounces
1.5GHz dual-core (Qualcomm)
16GB of internal storage + optional 32GB microSD
GSM Quad-band: 850/900/1800/1900MHz; UMTS; Tri-band: 850/1900/2100MHz; LTE; Dual Band: Band 4 & Band 17
8.0 Megapixel camera (back)+ 2.0 Megapixel (front)
More specs on the official Galaxy Note home page
We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that we tell you what we do with our smartphones: we typically check my email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and we reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. We browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but we rarely watch movies or play music. We don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.
On the “apps” side, we have a couple of social networks, a receipts manager, but we rarely play games or do something super-intensive. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…
Although we had the “international” Samsung Galaxy Note in the office for months, the Samsung Galaxy Note that is currently available in the U.S with AT&T is slightly different, both externally and internally (different processor). We will cover both aspects, but let’s start with the industrial design.
Both devices look very much the same, but you can notice that the single physical button from the international version has been replaced by four touch-sensitive regions with the usual Android commands for Menu, Home, Back and Search. I don’t have a particular preference for either, and in the near future both types of buttons will be obsolete when Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) gets rolled out to the Galaxy Note (hopefully sooner rather than later). This is the main external difference between the two.
On the back, The cover uses a similar texture, but the branding is different. The AT&T version has a “Galaxy Note” logo, while the International one had a “Samsung” logo. At the bottom, you will find the micro-USB port and the stylus, both of which are near the loud speaker.
It is also possible to see the 8 Megapixel camera module equipped with a single LED Flash. In the front, there is a discreet 2 Megapixel camera for video calls. We’ll get back to both shortly.
This is surely the most interesting aspect of the Samsung Galaxy Note: the 5.3” display is huge, and the common question that we get is: is it too big? Our answer is “no”, quickly followed by “depending on how you use your phone”. By introducing a 5.3” handset, Samsung knows that it is reaching the outer-limit of what people can tolerate in terms of mobility and portability. The fact is: the average human hand size won’t change for the foreseeable future. However, the Samsung Galaxy Note is also the most comfortable touch handset out there as it makes things like watching movies, typing on the keyboard, or simply ready text, much more agreeable than on a 3.5” or even a 4” display.
Put simply, we would say that your experience with the Note depends on how much you like using your handset with one hand. It is clear that with a large screen, it is not possible to have a tight grip on your handset, and easily tap/slide with one hand. If you are used to do a lot of things with one hand, this may be a deal breaker. Surprisingly, this didn’t bug us 90% of the time, and I was always able to make things work. On the other hand, the benefits of having a large display are omnipresent.
The image quality of the display is excellent. The 1280×720 resolution is high enough to preserve the pixel density that I have been accustomed to with modern smartphones, and the colors pop (maybe too much sometimes) which is great when watching videos, but also for just about anything in general.
What’s different from the International/European model?
The European version is not 4G LTE, it gets HSPA+ and it runs a 1.4 Ghz Samsung Exynos dual-core processor. In order to offer 4G LTE, the US model is equipped with a Qualcomm SnapDragon dual-core APQ 8060 1.5 Ghz. The rest of the features are similar in both models. Check our benchmark in the Performance paragraph below to see how the processors compare in term of device responsiveness and performance.
The most significant addition of the Galaxy Note compared to the SII is the ability to use a pen for writing text and drawing. To prevent users to constantly switch from pen to finger, the Samsung engineers implemented a gesture UI in the stylus that can replace the physical buttons back and home: while holding the button on the pen, swipe from the bottom of the screen from any applications to return to the home screen, or swipe from right to left to go back to the previous screen.
Writing instead of typing – how is it? (Good)
Unlike Palm’s hand writing technology, users do not have to learn a specific alphabet with specific shapes/getsures to have the device recognize what they want to write. However you need to write the words with clean shapes, otherwise the letters will not be recognized – I (Eliane) have a handwriting that even humans cannot read well, so I guess that the Galaxy Note will help me improve on that side of things. For fast typers, using the keyboard will be more efficient. To switch from conventional keyboard to hand writing with the stylus, hit the key with a “T” and a pen. The hand writing function will stay on across all applications that offer typing text.
Drawing with the Galaxy Note (Fun!)
Samsung is heavily marketing the Note as drawing device, and as a designer Eliane was interested in trying this particular feature. You can draw using the S Memo application and the stylus, the interface allows for changing the pen size and color, it is also easy to include pictures and audio in the “page”. Drawing on the screen with the stylus is not as accurate as drawing on a paper with a pencil, it gives your trait a particular style that we would call “a la Schiele”, which we like. We need to draw for a longer period of time to provide more feedback on the topic, and see if we get used to the screen surface and how it might affect my drawing style. If some of you reading this review have feedback on this feature, please leave a comment.
S Memo App: write notes with the pen, annotate and draw on maps or on screen shots (Very good)
The only way to access a plain white page in S Memo instead of the default yellow page with lines is to tap on the artwork drawn on a white page available from the app’s home screen and then, hit the + button to create a new note from there.
You can access a S Memo note from various applications, for example when on a web page in the browser, hold the button on the pen and tap at the top of the screen and a S Memo page will appear on top of the browser. I could not find a way to switch the default page from the yellow one with lines, we searched all menus without any luck.
Another cool feature is the ability to grab a screen shot by holding the pen’s button and pressing and holding on the screen at the same time. Then you can start writing, highlighting text or drawing directly on the screen shot, the S Memo interface is automatically made available at the top of the display. When finished you can share it via email, AllShare (Samsung sharing service to other devices such as connected TVs) Facebook, Picasa, text message, or via Bluetooth, WiFi direct. You can also choose to set the screen shot as a contact icon, wallpaper for the lock screen or the home screen. The interface gives also direct access to the photo editor where you can edit it before sharing. In case you have a Samsung printer, it will possible to take advantage of the printing option as well.
Similarly you can annotate a map after grabbing a screen shot of it and then send it to your friends via email or text. This is a really cool feature.
Email and calendar applications have been updated.
The email app is quite the same as in the Galaxy SII except for the functions accessible from the menu, such as print or the ability to switch background colors. The calendar have been updated to take better advantage of the large 5.3-inch display.See a more detailed description in the Killer Apps paragraph below.
Network Speed with 4G LTE
The other obvious difference between the original Samsung Galaxy Note and the AT&T version is the addition of support for AT&T’s LTE network. To be clear, the AT&T Galaxy Note is capable of LTE, HSPA+, HSPA+ and plain 3G, so it does everything that the original Note does in terms of wireless capabilities – except better. And the result is pretty obvious: in our tests the AT&T LTE network reached speeds of 23.8/8.39 Mbps (download/upload) while the HSPA+ version topped 4.6/1.1Mbps. This is a very substantial difference. Interestingly, AT&T markets both HSPA+ and LTE technologies as “4G”, so if you want to learn more about the various 4G technologies out there, read this post.
In any case, the network performance of the Samsung Galaxy Note and its ability to gradually fall back to legacy networks is top notch.
Virtual keyboard: Eliane has compared the virtual keyboard with the one available on the Galaxy Nexus and found them to be comparable in terms of efficiency. However, she felt more comfortable when typing with the thumbs and holding the Galaxy Note in landscape mode than with the Galaxy Nexus. The 5.3-inch device has a perfect size for this activity, the thumbs can reach all the keys with no effort. I was not able to tell the different in speed between the Note, the Nexus and the iPhone 4s. Hubert felt that the Galaxy Note was a bit less responsive than two other devices (the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Nexus).
Email: The email application has the same two-pane design as the one in the Galaxy SII. The large 5.3-inch display allows to take full advantage of the layout, there you can really see enough of the information in both panels, unlike in the SII which has a too small screen to make the two-pane layout useful. The menu is different in the Galaxy Note, for example, you can access the Display Mode function which allows to switch from white to dark or beige background, an option that I could not find in the email application offered in the Galaxy SII. The Note offer the print function, which will only work with a Samsung printer. By default the background is dark in the SII and white in the Galaxy Note.
Calendar : The Calendar application has a different layout in the Galaxy Note. The month/week/3days/day tabs are accessible on demand by hitting the arrow button at the top right. This provide more real estate for the calendar content, a feature that is not available in the calendar version provided in the SII. I wanted to change the background colors since I am not a fan of the beige/yellow version, but I could not find the feature in the settings menu accessible from the application. I really like the 3 days screen, a feature that is specifically designed for a large 5.3-inch display.
Facebook: Overall, the facebook app for Android isn’t much different on the larger screen. Obviously, it is more readable, and thanks to its 720p display, the Facebook application does show a bit more information on the screen, but it is not much more to make the experience perceptively different.
Google Maps: Google Maps, which is already excellent on Android, is even better with the 720p 5.3” display of the Galaxy Note. The app does a great job of utilizing the extra pixels on the screen, so while the overall readability and sharpness stay equal to a regular 3.7” smartphone, you can actually see “more map” on the screen, which is great. Of course, it is also possible to zoom in if you want more readability of the small details. This is mapping at its finest!
Skype: it works, and it is pretty much as good as you’re going to get on a mobile phone. Unfortunately, the incoming video doesn’t show up in full-screen but it uses 50% of the surface instead. It may be due to that fact that 1280×720 pixels are quite a lot of decode, however, even a simple “magnification” (with filtering) would have been so much better. Other than that, things do work as expected.
In terms of entertainment, the Samsung Galaxy Note is one of the best handset out there. Music is not much of a challenge, so expect that to just work, but 1080p video decode and gaming are also handled very nicely. By now, most high-end smartphones are capable of decoding 1080p videos, but things can vary depending on the actual bitrate of the source video. Unfortunately, I don’t know what is the maximum bitrate that the Galaxy Note can handle, but as a reference, most phones can decode 5Mbps videos, and the upcoming Tegra 3 handsets can decode 20Mbps and more, which is considered as “Blu-Ray quality”. The higher the bitrate, and the less likely you will have to convert videos, which is a time-saver
In our tests, the video playback looked very nice, which is mainly due to the screen size and image quality. In the handset market, it’s pretty hard to beat a 5.3” Super-Amoled right now, so we would say that the Galaxy Note is the king of multimedia.
Gaming: thanks to its graphics performance (as benchmarked below), the Samsung Galaxy Note should do just fine in terms of gaming. Although our benchmark (Nenamark 2) doesn’t totally reflect today’s complex rendering, it does provide a clear indication that the Galaxy Note is one of the fastest handset in terms of graphics rendering.
Photos capture: in terms of photography, the Galaxy Note does very well. In a reasonable lit environment, it is much comparable to the iPhone 4S, and this time around, I found the colors of the Galaxy Note to be more life-like. things may change depending on the situation, but in this particular situation, the Galaxy Note did provide better color reproduction.
In low-light photography, the Samsung Galaxy Note does very well too, against versus the iPhone 4S, which I consider as a reference. The results are close and although both are excellent (for handsets), none is perfect: the iPhone 4S produces photos that are relatively noisy, while the Samsung Galaxy Note has some colors bleeding form the subject to the surroundings. In the end, both pretty much represent the best of smartphones imaging.
Video recording: the photo capture of the Samsung Galaxy Note is also very good, and the playback is quite amazing on the large 5.3” display. In our view, the Galaxy Note is a step up from the already very good Galaxy S2.
Performance (very good)
Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.
But synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is that the user experience on the Galaxy Nexus is more responsive and faster, because it runs on Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), while the Galaxy Note runs on 2.3.6 (Android 3.x is only for tablets). It
maybe so, but in absolute terms, the perceived performance of the Samsung Galaxy Note remains very good, while the Galaxy Nexus could be qualified as “excellent”.
Also, you should know that out of the box, my Samsung Galaxy Note had the “System Power Savings” option checked. It has a very significant impact on both perceived and measured performance as it cuts down the processor speed by about 50%. From my experience, the reduced speed can be felt in virtually every action, including navigation.
Battery life (very good)
This is the most surprising aspect of this Samsung Galaxy Note LTE handset: the battery life is surprisingly good. It’s not uncommon for LTE devices to lose up to 25% of their battery life overnight. Even the RAZR Maxx loses 14% of its huge 3300mAh battery overnight. But the Galaxy Note LTE only loses 5% of its 2500 mAh overnight – even with sync ON and WiFi OFF. That is definitely a good surprise.
Overall, we have been able to use the Note for a full day without any worries. And if you use it very moderately, you may even top the end of your second work day. If you don’t mind the slower speed, you can turn on the battery optimization that basically cuts the processor speed in half to save more battery. All in all, the AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note is a 4G LTE device that should work for everyone.
Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.
The Samsung Galaxy Note is one of the best 4G LTE device that we had the opportunity to test (the RAZR Maxx would be a contender for that title), and the combination of a large 5.3” screen, LTE speeds and a good battery life makes this a rather unique and efficient combo. The only obvious thing that could make the package better is an Android 4.0 update that would push the user interface (UI) responsiveness to the next level. Right now, the relative lag of the UI when compared to the Galaxy Nexus is the only thing that is a bit frustrating.
Of course, it is up to you to decide if the large format works for you or not, but from what we’ve seen, people either love it, or won’t consider it at all, so this should to be an easy decision. If the size is an issue, the Galaxy Nexus and the RAZR Maxx would be very good alternatives…