Review: Samsung Galaxy Note

With each passing month we see a new smartphone released. The screen gets bigger by the pixel, as well as the inch. The war between functional smartphone and tablet continues each and every day. Should we have both? Should we have a friggin huge arse phone that does everything? Who knows, well, Samsung thinks they know. Now, I am not going to use the ph… word. I refuse to use it in this review. If you remember back in January, we were able to spend 15 minutes or so with the device, and we were actually quite impressed. The Note sat perfectly in our hands, and actually had quite a beautiful display. Well, after a couple weeks spent rocking the briefcase sized phone, there might be a different opinion on the device…

The Specs

  • 5.3″ Super AMOLED 1280×800 Display
  • Dual-Core 1.4 GHz ARM Cortex-A9
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • 16/32 of microSD Storage
  • 8 MP Rear | 2 MP Front
  • WiFi/Bluetooth/4G LTE (AT&T)
  • Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread


Hardware

During CES 2012, we asked ourselves if it was a tablet or a phone. Now, I know that has been said numerous times before, but we really had discussions about it. We all know it is a phone, we can make calls on it. But what will be the ultimate use out of the device. During our 2 week period with the Note, I set out to really figure this out. I know months have gone by since the launch of the device, and I’ve had a lot of time to read other points of view, but not all I have read really drills it home like my experience.

I have man handled my share of devices in my day. Currently I find myself toting around the new iPad as my go-to-device for interweb usage. I still use my iPhone, but when there is Wi-Fi available, I am on my iPad. So when I was given the chance to use the 5.3” Galaxy Note, I wanted to see if I could replace both of those devices in my every day life. I kept my iPad in my bag, and my iPhone in my left pocket and set out to see what the Note could accomplish.

For work you’ll find me in slacks/dress pants. This was the best experience I could find myself in using the Galaxy Note. It actually fit into my pocket (something I was really concerned about) but was nothing short of horribly uncomfortable. Wearing jeans, don’t even get me started. I could barely fit this behemoth into my denim wonder pants. So since most of my day is spent in work attire, I’ll base these words off of that. First off, let’s just say that I always knew there was something in my pocket. At no time at all was I worried about where I left my phone, it was always there. I found one thing more uncomfortable than the Note in my pocket - holding it up to my face for calls. This was not only awkward, but horribly embarrassing. I always felt like people were wondering why I had a Buick attached to my head.

As a tablet though, I felt myself enjoying the device. I spend a couple hours on a train each day commuting to and from work, so a large screen makes that time somewhat enjoyable. Now since Gadgetsteria won’t pay for my Verizon bill on my iPad, my iPhone is the only communication I have while in transit. So given the few weeks I had using the Note I actually had good time. Netflix was rather enjoyable, but overall internet usage was rather fun. The device does sit well in my hand, even in the cramped confines of a Portland light-rail vehicle. When using the Note as a tiny tablet is where I felt it held up the best.


Design & Display

The Galaxy Note is actually a joy to hold in your hand. The front of the device is absolutely gorgeous. It is actually lighter than I remember it being Las Vegas. The phone sat perfectly in my palm, and worked very well as a two handed venture. I knew it was too large to use with only one hand. So I went into this review knowing it would be a tablet replacement, not a telephone alternative.

As usual, you’ll find minimal knobs on this smartphone. Top grants you access to tun-age while the bottom lets you charge your electricity bill away. The left side of the Note features a volume rocker, while the opposite is the power button. And this is where I found my biggest problem. Because of the size of the device, every time I tried to one-hand it, when powering it off, I always found myself adjusting the volume. The only fix I had was to use a second hand/index finger to power it down. I am not sure if this is standard on Android devices, but I found this to be horribly awkward, coming from an iPhone has possibly made me feel out of place with this device.

The back of the Note seems a tad bit on the cheap side. Because the hardware was as light as it was, for the size of unit, I always felt like the back was too plastic and was always going to snap. If the device was a tad heavier, maybe that would change my mind.

But the display, oh the display. Samsung didn’t hold back when the gave this to us. The Super AMOLED screen absolutely blew my mind. The 5.3” viewing was a joy to use. Colors looked outstanding, blacks looked deep and sensual - it was great. Whether I was browsing the web or watching Netflix, I couldn’t find one complaint with the screen. I guess the biggest problem I had was how warm it made the side of my face.

Performance


As far as how the Note performed, I am kind of left wanting more. The device I was running wasn’t upgraded to ICS, and instead was still toting Gingerbread. The upgrade might yield better results, but I really could barely use the device in every day situations. I am not sure if it was Android, or if it was Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, but I just kept finding myself angry with my experience. Swiping through the Home-screen as well as pages of apps felt clunky, even worse when using the stylus.

Apps seemed slow to load, almost as if they weren’t designed to be used with this phone. The entire experience was dreadful at best. But when an app was loaded and in use, it did get better. Not that that has anything to do with the device or software, but once something was going, it was a different situation.

I am currently on AT&T with my iPhone 4S, so I am familiar with how horrible the carrier is here in Portland. If you are outside of downtown/surrounding you are probably going to have a better time, but smack dab in the heart of the city you’ll find your FauxG useless. The LTE experience I had with the Note was surprisingly better. I didn’t find myself bottlenecking my speeds in the usual spots. There were some hiccups, but I was actually able to use the device longer and more frequent than I could with my iPhone. This was welcomed and I enjoyed the smooth interwebbing because of AT&T’s LTE service in Portland.


Battery

The Galaxy Note is packing a 2500 mAh battery that takes a beating every time the phone is powered on. While using the Note I always found myself checking the battery monitor within the settings to see what was sucking my precious battery juice. 10/10 times it was the display. This would be expected with a 5.3” display. For a smartphone, the battery is huge, but when using it as a tablet, it definitely met it’s match. With the tests that I ran, I found using the phone in the morning for around 2 hours, letting it sit with no usage at all for around 9 hours, then using it again for 2 hours as a browser yielded around 4 hours of actual use. This would be expected from the LTE capabilities jam-packed inside. If you recall our Galaxy Tab review, you’ll see that this is a bit less then we saw with that 10.1” device.

Playing video on the device in my non-stop loop of avi fun produced a respectable 8.5 hour result with all reception turned off. So if you were to utilize the Note on a cross-country trip and wanted a comfortable device to watch videos on, the Note could definitely satisfy your needs. For a smartphone I would consider this decent life. When compared to tablets, again we are holding our own - at least when the LTE is turned off.

Camera

The Note’s 8 MP camera was definitely a pleasure to use. Using the camera in the dismal Portland environment even proved to be successful. I did notice that when the lighting conditions weren’t up to par, some of the pictures came out on the cruddy side, but over all the camera rivaled that of my iPhone 4S. Snapping pics was quick, and really gave me no lag whatsoever, something I can’t always say for the 4S that currently resides in my pocket.

But when in darker environments, you will notice a noisier image, something I found the Note fond of producing. When using my iPhone 4S, this is something I wasn’t accustomed to. The Note could not produce a respectable image when attempting to focus in low light areas.

Software and Stylus

TouchWiz, oh TouchWiz…You have probably heard it out of our mouths once or twice before, we aren’t a fan. It really drags an experience down. This could of been a better experience if I was using Ice Cream Sandwich, but with Gingerbread it was a laggy experience that matched with a 5.3” screen was an awkward experience no one should have.

Customization something that really helped my experience out on this device. I am a novice when it comes to Android, but I felt like I could do more with my experience than with what I’ve used in the past.

This brings us to the stylus…I mean S Pen. During our visit with Samsung at CES, they made sure to never reference it as a stylus. It’s an accessory with a built in slot on the device, that you can upgrade with a different accessory - it’s an S Pen.

The S Pen is littered with gestures to use with the Note, which is something I found myself using time and time again. In any app, I could merely hold a button on the stylus and tap down (holding for a second or two) and an automatic screenshot would be captured. This along with holding that button and swiping became a familiar past-time for me with the Note. I found myself sliding through different screens and apps using the S Pen, kind of like I would with my fingers and the iPad.

Now, I know it’s a stylus, and we’ve made fun of such a device over and over again. The Samsung Team put themselves in front of the crosshairs when implementing a built in stylus. But the fact remains it isn’t a horrible experience. The accuracy is actually spot on. Only a few times I found myself writing and nothing showing up. I never found a misspelling or any other issue when writing. The only issue I had was that when writing I found the side of my hand activating screen gestures because the size of it made me thing I was resting on a desk (LOL?).

Every time I used the Note I found myself capturing a screenshot with the S Pen and noting some text on it and immediately sharing it. I found this very useful, and my wife loved the notes I would send, over and over again. Along with jotting down text and snapping screenshots, I used the S Pen in a few different games, and honestly found no lag or fumble when using it.

I do have a stylus I was given at CES that I use with my iPad, and it usually sits in a drawer on my desk. Maybe it’s the wonderful adventure I find myself in when using my fingertips in iOS, or maybe it is the fact that in an Android environment it is unnatural to use my fingers, I don’t know. But the fact remains that using a stylus here worked for me, where under the umbrella of iOS, I would be throwing a fit!


Conclusion

Well, 5.3” as a tablet is incredibly perfect, but for a phone, it is awkward and unnatural. But, for those that only want one device instead of a tablet and a phone, the Note will be one of your best bets. I myself would probably settle upon one of the 4.5” screens, just so I wouldn’t look like a tool in public when on the phone. But the Note really came through. When we first saw it in Vegas, we liked it, now after using it for a couple weeks that initial ‘like’ we had has been driven home.

The Note does give you the option to leave every other device sitting at home. Samsung has made an attempt at that, and I really feel they succeeded. I know this gargantuan device won’t fit into everyone’s pocket, I know some will be turned off by the size, even the stylus, but the Note really does have a place in the market. For $249.99 with a 2 year contract, you have the option to spend a small amount to grant you a gadget-less filled bag.

Thanks to Samsung for the review unit.

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  • brian terpack

    AT&T does