We're not entirely sure whether it's a giant smartphone or a miniature tablet, but Samsung is using the Galaxy Note as a testing ground for its new 1.4 GHz dual-core processor, which will soon also feature in the Galaxy Tab 7.7. There's a gigabyte of memory to keep it company. The main 8 Megapixel camera has an LED flash and records video at a maximum resolution of 1080p, while there's a second 2 Megapixel webcam at the front. Android 2.3 Gingerbread is largely hidden under Samsung's TouchWiz interface, with only minor changes to the version we saw on the Galaxy S II.
Samsung has gone for the usual choice of connectors, with a microUSB port that supports MHL, allowing you to connect the phone to an HDMI port via an optional adaptor. There's a microSD card slot under the battery, as well as 802.11b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 3.0.
Handsfree? Erm, try using both hands ...
It's a good job that Samsung has put the Note on the same diet as the Galaxy S II, managing to get it down to 9.65 mm thin and 172 g on the scales, almost the same weight as the HTC Titan. But things are very different when you have to actually pick it up ...
You can hold it in one hand, but once the screen is unlocked, you'll need some kind of magic extendable thumb to be able to use the screen and so you basically need two hands to use it. You can get by with one hand for a while, but when you need to tap something on the other side of the screen then you realise just how impossible it is. That's part of the reason why the stylus is actually so necessary ...
You can forget any sense of dignity if you want to actually make a call. In the photo above, you can see what it looks like compared to an iPhone 4S, a Samsung Galaxy S II and a HTC Titan. Then again, it's a lot easier than with a Dell Streak, another five-inch device which can make calls. As for whether or not it fits into your pocket—something that is pretty essential for most people—it's actually slim enough, despite its rather ample proportions, to squeeze into a jacket pocket or even a pair of trousers without too much trouble.
The Samsung Galaxy S II was already pretty big, but the Galaxy Note is a sort of super-sized version, with the same textured finish at the back for the black version and a glossy plastic exterior for the white version.
The Wacom-designed stylus looks, as you'd expect, like a stylus, with a slim body and a chrome tip. It slides into the bottom of the phone when you're not using it and it's easy to get in and out. Sometimes we found the action button at the side hard to find, but at other times we ran into it accidentally, inadvertently launching an action we didn't want to.
Samsung also includes a larger clip that you can attach to the stylus so that i takes on the dimensions of a normal pen, but you can't, of course, store it inside the phone that way.
Super AMOLED HD = Super Screen
The Galaxy Note might have borrowed some features from the Samsung Galaxy S II, but the screen isn't one of them: the latter's Super AMOLED Plus display has been switched for a new Super AMOLED HD screen. The biggest change is in the resolution, which has shot up from 800 x 480 pixels on the earlier smartphone to 1280 x 800 pixels here. That's the same resolution as 5.3'' Android; tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the equivalent of a definition of 285 dpi. The improvement has been made possible by switching from RGB technology to PenTile, with two sub-pixels in each pixel.
As a result, browsing the web is an absolute joy, with pages rendered perfectly in both landscape and portrait mode. If you need to, you can zoom in by tapping, getting a fast, detailed glance at part of the page. Text and details are nice and smooth even when you push that zoom to its maximum setting.
Alongside the higher resolution, which is a useful bonus for a lot of apps, the display still bears the hallmarks of AMOLED technology, with infinitely high contrast ratios and bright, lively colours. Samsung has nevertheless decided to play it safe by offering three different colour profiles for the Galaxy Note.
Like the Galaxy S II, the Note has three profiles: Dynamic, Standard and Video. The default option is Standard, and it's better than its equivalent on the Galaxy S II, Normal mode. Its deltaE score—a measure of how accurately colours are reproduced, with lower scores indicating fewer problems—was 5.7 with only red and green causing problems. Compare that to figures of 8.3 on the Galaxy S II or 6.2 on the iPhone 4S. Video mode does even better, coming down to just 5.0. The flashy colours of Dynamic mode are less of a success, pushing the deltaE up to 7.9.
That leaves the other recent over-sized smartphone, the HTC Titan, at the top of this particular table with its record score of 3.3. Finally, we should say that we were struck by how pale the colours looked on the Note compared to the Galaxy S II: having such accurate colour reproduction is something that you have to get used to on a mobile device, but it's certainly very nice once you do.
Depending on the mode you choose, the colour temperature fluctuates between 7524 and 8269 K, which is an excellent result and a definite improvement on the Galaxy S II's Super AMOLED Display which has a strong blue tinge. The viewing angles are spot on, and wider than on other mobile devices we've seen.
You can easily see the screen outside with the sun shining down overhead thanks to maximum brightness of 395 cd/m². Samsung's latest trick is to dynamically adjust the brightness levels in different parts of the screen. That means that the brightness will be turned up behind certain colours and shades onscreen, as far as a maximum level that you can adjust in the settings. At the same time, the brightness behind darker areas of the screen will be turned down, increasing the perception of contrast and helping boost your battery life.
Finally, the ghosting time is identical to what we found on the older Super AMOLED Plus display. At 17 ms with an active motion interpolation system, animations are as smooth as ever.
Stylus for TouchWiz: a touch of style
We won't go into too much detail about the TouchWiz interface that Samsung has added to Android 2.3.5. The version provided here is practically identical to the one included on the Galaxy S II, and you can read that review for more thorough details on the interface. One big change, though, is the addition of features that are compatible with the S-Pen stylus.
The addition of a stylus is the Note's real innovation. The capacitative touchscreen—which is also very smooth via traditional finger-based gestures—has technology from Wacom, which has also provided that stylus which can react to different amounts of pressure.
Using the TouchWiz interface with the stylus is almost as smooth as with your fingers, but it's just a shame that so many features need you to press the back button below the screen which is touch-sensitive only and doesn't with the stylus. You can take a screen grab by holding down the button on the stylus and tapping on the screen twice.
An ordinary double-tap launches the S-Note app, which is also on the homescreen. You can combine text via entered via the virtual keyboard, voice memos and sketches with the stylus, with brushes of different colours and styles, including a highlighter, a marker and charcoal.
Voice recognition is included, and although it does make some mistakes, often with rather complicated phrases (such as those beloved of your humble scribe) it usually works quickly without any problems. Whether you're writing an e-mail, a text message or a note, a window pops up and allows you to speak your text. The Note pauses for less than a second before inserting your text, ready to send straight away in most cases with very few errors.
You can also annotate a web page, a photo or even a video. The built-in editor allows you to add comments, drawings or other creative content to a video, mixing different shapes and colours and deciding how long they should all appear on screen. Thanks to Wacom, it's possible to edit even small details in photos and so editing your snaps is absolute childsplay.
There are already plenty of third-party games and apps that make use of the S-Pen available on the Samsung Apps store, including dozens of colouring books. The stylus is an intriguing new addition. We're not sure whether it will take off, but we can certainly see the point of the S-Pen and we're sure that a lot of users will like it.
When it comes to performance, we can't heap enough praise on the new 1.4 GHz Exynos processor which easily beats any other Android device we've seen so far. Demanding software like the incredible game Shadow Gun 3D, which--despite borrowing heavily from Gears of War--is a great demo of what you can do on a mobile device and it runs like clockwork. Running it on a Galaxy S II smartphone or a Honeycomb tablet at the same time shows just how much progress has been made.
It's the same story with the interface, which is faster and smoother, but a few hitches here and there remind you that the integration of the TouchWiz layer with Android underneath still isn't quite perfect.
Multimedia fans will think they've died and gone to heaven—but that's been the case for a while now with Samsung's high-end mobile devices. You can cobble together a range of files without paying attention to the formats, press play and enjoy the whole lot without so much as the slightest hesitation. It's one area where Samsung leads in the field of smartphones and tablets, matched only by Archos, and even then only with the latter category.
The camera picks up the good work where the Galaxy S II left off. It's not quite as good overall as the camera on the iPhone 4S or the HTC Titan, but the Galaxy Note's eight Megapixels can capture plenty of details if the conditions are favourable. Darker areas, however, remain underexposed, and there is occasionally a red tinge.
If light levels fall, then the amount of electronic noise rises, climbing above the amount we saw on the Galaxy S II; the flash tends to overexpose anything that's too close to the lens. In general, you can expect to get decent photos out of the Galaxy Note, but it's not quite as impressive as the smartphones that excel in this particular domain. Video is recorded and played back at up to 1080 at 30 fps, and is smooth, with a wide dynamic range on the mic. Indeed, it's sometimes a little too wide, picking up hiss and crackle we'd rather it didn't. The only things that limit our enthusiasm are that slight red tinge and the fact that the Galaxy Note sometimes struggles to handle abrupt changes in light levels.
2500 reasons to like it
Samsung has foreseen the usual problem with powerful smartphones—battery life—by including a 2500 mAh battery. That gives the Galaxy Note enough power to last well over a day whatever you're doing with it. Even if you're using your new toy intensively—as is often the case for us when we get our hands on a product for the first time—the Note will go for a good nine hours. That's almost twice as much as some high-end smartphones. That 'performance' is due in part to the huge battery, of course, but also because of the smart energy management offered by Samsung's new processor.
- High-definition display with excellent brightness but flashy colours
- Reasonably light given the size
- Overall responsiveness
- Wide range of touch-based and stylus-activated apps
- Very good battery life
- You either love the big form factor or you hate it
- You're going to look silly making phone calls
- Stylus can be tricky to use
- Holding it in one hand is a strain
The Samsung Galaxy Note is no ordinary smartphone and isn't shy about the fact it straddles the border between mobiles and tablets. We can see why business customers would like it, but it could also appeal to users who aren't convinced either by existing tablets or by other oversized phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II or the HTC Titan.