Samsung Galaxy Note
A "phablet" and a compromise, but perhaps a good one
by Daniel Rasmus
So here's the thing about the Samsung Galaxy Note: you have to surrender yourself to it. You can't think about it as a small tablet or a big phone (Although at 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65mm or 5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches it is a big phone). You have to go with the Note for what it is. And like Hollywood couples with melded personalities, the Note has spawned a number of monikers. The most popular is "phablet." Industry analyst firm ABI Research, forecasts shipments to reach 208 million by 2015 (read the note here). As a scenario planner, I'm not a big believer in shipping forecasts—they are just too uni-dimensional for me. But millions of "phablets" have already sold, so regardless of their ultimate place in the hierarchy of devices, they have found a niche between phones and tablets that makes them appealing to many people.
For me, the biggest competition among my stuff with the Note is a Livescribe Echo SmartPen and its little pocket notebook with dot paper. That may sound ridiculous, but I own an iPad and a Galaxy Tab 10.1. And an iPhone. A lot of web surfing and productivity power there. So I have to think about where the Note fits. For me, because of the pen, it is a great note taking platform and a decent place to sketch ideas. Yes, it does all that general purpose computing stuff too, but we'll get to why that is an issue in the "What I don't like" section of this review.
To be fair, not everyone owns a device arsenal. As a single device, it is what it appears: a compromise, and perhaps a good one. A fully functional phone and fully functional table with an HD screen. You only have to pay once for the device, fork out monthly billings for only one device and carry one device. If you're looking to simplify your devices, the Note may well be your ticket to device consolidation nirvana.
What I like
I like the pen. I have always like pens. I think they offer much more control and much higher precision. They also give you something to lose. Gestures made for big fat fingers are great GUI innovations, but when it comes to taking notes, the finger is not ideal. So I like the Pen.
I also like that the pen is tucked away nearly flat, but snug and easily accessible. That makes it less likely to fall out. Samsung likes to call the pen an S-Pen. It is a tablet PC stylus fully compatible with Wacom-based technology. I have a Tablet PC and the stylus from that machine works just find on the Note.
Hold the pen's button and long press (hold the pen on the screen for a while, until you hear a camera CLICK) and voila!—a screen capture. Rapidly edit or share the images via everything from e-mail or the S Memo or Facebook or Evernote. Samsung offers an S-Pen API to developers, so a number of S-Pen native apps will become available as the Note establishes itself as a profitable platform.
I also like the 5.3-inch Super AMOLED 1280x800 HD display. It is big, bright and beautiful. It isn't as sharp as the iPhone's Retina Display, which packs more pixels into its much smaller display, but it offers much more surface area. However, if you've used an iPad or other tablet, it will still feel small.
A snappy dual-core, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor keeps everything moving. It handles video and gaming very well. There is nothing I could do that made the device feel sluggish or unresponsive (except use web services for video or music—and those were equally slow and annoying regardless of the provider).
The phone. The phone is good. The speaker works well, the microphone picks up a voice. No complaints.
The camera. A camera is also good, as cameras on phones go. 8 megapixels with an LED flash. And as with most phones, an anemic 2MP camera on the front (for the record, people are taking pictures of themselves. These are shot with the front camera. They come out looking terrible compared to the better camera, but you have to use the front camera because you need the screen to orient the image. (Note from the Note review: put an 8MP (or better, at least matching the rear facing sensor) camera on the front of all phones).
The 2500 mAh battery does a fine job of keeping the Note powered for a long time. I've had it sitting around doing little for up to two days before I feel compelled to charge it. When actively pushing it for the review, I charged it at least daily. As with all phones, if you're near a power source, top it off.
Core memory comes in at 16GB, which is pretty standard for a device with the Note's capabilities these days. If you need more memory overheard, increase it 32GB with a microSD. The memory card slides in the unit's back, near the SIM card. The back cover must be removed to insert the card (do this carefully, as you don't want to break any of the tabs on the cover).
If you want to put the Note to work, a $39.99 HDMI Smart Adapter will connect it to a display so you can share your Note's notes.
What I don't like
With Android and Galaxy devices, Samsung, Google and AT&T resurrect bloatware. You remember when your PC used to come so filled with crapware (yes, that is a synonym) that retail stores started offering to reformat your hard drive before you brought your PC home—for a fee. Well, the Note feels like one of those old PCs. There are so many music and video apps I don't know where to look for my stuff. Can I click "video" to view "LiveTV" downloads (I can't). I won't go into all of the Samsung and third-party apps on the device that do some of the same things real apps do (like Qik which is on the device and Skype, which is not). Let's just leave it as the device has too much stuff on it so novice users will either get lost or duped into second-rate software. And for expert users, the annoying number of apps that require updates and time to navigate through will be, well, annoying.
For viewing video or playing games, or taking notes, the Note's screen size and format are good. But unlike the iPad, the Note isn't big enough. The iPad, or the Galaxy Tab for that matter, have plenty of bezel to hold on to without touching something you don't want to touch. Not so with the Note. When watching a video or attempting to kill a few pigs, or even when writing a note, I keep finding my hand bumping up against some button that takes me out of the moment, and sometimes out of the app.
I also don't like the capacitive buttons that line the bottom of the screen. This is a good example of engineering thought that wasn't thought through. As the iPad or Honeycomb-based tablets rotate, their soft buttons rotate with them. Because the Note's buttons are in the hardware, you are often forced to use them sideways. They are hard enough to find/see when dimmed with the phone in vertical orientation. In horizontal orientation they make little sense at all.
I put this in a separate section because it isn't about liking or not liking it. Network support includes HSPA+ up to 21Mbps 850/900/1900/2100, 4G LTE and EDGE/GPRS 850/900/1800/1900. Data rates depend on where you live (country, and areas within a country). Samsung supports what it needs to support so rapid downloads and streaming are possible over a carrier network, if you have the right plan and live in the right area.
As for other WiFi features, Bluetooth v3.0 + HS along with Wi-Fi Direct and 802.11 a/b/g/n. In other words, you should be able to connect this device to anything that is made to connect to a wireless device.
As I write my reviews I figure out what I really feel. I like the Galaxy Note. I want to like it more. For that to happen I will need fully virtualized buttons, like those on its bigger brother, the Galaxy Tab and a way to either lock the hardware buttons, or their elimination (or some other design approach that takes them out of my way).
The pen is important. Some think the pen is dying. I hope not. Although there is only a small number of devices that still have one, the pen still offers superior features not mimicked well by fingers: touch sensitivity and precise pointing. Some finger-based apps have tried to account for wrists and fat fingers, but nothing works as well as the proximity of the pen and the precision of a small point. That said, even big as the Note is, it feels small when drawing. Once you have a pen, you want a big canvas, and I'm not sure this form factor offers the ideal surface for deep doodles.
Don't let the demos fool you. Unless you have calligraphy skills your notes on the Note will not look like the screen shots or the videos. Don't be disappointed. The Note will capture notes no matter how messy. Your "art" will imitate life. If you thought the Note would auto-magically improve your penmanship, trust me, it won't.
I've seen many reviews that talk about how awkward the Note is when used in traditional phone-to-the-ear mode. So don't use it that way. This is a large, multi-tasking device. Get a Bluetooth headset never and put the Note up to your ear. As a device to use while talking, the large size is a benefit, not a detractor.
Should you buy?
If you are looking for telephony integrated with a tablet, this may be the device for you. If you are experiencing "paper transition anxiety," this is also the device for you. In fact, this may be your cure.
If you are looking for rugged, compact, small or inconspicuous, then this isn't your phone.
If you already have a tablet and your addicted, along with a phone, then the Galaxy Note probably isn't your phone either, because you—like me writing this review—would keep wondering what I would do on this device when. That line of thought is not productive, so you should probably avoid having it with yourself. Put another way, in tech-rich environments, the Note may be a distraction.
For writers or consultants who don't really like technology, but know they need it, I would recommend this device. The bloatware may be overwhelming, but just use the camera, the e-mail and the S Note app. Let your kids configure a simple interface for you on a home screen and stay away from the hobbyish aspects of Android, unless lifelong learning is your thing.
The hardware issues aren't going to change but the software will soon. Very soon. Probably within the next days or weeks. Google's "Ice Cream Sandwich" Android 4.0 will change the user experience in a fundamental way, adding new features, changing OS-level functions and adding new management features. I think the Note will do well with ICS. I will update my comments once the AT&T devices receive the update.
Daniel W. Rasmus is an independent analyst and strategy consultant. He is a former Vice President at the Giga Information Group and Forrester Research. Dan is the author of five books, including Management by Design (Wiley, 2010) and Listening to the Future (Wiley 2008). He blogs regularly at http://danielwrasmus.wordpress.com. Additional information can be found at http://danielwrasmus.com.