When you first clap eyes on the Samsung Galaxy Note you could be forgiven for wondering what exactly it is: a phone or a tablet. Technically, it’s the former, but its massive 5.3-inch screen pushes it firmly towards the tablet sector – and that’s a very conscious choice from its makers.
With the Note, Samsung is trying to fill a gap in the market, catering for people who want a larger screen than your run-of-the-mill smartphone can provide – but crucially don’t want something as large as an actual tablet. And it just about fits, because it just about fits in your trouser pocket (though it looks rude). It’s thin and very lightweight too.
The screen is the undeniable star of the show here. Not merely large, it’s also sharp: the resolution is 1280 x 800 pixels and the pixel density 285ppi (only slightly less than the fabled 326ppi Retina Display on the iPhone 4). And because it uses AMOLED technology, the quality of colour reproduction and contrast is incredibly high. Black looks black here, deep and inky, rather than the slightly washed-out grey you generally see with LCD screens.
This makes the Galaxy Note one of the best phones we’ve ever used for watching videos and web browsing. When it comes to the latter, the screen is so detailed that you viewing proper, full-size web pages rather than the mobile versions is actually a pain-free experience. But there’s more to the screen: Samsung has also included a stylus, and in conjunction with the S Memo app included, this turns the Galaxy Note into, well, a notebook.
The screen is large enough that you can jot down handwritten note, sketch diagrams and so on. The stylus isn’t perfect however, and if you use it as a replacement for your finger it can feel a little inaccurate. Browsing the aforementioned full-size web pages, for instance, and trying to click a link with the stylus often results in you selecting the one above or below it by mistake. The Galaxy Note runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread with Samsung’s own TouchWiz interface overlaid, and it’s a joy to use. There are seven homescreens available, and you can customise them with your own selection of widgets and app shortcuts, flicking between them speedily with the merest movement of your finger. The multitouch controls, such as pinch-to-zoom on photos and web pages, also work beautifully smoothly.
The phone comes preloaded with a huge amount of apps, and while you might see that as a positive, we suspect a large proportion of them will go unused by the average owner. While we’d stop short of saying the Galaxy Note is stuffed full of bloatware, we’d prefer a “less is more” approach from Samsung: why not let the user decide the apps that he or she wants? Samsung does feature a handful of its own apps, and some are noteworthy. Social Hub, for example, draws together all your messages and emails into one tab and all your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn updates into another; it’s handy. There’s also Voice Talk, which works like a poor man’s version of the iPhone 4S’s Siri: you can speak to send messages, update Twitter or open apps.
The dual-core 1.4GHz processor keeps everything ticking along at a speedy pace, and in benchmarking the Galaxy Note compared very favourably to its Android peers, scoring higher than the Samsung Galaxy SII and LG Optimus 2X. However, this (possibly combined with the power-sapping size of the screen) seems to affect battery life: even with moderate use, you’ll be lucky to get 10 hours out of this, and you’ll want to keep a charger close by wherever possible. This puts something of a damper on the Note’s abilities to provide all-day productivity (not to mention entertainment and the ability to make and take lots of calls).
The 8MP rear camera comes with an LED flash and autofocus, but doesn’t deliver hugely impressive photos. While shots are sharp and clean in good lighting, the camera struggles in dim conditions. The options are also limited, so you can’t tweak settings much (except for exposure compensation) before taking a shot. The camera also takes 1080p HD video, but again don’t expect your movies to demonstrate a Hollywood sheen when played back on your large TV. There are only two external ports: a 3.5mm headphone jack and the proprietary USB connector, which handles both charging and data transfer duties. The back plate can be removed to access the battery, SIM and a microSD slot (which lets you increase the 16GB of built-in memory by up to 32GB).
The Samsung Galaxy Note is quite an odd phone: put simply, the sheer size of it makes it harder to carry around than the average smartphone. If you need a large screen there’s no denying that the Note is one of the best out there, and its size makes video and web browsing a richer, more rewarding experience.