The Samsung Galaxy Note (opens in new tab) is the biggest smartphone around bar none. With a 5.3in screen and measuring nearly 15cm in length the Galaxy Note sees Samsung trying to bridge the gap between phone and tablet.
Truth be told, you can now get a portable powerhouse in almost any size you so choose. Apple’s iPhone family is starting to look a little small with the iPhone 4S sporting a 3.5in screen, while Android handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, 4.65in, and HTC One X, 4.7in, have already loosened our hands up to grappling with something a little larger.
Make the leap to a tablet and you can choose from the Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition, 8.2in, the Apple iPad, 9.7in, or the Asus Transformer Prime at 10.1in, among others. But the Samsung Galaxy Note is undeniably a smartphone – simply the biggest around.
Design and build
It's inevitable that we'll continue to refer back to the size of this smartphone. It's the Galaxy Note's greatest strength and weakness. While many basic phone tasks can be completed one-handed on the vast majority of smartphones, at over 8cm wide that simply isn't the case here.
That said, it's every bit as slim as the newest phones on the block and relatively light at 178g – the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S weigh in at around 130g. It feels nice enough in the hand with only a slightly flimsy rear casing detracting from the overall package.
The Galaxy Note uses the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system. An update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is promised in the not too distant future but for now you're left with the previous generation of OS for Android smartphones.
The Android OS has been 're-skinned' with Samsung's Touchwiz and Live Panel UX over-layed, adding some individual touches to the otherwise universal interface.
The 5.3in screen uses Samsung's HD Super AMOLED technology, also found on the Galaxy Nexus, and has a 1280 x 800 resolution. There's a 1.4GHz dual core processor, 1GB RAM and support for the HSPA+ mobile network, which offers faster speeds than 3G for certain areas of the UK.
The Note is capable of Bluetooth wireless streaming and DLNA networking – branded as AllShare by Samsung – and has a 16GB internal memory plus a microSD card slot should you want to expand that storage capacity.
The integrated camera looks more than competent on paper, with an 8MP rear camera complete with LED flash joined by a 2MP front camera. The former is capable of shooting 1080p HD videos. There's a larger than average – surprise – detachable battery, too. Last but not least, did we mention the S Pen?
S Pen control
Yes, the other eye-catching feature of the Samsung Galaxy Note is the inclusion of a stylus. The S Pen (Smart Pen) slots neatly up in to one corner of the phone and can be pulled out to scrawl notes directly on to the screen.
Inevitably results aren't always perfect but we're largely impressed with the S Pen's accuracy when it comes to making quick notes or composing time-wasting doodles.
But will it change the way we want to use a phone? We're not so sure. Our instinct to use our fingers to pinch and swipe our way around the screen seems already ingrained.
As mentioned, the Android 2.3 OS has been given a few subtle tweaks by Samsung. There are seven screens to fill with apps, shortcuts, widgets and Samsung's 'live panels'. These are essentially direct links to news or video sites such as the Associated Press or YouTube, which constantly update and scroll with new content.
The live panels and overall customisation works well and there's acres of screen to fill making it easy to get everything you want on to the various home pages. Our only gripe is the speed at which the Galaxy Note does things.
Fractions of a second make all the difference to the smartphone experience and opening apps and moving around the phone is a touch slow at times.
Away from the screen there's a main home page at the foot of the phone, plus a touch sensitive button either side, one to call up all your apps and the other to pull up a handful of hot links to settings, notifications and more.
The Note has Android's familiar pull-down notifications bar, while personalisation features such as live wallpapers and animations are also present and correct.
If you've ever struggled to click on a link or strained to read text then the Galaxy Note's internet browsing experience will be like a breath of fresh air.
It doesn't necessarily squeeze on more information than an HTC One X or Galaxy Nexus – all of which do show more content on a given page compared to an iPhone – but instead makes everything bigger and clearer. This makes text easier to read and links easier to click.
It proves quick to open websites, stream video and music, and with support for Flash, it's a full-fat internet experience. The screen is bright and colourful and video is handled well but scrolling up and down pages isn't quite as smooth as the best in class with text juddering up and down at times.
One neat feature is the 'one hand operation' setting for the keypad. This shifts the keyboard to one side of the screen, allowing you more easily to tap away one-handed. You can move it left or right so it works for lefties, too. Text input and more importantly prediction still isn't quite as clever and accurate as Apple's but it's good enough.
Media and apps
The Galaxy Note has all the Android apps and media content at its disposal but also once more puts its own spin on things. So Google Play Movies is here giving you access to a decent selection of films to rent and stream in SD and HD, while Samsung's Videos icon is the home for all your downloaded and self-shot video content.
With music Samsung has enlisted 7digital (opens in new tab) to power its own Music Hub for buying audio content, in a not dissimilar way to how the likes of HTC do things, or there's a standard Music icon inside which you'll find your own tunes.
And it's a similar story with apps where you can dive straight in to Google's Play Store – now far better organised and more manageable than the old Android Market – or you can allow Samsung to hold your hand.
The Samsung Apps icon takes you to a small selection of apps that have been “especially developed and carefully selected” for Samsung mobile products, while perhaps more usefully S Choice is an area for apps designed for the S Pen.
Again, it's a small selection of drawing and notation apps but it allows you to get to grips with – and, dare we say, find a use for – the S Pen.
It’s also worth mentioning the Kies software, which allows you to sync your content from your computer via a wired or wireless connection. It’s fine when wired but a little buggy in wireless mode. With updates rolling out all the time, hopefully this will become slicker.
If you can get your head – and hands – around the size of the Galaxy Note, your reward is the quality of the HD Super AMOLED screen.
Treat it to some HD content and it presents brilliant, bright and dynamic pictures. There's impressive detail and, thanks to the size of the screen, a real feeling of immersion that's hard to get with a smarpthone.
Lower quality content such as streaming YouTube videos can break-up, with the 5.3in screen revealing some blocking and noise, but it remains an entirely different and more enjoyable proposition for video thanks to the extra screen space. Mpeg4, H.264, DivX and WMV video files are all supported.
There's a 5.1-channel mode available when you're listening via headphones, which certainly has an effect, spreading sound around better and widening the soundstage though you do lose a little clarity and presence to vocals as a result. It's certainly worth experimenting with on video – more so than with music.
The Galaxy Note's music library is presented nicely, with album artwork filling out the screen. As well as being able to create your own playlists you can fully customise the appearance, allowing you scroll by album name, most played, recently added and more. With support for AAC, FLAC, MP3 and WAV, you’re well covered for audio formats.
You can add sound effects or tweak the equaliser if you're feeling creative or select 5.1 surround mode – but predictably we're going to advise you leave it all as is for the best sound quality.
And sonically it's fairly accomplished. Danny Byrd's We Can Have It All sounds upbeat and punchy, while vocals on Bon Iver's Calgary are clear and controlled.
Something really challenging – whether tearing guitars from The White Stripes or classical from the Philarmonia Orchestra – shows it can't quite match the Apple army for absolute insight but it nevertheless holds its own musically.
Samsung bundles a pair of so-so buds but as ever it’s money well spent to upgrade to even just a good pair of budget earphones.
Special mention for the great looking FM radio app, which flicks at lightning fast speed between stations and allows you to record decent quality content straight to an SD card.
The camera here is the same as on the Samsung Galaxy S II, which is no bad thing. There's no shutter button so you have to prod the screen (there’s enough room) and due to the size of the thing this can be a little awkward.
Nevertheless results are good producing clean and colourful pictures and smooth, detailed video. There are a few post-production features to play with allowing you to boost brightness and so on but like most people you’ll probably be more concerned with running it through Instagram…
Calls and battery
While you may feel a bit of a wally holding this slab of smartphone up to your face, there’s nothing wrong with the quality of the mic or speaker.
Voices sound clear and the speaker can go nice and loud if you want to walk around with voice blaring and feel like you’re on The Apprentice.
The bigger chassis allows for a bigger battery but – much like the new iPad – the size and quality of the screen means it’s very much required.
As a result, battery life is just about average, though if you’re using the handset a lot – and with the display up and running – it will guzzle the juice. It’s good for a busy day’s usage, which is about all we expect.
We did warn you that we expected to keep coming back to the size, and of course we did. In a sea of smartphones, the huge screen is the obvious feature that sets the Galaxy Note apart from the pack. And essentially, it’s a success.
The quality and performance of the screen is superb. If video has to be a crucial string in your smartphone’s bow, then this must be on your shortlist. Web browsing is similarly impressive while some great apps really show off what it can do.
But we must qualify our praise. The latest and best smartphones around are a little speedier about their business, do now offer more impressive specs and the latest Android OS, and for music playback the Note is fine but no superstar.
The Samsung Galaxy Note does everything it sets out to do in some style. If you can handle the size and value a quality screen that’s great for video, then take note of this smartphone.
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