(Pocket-lint) - The Galaxy Note has always been something of an individual. It was this family of phones in which Samsung really used to push new technologies - not just the integrated S Pen stylus, but its curved screens, big displays, and more cameras.
That's until more recent years. Now the gap between the company's existing flagship Galaxy S series and Note series has shrunk somewhat. Sure, there's still that S Pen control with the Note, adding a different and distinctive layer of functionality, but fundamentally the two are more similar than at an earlier point in time.
We've been living with the Galaxy Note 10+ - the 'Plus' denoting that it's the lead and larger device of the launch pair, with a few additional features over the smaller model - to see how it fares. Is the Note still as ground-breaking as it once was, or does the increasing competition put its once unchallenged big-phone reign into question?
Design & Screen
- 6.8-inch AMOLED display, 3040 x 1440 pixels (448ppi), HDR 10+ support
- Measures: 162.3 x 77.2 x 7.9mm / Weighs: 196g
- Under-screen ultrasonic fingerprint scanner
- Aura Glow colour option (as pictured)
- IP68 waterproof design
Samsung hasn't been particularly aggressive with colour options in recent years. Changing the colour of the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 9 - a blue and yellow pairing - was about as edgy as things got. But, as you can see from our pictures, that stance has changed a whole lot with the Note 10+.
Here the Aura Glow model takes the lead; a sort-of shimmering cacophony of colours, as if you took the rainbow reflections of a bubble and compressed them into a surface material. Which may sound like high praise or high criticism, depending on your point of view. Each to their own, but we haven't enjoyed the look of this finish much. It lacks the elegance of, say, the Huawei P30 Pro, and we doubt the Note's finish will stand the test of time. If you'd rather be boring - like we would opt to be in this particular instance - then there's also a black or white finish instead.
At least that rear finish is left to flourish without much interruption, for the Note 10 series is far less busy to its rear than the previous Note 9 (there wasn't a Plus version of that phone). Thanks to a now under-screen fingerprint scanner for login and the arrangement of cameras aligned to the upper corner, everything looks a lot more neat and tidy compared to the dog's dinner that was the Note 9's rear arrangement. It's about time that Samsung truly got behind such an ultrasonic fingerprint scanner, too, which we've found to work pretty well throughout our use.
The Galaxy Note 10+ is forged of glass and metal, with IP68 water and dust protection, so it's a fairly tough cookie. Well, ignoring the fact its heavy on the glass, so a misplaced drop would be devastating - just as it would be for so many flagship phones. That glass coating the screen is slightly curved, albeit less than the S10 series, which is designed for the sideward swipe Apps Edge software feature - which opens a custom list of quick-access app shortcuts.
This time around the screen comes with the overly-thought-out 'Infinity-O' marketing name - that 'O' referring to the central punch-hole selfie camera. We may poke fun at the name, but we certainly won't mock the implementation: there's very little bezel here at all, making for a screen-dominant display, while that punch-hole camera is a lot less distracting than the larger arrangement seen on the S10+ or S10 5G. The Note 10+ looks the best of the lot by some margin, its 6.8-inch display delivering a very strong innings indeed. If you want even bigger then there's now the S20 Ultra.
Around the S10+'s body you'll find the volume rocker and power/Bixby button, both of which are aligned to the left side, which is rather strange for an Android phone - as most competitors have the power button to the right. Use it for a couple of days and this is no issue though. There's no 3.5mm headphone socket here either, but that's keeping with the flagship form and focus on wireless connectivity that's now fairly established, bringing a more seamless look than previous Note devices.
In terms of size, the Note 10+ is - as that symbol dangling off the end of its name suggests - a rather large phone. How you'll find this will be of personal preference. At 77.2mm wide it's about the same width as the iPhone XS Max - which makes it acceptable for those who like a chunky handset. For us, however, we think it's a smidgen too wide, making one-handed use tricky when trying to close certain windows - especially if the Apps Edge gets activated by accident - although optimisation in Samsung's One UI does mean one-handed use options are there to rescue you.
Let's Talk S Pen
- Unibody S Pen design, stows into Note's body
- Inductive in-body charging, 10 hours battery
- Multiple writing/note-taking modes
- 6-axis sensor, gesture control
The S Pen stylus is what defines the Note. It always has. Take the S Pen away and you'd more-or-less have a Galaxy S. So it's great to see this point of distinction remain - irrelevant of whether you'll never use it, use it just a little, or use it like your life depended on it.
Like the Note 9, the Note 10+'s S Pen connects using Bluetooth low energy. It's stowed in the phone's body, released by pressing on the barely protruding tip, which springs it out slightly so you can pull it out and away - which activates the stylus without needing to bother doing anything else. There's not really any battery recharging to consider as it charges inductively within the phone's body, providing up to 10 hours of use. How's that for faff-free?
The S Pen delivers a lot of features. In summary, you can:
- Create Note (a hand-written page, with handwriting-to-text conversion)
- Smart Select (grab a piece of the screen's view and put this into other windows/some apps)
- Screen Write (take a screenshot in order to annotate it)
- Send Live Messages / AR Doodles (draw on a video and have these move with the subject)
- Translate (hover over text, using Google translate within webpages/some apps)
Let's start with the writing experience. The S Pen has a new option when it comes to converting handwriting into text. It will automatically recognise what you've written and give you a range of export options from Samsung Notes - including moving straight to PDF or as a Word document.
Samsung is positioning the Note 10+ as a productivity device with deeper support for Microsoft services, as well as offering DeX on an external monitor, so the ability to save your scrawls as legible Word documents is great. Beyond that, you can also pinch-zoom in Notes, or change the style of your writing once done - providing you more flexibility.
Moving away from writing, the S Pen still offers all those shortcuts and functions that it did previously, but there's now a range of enhanced control options offered too. Previously these covered play and pause, presentations and taking photos, but now it offers Air Gestures - holding the physical button and moving the S Pen a bit like Harry Potter and his wand. That will mean you can do things like zoom remotely with a clockwise circular motion of the S Pen, or swipe to different modes in the camera.
That's all well and good, but having had the chance to more fully explore these gestures we frankly just find them a bit, well, gimmicky. It's not that they don't work, as they do, but with that physical contact from the screen absent it all just feels a bit fussy. Fun, sure, but an added-on extra that's really not core to the S Pen's functionality. It's Samsung doing what it can do, showy-offy style, rather than a must-have feature that people have been desperate to get.
Hardware & Battery Life
- Qualcomm or Exynos hardware, depending on region
- 12GB RAM, 256GB storage + microSD expansion
- 4,300mAh battery with 45W charging
- 4G and 5G options
The hardware setup of the Note 10+ will be familiar to Samsung fans. Some regions will get the Qualcomm hardware, while others will get the Korean-grown Exynos chipset. As far as we understand it, Europe will get Exynos. There will be the option for 5G (on the Note 10+ only, not the standard model).
There's a generous 12GB RAM and capacious storage options starting at 256GB, along with microSD support - the last of which is something the smaller Note 10 won't offer. That's a lot of storage potential.
During our time with the Note 10+ it'd not let us down one bit. But then we'd expect no less. Pay four-figures for a phone and it's got to be mind-bendingly good, really, hasn't it?
All that RAM, that high-quality processor, and generally deft software make for a smooth, fast and fluid experience. Whether multi-tasking, or busting out gaming sessions on South Park: Phone Destroyer and PUBG: Mobile, it all runs swimmingly.
Samsung has revamped its Game Mode experience slightly, bringing in AI to detect what you need and when to make sure the performance is appropriate for the game you're playing, along with a bunch of toggle on/off options about notifications, auto-brightness, and so on. To keep things cool there's a special vapour chamber built into the middle of the phone and there's also an enhanced screen-recording feature.
However, it's not a perfect performer. One of the bigger issues we've had regards connectivity. With a personal Three 4G SIM used - which works consistently in multiple other devices - we've sometimes been receiving the poorest signal quality and mobile download rates we've seen for a long time. As in: phones a quarter of the price have proven themselves better in this regard. We've reset, we've pulled the SIM, but nothing has made a difference. No bother when on Wi-Fi at home or on location, but surprisingly poor when roaming in, say, central London.
In addition the Note 10+'s 4,300mAh battery life isn't all that long-lasting either. Perhaps we've become too used to the Huawei P30 Pro's more capacious battery, or the larger one of the Red Magic 5G, but even having used phones with less processing power and a similar battery capacity, the Note doesn't quite run the full mile. Sure, it'll get you through a day, but with identical use to other devices we've been getting anxious about the rapid drop in life - when 14 hours use puts you in the red, it's hardly ideal.
So the performance execution is great. But the battery life is less than the competition. And the 4G connectivity has been poor in our experience. Which are fairly notable downsides against a phone as flagship as this.
- Main: 12MP, dual aperture (f/1.5 + f/2.4), OIS
- Ultra-wide: 16MP, f/2.2 aperture
- Tele: 12MP, f/2.1 aperture, OIS
- DepthVision sensor
The Note 10+'s cameras setup is basically the same as that of the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, with three main lenses and a fourth for depth sensing. As we said up top, it looks one heck of a lot better than the outgoing Note 9 thanks to its vertical design arrangement. At least it's not gone overboard with cameras, like the later S20 Ultra does.
While Samsung has been fairly consistent in its camera offering over the past few years, the Note 10+ ultimately falls into the same category: it's pretty good, but it's not class-leading and, well, it's often not that standout in many regards.
Shots from the main camera impress enough, but there's not the same degree of sharpness as you'll find elsewhere. Given how hard the Chinese companies are hitting this - from the Huawei P30 Pro to the Oppo Reno 10X Zoom - the Korean champ hasn't managed to pull itself together quite enough to rule.
That said, the addition of cameras makes for a more versatile use case. The ultra-wide delivers a much broader field of view. The 2x zoom, however, really doesn't deliver the optical quality of the other two competitors mentioned above .
As the rear cameras go, in summary, the results and the potential are good - and the pro mode's autofocus is rather decent, it must be said - but there's better to be found from the competition.
The same can be said for Night Mode. The handheld extended shutter mode, which compiles images for a sharp, well lit shot, works successfully. But it's not got the same degree of smarts as Google's Night Sight, which can almost turn night into day.
Interestingly Samsung has only put a single camera on the front of the Note 10+ - and made it smaller than the previous iteration. That's the correct decision. After all, the megalith that was the front-facing camera on the S10 5G was just unsightly, while the double-pill on something like the Huawei P40 Pro just looks excessively large.
We've mentioned various S Pen functions prior to now, too, and there's support within the Camera app. One of the things that the S10 5G offered was 'live focus video', which is basically like portrait mode for video, blurring the background in real-time. That's here on the Note 10+, too, but it not only blurs, there's also a sort-of Stranger Things-style anaglyph distortion you can apply. It's a bit of fun, but makes the valid point that once you've got depth information for a scene, you can basically do what you want with the background.
While these S Pen antics position the Note 10+ as a phone for creators, we can't help but feel that slightly better camera performance would be the key to really attract a creative audience. As it is, this phone is accomplished, but it's no longer the best imaging device you can buy - something it could once claim.
On paper the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ appears to one of the best Android phones you can buy. That's true in reality, too, having tested the phone as if it were our own. But it doesn't mean it's the best.
That's the real take-away of this top-end Samsung device: it's highly accomplished, yet falls down in some areas by a whisker compared to other competitors. And when you're paying four-figures to own such a device, these modicum differences make, well, all the difference.
You can get better cameras elsewhere. You can find better battery life without a fuss too. Oh, and better mobile connectivity (something we really didn't expect to be an issue here).
The closing-the-gap approach between Samsung's S and Note series is also somewhat odd. The newer S20+ and Note 10+ are largely similar, ignoring the latter's inclusion of S Pen.
But therein lies the very reason the Note exists: it has this built-in stylus, and a bunch of useful functionality and controls, that no other phone-maker can match in this regard. Even though some, such as Motorola, are teasing stylus-equipped phones, nothing can touch Samsung in this regard.
The S Pen ensures the Note remains king in among the crowd.
This review was first published 7 August 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status and changing context of the competition.
Samsung Galaxy S20+
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