To be completely honest, while we’re entranced by its considerable charms, we’re not overly sure what to make of the Samsung Galaxy Note (or GT-N7000, for the model number fetishists). No matter what anybody tells you, it’s not a phone, even if you can use a normal talktime SIM in it and make calls. Nor is it a tablet. It’s a bit of both, yet neither at the same time. Samsung has, quite simply, devised a new category. And for want of a better word, we’ll call it a phablet.
Samsung would rather we call it "a new kind of smartphone", but then backs that up with the marketing tag "Phone? Tablet?", so we’ll stick to phablet for no other reason than that we’re particularly obstinate. Oh, and that "Tone" is the name of our local kebab shop owner. He does share one thing in common with the Galaxy Note though; you can’t reasonably fit him in your back pocket either.
Indeed, any review of the Note that starts without first alluding to the screen and, in particular, its size is to be immediately dismissed, the reviewer vilified, and the publisher sent to Coventry - not ignored, literally sent to Coventry. It’s massive (the screen, not Coventry). In fact, it’s mahoosive - and you can’t get a mightier adjective than that.
The display, you see - and you will, from a distance - is a whopping 5.29-inches, thereby making the device itself much wider and taller than a conventional smartphone, even something like the HTC Titan or Sensation XL. It's 82.95mm wide, 146.85mm tall and 9.65mm deep. It's also weighs in at 178g, but we’re not concerning ourselves with waistlines here. Compare that to the Samsung Galaxy S II, for example, which is 66.1mm by 125.3mm, and you have a "smartphone" that’s around 25 per cent larger. And the S II is no pipsqueak itself. Against an iPhone 4S, it's positively gargantuan.
So, while the Note might look tiny in the hands of, say, Lawrence Dallaglio or William "The Fridge" Perry, it’s a veritable monster when gripped by a normally-sized specimen of humanity. To use is as a phone, to hold it to your ear, is to readily accept that you are happy to look like a tool. Or a child mucking about with his dad’s handset. If you’re actually a child, you’ll look more like you’re warming your face with an iPad or Galaxy Tab.
Although its enormity is the first thing that’ll strike anybody when examining the Galaxy Note for the first time, the screen has a hidden charm that provides a more than capable distraction from its freakish mass. It’s a talent that is instantly apparent from the moment the device is powered up.
The Note has, quite simply, one of the most beautiful displays we’ve ever seen. Until we see the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 on these shores, this phablet sports the best mobile display Sammy has ever released commercially. The HD Super AMOLED technology is similar to that used on the S II but, with a WXGA 1280 x 800 resolution, it’s much clearer and well defined. It’s sharper too, with 285ppi (pixels per inch) rather than the 216ppi of its smaller smartphone stablemate.
Colours are equally as impressive; wonderfully vibrant and searing - when you up the brightness of the screen from its "out of the box" default setting, that is. But the sheer wow-factor all comes down to the resolution really. In fact, there are few peers that can hold their own in comparison. Perhaps the Retina display on the iPhone 4 or 4S, but neither offers the same real estate, and when you combine such clarity with a decent footprint, you get a device that you’d happily stare at indefinitely.
Indeed, when we first saw the Galaxy Note exhibited at IFA 2011 in Germany, the common consensus was that its screen was incredible from just minutes of play, and even with time on our side, we stand by our original opinion. As we do with the stylus.
Bar the screen size and undoubted beauty, the other unique selling point of the Galaxy Note is the inclusion of the S Pen (advanced smart pen), a plastic pointed instrument that allows you to draw, scribble, jot or control the device with something other than a finger. It harks back to personal organisers, such as the Palm Pilot, and original Windows Phone handsets, like the HTC Touch, and adds a new element to the Galaxy Note experience - not least, the Note part of the name.
Rather than the styli generally used with capacitive screens, which have a small piece of conductive foam or rubber at the tip, the one in this instance has a plastic nib, much like that which comes with a Nintendo DS. And it is this particular feature that allows you to use it on the screen with much more precision, thereby offering immediate benefit to artists, scribes and general doodlers.
In addition to the thinness of the nib, the S Pen allows you to use pressure, much like a professional light pen. That means that light strokes will appear faint, while firmer use will result in thicker, heavier lines. In short, like a real pen.
Now, whether you’ll actually use the stylus often begs to be seen, at least initially. For note taking, drawing or adding annotations to pictures, web pages, etc, the S Pen is highly welcome, but, for all other uses of the device, which are many, you’ll resort to sweeps of a finger or two, much like with any Android handset or tablet.
This is mainly because, apart from S Memo, the most overt and primary piece of software that utilises the utensil, there are not that many actual apps that are designed for the S Pen - at least, not pre-loaded. There’s a game called Crayon Physics, that plays a bit like Scribblenauts on the Nintendo DS. And instead of using the on-screen keyboard to input text, you can use hand-writing recognition software. However, we find that it’s actually quicker to type words out as letters can sometimes be misinterpreted, although the stylus does actually help when quickly tapping keys or when using Swype - especially if you have sausage fingers like ours, even on the mammoth screen.
S Memo itself is quite versatile though. You can draw, annotate and take notations quickly and simply. You can import pictures, and write over the top of them, and even change the colour of ink or type of paint tool. Plus, the stylus itself has a trick up its sleeve. There’s a button on the shaft that, if you hold it while tapping on screen, it’ll take a screengrab which you can scribble on top of. For example, you can highlight a specific story on a website, or draw a moustache on a photo of your boss.
Samsung Apps also has a few free compatible applications ready for download from S Choice, its own hub. They’re mainly art-based, for kids and adults, with titles such as Zen Brush, Hello Color Pencil, OmniSketch and the like, but they’re few and far between. Samsung does promise that more are in development, to be available imminently, and is currently supplying free SDKs to all and sundry as it says that adding S Pen compatibility is a doddle.
Pretty much, the rest of the Samsung Galaxy Note is typical Android device fare. It’s Gingerbread (Android 2.3.5), although Ice Cream Sandwich is expected sometime in 2012, and features all the on-the-top extras that Samsung Touchwiz is renowned for. S Choice is specific to this device, as is S Planner - the calendar application, and S Memo we’ve already talked about.
Under the hood, the Note features a 1.4GHz dual-core processor, which keeps things moving at pace, although, at times, you do notice the response time of the S Pen fractionally dragging its heels. We suspect that this may be a software issue, and new apps may be more responsive, but it’s something that you’ll have to get used to for the time being. Certainly the CPU can’t be at fault.
There’s 16GB of on-board storage, which can be upgraded with the use of a microSD card (of up to 32GB), and you may feel the need to, as, while the screen is 1280 x 800, the Note is capable of shooting video in Full HD (1920 x 1080) and at 24 or 30 frames per second. It can also play back 1080p video and recognises a wide selection of file types: MPEG4, H.263, H.264, DivX, XviD, WMV and VC-1.
The rear-mounted camera offers 8-megapixels of snap happy fun, with an LED light tacked-on. There’s also a 2-megapixel front-facing webcam for video calls, using software like Skype. And, actually, the results from the main camera are very impressive for a mobile device - in daylight, at least.
Auto focus can take a while to adjust to the best setting (something also evidently noticeable in video capture) but the end results are colourful, yet natural. And sharp. If all of this sounds like the camera on the Samsung Galaxy S II, that’s because it’s very similar.
Audio-wise, the Galaxy Note is equally as compatible with a swathe of file types; MP3 (naturally), AAC, AMR, WMA, WAV, FLAC and OGG. Plus, when a pair of headphones are connected - either the one’s that come with the device or your own - there’s an on-board FM radio (the headphone cable acts as the antenna, so it won’t work without them).
Playback quality is decent and as expected from a multimedia device. It depends on the headphones you use, but the phablet offers up plenty of bass and clarity through Samsung’s proprietary Music Player with SoundAlive. And, as with all Galaxy products, there’s the company’s Music Hub, powered by 7digital, to buy tracks and albums through.
The last thing worth noting is the Galaxy Note’s battery life; it’s very credible. The battery itself is of the Li-on 2,500mAh variety, and while Samsung hasn’t quoted times, we’ve had the Note being used in much the same way as a general Android device for two days before having to charge. We’d expect it to last more than that with light use. And, unlike with Apple products, should it start to wane over the years, the back comes off so you can replace it.
There’s much to like about the Samsung Galaxy Note. The screen is quite simply stunning; colourful, radiant and as finely defined as the word "dictionary". It’s super quick, and Samsung’s Touchwiz UI on top of Gingerbread is a joy to use. Watching movies on the display is a great experience, and it’s, perhaps, better suited in size to economy class flights than a 10-inch tablet.
The camera is more than decent, offering both stills and video capture at high definitions. And there’s that stylus, the S Pen, which has true potential if app developers take up Samsung’s challenge.
However, there’s still the issue of what the Galaxy Note actually is, and more to the point, who it’s aimed at.
We can’t help but feel that it’s not the humble, everyday, consumer. Even the most fervent Android fanatic would find it hard not to feel like a plum holding one to their ear, and, at around £600 SIM-free, we find it hard to believe that the general public would plump for this over an equivalently priced iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1.
But business types, we reckon, will lap it up. You don’t have to hold it to your ear when you’re conference calling. And it most definitely replaces the notepad in meetings (whether you’re seriously taking minutes down or just drawing pictures of male genitalia). For this demographic, it replaces a tablet with gusto. As useful as a larger device, yet more portable. We can certainly see office workers up and down the country loving a bit of Galaxy Note action. For them, this is a godsend.
Oh, and did we mention that, because of the 5.3-inch screen, it’s also the best handheld games console around? We didn’t, well…
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