OK, so another month, another best Android phone out there. This is partly to blame on the massively quick development with Android and the constant competition between the manufacturers. In recent months Samsung seems to be having the upper hand, with the great Galaxy S2, and the recently released Galaxy Nexus.
The Galaxy Note is different however – it aims to combine the use of a phone with a tablet, and it includes a stylus as well, something which is relative scarcity since the arrival of capacitative screens. This “phoneblet” is truly huge – if you ever look at your current smartphone and think the screen is too small, or if you think your tablet is too big, you might want to give the Galaxy Note a serious look.
Design and Build
First off – this phone is massive. Or this tablet is small? Either way you look at it, the Note is good deal bigger than any phone you might be used to. Luckily the phone is incredibly thin – think Galaxy S2, but stretched out. The Note is a lot more comfortable in your pocket than you expect because it is so thin – but it does make it awkward to handle. Luckily the phone is very light as well.
I have fairly average sized hands for a guy, and the Galaxy Note is not easy to use one handed. In fact, trying to hit the back button with your left thumb is next to impossible. You are pretty much forced to use two hands when operating this phone. You might want to try one out in store to see if you have magic bendy fingers. But lets get back to the build – the phone is built very solidly, despite being made of plastic. There is no hint of flex in the body, and materials look like they will wear well over time. The front is dominated by the massive 5.3 inch display, with only one physical button on the front, and the Samsung logo.
You will find the headphone jack at the top, and a power button on the right. On the bottom there is a micro-USB plug, and volume button on the left side. But on the bottom there is something new – what Samsung calls the “S-Pen”. Yeah it is just a stylus, but it works great. More on that later.
This is the best part of this phone – yes, it very big display for a phone. But the clarity and brightness is simply brilliant. Colours simply pop, and the blacks are really black, which is typical of AMOLED displays. It is pretty crazy to think that phones can now sport 1280 x 800 pixel display – which is still pretty much the standard for many laptops! That gives you 285 pixels per inch, which is not quite “retina” level resolution, but honestly we could not notice.
The other differentiator of this phone is the stylus – and it works a lot better than we expected. It is very sensitive, and the software seems to work well with it. While you can use the stylus for all the interface elements, it is obviously meant for taking notes, which it does incredibly well. If you are someone who does not like typing out notes with a keyboard, the S-Pen does a great job.
Performance, Battery Life
The Note carries some serious processing power – it comes with a dual core 1.4GHz processor. Again, that is not far off from what many laptops come with these days, so it is pretty amazing to get this in a phone. Apps launch much faster than most Android phones, and web browsing is really a lot faster than any Android phone we have used. But even with all of this power, you cannot prevent some of Android’s little quirks. The animations of sweeping between menu home screen pages is still not as smooth as some other OS’s. This is not an issue with the Note itself, instead inefficiencies in the OS. Hopefully Android 4.0 will fix this, which Samsung has confirmed will arrive on the Note.
The phone also becomes noticeably warm with extended use – while I doubt this is a design flaw, it is obvious all those MHz need to let off some heat, and the plastic casing is not a great heat conductor. Then again, if the phone was made of steel, it might have burned your hands, right?
The phone ships with a very big 2500MAh battery, which might make you think this phone will have a great battery life. Sorry – that 1.4GHz processor and big screen really chows through your battery. With moderate use I got around 20 hours, with much fewer hours if you keep the screen on for long times. This is fairly standard fair for modern smartphones, but we are sure you can push it to two days with light use.
The Note’s camera is simply great – even though the megapixel race is over, the 8MP camera really does deliver some great images. Low light performance is great, and macro shots look good as well. The LED flash does a good enough job. The front camera shoots at 2MP, which is more than enough for video conferencing.
Video recording is great as well – 1080p resolution at 30fps makes some great videos. It does eat up storage though – so keep an eye on that.
The Note’s interface is an almost exact copy of the Galaxy S2, with some added apps and add-ons for the S-Pen. There is also a lot more bundled software, like Polaris Office, Video Maker, Reader and Social Hub, Mini Diary, and the stylus specific S Memo. Taking notes with S Memo works remarkably well – writing on the screen is very comfortable, and note taking really is a breeze. While this wont well help people who type faster than they can write, the speed at which you can take notes is quite remarkable. The stylus is also quite silent in use, something we had issues with with other stylus carrying devices. The stylus is also pressure sensitive, so slow deliberate writing results in thicker lines, and quick scribbles have finer lines.
The Note ships with Android 2.3.5, but is covered with the Samsung TouchWiz software. We have to be honest here – we are not fans of TouchWiz. While certain aspects are worth living with, the feeling that TocuhWiz somehow slows down the interface never quite goes away. Screen animations are little too slow, and you expect more from a 1.4GHz dual core processor.
Then there is the question of whether the Note can indeed replace a tablet. In our experience, we are afraid not. It is simply a very large screen, and the fact is that it runs the very same software as other Android phones out there. Once again, this is something that Ice Cream Sandwich might fix, but we are just not sold on the tablet experience of the Note.
The Galaxy Note is an interesting beast – and Samsung has to be commended for creating an Android device that really is different from other offerings on the market. While the specs are nothing to sneeze at, the Note is still going to go for a niche market. The hardware is first rate, but we cannot help but think the Note really needs to have Android 4.0 sooner rather than later. The stylus and large screen really begs for Ice Cream Sandwich, and we really hope that Samsung does not mess around with it too much.
The device really is big, so we really recommend you try one out before you get one. If you are willing to live with the large size and putting such a large phone to your ear, the Galaxy Note will serve you well. But if you are dead set on the best Android phone, our recommendation still goes to the Samsung Galaxy S2, which will probably be a good deal cheaper as well. We have however not gotten our hands on the new Galaxy Nexus though…
Pros: Big gorgeous screen, thin design. Stylus is great differentiator.
Cons: Size makes it difficult to use with one hand. Battery life could be better. TouchWiz is not to everyone’s taste. More large phone than a tablet.