The first time you open the box that hides the 5.3-inch behemoth, you will end up as shocked as when HTC came out with the HD2, the first 4.3-inch phone. In comparison with the competition it is huge. One of the biggest phone to date, the Galaxy Nexus with its 4.7 inch screen, feels small compared to 5.3 inch. However, other vendors are also gunning for 5-inch models, namely LG with its awkward 5-inch Vu with a 4:3 aspect ratio screen, and Panasonic with the all-new Eluga Power.
When you think about it 5.3-inches it doesn’t sound that much more than the competition, but the 13.44 cm diagonal on this Super AMOLED HD touch screen is still pretty big. Just have in mind that the most popular smartphone today, the iPhone (insert number and letter here) has a 3.5-inch or 8.89 cm screen.
Of course, my first impression was that the phone is huge, it is by far the biggest phone that I have seen and quite a few people used to the iPhone or similarly sized phones will find it immense. There are some tablets including with a phone function, like Samsung’s own Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 3G, but that is definitely a 7-inch tablet with a phone function, not the other way around.
So, the Galaxy Note is still a phone, just barely. It measures 146.9 x 83 x 9.7 mm and weights 178 grams. The 5.3-inch display offers a resolution of 1280x800, which translates into 285 pixels per inch, almost Retina class. This is highest resolution we have seen on a phone to date and, of course, the screen is based on Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology. seen on a phone. Naturally it is protected by a sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass and despite its capacitive capabilities it has a pen. The pen is a really nice addition, just something to set it apart from the competition. We will come to the pen a bit later in our review.
The Note rocks an 8-megapixel camera, capable of delivering 3264x2448 shots with LED flash and autofocus. In addition, 1080p video with 24 to 30 FPS is also on board, along with a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. It ships with Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread, with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI v4.0 plastered on top. The Note will get an ICS update shortly and in terms of hardware, it should be future proof.
It is powered by a dual-core 1.4GHz Exynos ARM 9 processor with Mali 400MP graphics. Needless to say, it delivers a silky smooth user experience. It comes with 16GB or 32GB memory, but a micro SD card capable of accommodating up to 32GB of storage is also on board. The phone has 1GB RAM, which is plenty for even the most demanding Android apps and games. It supports HSDPA up to 21 mbit, works well on 3G networks and the version we tested did not came with LTE support, but in some markets this is an option. Since it features a beefy 2500mAh battery, battery life is pretty good. The Note also comes packed with a lot of preinstalled software and some of it works really nice with the stylus pen.
The package includes a phone, USB cable and charger in black despite the fact that the test phone was a white 32GB edition. The charger and USB cable should have been white, taking a cue from Apple is usually a good idea. It comes with a brief manual and, thankfully, white headphones.
The front side of the phone is dominated by the spacious 5.3-inch screen and a big, square home button. On top of front side you can see a speaker and a front 2-megapixel camera. The volume rocker is on the left hand side, while the right hand side hides a power button, classic Samsung layout more or less. The top of the phone features a 3.5mm audio jack, the back side has reveals the 8-megapixel camera and flash, as well as the speaker. The mini USB 2.0 data / charging port and the stylus pen bay are at the bottom.
On the whole, the design is pretty good. An elegant combination of silver and white looks quite nice, and the phone looks slick despite its size. I can tell you that taking the back cover off for the first time is a somewhat traumatic experience as it feels like it will snap at any moment. However, the back cover is so flexible, that if you handle it right, you have nothing to worry about. As you would expect from a high-end phone, build quality is excellent, although Samsung has a love affair with plastics. You can replace the battery and you need to take the battery out in order to put a regular size SIM card inside.
Once you turn the phone on. You can see that the user interface looks a lot like other Samsung phones, e.g. Samsung Galaxy S2. The task bar comes with phone, contacts, messaging, application and one new S memo button that can get you to the memo app in no time. As you can imagine, this app works well with the stylus and you can even take photo and put some notes on top of it. This can come in pretty handy for many people that actually do something smart with their phone, e.g. architects, designers and maybe even journalists, basically everyone who needs to handle images or documents on the go.
Being an Android phone, most market applications will work just as well on a normal phone. We did not see any limitations there, and playing games on bigger screen was quite comfortable. Of course, some apps probably won’t take advantage of the high resolution, not to mention the stylus.
Samsung’s TouchWiz UI v4.0 is something that you either like or dislike, it’s a matter of a taste, but it is not sluggish and works as fast as vanilla 2.3.x Gingerbread. Samsung ships quite a few applications and it handles Office package files quite well. It comes with a document editor that can take care of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF. It also comes with image and video editor, nice organizer as well as Picasa integration.
Like many Samsung phones the Note features a Swype keyboard. This is something that you might need time to get used to, but it works really nice.
The Galaxy note also comes with readers hub, Social hub, S Planner, S memo, S choice as well as its own custom weather app. Kies Air will let you update your phone with Samsung kies on your PC but as much as we don’t like iTunes, Kies for us falls into the same category. Samsung came up with a task manager app integrated in its ROM and we were surprised to see that S Memo can take 62.5MB of RAM, which is not so dramatic knowing you have 1000 of MB but still felt like a bit too much. It was twice as much as the browser. Samsung also notified us that it has 800MB RAM available for users, while 200MB is reserved for the OS.
Thanks to the speedy Exynos processor, the Note does very well in synthetic benchmarks. In most tests it is on a par with the OMAP4 based Galaxy Nexus, and in some it manages to beat it by a wide margin. The same pretty much goes for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus. We also compared it to LG’s P990, based on Nvidia’s Tegra 2, which is pretty much an average previous generation phone which also happens to use the same CPU as most Honeycomb tablets. For comparison purposes we also included the Nexus S, just to put things into perspective, as it is powered by an A8 chip used in many high-end phones a year or two ago and this is pretty much the platform most users will be upgrading from. Basically, the Note is one of the fastest phones around, unless you are willing to go for one of the brand new superphones based on S4 of Tegra 3 chips.
During our time with the Note, we quickly realized that it is a very nice phone for users who need to edit office files on the move. One can argue that you can do this on 4.3- and 4.7-inch phones but with the help of Samsung’s stylus you can really get some work done on this phone. The 2500mAh battery also gives you great battery life, and it easily beats the Nexus. We are talking about two days of moderate use and at least one working day or a bit more of heavy use for emails, 3G, browsing, a bit gaming etc.
Also, with micro-SD support and 32GB of memory, you can hardly ask for more storage. The phone was fast in all tasks and everyday use, didn’t feel slower than Sony’s Xperia S or the Galaxy Nexus that we recently tested, both based on speedy dual-core chips. One can argue that this is also the widest phone ever, at least until the LG Vu hits retail, but the screen size and 1280x800 resolution really comes in handy.
Overall, it is a great phone and if you can live with the size and weight, the Note is definitely a phone to recommend. However, some users will simply find it a bit too bulky, so it is probably a good idea to see it live before you order it online.
Our sample was supplied by Ditech, and the outfit currently sells the 32GB version for €549 here and the 16GB in black or white sells for €479 here. The €479 price tag sounds reasonable, although we are not sure about the 32GB version, as micro SD cards are dirt cheap and offer better value for money in case you need more storage.