Samsung Galaxy Note (AT&T) review: Is bigger better?

note

The Samsung Galaxy Note for AT&T is a big phone in all senses: Samsung devoted Super Bowl ad time to it and the 5.3-inch display makes it the largest phone most people have ever seen. In this review we’ll see if the Samsung Galaxy Note on AT&T has struck upon a new hybrid phone, tablet (phablet) that will resonate with millions or if it is too big for its own good.

The Good
  • While it's a large phone, it's very slim and well constructed.
  • The large screen is of a very high quality.
  • Some of you may love the S Pen and the capabilities it offers.
The Bad
  • It seemed too large to be a comfortable phone that you carry on a daily basis.
  • The camera is not as good as it should be.
  • I didn't see the value in the S Pen.

Hardware

There's no way around it: the Galaxy Note is a big phone. The 5.3-inch display means that the latest Galaxy handset dwarfs pretty much every other smartphone out there. How big is it? Well, in order to give you some perspective, we stacked it up against various smartphones and tablets. The Note is definitely a large phone and I couldn't help but be a bit overwhelmed when I first saw it. Luckily, this is packed full of power, so it has the horsepower to back up its large footprint.

Beyond the extra-large screen, the Galaxy Note is essentially a beefed up Galaxy S II and that's ok with us, as we loved that smartphone. You can't ignore that screen though, as I found that the size actually got in the way a few times.

Design

When I first saw the Galaxy Note, I wondered, "Why is the screen so large?" I've received many responses like "because it's 5.3-inches" or "What did you expect from a 5.3-inch screen" but I guess the real question is: Is there an advantage to having such a large screen or is Samsung just experimenting with form factor at the expense of experience? Sadly, I tend to think it's the latter.

Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty darn impressed that Samsung was able to make a smartphone with a 5.3-inch display with a 1280 x 800 resolution that is so slim and stylish, and I know that Samsung is trying to push the boundaries of what is a smartphone and tablet. Unfortunately, by trying to be this crossover device, I believe the Galaxy Note doesn't deliver on its promise of being a great smartphone or a great tablet. Instead, it's average in both categories.

Samsung Galaxy Note for ATTThe look and feel of the large Galaxy Note is going to be an extremely polarizing design because I know many of you are going to dig the big screen but others may think it's too large to be a comfortable phone. I fall into the second camp. The screen is nice but it makes the device a little unwieldy and very difficult to operate with one hand. While this may not seem like a big deal, it can be bothersome when you're trying to pull out your phone quickly to check on something and then put it back.

Forget about holding this up to your ear when making calls too because it just looks weird and it's not comfortable. If you have shallow pockets, it's not going to fit in there. I pulled it out on the bus the other day to check some stuff while I was commuting and people were gawking at it - also be prepared for many more people around you to be able to see what you're looking at. Overall, I'm just not in love with how the size makes it difficult to operate as a "normal" smartphone.

I handed the Note to a friend of mine and he said it was very cool but asked if you had to sign up for a data plan with this tablet. When told that this is a phone, he immediately laughed. Yes, it's anecdotal but most of the data suggests that tablets are mostly used in homes and most people want a little more screen size.

To be fair, this may be a large and big device but it's quite thin and Samsung did a great job with making it look and feel somewhat sleek. The display is quite gorgeous and I'm amazed at the sheer industrial design cojones to be able to make a screen this size with that resolution. Holding the device in landscape mode also makes for a great video viewing experience and including the S Pen holder doesn't detract from the design at all.

I believe that some demographics are going to love the Galaxy Note. I could easily see some older folks loving the screen size for readability, artistic folks digging the S Pen and hardcore Android fans who want bigger and better everything but I'm just not blown away by this. I came into this review with an open mind but ultimately could not dig the Galaxy Note.

In some ways, I'm reminded of the Droid Razr because I was also blown away by the innovation of the industrial design but felt like it was design over substance. I think the Samsung Galaxy Note's form factor detracts from a comfortable overall smartphone experience. It's not that you can't get used to the size but I never felt like it was worth the hassle to.

Build Quality

Samsung Galaxy Note for ATTJust because I'm not a huge fan of the design doesn't mean I can't appreciate what Samsung has done with the Note. This large handset looks and feels like a premium device and we'd expect nothing less from Samsung at this point.

The massive screen takes up the bulk of the face and it's quite a site to behold. It's crisp, beautiful, responsive and there's just so much of it. You also have capacitive Android buttons underneath it and a front-facing camera on top. The display is almost edge-to-edge but there's a slight bit of border on each side.

There's a nice, dark grey trimming around the device and the right spine features the power/unlock button. The top has a standard headphone jack and the left spine has a one-piece volume rocker. The bottom has the microUSB port and the spot for the S Pen, which fits in perfectly and looks pretty nice. The back plastic cover has some nice texture to it and I like how the "GALAXY Note" branding pops out. The 8-megapixel camera with flash are in the middle of the back cover and this looks nice even if it can makes things a little awkward when taking pictures (more on that later).

So, if you like the size and design of the Galaxy Note, you'll be happy to know that it's built with high-quality materials. Those who suggest that smartphones can only be high-quality if they're made of metal are wrong.

Guts And Glory

The Samsung Galaxy Note on AT&T differs a little bit from the international version in that it packs a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and sports AT&T 4G LTE but it remains a powerhouse. Look for all the usual goodies you'd expect in a high-end smartphone (WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, etc.). You'd think that the beefy processor would ensure a silky-smooth experience but I noticed a few troublesome hiccups here and there. We'll talk about how great the 4G LTE support is in a bit.

The Galaxy Note performs well for the most part but even with the 1.5 GHz processor, I noticed some lag while using the device. I'm not sure if it's the software, processor or even the size of the screen but some of it is just not as quick and precise as you would like.

 

Software

Samsung Galaxy Note for ATTThe Samsung Galaxy Note on AT&T uses the Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread operating system with the TouchWiz UI and there are some software tweaks for the S Pen, which we'll cover in a separate section below. As I've mentioned many times before, Android is a highly-capable platform for making calls and texts, browsing the web and adding new applications to improve your experience. I still think iOS is a bit more polished in its presentation but Android is every bit as powerful and it offers much more flexibility and customization than iOS or Windows Phone Mango.

As for the TouchWiz UI, it should be familiar for those who have ever seen nearly any other device in the Galaxy lineup - except for the Galaxy Nexus, of course. I like the way TouchWiz presents Android because I think it's a visually-attractive layer that looks and feels nice. Some of you may think TouchWiz looks too much like iOS (I know Apple does) but I'm a fan of it and some of the little touches. For example, being able to pull down the notification bar and having your quick-toggle options for the WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS is something that's very convenient and really adds to the experience.

You can also look forward to some preloaded apps on this like Amazon Kindle, some AT&T software like the QR scanner and the Family Map, Polaris Office, Samsung's Media Hub and the Samsung Apps app which features some curated programs specifically for the Note. It's still not as easy to delete apps as it should be (give me the option in the app tray please) but most of the preloaded software is fine and you can always download more apps from the Android Market, which is always getting better.

S Pen

Samsung Galaxy Note for ATT

One of the intriguing features of the Samsung Galaxy Note is that it comes with a digitizer called the S Pen and this aims to give you more control over how you interact with your device. While Apple has said that if you need a stylus, you've blown it, there is a cottage industry of styli out there because many people find this interaction method attractive. I am not one of those people. Like with the stylus on the HTC Flyer, I don't find much value in the S Pen but that doesn't mean that you won't.

The S Pen fits precisely in the bottom of the Note and even if you never use it, it doesn't detract from the design. The S Pen isn't just a capacitive stylus, as the Note can register up to 240 different levels of pressure, so you can have a much more granular experience. There's a button on the S Pen that you have to hold to interact with the screen and there's even an accessory which you can put the S Pen in which makes it look and feel like larger pen.

You can use the S Pen to interact with nearly any part of the Note but you're still going to have to use your fingers to hit the capacitive Android buttons below the screen. Luckily, there are a few gestures you can do to replicate the Home, Back and Menu experiences. Of course, that's probably not why you'd use the S Pen, so Samsung baked in a few quick ways to help you jump into S Pen-friendly software.

If you hold down the S Pen button and double tap on the screen, it will immediately pull up the S Memo software for you to jot down some notes. I found it's kind of tough to write naturally as you would with a pen, as you kind of have to exaggerate your motions to get legible text. I have chicken scratch handwriting as it is, so maybe I'm not the best one to judge that. You can also do a quick screenshot by holding the S Pen button and holding the tip on the screen. From there, you can annotate the page you just took a picture of or crop images from it, and then you can save it or share it through e-mail or other avenues.

You can also do a lot more with the S Pen including drawing pictures, setting up Power Points and we expect that developers will take a look at the S Pen SDK and do some interesting things. There's a preloaded game called Crayon Physics and it's a cool game where you get to draw items to interact with the game and I could easily see something like Scribblenauts eventually landing on the Note.

Why isn't this for me? I have no real interest in drawing or doodling, would rather have my notes typed out and believe that my finger can handle the annotation or cropping aspect well enough. We know that Samsung will likely bring the S Pen to other tablets, so there's definitely a draw to it but I just don't see it. Check out the video below to see the S Pen in action and you can decide for yourself.

 

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Web Browser

The Samsung Galaxy Note essentially uses the standard Webkit browser that comes standard with Android but there are a few little tweaks that Samsung through in. For the most part, it's pretty darn good and can handle HTML5, JavaScript and nearly anything else you want to throw at it. That 5.3-inch screen does come in handy for reading sites most of the time but I'm still not in love with some of the intelligent zooming.

If you're on a properly optimized site for mobile (like ours or ESPN), the text looks great and is easily legible but some sites are optimized for a smaller screen and don't intelligently adapt to something like the Note. This can lead to text that is actually quite small and zooming in manually zooming doesn't fix it because the text won't properly format to the screen. This doesn't happen often but it happened enough times where I noticed it.

Other than that, it's a really nice browsing experience and having the blazing-fast AT&T 4G LTE really helps.

Multimedia

This is where the Galaxy Note really shines, as that large, beautiful screen makes watching movies and TV shows a blast. While iOS users may have a little easier multimedia store with iTunes, the Galaxy Note has multiple ways to get great content on it. Whether you're renting movies from the Samsung Media Hub, renting from the Android Market or just streaming from Netflix, you can get nearly anything you want on the Note and it looks great thanks to that large display. I'm not a huge fan of watching videos on my devices unless that's the only time I have access to it but the Note's size makes viewing videos an excellent experience.

Music is a similar story, as Android has a ton of third-party options for getting your tunes on the go. You can use Google Music, Pandora, Slacker Radio, Spotify, Stitcher and others to satisfy nearly all of your audible needs and the Note's external speaker is pretty good, even if it lacks some bass. The headphone jack is on top (the right place, in my opinion) so you can just plug in some quality headphones and you'll be good to go.

Camera

The Galaxy Note has an 8-megapizel camera with a flash and it's a solid way to capture pictures but it's not close to being the best on the market (or even the best Samsung has done) and the large screen can make taking pictures awkward.

Samsung's software is pretty nice for taking photos, as it's clear how you can change the settings and the Note gives you a plethora of shooting options. Unfortunately, speeding up the shot-to-shot time isn't one of them. After every picture, there's an animation which "drops" the picture into a gallery on the bottom right but this takes far too long to do and if you're trying to shoot rapidly with the standard settings, you'll likely miss something.

The sheer size of the Note also makes it awkward to hold when you're taking pictures. In landscape mode, it's relatively easy to snap quick pictures with one hand but holding the device in landscape mode is weird. If you hold it with two hands and have the volume rocker (also the zoom buttons) on top, it's easy to tap the power/unlock button or get your fingers in the way of the camera. Much like it's weird to see people taking photos with an iPad, it's kind of uncomfortable to take pictures with the Note.

The results are pretty good though, as you can see below that there's a nice sharpness to pictures and the color reproduction is above average. The tap-to-focus feature actually makes a difference too, and it is kind of fun to check out pictures on the massive screen.

standard settings

 

 

Standard settings, flash, low lighting

 

Standard settings, medium lighting

 

 

Call Quality And Battery Life

Samsung Galaxy Note for ATTCalls on the Samsung Galaxy Note sounded great in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was on a conference call with this device and asked others how I sounded and they said they thought I was on a landline phone. You can't get much better than that. The speaker phone is also pretty good.

This handset is capable of using the AT&T 4G LTE network and I found it to be crazy fast. I averaged over 12 Mbps on the down stream and hit over 30 Mbps a few times. Sure, the network isn't very crowded right now and I'm sure it will slow down a bit once more users get 4G LTE handsets but for now, the Galaxy Note on AT&T gets one of the fastest data connections I've seen.

That 4G LTE and giant screen come with a price though, as the battery life is just okay. You can get through a work day with the Galaxy Note with light usage but if you're going to do anything more (particularly location-based stuff or streaming), look for the Note to die relatively quickly. The default options do everything they can to save battery life (30 second screen shutdown) but you do have to be pretty diligent. I did find it to charge pretty quickly, though.

The Final Take


You're going to love or hate the Galaxy Note for AT&T. It's either going to be the perfect combination of a smartphone and tablet or it's going to be a gaudy novelty that will be a footnote in the history of smartphones. I appreciate the know-how needed to create such a wonderfully-slim device with a beautiful 5.3-inch screen but I ultimately cannot endorse this product. I don't believe it's large for a reason that really benefits the user, I think it's just large for the sake of being large.

I understand that reasonable people can differ and I'm sure the Galaxy Note's large beautiful screen, blazing fast 4G LTE support and S Pen will be appealing for many of you out there but I just don't see it. The screen is too large to be used comfortably in most cases, and I find very little value with the S Pen.

I think the Galaxy Note will wind up a highly-loved oddity.

The Samsung Galaxy Note for AT&T will be available Feb. 19 for about $300 on a new, two-year eligible contract

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  • Anonymous

    Funny Marin. You are trying so hard not to step on anybody’s toes. “To be fair, this may be a large and big device but it’s quite thin and Samsung did a great job with making it look and feel somewhat sleek.” You are the exact opposite of Stephan who doesn’t give a rats butt who he offends.  NOT TO SAY that you should be more like him, but its a review. LOL.  If you thought its too big, say its too big! I thought the Samsung Galaxy 2 Epic 4G Touch was ridiculous with the 4.65″ screen.  Droid fans don’t care though. They want it bigger, faster, and more technology than you will ever use.  They are the complete opposite when it comes to iphone fans.  They like function and ease of use over top specs.  Although I wouldn’t mind a 4″ screen…and 4G…

    • Marin

      If the world was all full of Stefans, it would not be a great place. I kid Stefan … 

      He has his way and that’s fine but I understand that people read our reviews partly to hear what we personally think about it but also to gauge if they should buy it. I think it’s too big but I’m sure there are a few people who want that size. 

      If you want me to just rant and rave about these products, that’s the easy thing to do. Actually trying to move beyond my personal biases and preferences can provide a better service for the reader, I believe. 

      • Marin

        I also think the Internet is too full of hyperbole and extremes. Maybe I equivocated too much in this one but I’m sick of every product either being the greatest thing ever or an Epic Fail. There can be nuance and differences of opinion. 

        • Geno13

          Agreed

    • Anonymous

       “Although I wouldn’t mind a 4″ screen…and 4G…”

      Bravo. You made the first step iboy. Now is time to start walking. And you will smell the freedom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1210218825 Steve Librandi

    If I dump my iPad one….Marin, I HATE YOU. NO I DON’T, YOUR REVIEWS ROCK, AND I THINK YOU JUST SOLD A UNIT FOR THEM, IPAD IS TOO LARGE, WHEN I CURL UP IN BED TOO TIRED TO SIT AT A COMPUTER, TOO AWAKE TO TURN OFF MY ONLINE FUN……..UNLIMITED DATA WOULD SEAL THE DEAL, LOL.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WCZQDQ365OR75SHACWDCD75FJI Estelle

    I basically make about $6,000-$8,000 a month online. It’s enough to comfortably replace my old jobs income, especially considering I only work about 10-13 hours a week from home ,read more on this web site… makecash16.comONLY

  • Anonymous

    ‘Forget about holding this up to your ear when making calls too because it just looks weird and it’s not comfortable.’

    Blah blah. I use it just like that, every day and no problem. And I am not some very big guy.
    There is also coming one-hand app for Note , so you can do all with a tumb

  • Themarkusp

    Completely disagree with your rating and your overall opinion on this device… It’s awesome in every way… Powerful processor, great camera, and an amazing screen. Every LTE phone has questionable battery life and this one blows them all out of the water.

    I think you went into the review already set on this device being too big and used each section to point that out… Granted, the phone is definitely too big for some but that has nothing to do with the quality of the device.

    This phone is clearly in the top 5 of any available smartphone

  • Themarkusp

    Should’ve been a minimum rating of 8/10
    Clearly went into the review with bias and approached the device as a “novelty product” which is hilarious considering already over 1 million units have been sold world wide.

  • Anonymous

    Marin. Have you considered that many would be willing to trade a bit of comfort for a better experience. 

    Go with me on this and imagine a hypothetical situation. Let’s go :

    Imagine that a new model iPhone came out that would magically grow to 5.3″ with the push of a button and would shrink back to its normal size when done. You could use it as a phone in normal size. But to use data, you would have to use it in the larger-size mode. Apple gave you a second choice – the normal size that would always stay the same size whether you used it for voice or data. Would you recommend the former choice for others ? Would you consider it for yourself ? After you answer the questions honestly, now rethink why others see it from a different perspective.

    • Geno13

      And your point is

      • Anonymous

        The one you missed. Or want to miss.

        • Justin Bartels

          Isn’t that the truth, this phone has been out for sometime and just because it’s released here in the US as if it’s the first place on this planet. If this were on T-Mobile and the International version would give me a chance to use HSPA+ I’d be all over this. This phone totally rocks, optomized web pages “Seriously”, get Dolphin Browser and view as a desktop site.

          • Marin Perez

            You’re right about the ability to customize with different apps – a huge strength of Android.

    • Marin

      I don’t understand the question. Regardless of who makes it, I would love that there’s the tech for flexible displays. It’s not just being in the pocket which bugged me though, as some of the software wasn’t optimized to actually take advantage of the screen and taking pictures were odd. I really don’t care who makes it. 

      And of the two, I would choose the one which provides the best experience for my needs, regardless of size and manufacturer. 

      • Anonymous

        Well.. in case you (or any other reader) who has an issue with the size was Apple biased and felt that 3.5″ was perfect, I wanted them to imagine a hypothetical situation where the device would shrink to 3.5″ when you put it in your pocket and 5.3″ when you took it out to use it. Like a fictional transformer.

        Expanding on that, I wanted to see what a reader who thinks 3.5″ is the perfect display size would think if the device transformed its size on demand. When you used it as a phone, it would be 3.5″ and fit perfectly in your hand for a call – comfort. But when you wanted to surf the net, it would transform to 5.3″ – MUCH better display. Then transform back to 3.5″ when you put it back in your pocket – comfort again.

        If you or any other reader would like for that to happen, it would reveal that they subconsciously like a bigger display provided it was large when needed and shrunk back to size when not.

        • Marin

          But the Note doesn’t necessarily provide a better Internet experience than the iPhone or a Galaxy S II. Many sites aren’t formatted properly for this size and this device’s zooming and text wrapping didn’t always work. 

          I believe the sweet spot is the 4-4.3 range, 720p resolution with Retina-Display PPI. Give me that with great software, 4G, good battery from any handset maker and I’d buy it. 

          That might be asking a bit too much right now but it’s not too far really. 

          • Anonymous

            I think you can configure ICS ( I know it’s not out yet) to request a desktop version of the site.  I believe you can do this for each URL. Or, change the user agent in the settings to make it not appear as a mobile making the request. Either ICS, or a browser like Dolphin HD.

            So in that scenario, it would be better.

  • http://twitter.com/itsjaylin Jaylin

    It’s not a capacitive stylus.

  • http://www.motoask.com Motorola Atrix

    Awesome! Put it to the test and come back to share more of your thoughts and experiences with this phone!

  • Note-ariety

    Great review.  Key takeaway for me as a Note owner is that being an average tablet and average smart phone with some size limitations is still a better idea than using, carrying, and paying for two devices, plans, and accessories for two slighly better devices.  Think of it more as a small tab with phone features instead of a super-sized phone.

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