Samsung has found itself with a surprise hit on their hands with their Galaxy Note, selling over 6 million of the devices worldwide since the start of 2012, proving naysayers wrong with success where similarly supersized devices failed. The 5.3" model holds dual citizenship as both phone and tablet ("phablet" seems to be a popular description), arguably defining a whole new category of smartphone which forgoes pocketable size for an extended feature set. But is bigger really better when it comes to everyday use? For the last month I've adopted the Galaxy Note as my primary smartphone and I discovered there's a lot to love about this giant...if you can live with its quirks.
Samsung Galaxy Note At a Glance:
• 3G/4G/4G LTE connectivity
• Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread OS
• 1.5 GHz dual-core processor
• 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED WXVGA (1280X800) touchscreen
• 16 GB memory, expandable up to 32GB
• 8-MP camera + Full HD 1080p video capture
• GPS navigation
• Wireless-N Wi-Fi
• Stereo Bluetooth 3.0
• Personal/corporate e-mail
• Accelerometer, 6-axis gyroscope
• Battery, standby 10.4 days, talk time 10 hours
I've always been bothered by the design inconsistencies and user interface cul-de-sac/dead ends marring navigation throughout Google's open OS. In that regard, the Samsung Galaxy Note, shipping with Android Gingerbread 2.3.6, didn't do all too much to improve my opinion about the user experience out of the box, with the same "let's throw in everything" design language which Google has only recently reined in somewhat with the release of their Ice Cream Sandwich update.
Samsung has shipped the Galaxy Note layered with their own TouchWiz 4.0 UI, but a little stylized icing lathered on top does not make for the thoughtfully executed UI experience one experiences using either Windows Phone or iOS devices. Samsung is supposedly to update the Galaxy Note quite soon with the refined Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 update, but as a few Android using friends have warned, "don't believe it until your update has installed."
But even before getting comfortable and acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the Android operating system, there's the bigger issue of the device itself. The Note is undeniably huge. Just imagine using Photoshop to proportionally enlarge your iPhone to Shaquille O'Neal proportions, and you get how ridiculous the Note looks against some people's heads (fortunately, I've got a Korean sized dome which offsets its size...somewhat).
My daily use phone is the HTC Titan (shown in comparison above), a device with a 4.7" screen which I thought impressively spacious. The Galaxy Note sees the Titan's 4.7" screen and raises it another .6", while somehow also being .3mm slimmer. Impressive work, Samsung. Because of its slim dimensions, the Note proved to be surprisingly manageable to use, even with one hand, but it does reach the limits of what probably is realistically called a pocketable device.
There are occasions when using two hands will make more sense, as there is the wide expanse of a 800 x 1280 Super AMOLED HD display to swipe across. But besides shifting to landscape mode for typing (much improved after installing SwiftKey Tablet X; not a Swype fan) I found myself comfortably navigating the phone one-handed most of the time, loving all the additional room to swipe and type throughout the day.
They say it's easy to fall in love while traveling in Europe, and indeed it was during my work sojourn to Milan to attend/cover Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the global furniture trade show, the appeal of the Samsung Galaxy Note became truly evident. In just one week abroad, the Note was able to replace both my trusty iPad and my Windows Phone as an extremely capable travel tool.
From the very moment I set foot in the airport, there I was enjoying a Kindle book without straining my eyes nor having to pull out the larger iPad. Onboard my intercontinental flight, the Note made for a sufficiently satisfying display for movie watching. Although my iPad is still the best bedroom Netflix app device, the Note is a marked improvement over the typical smartphone thanks to the display's size and 285 pixels per inch density. Finally, there's something to be said about using a 5.3" screen with Google Maps while navigating a foreign city. The Note is small enough to easily pull out or pocket away without making a scene, while large enough to see way more of a map while plotting or tracking your footsteps (or taxi ride) compared to the average smartphone.
To think about it, I also mostly kept my digital camera in my camera bag, relying upon the capable 8 megapixel shooter for the majority of my snapshots (1080p video capture and 2-megapixel front-facing camera included); partnered with the newly available Android Instagram app, the Note performed well even in the mixed lighting source environment of a trade show or back home here in Los Angeles (gallery below).
Although LTE connectivity wasn't available in the parts of Milan I was traveling through, a mix of 3G networks and occasional wi-fi hotspots allowed me to navigate the sometimes serpentine streets of Italy's style thoroughfares alone with confidence (I had a translation ready, just in case). Later upon returning back to Los Angeles, I was able to verify and enjoy the joyous luxury of 4G LTE speeds on AT&T's network, though nowhere at the upper tier advertised speeds except for a few instances in locations in Orange County where it seemed like I was on a wired connection for a moment. Yet even with a mix of 3G and 4G network connectivity, wi-fi, and push notification on, the 2,500 mAh battery did an impressive job of keeping me connected both at home and abroad.
What about the S Pen, the fully digital stylus which slips out elegantly from the bottom of the Note? Besides a half hour of fooling around with the pre-installed S Memo app where my partner and I took turns showing off our handwriting skills (or lack thereof) and defacing one another's photos, the S Pen has remained mostly sheathed. Handwriting recognition is spotty unless you've retained a high quality of penmanship, at least enough so I found it easier to just type things out using the virtual keyboard. My better half has noted she'd imagine using the S Pen to add notation to photos, but I've yet to find a real everyday use for any of the S Pen enabled applications, including some marginally fun games, and I'd suspect in the age of touch and swipe, it's a nice novelty rather than a selling point feature. Your mileage may vary.
The dual-core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 Scorpion, 1GB or RAM, and Adreno 220 GPU keep things satisfying snappy for the most part while using the Note. You'll see a few occasions of stutter while swiping here, or a momentary pause when launching an app, but nothing that really diminished my overall impression (it seems most of the hiccups were app developer-side related).
Proponents like to point out UI customization options as a big plus of the Android experience; it is indeed enjoyable to tweak and customize, though overall it's more about "styling" rather than actual design. Go Launcher EX themes installed, I was ready to go with a much more positive attitude.
Yes, it looks ridiculous in my pocket. It also looks silly when used as a phone. But the appeal of the Samsung Galaxy Note was undeniable once I stopped thinking about the oversized phablet as just another smartphone. In just a few weeks of use, I went from somewhat of an adamant opponent of Android devices to a user who believes the sum of the Note's parts outweigh its faults, specifically if you're willing to set aside UI grievances (the inner retired designer just cried a little).
Bigger isn't always better, and you'll never really forget how big the Samsung Galaxy Note truly is