Review: Samsung Galaxy Note is unique and impressive, but not for everyone

The Samsung Galaxy Note is a refreshing departure from the rest of the smartphone pack with its large display and stylus-like pen

The Galaxy Note ($300 with a two-year contract; price as of 2/14/12) has been out for a while internationally, but starting on 2/19/12, the 5.3-inch phone with a stylus-like pen will be arriving on U.S. shores exclusively on AT&T's 4G LTE network. After the Galaxy Note commercials appeared during the Super Bowl, Twitter users joked that it looked like a Palm Pilot. The Galaxy Note might have a pen, but it is far from the capacitive PDAs of yore. The Note's "S Pen" works quite well with the user interface, but I wished there were more apps to use it with. Tablet, Phone or "Phablet?" The Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch display puts the Note in an interesting place between a phone and a tablet. According to Samsung, there won't be an unlocked version of the Note in the U.S., which puts it more in the subsidized phone with contract category.

I have to say, however, it feels a little silly hold something of this size up to your face and making a phone. It is light enough, but a bit too wide for my hands, making it feel uncomfortable and unwieldy at times. The Galaxy Note measures 5.78-by-3.27-by-0.38 inches thick and weighs 6.28 ounces.The Note has your typical touch-sensitive navigation buttons below the display (Menu, Home, Back Search), a volume rocker and a power button. On the bottom of the Note, you'll find the slot for the S Pen (which we'll cover soon).The Note's aesthetic is pretty similar to the Galaxy S II phones (though larger) with a rectangular shape, piano black bezel, chrome piping and a textured "carbon blue" battery cover.HD Super AMOLED DisplayThe Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch display has a 1280-by-800 pixel resolution. The display technology is HD Super AMOLED display, which isn't to be confused with Super AMOLED Plus, which we saw on the Samsung Galaxy S II line of phones. This is the same display technology seen on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. As I noted in my review of the Galaxy Nexus, the HD Super AMOLED display is based on the PenTile pixel structure in which pixels share subpixels. Galaxy S II phones, on the other hand, have full RGB displays in which the pixels have their own subpixels. HD Super AMOLED displays supposedly have a lower overall subpixel density, reduced sharpness and degraded color accuracy than phones with Super AMOLED Plus displays.When I reviewed the Galaxy Nexus, I noted that I couldn't really see a difference between the two different display types in terms of sharpness. The Galaxy Note also handled image and text rendering well, with sharp, clear text and details on both Web pages and high resolution images. I noticed a little bit of degradation on higher resolution images, particularly when you zoom in, but the image quality definitely looked better than some other phone and tablets we've seen.The main problem I have with the display is that the colors are quite oversaturated. Additionally, skin tones look ruddy and whites have a slight yellowish tint. This is a common problem among AMOLED displays, however, Samsung-made or not. Still, oversaturation isn't always a bad thing. Colors on the Note look rich and bright while blacks are deep.

Using the S Pen

As I mentioned earlier, the S Pen is a far cry from the old styluses you might remember. The Galaxy Note uses a Wacom-made "S Pen" for note-taking and drawing. Wacom pens recognize both right-handed and left-handed users. It also mimics the act of physically taking notes: The harder you press the pen down on the Note, the thicker and bolder your lines will be.

The Galaxy Note runs the latest version of Android Gingerbread 2.3.6 with a similar version of TouchWiz to the Galaxy S II line of phones. As you might expect, the Galaxy Note has built-in software and special gestures for the pen.There's a handy app called S Memo Lite that lets you jot down notes from pretty much anywhere in the phone. To pull up the S Memo Lite app, you hold down the button on the pen and double tap on the display. If you have another app open, the notepad appears on top of it allowing you to easily switch back to it. There's also a fuller version of S Memo, which can be accessed from your apps menu. In this app, you can add color to your drawing or text or insert pictures (either from your gallery or via the provided clip art) and shapes. You can also take screenshots by simply pressing and holding the pen to whatever you want to capture. You shot then opens in a simple photo editing app, which lets you crop the screenshot in either lasso or rectangle mode.Writing on the Galaxy Note takes some getting used to. At first, I was appalled at how horrible my handwriting looked. Once I got the hang of using the pen though, I started to enjoy it. As somebody who is constantly doodling and prefers writing down notes to typing them, I liked being able to quickly jot down ideas or reminders. The keyboard has a pen mode, which will convert your handwriting into text. I thought it did a pretty good job of recognizing my handwriting, though it misinterpreted what I was trying to write a few times. Pen gestures take some getting used to as well. To go "back," you hold down the pen's button and swipe to the left. To go to the home screen, you drag the pen from top to bottom while pressing the pen button. And if you want to open Menus, you swipe from bottom to top while pressing the button. Once you get used to relying on the pen rather than the hardware buttons, navigating the Note is a breeze. You can of course use the hardware buttons as well if you don't like the pen gestures. If the S pen feels too wimpy (or gives you horrible flashbacks of your capacitive touch Windows Mobile phone), you can invest in the S Pen Holder Kit (sold separately). It is basically a standard writing pen shell for the S Pen, complete with a pocket clip. Pen-Friendly Apps and Other Software The selection of pen-friendly apps feels a bit anemic. Samsung says that the SDK for the Galaxy Note and S Pen will be available to developers soon (though they couldn't say exactly when). I see a lot of potential for creative and productivity apps as well as games that incorporate the S Pen (think Nintendo DS-style games).

Right now, the included apps that support pen mode are Polaris Office, S Memo and a game called Crayon Physics. Polaris Office lets you create documents, spreadsheets and slideshow presentations. You can insert drawings or screenshots in a presentation or use the pen to insert text. Crayon Physics is a cute game where you draw objects to get a ball to from point A to point B. This verison of Samsung's TouchWiz interface has a few interesting features including resizable widgets for the homescreen and a revamped calendar app. The calendar app takes advantage of the larger display with a tabbed interface that lets you view the whole year, a week, a month, three days, a day, etc. There are quite a few AT&T- and Samsung-added apps like AT&T's Live TV, AT&T Navigator, YPMobile, Samsung Media Hub and more. You can remove some of these apps, however, by hitting the Menu key and selecting "Edit." Performance The Galaxy Note is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor. The European version, on the other hand, has a 1.4GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos processor. I tested a few graphics-heavy games on the Note including Osmos HD and World of Goo. Both ran smoothly without any glitches and looked terrific on the Note's large display. Video also ran flawlessly without any issues. I ran the Vellamo benchmarking app on the Note to test graphics and browser performance. We take these scores with a grain of salt since the app is made by Qualcomm and the Galaxy Note has a Qualcomm processor. Surprisingly, the Note didn't do that well with a score of 773. This benchmark puts the Note behind both the Droid Razr (1040) and the Galaxy Nexus (803). I also ran the FCC-approved Ookla app to test the Galaxy Note's data speeds over AT&T LTE in San Francisco. The LTE signal strength in my neighborhood in San Francisco must be weaker than where PCWorld's offices are. In my neighborhood, I got an average download speed of 24.64 Mbps and an average upload speed of 8.78 Mbps. These are ridiculously fast speeds and you can see the power of AT&T's LTE when downloading apps (takes seconds), browsing the Web and watching streaming video. Call quality was good over AT&T's network. My friends on the other end of the line reported that my voice sounded clear and natural. I couldn't detect any distortion or static in my friends' voices though a few sounded a bit distant. We haven't yet formally tested battery life, but the Galaxy Note lasted a full day of heavy testing before I had to plug in again. We'll update this section once we run our battery tests. Camera The 8-megapixel camera snapped good pictures indoors and out. The colors in my indoor and outdoor photos looked accurate while details were sharp. Honestly, the phone's dimensions make it a little awkward to use as a camera. Have you ever tried shooting a photo with a tablet? It just feels strange. The Galaxy Note can capture HD video in up to 1080p resolution. There is also a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for making video calls or taking self portraits. Bottom LineAs somebody who is reluctant to hop on the tablet train, the Galaxy Note's size is ideal to me. I liked being able to whip the Note out to jot down ideas and I love being able to doodle during a meeting or while on the bus. To me, this is the perfect-sized tablet. But the perfect-sized phone? I'm not so sure. I wish Samsung sold a Wi-Fi only, carrier-free version in addition to the subsidized AT&T version with LTE. I see it more as a secondary device--something I take to work, but not out to dinner or to the beach. Overall, the Galaxy Note works well with the S Pen and I am excited to see more pen-supported apps. Right now, the selection feels a bit limited.

This story, "Review: Samsung Galaxy Note is unique and impressive, but not for everyone" was originally published by PCWorld.

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