There’s a part of me that loves the Galaxy Note.
At 5.3-inches, the screen on this thing is beautiful. Videos on this Samsung screen look great — no squinting — and now easier-to-read Web pages load quickly on the 4G network. And its screen real estate actually makes me think that I can type with my thumbs without a significantly lower danger of an auto-correct misstep.
Reading in general is a joy on this phone. It’s lightweight enough that I can carry it anywhere, but large enough that I didn’t feel like I was constantly flipping pages in my Amazon Kindle app. The phone’s camera, too, is a point in its favor. The 8MP camera takes great pictures, though the Note suffers from a slightly too-long shutter lag.
Finally, as a person who loves actually writing, the Note’s S-pen and its capability to convert handwriting to text is a great feature, and fairly accurate, at least with my handwriting. While not quite as quick as a pen and paper, having the option to instantly digitize my notes appeals to me on a fundamental level. Having a slot for the stylus was also key, and the pen tucks neatly into a nearly invisible niche at the bottom of the phone for safekeeping.
Samsung could, however, do far more with the pen sensor. There’s a bloatware (er, included) app on the Note meant to simulate a calligraphy brush that shows how sensitive the pen could be, but that functionality isn’t on the actual note application itself.
Overall, though, the build quality is on par with what I’ve come to expect from Samsung. All in all, the Note is thin, light, solid and fast — meeting all my normal criteria for a well-built smartphone.
But there’s also a part of me that hates the Galaxy Note.
That very same thing that makes the device kind of compelling, it’s 5-inch screen, is the thing that makes it a little ... well, ridiculous. You’d better have a headset or a quiet room for chatting on speakerphone, because otherwise you’re going to be teased. (I was, several times, in the course of reviewing this device.) The Note has little to no chance of slipping unobtrusively into the pants pocket of any women’s fashion, though it will go in a good clutch purse. Basically, the phone's fine if you don’t ever want to hold it to talk, but that’s not how I prefer to use my primary phone.
Even if you’re not worried about good-natured barbs aimed at your phone, it’s awkward to navigate with one hand — nearly impossible to do so in landscape. If you want to use this phone, prepare to give your thumb a workout. I found myself constantly readjusting my grip on the thing, and often found myself accidentally hitting the Note’s rather sensitive power button to send the device to sleep.
And the stylus, while good in some cases, falls down in other ways. For one, the pen’s button is oddly placed, meaning that I inadvertently hit it dozens of times while testing. Secondly, while it should have gotten into my head after using it for a few days, I kept finding myself trying to use the stylus to hit the Note’s navigation buttons — a futile and frustrating exercise.
There are other weaknesses that plague this phone as well. For one, its operating system. While I understand that it’s not always fair to judge a phone by its flavor of Android, the Note does suffer from running Android 2.3 instead of the latest Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). AT&T has promised that a system update is on its way at some point down the line, but it’s not there now.
I also found the battery life a bit erratic. That screen eats up a lot of juice, though not as much as I’d expected. The first day I used it, the battery life was horrible, but it seemed to improve later — even when I was using the Note for essentially the same things. I got around nine hours of battery life out of the phone on average. Practically speaking, the Note should last you through the day, though you’ll have to top it off each night.
If the Note were marketed as a tablet that makes calls, I could forgive its ergonomic flaws. A little smaller, and I’d recommend it as a great smartphone. But ultimately, at $299.99 with a two-year plan, the Note is too betwixt and between to be a sure buy. It can fill a certain niche: If the Note interests you because you are hopelessly frustrated with how small your smartphone screen is or if you use your smartphone more for e-mail, browsing and video than you do for calls, then take a serious look at it. Just make sure your headset is handy for any chatting you may want to do.