The Galaxy Note10 debuted at an event in New York on Wednesday, and I had a chance to get my hands on one in advance. Well, two: There’s a $950 Note10 with a 6.3-inch screen and $1,100 Note10+ model with a 6.8-inch screen. The latter is the venti to most other smartphones’ grande. Even the maxed-out iPhone XS Max is only 6.5 inches, measured on the diagonal.
I’m happy to report that even though the Note10+ has a larger screen than last year’s 6.4-inch Note9, the new model feels a smidgen less heavy. Samsung squeezed in more screen by nipping at the bezel edges and making it a little taller. Like on the Galaxy S10 that arrived in March, there’s a hole punched through the screen for a camera, which pushes the usable screen area closer to the edge.
In lots of ways, the Note10 adopts the nice-to-have improvements featured in Samsung’s S10. The fingerprint reader has also moved from the back of the phone to its rightful place on the front, embedded inside the screen. You can also wirelessly charge a friend’s phone, just by setting theirs on top of the Note10.
The Note10 is getting a boost to three back cameras, for normal, zoom and ultrawide shots. I suspect this three-camera setup is going to become the new normal for flagship phones. Want even more? The Note10+ also has a fourth depth camera, which can be used for 3-D scanning (but still needs to find its killer app).
And the Note’s most famous detachable feature, the S-Pen stylus, is evolving. Now it will convert your scribbles into searchable text, even if you have terrible handwriting like me. You can also use the S-Pen as a kind of magician’s wand to command the phone without touching it. For example, you can set the phone at a distance and wand it into zooming and different modes — though my brief attempt at wand control made me look like a Hogwarts dropout.
That was the good news. Now queue the funeral dirge.
Samsung’s decision to get rid of a headphone jack hardly makes it unique; Apple cut them from iPhones in 2016. Phone makers want the precious space it required to fill up with more battery power. But supporting traditional headphones was definitely a reason to remain loyal to Samsung. It’s the phone maker that gives you more options, not fewer.
With the Note10, Samsung is throwing a pair of USB-C headphones in the box. But they’re not even giving you a dongle to connect your existing headphones.
Another Samsung standby is also gone, at least in the smaller Note10: expandable storage. In past Notes, you could pop in a microSD card. On the Note10, you have to buy storage built in. What is this … an iPhone? At least the baseline storage is a decent 256 gigabytes — and you can still add your own storage on the Note10+.
Finally, we should talk about batteries. In last year’s Note 9, the 4,000 mAh battery was a beast, lasting 12 hours in my grueling test. But in the Note10, Samsung has shrunk it to 3,500 mAh. The company hasn’t said how that will affect performance, but it’s probably not going to help. On the Note10+, there is a larger 4,300 mAh battery — but it also has to power a bigger, higher-resolution screen.
All things considered, is there any reason to pine for an upgrade?
I haven’t had a chance to live with the Note10 yet. But its features feel mostly like the $750-and-up Galaxy S10 with a pen, and there’s a lot to like about this year’s other flagship Samsung phone. It’s good that the Note line is catching up on the fingerprint reader and multiple cameras.
But wait … why are we talking about catching up? Samsung threw a few new ideas into the Note10, such as a fun augmented-reality doodler app for videos. But the Note used to be the place where Samsung put all its newest, weirdest technologies first. The Note was the original big-screen phone, back when many people mocked them as phablets. The Note was also the first phone to get a curved screen.
The truth is, the Note 10 is no longer Samsung’s bleeding-edge phone. That title goes to the Galaxy Fold, which bled so much that Samsung had to delay its original planned release.
Meanwhile, the Note’s rivals are doing really interesting things. Huawei’s P30 Pro phone comes with a telescoping 50-times zoom camera. (Talk about spy tech!) And Google’s coming Pixel 4 will have secure facial unlock (still missing from Samsung phones) and a special radar to detect hand gestures near the phone, not to mention Google’s incredible Night Sight lowlight photography capability.
And Apple keeps making a case for privacy as a differentiator in the way it designs its operating system and services, while the topic gets nary a mention from Samsung.
Seeing all the other innovation happening in other phones makes staying loyal to Samsung harder.
The Note 10 is available for preorder on Aug. 8 and in stores Aug. 23. If you want to save a little cash, trade in an existing phone on Samsung.com for up to $600 off. Verizon will also be the first to offer a 5G version of the Note10+, for $1,300, if you live in one of the few communities that can take advantage of the ultra-fast network.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: