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Samsung Galaxy Note Review

A jumbo smartphone? A shrunken tablet? Or something all-new?

Despite continuing rumours of a new iPhone with a four-inch screen, Apple has always insisted that 3.5 inches is the optimum size for a mobile display. We're sure that many thousands of hands fondled the very first iPhone prototypes before that magical figure was decided upon, but it's hard to disagree with this stance. Rivals such as Windows Phone and Android offer handsets with more imposing screens, yet it's the Apple standard which has arguably been adopted by the vast majority of mobile developers. For most, 3.5 inches just seems to work.

However, that hasn't stopped Samsung from rolling out what it believes is the device which can not only best the iPhone, but also bridge the yawning gap between mobile phone and tablet. The Galaxy Note boasts a gigantic 5.3-inch Super AMOLED screen, placing it firmly in the no man's land previously occupied by Dell's ill-fated Streak 5. Needless to say, Samsung is hoping that this effort will fare better, and is using the unsubtle sledge-hammer that is the 2012 half-time Super Bowl commercial slot to truly drive home the fact that the Note is the ultimate convergence device; it's a phone, it's a tablet, it's a gaming platform. Rather than being a niche product, Samsung is positioning the Galaxy Note as The Next Big Thing - only on this occasion, the term 'big' could be taken literally as well as figuratively.

The Screen is the Star

You're unlikely to forget the moment the Galaxy Note drops out of its packaging - purely because it's sure to elicit a chuckle. For a phone, it's insanely massive, and when placed alongside the iPhone 4S or even the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (which, let's not forget, has a pretty formidable 4.65-inch display), it looks positively monstrous.

The reason for the dramatic girth is obvious; a large 5.3-inch screen requires an equally large frame. Despite its long and wide frontage, the Galaxy Note has is surprisingly thin - just 9.7mm, in fact, making it only slightly fatter than the super-svelte iPhone 4S.

The Note's screen uses the same Super AMOLED tech as the aforementioned Galaxy Nexus. Samsung's screens are famed for their brightness, depth and bold colours, and the display sported by the Note is thankfully no exception. However, it's not quite as gorgeous as the Super AMOLED Plus display seen on the best-selling Galaxy S2 - it still uses Pentile Matrix technology, which is unfortunately afflicted with a chequerboard-style effect. However, thanks to the astonishing 1280x800 resolution, it's only noticeable when you look very closely indeed.

Power and Battery Life

With all those lovely pixels to push around, one might assume that the Galaxy Note's dual-core 1.4 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPU might buckle under the strain. However, apart from a little bit of latency when unlocking the device - which may well be down to shortcomings in Samsung's software rather than the host hardware - there are rarely any issues with performance. Moving between applications is stutter-free, and the Note fails to betray any signs of slowdown even when you have several apps running in tandem.

With the increased power demands of the larger Super AMOLED screen, Samsung has wisely opted to pack a large power cell within the Note. 2500 mAh is the magic figure, and this large-capacity battery ensures that the device will get through the day without needing a top-up.

Software and Internal Storage

Google has recently launched Android 4.0 - also known as Ice Cream Sandwich - via the high-profile Galaxy Nexus. An attempt to bring together the previously separate phone and tablet branches of the OS, 4.0 brings with it a raft of new features - all of which Galaxy Note fans will have to wait for, as the device ships with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) instead.

Samsung has confirmed that the Note will get 4.0 around March time (along with its famous sibling, the Galaxy S2), but for the time being, 2.3 is perfectly acceptable. In fact, there's a good chance that the casual user won't be able to tell the difference when Ice Cream Sandwich does arrive on the Note, as Samsung will almost certainly apply its custom TouchWiz interface on top of Google's underlying code.

The Note comes in two flavours - 16 and 32GB. This storage space can be expanded using MicroSD cards, and when purchased at retail most units will come with a 2GB card already nestled firmly in the slot.

"Although the Note is thin and can fit in your pocket, it is wide and long enough to inflict discomfort to anyone not wearing a pair of clown's trousers equipped with especially cavernous pockets."

The Stylus Strikes Back

HTC's Flyer tablet was one of the first Android products to showcase a stylus that worked on a capacitive touch-screen, but the results were less than stellar. Thankfully, that isn't the case with the Note - which is a blessing, as Samsung has been very keen to stress that this device is intended to replace the humble pen and paper, as well as blurring the line between tablet and phone.

The stylus included with the Note - christened by Samsung as the 'S Pen' - docks at the bottom of the device, and uses the principle of electromagnetic induction to communicate with the screen itself. Using the S Pen, you can doodle images, write notes and interact with all elements of the Android operating system.

Handwriting recognition is also included, but calls to mind the unintentional hilarity of using the same feature on products like the Apple Newton - sadly, despite the passage of time, the tech doesn't seem to have improved all that much. The Note doesn't do a particularly convincing job of interpreting your scribblings accurately, so you'll most likely opt for the standard keyboard interface instead.

Gaming Credentials

Where the stylus does prove its worth is in the realm of interactive entertainment. Playing titles like Fruit Ninja, Zoo Keeper, ChuChu Rocket and World of Goo with the S Pen feels wonderfully intuitive, and is far more precise that simply using a chubby digit. It may seem overly picky, but another bonus is that you avoid covering the display with unsightly fingerprint smudges.

"Playing titles like Fruit Ninja, Zoo Keeper, ChuChu Rocket and World of Goo with the S Pen stylus feels wonderfully intuitive."

Having said that, the Note is just as appealing for games that don't translate quite so well to stylus input. Because of the size of the device, it's incredibly comfortable to grip with two hands, making titles like Grand Theft Auto III that little bit more playable. If you've experienced Rockstar's legendary game on a mobile device already, then you'll know just how frustrating it can be to play. The Note's large display mitigates the traditional headache of touch-screen virtual controls, enriching the experience more than you might naturally assume.

The sheer expansiveness of that screen brings more obvious benefits, too; graphically complex games like Anomaly Warzone Earth and Majesty: Fantasy Kingdom Sim look absolutely stunning, and it's abundantly clear that playing them on anything less than a four-inch display is doing them a massive injustice.

Camera and Video Capture

Keeping with the spirit of convergence, the Galaxy Note also showcases some slick image-capture tools. The eight megapixel snapper performs competently in a variety of different environments, and while it's unlikely to make you think twice about that DSLR purchase you've been promising yourself for years, it serves as a perfectly adequate replacement for your more humble point-and-shoot camera.

Some representative, albeit random samples of the results of the Galaxy Note's eight megapixel camera at work in both indoors and outdoors settings. Click the thumbnails for full-size images.

Video recording is similarly impressive, with the Galaxy Note managing 1080p at 30 glorious frames per second. The resultant footage is clear and largely free from artifacts and blurring, and you can share your accomplishments with others via the Note's pre-installed AllShare app, which offers media streaming to any DNLA-compliant device. The only blight is a slightly hyperactive auto-focus, which can sometimes ruin perfectly good videos thanks to its ponderous proclivity to home in on objects moving in and out of frame.

Samsung Galaxy Note: The Digital Foundry Verdict

"The Galaxy Note isn't supposed to supplant the mobile or the tablet, but rather offer an alternative to those who don't feel entirely satisfied with either option."

The Galaxy Note is a bold move by Samsung, and one that will undoubtedly divide consumers. Many will see the dimensions of the device as a massive barrier to entry: although it's possible to fit the Note in your trouser pocket, you'll be wincing whenever you are required to crouch down, sprint or generally exert yourself. Although the Note is thin, it is wide and long enough to inflict discomfort to anyone not wearing a pair of clown's trousers equipped with especially cavernous pockets.

This largely rules out the Galaxy Note as a day-to-day mobile communications device, because a phone is something you need on your person at all times. Unless you're comfortable with storing the Note in your coat pocket or even your man-bag, it's unlikely to usurp your traditional handset any time soon. Using it as a phone is also slightly embarrassing; it's so large that you're almost sure to become the laughing stock of your iPhone-owning acquaintances whenever you take it out of your clown trousers to make a call.

This puts the Note squarely in competition with tablets, then. Compared to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7, the Note's 5.3-inch screen looks rather less imposing. Put it next to the Motorola Xoom or Asus Transformer, and the disparity is even more striking. While the Note's display allows it to outclass any mobile phone you could mention, it can't challenge dedicated tablet devices when it comes to screen real estate.

Still, that's largely Samsung's intention when it comes to the Note; it isn't supposed to supplant the mobile or the tablet, but rather offer an alternative to those who don't feel entirely satisfied with either option and are rich enough to afford splashing their cash on a third mobile device. One thing cannot be ignored though: as a multimedia and gaming platform, the Note deserves your attention rather than your ridicule. If Samsung's titanic media push in the States yields results, it could potentially open the door to a new breed of pocket-rupturing behemoths boasting massive displays and the technological grunt to shame the recently-launched Vita. However, that's a pretty considerable if.