Hands on: Samsung's Galaxy Note engages, perplexes

With its S Pen stylus and large screen, the Galaxy Note could be a doodler's dream machine. But is it right for you?

Samsung's Galaxy Note is a fascinating, if perplexing, tweener device. It pulls together a full-featured smartphone with a 5.3-in screen that doubles as a tablet, responding to finger touches as well as input from a stylus-like S Pen . Whether this works for you depends very much on your particular needs.

The Galaxy Note smartphone and S Pen stylus

By the numbers, Galaxy Note is 5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38 in. and weighs in at 6.28 oz. This is noticeably bigger than the Galaxy Nexus (5.33 x 2.67 x 0.37 in., 5.1 oz.) and the iPhone 4S (4.50 x 2.31 x 0.37 in., 4.9 oz.). It fits inside my suit coat inner pocket, but not that easily into my shirt pocket, where I usually carry my smartphone.

At least Samsung was able to keep the Note thin and attractive, with a full Gorilla glass screen surrounded by a rounded polished metal frame. For its size, it doesn't appear bulky.

And it is truly wondrous to have that 5.3-in. big-screen real estate for watching videos in high definition and playing games such as Words with Friends , a fun game that is hard on the eyes when played for long on a typical smartphone screen. The 1280 x 800 HD Super AMOLED display rivals any tablet or smartphone screen I've seen for clarity. Samsung also makes Super AMOLED Plus screens (like the one on the company's Galaxy Tab 7.7 tablet), but I can't tell the difference.

A bonus feature: The Galaxy Note allows a user to adjust the screen brightness from the home screen by swiping a finger left or right on the notifications bar at the top. It works only if you turn automatic screen adjustment off, but having the manual capability seems valuable, as I've noticed how slowly automatic screen adjustment functions work when I walk from a bright room into a dark one.

With an 8-megapixel rear camera with autofocus, HD video recording and playback, and 4x digital zoom, you can take amazing photos. There is also a 2-megapixel front camera for video calls.

The multimedia functions in the Galaxy Note are augmented by a Snapdragon 1.5GHz dual core processor and a huge 2,500 mAh battery -- 700 mAhs more capacity than most smartphone batteries on the market today. I was able to stream Pandora music non-stop for three hours (with other functions on the Note turned off), decreasing the battery from 100% to just 73%. Samsung pegs the battery's talk time at 10 hours.

The Galaxy Note launches with Android 2.3.6 (along with Samsung's TouchWiz interface). Android 4.0, known as Ice Cream Sandwich, will come to the Galaxy Note, Samsung said, but (as usual) no date has been announced.

Using the S Pen

One of the ways that the Galaxy Note distinguishes itself from the competition, besides its size, is the presence of the S Pen digital pen/stylus. This is where the Note could truly delight some users -- artists especially. For me, however, the tablet experience and S Pen proved frustrating.

According to Samsung, the S Pen has the precision of a stylus, with the added features of built-in Wacom technology that includes 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. The S Pen causes capacitive (electrical) responses on the touchscreen, with more variety and precision that can be gotten from typical touchscreen finger swipes.

The 4-in. S Pen fits inside the body of the Galaxy Note and has a little button on the side that is used for accessing certain functions. For example, if you hold the button on the S Pen and tap the touchscreen twice, you'll get an app called S Memo Lite, which lets you draw on the virtual paper. From that screen you can tap on a pen icon to change pen styles that vary from pen to paintbrush, pencil or highlighter; you also have the ability to change the thickness and color of the line. For example, you can make a big thick yellow highlighter line or a graceful purple feathery line.

You can erase errors and delete entire virtual sheets of paper, or save them into the full S Memo app, which is included with the Galaxy Note. The memos and drawings can be shared on Facebook and other social networks or through text messaging or MMS.

This is only the beginning, however. You can also hold the button on the S Pen and then hold the S Pen to the Note's screen to take a screen shot. Once taken, an image editor opens automatically, giving you the same drawing tools found in S Memo. This means you can, say, take a photo of friend, draw a mustache or bushy eyebrows on it and send it off to Facebook. Or you can annotate a Web page, or an email document, then paste the image into an email.

The idea of editing screen shots with the S Pen can be both fun and practical, I discovered. For example, I could circle a mistake in a story I'd written for Computerworld and quickly send it to an editor with a note about the problem.

Still, while I fully recognize the promise of the S Pen, it didn't always work for me.

I found I could adapt to the thin S Pen, but at first it felt very small in my hand. Samsung is also selling an S Pen holder kit that is basically a traditional ink pen size, with a place to put the S Pen inside (it comes with a spare S Pen). The holder also has a button on the side, and it works quite well. It will be priced at $49. (Incidentally, if you happen to lose the S Pen itself -- not unlikely for something that small -- it will cost $29 for a replacement.)

You can pull a map into S Memo and use the S Pen to circle your destination and add a note.

On my very first handwritten strokes with the S Pen, I found the touchscreen sensitivity was too slow. For example, when I wrote a capital T, both my strokes appeared on the screen simultaneously, although I had made one a little before the other. I was able to adjust the touch with a special tool in the app and got to the point where the S Pen input seemed more accurate and in real time.

After that adjustment, I discovered a bothersome problem with both the S Pen and finger touch. While browsing the Web, I tried to zoom in and out using finger pinches, but it took repeated tries to make it work. A separate function allows the S Pen, when touched twice to a Web site, to either zoom out or in, but that function worked only a couple of times for me even after dozens of tries.

Your mileage may vary

Last month at CES, an artist drew a caricature of me on the Galaxy Note using the S Pen as a kind of brush. She seemed to do the work effortlessly and said it hadn't taken her very long to learn the tools. She added that she didn't mind the weight of the Note -- she held it upright for a long time (at least 10 minutes) while drawing on it with her other hand.

But I could not hold the device upright for that long without a lot of practice. I had to put it on the table to type in my name and password (with either the S Pen or my finger) to access email accounts; it seemed too heavy for even the simplest jobs.

And one thing that definitely didn't work was transposing my handwriting into text. The handwriting-to-text feature is available in a number of apps, including emails and text messages. However, I couldn't seem to get the hang of it. For example, a message handwritten with the S Pen that said "Can you send me?" got mangled into "CanwsendhubCue" and then into "Can a sense me" (once I figured out spacing) and then "Can e send pre."

I tried dozens of times, and as of this writing, I still face a steep learning curve on handwriting-to-text functions. (I'm not blaming the Galaxy Note completely, but if your handwriting is about average like mine, it is going to be something to take into consideration when you buy it.)

Making calls

When using the Note as a phone, I found the sound quality to be about average for Samsung phones, both for myself and for the people on the other end of the line. In my opinion, Motorola still makes the best smartphones for voice calls.

Does the size matter? Yes, if you keep putting it to your ear to take calls. It felt bulky, and I wasn't really sure where to place the phone to put the speaker near my ear. Substituting a Bluetooth headset would help here.

Travelers might appreciate that AT&T and Samsung are selling the Note as a quad-band phone, useful just about anywhere on the globe, including over the growing AT&T LTE network in the U.S. LTE reverts to HSPA+ when LTE's not available in the U.S., offering speeds that are noticeably faster than 3G.

Samsung's Galaxy Note goes on sale in stores on Sunday, Feb. 19 , for $299.99 with a two-year agreement with AT&T, although pre-orders start shipping today.


It's obvious that the S Pen is far more than a novelty and provides some pretty powerful touch technology. However, I would recommend that anybody who is considering buying the Note first give it a thorough road test in the AT&T store, especially the S Pen functions.

At a Glance

Galaxy Note

SamsungPrice: $299.99 at AT&T w/2-year contractPros: Large, impressive display; fine performance; good camera; high-capacity 2,500 mAh battery; digital pen (if you find one useful)Cons: Big and heavy for a smartphone; calling can be awkward; digital pen (if you don't find one useful)

Samsung has tried valiantly to make traditional touchscreen functions such as Web browsing work effortlessly for both finger touches and the S Pen. Instead, I found that I was spending a lot of time trying to decide if I should stay in the finger-touch world I've come to know pretty well, or put in a lot of effort into adapting to the S Pen functions and the different advantages that it offers.

But the Galaxy Note does actually function pretty well as just a large smartphone/small tablet even if you never use the S Pen. And given that Samsung makes just about every size of tablet and smartphone available, it seems natural that the company would want to serve a niche of users who want a device the size of the Note -- and even that it would provide an alternate mode of input.

While Motorola recently said it would make fewer smartphone models for the market in 2012, Samsung is clearly heading the other direction. Maybe Samsung knows something that others don't.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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