Samsung Galaxy Note Review: Three weeks using a 'phablet'

Even as a longstanding proponent of the "one size doesn't fit all" line of thinking, Samsung's Galaxy Note is perhaps one of the most outrageous smartphones in recent years. With its gargantuan 5.3 inch screen size that dwarfs even the newest crop of 4.5-inch and 4.7-inch smartphones and the return of the stylus as its major form of input, the Galaxy Note is the "phablet" — smartphone/mini tablet hybrid — that nobody asked for.

In my first impressions, I noted that the 5.3-inch display was an absolute beauty to look at, the "S Pen" stylus was responsive and the 1.5GHz dual-core processor paired with 1GB of RAM was nimble enough to run Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread without any major hiccups. The Galaxy Note felt well built and the 8-megapixel camera wasn't too shabby, but there's a difference between being awed with it for a few hours and using it as your main go-to device day in and day out.

How big can a smartphone get before it becomes a hindrance in daily use? To find out, I decided to put the gargantuan Galaxy Note to the test as my main phone (my iPhone 4 took a temporary backseat) for work and leisure. You've already read our rather positive hands-on with the Galaxy Note, now let's dig deeper and see whether the Galaxy Note is a welcome companion or a bust, shall we?

Still A Two-Handed Affair

Thin, light and actually pocketable, the Galaxy Note managed to surprise me despite its enormous size during my first day of use. Its 1280x800 Super AMOLED screen pulled me in with such intensity that I almost let its sleek design convince me it wouldn't impede my demanding connected lifestyle.

It may be worth noting that I have somewhat small hands and an iPhone 4/Nokia Lumia 800 seems to be the perfect sized devices for one-handed use. A Galaxy Nexus' 4.65-inch screen is pushing it, but still holdable and usable with one hand. Meanwhile, a Galaxy Note's massive size practically begged to fall out of my palm. It's harder to hold in one hand and navigating around with one thumb is tougher than with other smartphones.

Simply put: the Galaxy Note is best used with two hands — for most people. Gripping it with both hands feels more akin to handling a Game Boy than it does to using a smartphone. Calling with the Galaxy Note held up to your head felt embarrassing and did garner a few "WTF is that thing?" looks. And as you'd expect, typing in landscape mode requires you to really reach with your thumbs for those keys in the center of the virtual keyboard.

After three weeks, I was able to adjust to using two hands to keep the Galaxy Note from falling and shattering its screen, but it still annoyed me every single time.

Using A Stylus Is Still A Hassle

When I first started using the Galaxy Note three weeks ago, I was skeptical as to how often I would reach for the stylus, especially since the Galaxy Note's capacitative screen worked just as well with fingers. The S Pen might be built with Wacom technology and have some neat pressure-sensitive pen abilities, but it's still an extra step between me, my apps and all the crazy Tumblrs on the Internet that I look at on a daily basis.

For a person who actually likes collaging and scrapbooking little snippets of images and combining them with doodles and notes, the Galaxy Note felt like a wonderful dream machine.

As a reporter, it's vital that I always have a small notebook for taking notes at all times. Since I let the Galaxy Note into my life, the stylus has only served to slow my workflow down. I found that tucking the S Pen into the bottom of the device seemed to hinder the speed at which I got directly to the S Memo.

I tried setting my Moleskine aside and going all digital, but every single time (like during the recent Toy Fair, for instance), it always felt like more steps and more work than whipping out a paper notebook and ballpoint pen. I wouldn't have minded if all the notes I managed to scribble didn't come out looking like chicken scratch (you have to be fast as a reporter) — and I've got some pretty decent penmanship, believe it or not.

In the first two weeks, I made every effort to reach for the stylus and not use my finger, but my inner laziness eventually caught up as I got bored of making cutesy notes and emailing them as attachments for nobody to appreciate after about a week. The Galaxy Note's S Pen gimmick definitely wears off really fast.

It's not even as if I've never used a stylus-only gadgets before, either. I've used stylus-only touchscreen devices aplenty (I used to own a Sony Clié, which was like a Palm Pilot clone), but that was only because finger-recognition technology was so primitive and inaccurate back then. With significant advances in capacitative screen technology, the stylus is better off remaining fossilized, a relic of the the past and a stepping stone to today's multitouch advancements.

Long-lasting Battery To Keep 4G LTE In Check

Just from the sheer size of the Galaxy Note, it's only natural for it to have a large battery. The 2500 mAh rechargeable battery isn't the biggest out there (Motorola's Droid RAZER MAXX takes the prize with a monstrous 3300mAh battery), but it's more than enough for power users.

I've complained about 4G LTE battery life being awful on many recent smartphones, and I was delighted to see the Galaxy Note put in a good day's worth of work and then a little overtime. With the Galaxy Note set to about 75 percent brightness, 4G LTE on, while using it all day for browsing the Web, taking a handful of photos, jotting down useless notes and streaming a few YouTube videos, the Galaxy Note had more than enough juice to last slightly over an entire work day before requiring me to shove a charging cable in its caboose.

Numerically speaking, I'm talking about somewhere between eight to nine hours. This is how you do 4G LTE right — with a fat battery that doesn't die before lunch time.

Should I Sell My Soul To AT&T For This?

The quick answer is no. When I was briefed on the Galaxy Note three weeks ago, a Samsung representative told me the smartphone (it's not a mini tablet, it's a smartphone) was created because of the growing demand for larger screens. True, while smartphone screens only seem to get sharper and larger every year, it's not what people really need.

A smartphone with a 720p screen that's 4.3-inches, 4.5-inches or 4.7-inches still looks every bit as superb as a 5.3-inch Galaxy Note. Those same smartphones with 4G LTE are still going to be just as fast, too. You won't find many 4G LTE smartphones with outstanding battery life, but that's only a matter of battery evolution. Once batteries can become smaller while cramming in more juice, that point will be moot.

AT&T is selling the Galaxy Note for $300 with a two-year contract (you need to sign up for a voice plan) in Carbon Blue (that's right, the Galaxy Note you see in this review is actually a really dark blue) and Ceramic White. Unless you've been clamoring for the return of the stylus or have Shaq-sized hands, you won't miss much by not buying the Galaxy Note. If anything, you'll probably save yourself a lot of clueless stares in public. There's a fine line between large and excessive. The Galaxy Note is the latter.

All photos taken by Raymond Wong for DVICE.

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