Samsung Galaxy Note Bridges Gap Between Tablet, Smartphone

Edward C. Baig, USA Today
The Galaxy Note smartphone is displayed at the Samsung booth at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center January 10, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Getty Images

It's a tablet. It's a smartphone. It's a phablet.

Samsung's new Galaxy Note is hard to pigeonhole. It resembles an oversize smartphone or an undersized tablet. Now throw in the fact that a key feature is a stylus-like pen —Palm Pilot redux? — and you're left wondering what gives.

For the record, Samsung positions Galaxy Note as a "super phone," one that goes beyond the usual multimedia and smartphoning capabilities and will also let you write and sketch as if you were using pen and paper.

The South Korean electronics giant insists Galaxy Note is a "mainstream product." To help get that message across, Samsung ran a commercial for Galaxy Note during the Super Bowl. My take, though, after a few days of testing, is that it will likely have more niche appeal than anything, especially at $299.99 with a two-year AT&T contract. The handset, already available overseas, hits AT&T, Best Buy and other stores Sunday.

Hybrid devices haven't exactly fared well in the U.S., as Dell found out with the ill-fated Dell Streak, a small Android tablet. Despite the odds against Galaxy Note, much of what you find in the device is quite sweet. Its 5.3-inch display (measured diagonally) is gargantuan in comparison with most smartphones, yet the device is thin, good-looking and well-proportioned.

It runs on AT&T's fastest 4G LTE network — now in 28 markets but clearly not in parts of northern New Jersey, where I conducted some tests.

Inside is a powerful dual-core processor and 16 gigabytes of storage, expandable via microSD by 32 GB. It has an impressive rear-facing 8-megapixel autofocus camera that can capture stills and high-definition video, and a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for video chats.

In sizing up the smartphone market, many people already think state-of-the-art screens are plenty big enough, especially in the Android world where Galaxy Note plays. Several Android devices have 4½-inch or so screens. The Apple iPhone's screen is 3.5 inches.

The so-called HD Super Amoled display on Galaxy Note is not only expansive but beautiful, with a resolution of 1280x800 pixels. The payoff comes watching video, playing games, reading e-books or surfing the Web — though I detected unwelcome video artifacts on the screen when watching movies.

Screen size is a balancing act, of course, and some will find the large display ungainly. Holding the phone to your ear might feel a bit dorky. I found it could easily fit in a coat pocket or purse, and surprisingly my front jeans pocket as well. But the size is simply not going to work for everybody. Galaxy Note weighs about 6.5 ounces, heavier than your typical smartphone.

For now it runs Android version 2.3 Gingerbread, though it will be upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich. It's a bummer that it doesn't run the latest version of the operating system from the start.

The phone has a large removable battery providing, Samsung says, standby and talk time of 10.4 days and 10 hours, respectively. I didn't run a formal battery test but got through a day of "normal" mixed use without a problem.

The presence of what Samsung refers to as the S Pen is what gives Galaxy Note its name. Samsung is reluctant to even call the pen a stylus, because it is more capable than the dumb pointers that came with PDAs and early smartphones. Backed by Wacom technology, S Pen features 256 pressure points of sensitivity. It fits snugly into a slot on the bottom of the device; still, I dropped it on a bus and worry about losing it. (A replacement pen costs about $30, or $50 in a holder kit that makes it feel more like a thicker pen.)

The pen is not required to use Galaxy Note, but it's a nice substitute for your finger playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.

If you hold the button on the pen and tap the screen twice, a note-taking app appears. Options within the app let you change the thickness and color of the line you are drawing. You can use an eraser icon to undo your scribbles. This is a "lite" version of a fuller app you can access to store and share memos.

Pressing the pen button and holding the pen against the screen captures a screen grab. An image editor appears and you can draw or crop part of the image and paste the results into an e-mail, text or document.

You can add notes to the documents you create in Polaris Office, a preloaded app. A game called Crayon Physics, also preloaded, has you rolling a ball across the objects you draw. In a ComicBook app I downloaded, you create comics from your own photos and use the pen to create speech bubbles and captions.

The phone incorporates some handwriting recognition, but accuracy is lacking. Samsung says there will be about 20 S Pen capable apps at launch, which is not all that many. But S Pen technology will be opened up to developers.

Galaxy Note grows on you as you get accustomed to its size (and that pen). I suspect, though, it will have a polarizing effect: Some will deem it gimmicky; others will happily take Note.