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Samsung Galaxy Note review

Is the Samsung Galaxy Note a smartphone, a tablet or something else altogether? Find out as we put this five-inch beast to the test in our full review.

Smartphone screen sizes have been on the rise in recent months. 4.3 inches, then 4.7 inches, and now this: the Samsung Galaxy Note’s screen measures a full 5.3 inches from corner to corner.

Whether that makes it a phone, a tablet or something else altogether we’re not so sure. When Dell launched the Streak last year, with a 5” display that device was styled like a tablet, designed to be used by two hands in landscape mode. The Note doesn’t take the same approach.

It looks like a phone – a massive version of the Galaxy S II, in fact – and with its portrait orientation, its earpiece at the top and Android 2.3, complete with shortcut to the dialer permanently placed on the home screen, it feels as though Samsung is telling you to use it as a phone too. Well, we’re not so sure about that either.

The phone looks huge, it feels huge in the hand, and it feels huge in the pocket. It’s unlikely you’ll be making calls on this in public without attracting a few curious looks, and it’s not the kind of device you can sneak out of your pocket for a quick glance at your messages either. For these reasons the Note will be off limits for many users even without considering its many strengths.

The strengths are in three groups. The first is the screen, which is nothing short of spectacular. It’s 5.3 inches, Super AMOLED, with a resolution of 800 x 1280 pixels which amounts to a pixel density of 285ppi. It is stunning for watching videos, reading text, browsing the web, playing games, satnav, whatever. To put is simply, it is as good as any screen we have seen on any smartphone.

Next is general performance. This should be taken for granted on a phone with a 1.4GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, and despite occasional and surprising incidents of lag it was mostly slick and fast. The 8MP camera also impressed both with stills and full HD video. Samsung’s smartphone cameras are becoming reliably excellent these days.

Add in 16GB of storage in our review unit (supplied by Clove), Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, and a 2500mAh battery that surpassed expectations and you’ve got a phone that wants for nothing and delivers in every area.

The third area in which the Galaxy Note stands out is with its inclusion of a stylus. It’s kind of ironic that smartphones have replaced the need for separate electronic gadgets, from cameras to games consoles, but have never been able to replace the humble pen and paper. That is the task that the Note is tackling.

You’ll use the S Pen, as it is called, mostly within the S Memo app. This is a custom designed note-taking app that enables you to record notes and the like using virtually any medium: voice, typing, photos and handwriting and drawing.

In addition you can grab screenshots from within any app, crop them and annotate them, and then share them if you wish. For marking changes to be made on a presentation file, or adding directions to a map, or simply for artistic purposes it is an interesting and useful feature.

There is also a basic handwriting recognition system that converts your scribblings into printed text, although we had little joy with that. Other apps are (and will become) available, and you can discover these using the S Choice app on the device.

The S Pen idea is not dissiimilar to what we saw from HTC’s 7” tablet the Flyer. We’d say it works better here, as the more pocketable form of the Note makes it more practical for use on the go, and unlike the Flyer there is a silo in the Note to house the pen, making it less likely that you’ll lose it, and thus more likely to actually use it.

The S Pen lifts the Note up from being just an outlandishly sized smartphone into something more useful and better thought out. We can’t claim that the Note ever truly replaced a pen and paper during our testing period, but for certain types of user we can see how it would offer real benefits.

The net result of all this is that the Galaxy Note is an outstanding device yet remains one that is curiously hard to recommend. Its size puts it in a class of its own, and it is a truly awesome piece of hardware. Yet at a SIM-free price point that makes it more expensive than any other smartphone and most tablets as well, and a size that may leave you feeling like you still need a second phone so you can leave this behind on a night out, it’s really hard to see precisely where the Note fits in.