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
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.

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