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?

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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.)

S Pen
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.

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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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