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We've seen smartphone display sizes creep up over the years, but with the introduction of the AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note, it's official: the era of tabletphones is upon us.  On paper, the Samsung Galaxy Note is a powerful companion, with a 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 5.3-inch Super AMOLED HD display with a jaw-dropping 1280x800 pixels, 8-megapixel camera with 1080p HD video recording, 2-megapixel front-facing camera, giant 2,500 mAh battery, and Android 2.3.6 with Samsung's TouchWiz user interface.  It's coming to AT&T on February 19 for $299.99 with a two-year agreement.  Does it properly fuse a tablet form factor with smartphone functionality?


Design & Features

For most, this phone isn't going to fit comfortably in the hand.  It's a huge device that feels as awkward in the hand as you would imagine it to.  If this were a standalone tablet, it would be a different story, but carrying it each and every day as a phone will get cumbersome for many.  AT&T's version trades in the physical home button for the usual four capacitive Menu, Home, Back, and Search buttons that are found on US-based Android handsets.  Continuing on the cosmetic note (pun intended), the AT&T logo can be found just below the earpiece, and "Galaxy Note" is ascribed on the back, just below the 8-megapixel camera.  The volume rocker is located on the left spine, while the power button is on the right side.  The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top, and the microUSB port is centered on the bottom of the unit.  Galaxy Note tips the scales at 6.28 ounces, which, given its "superphone" status, isn't too heavy.

The star feature on this tabletphone is arguably the 5.3-inch Super AMOLED HD display.  It offers 1280x800 pixels, and combined with the AMOLED display, results in gorgeous, crisp colors.  After using the Galaxy Note for a few weeks, I immediately notice a difference when working with other non-HD devices.

Did I mention the Galaxy Note's size?  While I was able to quickly adjust to the size, I haven't been able to shake the unnatural feeling I get when holding the phone up to my ear.  Unless you have gargantuan hands, it's going to be just outside of the comfort zone for one-handed operation.  But my, how people stare.  If you thrive on impromptu conversation with strangers (as I do), the Galaxy Note is a must-have accessory.  In one of many "what is that?" instances, a server at a local restaurant asked for my permission to hold the Note up and poll other patrons on whether it was a phone or tablet (the verdict was mixed, as you'd imagine).  I've had some fun with it.

 

Usability & Performance

The Galaxy Note comes to the States with a 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor in place of Samsung's Exynos chip (due to it not supporting LTE technology).  Typically, I notice a performance difference when comparing Snapdragon to Exynos, though in a rare instance, I've found the reverse to be true here.  So far, the AT&T variant of the Note has performed better than the international build.  Transition effects are incredibly fluid with little to no lag, and pinch-to-zoom works well.

While Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) would be preferred, the Galaxy Note comes to market with Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread) with Samsung's TouchWiz 4.0 user interface.  TouchWiz - and particularly version 4.0 - is an excellent interface that offers a nice level of customization.  Most of the included widgets are customizable, allowing you to place widgets of all shapes and sizes on the seven homescreens.  You'll notice five shortcuts in the dock area, four of which can be reassigned to applications of your liking (the exception is the "Applications" shortcut).



Galaxy Note is a smartphone/tablet hybrid, complete with an input tool that Samsung dubs "S Pen."  With the S Pen comes preinstalled applications like S Memo, which allows you to doodle and jot down notes on the display.  It's a feature that I initially dismissed, but quickly began to use it as I spent more time with the phone.  Precision is impressive, thanks in large part to Wacom's digitizer technology that's built in to the smartphone.  I can see the S Memo app being a useful tool during meetings or in class, though trying to take notes in a serious fashion wielded mixed results for me.  Doing any sort of serious text input requires large, rounded typing, leaving less screen space and resulting in a bunch of separate notes.

Note offers an 8-megapixel camera with 1080p HD video recording capabilities.  Picture quality is quite good across the board, even in low-lit instances.  Editing options include a shooting modes, scene modes, exposure values, focus modes, resolution, white balance, ISO, and more.  The 1080p HD video recording was equally impressive; both video and audio quality work very well.

AT&T's Galaxy Note introduces 4G LTE connectivity, and for those in a market that offers it, it's a nice speed bump from HSPA+.  During my testing in the Charlotte metro area, I've found speeds to be very erratic depending on the area of town and the network traffic in said areas.  In most speed tests in the heart of the city, I achieved download speeds between 6 and 8 Mbps, with upload speeds between 1.5 and 3.2 Mbps.  While visiting some of the neighboring cities within the metro (such as Concord, NC and Matthews, NC), I saw download speeds between 36 and 42 Mbps, with upload speeds between 10 and 16 Mbps.  AT&T's speeds have been mostly strong across the board, but if the Charlotte market is any indication, the company has some work to do in making sure the higher density areas (such as uptown) are covered appropriately.

Note packs a 2,500 mAh battery, and despite the 4G LTE connectivity, it's the second best performing Android device on the market.  For a mobile operating system that's often synonymous with battery drain, the Galaxy Note joins the Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX in offering a much-improved experience.  With moderate to heavy use including Bluetooth calling, text messaging, emailing, browsing the web, downloading/updating apps, taking a few pictures, and use of Google Maps, I've been able to make it roughly 15 hours before the device powered down.  Given the size and resolution of the screen along with the connectivity the Note offers, a full day of use is impressive.


Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy Note is in a class of its own, and while many in the industry - myself included - consider the Note to be a niche device, AT&T disagrees and has committed to giving it full marketing support.  Size aside, the Galaxy Note packs an impressive spec list that any high-end smartphone fan would like, and the S Pen functionality is useful.  But for many, this is a phone that will require two hands to operate effectively, thus diminishing some of the usefulness as a true phone.  Take a look at it in an AT&T store and make sure you can handle the size before committing to two years of service.


Wrap-Up

What's Good: Dual-core Snapdragon processor makes the Note speedy; AT&T 4G LTE connectivity; battery life is great.

What's Bad: The phone will be too large for some; $299.99 price point is a bit on the high side.

The Verdict: Galaxy Note offers a great feature set with battery life that will make other Android users jealous, but the unusual size will be a point of contention for many.


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