Samsung Galaxy Note: anything but a ‘me too’ device

Samsung’s Galaxy Note is a mobile device without a clear identity, and while that may be a detriment in most cases, it seems to be the Note’s most enduring and intriguing element.

The Galaxy Note’s two key standouts – the 5.3-inch Super AMOLED display and the stylus, or “S-Pen” – combine to make it anything but a “me too” device. The screen size places it squarely in the middle of being a smartphone or tablet, while the S-Pen offers another input option that could prove more useful to business users than consumers.

Before delving further into those two particular features, first the specs. The Note is no slouch when it comes to power, running on a 1.4 GHz dual-core ARM chip with LTE connectivity and Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread. Samsung has indicated that the Note should be upgradeable to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich at some point this year, but wouldn’t confirm timing. There is 16GB of internal storage that can be augmented by the microSD card slot (a 2GB card comes with the phone, but the slot can support up to 32GB). An 8-megapixel rear camera is coupled with a front-facing 2-megapixel camera, the latter of which can capture video in 1080p HD. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, assisted GPS and the typical array of sensors round out the specs.

The Palm Pilot references are too easy with this device, but Samsung is pushing the notion that the technology between the two is miles apart. The recent Super Bowl commercial made little reference to the Note’s big screen, focusing instead on the S-Pen.

The decision prompted no shortage of mockery on the Web that likely didn’t go unnoticed by Samsung, which is trying to make a point that might be better intended for an audience that actually sees a need for the stylus.

Unlike the styluses of bygone eras, the S-Pen is more intuitive. On the side of the S-Pen is a button that when held down, captures a screenshot of whatever is displayed. This can be anything from a document, photo, video still, app, game, you name it. From there, you can jot down notes, circle important items or scribble what you want on the image, and then save it and immediately share it with a contact over e-mail, multimedia messaging, Bluetooth, Picasa or Samsung’s proprietary AllShare platform.

Alternatively, you can move the image to the S Memo app and include it as part of a wider note you compose. The S Memo app is where most of the S-Pen input will take place because it’s basically a blank canvas. You can import the image, add a screen grab of a map, and paste text as if it were a bulletin board. Jot down a quick note and you can send that combined image to anyone. Even in the case of a large PowerPoint presentation you’re editing, you might not want to send it back in its entirety because of its sheer size. Capture the screen shot of the page you’re editing with your notes and send that alone instead.

For business users who need to vet documents or mash different pieces together, this can prove valuable as a time-saving solution. Using the pen to write legible notes depends partly on getting used to the pen, and whether your normal cursive writing is better than chicken scratch. S-Pen recognizes 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, but this is likely to be lost on you as you go along. Trying to make a line thicker or thinner is more of a trial and error process. Double-tap the pen icon in the S Memo app and you can adjust the intensity and thickness, plus choosing between a ballpoint pen, pencil, brush or marker.

There is an S-Pen app on the phone that shows you which apps are optimized to work with the pen, including third-party ones, since Samsung has opened it up to all developers.

But focusing on the pen loses sight of the other, if not more integral, feature of the device – the big 5.3-inch screen. In a word, the display is gorgeous. It’s bright, vibrant, crisp and elegant. Watching a video, playing a game and browsing the Web are all great experiences because the extra screen real estate puts so much more on a page. The 180-degree viewing angle is both a blessing and a curse, however. Being so big, it’s not all that difficult for someone next to you to see what you’re doing on the phone, except it’s probably no different than the level of privacy afforded one using a tablet.

Keeping in mind that this is almost twice the size of the iPhone’s screen, and only 1.7-inches smaller than a BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, you immediately realize that this device is very much a hybrid of sorts.

If you’re wondering whether you might stand out a little when putting the Note to your ear for a call, you would be right. The Note may be light, but its hefty form factor during calls almost conjures up memories of the Motorola bricks from the 1980s. Still, this is just one of those things you aren’t likely to care much about anyway.

As for battery life, the Note stacks up fairly well, and should last a day on a charge, but the LTE connection is easily the biggest drain. The speed is exceptional and on a device like this, it makes a huge difference in sending and receiving data, but it can come at a cost of battery life if you’re having a busy day going back and forth.

The bottom line here is that the S-Pen, as cool as it may be in certain cases, is still a niche value proposition. Whereas it may be completely hit or miss with consumers, business users looking to shed a mobile device from their road warrior travels might look at the Note as a mediating option.

Either way, it’s best to look at this device for the screen size first, and the S-Pen second, because its portability is not going to be the same as a typical smartphone, and it’s not fair to compare it completely to a tablet, either. It’s an interesting hybrid mobile device that at least doesn’t come across as just another “me too” phone.

The Galaxy Note is launching on February 14 with Rogers, Bell and Telus, and is expected to sell for $199.99 on a three-year contract.

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