Samsung Galaxy Note: Is a bigger smartphone better?

The Samsung Galaxy Note (second from left) with (from left) Kindle Fire, iPad, iPhone 4. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)

Is it a honkin' phone? Is it an itty-bitty tablet? Is it something in between – say, a "phablet"?

After a few days of testing T-Mobile's new version of the Samsung Galaxy Note, the biggest question I have is a different one: Does it represent a niche that many will embrace, or is it destined to become the tech world's fabled missing link?

The Note's biggest plus – its 5.3-inch screen – will, for some people, measure up to a minus. For now, I'm torn about where I land. You'll have to decide for yourself, but perhaps a few details beyond the obvious will help you get started.

The Note – $200 with a two-year contract, and rumored to be followed soon by a slightly larger Galaxy Note II – is just the latest in a series of devices that aim to fill a gap that itself is the product of invention.

First, there was ... oops, even a simple chronology is suddenly tricky territory. As you've surely heard, Samsung is locked in a set of bitter patent fights with Apple – a battle that pits the world's largest handset maker against the manufacturer of the iPhone, the single most popular handset.

To hear Apple's lawyers tell it, many of the features that make Samsung's line of Galaxy smartphones and tablets so functional and attractive – even their rounded corners – were dreamt up by the designers in Cupertino or by Steve Jobs himself.

I won't predict the outcome. The South Korean electronics giant is fighting back, partly by arguing that Apple borrowed some of its creations, too, and that both companies have cribbed ideas from other companies, such as Sony, that were already in the public domain.

Still, it's impossible to explain where the Galaxy Note fits in without talking about Apple. So let's just stipulate: I'm not taking sides.

Five years ago, Apple essentially invented the smartphone niche with its wildly successful iPhone. Though there are lots of complicating details, it pretty much did the same with the tablet market in 2010, with the wildly successful iPad. But there was lots of room between and around those two devices. And Samsung is hardly alone in trying to cover open bases.

Samsung has sandwiched the 9.7-inch iPad with tablets as small as 7 inches and as large as 10.1 inches – and even a 12-inch version has been reported. Last year, Amazon and Barnes & Noble branched out beyond their e-readers to enter the 7-inch-tablet fray. And companies such as LG and HTC have tried their hands with hybrids in the 5-inch range.

By February, when Samsung began offering the Note through AT&T after an overseas launch, PC magazine writer Sascha Segan was already calling the Note "the most successful phablet ever."

So far, it's a small field. Here are some of the Note's, um, noteworthy features:

The "S Pen" stylus. Built into the phone to make it harder to misplace, the S Pen will remind some old hands of their Palm Pilots. But it's more than just an alternative input device for the keyboard-weary.

For instance, the S Pen enables users to write the e-version of handwritten notes, and to send them electronically or print them for snail mail. With built-in software, you can annotate documents or share brainstorming sessions that once might have been documented on the fabled back of an envelope or napkin.

"The days of the cocktail-napkin idea are gone. Now it's the Galaxy Note idea," says T-Mobile product specialist Desmond Smith.

The huge screen. At 5.3 inches diagonally, it's half an inch larger than Samsung's large Galaxy S III smartphone. Alongside the Note, the 3.5-inch iPhone 4S looks almost puny, and no wonder. The Note has more than twice the total screen real estate.

It may not match the pixel density of Apple's "Retina display," but the Note's active-matrix LED screen – "HD Super AMOLED," in Samsung's terms – seemed plenty sharp in tests that ranged from apps, games, and e-mail to watching Netflix TV on a treadmill. I wouldn't swap my iPad for entertainment use, but the extra screen size matters even against a sharper-screen iPhone.

WiFi calling. T-Mobile's Note comes loaded with one of the fourth-place carrier's special features, which allows you to make seamless Internet calls when cellular signal is weak.

The Note also comes with a mobile hot spot feature for when broadband service is unavailable. But be warned: Although T-Mobile doesn't cap mobile data or charge overage fees, it will throttle you down to 2G speeds if you surpass your monthly allotment.

Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich." With last month's release of Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," this is no longer the latest version of Google's open-source operating system – yet another rival technology that prompted Apple's accusations of copycatting. But it's an impressive all-round platform, and is understandably giving Apple's iOS a run for its money.

The bottom line? A phablet may be right for you, even if it's too big for my taste. That's why the god of flavors didn't stop at vanilla and chocolate, right?

And if Apple, as rumored, comes out next month with a larger iPhone, mini-iPad, or both, we'll see that imitation is a two-way street.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or