No Compromise: Introducing The Galaxy Note

©SamsungThere are phones and there are tablets, and basically the only difference between them is size. But that difference is not trivial. Far from it; in mobile technology, form factor is everything. Difference in size means difference in purpose. A tablet is as big as is comfortable to use for ‘media consumption’ on the couch, a phone as small and portable as it can be while remaining usable. Anything intermediate is a compromise that falls between stools. Such is contemporary design wisdom.

And it’s wrong. People use their phones more and more for browsing, reading, viewing media and playing games. All else being equal, these will always be better on a bigger screen. So it’s very arguable that the best portable device is the biggest one you can comfortably carry. How big is that though, exactly?

Bigger than you might expect. Samsung‘s view – and I tend to agree with them – is that the upper threshold is what you can easily get in and out of an ordinary jeans pocket (video). In most ways, their new Galaxy Note is just an upgraded version of their popular Galaxy S II. What sets it apart is its simply humongous 5.3″ screen, surely as big as a mobile phone can get and still remain mobile. That’s not a compromise, that’s pushing an idea to its extreme. Seen this way it’s the recent generation of 7″ Android tablets that fell between two stools – smaller than the iPad, but not small enough to be truly portable.

Some reviewers have worried about looking foolish, holding such a large device up to the face. Well yes, maybe this is not the phone for the overly self-conscious. But I suspect it will attract more glances of interest, even envy, than amusement. It’s not merely the size of the screen that makes it stand out. With its resolution of 1280 x 800 – higher than the iPad – and luxuriant saturated AMOLED colours, it’s gaining a reputation as one of the most beautiful ever seen on a mobile device.

©SamsungBut the controversies only begin with the Note’s size. There’s also that pen. How can the addition of an input device somehow be a fault? For this we can blame Steve Jobs. Making a dig at the original Windows Mobile, he said “if you see a stylus, they blew it.” He was wrong too though. If you need a stylus they blew it, sure. Poking at tiny icons with a stick is not cool. But the Note has a touch interface as good as any of its rivals. More than one review has seemed almost to take offence at this. If you don’t need the pen to use the phone, what’s it doing there?

For sure, it would still be a fabulous device without it. You could use the Note merely as a huge-screened Web browser, HD video player and camera, e-book reader, satnav, tablet, gaming device etc. without ever withdrawing the pen from its bay. But for others – myself included – that pen is precisely the reason why we’ll be giving our money to Samsung. This is no plastic stylus. An advanced, sensitive pen would be a brilliant complement to a device big enough to use like a notebook. And once again Samsung has not cut any corners, using gold-standard technology from Wacom, makers of the Intuos and Cintiq tablets found in graphics studios worldwide. The sketching, annotation and handwriting possibilities this “S-Pen” adds put the Galaxy Note into a league of its own. Or would, if its screen hadn’t already.

It may not be on its own much longer though. It’s being joined by a rival product from fellow Koreans LG. Their Optimus Vu will have comparable dimensions and also comes equipped with a pen – rejoicing in the name “Rubberdium”. (No clues as to what the technology is yet, but they describe it as dedicated so it is probably an active device.) And it may be far from the last. The fourth iteration of Android, with its ability to scale to different screen sizes and its inbuilt support for pens, seems tailor-made for devices like this. (The Note does not actually have Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but will get it as soon as it’s ready – possibly next month.) With these features clearly part of Google’s vision, will we be seeing a phablet from Motorola next?

I hope so for the sake of diversity, but speaking for myself it’s hard to imagination any device in the near future improving on the Galaxy Note. Wacom technology appearing on a phone is a long-held dream I seriously thought would never come true. So I want to use this more than any device I’ve seen in nearly ten years. And frustratingly, about anywhere in the world seems to be getting the Note before Ireland. Vodafone has at least have confirmed they will be carrying it though. No details on pricing yet, but if you want you can register your interest here and get notified as soon as it goes on sale.

Just one question remains then – what will we call this new class of device? Phablet seems to be catching on, even if some abhor the word. Well, it’s not as bad as tabphone or phoneblet. I have a different suggestion though. We could take a word that technology has made redundant and give it a new job. Let’s call it the Phonebook.


9 thoughts on “No Compromise: Introducing The Galaxy Note

  1. what will we call this new class of device?

    Sketchies. After all, they’re pretty much only useful for people that have sketchy needs. :-p The technology is nice, but it’s also rather niche. Turns out that not everyone is a cartoonist (go figure!).

    The problem with the pen isn’t with the technology. It’s with the fact that you lose it. Unlike fingers. Except if you’re liable to dabble with fireworks and industrial potato peelers. Then again, you will have a hard time using the pen in that case too.


    1. I’ll admit it’s a possibility that you’ll lose your expensive smart pen, but in the bright side, you’ll only do it once.

      (Actually it’s something people imagine is more likely than it really is. It hasn’t happened to me and I’ve been using pen devices for years.)


      1. Maybe not losing styli is an unknown superpower? I, for one, suspect there’s a hidden dimension, right next to the Dimension of Lost Socks, that’s solely inhabited by misplaced palm pilot pens.

        My Sony Reader also came with a stylus. I have no frigging clue where it is (luckily, it will work with a finger too. In fact, a lot of the time, it will even randomly flip pages when you simply look at it the wrong way.)


    1. (Strange sense of déjà vu…)

      It’s Android, so as I guess you know a Linux kernel with apps running in a customised Java machine. As of now it comes with Gingerbread, the current phone version of Android (the tablet-orientated version being Honeycomb), albeit somewhat modified by Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface.

      However it will shortly get Ice Cream Sandwich, which combines the features of both the phone and tablet versions and therefore seems ideal. Only on the new Nexus so far, it should be pushed out to the Note in March.

      Of course as Android is an open source system there isn’t much difficulty to flashing it with modified ROMs of Android, and even enabling a full Linux install.


  2. you can easily get in and out of an ordinary jeans pocket (video).

    The problem with these sizes is that you can’t expect customers to wear loose jeans all the time. The problem is particularly clear when you think of women who want to use a small purse when dressing formal,or anybody doing any sort of manual work where the increasing size of the phone may increase the risk of breaking it by leaning into a counter, lifting something, etc. And then you have to factor in people who’ll put the phone in a case, which makes it bigger but not necessarily less vulnerable to bending forces.

    So yes, the phone is still within the range where it is manageable but I think it’s already losing some utility. I’d say the same that started happening with the previous sizes of smart phones and this particular model is incrementally worse. Flexible screens can’t come soon enough; maybe fold that phone in four.


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