capsule review

Samsung Galaxy Note for T-Mobile Review: Different, but Not for Everyone

At a Glance
  • Samsung Galaxy Note (T-Mobile)

    PCWorld Rating

    Not much has changed with the Galaxy Note for T-Mobile, but it ships with Ice Cream Sandwich and is slightly less expensive than the AT&T version.

S Memo on the Galaxy Note for T-Mobile.
The Samsung Galaxy Note ($200 with a two-year contract on T-Mobile; price as of July 30, 2012) came out on AT&T initially, but now T-Mobile customers get a chance to experience the phone-tablet hybrid sensation. With a 5.3-inch display, the Galaxy Note certainly isn’t for everyone, but its unique accompanying pen, which is a far cry from the pens accompanying the capacitive PDAs of yore, works quite well with the user interface. On T-Mobile, not much has changed from the AT&T version except for the fact that it runs on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network and has a few T-Mobile-branded apps preloaded. But with the Galaxy Note 2 rumored to come out next month, the Galaxy Note might be a hard sell.

(Editor’s Note: The Software, Display and some of the Design sections of this review were taken from the AT&T review, as the phones are almost identical.)

Tablet, Phone, or 'Phablet'?

The Galaxy Note’s 5.3-inch display puts the Note in an interesting spot between a phone and a tablet. I have to say, however, that it feels a little silly to hold something of this size up to your face and make a phone call. It is light enough, but I found it a bit too wide for my hands, feeling uncomfortable and unwieldy at times. The Galaxy Note measures 5.78 by 3.27 by 0.38 inches, and weighs 6.28 ounces.

The Note has the typical touch-sensitive navigation buttons below the display (Menu, Home, Back, Search), plus a volume rocker and a power button. On the bottom of the Note, you’ll find the slot for the S Pen (which I’ll cover soon).

The Note’s aesthetic is pretty similar to that of the Samsung Galaxy S II phones (though larger), with a rectangular shape, a piano-black bezel, chrome piping, and a textured “carbon blue” battery cover.

HD Super AMOLED Display

The Galaxy Note’s 5.3-inch display has a 1280-by-800-pixel resolution. The technology is HD Super AMOLED, not to be confused with Super AMOLED Plus, which we saw on the Samsung Galaxy S II line of phones. This is the same display technology as on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. As I noted in my review of the Galaxy Nexus, HD Super AMOLED is based on the PenTile pixel structure, in which pixels share subpixels. Galaxy S II phones, on the other hand, have full RGB displays, in which the pixels each have their own subpixels. In comparison with Super AMOLED Plus displays, HD Super AMOLED displays supposedly have a lower overall subpixel density, reduced sharpness, and degraded color accuracy.

When I reviewed the Galaxy Nexus, I noted that I couldn’t really see a difference in sharpness between the two different display types. The Galaxy Note also handled image and text rendering well, producing sharp, clear text and details on both Web pages and high-resolution images. I noticed a touch of degradation on higher-resolution images, particularly when I zoomed in, but the image quality definitely looked better than on some other phones and tablets we’ve seen.

The main problem I have with the display is that the colors are oversaturated. Additionally, skin tones look ruddy, and whites have a slight yellowish tint. Oversaturation is a common problem among AMOLED displays, Samsung-made or not. Still, it isn’t always a bad thing: Colors on the Note look rich and bright, while blacks are deep.

Using the S Pen

The Galaxy Note includes a Wacom-made S Pen for note-taking and drawing. And as I mentioned earlier, the S Pen is very different from the old styluses you might remember. Wacom pens recognize both right-handed and left-handed users, and the S Pen also mimics the act of physically taking notes: The harder you press the pen on the Note, the thicker and bolder your lines will be.

As of July 10, the Note was upgraded to Android 4.0, "Ice Cream Sandwich," with a version of TouchWiz that's similar to the one on the Galaxy S II line of phones. As you might expect, the Galaxy Note also has built-in software and special gestures for the pen.

One handy app, called S Memo Lite, lets you jot down notes from pretty much anywhere in the phone. To pull up the S Memo Lite app, you hold down the button on the pen, and double tap on the display. If you have another app open, the notepad appears on top of it, allowing you to switch back to it easily.

A fuller version of S Memo, S Note Premium Suite, is accessible from the apps menu. In this app, you can add color to your drawing or text, or insert pictures (either via your gallery or from the provided clip art) and shapes.

S Note Premium Suite ships on the Galaxy Note for T-Mobile.
In Premium Suite, you can now choose from seven different templates: Note, Meeting Note, Idea Note, Magazine, Diary, Recipe, and Travel. These templates let you easily add images, video, maps, and text for whatever you feel like creating in S Note. You can also now record and play back step-by-step details of your drawings and share it with others. While this feature is cool, I don’t really see the purpose of it. I suppose if you want to show somebody step-by-step directions on a map or the like, it could be useful.

Premium Suite also has an automatic shape correction feature, which will straighten any lines and create perfect circles or rectangles. That seems useful for drawing flow charts on the fly. You can also enter basic mathematical equations, and S Note will solve them for you via Wolphram Alpha.

You can also take screenshots by pressing and holding the pen to whatever item you want to capture. Your shot then opens in a simple photo-editing app that lets you crop the screenshot in either lasso or rectangle mode.

Writing on the Galaxy Note takes some getting used to. At first, I was appalled at how horrible my handwriting looked. Once I got the hang of using the pen, though, I started to enjoy it. As somebody who is constantly doodling and prefers writing down notes to typing them, I liked being able to jot down ideas or reminders. Also, the keyboard has a pen mode that will convert your handwriting into text. I thought it did a pretty good job of recognizing my handwriting, though a few times, it misinterpreted what I was trying to write.

Pen gestures involve a learning curve, as well. To go “back,” you hold down the pen’s button and swipe to the left. To go to the home screen, you drag the pen from top to bottom while pressing the pen button. And if you want to open Menus, you swipe from bottom to top while pressing the button. Once you get accustomed to relying on the pen rather than on the hardware buttons, navigating the Note is a breeze. You can, of course, use the hardware buttons at any time if you don’t like the pen gestures.

If the S Pen feels too wimpy (or gives you horrible flashbacks of your capacitive-touch Windows Mobile phone), you can invest in the S Pen Holder Kit (sold separately). The accessory is basically a standard writing-pen shell for the S Pen, complete with a pocket clip.

Pen-Friendly Apps and Other Software

The Galaxy Note home screen.
The selection of pen-friendly apps feels a bit anemic. Samsung says that the SDK for the Galaxy Note and S Pen will be available to developers soon (though the company doesn’t specify when). I see a lot of potential for creative programs and productivity apps, as well as games that incorporate the S Pen (think Nintendo DS-style games).

Right now, the included apps for pen mode are Polaris Office, S Memo, and a game called Crayon Physics. Polaris Office lets you create documents, spreadsheets, and slideshow presentations. You can insert drawings or screenshots in a presentation, or use the pen to insert text. Crayon Physics is a cute game in which you draw objects to move a ball from point A to point B.

This version of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface has a few interesting features, including resizable widgets for the home screen and a revamped calendar app. The calendar app takes advantage of the larger display, presenting a tabbed interface that lets you view the whole year, a week, a month, three days, or a day, or whatever.

You’ll also get a new app called My Story, which lets you create multimedia letters and cards. As far as I can tell, you can share these notes only with other people who also have the My Story app—basically fellow Galaxy phone owners.

Of course, you also get a slew of T-Mobile-branded apps including Bobsled Messaging, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, and a suite of apps called T-Mobile 4G Pro App Pack. This is essentially a curated list of productivity apps (like Evernote, Dropbox, Square, and so on) with links to those apps in the Google Play Store.

Performance

The U.S. Galaxy Note is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S3 processor. (The European version, on the other hand, has a 1.4GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos processor.) I tested a few graphics-heavy games on the Note, including Osmos HD and World of Goo. Both ran smoothly, without any glitches, and looked terrific on the Note’s large display. Video also ran flawlessly, without any issues.

I ran a few benchmarks on the Galaxy Note, including the third-party Android app Andebench. Andebench measures CPU and Dalvik (the virtual machine in Android that runs many of the operating system’s core functions) interpreter performance. The Galaxy Note got a score of 2469. By comparison, the Galaxy S III on T-Mobile got a significantly higher score of 5109. On Sunspider, which tests Javascript performance in the browser, the Galaxy Note got a score of 2.6 seconds, while the Galaxy S III on T-Mobile was faster with a score of 1.91 seconds.

After using so many phones with Qualcomm’s newer, faster S4 chip (the Galaxy S III, the HTC One X and the Motorola Atrix HD), I though the Galaxy Note felt a little poky. Native apps, like the S Note and S Memo apps, lagged a bit when I tried to launch them. It isn’t all that noticeable, but it does illustrate that the Galaxy Note is a bit dated.

I also ran the FCC-approved Ookla app to test the Galaxy Note’s data speeds over T-Mobile’s 4G HSPA+ network in San Francisco. In my neighborhood, I got an average download speed of 6.92 and an average upload speed of 1.04. We’ve seen faster speeds over T-Mobile’s 4G network in other parts of the city, however. For comparison, I got an average download speed of 24.64 megabits per second, and an average upload speed of 8.78 mbps on the Galaxy Note over AT&T’s LTE network.

Call quality was good over T-Mobile’s network in San Francisco. My friends’ voices sounded clear over the line with a good amount of volume. My friends reported that my voice came in perfectly—even when I was standing in a highly trafficked area.

We haven’t yet formally tested battery life, but the Galaxy Note lasted through a full day of heavy testing before I had to plug it in again. We’ll update this section once we run our battery tests.

Indoor photo.

Camera

The 8-megapixel camera snapped good pictures, indoors and out. The colors in my indoor and outdoor photos looked accurate, and details appeared sharp. Honestly, though, the phone’s dimensions make it a little awkward to use as a camera. Have you ever tried shooting a photo with a tablet? It just feels strange.

The Galaxy Note can capture HD video at up to 1080p resolution. The device also has a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for making video calls or taking self-portraits.

Outdoor photo.

Bottom Line

The Galaxy Note is a unique phone and unlike anything else we’ve seen in the United States (I say that, though the LG Vu is quite similar, but it's available only in Korea). I like being able to whip the Note out to jot down ideas, and I love being able to doodle during a meeting or while riding the bus. But is the Galaxy Note on T-Mobile outdated? The Galaxy Note came to the United States back in February, but it debuted internationally almost a year ago at the IFA Conference in Berlin. With rumors of the Galaxy Note 2 coming out at this year’s IFA next month, this older version might be a hard sell. Even so, we likely won’t see the Galaxy Note 2 in the United States until next year. The Galaxy Note is a perfectly good phone for T-Mobile customers itching to try out this phablet wonder.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Not much has changed with the Galaxy Note for T-Mobile, but it ships with Ice Cream Sandwich and is slightly less expensive than the AT&T version.

    Pros

    • Large screen is great for multimedia
    • S Pen works well
    • Pen makes it different from any phone

    Cons

    • Design isn't for everyone
    • A bit outdated
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