Samsung Galaxy Note: Large, Not In Charge

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With its new Galaxy Note phone, Samsung has crafted a conversation piece. But I doubt the company will appreciate the chatter this plus-sized phone sparked when I showed it off over the past week.

Laughter was a common reaction, alternating with what-is-that-thing? confusion. Wrote one iPhone-using pal afterwards: "That monster phone was hideous."

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The Galaxy Note, $299.99 with a two-year contract on AT&T, stands out for its enormous dimensions. This Android phone's 5.3-in. display makes it the biggest phone on the market, larger even than some tablets.

Too big? On one hand, you could say that's not necessarily so. A review unit loaned by AT&T comfortably fit in standard jeans, shirt and jacket pockets, not to mention my wife's tiny evening purse.

But on the other hand — make that, in the other hand, as seen above — the Note is objectively too bulky. I had to stretch my right thumb to hit the menu button at the bottom left of its screen, and reaching the letter/number shift key on its onscreen keyboard required splaying my thumb even farther from my fingers.

This was not a matter of "you need time to get used to the phone." Wielding this thing one-handed was physically awkward and sometimes painful.

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I don't know what problem Samsung wanted to solve with an expanse of glass that makes the 4.65-in. display on its otherwise giant Galaxy Nexus look compact. Everyday tasks like Web browsing and photo viewing don't feel that much better; being able to see an extra row of application icons is not a sufficient reward.

Nor is the option of pen input. Samsung's "S-Pen," hidden in the Note's lower right corner, could allow for finer input in drawing and other graphic apps. But that potential goes squandered in early releases like Samsung's S-Memo, which ignores varying pressure applied to the pen to draw every line at the same weight. It's like doodling with a Magic Marker.

Something like this might have worked as an in-between, data-only complement to a smaller phone; think of it as an iPad in your pocket, or an iPod touch you could stand to watch an entire movie on.

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Instead, the Note positions itself as a rival to other smart phones. It can't win that fight. Its software is unremarkable, with the usual excess of bloatware; the 2.3 release of Android onboard is obsolete, but AT&T hasn't said when it will ship a promised update to the 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" version.

The Note also costs $100 more than most other Android phones while delivering worse standby battery life than almost all of them: After 24 hours idling, one of my usual tests, it was down to 37 percent of a charge.

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Somehow, though, the Note lasted 6 hours and 14 minutes while playing Pandora Web radio with that huge screen kept on full-time. That's impressive, especially considering its battery-hogging 4G LTE support. I can only imagine how much better that figure could have been with fewer square inches of display to illuminate.

Look, not every new phone needs to satisfy every subscriber. It's okay to build for niche use cases. But that doesn't explain why Samsung has put so much marketing effort behind this, up to and including a bizarre Super Bowl commercial that had users cackling. Did somebody there lose a bet?

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery