How the Samsung Galaxy Note fares as a mini-tablet

The smartphone's large, high-resolution display invites users to think of it as a petite tablet, but it doesn't quite achieve that status.

Samsung Galaxy Note

Samsung Galaxy Note

Samsung's own advertising poses the question of whether the new Galaxy Note is a phone or tablet. And punlike portmanteaus like "phablet" aside, the question is surprisingly pertinent. I've long regarded the 5-inch class display as a potential alternative to the larger 7-inch and 10-inch tablets that have been soaking up all of the attention of tablet makers, but Dell's Streak 5--a previous attempt at a 5-inch phone/mini-tablet--failed to wow. The Galaxy Note, on the other hand, impresses in many ways, though its usability is clearly hampered by the lack of a truly tablet-optimized operating system, and by its indifferent display.

PCWorld's Galaxy Note review by my colleague Ginny Mies covers many of the smartphone's merits--including its appealing stylus-like S Pen--in detail. Meanwhile, I tried to use the Galaxy Note in place of a tablet, to see how satisfactory the experience was. Ultimately, I came away with a mixed impression.

The Galaxy Note's Strengths--and Weaknesses

As a handheld device, with a 5.3-inch display, the Galaxy Note can be unobtrusive and discreet, yet highly functional. Its light weight and balanced form makes it convenient for holding in one hand while reading ebooks on the high-resolution 1280-by-800-pixel display.

Unfortunately, the display proved to be as much a weakness as a strength. In the native browser, Web pages display better as "mobile" pages than as full-fledged website pages. And content creation feels much more constrained on a 5.3-inch display than on a 10.1-inch screen: You can't get a lot of page onto the screen while writing a document in Polaris Office, for example. Some Galaxy Note features--such as enhanced VPN connectivity and hardware encryption--seem especially well-suited for business use. In general, when road warriors use of the Note tablet-style, they'll probably focus on email and in-a-pinch document manipulation.

My assessment of the Galaxy Note comes after having spent countless hours with competing 7-inch and 10-inch Android tablets, the vast majority of which run Google's Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) tablet-optimized OS. The Galaxy Note's operational frustrations seem endemic to Android 2.2 (Froyo) and 2.3 (Gingerbread) tablets, such as the original Galaxy Tab: Shortcomings include relatively poorly implemented multitasking, cumbersome navigation, and an annoying Web browser. (Samsung's custom TouchWiz overlay improves on a few of Gingerbread's weaknesses.) In contrast, despite their own imperfections, Android 3.0 and 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) feel elegant and well-executed on tablets' larger displays.

But the Galaxy Note is not one of those larger displays. And its smaller display size affects not just its overall usability and navigation, but the user's experience with apps, too.

The Android Market appeared a bit confused with regard to the Galaxy Note; though it offered no option for downloading "tablet" apps, I could see Honeycomb tablet-optimized versions of apps in searches, and I even downloaded a few of them successfully--or sort of successfully, anyway. PressReader for Honeycomb downloaded, but it crashed when I opened it; and the News Republic for Tablet downloaded, but then suggested when I opened it that I download a more suitable version for my "tablet"--before referring me to the smartphone version of the app in the Android Market. The News Republic app worked, sort of, but it couldn't resize properly for Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch display.

So even though labeling the Galaxy Note as a "mini-tablet" is tempting, the device simply isn't yet ready for that status. To what extent this state of affairs may change with the promised (eventual) Android 4.0 update is unclear, too. Already, I've seen apps offered in the Android Market that warn against a one-size-fits-all Android 4.0 app version; instead, the people behind these apps argue that smartphones and tablets need different versions, each optimized for a different set of screen sizes. If developers continue in this vein, Android 4.0-compatible apps may not become as unified as Google hopes they will, and a tweener-size phone/tablet may continue to be lost in the crowd, regardless of the OS installed on it.

The app part of the equation will be the hardest of the tablet-specific components for devices like the Galaxy Note to crack. The 5-inch-class display is roomy, but it's not big enough for the split-screen layouts that tablet-optimized apps commonly use. As a result, you may be left with the feeling that you're using your apps on a ginormous smartphone--which is precisely what you're doing.

Where, exactly, does the Galaxy Note fit in the pantheon of shiny slabs with touch displays? Considering that the Galaxy Note is exclusively available in the United States via AT&T's 4G LTE network, the question may be moot. With no Wi-Fi-only variant available, you're likely to buy the Galaxy Note only if you want it as a phone, and not a tablet with a data plan. The app question further solidifies the Galaxy Note's position as generous-size phone. It might work well for tablet shoppers who want a mostly pocketable device good for midscreen ebook reading and media playback, but its less than optimal for other tablet uses.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Melissa J. Perenson

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?