Samsung’s line of Galaxy Note smartphones have always been known for their bigness, but over the past couple years Samsung has tried to make them stand out for their phone-ness. The Note is typically way more phone than most people would ever need, both in size and features. Advanced vapor cooling chamber? You are welcome, Samsung intones.
The world’s largest smartphone seller insists that customers around the world just love this thing. I imagine this is true; it’s a certain kind of user who sees a 6.8-inch phone with a tiny matchstick stylus and screams, “Take my money!” And I imagine this will be true with the newest phone, the Galaxy Note10+ as well. It is a great, big phone. It costs $1,100.
There’s also a regular-size Galaxy Note10 as well, one with a 6.3-inch display. Incidentally, that phone is almost the exact same size as the Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphone that was released in February. For some unknown reason—though I suspect it’s a part of Samsung’s product differentiation strategy—the smaller Galaxy Note10 wasn’t available for review this week. With a $950 starting price, the Galaxy Note10 is less expensive than the Galaxy Note10+, and it’s, well, a normal-sized phone. Samsung clearly wanted all of the attention on the giant Galaxy Note10+, at least for a short window of time.
It’s hard not to pay attention to the Galaxy Note10+—its opalescent finish, its quad-lens camera, its unbearable lightness despite its size. Longtime Note lovers will find themselves in love again. For the rest of us, it’s a kind of beautiful overkill.
The device really is gorgeous. One of our photo editors at WIRED (also named Lauren) couldn’t wait to get her hands on it and photograph it. The finish on the loaner phone I have is called Aura Glow; almost all of this year’s Samsung phones have some type of iridescent skin. Of course, the Note10+’s glass-coated, reflective back ensures that everyone will know you’ve had your hands on it. It smudges up faster than a white-walled room full of Crayon-wielding toddlers. But the reflective back also provides a handy way to check for bits of spinach salad in your teeth after lunch.
The aluminum chassis on the Note10+ has harder edges than its cousin, the Galaxy S10. This angular design gives the phone’s appearance more gravity—it means business—but that shouldn’t be conflated with weight. The phone truly feels impossibly light and balanced for its size.
The Note10+ has a 6.8-inch diagonal display. I don’t really need to say it again, and I promise this is the last time, but that is very big. It’s the biggest Galaxy Note display ever, bigger than the iPhone XS Max, bigger than the OnePlus 7 Pro. I would say it’s yuge, but that qualifier just isn’t funny anymore.
This “Dynamic AMOLED” display is brilliant. When you’re swiping and tapping and texting and tweeting and getting sucked into whatever video you’re streaming on the Note10+, you can’t help but notice how nice the display is. It extends nearly edge to edge across the front. And yet, it’s essentially the same display as the one on the older Samsung Galaxy S10. It has a fingerprint sensor built right into the display. (The sensor sadly doesn’t perform flawlessly, but it works most of the time.)
If you look at the bottom edge of the phone, you will notice two things. One is that, like all Galaxy Notes before it, the 10+ has a built-in stylus pen. The other is that, unlike all Galaxy Notes before it, the 10+ does not have a 3.5-mm headphone jack. This sucks. Sometimes the future comes at you fast.
The Galaxy Note10+ runs Android 9 Pie, the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, but Samsung also tries its hardest to push its proprietary apps on you during the setup process. The phone requires you to navigate to the Galaxy Store app for software updates, and it stores your photos in its own Gallery app by default instead of Google Photos. It will also elbow its way into your mobile games by launching its own AI-based Game Booster system. But for the most part, you can sidestep or ignore many of Samsung’s homegrown apps. And thankfully, the overall user interface is remarkably clean, especially when compared to Samsung UI’s of years past.
Everything about running apps—downloading them, switching between them, and performing resource-intensive tasks—is a breeze on this phone. The Note10+ runs on Qualcomm’s newest mobile processor, the Snapdragon 855, which can also support a 5G modem (Samsung is shipping a 5G-compatible version of the Note10+ later this fall). This chip is a 7-nanometer, 64-bit, octa-core processor, and it’s almost more brawn than the average smartphone user needs right now. The phone’s base specs are insane: 12 gigabytes of RAM, with 256 gigabytes of internal storage. You can add more storage, too.
There are so many features packed into the Galaxy Note10+’s camera that you will quite possibly never use them all. Take, for example, super slow-motion video: It’s a great idea in theory, and maybe you’ll capture a couple slow-motion videos of a hummingbird’s wings as it hovers at your feeder before you realize how much space a 960-frame-per-second video takes up on your phone.
Same with Live Focus in video capture, something that’s new and specific to the Galaxy Note10+. A few years ago, smartphone makers started utilizing depth-sensing cameras and software smarts to layer a bokeh effect on still images (some did a better job than others). Samsung is taking that a step further, allowing you to blur out the background while you’re shooting video. I’ve used this exactly once so far, and it blurred out the edges of my editor’s curly hair.
Other photo features are a lot more useful, and they point to a future where every mobile phone’s camera is amazingly smart. The rear of the Note has a combination of an ultrawide 16-megapixel camera, another 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, a 12-megapixel telephoto, and a dedicated depth-sensing camera. The front-facing camera commands its own 10-megapixel sensor. If you go to capture a still image on the beach, as I did last week, the camera is smart enough to not only optimize for the scene, but also suggest that you switch to a wide-angle photo instead. A little prompt appears, pointing you towards this wide-angle option in the camera app. This kind of camera smarts are kind of creepy, but also quite helpful.
Video capture gets a boost, too, on the Galaxy Note10+. “Super Steady” mode relies on software to stabilize video, which I admit I didn’t use while thrashing at the skatepark, but it obviously stabilizes the scene when you switch it on—even with videos shot from moving vehicles. And when you zoom in while capturing video, the phone manages to isolate and boost the audio from the subject you’ve zoomed in on. This works better typically with an unmoving, talking human subject than it does in a less controlled environment or one rich with ambient noise.
And you can even use the S Pen now to capture photos. Ah, yes … the S Pen.
The Write Way
The S Pen is and always has been the big thing that differentiates the Galaxy Note from other comically large smartphones. The usefulness of a stylus on a phone is debatable. And yet, there’s no arguing that it’s at least nice to have for those times when you want to use your giant smartphone as a notepad. And some things on the phone really are more pleasant to navigate with a pointy little pen instead of a fat fingertip.
With the launch of last year’s Galaxy Note phone, Samsung turned the S Pen into a selfie shutter. Prop up the phone, step away from it with S Pen in hand, and you could capture photos of yourself from afar by clicking a button on the pen. This year, the S Pen has been equipped with an accelerometer and gyroscope, so it actually becomes a gesture control device. This means I could use the S Pen not only to capture a photo, but alto to navigate through the camera app, pressing the button on the S Pen and waving the wand while switching settings with each gesture. You can toggle between video and photo, or draw a circle in the air to zoom in. This all comes with a learning curve; there’s no way around it. I thought I had learned all the things about navigating phones, and the S Pen as a gesture wand left me stupefied. I’m still not sure how much I’ll ultimately use this.
The Samsung Notes app, which is there for jotting down random thoughts, has also gotten an upgrade. It now exports directly to Microsoft Word. You can go into a saved Note, highlight some of the handwritten words, and turn them into text. “This is a best to export to Microsoft Word” one of my converted notes read, which either means the technology is still learning or that my sloppy scribbling of the word test really was that bad.
When you’re bored with the thrills of converting notes to text or exporting notes to MS Word, you can use the S Pen to draw volumetric AR doodles in space. It works both on individual faces, or in the open space in front of you. It sounds silly, but drawing cartoon cat ears on a coworker and watching them move with her as she moved through the real world was delightful.
Of course, these capabilities seem novel or gimmicky to most of us, but Samsung touts them as standout features for a reason: The company wants to make sure it’s serving a more professional audience (see: Microsoft Word) as much as it is the creative crowd. And that’s where DeX comes in. This is Samsung’s solution for running your mobile home screen and mobile apps on your PC. Is this something people want to do? TBD. In the past, DeX required a special docking station; plop your Note phone in it, and you could run the phone software on your PC. Now, you can just tether the Note10+ to your computer using a USB-C cable.
This should work on both Windows-based PCs and Macs, provided you’ve downloaded the required Samsung software. This worked well on an HP laptop running Windows 10, where I was able to browse my Note10+ photo gallery, scroll through the mobile version of Instagram, and send mobile SMS messages, all from the desktop. DeX did not, however, work well on a new-ish MacBook Pro running MacOS Mojave, and by the time of this review, the hiccups I experienced hadn’t been resolved.
DeX is one of those things that is great in theory, a kind of attempt to compete with the more fluid and integrated software experience that something like iOS and MacOS offer (making Messages available across both, for example). In practice though, it’s still awkward. If you’re sending SMS messages from the app running on your laptop, for example, and then you try to pick up the phone to respond to a message, it requires you to restart the app on the phone. The Instagram app stutters in DeX on the laptop. It’s not as seamless as it has the potential to be.
It is difficult to drain the 4300-mAh battery on the Samsung Galaxy Note10+. I tried. I used it over the weekend, and I didn’t have to recharge it once between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening. Then I determined that maybe I needed to use it during a full workday, when I’m using Gmail and Slack and Twitter and other apps all day long. I looked up train schedules. I searched for surf videos on Instagram. I played Angry Birds 2 on it. The thing will not die. It is the cockroach of batteries.
Of course, it will run out eventually. Part of the reason why I never experienced it dying was because I occasionally attached it via USB-C cable to my laptop to test Samsung DeX, and it would get a boost each time I did that. Also, the Galaxy Note line of phones will never escape its footnote from the fall of 2016, so it’s hard to get super excited about batteries until we’re sure they’re not exploding on commercial airline flights.
Charging happens quickly too, whether you use the included 25-watt charger or you purchase Samsung’s 45-watt charger separately.
So is this large phone worth the large expense? The answer to that question is not a matter of need. It’s a matter of want. The Note10+ is impractical, expensive, and stacked with unnecessary elements. It’s a shiny spectacle of a phone, a kind of playground for Samsung, where the company can flex its acrobatic skills.
It’s overkill. And if that’s what you want, then you’re going to love it.
(The Galaxy Note10+ is available unlocked at Samsung’s Store, Amazon, and Walmart.)