At CES 2012, I saw many amazing and lust-worthy gadgets, but the one I came away wanting the most was Samsung’s Galaxy Note. It’s been available in other countries for a while, but this was the first look at it for most of us in the United States.

Samsung has gone crazy creating brand new form factors for its Galaxy tablets. We now have Tabs in the 7.0, 7.7, 8.9 and 10.1 sizes. When you first encounter its 5.3-inch display, you’re not quite sure at first whether their latest device is a phone or a tablet — hence, the media has dubbed it a “phablet.” But never fear; unlike the Galaxy Tabs, which have their phone functionality blocked in the U.S. iterations, this one really is going to be a cell phone in this country too. It will be available from AT&T on February 19,  and it’s going to work on their new LTE network. There are also rumors that the Note will be coming to Verizon later in the year, renamed the Galaxy Journal.

Whatever you call it, it’s one big honking phone — but it’s a lot more than that. I’m hoping this will start a trend, with other phone vendors and carriers jumping on the “phablet” bandwagon.

Figure 1

The Galaxy Note in my (smallish) hand.

This device is powered by a 1.4 GHz dual-core processor and has a generous 16 GB of RAM, which together make moving from screen to screen or performing tasks smooth and responsive. And although it’s big, it’s also relatively lightweight at 178 grams, only a tad more than the HTC Thunderbolt. It doesn’t feel as heavy in the hand as the Thunderbolt, though — I suppose because the weight is distributed over a larger area. The Note is also stylishly thin at 9.65mm, in comparison to the Thunderbolt’s whopping 14mm. In fact, the Note is not much fatter than the ultra slim Droid Razr’s 7.1mm.

Other specs include:

  • 8 MP front camera and 2 MP rear camera
  • Bluetooth 3.0 + HS
  • USB 2.0 Host
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct
  • 4G LTE network connectivity

Sometimes bigger is better… up to a point

Would you look pretty silly holding that big slab of phone up to your face to make a call? Probably, but who does that anymore, anyway? Folks who talk on their cell phones a lot generally walk around with Bluetooth devices growing out of their ears, and for those who don’t make many calls, it’s not going to be that big of a deal.

What is a big deal is that screen, and not just the size. It’s a gorgeous Super AMOLED display with 1280×800 resolution — and wow, does it ever look good. Not only do videos look sharp and crisp with beautiful colors, but you can actually see what’s happening in them with a screen this size. Web pages also display beautifully, as you can see in the figure below.

Figure 2

No more squinting at web pages on your phone.

For me, the Note is also the ideal size for reading ebooks. You can get a decent amount of text on the page using a reasonable font size, so that you’re not turning the page constantly as I have to do with smaller phones like the HTC Incredible. Yet it’s still light enough to hold up without tiring your arm and small enough to wrap your hand around and tap the right edge of the page to turn the page, without having to use two hands.

Despite the size of the display, the Note is such a trim and slim device that it will still fit into a large pocket and easily slips into the fanny pack that I like to wear in lieu of hauling around a bag or purse.

Write on

What really makes the Note special is the stylus that comes with it, called the S-Pen. We’ve had smartphones with styluses before, of course, but those were mostly resistive screens that didn’t respond to finger touch. You can get styluses for capacitive screens, but the ones I’ve tried frankly don’t work very well.

HTC combined capacitive touch with more precise pen-based input in their HTC Flyer tablet, but the 7-inch screen with its thickness and weight — especially in comparison to other 7-inch tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab 7.1 and 7.7 — is less than ideal to carry around with you all the time, and it doesn’t give you phone calling capability.

I got a chance to play with the Note’s S-Pen quite a bit at CES and really enjoyed being able to jot down quick notes, send handwritten messages in email, and so forth. The really neat thing was that its handwriting recognition worked extremely well (although my handwriting isn’t as illegible as some folks’), and the phone was able to transcribe my scribbles into text with few errors, even when I purposely fed it sloppy writing.

Figure 3

There is plenty of room to jot notes on the Note’s big screen.

This might not be a big deal to most phone users, but because I write about them all the time, I absolutely love that you can tap and hold the screen with the pen to capture a screenshot. This is so much easier than the awkward practice of pressing the back and power buttons at the same time that you find on earlier Samsung tablets.

There are several apps designed specifically to utilize the S-Pen, including a quick note app, a memo app, and apps for sketching with digital crayons, pencils, and chalk. If we’re lucky, developers will create many more pen-enabled apps for the Note.

Picture perfect

An important feature for me when I test any phone is the camera, and a lousy one can be a deal breaker (as it was for me with the Motorola Razr). The Note’s camera didn’t disappoint me. The sample photos I took were sharp and clear, and the colors were nice — although I only got to view them on the phone itself since I haven’t yet had the opportunity to take the Note for a full-fledged test drive.

Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, which has only a 5 MP rear camera, the Note comes with an 8 MP rear camera and a 2 MP front camera. It has a photo editor, but it’s not as impressive as the one included with the Nexus (and you don’t get the zero photo lag feature of the Nexus, either, since that’s a characteristic of Ice Cream Sandwich; more on that later). The Note also includes a video editing app that allows you to arrange clips on the timeline, plus apply special effects and themes.

More goodies

I was happy to discover that the speaker on the Note is plenty loud. One complaint I had with the Nexus was its way-too-soft speaker; I had to install a volume booster app to get acceptable volume. There was no such problem with the Note, as I could hear its speaker even amidst the hustle and bustle of the CES showroom floor. Loud doesn’t necessarily mean spectacular sound quality, though — it’s a little tinny for listening to music or movies. However, I was spoiled by the Rezound with its Beats Audio and great earphones, so I might be biased.

Battery life is obviously going to be a factor with a display this big, but at least Samsung was generous in that respect, including a 2500 mAh battery. And unlike their larger tablets and some other vendors’ smartphones (iPhone and Razr), the battery is removable, so you can carry an extra and swap it out.

Something else that made me smile was the inclusion of a microSD card slot, the lack of which was my biggest complaint about the Nexus. A 32 GB card, coupled with the 16 GB of internal memory, will give you an awesome 48 GB of storage for all those photos, videos, and the masterpieces you draw with the pen apps.

What’s not to like?

With all this “Noteable” goodness, what are the phabulous phablet’s phatal phlaws? It’s hard to find anything to criticize, but I guess the one major disappointment is that it’s running Gingerbread (Android 2.3) instead of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0). After using the Nexus, I got used to the elegance of the new OS, and the pre-ICS interface feels a little dated. I miss the task pane and the ability to side swipe to close an app, as well as the ability to create folders on the home screens.

The good news is that Samsung has confirmed that the Note will get an ICS update sometime during the first quarter of 2012, and I’m hoping that when the Journal comes out on Verizon, it will debut with ICS already in place.