When Samsung first introduced the Galaxy Note smartphone back in 2011, it stood out because of two key features: a stylus pen and a screen so large that the phone was dubbed a “phablet.” Somewhere between a phone and a tablet, the Note was derided at the time for being comically huge.
Smash cut to present day, and millions of people have grown comfortable with phone displays larger than 5.5 inches. The Galaxy Note, despite its ever-increasing size, no longer seems to stand out. And the growth of smartphones, in general, is slowing.
Samsung’s response to the industry’s stagnation: How about two Galaxy Notes? How about three?
Earlier today, the company revealed its new Galaxy Note10 smartphone. It’s the second flagship phone launch of the year for Samsung, which typically releases a new Galaxy S phone in February and its Galaxy Note phone in late summer. This year, the Galaxy Note10 is both larger and smaller: One version of the phone has a plus-size 6.8-inch display, while the other has a 6.3-inch screen—and is almost the exact same size as the Galaxy S10 from earlier this year. Both Galaxy Notes work with a stylus pen, called the S Pen, and both phones are supposed to be vehicles for what Samsung considers to be its latest innovations in mobile.
They’re expensive, as flagship smartphones are these days: The Galaxy Note10 starts at $950, while the larger Galaxy Note10+ starts at $1,100. That means the Galaxy S10 smartphone is slightly less expensive—ranging from $900 to $1,000—but not by much. (The iPhone XS also has a base price of $1,000.) Both new Notes will be available starting August 23.
Later this month, the Galaxy Note10 will also be available as a 5G phone through Verizon Wireless, but neither Samsung nor Verizon have released pricing details for this faster version of the phone.
Samsung’s second flagship phone announcement this year also comes just as analysts are forecasting a decline in smartphone sales in 2019. According to research firm Gartner, worldwide sales will experience a 2.5 percent decline from last year, with Japan, Western Europe, and North America showing the greatest slumps.
“To me, Samsung’s approach is all about segmentation,” says Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “The smartphone industry has slowed down in terms of growth, and the best way to keep revenues high and give people what they want is to segment out different versions of the same product, the way the auto industry has done.”
Samsung positions its Galaxy Note line as ultra-premium phones, with ultra-loyal customers who come back year after year. It’s the phone for creative professionals, hyper-productive multitaskers, and gamers, according to Samsung. All external signs point to the new Galaxy Note10 fitting that description, though I haven’t had the chance to review the phones yet.
Last year’s Galaxy Note 9 had a 6.4-inch display; the Note10+ now has a 6.8-inch display, while the Note10 has a 6.3-inch screen. The latter has about the same body size as the Galaxy S10, but with slightly more screen. This is partly due to its new bezel-less design and its tiny, hole-punch camera on the front of the phone.
The corners of the Galaxy Note phones are still hard angles, unlike the soft, rounded edges of the Galaxy S line. Samsung says it has also redesigned the Galaxy Note10 phones with “symmetry” in mind, so that they feel more balanced when you hold them, even if the actual weight difference from last year’s Note9 to this year’s Note10 is mere grams.
The new phones have aluminum chassis, with glass backs (Corning’s Gorilla Glass 6). Because Samsung likes to follow trends and also get a little weird, the new phone colors are explicitly iridescent, building on the prismatic color tones introduced with the Galaxy S10. There’s Aura Glow—a silverish, iridescent finish so reflective that you can check your teeth for food by just looking at the back of the phone. There’s also Aura Black, Aura Blue, and Aura White, which is creamier than the Prism White on the S10.
The new Galaxy Note10 phones charge via a USB-C port, which also serves as an audio port. Yup: No 3.5mm headphone jack on the Galaxy Note10. Wireless charging is also an option with these Qi-compatible phones, but if you opt to charge by plugging in, Samsung is promising super fast charging—you can achieve a full day’s worth of battery life after charging the Galaxy Note10 for just 30 minutes, the company claims.
The screen on the Galaxy Note10 is what you might expect from a Samsung display. There are incredibly minor differences between this high-resolution display and the one on the Galaxy S10, but, it’s still what Samsung calls “Dynamic AMOLED,” with support for the HDR10+ display standard and a reduction in potentially harmful blue light. The Galaxy Note 10 also has an in-display fingerprint sensor, something we’ve seen on previous high-end smartphones.
The front-facing camera, as previously mentioned, is a tiny lens and a 10-megapixel sensor placed inside a hole punched into the top-center of the display. The kind of rear camera you’ll get depends on whether you go with the Galaxy Note10+ or the regular Galaxy Note10. The former has a quadruple-lens camera on the back of the phone, with an extra depth lens, while the latter includes three lenses. Samsung is boasting ultra-wide image capture, an improved night mode, and even the ability to shoot super slow-mo video. And an extra microphone added to this year’s phone helps support directional audio capture, while software reduces background noise.
The new phones ship with Google’sAndroid 9 Pie OS, and are running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 mobile chip, a 7-nanometer, 64-bit octa-core processor. This chip can also be integrated with a Qualcomm X50 5G modem, making that upgrade to a 5G version of the Galaxy Note10+ possible—whenever 5G networks are fully operational, of course.
Given the size of the “regular” Galaxy Note10, it’s natural to wonder what exactly sets this phone apart from other Samsung handsets. And the most obvious answer is the stylus pen. The S Pen is getting an upgrade again. Last year, the Pen became a Bluetooth-equipped remote control: You could open your camera app, position the phone, and use the S Pen in your hand as a wireless shutter button, tricking your colleagues into accidentally taking selfies as they peered at your new phone (not that I did that). This year, the S Pen is getting gesture control, thanks to a new accelerometer and gyroscope inside the stylus.
Samsung calls these “Air” actions, but you can essentially control your phone’s screen, and certain apps running on it, by holding down the side button on the S Pen and swiping it through the air. During a brief demo, I was able to change music playlists and manipulate the phone’s native camera app just by swiping the Pen in the air. I could draw a circle in the air to digitally zoom in while using the camera, and reverse circle to zoom out.
This isn’t entirely limited the Galaxy Note10; it also works on Samsung’s new Tab S6 tablet. But Samsung—like Google—seems to believe there’s a lot of potential for gesture control, and plans to allow game developers to take advantage of the stylus actions too.
There are other new things you can do with the S Pen too, like edit videos with it (which sounds terribly onerous) or convert your hand-written notes to text and export it directly to Microsoft Word. For people who rarely use the S Pen, Samsung is attempting to differentiate the Galaxy Note10 by shipping it with more base storage and RAM, including an advanced vapor chamber cooling system, and optimizing the software in certain ways.
In the Spotlight
Samsung is coming off the heels of an embarrassing foldable phone launch, the thing that was supposed to further solidify the Korean electronics company as the bearer of whiz-bang innovation in an increasingly boring mobile market. And, of course, it was just a few Notes ago that Samsung ended up in a literal firestorm of quality assurance issues around lithium ion batteries. So at this particular moment in time, with this particular phone line, Samsung still has something to prove.
Samsung insists it’s moving the needle again with the Galaxy Note10, that it’s pushing boundaries, and that Note10 customers will be able to “do things with this device that they can’t do anywhere else,” as Suzanne De Silva, Samsung’s head of mobile product strategy and marketing, said in a briefing with WIRED a week before the phone’s unveiling. Certain elements of this are true, although in many ways the biggest leaps with this phone—the support for 5G, the gesture controls, even new built-in AR applications—are still a long way from being embraced by the masses.