When the company was widely credited with inventing the Big Phone, Samsung has had many years of dominance with its Galaxy Note line. But in 2019, Note faces fierce competition from all sides: Apple, Huawei, OnePlus and a growing year of Chinese phone manufacturers are all making big, powerful smartphones, and some of them are very, very good. Last week, I spent a morning with Samsung's latest focus on the overall smartphone formula, the Galaxy Note10 and Note10 +.
A new note in a new size
The biggest change for Note in 2019 is the addition of a second Note model. This year, Samsung will be offering its big smartphone in two sizes: really big, and smaller. You will be forgiven for thinking that the "small" Note10 is the "regular" patch and the "big" Note10 + a new super-large variant. In fact, the $ 1100 Galaxy Note 10+ is far closer in size to its predecessors, Note8 and Note9, which means it's the "usual" note of the two. The $ 950 Note10 is smaller than even a Google Pixel 3 XL, and far closer in size to a standard Galaxy S10 (not even S10 +).
The $ 950 Note10 is smaller than even a Google Pixel 3 XL, and far closer in size to a standard Galaxy S10.
The more I considered this, the more confusing it became for me.
At first, I was fascinated by the little patch. A big phone, but smaller? Practical! But now I am struggling to justify my existence. Samsung believes that there is an audience that wants a branded device in a more "normal" smartphone size. And that's because they want … a stylus? I'm really not sure what the piece here is. To make this scaled-down note, Samsung had to make compromises I wouldn't call insignificant. The battery is 800 mAh smaller in Note10 versus Note10 +, there are no microSD slots, and Note10 does not support the same charging speeds as 10+. While there is still 25W of fast wired charging and 12W of wireless charging, the battery on this phone took a serious downsizing to make room for the S Pen and a new triple rear camera series, and I'm not optimistic about that.
Note10 is significantly smaller than Note10 +, and is actually quite close to a Galaxy S10 in size.
Nor is it suitable for favorable comparisons. Earlier this year, the Samsung Galaxy S10 launched with a screen diagonal about 0.2 "smaller than the Note10, with a 3400mAh battery. Note10 adds a 0.2" display, but only increases the battery by 100mAh, to 3500mAh. The Galaxy S10 does not have good battery life – it is mediocre at best – and it has the same processor and operating system as the new Note. This doesn't look like a recipe for success, especially with a $ 950 price tag. You can get a Galaxy S10 for hundreds of dollars less than that. You can even get an S10 +, which bridges between Note10 and Note10 + for size, for hundreds less. They even have headphone connectors.
In short, the little Note10 really only makes sense for Note diehards who want to reduce their size … which is extremely counter-intuitive given that the Note has always been about being big. Then again, maybe Samsung knows something about its customers that I don't. It still seems like too little phone for a lot of money.
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Big Phone, Less Than Big Changes
This leaves us with Note10 + to dissect, and while my time with the phone was limited, I did not get away and felt that I wanted lots more to learn about it. Samsung's software on the new Notes is basically identical to the one on the S10 line. Sure, you have some new token features for the S pen: you can angle it around in the air to control camera features (like switching from front to back), as opposed to just being a shutter button. That's because the new S Pen has an accelerometer and gyroscope, which I guess is cool. But this feels like another of Samsung's for-the-sake-of-it features most owners will never realize is still there.
DeX can now run inside Windows or Mac OS as a window using just a USB-C cable to your Note10 – still no wireless version.
When it comes to new features you actually use, you will be able to connect Note10 to your Windows PC wirelessly. You can receive notifications, respond to texts from the SMS app and see recently taken photos with the new Link to Windows feature. Samsung did not have a working demo for us, but apart from the aforementioned features, you will also be able to mirror the phone screen to the laptop, which is pretty neat. Hopefully this will be returned to the Galaxy S10 as Link to Windows sounds legitimately useful. Samsung also briefly mentioned a local PC-to-phone streaming app, but it won't launch with the phone, just a spectacular "later". Given Steam Link is out of beta, I'm not sure what kind of compelling extra functionality Samsung's homework influence can bring to the table here. Finally, DeX gets a necessary upgrade so it can work over a simple USB-C cable with Windows and Mac OS, and lives in a window (so you can have an operating system in your operating system, dawg).
The S Pen gets an accelerometer and gyroscope for 2019, and helps operate basic camera controls via gesture.
But what about the specifications? This is where the note should shine, and in most ways it makes it deliver. The 6.8 "Quad HD OLED screen will undoubtedly win a lot of praise, and to my eyes it looks great. Samsung makes screens like no other. The camera's O-hole cutout is going to be polarizing, as all screen clips are all polarizing I can't say I was bothered by it. The large 4300 mAh battery is respectable, and the best capacity among similar phones from Huawei and OnePlus – hopefully indicates good running times. 45 watts of fast charging is definitely a plus (though you must purchase a 45W charger separately), and I would be keen to test it out with third-party USB PD chargers.
Internally, you have the same Snapdragon 855 chip found in all high-end phones this year, though Samsung has paired it with a staggering 12 GB of RAM for maximum bragging rights. Storage will be 256 GB or 512 GB ($ 1200) for Note10 +, which is more than enough and can be expanded via the microSD slot that the smaller college lacks.
Samsung's large S-line phone brings most of its annual innovation to the table. The note increasingly feels like it gets the clippings.
And that's really it. Sure, there are some other minor changes: the rear telescope looks to be new (fortunately, since the S10s are terrible), and I'll test it when we receive our review unit later this month. There's also a Time-of-Flight depth sensing camera on the back, but Samsung told us it's only used for AR features – in other words, as a novelty.
If you have a little "is that it?" Feeling after reading this, I'm there with you. It has come to the point where Samsung's large S-line phone brings most of its annual innovation to the table. The note feels increasingly like it gets the clippings. There are certainly improvements, but they are certainly incremental. Maybe I feel better after spending some real quality time with Note10 + – maybe it needs to be experienced to be understood. But right now I see another (very expensive) big phone in a world that is constantly being filled with big phones. It's going to take more than one nip-and-tuck to stand out.