The Samsung Galaxy Note is a beast of a phone.
The Note’s gigantic 5.3-inch, Super AMOLED display makes it the largest “smartphone” we’ve seen so far. It’s practically a mini-tablet. In fact, a 5-inch touchscreen device, the Dell Streak, was marketed as a tablet in June 2010. But the Note is even larger. And it’s a smartphone.
We played with the Note at CES, but when Samsung announced Monday that the phone — er, tablet… er, tabphone — will be landing in AT&T stores Feb. 19 for $300, the device suddenly became a lot more real to us, and deserving of closer scrutiny. Its size notwithstanding, the Note is also interesting because it comes with a super-sensitive stylus Samsung has dubbed the “S pen.”
When you handle such a large smartphone, you can’t help but wonder if anyone actually needs something this size. After all, even a 4.5-inch screen (like on the Samsung Galaxy S II) is plenty large (perhaps too large) for most everyone’s smartphone needs. Bumping it up a notch, a 4.7-inch screen, coming soon in the HTC Titan II, seems almost ludicrously large. So what’s the deal?
The transition to ever larger smartphone displays is a natural byproduct of humankind’s embrace of the mobile lifestyle, DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim says. Now that more and more people depend on accessing information, videos and websites on the go, we’re discovering that larger screen sizes enhance that experience. Samsung is a leading member of this trend.
“Samsung and AT&T are betting on a market for super-sized smartphones. And they’re smart to market the Note as a phone rather than a tablet,” Forrester senior analyst Sarah Rotman Epps told Wired via e-mail. “If they market it as a tablet, they’re competing directly with Amazon but at a higher price.”
Indeed, you can currently get a 7-inch tablet, the Amazon Kindle Fire, for $100 less than the Note. The Fire is also Wi-Fi only, so you don’t have the monthly costs associated with a 3G or 4G data plan.
Amazon, however, is not the only threat that Samsung and other device makers are encountering as they develop large-screened mobile products.
“The issue that Samsung and everyone else is up against is, ‘How do you compete with Apple?’” Gartner analyst Hugues de la Vergne said. “By targeting certain niches, that could be an effective strategy.” Developing a large-screened, touch- and stylus-operated device is certainly one way to grab a niche piece of the mobile pie.
Increasing smartphone screen size is a trade-off, de la Vergne points out, as you lose the convenience of portability as display size grows. At 5.3 inches by 3.3 inches, the Note’s not going to fit in your pocket like most smartphones do. To this point, De la Vergne says that women (who tend to carry purses or handbags) and students (who tend to carry backpacks or messenger bags) may be the target audiences of the Galaxy Note. Simply put, the smartphone’s larger footprint wouldn’t be problematic.
Another potential bonus of the 5.3-inch screen size is that buyers may be able to consolidate their smartphone and tablet needs into a single device, thereby actually saving space in their handbags and backpacks. This also means saving money on mobile hardware (buying one device instead of two), and paying for just a single data plan.
These are all happy thoughts, but 5-inch smartphone-tablet hybrids haven’t fared well in the past. The Dell Streak, mentioned before, and its larger cousin, the Dell Streak 7, absolutely tanked in the sales department. The high-priced HTC Flyer, a slightly larger 7-inch tablet that came with a stylus, also did incredibly poorly. HTC dropped its Flyer price down to a more reasonable $300 after the Kindle Fire landed on the scene, but it didn’t really help.
“Only 10 percent of U.S. tablet shoppers say that a stylus or pen is an important feature in a tablet,” Rotman Epps said. Indeed, price and then battery life are the primary concerns for tablet-cuirous consumers. And how’s this for a data point that should give Samsung pause for concern: The Galaxy Note will be the first smartphone to depend heavily on a stylus as part of its marketing message. Heretofore, styluses have always been a tablet story.
Well, maybe this is where Samsung can actually find a comfortable niche. For that 10 percent of the market looking for a stylus, the Galaxy Note might deliver the perfect hardware pairing. The hardware really is the size of a small notepad — small enough to hold in one hand while penning notes with the other.
Although Samsung is often slammed for shamelessly copying Apple, the company is often a leader in setting hardware tech trends, such as the adoption of large, spacious high-resolution displays, and faster, multi-core processors.
If the Galaxy Note ends up being even a little bit successful (and it certainly won’t be a large-scale triumph like the iPhone or Galaxy S II), we could see more 5-plus-inch smartphones catering to specific audiences like artists and students.