NEW YORK CITY—Samsung showed off its next flagship smartphone last night: the Galaxy Note10. It comes in two variants—large (the Note10) and larger (the Note10+).
In person, the larger Galaxy Note10+ is absolutely huge. And I say this not as someone who carries around a tiny phone all day, but as someone who is used to the already-giant Android phones out there. First the display is actually bigger, with the Note10+ screen topping out at 6.8-inches diagonally, a new high-mark this year. The “smaller” Note10 is a mere 6.3-inches, which is still extra huge. The other thing contributing to the imposing presence is the sharper display corners. The heavily rounded corners of yesterday are out, and the Note10 is a big ol’ sharp rectangle.
The front and back of the device is curved along the long edge, which helps you wrap your tiny, pathetic human hands around Samsung’s giant slab of glass and pixels. Width is really the thing that makes a phone feel big in your hand, and the Note10+’s 77.2mm-wide body has got to be a new high watermark in phone girthiness. The bigger size is actually quite nice to use with the S-Pen, which always feels like it needs as much real estate as possible for drawing or handwriting. I still never want to do any handwriting or drawing on my phone, but for those who do, bigger is better probably.
Like we saw with the Galaxy S10, Samsung’s hole-punch camera design is not the greatest on the market and needlessly reduces the useful screen space. Android’s compatibility rules require that apps be presented with an uninterrupted rectangle, so the system status bar needs to be tall enough to encompass any camera notch or hole on the front. It makes sense, then, to squeeze your front camera into as small a vertical area as possible, so the status bar can be the normal size.
Samsung doesn’t do this, though—and the camera hole impinges so deeply into the display that the status bar needs to be twice as tall as normal to cover it. Better and smaller camera solutions have existed for at least a year now, and other manufacturers have moved on to front cameras that don’t intrude on the display at all, relying on a pop-up system or slider mechanisms for the front camera.
The pen is mightier
Like last year, the S-Pen is packing its own internal battery and Bluetooth antenna, allowing it to be used as a remote control. Like last year, you can make the S-Pen’s single button do things like take a photo in the photo app. New this year is the pen’s six-axis sensor, allowing for what I’m going to call “Harry Potter Mode.” You can flick the pen around to remotely do stuff, like it’s a magic wand. A left or right flick will change music tracks or camera modes. There’s also a circle motion you can do that will zoom in on the camera.
I tried this in person and it felt like playing an old Nintendo Wii game with waggle controls. I still don’t understand the idea of remotely controlling a smartphone with the S-Pen. The screen isn’t big enough, and you’d have to prop the phone up with something to see it from a distance. Like many Samsung features, Harry Potter Mode feels like something designed for a showroom demo and nothing else. The S-Pen is really the only unique thing the Note line offers anymore, and I don’t think there’s any technical reason for this. It’s just that other companies don’t seem to view it as something worth copying.
Past Samsung devices have had a “Bixby button,” which was an extra physical side button that could summon Samsung’s digital assistant. On the Note10, the Bixby button is gone—or maybe it’s better to say the Bixby button and power button have merged into one. You can wake and sleep the phone with a single tap of the button. A long press, which previously brought up the Android power menu, now brings up Bixby. Double tapping the button still brings up the camera. You can’t summon the power menu from the side button anymore, either—instead, a software power button lives in the pulldown notification panel. The software button allows you to do things like reboot or power down the phone.
China is out-Samsunging Samsung
It’s hard to see how the Galaxy Note10 is supposed to excite me. Samsung is supposed to be the “speeds and feeds” company, but the device doesn’t have the fastest Qualcomm SoC out there. Qualcomm recently took the wraps off the upclocked Snapdragon 855+ and is already shipping the part in some phones. The Note10 only has a regular old Snapdragon 855, with no extra clocks added.
I can’t say the Note10 has the best screen, since faster, high-refresh-rate displays are hitting the market now, and they make a world of difference in the feel of a smartphone. You can get a 90Hz OLED display on the excellent OnePlus 7 Pro, and or a 120Hz OLED on the Asus ROG Phone 2. How Samsung, the smartphone industry’s leading display manufacturer, missed the faster refresh rate trend is beyond me. Heck, the OnePlus 7 Pro’s 90Hz display is made by Samsung. It’s not like the company doesn’t have the technology—just reach into the parts bin and put the better screen in your phones!
The Note line isn’t the “everything” phone anymore, either—not with the removal of the headphone jack and the waffling over an SD card slot (the larger Note10+ has one, but the still-large Note10 does not). Samsung even killed the rear-mounted heart rate sensor this year, if anyone cares. Power users looking for the smartphone version of a Swiss Army Knife should look elsewhere. The Asus ROG phone actually feels more Samsung-y than this Samsung phone, launching as it has with new display tech, a new SoC, a headphone jack, two USB ports, and a million crazy accessories.
When I reviewed the OnePlus 7 Pro, I said that the pop-up camera, all-screen design, and high refresh rate display made it feel like something manufacturers will spend the next year chasing. After the Note10 launch, I still feel that way. Samsung needs an answer for its competitors’ devices, with faster screen technology and camera solutions that don’t intrude on the display. All these companies from China are kicking Samsung’s butt, and they’re doing so at a lower price point. The Note10 costs a thousand dollars, while a OnePlus 7 Pro is $670. Based on what each device brings to the table, it feels like those price tags should be swapped.
Samsung isn’t turning over a new leaf. It’s not reducing its dependence on the highest specs and wiz-bang gimmicks in exchange for a more refined experience or anything like that. The Note10 is still shipping with Samsung’s heavily reskinned version of Android with Samsung’s slow updates. It’s still full of half-baked redundant software like Bixby. The Note10 is the same strategy Samsung has been doing for years—just not executed as aggressively. The smaller Note10 seems like a particularly bad deal—you’re spending $950 and you’re still dealing with cost-cutting measures like the sub-par 1080p display and the missing MicroSD slot.
The competition blew past Samsung this year, and the company needs more than a mid-cycle upgrade to keep up. Other than the wide availability and the undoubtedly large marketing budget, I don’t see anything special here. Hopefully Samsung has major upgrades in the works for next year’s Galaxy S11.
Listing image by Ron Amadeo