“If you see a stylus, they blew it,” Apple’s Steve Jobs once observed about handheld devices. Turns out he was wrong.
Samsung’s new Galaxy Note proves that a stylus -- or pen, as the company insists on referring to it -- can be useful and even fun, especially for scrawling an on-screen annotation or for creative types who want to dash off a quick sketch on its 5.3-inch screen.
That is, if you don’t mind holding a relatively gigantic slab upside your head every now and then. That’s because the Galaxy Note isn’t just a tablet. It’s also a phone, and the same thing that makes it appealing for those notes and sketches -- its size -- is a significant disadvantage in everyday use.
The Galaxy Note runs on AT&T’s new superfast 4G LTE network, which in the markets where it’s been rolled out is fully the equal of Verizon Wireless’s more-established LTE network. The Note, which costs $300 on a two-year contract, comes with the “Gingerbread” version of Google’s Android operating system, which was designed specifically for phones. An upgrade to the newer “Ice Cream Sandwich,” which works on both phones and tablets, is promised.
The stylus is stowed on its bottom, not far from the USB power connector. Turns out the Jobs prohibition should only apply in cases where the pen is integral to the device’s core functions. In normal use, the Galaxy Note works just like your typical touchscreen Android device; you only pull the pen out when you feel like it.
The phone comes preloaded with an app called S Memo that allows you to write notes that can be translated into text, and offers a digital sketchpad for your doodles. The handwriting recognition isn’t perfect -- it translated my scrawled “Jaroslovsky” as “jarsbnlz” -- but with a little patience I eventually was able to use it instead of the on-screen keyboard for short notes.
I was also able to easily capture screen shots from the phone by holding a button on the pen and tapping the glass, after which I could add handwritten notes and share the result via e-mail, Facebook or Google’s Picasa service, among other options. And the sketchpad let me capture and share freehand drawings. The Galaxy Tab also comes with a pen-enabled game, and more pen apps are available from Google Play, the just-renamed online store formerly known as the Android Market.
The pen does have some drawbacks. The most obvious is the risk of losing it; a replacement will set you back $40. Another is that it doesn’t work with the Android navigation buttons arrayed along the bottom of the Galaxy Note screen. I found myself constantly poking at the home and search buttons with the pen, only to see no response until I remembered that I had to use my finger for them.
While the Galaxy Note is designed for creating content, it’s no slouch at consuming it. The screen’s size and the richness of Samsung’s “Super AMOLED” display make watching videos a pleasure. And perusing an e-book in Amazon.com’s Kindle app is as natural and comfortable as reading a paperback.
“Natural” and “comfortable” are about the last words I’d choose to describe using the phone as a phone. I have pretty big hands and even I found it fatiguing to hold the Galaxy to my ear for extended periods of time. Not just because of its size - - roughly six inches long by three inches wide -- which prevented it from resting comfortably in my palm. At 6.3 ounces, it’s 27 percent heavier than an iPhone 4S. It does slip into a shirt pocket -- barely -- but the pocket will sag.
Moreover, I never could overcome feeling self-conscious about holding something that large to my ear. While a headset is almost an absolute requirement for the Galaxy Note, it doesn’t come with so much as a set of wired ear buds.
One advantage to a phone this size is that it accommodates a battery large enough to work well with the power-hungry LTE. While the first unit Samsung sent me had trouble holding a charge, its replacement was able to provide a full day of normal service.
Steve Jobs notwithstanding, users who always want a tablet handy needn’t be embarrassed to whip out a Galaxy Note. Except, that is, when it rings.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)