Calling and Data
The T-Mobile Galaxy Note is a quad band GSM world phone with 3G and 4G HSPA+ 42 Mbps on T-Mobile's bands. Call quality is very good with full and clear voice on both ends. The speakerphone has just average volume, which is surprising for such a large phone where there's more room for an ample speaker (the same is true of other Galaxy Note variants). Bluetooth worked well in our tests with a variety of Bluetooth headsets, stereo speakers and a car kit. There's no need to hold this large phone to your head to make calls.
T-Mobile has excellent service in our area, and their HSPA+ download speeds rival AT&T and Verizon's LTE speeds. The Samsung Galaxy Note averaged 17.4 Mbps down and 1.9 Mbs up according to the Speedtest.net app. The upload speeds are significantly lower than LTE on the other two carriers because T-Mobile caps upload speeds to allow for better download speeds (most folks care more about download speeds).
The phone has WiFi calling for those who don't want to eat up plan minutes or have weak cellular coverage. The Mobile Hotspot feature allows you to use the phone as a high speed wireless modem for notebooks, tablets and other devices. The Note uses a standard size SIM rather than a micro SIM.
Performance and Horsepower
The T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy Note runs on the same 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 CPU with Adreno 220 graphics as the AT&T model. AT&T had to go with the Qualcomm CPU for LTE integration, and likewise T-Mobile needed the Qualcomm chipset for HSPA+ 42 Mbps and so they couldn't go with the Samsung Exynos dual core CPU used in the international version. Honestly, performance is fairly close between the two platforms, so it's not a sticking point.
The S3 is a third generation mobile CPU that was cutting edge when the first Note variants came out, but S4 fourth generation smartphones hit the market a few months ago (HTC One X, HTC One S and Samsung Galaxy S III) and that puts the Galaxy Note at a specs disadvantage. In terms of perceived performance, the phone feels fast enough, with a little bit of lag when switching between apps when several heavy apps are running (we've experienced this in the T-Mobile version more than the AT&T version, so a software update could improve things). In synthetic benchmarks, the Note puts up a strong showing in AnTuTu and GLBenchmark graphics tests, but it clearly can't score as high as the newer and faster S4 as noted in Quadrant. Still, it puts up very good numbers, and I must say that smartphone CPU speeds are progressing faster than we can come up with challenges to warrant those speeds. The phone can handle the latest games like Dead Trigger just fine; no need for a Tegra 3 or Qualcomm S4 to play those well. Likewise, the Note can handle 1080p video playback, Adobe Flash and Netflix perfectly.
S Pen and Apps
The huge display and active Wacom dual digitizer are the two features that set the Samsung Galaxy Note apart from other smartphones on the market. The included S Pen that lives in a convenient silo offers pressure sensitivity and a level of accuracy that you won't find in a capacitive stylus. Not every app supports pressure sensitivity, but we found that most drawing, painting and note-taking apps on the Android market do support the pen, thanks in part to Android 4.0's much expanded digital pen support. The pen works with Alias SketchBook Mobile, Quill and other popular apps on the Google Play Store. And it works with Samsung's own built-in pen aware apps like S Memo and the new Pro Suite apps like S Note.
S Memo is the light version of S Note, and it's available as a widget and you can launch it with a double tap of the pen on the screen (while holding the pen's single button down). You can jot notes, insert images and audio and use the on-screen keyboard with S Memo. S Note and S Memo are among Samsung's "Premium Apps", and S Note adds handwriting recognition and formula recognition. The formula recognition works very well and the handwriting recognition is decent but not as good as that of the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (a 10.1" Android tablet with a digital pen) or Windows 7 tablets. Watch our video review to see it in action.
Artists will appreciate the Note and pen: it's like having a pocket sketchbook. S Note supports pressure sensitivity and you can select line width and colors--enough to turn out some pretty compelling sketches. For non-artists, S Note is handy for diagraming and it can even straighten geometrical figures so those circles are round and rectangles tidy.
The S Pen works with Adobe Reader for highlighting, underlining and crossing out text. You can use the digital signature feature to sign contracts and agreements without resorting to pen, paper and a fax machine. You can also save screen shots of any app (press and hold on the screen using the pen while depressing its button) and mark up the screen shot to your heart's content: web pages, Word documents and photos are your playground.
Samsung's TouchWiz UI runs roughshod over Android Ice Cream Sandwich, making it look and act more like 2.3 Gingberbread in terms of UI. For once we won't complain much, because Samsung's customizations and apps work in harmony with the extra-large display and bring value. The tweaks and additions make the Note a better tool, rather than sometimes seeming like software for the sake of software on the Galaxy Note.
The T-Mobile version of the Samsung Galaxy Note ships with the same 2500 mAh Lithium Ion battery as other variants. That's a very large capacity battery, but the smartphone's large display needs the extra power. That means the Note will last as long as other current high end Android smartphones, but not significantly longer. In our tests, we managed a full day on a charge with moderate use. Long gaming sessions, GPS navigation and lots of streaming video will consume battery more quickly. Third parties like Mugen offer extended batteries that work well for those who want a beefier battery, or you can buy a standard spare battery if you spend lots of time on the road away from power. You can read our Mugen Samsung Galaxy Note Extended battery review here.
The Samsung Note uses the same 8 megapixel rear main camera module as the Galaxy S II, and it takes colorful and sharp photos as well as pleasing though not groundbreaking 1080p video. The camera is prone to overexposure in high contrast brightly lit outdoor settings, just as with the S II, but otherwise we have no complaints. Indoor photos show relatively little noise, and the flash doesn't overexpose subjects at close range. 1080p video looks smooth at 30fps, and has a good amount of detail and color saturation, though there's some motion blockiness typical of camera phones. The 2 megapixel front camera worked well with Google Talk video chat and Skype in our tests. We looked clear with good illumination over HSPA+ and WiFi. The rear camera isn't as sharp as the HTC One S and Samsung Galaxy S III with their next generation internals and BSI sensor, but it's still a solid camera.
Do we like the Samsung Galaxy Note? Yes we do, and that hasn't changed from the international and AT&T versions that we reviewed several months ago. This Android smartphone with a huge high resolution display and digital pen is aging very well, and there's still nothing else like it on the market (LG tried to compete with the Optimus Vu but it lacked the Note's magic and never came to a US carrier). If you want to watch videos without longing for a tablet or view web pages without needing to zoom, the Galaxy Note is tops. For artists and note-takers, the Note can't be beat, unless you're willing to move up to a tablet with pen input.
Samsung Galaxy Note on AT&T Review
Samsung Galaxy S III Review
HTC One S Review
Price: $249 with 2 year contract, $599 without contract
Websites: www.t-mobile.com, www.samsung.com