Samsung has made some of my favorite smartphones of the last few years. It’s managed to find good ideas, mixed in with lots of not-so-great ones, and build upon them every year, producing continually excellent Android phones that have managed to give Apple a run for its money in quality and design.
In 2019, Samsung is going big. It released extremely large 6.4-inch and 6.7-inch versions of its flagship Galaxy S10 back in February, and in April showed off the Galaxy Fold, a smartphone with a 7.3-inch foldable display, which had a few hiccups when it went into production. In August, it unveiled the new version of what has traditionally been its largest line of phones, the Galaxy Note 10. It also produced a plus-sized version of the Note for the first time. The Note 10+ has a display that’s only about half an inch smaller than the one on the Fold.
Has Samsung finally gone too far with the Note 10+? Is a nearly 7-inch phone really a feasible, and necessary, device to carry around with you at all times? Quartz spent the last few weeks with the Note 10+ to find out.
What’s good about the Note 10+
Beautiful display. The defining feature of just about every Samsung smartphone in recent memory has been the displays. Even fierce competitors like Apple use them in their devices. The Note 10+ features a massive 6.8-inch high-resolution display, which dominates the front of the phone. Thanks to the tiny cutout for the front-facing camera, Note 10+ is almost entirely free from anything other than a beautiful display.
So much power. The Note 10+ model I tested featured 12 GB of memory. My MacBook Pro only has 8 GB. There’s no such thing as a “future-proof” device, but stuffing it full of more memory that you can easily use today (other than under perhaps the most strenuous gaming scenarios) is a good way to make sure it’ll last for a while. My plonking around the web, checking Twitter and emails, and taking photos felt very sharp on the phone.
Battery lasts for ages. The Note 10+ features a massive 4,300 mAh battery that can last well beyond a day’s use. I can’t tell you exactly how long the battery tended to last before I needed to charge it again. It was usually longer than a couple days, and by that point, I’d forgotten when I last charged it.
General Samsung goodness. The Note 10+ has many of the creature comforts that have become standard on recent Samsung devices, including water-resistance, a fingerprint scanner built into the display, wireless charging, and the ability to wirelessly charge other devices. It’s new S Pen stylus is supposed to be able to understand what you write and turn it into text. (More on that in a bit.)
Samsung DeX is even more powerful. Making full use of all that memory, the Note 10+ could, theoretically, be the only computer you need. The DeX operating system has existed on the last few iterations of high-end Samsung smartphones, but this is the first time it doesn’t require a dock or any fancy peripherals to work. All you need is a USB-C cable, perhaps a wireless keyboard and mouse, and a monitor to plug your phone into, and DeX turns the device into a fully fledged desktop computing setup. Samsung announced a deeper partnership with Microsoft at the Note 10 launch event, and now every Microsoft app you could want is compatible with DeX. For other apps that haven’t been custom-designed to work with DeX, the system will show their Android versions. It’s like a full computer, in your pocket.
The camera can work well. I have a lot to say about the cameras on the Note 10+ (see below). Under the right circumstances, they can take some truly lovely shots, even in a total amateur’s hands. Here are a few that I really liked:
Its jazzy color. This is an extremely minor point, but the Note 10+ comes in a color Samsung calls “Aura Glow,” which is a sort of metallic rainbow finish on the back of the phone. It looks very cool.
I like that the back of the Note 10+ is kinda like an Instagram filter pic.twitter.com/36U82iuWmd
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) August 16, 2019
What’s not so good
It’s just too big. I’ve always been a fan of bigger phones, which is why I’ve generally loved Samsung’s Note line, and Apple’s Plus-sized phones. As screen sizes have increased, I’ve felt less need to carry any other computer with me most days. Larger phones are like having a TV in your pocket. But the Note 10+, Samsung has actually found—and crossed—the size line. I have quite large hands, but the 6.8-inch display is more than my mitts can handle.
While using the phone, I was constantly pressing on some part of the screen I didn’t intend to with my palm as my thumb aimed to tap something else. This is the first phone I’ve not been able to type one-handed on, as my messages kept getting garbled. With its pointed edges and large size, the phone felt awkward in my pocket, only just about clearing the tops of the pockets on my man-sized jeans (it didn’t even come close to fitting in the pockets of women’s jeans people in our office were wearing). It’s a giant device, which is amazing for viewing content. And that makes for a trade-off you have to live with when doing anything else.
New S Pen features are awkward. The Note’s new stylus has a group of features called “Air actions,” that allow you to basically swipe the pen in the air in different directions and make certain apps do things. Older models have had similar functions that allow you to use the pen to remotely take a photo or control a slide deck. But the new actions make you look like a wizard encountering a smartphone for the first time—and don’t seem to be any more useful than actually pressing buttons.
My handwriting broke the phone. The Note 10+ is supposed to be able to convert handwritten notes taken with the S Pen and turn them into text. My handwriting is not…good. Turns out, Samsung’s recognition software couldn’t make heads or tails of much of what I was writing:
My extremely bad handwriting is just too much for Samsung to understand pic.twitter.com/vsvmW2ojiM
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) September 4, 2019
No headphone jack. A minor point these days, given that just about everyone has followed Apple’s lead in killing the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Yet Samsung had managed to keep one in the Galaxy S10+ it released earlier this year. If you want Samsung’s biggest phone and you have a nice pair of headphones, you’re going to have to invest in an adapter. (The phone does come with a pair of AKG wired headphones that plug into its USB-C port.)
The cameras seem like a step backwards. Samsung’s top-tier phones have long had some of the best cameras found on any smartphone. The Note 10+, with its four rear-facing cameras, doesn’t feel like a step up from the Galaxy S10+ or even last year’s Note 9. The largest is a 16-megapixel wide-angle camera that can capture a 123-degree field of view, and the phone can take some great photos outdoors in good lighting. Beyond that, I found the phone to struggle.
Photos of faces seemed to be blurred slightly, obfuscating detail and making people look like they’re caked in stage makeup. Photos in less-than-perfect light were far fuzzier than I expected. I even asked Samsung if perhaps I was doing something wrong, had inadvertently put some setting on that I didn’t mean to. The company went so far to swap out my review unit for a new phone, but I didn’t see any discernible difference. My food photos remained fuzzy:
Great pizza, poor shot.
The front-facing camera also appears to still need some work. When I was testing out the various “live focus” modes on the phone, such as the one that discolors the background, the software couldn’t really discern where my hair ended:
Samsung can't seem to figure out where my hair ends pic.twitter.com/G2VycWBbAb
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) September 4, 2019
Selfies in low light were also very poor. Shots from the rear-facing cameras weren’t much better:
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) September 4, 2019
And, as with the Galaxy S10, the gimmicky AR emoji mode still needs some serious work:
sitting perfectly still here. seems like Samsung's AR emoji still need some work pic.twitter.com/ujNOeXlzS8
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) August 20, 2019
This thing is slippery. I don’t know why this phone in particular seems to have so much trouble staying on surfaces that are not 100% flat. It slipped off multiple tables and chairs during my time with it (sorry Samsung), when other phones I had with me were staying put. To its credit, none of those spills seem to have caused any damage to the phone.
It’s expensive. You’re getting a ton of phone with the Note 10 line, and you will pay for it. The 10 starts at $950, the 10+ at $1,100, and there’s a 5G model (exclusive to Verizon in the US) that starts at $1,300.
Should you get a Note 10+ ?
Generally when choosing phones, I tell people to choose a brand they like, and buy the top model they can afford. I’m not sure if that’s actually applies to the Note 10+.
The phone is just too big for my hands, and I still have concerns about the camera. There’s already a better giant Samsung on the market. So far, the Galaxy S10+ has been my favorite phone released this year (although the OnePlus 7 Pro is a close second). The screen of the Galaxy S10+ is only 0.4 inches smaller than the Note 10+’s, the camera seemed sharper, and the battery is nearly as big.
Selecting the Note 10+ over the S10+ really comes down to whether you feel like you can’t live without the S Pen. Other than that and a bit of screen real estate, there’s nothing the Note 10+ really has that the S10+ doesn’t—and it’s $100 cheaper.
You probably don’t need a phone with a screen this big, this much processing power, or maybe even this much battery power. Then again, most people don’t need SUVs—and that’s never seemed to stop them from buying them.
Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.
More stories from Quartz: