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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Versatile S Pen
So many great cameras
Exciting video innovation
Amazing battery life
Live focus video needs work
Zoom-in Mic still seems like an unfinished novelty
Handwriting conversion needs work
The Samsung Galaxy Note10+ is nearly everything you want an Android phone to be. It's got an industry-leading, monster screen, excellent performance, unmatched productivity tools, and shoots excellent photos and video. If you can shoulder the price tag, this is the big Android phone for you.
I no longer know what’s “too big” when it comes to a smartphone. Surely, the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max and 6.67-inch OnePlus 7 Pro strain the very definition of “smartphone” to a near “tablet” breaking point. And yet, I’ve been carrying around the 6.8-inch Samsung Galaxy Note10+ and all I can think about is how much I love that giant, almost blemish-free AMOLED screen.
Obviously, you can’t build slabs (or what we were for a time calling “phablets”) without innovating on weight and thickness. Apple's iPhone XS Max remains, at 7.7 mm, the thinness champ but the 7.9mm thick Note10+’s tapered edges give the impression of a much thinner phone and, as I’ve noted with Samsung’s other tapered handsets, the design touch makes larger smartphones feel smaller and more comfortable to hold. It’s not just an illusion. Despite being larger than the iPhone XS Max, the Galaxy Note10+ is, at 196g, 12 grams lighter.
If this were just a beauty contest, the Android 9-running Samsung Galaxy Note10+ would rival anything Apple’s produces (and surpass it in some areas like the notch), but smartphones are not just pretty companions. They are our lifelines to a world of information, entertainment, creativity and self-expression, and productivity, our modern-day Filofaxes, overstuffed with all of our most precious information. The Galaxy Note10+ excels in virtual all of these areas (and overreaches in a few), but is, for the moment, the Android handset to beat.
Wrapped in Gorilla Glass 6 with a prismatic finish, the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ ($1099) literally gleams, so much so that when I showed the phone to some children, one demanded I remove the phone case, while another kept asking why my phone was so shiny. That shine does come with one expense, though. The back of the Note10+ is an incredible fingerprint magnet. Every once in a while, I would flip it over, grimace, and then rub the back of the phone on my shirt (quite effective, by the way). Samsung might want to consider the fingerprint-hiding, matte glass stylings found on the OnePlus 7Pro, which also happens to be a little less slippery.
At 3040x1440 pixels, Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O Display (Samsung loves long names) offers a significantly higher resolution than the iPhone XS Max (2688x1242 pixels), but I’d be lying if I said I could eyeball the difference. On the other hand, Samsung gives you a lot more screen to look at. Instead of a large notch to accommodate an array of cameras and sensors, Samsung opted to make one roughly 2mm-wide laser-cut drill hole near the top edge and dead-center. Like other Android manufacturers, the company hides the fingerprint reader under the screen. As a result, there’s just a whole lot more gorgeous screen to love.
The fingerprint reader, by the way, is also a slight upgrade from the somewhat finicky one I tried on the Samsung Galaxy S10+. Samsung shifted the reader up a tad on the screen (good for my long thumb, but for yours?), and made it more consistent and responsive. It’s still not as fast as Apple’s Touch ID. Under-the-screen readers need you to cover more of that sensor, which means you see a fair number of “press harder” or "press longer" messages.
This display also includes HDR10+ (a more powerful version of HDR with frame-by-frame brightness and color management system). The display testing firm DisplayMate is certainly impressed, recently awarding the Galaxy Note10+ its Best Smartphone Display Award. I can’t test the display the way DisplayMate can, but found nothing in the Note10+ display performance to discount their assessment. Everything from photos to videos to websites and, of course, games, look excellent on it. Is it a better display than Apple’s Super Retina HD OLED? I honestly can’t tell.
Even though the screen has just that one tiny camera hole, apps seem somewhat split on how to handle it. Some, like Netflix and Angry Birds 2, stop short of the camera hole, creating a black bar on the left edge of the screen. Others, like Instagram and Asphalt 8, go true full screen, embracing the tiny black hole inside their interfaces.
Sometimes, I get a little misty-eyed when I think about the days of carrying one bulky camera to capture average-quality pics. We were so innocent back then. Now we barely glance up from our avocado toast when someone says they might squeeze four cameras on the back of a quarter-inch-thick device. Then we lose our minds when they actually do it.
The Samsung Galaxy Note10+ has a total of five cameras: one on the front and four on the back.
This is akin to having a bunch of high-quality lenses in your backpack. I would challenge you to find a photo or video situation the Galaxy Note10+ isn’t equipped to handle.
The low-rez VGA camera is used in concert with a depth sensor for augmented reality and the Quick Measure app, which lets you quickly measure objects and floors. I tried it and think it’s a potentially awesome tool for interior decorators and home remodelers.
As for the other cameras, they were all excellent and I’m pleased that Samsung appears to be cutting back on over-processing images. Yes, the colors are still a bit more hyper-realistic than you’ll find on an iPhone, but they’re much closer to truth. For the ultimate truth, I suggest turning off Samsung’s “Scene Optimizer.” In addition, faces, look more natural and the Live focus effect, which does let you adjust the depth focus post process, now rivals Apple’s portrait mode.
The 16MP ultra-wide, in particular, captures eye-bending images. My only criticism would be that the 123-degree images can introduce some people-stretching distortion at the edges and corners. Still, it’s a striking tool that, in the right situation, will produce memorable vista-vision photos. The rear cameras also shoot great video, up to 4K, 60 fps.
Samsung Galaxy Note10+’s most talked about new feature, though, may be the Live focus video, which allows you to adjust the depth of focus or background blur of a live video. For prosumer and even pro videographers, this is a potential seismic shift in smartphone filmography. Flat focus and visual depth are the difference between amateur and feature filmmaking. Go back and watch any movie or TV show and you’ll notice how, while the subjects are always in focus, the background is a soft blur. Up to now, that’s been impossible to recreate on a smartphone.
Live video focus offers three different settings. There’s Blur, which lets you adjust the amount of background blur prior to shooting (but not after), there’s “Big Circle,” which will add a special blur affect to nighttime background lighting (street lamps, string lights), Color point, which lets you select a subject or object to keep in color while everything else appears black and white, and Glitch, which makes it look like you’re shooting video on a garbage VHS tape.
As you might have guessed, though, some of these options are more useful than others. Blur can produce effective background-defocused video, but there are limits. If I over adjusted the Blur, say, pushing the background blur to 100%, the background looked almost gauzy, as if someone spread Vaseline on my lens.
As long as I kept the setting at around 50%, the effect was pretty good. Unfortunately, your subject can’t move around too much. They need to stay within five or six feet of the lens and if they move too far away or much off-center, Live focus video can drop the effect altogether.
Overall, I would call Live focus video a successful version 1.0, but I would still hesitate to use it much for serious work.
Samsung’s quest to nudge the Galaxy Note10+ into the pro video space didn’t’ stop with focus. It also introduced Zoom-In Mic, which uses the phone’s three built-in microphones to try and refocus on the audio you want, while leaving extraneous audio information behind. But Samsung implemented this in an odd way. Instead of the phone recognizing a subject and focusing the mics on whomever is speaking, you have to pinch to zoom in on your subject, which basically activates the Zoom-in Mic feature. Now, to be fair, I tried this out in literally one of the most challenging aural environments in the world: Times Square New York. It didn’t go that well. I mean, if I zoomed in on someone speaking, the phone would try to pump up that speaker’s audio, but the change was barely noticeable. This is clearly going to be more useful when shooting in quieter environments.
Once you’ve shot all this great video, you now have Samsung’s first built-in video editor. It lets you daisy-chain and organize disparate clips, add cool transitions, text, captions, and even draw on the video using the S Pen. That’s all pretty cool but it doesn’t look like Samsung spent much time looking at, for instance, Apple’s iMovie, which is not the most powerful video editor, but at least streamlines the process.
Samsung’s Video Editor, which you can only access from inside the Gallery and through a video, doesn’t let you edit video clips within its simplistic timeline. Instead, you dive into a clip, edit it, and then back out to the rest of the assembled video. It’s not a great experience. I look forward to future software updates.
What sets the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ apart from not just Apple’s iPhone XS Max but from all other Samsung phones, as well, is the S Pen. We have come a long way since the early days of the Note line where we had to make size and weight allowances to accommodate the pen. Now, the Note10+’s S Pen, which is thinner and lighter than the Note9 S Pen, sacrifices almost nothing (sorry 3.5 mm headphone jack) and yet the S Pen does more than ever before.
Like previous pens, it fits nearly inside the Note10+ chassis. A quick press to the S Pen base ejects it. It’s lighter and more comfortable to hold and use than previous S Pens and can write on the "off screen" (you can save those notes and doodles), in Samsung’s Notes app, and in a variety of other S Pen-supporting apps.
The Bluetooth pen also has built-in gesture control. I opened the camera, held the S Pen button and then used a series of gestures to switch between the front and back cameras, choose other camera modes, and even zoomed in and out. I can also use the S Pen button to take a photo. This is a great way to impress your friends during a selfie shoot. You just hold up the phone in front of your assembled friends and with the other hand surreptitiously wave around the S Pen and then press the button to get the prefect shot.
Along with the S Pen comes Samsung’s new AR Doodle feature, another entertaining, if somewhat pointless innovation. It lets you draw colorful, 3D doodles on people that will then follow them around as you capture them on video. When I drew one on myself—AR doodle works with front and rear cameras—I noticed that the drawing was kind of like a 2D mask affixed to my head. Fun? Sure. Useful? You tell me.
With its pressure sensitivity, the S Pen is an adept drawing tool, but some may prefer to use it for taking notes (I do not because my handwriting is abysmal). Samsung added a text extraction feature which will convert your scrawl into text that you can share with Microsoft Word. Sadly, this feature suffers from Samsung's apparent inability to create obvious software interfaces.
I used the Air Pen Gestures to start a new note, then jotted down a few words. After a few fruitless minutes hunting for a way to convert the writing to text, I tapped on the three ellipses next to Save and found the option to "Go to Samsung Notes." It's inside the app, and not in the app's instantiation on the home interface, that I can convert the text. Even then, the app's conversion skills are average at best.
Samsung is also working with partners like Microsoft on breaking down the barrier between your smartphone and desktop. Inside the Note10+ control panel is a new Link to Windows icon that lets you wirelessly connect to any Windows 10 desktop. On the Windows side, you have to install Microsoft’s Your Phone and then accept the connection. I connected the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ to my Surface Pro 5 in a matter of seconds and was soon accessing photos, text messages, and notifications. I can even drag and drop photos directly from the phone to my desktop. Microsoft should be releasing a Your Phone update that puts a visual recreation of your entire phone on the desktop. I tried this out at the Samsung launch event and realized I’ll never get away from my phone.
If you want to take smartphone/desktop integration a step further, you can use the updated version of DeX, which connects your phone to your PC by putting your phone on your PC in the form of a desktop-friendly Android interface on the Windows 10 desktop. The big innovation with this DeX update is that it does away with the need for a dock or special adapter. Now a simple USB cable will do the trick.
With the Android interface on my Windows 10 computer, I used my laptop keyboard to type and my mouse and trackpad to control the interface coming from the phone. I can even drag and drop files, through a slightly convoluted two-step process, to my desktop. It’s impressive, but I really don’t know why I’d use this somewhat limited desktop interface instead of straight-up Windows 10. I think the Your Phone connection will ultimately prove more useful to productivity workers.
As a pure entertainment device, the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ is hard to beat. It’s packed with a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 CPU, 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage (the Note10 has, by contrast, 8GB of RAM). While its Geekbench benchmarks don’t beat Apple’s A12 Bionic, they come quite close to meeting Apple’s single and multi-core scores (it lags behind on Compute Renderscript numbers). Increasingly, though, these numbers are meaningless. I haven’t run into a sputtering, flagship smartphone in ages. Gaming, in particularly, is a joy on the Samsung Galaxy Note10+. Between the massive screen, vibrant colors, and pitch-perfect performance, this is a mobile gamer's delight. I played a full, 45-minute round of Players Unknown Battleground (PUBG), which the system automatically defaulted to the highest visual quality, and, yes, I won.
What’s most surprising about this is that I didn’t even enable Samsung’s Game Boost mode, which analyzes your game play and adjusts battery, performance, and background processes to favor gaming. The thin phone even includes a vapor chamber for heat management. I did notice the back of the phone getting a little hot during my PUBG game, though.
Stereo speakers powered by AKG can get very loud—just ask everyone on one of my recent early morning commutes. The phone ships with USB-C AKG headphones, so you won’t miss the 3.5 mm headphone jack too much. It does not include a USB-C-to-3.5mm headphone jack dongle, however.
A bigger phone, the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack and its components and a 4,300 mAh battery means all-day-and-more battery life. As I write this, I’m now 31 hours into a single charge. Granted, I can eat up battery life more quickly if I game for hours, but with mixed use, a full day of battery life on a single charge is almost guaranteed. Plus, if you do run out of battery life faster, I have found that you can get almost a full charge in about an hour with the included 25W charger.
This much battery life means you’ll be comfortable sharing the juice via Wireless PowerShare. The phone’s wireless charging powers work with any Qi-enabled device. You can place a Samsung Galaxy S10, Galaxy Watch or, as I did, iPhone XS Max, on the back of the Galaxy Note10+ for a quick charge.
There’s a lot more to cover here, like Bixby, Samsung’s smart assistant that can identify objects and respond to your voice commands about as well as Siri, screen recording (finally!), Knox security which lets me store stuff in secure and hidden folders, Samsung Health (the perfect companion for a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2), and all the powerful photography tools available, especially if you shoot in manual mode. It's also IP68-rated which means a drop in the toilet or shower in a sink is no big deal. I could go on, but let's cut to the chase.
What you need to know is this: The Samsung Galaxy Note10+ is a big phone in all the best ways. Big screen, big features, big ideas, and big performance. Did Samsung swing for the fences with Live focus video and Zoom-in Mic? Yes. Did they hit a home run? More like a legged-out double. At least Samsung can improve these features with software updates that will surely work on this phone. If I were in the market for an Android phone and I had money to burn, the attractive, powerful and compelling Samsung Galaxy Note10+ would be my first choice.
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