Samsung Galaxy Note.

Samsung Galaxy Note.

Big phone? Small tablet? Where does the Samsung Galaxy Note fit in?

Say what you will about Android, but it's great news for those of us who want choice when it comes to our gadgets. For a while tiny sub-3.5-inch Android handsets were all the rage but then Samsung went large with the 4-inch Galaxy S. At the time it seemed like a freak, a throwback to HTC's cumbersome i-mate WinMo giants, but the trend caught on.

Now big is beautiful again, with HTC and Samsung leading the way. Right now the flagship Australian Android phones are the 4.6-inch Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the 4.7-inch HTC One X (which I'll review in a little while).

Sight unseen I would have said the HTC One X was too large to be practical, but the slimline polycarbonate unibody design makes it a delight to hold and it slips beautifully into your pocket. But you need to draw the line somewhere. I think for many people the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note will be a case of an inch too far.

I've been playing with the Galaxy Note for a while because my friend Ronaldo has had one since before you could buy them here. No, Ronaldo is not his real name, but he is a real friend who works in IT (and loves his soccer). This is not a complete "review" of the Note, it's just a few of our observations. 

Ronaldo is happy with the screen size, even though Android frustrates him at times. Yet no matter how much time I spend with the Note I don't think I'd want to be getting it in and out of my pocket all day. It also feels awkward to hold up to your ear to make calls -- Ronaldo's colleagues tease him at work by holding iPads to their ears and shouting "Hello? Hello?". That said, most of us probably spend more time touching our smartphones than talking into them.

None of this is to say that the Note is a dud, just that it's not for everyone. Not surprisingly I'd say it's best role is as a tablet substitute on the run. That extra screen real estate is a blessing for those times you wish you had a tablet at hand, for work or for play. If your travel bag (or your budget) won't support both a smartphone and a tablet then the Galaxy Note could be a reasonable compromise.

Sure it's a big phone and a small tablet, but I'd say the 5.3-inch display is just the right size for typing with two thumbs when you need to get some work done and don't have room to whip out a notebook. Sitting on a plane, in an airport lounge or in the back of a taxi are times that come to mind (Ronaldo says this is when he most appreciates what the Note has to offer). 

When you hold the Note in portrait mode your thumbs overlap slightly so you don't need to stretch too far to type quickly. Even landscape mode isn't too bad. Typing with two thumbs is awkward on the bigger 7-inch tablets, not only because they're wider but also because they're generally much heavier -- the 7-inch Acer A100 tips the scales at 450gm while the Note is a more phone-esque 178gm. Anything larger than 7-inches and you need to hold it with one hand and type with the other, which slows you down on a big tablet because there's so much travel time between the keys.

I'll admit my two-thumbed typing speed on the 5.3-inch Note isn't much faster than my one-finger typing speed on the 3.5-inch iPhone (helped by iOS' superior auto-correct features). But the beauty of the Note is that you can see about half as much text again, even more when you hide the virtual keyboard. This makes editing text much easier, as it's a painful chore on the iPhone.

Ronaldo says he really appreciates the Note's large screen when reading emails and browsing web pages. He's even taken to the stylus for handwritten notes, although that's obviously not for everyone. He's annoyed by the fact the stylus works with the screen but not the soft buttons. The outdoor screen glare on the Note's AMOLED screen is also pretty bad (personally I prefer LCD).

I originally thought 7-inch tablets might be the perfect balance between portability and usability, but I think I've changed my mind after spending time with the Note. I actually think 7 inches might be the worst of both worlds. If you're concerned about pocket-friendly portability you should really consider slimming down a 5-inch phablet (there, I said it) to complement or perhaps replace your smartphone. If you want something bigger then I'd skip 7 inches and jump to at least 8.9, having played with the sleek Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G.

I wouldn't want to type all my stories on the Note, but I'd say that about any touchscreen gadget. Nor would I want the Note to be my everyday phone. But if I spent more time on the road, trying to stay productive in awkward places, I think there'd perhaps be room for a Samsung Galaxy Note somewhere in my life.