Not that long ago, Samsung’s Galaxy Note phones were practically a circus act. Step right up, folks, and feast your eyes on the most ginormous, the most humongous phone known to man! Now, when I pick up the 6.4-inch Galaxy Note 9, the latest model in the series, it feels almost normal. Somehow we got used to phones approximately the size of a slice of bread.
In other ways, though, the Note 9 still sticks out from the sea of glassy rectangles. No phone on the U.S. market has more features or power. It has an integrated stylus that’s much more than a drawing tool, and enough processing power, storage and RAM to rival your laptop: It even has software baked in that turns it into a PC.
The Note 9 isn’t really competing with other smartphones. Devices like the iPhone X or the Pixel 2 XL are like fancy sedans, cool but still practical. Using the Note 9 is like driving a spaceship down the interstate—if the international space station is on your agenda, great! Even Samsung says most Note buyers tend to be previous Note owners.
That’s the problem, though, when it comes to attracting new users: To the uninitiated, it looks a little like expensive overkill.
The Note 9 isn’t physically much different from the Note 8. It’s a thin, sharp, long rectangle, as if you took a smaller phone and stretched it like taffy. It comes in two colors, lavender and blue. It has a headphone jack, a fingerprint reader, an iris scanner, three cameras, two speakers and a microSD card slot.
Inside, the Note 9 offers significant gains over last year’s model. It has a huge 4000 mAh battery; Apple’s biggest iPhone batteries are all under 3,000 mAh. Evidently, two years after a huge combusting-phone scandal, Samsung is confident enough in its battery tech to go back to cramming all the juice it can into its phones. The Note 9’s battery life is correspondingly impressive: When I used it for normal phone things, I got nearly two full days between charges.
Except nobody will buy a Note 9 to do normal phone things. People will buy one because it comes with up to 8 gigs of RAM and 512 gigs of storage at a price of $1,250—which means they can run a dozen apps while playing games and listening to music and shooting 4K video, basically all at the same time. They’ll buy one to play “Fortnite,” which looks great on the large, sharp screen. So really, the Note 9’s battery will still last you only a day, but you can push it hard and still make it to bedtime.
My tests of the Note 9 quickly stopped being about camera performance or display sharpness. The Note 9 did well in all of them. Other than the $1,000 starting price and the fact that it doesn’t come with the latest version of Android, everything about the Note’s spec sheet is a winner.
But while the Note 9 is the best Note yet, it isn’t a must-have upgrade over the Note 8—which raises the real question: Is a Note what you’re looking for?
Do the write thing
The Note 9 offers two ways of interacting with it that most other phone don’t. The first is the Note-iest thing about it—the S Pen stylus. It’s always been handy for drawing or annotating screenshots, and I like that you can pop it out quickly to jot a note without unlocking the phone.
This new S Pen connects to the Note 9 by Bluetooth, which gives it utility even when it isn’t touching the screen. It’s like any other Bluetooth remote, except it’s always with you. You can click its button to flip slides in a presentation, control music or snap a photo. It charges in seconds while tucked inside the phone.
I’ve found the S Pen a handy tool in conjunction with another of the Note 9’s best features, called DeX. By connecting the phone to a display using an adapter or cable, you can turn the Note into something resembling a desktop. Last year’s dock is no longer required.
All your apps still run, but they open on the external display in an environment more like Windows, with a tool bar and plenty of space for multitasking. Some apps resize to fit the larger screen, including Microsoft Office Adobe Photoshop Express, even Google’s Chrome browser. Connect a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth, or use the phone itself as a trackpad. You can even unlock the phone—and use it as a phone—while it powers the desktop environment.
The amazingly versatile Note 9 comes closer than anything I’ve tested to fulfilling my one-true-computer dream. But Samsung doesn’t always implement these features well.
When I pull out the S Pen, the Note 9 offers six things to do, with dozens more available in settings. I get multiple notifications and warnings every time I open DeX. Apps often have to close and reopen to work on the larger screen.
I’ve long complained about Samsung’s unnecessary duplication of Google’s apps, but the Note 9’s bigger issue is that over the past week, it just wouldn’t leave me alone. It bombarded me with pop-ups, new-feature alerts and options I apparently needed to turn on.
Samsung says the barrage is an attempt to help Note users figure out their powerful new device, and the pop-ups mellow out eventually. Yet even when I clicked through the initial wave, I still felt pestered: The Note’s notification tray fills with status reports on things I don’t care about.
Ultimately, there are phone people and then there are Note people, and never the twain shall meet. If you’re the type who thinks a car is something that gets you from A to B, the Note 9 might be too much. But if you love driving stick and getting your hands dirty under the hood, you’ll probably love how much the Note 9 lets you play.
Write to David Pierce at email@example.com.
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