Editor’s note: In the past, Samsung has promptly sent us review units of the products we want to review. But for reasons known best to the company, Samsung did not send us a Galaxy Note 10 Plus for review. Tech2 had to wait for the device to go on sale and acquire a retail version, which is why our review for the Note 10 Plus was delayed for this long.
Samsung has been designing and manufacturing premium mobile phones since well before the launch of the Android-powered Galaxy S back in 2010. And with time came better products that delivered better quality along with new and improved features. And in 2011, came the Galaxy Note, it had a massive 5.3-inch display and a stylus. It was a productivity device, meant mostly for business executives and for the creative types who loved scribbling, but simply too big for the regular user. It was the first of its kind and a bit too large for its time, but it kind of fulfilled the needs of many who craved a bigger display despite its weight, which was considered too heavy back then.
Things have changed drastically over time and so have the needs of users. Bigger displays are now a thing, and even post-Steve Jobs Apple has an iPhone Max model with a larger display (and better battery life) for those who need it.
But the smartphone market is also plateauing. Smartphone buyers are now well-aware about specifications and pricing too is a focus. With Huawei and Google leading the space when it comes to innovation and hardware, what can Samsung bring to the game with its ageing Note segment when everyone’s eagerly waiting for a folding display? Well, you give your customers “premiumness”.
And that’s really what the new Note 10+ is about. It’s a premium Android smartphone, with a premium price tag, that is kind of playing catch up when it comes to the camera.
The design is brand new. There’s never been a Note or a Samsung smartphone that looked this good, and part of the reason for this is Samsung’s attention to detail.
The Galaxy Note 10 looks so premium that it makes the Galaxy S10 feels cheap in comparison. The S10’s design this year was nothing special to begin with and it looks like Samsung got everyone to work on the Note 10 instead, and it shows.
There’s a polished, razor-thin (yet elegant) metal frame that has no sharp edges and seamlessly blends into the curved glass panels on the front and the back. From the front, there’s just a display with thin strips of bezel at the top and the bottom.
The chunky hole-punch for the selfie camera is a lot smaller on the Note 10 than it is on the S10, the S10+ and even the S10e. It’s small enough to be forgotten on the large QHD+ 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, which does looks breathtaking whether you are binge-watching Stranger Things or admiring the brilliant visuals of David Attenborough’s Our Planet in HDR. Accompanying the gorgeous display is loud and clear sound, thanks to the inclusion of a dual-speaker setup.
The Aura Glow back is eye-catching and unique only to the Note 10 series, but I really disliked how smudgy the glass panel at the back can get on a smartphone that is priced at Rs 79,999. It’s bad enough that you will have to wipe the smudgy mess on your clothes every time you want to show it off to someone. If you can afford to own a smartphone that’s priced at Rs 80,000 you really don’t want to roam around with a microfiber cleaning cloth in your pocket.
What’s been improved upon?
The Note 10+ may feature the same optics as the Galaxy S10 Plus, but image processing has improved drastically, which was not all that exciting on the S10 Plus.
The portrait mode (Live Focus Photo, as Samsung calls it) works well and showcases sharp photos in daylight, but it has problems with details and textures indoors. In short, it’s still cannot defeat the Pixel 3 XL that’s now priced at around Rs 55,000.
Click on the comparison crops/samples below to view them in a higher/full resolution.
The new feature Samsung introduced this year was Live Focus Video. where portrait mode-style bokeh effects are applied to a video in real-time. The effects look great but I preferred to keep the setting to a minimum to make the blur effect (and others) look more natural.
You can have a look at the video embed below.
Night sight, that now appears as a dedicated camera mode, has improved drastically over the S10+ in terms of clarity and noise. But the images look a bit flat due to the lack of sharpness and aggressive noise reduction. What I did like is how Night mode can be accessed on all of the three cameras and even in selfie mode.
The Galaxy Note 10+ Video stabilisation is excellent, whether you are using the SuperSteady mode or even in regular mode. Samsung’s software works really hard on the front-facing camera as well, so this makes for a really good vlogging smartphone when mounted on a selfie stick. Still, I preferred sticking to 1080p@60 fps for the most stabilised video in all types of lighting conditions. 4K video looks great but is not as stable as 1080p footage. Low light scenes bring in a noticeable amount of noise but this is still not beating the iPhone XS’s video chops.
Battery life with a 4,300 mAh battery too has improved over the Note 9. Our standard PC Mark Work 2.0 Battery Life test delivered some impressive battery life times with 11 hours and 9 minutes on record, which is pretty good for a smartphone with a 6.8-inch QHD+ display. There’s a 25 W charger in the box that’s pretty quick (about an hour and a half) and if you need something quicker there’s a 45 W charger that you can purchase separately.
What's not been improved?
Samsung’s OneUI feels fluid (maybe the 12 GB RAM plays a part) but things haven’t really improved for the better.
The S Pen does serve the purpose of taking written notes (for people like me) and for artists who love to sketch, but Samsung trying to add another dimension to it with AR makes little sense and moreover, makes the stylus look gimmicky.
I’m pretty sure that from everything that was showcased on stage at the launch event, that demo of executives showing off AR scribbling was more cringe-worthy than fun. The gesture controls for manipulating the camera are almost as bad. Sure it’s cool, but would you wave your magic wand at a party or in public to semi-successfully control your camera? I would not. And anyway, how often would you place your phone so far away that you'd need gesture controls to begin with?
I loved how DeX worked on the Tab S5e. It made it possible to have a desktop-like interface when I really needed to do some serious work. DeX on the Note 10+ is a bit different, it works more like a connection between your phone and your laptop that allows you to access files stored in your phone and simply copy-paste them on to your Mac or Windows PC once you have the desktop app installed. It sounds like its seamless and works in theory, but it’s not really usable (read slow). The only advantage here is that you can directly upload a file from your PC/Mac to a smartphone app, like Instagram, which does not have a browser interface.
'Premium' doesn't necessarily mean 'best'
So, the Samsung Galaxy is the most premium-looking Android smartphone on sale in India right now (or at least until the Huawei Mate 30 Pro arrives, whenever it does). The Pixel 4’s are expected in the coming months too, but a Pixel is more Volvo than a Lamborghini, and the latter is what we really have here. It’s flashy, has great hardware under the hood, and the performance to wow when needed, it's just that the camera needs work.
My biggest gripe about the Note is that nothing much has changed over the Note 9 in terms of features. You get a better camera (flexibility of three lenses+ dedicated Night Mode), a bigger display, and better battery life. Which I believe is not enough to warrant an upgrade over a Galaxy Note 9.
While the display has improved (it might even be the best in the business) and so has the design, there’s really no innovation taking place here that brings something of value to the usual Note customer.
Huawei recently announced its Mate 30 Pro with the promise of delivering better video (Ultra Low-light, Ultra-slow Motion and Ultra-Wide Angle Time-lapse). It also gets rid of some physical buttons and includes 27 W wireless SuperCharging. Sadly, it does not have Google apps, which kind of saves Samsung from the embarrassment of having to compete with Huawei.
Keeping the Note 10’s premium pricing in mind:
I would recommend, holding on to your Note 10 purchase if a great still camera is a priority. There’s better stuff from Google headed our way in this price range around October.
If it’s hardcore gaming performance that you seek, then Asus’s ROG II (12 GB RAM at Rs 59,999) seems to have that covered. Do note that Samsung's Exynos still lags behind the Snapdragon 855+, which is available on phones selling below the Rs 40k price point.
If it’s video that you are after, the iPhone XS (Rs 89,900) still shoots the best HDR video and the iPhone 11 Pro (Rs 99,990) is expected to take things to a whole new level. (Spoiler Alert: We're still reviewing the new iPhones, but we can tell you right now, the cameras are rather epic).
Buy the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ if you desperately want a premium-looking Android smartphone with a good display and can bear with slower software updates. Or if you just cannot do without the S Pen.