The most phone
How much would you pay to have a stylus in your phone?
That’s the essential question for the Note 10 Plus. It wasn’t always this way: the Note line has meant a few different things over its eight-year history. It was the first phone that convinced us that big screens were great, the phone that proved there was a market for a super powerful Android phone, and (of course) the phone that had to be recalled because its battery lit on fire.
Save for the stylus, all of those things (except, thankfully, the battery thing) no longer differentiate the Note. There are plenty of big, powerful Android phones. They mostly cost hundreds less than the $1,100 starting price of the Note 10 Plus. Samsung sells the Galaxy S10 Plus, which is nigh indistinguishable from the Note 10 Plus to the average person.
Unless you count that stylus.
The Note 10 Plus does a million things, some of which manage to rise above the level of the typical Samsung gimmick. It is a big, beautiful, powerful, well-made phone. You can take all of that for granted, which is an achievement in and of itself. But this year, there’s so much competition in the Android world that the only thing that should drive your purchase decision is the little metal stick sitting inside of it.
So let’s start with the S Pen.
It probably seems weird to the uninitiated, but Note people know: using a stylus on your phone is great. You get a greater degree of precision with all sorts of tasks and a few extra features that aren’t possible without it. But it also just feels different — and often better — to jot on the screen rather than tap on it. Especially on something as large as the Note 10 Plus, it’s handy to write out a quick note on the lock screen.
The S Pen itself is nothing special. There’s still a little clicker cap to fiddle with and a single button for some functions, it still charges inside the phone’s silo, and it still does basic tilt detection when you use it to draw on the screen.
This year, the new additions are an accelerometer and a gyroscope. Samsung uses those along with Bluetooth to turn the S Pen into a kind of magic wand to control your phone. By waving around the stylus in the air, you can make stuff happen on your phone. I got it to work from as far as 15 feet away.
It’s neat, but it’s also mostly a gimmick — at least for now. It only works with a few apps, like the camera or Spotify. To use it, hold your finger down on the button and give it a little flick or spin. In the camera, you can switch modes, take a photo, or zoom in. In Spotify, you can adjust the volume or switch tracks. Samsung says more apps could add support, thanks to a new SDK, but we’ll have to see if that actually happens. In the meantime, it’s a fun trick to show to your nerdiest friends and not much more.
The upgrade for the S Pen that really matters isn’t on the stylus itself; it’s in Samsung’s software on the phone: optical character recognition (OCR) is finally integrated into Samsung Notes, the app that powers the screen-off memo feature that automatically launches when you pull the S Pen out of its silo. That means you can search for the quick notes you’ve jotted down, extract the text from it to copy elsewhere, convert it directly into text within the note, or even (hilariously) export it into a Word document.
OCR isn’t a new thing on Android phones. It’s possible to do all of the above inside the free Google Keep app or even by taking a screenshot and opening it with Google Lens. But integrating OCR into Samsung Notes removes all of those extra steps.
The other place where the S Pen really shines in Samsung’s software is in its new built-in video editing tool. It makes it easy to chain clips together and add very basic transitions, effects, backing music, and edits. Unlike Adobe Rush or iMovie on the iPhone, the interface is dead simple and intuitive.
Video editing is way easier when you have the precise controls the stylus gives you. For example, it’s easier to cut exactly where you want to. The control buttons also don’t need to be extra large to accommodate your big fingers, so it’s easier to see everything you need on one screen. For quick stuff, it’s great. I was able to string three clips together, trim each of them, and have a working video in just a minute or two. You wouldn’t want to do much more than that on a phone, anyway.
The Note 10 Plus also has an “AR Doodle” feature, which technically doesn’t require the stylus but is way more fun with it. It has two modes: the first recognizes faces and lets you draw directly on them; when you record a video, the little mustaches and horns move with your subject. But the “Everywhere” mode is much more impressive. It lets you sketch stuff in real space, and those things stay pinned in space quite well. It’s a little like Google’s Tiltbrush AR / VR app, but it’s shrunk down on a phone.
Both of these AR Doodle effects are a blast to play with, but they are also basically gimmicks. After running around the office and showing off the reality-distorting water creatures that I drew to my co-workers, everybody agreed it was neat. But nobody said, “Oh, I need this.” Unlike the OCR in Samsung Notes, you’ll probably stop using AR Doodle after a week or two.
The S Pen does a million other things that are all selectable from the menu that pops up when you pull it out. It can magnify stuff the screen, it can reduce an app to a little thumbnail that pins itself to your screen until you hover over it to glance at it, and it’s still the best way to create and edit a screenshot on a phone.
At this point, you’re either giddy with excitement over this little stick, or you’re shrugging. That’s fair. I do think the stylus is the only important reason to pick the Note 10 Plus over the Galaxy S10 Plus or some other big Android phone. And how much you’re into it is an entirely personal decision.
I wrote earlier that you could take the fact that the Note 10 Plus is a good, well-made phone for granted. That’s true. But I want to underline that what you’re taking for granted is that the Note 10 Plus has the nicest phone hardware you can get. There are other phones that come close — some from Apple, some from Samsung — but the Note 10 Plus is just a little nicer in addition to being a little bigger.
It starts, as it always does, with the screen. It has a 6.8-inch AMOLED display, but because Samsung is so good at making it go very nearly edge to edge, it fits in a body that’s about the same size as last year’s Note 9, which had a smaller 6.3-inch display. There’s a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera, but it’s small, centered at the top, and way less distracting and intrusive than any notch.
The screen is big, bright, color-accurate, and beautiful. About the only superlative you can’t use is that it doesn’t offer the 90Hz refresh rate you can get on the OnePlus 7 Pro or other gaming phones. But I never missed that, and it’s likely you won’t either. This screen and this phone look like the future in a way even the iPhone hasn’t managed in a long time.
The phone comes with a factory-applied screen protector out of the box. It’s plastic and fine, but it probably won’t last as long as something you buy and apply yourself. And yes: it is safe to remove it without damaging the phone.
Samsung is also selling a smaller Note 10 for $949, which is about the size of a Galaxy S10 with a 6.3-inch screen. It lacks the super high-resolution screen, big battery, expandable storage, and extra RAM that make the Note 10 Plus a spec monster, but I suspect most people wouldn’t miss any of that. If you prefer a smaller phone and want a stylus, it’s an intriguing option. Unfortunately, it’s also an option I haven’t had a chance to review yet — so expect more on that after I’ve used it.
Samsung offers the Note 10 Plus in a few colors, but the one you’re seeing in this review is called “aura glow.” Even if you aren’t into that kind of bling, you will find that the Note 10 Plus is well-made, like a designer handbag or a nice watch.
I keep thinking of it as a luxury object, something that’s just slightly better in its fit and finish, but in a way that’s basically unnecessary. Like other luxury objects, it’s a little ostentatious and costs more than it ought to because you’re paying for the brand and the idea of having it in the first place.
Along with the stylus and the big screen, the other thing the Note line has always stood for is the best specs. That’s true here, too: the Note 10 Plus has a fast Snapdragon 855 processor, 12GB of RAM, a 4,300mAh battery, and plenty of (expandable) storage. The $1,100 model comes with 256GB, or you can pay $100 more for 512GB.
But top-flight specs don’t set apart the Note line anymore. Pretty much any Android phone that costs over $650 — and many that cost less — has the same processor and can offer the same basic performance.
The Note 10 Plus also fails to differentiate itself in another way: it’s the first Samsung flagship to lose the headphone jack. Samsung says it did that to make room for more battery. And sure, battery life has been great for me. But also :(
The camera setup on the Note 10 Plus is virtually unchanged from what Samsung offers on the Galaxy S10 lineup: three lenses on the back and a single selfie camera. Their quality is virtually unchanged, too, which is to say I’m generally impressed.
This is the part of every smartphone review where we all say that the Pixel 3 is still slightly better, at least when you blow up the photos and analyze them. That is true (doubly true in difficult lighting conditions where the Note 10 Plus can’t hold up to Google’s computational photography chops).
But it also doesn’t matter to me as much as it used to. The Note 10 Plus’ photos might be 10 or 20 percent worse than the Pixel’s, but both (and the iPhone) still don’t match what you can get out of a high-end point-and-shoot or mirrorless standalone camera. If you are happy with your phone and want great photos, spend your thousand bucks on a great camera.
It also matters less because the Note 10 Plus’ photos are generally great and — here’s the important part — more fun to shoot. I love switching between the ultrawide and the telephoto. Samsung’s camera app is actually reliable (unlike the Pixel’s), and it manages to cram in a ton of modes without becoming completely overwhelming. To my astonishment, I love the Note’s “Food” mode, which adds some blur and saturation to any macro shot.
The Note 10 Plus also handily beats the Pixel 3 when it comes to video quality (though it still can’t quite hold up to the iPhone XS). Samsung added a few new features to its video app this time around. There’s Live Focus for adding background blur (or weird glitch effects) behind your subject. It is not good. There’s slightly improved video stabilization, but it’s not up to the level of what you can get out of a GoPro or a standalone gimbal.
Next, there’s the “Zoom-in Mic” feature. It uses three microphones to detect where sound is coming from, so when you zoom in on video, it makes the sound from your subject louder and dampens the sound from elsewhere. It does work, but the effect is super subtle.
Finally, the Note 10 Plus has a depth sensor and comes with a built-in app that can measure the size of objects — sometimes automatically. Sometime in the future, Samsung will release an app that lets you create rough 3D scans of objects to use in your own AR videos. I don’t think any of that is bad, but I also don’t think you’ll use any of it very often.
Recently, I praised Samsung for getting its act together and adding a little more elegance and clarity to its software, One UI. Unfortunately, with the Note 10 Plus, Samsung is reverting to the norm. Though the phone is still relatively easy to navigate, the number and breadth of software features piled on here are starting to feel scattershot and gimmicky again.
Sadly, the biggest example of Samsung’s software problems is DeX, the feature I was most interested in. Until now, DeX let you plug your phone into a monitor to give a desktop interface for your phone’s apps. With the Note 10 Plus, Samsung is offering apps for both Windows and Mac, so you can interact with your phone right from your laptop.
I was intrigued because most people don’t carry around monitors, so being able to use DeX with the machine you actually do own could be great. Getting files between Android phones and computers has always been a hassle, but DeX promised direct drag and drop between operating systems. Plus, it would give you desktop access to all of the texting apps on your phone.
The problem is that Samsung’s desktop DeX apps are bad. Getting DeX to work on a Mac was a fiasco. Even when it worked, it was slow and couldn’t easily transfer multiple files. The situation was slightly better on Windows, but not by much.
The next example of Samsung’s “more is more” approach to software is its partnership with Microsoft. Microsoft makes solid Android apps now, and they’re bundled on the Note 10 Plus — alongside support for the Your Phone app on Windows (which, by the way, is not solid).
That’s all well and good, but it also means that the problem of duplicate apps has gotten worse. There are now three email apps preinstalled on the Note: Gmail, Samsung email, and Outlook.
Of course, I can’t mention software without mentioning that Samsung still does a terrible job of getting major Android operating system updates pushed out to its phones. It does manage to get security updates out in a timely manner, but if you care about having Android Q within six months (or more) of its release, look elsewhere.
There’s so much stuff in the Note 10 Plus that it can be dizzying. Samsung’s software just barely manages to contain it all and stay comprehensible. It really does have everything (except a headphone jack). I like some of it and I hate some of it, but none of it is a reason to either buy or skip this phone.
The specs, massive screen, and design combine to make the Note 10 Plus a smartphone that goes to 11 for $1,100. But — again — there are Android phones and even Samsung phones that cost hundreds of dollars less and get you nearly there. The OnePlus 7 Pro is amazing, the Pixel 4 is only a couple of months away, and the Galaxy S10 Plus is not all that different from the Note.
Every one of those phones is a more sensible purchase than the Note 10 Plus. But none of them are anywhere near as nice to hold, look at, or use. I love how luxurious the Note 10 Plus’ hardware is, but I can’t say that’s a good reason to buy this phone, either.
That means, for most people, it really does come down to the S Pen stylus. It may work like a wand, but it’s not so magical that I think non-stylus people will be enchanted enough to spend hundreds of dollars extra to get the Note 10 Plus.
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