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Samsung Galaxy Note10 Smartphone Deep Dive Review
A luxury device that is also highly pocketable
There's an elephant in this room. I'm gonna tell you about the Samsung Galaxy Note10, even though there are S20s out there. Why? Because people interested in Samsung Notes tend to be die-hard Note fans, and also because with the new S series starting at $1,000, you can still get a Note10 with its enhanced S Pen feature set for $949.
So why in 2020 would you consider the Note10 class? Take out your pen. Let's begin.
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In some of our videos, we've shown you smartphones which were great entry- or midlevel devices, but today we're talking Bugatti. We're talking Bentley. We are talking luxury.
The flagship, which started, in earnest, the race to the beautiful big-screen devices, is not your everyday smartphone. I'll let you know up front that I am a fan, but with real love comes honesty, so in this review we are going to take a look at all the awesome that is the Note10, and some of the quirks you need to know about.
If we're talking about luxury and comparing the Galaxy Note10 to cars, this phone is more comparable to a Porsche Boxster than a 911 Carrera, or for my fashion friends, the Note10 is more Coach than Hermes. And there's a reason for that.
The design of the Samsung Galaxy Note10
First, though, let's take a brief look at the hardware. Right side of the phone, you get nothing, nothing, sir! Left side is where all the action is. That's where you'll find the power button and volume rocker.
The bottom of the phone is where you'll find one part of the stereo sound apparatus powered by Dolby Atmos. Next, there you'll find a USB-C charge port, microphone, and market-segment standout feature, the S Pen.
Top of the phone you're gonna get a SIM tray (which on this model does not include expandable storage), a microphone, and a speaker port whose purpose is to provide better low-frequency response made into the almost imperceptible slit above the display on the front of the phone.
Imperceptible. I really love that word. Such a shame I don't get to use it that often in everyday conversation.
Any-who, also on the front is a 10-megapixel dual-pixel selfie camera, an under-display fingerprint sensor
And what a beautiful display it is. The Note10 features a 6.3-inch AMOLED 2280x1080 Infinity-O display. It's actually smaller than its Note10+ and 10+ 5G siblings, and we'll talk more about that shortly.
Around the back of the phone you'll get an optical image-stabilized 12-megapixel wide-angle camera and 12-megapixel telephoto camera, along with a 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera with 123˚ field of view. No time-of-flight depth-sensing camera on this device, but that is definitely not a deal-breaker. We'll get into that more in a moment.
And that's the hardware. It's impressive, but the Note line has always been about experience. So let's talk about the Samsung Galaxy Note10 experience.
Popular Samsung Galaxy Note10 cell phone plans
The Samsung Galaxy Note10 experience
It began its life with naysayers disparaging the notion of a phone big enough that one might need two hands to operate it, but cells were so solid that pillory quickly turned to praise, and here we are.
The Note10 is the full-circle generation in the Note lineup. Why is that? Because it's actually an entry-level Note phone for the first time. Note is all about size, and the nearly seven inches of the 10+ and 10+ 5G are fully in line with the Note mission. But after years of successful products—well, mostly successful—Samsung decided to offer a smaller, more pocket-friendly version of the device in an effort to woo new users, and for a phone known for its stature, the Note10 actually does feel small despite its 6.3-inch size. Samsung achieves this by giving you a phone which is almost all display and no bezel, and for those who are fans of compact phones, comfortable in pockets, I don't think there will be any disappointment.
The fingerprint sensor could be bigger
The fit and finish of the diminutive Note10 are what you've come to expect, despite one small complaint I have, and that's the fingerprint sensor. After having used some competitors' implementations, this one feels slow and the target area feels small. In my time with the phone, this was the main negative that I found.
Face unlock works well
Face unlock works reliably and consistently, and I love the little light ring around the front-facing camera which lets you know that face unlock is working or not. It's a nice touch, and once you unlock the phone, you unlock one of the best sight and sound experiences on the market, in my opinion.
The Samsung Galaxy Note10's HDR10+ display
The Galaxy Note10 impressed me with its HDR10+ display and stereo speakers. Watching some of my favorite indie anime, these tiny speakers produce great spatial separation. Animation on this display really comes to life and looks three-dimensional.
Let's dive into that for just a moment. One thing HDR, or high dynamic range, allows for is a wider range of colors to be used on film and video on your device.
This becomes subtly apparent on shows like Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix. In non-HDR scenes with ninja in the shadows, all you see is their uniforms as they lurk in those dark spaces. But on a display with sufficient back lighting paired with HDR, you'll actually notice pops of color in the darker areas of the image where their uniforms are black with red areas on their legs and arms. In standard formats you don't see that red, but with proper back lighting and HDR, subtleties in the image come to life. (This is true of the small displays and larger televisions alike, FYI.)
Shop for the Samsung Galaxy Note10
The Samsung Galaxy Note10's cameras
One thing missing from the Note10, which you get on the Note10+ and 10+ 5G, is depth-sensing cameras, but that isn't a deal-breaker. The depth-sensing, or time-of-flight, cameras are for improving the quality of the effects these cameras are able to achieve with their combination of hardware and software these days, but I didn't feel limited by the lack of those cameras on this Note10.
The software on this phone does a fine job of separating foreground from background. It does a solid job even in low light, but on the back cameras, where you would've had the time-of-flight sensors to add to the imaging, it's been able to separate the foreground from the background and remove color from the image.
Low-light capabilities and Night mode
The low-light capture capabilities of the Note10 are really good as well, but Night mode gives you a subtle upgrade to those capabilities if you really want to catch something in near darkness. There are always trade-offs when you brighten up dark images in the form of grain, but in most images with the Galaxy Note10, you won't really notice it too much until you zoom in. But what you do get is more color. Parts of the image which weren't exposed in the dark shot will be visible in Night mode.
Built-in camera stabilizer and tracking auto focus
Having spent my adult life, pretty much, in the film and TV industry, I don't generally get too excited about the capabilities of smartphone cameras, but I was actually taken by surprise, as was my father, who's been in the business since before I was born, with the Note10's video feature called Super Steady VDIS, or video image stabilization, combined with their tracking auto focus.
Check out the video to see two pieces of footage that look like the camera was on a gimbal or Steadicam rig. I was candidly capturing my brother's birthday, and I actually wasn't even thinking about being smooth at all. It wasn't until I watched the videos back a few minutes later that I was stunned to see how smooth it was. When I showed my dad, he was equally impressed.
The video image stabilization is one of the best implementations of image stabilization for video that I've seen so far in a smartphone.
The Samsung Galaxy Note10's software
My review unit is running Android 10 with Samsung's One UI 2.0 on top, and the experience is wonderful. Again, the fit and finish are what you'd expect when paying this much for a phone.
There are so many ways to interact with this phone and its notifications and messaging that you really have to take some time to go through the Settings menu and customize the user experience to your liking. If you did nothing, you'd still have a solid experience, but little things like going into the Advanced menu, then the Motion and Gestures menu and turning on Palm Swipe to capture screenshots, or Lift to Wait, or Smart Stay, make the experience that much more intuitive.
Here are some other features you should check out:
- If you use more than one username in messaging apps, you have the Dual Messenger menu, which will allow you to simultaneously log in to multiple messaging apps.
- You get the Digital Wellbeing menu, which allows you to set time limits and parental controls if you've purchased this phone for a very lucky younger user.
- If you're gonna use the Always On display, you can go into the Lock Screen menu and really customize it. If you're really into that I recommend going into the Galaxy Themes menu and checking out some of the aftermarket AOD, or always on display, images.
There are some really fun things to choose from there to help you make this phone your own, as if paying all that money for it doesn't.
One area where One UI still has plenty of feature creep is the notification shade dropdown options. There are a ton of them. So I always recommend going in and editing them so that the shortcuts you use most frequently are easily accessed, and then removing the rest. For those you find important but infrequently use, you can just reorder the icons and move those further back on the list.
The Samsung Galaxy Note10's battery life
The Note10 actually comes with a smaller battery than the previous generation Note9 to enable its small size. The Note9 had a 4,000 mAh battery, while the Note10 clocks in at 3,500 mAh.
On one of my busiest days, the phone did see me through 16 hours of use, coming off the charger at 4:00 a.m. and winding down to 8% left around 8:00 p.m., but I'm not a heavy phone caller. That smaller battery is going to mean you'll probably need to top off much earlier in the day than me if you talk more.
The good news on the smaller battery is that it is quick-charge compatible and should get you a quarter of your battery life back in around 15 minutes with the included 25-watt charger.
The S Pen
Then the piece de resistance, the S Pen.
The Samsung Galaxy Note10 smartphone with the S Pen.
This time around you get some fun, if gimmicky, features, and the AR Doodle, which allows you to draw on live images and then have whatever you've drawn follow the person around.
S Pen air actions allow you to control certain camera functions by pressing the pen button and making a gesture, which is great if you have the phone on a tripod.
One of the more useful features is the ability to convert handwriting to text, then export it to a Word doc, PDF, or other file type. The one bugger with this is that if you aren't in the Samsung Notes app—say you're writing with the screen off—you're gonna have to jump into the Samsung Notes app to translate the handwriting to text, then export from there.
You also have Live Type, but if you're someone who uses the S Pen often and Live Type, you're gonna have to go through a couple menus to get to it, which I didn't find to be an issue at all.
Recap: Is the Samsung Galaxy Note10 worth it?
So some folks don't want or need a Hermes bag and are quite content with Coach. That Porsche Boxster or Range Rover Discovery scratches your high-end itch, so you don't need the 911 Carrera 4S or standard Range Rover.
With the Note10, there are plenty of high-end bells and whistles while keeping costs down, and in this case you have a luxury device that is also highly pocketable. For those wanting what Samsung's Note line has to offer but without the massive screen size, this is it.
Fit and finish for the discerning buyer all the way around.