Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ hands-on: A new model changes the game, for better or worse

Samsung has unveiled the Galaxy Note 10 and Galaxy Note 10+, dividing the line between "good enough" and "great."

When I picked up the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, it felt like I was holding the most powerful and beautiful phone on the planet. A 6.3-inch display, near-bezel-less design, triple-camera array, and supercharged S Pen are all crammed into an impossibly compact design. And then I picked up the Note 10+.

For the first time in the Note’s storied history, there are two sizes to choose from, and the difference between the two models couldn’t be clearer. While Samsung has set up the Galaxy S10 and S10+ smartphones to be mostly larger and smaller versions of the same device, the Note 10+ is a clear upgrade from the Note 10—so much so that many fans likely won’t even consider the smaller, lower-end model.

First, let’s review the specs, which really don’t tell the whole story...

Galaxy Note 10

  • Dimensions: 71.8 x 151 x 7.9mm
  • Display: 6.3-inch AMOLED FHD 2280 x 1080
  • Processor: Snapdragon 855
  • RAM: 8GB
  • Storage: 256GB
  • Camera: 12MP telephoto Camera, f/2.1, OIS + 12MP wide-angle, dual f/1.5-f/2.4, OIS + 16MP Ultra wide (123 degrees), f/2.1
  • Battery: 3,500mAh

Galaxy Note 10+

  • Dimensions: 77.2 x 162.3 x 7.9mm
  • Display: 6.8-inch AMOLED QHD 3040 x 1440
  • Processor: Snapdragon 855
  • RAM: 12GB
  • Storage: 256GB/512GB
  • Camera: 12MP telephoto Camera, f/2.1, OIS + 12MP wide-angle, dual f/1.5-f/2.4, OIS + 16MP Ultra wide (123 degrees), f/2.1 + DepthVision
  • Battery: 4,300mAh

While the 6.8-inch display might make the Note 10+ seem like a monster on paper, it’s not nearly so big in person. In fact, its frame is roughly the same size as the 6.4-inch Note 9's (76.4 x 161.9 x 8.8mm). That’s because Samsung has seriously trimmed down the bezels on the Note 10 series, so much so that the non-plus version feels downright puny. It’s not just smaller than the Note 9 and the Note 8 either. Millimeter for millimeter, it’s the most compact Note since the Note 2, and its display is actually a tenth of an inch smaller than the Note 9's.

note 10 note 9 compare Michael Simon/IDG

The 6.3-inch Note 10 (left) is positively tiny compared to the 6.4-inch Note 9.

That makes the Note 10 feel less like the latest in the lineage of premium phablets and more like a Galaxy S phone that happens to have a stylus. That’s not a criticism, nor does the Note 10 feels cheap or even inferior. It just doesn’t feel like a Note. In fact, Samsung made its motivations clear during my briefing: This is the Note for people who’ve always wanted a Note, but have been put off by its size. It’s truly impressive that Samsung was able to pack such a large-screened and high-performing device into such a small package, but I don’t think long-time Note fans will appreciate the dip in screen size, even if it is just a tenth of an inch.

Other tweaks—like the relatively low-res HD screen and the lack of an MicroSD card slot, both nonstarters for Note die-hards—only drive home that notion further. For the first time, Samsung has made a Note that Note fans probably won't want. 

The Note 10+, on the other hand, is every inch a phablet. Its screen is the biggest I’ve used in a Samsung phone (or in any phone for that matter), and it includes the high-end features that are missing from the smaller Note 10, mainly a Quad HD 1440p display. The difference between the two displays is obvious at even a first glance. Even after a short time with it, I have no qualms about declaring the Note 10+’s display as the best to ever grace a smartphone.

note 10 selfie cam Michael Simon/IDG

The centered selfie cam hole is much less distracting on the Note 10.

Like on the S10, the Note 10+’s dynamic AMOLED display is a stunner. The Note 10’s design complements it even more, with barely any bezels and a more symmetrical camera cutout. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to holding a floating pane of touchscreen glass in my hand. That said, the Note 10 is still very much a Note, down to its trademark tight corners, flat edges, and shell colors, which of course includes the usual white, black, and blue. There’s also a new "Aura Glow" iridescent option that changes color based on how the light strikes it.

Less and more

Samsung used the word “purposeful” several times during my briefing, and its deliberate design process is evident in two obvious ways: the elimination of both the Bixby button and the headphone jack.

note 10 ports Michael Simon/IDG

You’re not missing it—there really isn’t a headphone jack on the Note 10.

Samsung has finally succumbed to iPhone-led peer pressure, dumping the legacy port from one of its flagship phones. That’s probably not going to sit too well with Note fans, and it’s definitely surprising that Samsung chose this phone as the sacrificial lamb and not the Galaxy S.

Samsung said the headphone jack was removed to make the device more compact, and at 7.9mm, there’s no denying its thinness. But it’s actually a tenth of a millimeter thicker than the S10, so clearly there just wasn’t room for two holes on the Note 10 anymore. And Samsung wasn’t about to sacrifice the Note 10’s identity—the S Pen—for a legacy audio jack. To compensate, Samsung is providing a pair of AKG USB-C earbuds in the box, but if you’re planning on using a pair of wired headphones, it’s BYOD (bring your own dongle).

The loss of the Bixby button probably won’t be lamented by Note fans, but it’s no less of a surprising decision. As with Bixby itself, the dedicated button on Galaxy phones has been around since the S8, but with the Note 10, Samsung has dumped it in favor of a customizable power button. Curiously, it’s in the same spot as the Bixby button, below the volume rocker on the left edge, leaving the right side completely smooth. It’s an odd sensation that will take some serious getting used to, but it wouldn’t be a Samsung flagship without at least one head-scratching design decision.

Gestures with a wand

The S Pen slot remains in its usual spot in the bottom right corner, and like prior Note updates, the S Pen brings some new tricks to the party. The stylus itself has gotten something of a revamp, with a new unibody shell and a slightly more ergonomic design. It’s the same size as before and just as skinny, but holding it in a position to use the button definitely feels more natural.

note 10 s pen Michael Simon/IDG

The S Pen has some new tricks on the Note 10.

Samsung has leveraged the Bluetooth chip that was introduced with last year’s Note to pump up the Note 10’s remote powers. In addition to launching apps and pausing music, you can also wave the Note 10’s S Pen to do things like change the camera mode and zoom. It worked well enough when I tried it, but the intended use cases seem awfully limited. Plus, the whole mechanism is likely to be overshadowed by what’s coming in the Pixel 4 and its Soli-powered radars.

Far more useful is the Note’s new handwriting conversion algorithm. Converting your S Notes into usable text is hardly a new concept for the Note, but Samsung is making a much bigger deal out of it this time around, celebrating a machine-learning algorithm that has been fed hundreds of thousands of handwriting samples. As you scribble, your Note will automatically begin deciphering what you write in more than 60 languages, so you’ll be able to search your notes even if you don’t convert them for use in another app. In the demo I was shown, the Note easily and instantly converted a sloppy note to a usable Word file with all punctuation and spacing intact.

Bells and whistles

The rear camera on the Note 10 and Note 10+ are the same as the ones on the S10 and S10 5G, respectively, so you’ll get a fourth depth-sensing lens on the bigger model for crisp portraits. The S10’s Live Focus Video and Super Steady mode make an appearance, as well as an improved on-device video editor, but for the most part, the camera will be an acceptable, but hardly groundbreaking improvement over the Note 9.

note 10 glow Michael Simon/IDG

The Note 10’s new Aurora Glow color reflects every bit of light it sees.

Other marketing bells and whistles  include the “slimmest vapor chamber" cooling mechanism, 45W fast charging, and AR Doodle, all of which will have little to no effect on the vast majority of Note 10 users’ day-to-day experiences. Because the Note 10 is a 2019 flagship phone, there will also be a 5G version of the Plus model, which will be exclusive to Verizon for a limited time.

The Note 10 and Note 10+ will be available for pre-order beginning Friday for $950 and $1,100, respectively. They will hit shelves on August 23.