Samsung’s 5.3-inch Galaxy Note: Giant Phone Meets Tiny Tablet

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When it comes to smartphones, apparently big is the new small. Thin is still in, to be sure, but screen sizes have been steadily inching their way into the weird limboland between phones and the current crop of 7-inch tablets. The latest device that’s sure to raise a few eyebrows when it hits the market is the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note, which either looks like a cute little Android tablet or a badass Android smartphone depending upon your disposition.

(MORE: Check out Techland’s coverage of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show)

As a phone, it’s so big it’s almost comical. There’s just something about it, though. Unlike Dell’s failed (and poorly named, I might add) “Streak” 5-inch phone/tablet car wreck from last year — which was chunky, clunky, poorly marketed and ran woefully outdated software — the market might finally be ready for something like the Galaxy Note.

Tablet fever is at an all-time high, but they’re still non-essential luxury items for most people. With the Galaxy Note, you get an ambitious device that attempts to bridge the smartphone-tablet gap. It’ll run on AT&T’s shiny new 4G LTE network, features a dual-core processor, and despite its massive surface area, measures about the same thickness as the iPhone.

It’s also got a stylus – remember those? — which Samsung has been overly zealous about not calling a stylus. It’s marketed as the “S Pen” instead. The S stands for smart, the tech buzzword du jour. Samsung actually calls it an “advanced smart pen” to leave no doubt that this stylus-like pen is different than a stylus. As far as you and I are concerned, though, the S Pen is basically a stylus with a button on it that you can use to manipulate certain apps and draw on the screen.

(MORE: Why Samsung’s 5-Inch and 7-Inch Tablets May Get It Right)

While the idea to include a stylus with a mobile device in this day and age may seem crazy at worst, and unnecessary at best – the huge screen is plenty fat-finger friendly, after all – the S Pen is precise enough and the screen is responsive enough that Samsung actually hired caricaturists to capture the likenesses of any CES-goers who had enough time on their hands to pose for a caricature in the middle of the biggest, busiest tech show of the year.

In other words, we’re not talking about the squiggly, jagged, obviously digital chicken scratch from the early Palm Pilot days. This thing seems to actually do an admirable job at replicating the experience of writing on paper – not that anyone remembers how to do that anymore.

As fate would have it, I happened to bump into Anya Ayoung-Chee, the fashion designer who won season nine of Project Runway, while waiting for a Samsung rep to give me a demonstration of the Galaxy Note (you can see both Ayoung-Chee and the aforementioned demo in the above video). As she was playing around with the Galaxy Note, she had the look of someone who was busy imagining all of the different things this one new thing could replace.

She mentioned that she’s constantly carrying around her own sketches and inspirational magazine clippings, and that she’d be able to shrink all of it down into the Galaxy Note. She also revealed that the touch-based computers and styluses all the contestants on Project Runway used (HP is a big sponsor of the show) never really worked that well for sketching. “If I had this,” she said, referring to the Galaxy Note, “I really would be able to use it for all of my sketching.”

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It’s unlikely that the Galaxy Note is going to appeal to the masses due to its size, but it could very well find a following with people like Ayoung-Chee. And AT&T’s preliminary marketing material for the device highlights Exchange ActiveSync and VPN support, which is a sign that the Galaxy Note will target corporate users and, perhaps more tellingly, will probably be too expensive for casual consumers. AT&T and Samsung won’t budge on pricing details, unfortunately.

That being said, the Galaxy Note may be able to catch on with a subset of regular people who need a smartphone and want a tablet, but can’t justify the cost of owning both or don’t want to carry multiple devices around. Its 1280×800-resolution screen is on par with most of today’s tablets, and there’s no need to spring for a second mobile data plan like you’d have to in order to get online with a tablet while you’re out and about.

Of course, there are a couple things that could derail the Galaxy Note faster than you can remove the stylus — sorry, S Pen — from its housing. Namely astronomical pricing and horrendous battery life, two things that happen to be somewhat common with these newfangled 4G LTE devices. With some models of 4G LTE smartphones carrying price tags of $300 with a two-year contract, it’s hard to imagine the Galaxy Note being any less expensive than that.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t cost exponentially more. I think $400 would be doable; maybe even $500, but I have an uneasy feeling that we might be in for some sticker shock. After all, you’re getting a tablet and a smartphone, right? The 2,500 mAh battery is a bit more reassuring, as most other standard smartphone batteries don’t clear the 2,000 mAh mark.

Whatever the case, if the Galaxy Note’s price is right and it performs well in real-world testing, I’ll be intrigued to see how regular consumers take to it. Samsung’s PR team wouldn’t give me a firm release date for the device, but AT&T says it’ll be here “in the coming weeks.”

(MORE: AT&T’s 4G LTE Lineup: Six Android Devices and Two Windows Phones)