The Galaxy Note10+ is the biggest Galaxy Note Samsung's released yet (which tends to be the case every year), but I'll get straight to the point: it's quite possibly the one with the fewest differences from its smaller Galaxy S siblings, as well. Even size doesn't seem to be much of a differentiator anymore, as the six-month-old Galaxy S10+ is a scant few millimeters shorter and narrower than the mighty Note10+. This is where I've ended up after using the phone for a couple of weeks, and I just can't shake that comparison.

For the stylus die-hards, the Note remains without meaningful competition. Improved on-screen handwriting recognition and additional remote camera control features keep the S Pen feeling fresh (in theory), though you're not going to see any game-changing updates over the Note9 there. The Note10+ does pack some year-over-year upgrades worth talking about: the battery is a little under 10% larger, and the screen has a little over 10% more surface area. There's a new Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor and double the storage and RAM — 12GB, an amount whose usefulness outside technical marketing is questionable — and you get the first true fast charging in a flagship Samsung phone (25W with the included charger, 45W if you buy the ultra-fast charger). You also get an ultrawide rear camera, an upgraded selfie camera, and Samsung's controversial in-display fingerprint scanner.

On paper, then, the new Note is a real step up from last year's. The problem is that many of those upgrades debuted on the Galaxy S10+ earlier this year, and that phone has gone on discount so frequently that Samsung's $999 MSRP simply doesn't apply. With the Note10+ coming in at an eye-watering $1100 while an S10+ has frequently been up for grabs for $800 or less, Samsung's biggest competition would seem to be itself. While the stylus-faithful probably aren't interested in that value proposition, for those who simply bought the Note because it was the best Samsung phone, it's increasingly difficult to ignore.

Specs

Processor Snapdragon 855
RAM 12GB
Storage 256/512GB + microSD slot
Display 6.8" curved OLED, Quad HD (1440 x 3040) with HDR10+, Gorilla Glass 6
Battery 4300mAh with 25W (in-box charger) charging, up to 45W (sold separately), 15W fast wireless charging
Rear cameras 12MP f/1.5-2.4 (primary), 12MP f/2.1 (telephoto), 16MP f/2.2 (ultra-wide), ToF 3D camera
Front camera 10MP f/2.2 wide-angle
Software Android 9 Pie with Samsung OneUI 1.5
Headphone jack No
Fingerprint sensor In-display, ultrasonic
Ruggedization IP68
Measurements 162.3 x 77.2 x 7.9mm, 196g
Price $1100-1200 (4G) or $1300-1400 (5G)

The Good

Display It's big and it's beautiful. Samsung continues to set the bar for mobile displays, and though there's not much improvement over the S10+, it's still the top of the heap.
Cameras You've got a ton of them and they're pretty good! Samsung has finally improved the woeful telephoto sensor, at least a little, with a larger aperture so it can draw in more light.
Battery life I'm easily getting nearly 7 hours of screen time on the Note10+, which is marginally better than what I managed with the already-good S10+.
Charging 25 Watt fast charging is a real improvement, and I'm curious to see how much faster the 45 Watt charger is. As is, it takes around an hour to fully juice the Note10+.
Performance While not as manic and responsive as the OnePlus 7 Pro, the Note10+ feels plenty quick. And you've got more RAM than most laptops (which is of questionable benefit).

The Not So Good

Price $1100 is just a ton of money when the nearly-as-good Galaxy S10+ is available for hundreds less.
Fingerprint scanner In any practical sense, Samsung's scanners are the slowest and least reliable of almost any high-end phone in 2019, and can be frustrating to use as a result.
Cameras As good as they are, Samsung's low light capabilities just don't match Google or Huawei's, and even daylight photo quality doesn't offer the Pixel's consistency.
Updates Samsung is very bad at providing them in a timely manner. Android 10 phones will begin launching this fall. The Note10+ will be stuck on Android 9 Pie until spring 2020 if history is any indicator. That's embarrassing.
Headphone jack You won't be finding one here, but Samsung does include a very good set of USB-C earbuds in the box.

Hardware, design, cameras

 

Samsung's slow and steady evolution of the hardware language introduced way back with the Galaxy Note5 continues apace with the Note10+, this time most noticeably with a more modern-looking rounded rectangle camera module up at the top left corner of the phone. I find cameras positioned this way do have a real functional benefit, in that that they're considerably less difficult to smudge. Some may bemoan that this means the Note is getting a camera hump, but given this thing's massive dimensions, resultingly terrible edge touch rejection, and obvious fragility, you'd have to be positively nuts to not put it in a case. The OnePlus 7 Pro is a huge phone, but the Note10+ is just that little bit huger, and it does make a difference.

People will undoubtedly be divided about the new pinhole camera cutout. Personally, I find I notice it more when watching videos and when text clips the threshold as I scroll since it's nearer to the center of my field of vision. But it doesn't bother me, it's fine! I can't say I was a fan of the S10+'s larger double-cutout, but that was never a big deal in my mind, either.

The "Infinity O" cutout may be controversial for some, but I didn't mind it much.

Finally on the way out of Samsung phones is the 3.5mm jack, and while I'll never celebrate its removal, it's increasingly clear that most people just don't care about it. The average Note fan may be more likely than most to be a little miffed over this change, but between the excellent AKG USB-C earbuds Samsung includes in the box, I find it harder and harder to really get annoyed about this. USB-C headphones do exist now, and the quality of most adapters today is virtually indistinguishable from a built-in jack.

Perplexingly, Samsung has done away with the dedicated power key on the Note10+, which is weird! I still maintain this was because Samsung wanted to eliminate all buttons from the Note entirely and was forced to add some back at the last minute, and the end result is a seemingly pointless layout change. I got used to having my power button on the left hand side of the phone, but it never felt natural. This is undoubtedly something you'd adapt to, but I never fully got there during my testing. This key doubles as the Bixby button, which you can thankfully turn off entirely and proceed to never think about Bixby again (and after disabling Bixby home, or switching launchers). By default, Samsung has set up the Note10+ such that the power and restart functions are only accessible for the quick settings panel, which is a bit weird. But, you can reconfigure the physical button in the software such that long-pressing just brings up the usual shutdown and restart options, restoring it to its rightful function as a dedicated power key.

The Bixby-come-power key is, mercifully, customizable.

The screen, physical hardware, and things like the speaker, haptics, and overall look and feel aren't too much different from the Galaxy S10+. Also inherited from the Galaxy S10 series is Samsung's Qualcomm-sourced ultrasonic fingerprint scanner, and I'm still not a fan. The scanner is relatively fast and accurate when you finger is placed exactly where it needs to go on the scanner, but I so frequently am unable to find that spot that my error rate is far greater than on phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro or Huawei P30 Pro. It's just not a good experience.

The other thing I really came to loathe a bit about the Note10+ — something directly correlated with its size and unforgivingly sharp corners — was just how bad it was at rejecting edge input on the touchscreen. As a result, even taking photos was difficult with this phone, because instead of hitting the shutter, the Note would think I was trying to zoom in. This was a problem in basically every app, and while putting on a case would no doubt mitigate the issue, it was a seriously trying part of using this phone. Samsung really needs to consider issuing an update to deaden more of the touchscreen area around the edges (and especially corners).

In the box, you'll find the Galaxy Note10+, a pair of USB-C headphones, a SIM removal tool, and Samsung's new 25 Watt fast charging brick with a USB-C to USB-C cable. Which, let's talk about that last one for a minute. Samsung has finally introduced true fast charging on a flagship Galaxy phone, and the Note10+ supports two apparent "fast" speeds: 25W and 45W. The adapter in the box does 25 Watts of output, but I've struggled to get other allegedly USB PPS-supporting chargers or external batteries to get much above 21W, despite supporting far higher outputs. I've yet to try Samsung's official 45W wall charger, but I imagine it's damn quick, given the 25W adapter will take you from zero to full in just a little over an hour. For a large 4300mAh battery, that's still seriously quick.

Let's quickly talk cameras, because the Note's are largely unchanged from the Galaxy S10+'s. I do find the telephoto lens now produces better results in adverse lighting with the use of a larger aperture, which is definitely welcome news. The main sensor captures vivid colors and very good detail, though I find overall exposure can lean too bright and colors, while saturated, just don't ring as true as those on the Pixel 3 or P30. Night performance is just not great, and Samsung's night mode produces bizarrely overexposed images that end up looking more like a Twilight Zone version of daytime than they do a moonlit evening. The ultrawide is still one of the best in the business, and the new 10MP wide-angle selfie camera actually seems a lot better in my experience.

Software, performance, battery life

The story with the Note10's software tracks largely with its hardware: compared to the Galaxy S10 and S10+, you just won't see many tangible upgrades on this phone in terms of the overall software experience. Compared to the Note9's Oreo-based software, lots is different, as the Note10+ runs OneUI out of the box. But the Note9 runs OneUI now, so there's not a whole to talk about there, as it turns out, either.

The one significant upgrade Samsung really put out with the Note10+ is the ability to use its DeX software directly on Mac or Windows computers with just a simple USB cable, which is cool. That feature isn't available on the Galaxy S10 and S10+, oddly, and Samsung isn't commenting about if or when they'll receive it. Additionally, there's the new Link to Windows mode, which allows you to mirror notifications and respond to texts on your Windows PC wirelessly. That one actually does look like it'll come to the S10 and S10+ too. I wish Google would get its act together with even basic Android to Chromebook notification mirroring.

In a more holistic sense, I'm not sure I agree with the idea that Samsung's OneUI has substantially regressed with the Note10, either, which is something I've seen expressed by a few reviews now. Nothing about OneUI on the Note feels more cluttered or busy or bloated to me than it did on the Galaxy S10+. My suspicion is that when OneUI debuted earlier this year, all shiny and chrome dark mode, it bedazzled us; a striking departure from Samsung's previous software aesthetic. I still like the way OneUI looks even with the benefit of hindsight, but there's no denying it still feels like using Samsung's older software. There are a ton of menus, settings, notification spam, and things can be weirdly difficult to find. But once you throw on a launcher, organize your quick settings toggles, disable a bunch of useless Samsung apps (or at least their notifications), and just kind of get a feel for where everything is, it's perfectly OK.

Software changes to the S Pen on the Note10 are minimal, and consist of being able to use gestures to do things like select camera modes or switch between the front and rear cameras, along with the previous shutter capabilities. I think this is legitimately useful stuff for taking selfies, though less so for the rear cameras (unless you're using a tripod). The pen's handwriting recognition has also been improved in Samsung's official notetaking app, but my highly stylized chicken-scratch still often proved too much for Samsung's clever algorithms to make sense of.

Getting to tech specs, with a Snapdragon 855, 12GB of RAM, and 256GB of UFS3.0 storage, the Note10+ sounds like a reasonably powerful laptop crammed into a smartphone's body. And that's probably what Samsung is going for here, because it's the only rationale I can figure for the base specification of this phone. A model with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM would have been perfectly sufficient, and could have been offered at a lower MSRP. But that would have been a problem: the 128/8GB Galaxy S10+ officially retails for $1000. Pricing a Note10+ that low would upset The Order Of Things (and make even clearer how illusory Samsung's official pricing structure really is). In the end, what you need to know is that the Note10+ is a very fast phone, but not one that feels considerably faster than other, also very fast phones.

Finally, let's talk battery life. The Note10 uses a 4300mAh cell, and I've pretty easily and consistently managed to wring out 6.5-7 hours of screen time with it, substantially better than my Pixel 3 XL or OnePlus 7 Pro, but not as god as my Huawei P30 Pro. It's more than respectable (and so was the S10+) — it's very good, in fact — even if the Note won't be setting any new endurance records. While there were occasional days I felt range anxiety with the Note, they were days where basically any phone would have struggled to keep up. At a certain point, you just have to accept that battery saving mode is your friend.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you really want the stylus — or can get a crazy deal. If you find yourself still reaching for an S Pen in 2019, the Note10+ won't disappoint, in that the S Pen is still there. And that's a perfectly valid reason to buy the Note, but it's also the only real compelling reason that can stand on its own. If you don't find the stylus a major part of Samsung's value proposition, the Note10+ doesn't get a strong recommendation from me. Unless price is absolutely no object, there are better ways to spend your money.

The Note10+ is big, it's unquestionably powerful, and it's the objectively best Samsung phone you can buy right now. But the $1100 price is hard to justify given two important considerations: first, it contains just a few meaningful upgrades over the Galaxy S10+, and second, even for those it does, they'll look far less meaningful the moment the Galaxy S11 drops six months from now. There's no escaping that the Galaxy S series has supplanted the Note as Samsung's real technology showcase. And that only makes sense, because Samsung is selling far, far more Galaxy S devices than it it is Galaxy Notes. But it has come to mean that the Note is no longer the place Samsung debuts bold new ideas and features. More and more, it's just a brand; a quirky, enthusiast-marketed offshoot of Samsung's "real" flagships. It begs the question: How much longer will Samsung even keep making Notes?

All that aside, if you do want a stylus in your phone in 2019, I think you should buy a Galaxy Note10+ (or the baby Note10). You'll like it. And if you got one of those crazy $600 trade-in offers for a phone that was worth considerably less than that and stacked it with some saved up Samsung points, hey, that's awesome! It's a great way to get a brand-new phone for a lot less — I'm not knocking anyone's deal game. But for those of you staring a full-price Note10+ right in the pinhole selfie camera, unless the S Pen really lights your fire, this is probably not the phone to buy.