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Tech Lab

A mini-tablet that is also a smart phone

With Apple Inc.’s iPad firmly established as the biggest thing in tablet computing, rival companies are competing by thinking small, delivering less-expensive mini-tablets.

Which brings us to the new Galaxy Note from Samsung Corp., a mini-tablet computer that doubles as a high-end smartphone, and features a stylus-based handwriting recognition system. It’s a capable hybrid device that’s mostly a pleasure to use, but its unusual design and the unreliable handwriting feature suggest that the Note’s future is as limited as its screen size.

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The small tablet concept has worked for Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire e-reader and Barnes & Noble Inc.’s competing Nook Tablet. But both of them have 7-inch screens. The Note has a 5.3-inch screen, making it less practical as a tablet and quite bulky for a phone.

But not too bulky to fit comfortably into a shirt pocket, and not terribly unwieldy for a phone. As usual with Samsung, the new phone features an organic light-emitting diode screen, which delivers brilliant, rich colors, and eliminates the thick, heavy backlight used by other phone screens. And held against the ear, the Note doesn’t feel much larger than other big smartphones, like the best-selling Evo 4G by HTC Corp.

Exclusively for AT&T Inc.’s wireless network, the Note sells for $299.99 with a two-year contract, though you can get it for $50 less through Amazon.com. It runs Google Inc.’s Android operating system, and comes pre-loaded with the “Gingerbread’’ version of Android. It’s a perfectly adequate edition, but I’d have preferred running the newest upgrade, the one called “Ice Cream Sandwich,’’ because it adds features specially intended for tablet computers. AT&T is supposed to deliver an upgrade later this year.

Setting up the phone was child’s play, especially since I had it plugged into my home computer at the time. Instead of pecking in all the usual e-mail and Wi-Fi data on a small touchscreen, the phone directed me to an AT&T website. Once there, I could enter all the data through my PC, which then installed everything painlessly onto the phone.

Everything happens fast on the Note, thanks to its snappy dual-core processor chip and connection to the speedy new AT&T 4G LTE data network. I’ve generally found AT&T’s version of LTE even faster than the one offered by its biggest competitor, Verizon Wireless.

On the other hand, LTE devices are notorious for poor battery life. While I didn’t conduct exhaustive tests, I found the Note gave respectable battery performance. After about six hours of vigorous use, including two hours of movie streaming via Netflix, I still had about 30 percent left. A less aggressive user should be able to make it through a standard workday.

Still, there were disappointments. Images from the Note’s eight-megapixel rear camera weren’t as crisp as I would have expected, and I sometimes got weird glare effects from bright light sources.

A bigger letdown was the Note’s much-touted handwriting system. This blast from the past includes a stylus that lets you draw pictures or scribble notes onto the screen. Unless you’re a graphic artist, it seems like a needless gimmick, especially when you try a feature that’s supposed to translate your written notes to digital text.

Almost 20 years after Apple tried this trick in its old Newton handhelds, it still does not work. The Note never accurately translated my admittedly dreadful scrawl. I then asked three other people to have a go. Again, the results were gibberish, not even close to the handwritten words. Either my Globe colleagues all have exceptionally bad handwriting, or Samsung should have abandoned this failed technology.

But handwriting recognition is a sideshow. The Galaxy Note’s bigger problem is its curious size, at once too big and too small to satisfy most consumers. There are people out there who will pick up a Galaxy Note and fall in love with it. But there aren’t very many of them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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