How Samsung’s Galaxy Note line has defined smartphones in the last decade

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For a large part of the last decade, Samsung has been the largest smartphone vendor in the world. But while doing so, it never got the credit it deserved and perhaps so, it became the punching bag of the mobile phone industry. Be it the lawsuit with Apple in the early 2010s to the explosive Galaxy Note 7 or more recently as last year with some of the issues it had with the Galaxy Fold. This is what people like to harp upon when they talk about Samsung, but the reality is that all these incidents are viewed without the benefit of context. Samsung has always been at the bleeding edge of technology, especially since the 2010s since its smartphone line based on Android took off. 

The early success that Samsung tasted was based on the Galaxy S, but mostly for the first few generations of the product critics had panned it as the “me-too” iPhone copy that ran Android which was also modified to look like iOS. But by 2011, Samsung had really come into its own. The Galaxy S2 had been a wild success and by the fag end of the year, at Europe’s most important tradeshow — IFA in Berlin, they unveiled a product that almost everyone was universally sceptical about. This was the first generation Galaxy Note. When I had reviewed the phone, it was easily the largest mobile gadget I had tested. The term “phablet” was coined for the Note. It also came with another innovation called the “S-Pen”. The stylus had been around for a while since the Sony Ericsson P800 days in the early 2000s, to Windows Mobile powered Pocket PCs, but the Note for perhaps the first phone to make it useful. 

In fact, 10 years on, the day we are on the cusp of the 10th Galaxy Note phone, it remains the only phone to have managed to make a stylus useful. The original Galaxy Note’s massive 5.3-inch screen is dwarfed by the hulking 6.8-inch panel of the Galaxy Note 10+ but today, almost every phone has a screen size of more than 5.3-inches. Samsung disproved what Steve Jobs’ belief was that people wanted a phone which they could control with one thumb. Samsung proved that people wanted to use their phone for everything for content consumption to creation which is why every smartphone today.

But as Samsung innovated, the real prowess of Samsung the conglomerate also came to the fore. Samsung’s phones started standing out because of their display tech. Samsung’s display business was a pioneer in AMOLED technology which we first saw on phones like the Galaxy S and this technology became a hallmark of its phones. AMOLED screens were the reason anyone wanted to buy a Samsung phone — this usually was a strong reason because Samsung was the absolute best in the business. In fact, by 2017, even Apple was relying on Samsung for manufacturing these screens. Their prominence came to the fore with both the Galaxy S line and Galaxy Note series. 

By 2014, the combination of a Galaxy Note and cutting display also seeded the roots for what today is the Galaxy Fold. In 2014, the Galaxy Note Edge was the first phone to have a fully bent display from one side. Samsung had been dabbling with the idea of curved screens for far longer than anyone showcasing even prototype devices with curved screens at tradeshows, but they really showed the world how the sausage was made with the Galaxy Note Edge in 2014. 

Probably since the first Galaxy Note, this was the most prominent Samsung phone. It was the first one to feature optical image stabilisation in the camera which was technology popularised by Nokia at the time. It also was one of the first fully unibody aluminium Galaxy smartphones while having that absolutely mind-bending physics-defying bent screen on a device that even had the S-Pen. Since then, almost all flagship Samsung phones have had an element of curvature on the screen which has even seeped through across the industry. Today, phones like the OnePlus 8 Pro, Mi 10, Huawei P40 Pro, OPPO Find X2 Pro and even Vivo’s X50 Pro all feature curved screens on the edges — this can be traced back to 2014 when the Note Edge came out. 

The funny bit here is that as Samsung started showing off with the Note series in 2014, it also convinced Apple that phones like the Note were important. That’s why in September 2014 even Apple launched the first big boy iPhone — the iPhone 6 Plus. Since then we have had an iPhone with a screen larger than 5.5-inches every year. 

In the meanwhile, Samsung had graduated to something bolder in the form of the Galaxy Fold which also has its roots in the same technology but is a more extreme form of the same. This an interesting inflexion point as later in the day, Samsung is expected to launch the 10th Galaxy Note (if the edge model is included) and also the second Fold which many believe will democratise the folding smartphone concept. 

Even beyond some of the earlier Galaxy Note devices, Samsung was quite relentless in its pursuit of perfection with the Note series of phones. The Galaxy Note 5 which came out in 2015 was an absolute beast. It had it all — it was perhaps the phone of the year because it had perfected the formula. It had a big screen, a great screen, a curved screen, a glass and metal body, a smart S-Pen which made this phone great for note-taking and also killer cameras and the usual Samsung “throw the kitchen sink” levels of performance. 

It also was the phone that threw Samsung into the payments business. Samsung Pay was better than Apple Pay in almost every way. Perhaps so, it retains that edge over Apple’s technology, especially in emerging markets like India as its magnetic scanning technology just doesn’t depend on NFC terminals but also can work with traditional credit card point of sales machines. 

By now, Samsung’s software had also matured. In the early days, its TouchWiz user interface was always panned. People, including myself, felt it borrowed heavily from Apple’s iOS retaining skeuomorphic user interface elements in a time when minimalism was the name of the game. People also panned it for the duplication of apps it fostered. But again, context is something people leave out. TouchWiz was developed at a time where Android itself was seriously lacking as a platform in features and usability. Samsung built on top of the early foundations of Android. Features that would debut in TouchWiz would often make their way into core Android and every smartphone manufacturer would benefit from Samsung’s inventions. 

A great example of TouchWiz doing things that Android couldn’t be seen in the S-Pen. It is the reason why nobody bothers to build a stylus now. Samsung has been doing this for a decade now and it is just too far ahead with the software platform. No one can catch up. In fact, Android was also a pretty bad operating system for big-screen smartphones until the Note came along. So much of the multitasking architecture and multi-window support was built by Samsung for TouchWiz which was then incorporated into core Android. If there was no Note, large-screen Android smartphones would suck, and perhaps, either there wouldn’t be a big-screen iPhone or they would’ve also been quite bad. Today, we see the same thing happen with foldable screens as Samsung has laid the user interface and software groundwork for foldable phones which is now being “folded” into Android. It is not perfect but Samsung does the dirty work. It is the plumber — without it no tech would move forward.

In 2016, when the Galaxy Note line was the top of the world, it’s highly well-reviewed Galaxy Note 7 started exploding. It never even reached India. Things were so bad for Samsung, that even Amitabh Bachchan was bad-mouthing the phone as he had procured one from abroad. Airlines had special announcements for users of Samsung phones and people were mistaking every Samsung phone as a Note 7. It was a nightmare. However, it can be argued that only Samsung could’ve lived through such a catastrophe and come out stronger in the form of the Galaxy Note 8. 

The Galaxy Note 8 set a new bar for quality standards for testing a smartphone. Samsung put in place a new 8-point safety check system in its South Korean factories of Gumi which has set the bar for the industry. It was another example of Samsung doing the dirty work for the industry. Today, phones are safer because of the issues the Galaxy Note 7 exposed. These issues were rampant across the industry, it is just that Samsung was caught in the eye of the storm as it was one of the most high profile phones in the world. 

The Galaxy Note 8 was also a hell of a phone. It drew inspiration from the infinity display concept of the Galaxy S8 and combined everything great about it in a package that had multiple cameras, optical zoom and even a portrait mode — it was a trailblazer for Android at the time. By this time, Samsung had also drilled in its credentials in the security space. The Note 8 was one of the first phones to come with IR scanning for face unlock. It had Samsung’s longstanding security suit Knox. Samsung had set the benchmark for security and privacy on Android – which is something everyone is talking about. It was doing it years ago. 

And since then, Samsung has followed up on the same with the Note 9 which introduced things like Samsung Dex and then pushed things to a new level with the Note 10+ which also features a full-screen panel with the “infinity dot” concept — featuring a minute hole-punch and a phenomenal new design language plus integration of Microsoft applications which made this phone a productivity monster. 

As Samsung is on the cusp of the launch of the 10th Note, which will likely be called the Galaxy Note 20+ and the second generation Fold, it is important to note — that there has been no phone that’s been as influential as the Galaxy Note series in the past decade. It has defined what a smartphone is. 

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