Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on review

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 is small, powerful, and missing power user features

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 hands-on

“The Note 10 is svelte, refined, and probably not worth more than a Galaxy S10.”
  • The most compact Note phone to date
  • Attractive Aura Glow color
  • Impressive screen
  • Handy S Pen improvements
  • Windows integrations close the gap between phone and PC
  • Doesn’t support 45W charger
  • No MicroSD card support or headphone jack
  • Minor changes to camera over S10, no depth camera
  • Average battery size
MSRP $950.00

The Galaxy Note series has set Samsung apart from other phone manufacturers since its inception with its much larger screen, the built-in S Pen stylus, and a focus on productivity. With the latest Galaxy Note 10, Samsung is moving all of these core areas forward, fitting a larger screen in a smaller package, adding S-Pen air gestures as well as key Microsoft integrations for professional-level productivity.

But for the first time there are two Note phones: the Note 10 Plus is for those attracted to the traditionally massive screen, whereas the Note 10 is the “compact” version; it’s still big, but by compact I mean it’s easier to use one-handed. Here’s what it’s like.

If you want to learn more about the bigger, more feature-packed Note 10 Plus, check out our in-depth hands-on review.

Compact design, still a big display

What catches the eye first with the Note 10 is undoubtedly the dazzling, color-changing colorways. All named with the befitting “Aura” prefix, the Note 10 comes in Aura Glow, Aura White, and Aura Black; it’s the Aura Glow you’ll want as it looks so cool. It reflects various color gradients depending on how the light hits it. The Galaxy Note 10 is going to make you wish you could take pictures of your phone with your phone.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10
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The Note 10 has also been refined to be smaller than last year’s Note 9, while still maintaining a similarly-large screen (6.3 inches over the Note 9’s 6.4-inch screen). This is thanks to the slimmed down bezels around the screen, giving you more screen real estate than ever before. It looks and feels smaller than the Note 9 in-hand, feeling a lot like a slightly wider Galaxy S10. The new size makes it comfortable to hold, and I never thought I’d say a Note phone — of all phones — is perfectly usable with just one hand.

The Galaxy Note 10 is going to make you wish you could take pictures of your phone with your phone.

For reference, the Note 10 Plus has a sprawling 6.8-inch screen but it’s almost the same surface area as the Note 9. As Samsung gets better at fitting bigger screens in smaller devices, it makes sense to make an even bigger-screened Galaxy Note 10 Plus, but creating a smaller phone is a welcome addition too.

Speaking of the screen, the Note 10 differs from the Plus in screen resolution, too. It has a 2,280 x 1,080 resolution (401 pixels per inch); it’s still the same Dynamic AMOLED panel that’s HDR10+ certified, it’s vivid and gets really bright. While it may not be as sharp as the screen on the Note 10 Plus, it looked more than adequate to me.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10
Corey Gaskin/Digital Trends

But there is a casualty we should talk about, which Samsung said was in the name of the thinner body and big battery within: the beloved 3.5mm headphone jack. I, like many, am not stoked to need an adapter if I want to use wired headphones. A USB-C to 3.5mm dongle will be included in the box, though, with a pair of AKG earbuds. The Bixby button has also disappeared — you can now activate it by long pressing the power button — but I’m far less annoyed by that change.

S Pen tricks

The S Pen, still accessible from the bottom of the phone, has some aesthetic changes; specifically, there are beveled edges you likely won’t notice unless you’re compare it directly to last year’s S Pen.

The stylus does add some gestures to its repertoire in the form of Air Actions. Much like we saw on the recently-announced Galaxy Tab S6, you can hold the button on the S Pen and wave it like a magic wand to switch between camera modes or media within a gallery, as well as zoom the camera with a circular motion to the left or right.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10
Corey Gaskin/Digital Trends

These Air Actions worked as intended in my use, scrolling through camera modes fluidly, but they can take a little getting used to so as not to accidentally trigger other functions of the S Pen. Air Actions are useful for taking photos or video on a tripod setup, but otherwise might not get much use in your daily life. More integrations may crop up in third-party apps, thanks to the open SDK for developers from Samsung.

The S Pen has become more professionally viable with a brand-new Microsoft Office integration.

The S-Pen has also become more professionally-viable with a brand-new Microsoft Office integration. Now, you can take written notes in the Samsung Notes app and transcribe them into editable text via the export function. You can turn your handwriting into a Word doc, making it easier to read, edit, and share for collaboration.

The transcriptions did well with my awful handwriting, typically nailing the punctuation and letters I threw at it. But writing on a screen this size, you’re unable to write full sentences on one line, which creates some formatting issues you’ll need to rectify when transferring to a Word document. It can be handy for shorter notes, and it’s impressively trained on 62 languages and thousands of handwriting samples, so it should transcribe well for a good amount of people.

This is a nice step towards making the Note 10 a more universal tool for productivity, and hopefully we’ll see more options for export with third-party apps like Google Docs.

The last new trick for the S Pen is an app called AR Doodle. It brings the S Pen’s drawing functionality to real life, transposing your doodles into real-life objects and faces with augmented reality and face-tracking technology. We’ve seen this before from apps like Google’s Just a Line app; it’s not a feature I see myself using ever but it was mildly entertaining to play around with. The tracking appeared accurate enough for anyone who might want to use it.

Microsoft Windows integrations and DeX improvements

Perhaps more appealing is a seamless solution to the long-awaited link between your phone and computer, akin to what Apple device owners enjoy with their iPhones and Macs. As I mentioned earlier, Samsung and Microsoft teamed up for some special features, and this particular one lets you see notifications, messages, and your recent photos on a connected Windows PC or laptop. All that’s required is a sign-in to your Microsoft Account on your Note 10; I can’t comment on its seamlessness just yet, but not requiring any app downloads and including sign-in within the phone’s settings is a good start.

Joel Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The Note 10 also has a unique feature called Play Galaxy Link, which will allow you to stream installed PC games from your computer to the phone. Unlike game-streaming services like Google Stadia, the game is still powered by your own PC and not through cloud computing services. Play Galaxy Link relies on your own internet connection, which will need to be fast and stable, so this may be a feature better suited for the Note 10 Plus 5G model.

Samsung didn’t offer much in the way of details when it comes to streaming quality or controllers, but presumably streaming will be capped at a certain resolution and most Bluetooth controllers are compatible with Android phones. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this feature and can’t wait to test it thoroughly in the full review.

samsung galaxy note 10 review dex 2
Joel Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Samsung’s DeX mode, which enables a desktop Android interface when its phones are connected to an external monitors, can now also be run on Windows and Macs, simply by connecting your Note 10 via USB cable. No app download is necessary, and no data gets stored on your PC unless you move it there.

Essentially, it’s a little virtual machine that pops up and runs on your computer in its own sandbox. This can be an easy way to transfer files, but there doesn’t appear to be much more you get out of this integration other than another screen with peripherals on which you can run DeX.

Speedy performance, RIP MicroSD cards

There’s a good amount to like in the performance area, but some curious omissions feel like they were made for the sake of creating separation between the Note 10 and the Note 10 Plus. The Note 10, like the Note 10 Plus, is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor. Where it differs is RAM: the Note 10 has 8GB and the Note 10 Plus has 12GB. More RAM isn’t necessarily a good thing, and 8GB is plenty.

My concerns are with storage. You only get a choice of 256GB for the Note 10 (Note 10 Plus buyers can choose between 256GB and 512GB), but there is no MicroSD card slot, despite there being one on the Plus model. For a device aimed at power users and professionals, this is a tough pill to swallow.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10
Corey Gaskin/Digital Trends

Flicking around the Android 9 Pie operating system and testing out features showed a speedy phone by all accounts, but as always, I’ll have to see how this shapes up over time. Samsung said the Note 10’s system-on-a-chip delivers 33% faster CPU and 42% faster GPU performance, which, paired with the “world’s slimmest vapor chamber,” should mean cool and composed use during intense work or some fierce gaming.

Speaking of which, a feature called Game Booster leveraging the Neural Processing Unit (NPU) on the processor to tailor the Note 10’s resources to your gaming habits for optimal performance and battery life. This is another one I’ll have to look at over time, though the differences may be tough to discern if not substantial.

What about 5G? The next-gen network technology isn’t widely available yet and will take a few years to fully develop, but If you were hoping for 5G on a Note device, you’ll have to get the Note 10 Plus 5G, specifically. It’s the same exact phone as the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, just 2 grams heavier and it can connect to 5G networks.

A strong but familiar camera

The triple-camera setup on the rear is a first for a Note phone, following its debut on the Galaxy S10 range. Sporting similar three lenses and megapixel pairings as the S10, the Note 10 brings together 12-megapixel main lens, a 12-megapixel telephoto lens, and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide angle lens. While the Note 10 has the same variable aperture (f/1.5 and f/2.4) on the main camera, the telephoto lens has a wider aperture than the Galaxy S10, which may help a bit with low-light photos.

There’s also now a Night Mode you can manually enable, and it also works for the 10-megapixel selfie camera, which has a narrower f/2.2 aperture over the S10.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10
Corey Gaskin/Digital Trends

Samsung has added its Live Focus Video mode as well, which we first saw on the S10 5G. It’s portrait mode but for video, so you get a background blur effect around subjects. But because the Note 10 doesn’t have the time-of-flight sensor on the back to capture depth information like the Note 10 Plus, expect the blur effect to look a little messy. Frankly, neither is perfect and both look rather artificial and inauthentic, especially when the subject moves.

The Note 10 features an audio zoom feature for videos, dubbed Zoom-In Audio. Multiple mics are used to target audio on the subject in the frame while toning down the surroundings, intensifying the focused audio the further you zoom in. I haven’t seen this in action yet, but it’s a feature we’ve seen before on HTC and LG phones.

Rounding out the video features are improvements to steadiness in the Steady Shot video mode as well as the addition of this feature to Hyperlapse videos. You also have a native video editor that is more powerful, as it now lets you add transitions, music, and even doodles from the S-Pen to your movies. The Note 10 has also been optimized for editing in Adobe Premiere Rush, Adobe’s mobile video-editing software, which should help professionals who edit on the go.

It’s a strong and versatile camera system, but there isn’t much new over the S10 range, so I’m not expecting the Note 10 to beat our current camera favorites like the Google Pixel 3 or the Huawei P30 Pro.

Will the battery capacity be enough?

Tucked away in this smaller Note device is an even smaller battery — 3,500mAh to be precise. That’s not much bigger than most regular-sized phones, and with the omission of both the MicroSD slot and 3.5mm jack, I would’ve really liked to have a nice bump in battery to compensate in some way. In fact, Samsung made it a point to recognize that removing the 3.5mm jack enabled a bigger battery. Not over the Note 9, at least. Instead, we lose 500mAh’s from the Note 9, getting a battery about the size of the one in the Galaxy S10.

I’ll need to do long-term testing for sure, but the phone will likely last you a full day, if not a little less. If battery is top of mind, the 4,300mAh one in the Note 10 Plus may suit you better.

After years of lagging behind the competition in fast charging technology, the Note 10 finally adds a 25-watt brick in the box, allowing you to juice the phone up from zero to 100 in about an hour. Sadly, only the Note 10 Plus supports the Super Fast Charging system, but it requires a 45-watt power brick that’s sold separately. Don’t bother buying this brick for the Note 10, though, as it will simply revert the power to 25-watt.

Wireless charging is still available, as is reverse wireless charging, which lets you recharge devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds or even the Galaxy Watch Active 2.

Price and availability

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 is $950, which is $150 less than the Note 10 Plus. Pre-orders kick off August 8, and official sales start August 23. If you pre-order it, Samsung is offering $100 in Samsung store credit so you can buy other accessories. You can check out all the deals and prices from various carriers on the Note 10 and Note 10 Plus here.

Wrap up

The size, shape, and the look of the Note 10 are enough to make me want a Galaxy Note device for the first time in the series’ history. I’ve never liked carrying around a large phone, but picking up the Note 10 felt like picking up a Galaxy S10. The next thing that would typically sway me is the capable internals and S Pen functionality. Unfortunately, the former has been neutered a bit with only one storage option and no way to add or upgrade thanks to the removal of the MicroSD card slot. The latter does have useful improvements for productivity, enabling you to transcribe notes into Word documents, but it’s still not the easiest way to turn your notes into an easy-to-read document, requiring some formatting after the fact.

The missing storage options and bigger battery are on the Note 10 Plus, as is the faster 45-watt charging capability. It also has the depth-sensing camera in back. All this makes the Note 10 a tougher sell for anyone looking for what the Note series typically offers – the best of the best.

Still, the Galaxy Note 10 is an otherwise strong contender in its size-range, but for $950, I’ll need more convincing to not purchase a much cheaper Galaxy S10.