When the Galaxy Note 10 launches Aug. 7, Samsung will have a lot of questions to answer.
Can the company make a flagship phone that's different enough from the Galaxy S10? Will it create enough of a buzz to eat into Apple's iPhone 11 hype? And will the Note 10 be compelling enough to make shoppers want to upgrade at a time that people are holding onto their phones longer and longer?
Those are just some of the challenges Samsung faces, not to mention the bad optics from the delayed launch of the Galaxy Fold. As the South Korean giant preps its "next big thing," here's what to expect from the Note 10 launch and the obstacles it faces.
Wait, why does the Note still exist?
The Galaxy Note line established its reputation as being one of the first phablets in the universe when it was unveiled way back in 2011. Back then it had a mammoth-for-the-time 5.3-inch display, as well an S Pen stylus.
The Galaxy Note 10 is rumored to be coming in two flavors: a 6.3-inch Galaxy Note 10 and a mammoth 6.75-inch Galaxy Note 10+. But as big-screen phones like the 6.4-inch Galaxy S10 Plus have come on strong — and there's now a 6.7-inch Galaxy S10 5G — there's more reason to question why Samsung keeps the Note line around.
"The Note was originally a distinctive device," said Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techsponential. "It was much larger, and it had a stylus. And, it pioneered new technologies for Samsung. It still does one of those things. It still has the stylus."
To be fair, Samsung never positioned the Note line as its lead flagship. It has been more of the luxury phone for power users, with a focus on productivity.
"I think about it in terms of being an ultra-high-end devices, based on the rumors I've seen, said Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst at Gartner. "So this is going to appeal to, I would say, a limited subsegment of the market."
Expected upgrades: Sound on Display, Up to 4 cameras and more
Based on leaks and Note 10 renders, it looks like both the Galaxy Note and Galaxy Note 10+ Plus (aka Note 10 Pro) will offer a full-screen display with a punch hole positioned in the top center of the screen toward the top. (The S10's punch hole was positioned on the right side of the screen.) Samsung and other companies are working on embedding the camera underneath the display, but that sort of innovation likely won’t hit the Note 10.
What you can expect from the Note 10 is a Sound on Display feature that will possibly use the screen itself for delivering audio and making calls. So there may not be an earpiece at all. The LG G8 ThinQ offers a similar feature.
On the photography front, it's believed that the Note 10 will get three cameras — a standard shooter, telephoto lens and ultrawide lens, while the Galaxy Note 10+ will boast a fourth camera. But what's not clear is whether this lens will be a time-of-flight sensor for improving bokeh effects in portraits — just like the one on the Galaxy S10 5G — or if Samsung will be able to pull off a 5X optical zoom like the Huawei P30 Pro does.
"Google still has an edge on low light and in some certain lighting conditions. And Huawei's P30 Pro actually has significant edge in low light and the zoom," Greengart said. "Samsung certainly wants to regain the imaging crown for branding purposes. It wants to be able to say that it's the best in the world."
If you're not a fan of waiting for your phone to charge, the Galaxy Note 10 could ship with a superfast 25-watt charger in the box, which would be the most powerful yet for any Galaxy Phone. (The OnePlus 7 Pro goes to 30 watts.) And Samsung may even offer an optional 45W charger to break all sorts of speed records.
S Pen and phone as PC (with a twist)
Samsung has marketed the Galaxy Note line toward mobile professionals, with such features as the S Pen and its DeX dock, and it looks as though the company will upgrade both of those features.
The S Pen already saw a boost with the Galaxy Note 9, for which Samsung added Bluetooth connectivity. This allowed users to do things like remotely activating the camera or using the stylus to page through slides in a presentation. One rumor has Samsung possibly adding a camera to the S Pen itself for the Galaxy Note 10, a feature for which Samsung has filed a patent.
Another rumor has Samsung going wireless with its DeX feature, which turns the Galaxy Note phone into a mini PC. to use Android apps on the big screen with a keyboard and mouse with little to no fuss. It could be called Dex Live, according to a Samsung-filed trademark.
"Anything that they have to facilitate productivity, whether it's in my work life or my personal life, I think that's a big add," Gartner's Tuong said.
Samsung may also offer a 5G version of the Galaxy Note 10, but the rumor mill says that it may not be offered at the launch. The other rumor is that there will be a Note 10 5G in South Korea only, and that the Note 10+ with 5G will be sold pretty much everywhere. Nevertheless, the prospect of up to 1 Gbps speeds would certainly help productivity — at least in those limited locations where you can get a 5G signal.
The elephant in the room
As Samsung readies the Note 10, the entire smartphone market remains stagnant. In fact, according to Gartner, smartphone shipments are expected to decline by 3.8% this year. And that's in large part because consumers are content with the phones they already have in their pockets.
"Samsung's Note team faces the same challenge that every vendor has in the mature market," Greengart said. "How do you make something exciting enough for people to upgrade when their current phone may be good enough? But at the same time, not so novel that people just dismiss it as a gimmick."
Another challenge could be the Galaxy Note 10's price. The Galaxy Note 9 started at $999, and the Note 10 will reportedly start at the same price. A report from Yonhap News Agency says the Galaxy Note 10+ will start at a steep $1,200.
"I think price is going to play a big role," said Jitesh Ubrani, a research manager at IDC. "Consumers all around the globe are quickly becoming frustrated with the trend of increasing ASPs and while it may be unlikely, Samsung certainly has the opportunity to surprise and delight customers while also displacing companies like Apple by launching a Note with sub-$1000 price point."
Be more like Apple?
Overall, for the Galaxy Note 10 to break through, it will have to be amazing, and that's no small feat. Or maybe Samsung simply needs to do a better job of introducing smaller innovations that make people's lives easier.
Greengart said he would like to see things like better video editing for creators and better privacy features, such as the ability to automatically set images captured by the phone's camera as secure photos.
"That may be one of the places where they can push a little. And, differentiate both from the competition, then also from the Galaxy S line," Greengart said.
That's an area where Apple excels with its iPhone updates — thoughtful innovations that move the needle, instead of a constant game of specs one-upmanship. "Everyone else is pushing hardware," Tuong said, "whereas Apple is pushing experience."
We'll have to see whether the experiences Samsung pushes with the Note 10 will move the needle come Aug. 7, or if they're viewed as more of the same.
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Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.