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Look at the current smartphone industry trend and you’ll see that smartphones have progressed towards bigger, more vibrant displays. But this wasn’t always the case.

No more than four years ago, the concept of a large-screen phone was unheard of and most smartphone displays measured around 3.5 to 4.0 inches, with the latter considered larger than most people needed. However, at the end of October that year, Samsung unveiled its first Galaxy Note and in doing so, it not only created an entirely new product range but also shaped the industry for years to come.

With Samsung set to launch its new Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge Plus smartphones tomorrow, we’re asking – the new Note is coming, but is it still special? Before we look at the new Note, let’s look at what made the Note so special in the past.

A big-screen era

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Nexus 6 vs Galaxy Note 4 – two BIG screen devices

I can still remember the first Galaxy Note and the general reaction that it was far too big, it would never sell, and big-screen devices would never become the norm. Oh, how hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The truth is that once the Galaxy Note 2 was announced the following year and sold in the millions, Samsung’s rivals realised that big-screen devices were the way to go. As with most ‘trends’ in this industry, it usually takes one company to push the boundaries, and once Samsung experienced some success with its Note range, its rivals turned their attention towards developing rival products.

Until a couple of years ago when every manufacturer began delivering big-screen devices, the Galaxy Note range was the default device customers turned to when looking for a handset that bridged the gap between smartphone and tablet. Even though manufacturers have developed big-screen devices, Samsung still has one key item in its arsenal that other manufacturers have been unable to contend with: Samsung Display.

The Galaxy Note display has always been a Super AMOLED panel, and while other manufacturers have managed to offer similar resolution to the Note, the display on the Note range has always offered better vibrancy and colours (at least in my opinion). In a big-screen era, where manufacturers offer the same displays (on paper), it can often come down to the quality of the display and this is something that Samsung has never failed to deliver in the Galaxy Note.

The S Pen

The Galaxy Note was iconic not just because it introduced a big screen era, but also due to the S Pen; styli are certainly not new and are a throwback to PDA devices of the past, but the S Pen on the Galaxy Note arguably made styli cool again.

Some manufacturers do offer a stylus for their devices and there are thousands of third-party after-market styli that you can purchase. But the S Pen is more than just a stylus as Samsung has incorporated a range of features into its Note handsets to make the most of the S Pen.

The S Pen is also unique as it is housed in the handset itself, meaning you don’t need to remember to carry it with you. As a Galaxy Note user since the first generation, I’ve found the S Pen to be somewhat useful, but the fact it is always with my phone has made it a lot more useful than if I had to carry it separately.

With each generation of Galaxy Note, the S-Pen was improved with additional features and better responsiveness and in the Galaxy Note 4, the S Pen was the best its ever been. Touch responsiveness and handwriting recognition were almost as good as if using a normal pen and the S Pen is the first “accessory” to replicate the experience of writing on a piece of paper but on a touchscreen handset.

TouchWiz features

The Galaxy Note range stood out not just for the S Pen but also for other features that Samsung had built into its TouchWiz interface to make the most of the much larger display. Many manufacturers have developed large devices, but very few have optimised the interface to make the handset a lot easier to use, especially for people who have come from smaller smartphones.

For Samsung, the answer to making the most of big screen devices like the Galaxy Note is two-fold; one-handed mode shrinks the entire OS to fit into a section of the display to make it easy to use with one hand; meanwhile, Multi Window lets you arrange two apps side-by-side to make full use of the large display.

Multi Window especially is a feature that other manufacturers have tried their hardest to offer similar versions of, and while some have come close, the Galaxy Note Multi Window works best when used with the S Pen. Just like with Windows PCs, the dual screen arrangement is easy to use, and at least with the Note 4, it came with the ability to easily share content between windows, resize the windows, and shrink them to pop up windows that overlay anything else on the device.

With past Galaxy Note devices, the handset was made for power users and the ability to run two apps side by side certainly increased the appeal of the handset. While Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and icons don’t appeal to everyone, the specifically designed features on the Galaxy Note were made to make the most of the large display and its something that Samsung’s rivals are yet to replicate as well.

Is the Note still special?

That’s what made the Galaxy Note range so special, but what about this year’s handset? Tomorrow, Samsung is taking to the stage in New York (and a special event in London) to unveil its new devices, and with all the leaks and rumours, it’s pretty certain we’ll see two new devices – the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus.

Samsung’s past Galaxy Note devices were also iconic, as they usually came with large batteries and for the times when this wasn’t enough, you could easily swap the battery out. This year’s devices won’t have either, with the battery expected to be smaller than the Galaxy Note 4 and non-removable as well.

The key problem for Samsung this year is how to differentiate the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge Plus from the competition. We’ll talk about the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus below but aside from the metal and glass design of the Galaxy S6 which should make its way to the Galaxy Note 5, there’s very little to set the handset apart from the competition.

Yes, Samsung’s Super AMOLED display is without doubt, one of the best on the market, but the problem for Samsung is that, with these devices set to cost more than ever before, the display may not yet be enough to persuade customers to buy the handset. The Galaxy Note has always been a special device, but a high price tag in the face of massive competition may mean it has lost its extra appeal.

The S Pen is and will always be an interesting addition to a smartphone, but the lack of removable battery – coupled with fears of the battery life thanks to the battery life reported on the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge – means Samsung’s Galaxy Note may not command the aplomb in the marketplace that past generations have.

Is the S Pen, a stylish design, and an excellent display enough to justify the lack of removable battery and the high price tag, especially with so many other devices that offer the same size and resolution at a lower cost? As much as I would like to say it is, I have a feeling that the new Galaxy Note 5 won’t have the appeal of past devices and if this is the case, Samsung has a real problem.

Is the Edge Samsung’s secret weapon?

Last year saw the introduction of the Galaxy Note Edge, which had all the Galaxy Note 4 features but added a curved display on one side. Without doubt, the Note Edge had its faults, and the dual curved edge on the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus should right the biggest of these, but it has one big issue.

The key difference between the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus is expected to be the lack of S Pen on the latter, and, although it gains a dual-curved edge, it drops the feature which set the Note range apart from the competition. The lack of S Pen makes the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus nothing more than a larger Galaxy S6 Edge and while this will certainly appeal to some users, an S Pen would have given the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus market appeal unlike any other device.

Of course, Samsung is likely to announce several other features (most likely software-based) of the handsets during its launch tomorrow and we’ll come back and update this piece accordingly but what do you think? Is the Note range still special or has it lost its appeal? What would you buy instead? Let us know in the comments below guys!

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