Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus review

Phones

The Good The Galaxy Note 10 Plus delivers the premium goods, from a killer 6.8-inch screen and all-day battery life to excellent camera tools.

The Bad The Note 10 Plus is expensive. There’s no headphone jack, which will disappoint long-time Samsung fans. The depth-sensing camera is extremely limited.

The Bottom Line Samsung closed the camera gap with rivals and created a top-of-the-line phone for people who want the best Android has to offer.

9.2 Overall
  • Design9

     

     

  • Features9

     

     

  • Performance9

     

     

  • Camera9

     

     

  • Battery10

     

     

Samsung makes excellent phones that check nearly every box of what you’d want in a device: a clear, brilliant screen. Great cameras. Strong battery life. But it’s been years since all the individual parts have come together in a way that makes me sit back and say, “Wow.” The Galaxy Note 10 Plus does that in a way that’s eluded Samsung phones since the tragic Galaxy Note 7.

This isn’t just a phone that has it all — it’s a phone I genuinely want to use. The Note 10 Plus is the total package and the best phone Samsung’s made in years.

The prismatic Aura Glow color I tested is utterly striking to look at, the features are nearly all best-of-breed and Samsung has even worked to close the gap between its camera tools and camera-centric rivals like the Huawei P30 Pro and Google Pixel 3. The Note 10 Plus also fixes my two major complaints about spring’s Galaxy S10 Plus (which is still a great phone): the in-screen fingerprint reader is dramatically more accurate this time around, and the camera’s dedicated night mode improves photo quality in low light.

Even the Note 10 Plus’ biggest drawbacks are easy enough to swallow. There’s no headphone jack (Samsung was one of the last major holdouts). You may need to relearn how you use the power button to turn off the phone and take screenshots. The depth-sensing camera doesn’t do much. And it’s expensive — starting at $1,100 (£999, AU$1,699) with a 5G version that costs $1,300 (£1,099 or AU$1,999).

Keep in mind that the Note 10 Plus isn’t a mainstream phone. It still targets power users who want a big device and will actually use the included S Pen stylus. It’s overkill for people who want a smaller phone or are completely uninterested in the stylus.

Samsung also introduced a smaller version of the Note 10, which has a 6.3-inch screen and costs $150 less than the Plus, coming in at $949. Samsung also pulls back on the specs (e.g., less RAM, no microSD card storage), but it can still do 90% of what the Plus model can do. I’ll start reviewing that one soon. Scroll to the end for a full specs comparison.

If you’re on the fence, remember that the iPhone 11 (likely due in September), Google Pixel 4 and Huawei Mate 30 Pro (likely coming in October) are around the corner. But for the first time in a long time, I can say to power users: Why wait? The Note 10 Plus is outstanding, and worth buying.

What’s in this review: Read on for the best and worst of the Note 10 Plus, then stick around to learn about how good the new camera features are, life without the headphone jack, gesture controls, all-day battery life and how it compares to other rival phones.

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Just look at this beauty.Angela Lang/CNET

Best Note 10 Plus features

  • Sophisticated, squared-off design with Gorilla Glass 6 on both sides.
  • Prismatic Aura Glow and Aura Blue (US-only) backing.
  • Symmetrical front-facing camera placement (these wallpapers put it to good use).
  • Fast, accurate in-screen fingerprint reader.
  • Snappy performance with the Snapdragon 855 chipset.
  • Excellent photos, with pretty good standalone night mode (more below).
  • Camera software, like built-in video editor and portrait mode video, is well executed.
  • S Pen stylus is comfortable and easy to use; fewer accidental button presses.
  • Gesture navigation with the S Pen makes sense.
  • Fast wired and wireless charging (25- and 15-watt, respectively).
  • New screen recorder app is a nice touch — you can capture audio, too.
  • Samsung DeX is easy to set up on Windows and Mac.
  • Link to Windows works as advertised to mirror select content from Note 10 to Windows 10 PC.
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The S Pen is comfortable to hold and use.Angela Lang/CNET

Worst Note 10 Plus features

  • No 3.5mm headphone jack.
  • AR camera only works with one underdeveloped app (3D scanner to come).
  • Power/lock/Bixby button on the left makes powering off and taking screenshots tricky at first.
  • Yes, you’re going to want a case.
  • It’s a smudge magnet — you’ll need to constantly clean the phone.
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Your USB-C port and headphone jack are now one and the same.Angela Lang/CNET

Photo quality, night mode, portrait video, video editing

Cameras:

  • 16-megapixel ultra wide-angle lens
  • 12-megapixel wide-angle lens (main, dual-aperture camera)
  • 12-megapixel telephoto lens
  • Depth-sensing camera
  • 10-megapixel front-facing camera

The Note 10 Plus has the same main cameras as the Galaxy S10 Plus (it adds that depth-sensing lens), but Samsung’s put a lot of effort into improving the phone’s software, and that goes a long way to making the phone easier to use for taking photos.

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The Note 10 Plus has a 3D depth-sensing camera to go along with the main three.
Angela Lang/CNET

Daytime photography is excellent, but the dedicated night mode is where Samsung really steps it up. This mode, found in the camera app, takes a few seconds to process a photo, really drawing out colors and details from a dark scene. I wish Samsung would add a count-down clock, so you know how long to hold the phone still, but photos taken in this mode can make a big difference.

Samsung’s color processing can overbrighten in some night-mode scenarios, where auto mode actually produces a more pleasing, higher-contrast image — so don’t plan to use it every time.

The Note 10 Plus also does interesting things with video. Live Focus video mode adds a depth effect to video, and you can choose among four filters for both your front and rear cameras. Jawlines and extremities can blur, and some of my curly hair smeared into the background, but the focus on the face is reasonably good.

Another new feature turns up the volume on the source of music when you zoom in. I tested this out on four different musical acts and… John Travolta doing the twist. Called zoom-in-audio, it works as advertised, but some scenarios are more effective than others. It’s hard to reposition the focus as you zoom and image quality suffers when you zoom in too closely.
Applause all around for the baked-in video editor that lets you add musical tracks, trim and add text. It’s great to be able to quickly produce a simple video on-device and share it out immediately.

AR Doodle is a feature that got a lot of press when it first came out, because it’s unique and highlights the power of the S Pen. You hop into video mode and can record a short video of yourself, someone else, or a scene in the world around you (it appears to time out after a minute). For example, I had fun embracing my punk side (see the video if you’re curious), and skywriting over the San Francisco skyline.

Fun and silly as AR Doodle is, it still needs work and doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose. Some pen tips are hard to write with, strokes disappeared over time, and there’s no clear way to take a still photo of your finished work of art. Side note: AR Doodle doesn’t use the depth-sensing camera.

 

No headphone jack and scrambled buttons

The Note 10 Plus quits the headphone jack, which is going to ruffle some feathers. It was also inevitable — all phone-makers are shifting to the USB-C port only, thus requiring USB-C or wireless headphones. But for people who invested in some really good headphones, or other accessories, this is going to be a colossal pain.

There’s no dongle in the box, something that Samsung could have easily included as a goodwill gesture. Samsung’s pair of USB-C AKG headphones in the box work fine. As with the embedded battery kerfuffle of 2012, we’ll complain about the loss of the headphone jack, and then we’ll get over it and move on.

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The new all-in-one power/lock/Bixby button moves to the left.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Another early headache is the button placement. Lefties will love that the power/lock button is now on the left under the volume rocker, but if you’re used to this button on the right, it’s going to change how you unlock and power off the phone. It’s also confusing at first to double-press it to quick-launch the camera app. But, I got used to it in a couple days.

This button also houses Bixby Voice, which you launch by pressing and holding. If you keep Bixby on, it means you take screenshots with a quick press of the volume down and power key. A long press gets you the power-off screen. There are other ways to turn off the phone, too, and you can reprogram this side key to open any app, or to power off the phone the old way, with a long-press on the lock button alone. I suggest a trip to the Side Key settings.

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The 4,300-mAh battery takes you from early morning to late night.Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life truly lasts all day

I was really impressed with the Note 10 Plus’ battery life on its 4,300-mAh battery. It took me from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. with a little life left to spare, and the phone consistently powered up from 0 to 100% in about 65 minutes. That’s on the 25-watt charger that comes in the box.

You can also buy a 45-watt charger from Samsung for $50, which promises to give you about 70% charge from zero in a half hour. Samsung notes that this charger is less effective for people who like to top up their batteries at the high mark; you’ll see greater speed gains if you charge from empty.

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The power is in the pen.Angela Lang/CNET

Keep in mind that these results were on a new phone that’s been used for a week. Battery capacity typically degrades over time. Your phone’s battery life may also vary depending on how you use it. I typically hotspot phones twice a day during my commute, which is a strain on resources, alongside streaming movies and maps navigation.

On a performance note, the Note 10 Plus was as fast as any other phone running on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, both in real world testing and benchmarking results.

Gesture controls aren’t just a gimmick

The S Pen takes on a new job with remote control. You can press in the stylus button and flick your wrist to do stuff from far away. The best scenario is when you have your phone on a tripod and use the S Pen to switch cameras and shooting modes. It worked really well for selfies and group shots. Press the button once to take a photo or start/stop a video. You can also zoom in, but you’re unable to refocus.

In Spotify, I was able to control volume, play/pause and skip or rewind tracks using the S Pen. That works well if you’re using your phone to control music through some Bluetooth speakers at a party, and you don’t want to cross the room every time to adjust the volume or track. S Pen gesture controls will work with native Samsung apps and select apps like Spotify — hopefully more app developers will jump on board.

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Samsung throws down again Apple, Huawei and Google.Angela Lang/CNET

Note 10 Plus versus the competition…

Note 9 or Galaxy S10 Plus: There’d be nothing wrong with updating from either of these phones, but the improvements and refinements are small enough that I’d still caution to wait a year, especially if you’re interested in 5G. Networks will be more stable and it’s a good bet the Note 11 will be 5G by default. Also, the cameras on the Note 10 Plus are nearly identical to the S10 Plus.

Galaxy Note 10: You could save yourself $150 and get this lighter, smaller variation (6.3-inch screen instead of 6.8). There’s no AR camera (not a loss), and it has a smaller battery (3,500 mAh), less RAM (8GB versus 12GB) and no microSD card slot (it still has 256GB of storage). This could be a really compelling buy. Stay tuned for a comparison review.

iPhone 11, Pixel 4, Huawei Mate 10: These future phones are still weeks away, but if you’re going to see a phone get close to toppling the Note 10 Plus, it’ll be one of these three. The iPhone has the edge with face unlock, and Apple often introduces interesting new camera features. (Here’s how we think the Note 10 and iPhone 11 will compare.)

Google and Huawei are particularly strong on low-light photography and for the first time, the Pixel 4 will have multiple rear cameras. Huawei’s optical zoom is also the very best of its class.

Note 10 vs. iPhone XS Max vs. Huawei P30 Pro

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus iPhone XS Max Huawei P30 Pro
Display size, resolution 6.3-inch AMOLED; 2,280×1,080 pixels 6.8-inch AMOLED; 3,040×1,440 pixels 6.5-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,688×1,242 pixels 6.47-inch OLED; 2,340×1,080-pixels
Pixel density 401 ppi 498 ppi 458 ppi 398 ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.94 x 2.83 x 0.31 in. 6.39 x 3.04 x 0.31 in. 6.2×3.0x.3 in. 6.22 x 2.89 x 0.33 in.
Dimensions (millimeters) 151 x 71.8 x 7.9 mm 162.3 x 77.2 x 7.9 mm 157.5×77.4×7.7 mm 158 x 73.4 x 8.41 mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5.93 oz.; 168g 6.91 oz.; 196g 7.3oz.; 208g 6.77 oz.; 192g
Mobile software Android 9.0 Pie Android 9.0 Pie iOS 12 Android 9.0 with EMIU 9.1
Camera 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra-wide angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto), 3D depth (HQVGA) 12-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 40-megapixel (standard), 20-megapixel (ultra wide), 8-megapixel 5X optical periscope zoom, TOF (time of flight) sensor
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel 10-megapixel 7-megapixel 32-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, or Samsung Exynos 9825 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, or Samsung Exynos 9825 Apple A12 Bionic Kirin 980 processor
Storage 256GB 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
RAM 8GB 12GB Not disclosed 8GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB No Up to 256GB with proprietary NM card
Battery 3,500 mAh 4,300 mAh 3,174 mAh (unconfirmed by Apple) 4,200 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen None (Face ID) In-screen (optical)
Connector USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack No No No No
Special features S Pen stylus; Wireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water-resistant (IP68) S Pen stylus; Wireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water-resistant (IP68) Water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID; Memoji Camera night mode, 40w Huawei SuperCharge, 15w wireless charging, reverse charging, IP68 water-resistant
Price off-contract (USD) $949 $1,099 $1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB) Converts to $1,135
Price (GBP) £899 £999 £1,099 (64GB), £1,249 (256GB), £1,449 (512GB) £899 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 AU$1,699 AU$1,799 (64GB), AU$2,049 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB) AU$1,599