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Samsung's announcement of the Galaxy Note 10 Lite was actually huge. Here's why

Commentary: With the new Galaxy Note 10 Lite, Samsung shifts its best phone from expensive luxury to everyday affordable.

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Angela Lang/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

In a tightly packed, dimly lit hotel room at CES, Samsung did something so ordinary it's extraordinary. The world's largest phone brand showed off a downmarket version of its premiere phone for power users, the Galaxy Note 10 Lite. Creating a cheaper variant of a $1,000 device isn't rare. Phone-makers do it all the time to attract buyers with more humble budgets. What's unique is that it happened to this phone in particular.

Ever since launching in 2011, the Galaxy Note has represented Samsung's pinnacle in specs and performance, while the Galaxy S line is more mainstream (and yes, there's a new Galaxy S10 Lite, too). The original Note stood out for its 5.3-inch screen and its stylus, the S Pen, which you can use to navigate, draw and write on the display. Considered laughably large for its time, the first Galaxy Note single-handedly kicked off the trend of large-screen phones, or "phablets."

Since then, Samsung has carefully cultivated the Note family of phones, using the device to experiment with the curved screens that are now typical of its high-end handsets. In fact, Samsung routinely saves its most powerful specs -- the biggest screen, most advanced camera specs and largest battery and storage capacities -- for the annual Galaxy Note reveal, which generally takes place in August.

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That's why Samsung's impulse to create a "Lite" Note completely reverses everything the Note has come to stand for as the brand's best of the best. In making a cheaper, more basic Note, Samsung is also democratizing the Note's most distinct and enduring feature: the digital stylus.

Unlike the Galaxy Note 10 and Note 10 Plus, the Note 10 Lite has such a different look and feature set, it could almost be a completely new phone. It retains a large screen (6.7 inches), but has a much less brilliant resolution. It has straight sides instead of curved, a headphone jack that the Note 10 lacked, and a different trio of camera sensors in a new square mount. The one thing it does have in common with its cousin is the stylus, which seemed just as responsive and capable as the one on the Note 10 Plus.

Samsung hasn't announced the price or release date yet, but it's a fair guess this light version will cost less than half of the Note 10's $950 retail rate. 

Whatever the final price, a cheap Note creates an opportunity for Samsung to bring the S Pen stylus to a completely different tier of buyers, one that's price-conscious and interested in the flexibility of writing on the screen. Introducing the Note to a new audience has two main benefits. 

The first is that it could help solidify Samsung's lead as the world's top smartphone brand by flooding the market with phones at every price. For example, there are now three Galaxy Notes and five Galaxy S10s (5G, Plus, standard S10, S10E, S10 Lite).

The second advantage of a budget Note 10 is more strategic. Samsung has often said that Note users are the most loyal, and more likely to buy future generations of Note phones than any other model from any brand. If Samsung is able to capture a new audience of Note buyers, it can help secure future sales, and perhaps upsell Note 10 Lite owners to pricier versions of future Note phones.

With the Note 10 Lite, Samsung may have created a gateway phone to long-lasting Note ownership. Only time -- and future sales -- will tell.

Originally published Jan. 9.