On Top Of Clare

Having made it to the top of Corkscrew Hill, we pause for a short celebratory dance.

Taken on the Galaxy Note’s 8Mpx camera, then given the ‘Antique’ effect. I’m very pleased with the quality of the camera. A lot of the images I saw in reviews looked a little unsharp, but the results are much more impressive in real life. And though the picture of the old sign I put up yesterday is definitely soft, for a shot in low light indoors without flash I’m more than satisfied.

The way we came.

So that’s a good start with photography. My next task is to find a browser that works well enough for primetime. Coming from MicroB on the N900 I am a little spoiled, but there really doesn’t seem to be such a thing as the perfect mobile browser yet. Of the ones I’ve tried so far – the inbuilt one, Firefox Mobile and the hot new Dolphin HD – I think Dolphin has the edge. Though this is mainly due to how easily you can make it display sites as they would appear in a desktop browser rather than a simplified mobile view. (Why would I use that, this phone has a higher resolution than my desktop PC…) Every one fails in some way when it comes to complex tasks like – well, like the one I’m doing right now, editing this blog. The WordPress interface just seems to overwhelm the touch metaphor. For example, the menus that pop up when you hover over them with your… Ah. Can’t really hover over them with your finger. Not until someone invents some sort of sonar finger-detecting screen at least

It’s worth mentioning though that the same pen technology as used here does precisely that on a tablet PC, which is why it was chosen by Microsoft. On a capacitive (or resistive) screen position is only detected on contact, so a touch is equivalent to both a mouse movement and click. A digitizer pen gives its position when it’s near the screen, so it is capable of triggering hover events like opening a menu. The hardware is in place therefore on devices like this phone and the Note 10.1 tablet, it just isn’t in the software.

Will such mouse events be available when support for them is introduced with Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich)? We can hope.

Where The Hell Am I?

Well I suppose we had to do something a little mad for St Patrick’s Day. Quite unexpectedly, I find myself driving to Doolin – a distance several times greater than any I’d driven before. Challenging too. Corkscrew Hill – a slalom for cars. A lovely meal, somehow ending up spending the evening with a couple from Texas – him a retired Navy pilot – and almost stealing beds in an unattended hostel.
Driving backthrough Clare, the whole Burren and its stars to ourselves.

Mná Mná

Niceol Blue seems to get mentioned on this blog more than any other person. That’s what comes I guess of having a wonderful voice and a computer almost permanently in need of repair – two things I have a weakness for. But she also organizes Mná Mná – Women in Music, a monthly showcase gig for musicians and particularly singers who are female. I’m worried overseas readers won’t get the title. Suffice to say, Mná is the Irish for Women, and is pronounced – more or less – “Mnah”.

It’s been on once a month for almost a year now, but to my shame last night was my first visit. I’ve been missing something good. A thing like this could so easily be what I might call… excessively supportive. But thanks to what I can only guess are hidden reserves of steely ruthlessness, the standards are excellent. Three acts last night, each worth the entrance.

Next month will be a special gig for their first anniversary – definitely one to watch out for. You can sign up for notifications here.

Getting To Know Your Android

Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus
Android 4, which I don't have yet

Ah, the slow terrible frustration of it…

I’m trying to be good here and give my new phone’s battery the best possibly start in life. I was advised that the way to do that is to completely flatten it and then recharge it for seven or eight hours, while switched off. Several times. That means I can’t use it while it’s charging, and as most of what I do want to do means going online, I can only squeeze maybe eight or ten hours of messing around with it out of a day. No of course that’s not enough!

Connecting it to the PC would charge it too, so I can’t synchronise it properly and, what’s much worse, can’t download the latest firmware. Ah! Nerd hell. And of course, I can hardly use it as my working phone either. So for the first few days it’s an invalid.

Just as well perhaps. At least I’ll have had some practice using it before anyone sees me trying in public. Having a phone as noticeable as this and not knowing what the hell I’m doing with it has too much comic potential. And I’ve never had an Android phone before (well, I did have an experimental Android install on my N900, but it wasn’t really usable), so I’ve little experience with it.

It has to be admitted, Android is a whole other operating system.There’s a lot I like about it already, but there are constant reminders that it’s not Windows or Mac OS, or even Maemo. I think what I miss most is control keys. Control+z especially… After that, definitely arrow keys or an equivalent. Moving back a single letter, for example, is not easily done by poking text on screen. I feel like the interface was conceived to work with single as well as multi-touch input, and in consequence is more restricted than it really needs to be now. But the Swype keyboard at least tries to make up for that, and works impressively well.

Plus I haven’t really used a capacitive screen before. With the N900 I could hit tiny links and so on with a fingernail, without having to zoom in, and it’s frustrating now when that doesn’t work. Basically I have to unlearn what I spent the last year learning.

First world problems.

Galaxy Note – The Unboxening

I knew I was going to get it, but I had wanted to torture myself first. I wanted to handle one, test it for size and feel, see how the digitizer pen worked (even if it’s basically identical to the one on this computer), generally just… stall. But when I called the local Vodafone outlet – who had told me on Saturday that they might, just possibly, have one in on Tuesday – they said they had indeed got one in. For someone else.

No! I was going to be first, dammit! For no very clear reason, I went into town to sort this. I was not actually determined to be the first on my block – consciously at least – but I did want clarification on when I would be able to try one.

When I got there, it didn’t take too long to work out that the other person it had been gotten in for was me. But – they couldn’t let me examine it first. And if I bought it unseen, I wouldn’t be able to return it no matter how unlike my expectations it turned out to be. I am about 99.67% certain that consumer rights say otherwise, but that’s the official line. (One reason I would have preferred to have stayed with O2, who don’t piss about in this respect, but it would seem Vodafone have an exclusive distribution deal here.) So I was faced with a dilemma: Commit myself, taking the risk that the phone was as unwieldy and flawed as a minority of reviewers claimed, or… or not. The alternative was to simply be patient until I could try it somewhere, whenever that may be.

And I had less than an hour before the shop closed.

Bugger.

I had a coffee and attempted to do some more expense-justifying calculations. But it was clear that nothing except an almost perverse effort of will could stop me now. Not having seen it there, so close, in its box. And at least from that I knew it could not be so unfeasibly huge as in the legends.

It’s not. Let’s fast forward. I bought it, I brought it home. There.

Basically, everything you’ve heard about its vasty vast vastness is excitable nonsense. Yes it’s big for a phone. It’s the biggest phone. But it fits in the hand well. And I have small hands – with short fingers even.

It just… works. Quite brilliantly. More details tomorrow, the excitement has quite exhausted me.

The Liberal State-Controlled Media

Leo Varadkar TD at a Fine Gael press conferenc...
An Illiberal

Well, it’s good to know I suppose.

Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael minister for transport, has accused state broadcaster RTÉ of “liberal bias”. Yes, his exact words. Just like he was on Fox News. Brings an entire new meaning to the term Irish Republican, doesn’t it?

Though it is sometimes hard to tell where Fine Gael are coming from politically, if you had to characterise them in a single word then “Liberal” would have been it. They’re a good fit for what it traditionally means – in Europe: In favour of individual freedom, including the freedom to use the advantages you were born into. So, laissez-faire economics and no particular interest in your private life.

But he seems to be using it in the American sense, where the phrase liberal bias has come to be coded language for anything not conservative, Christian and pro-Republican. Witness Conservapedia, the online encyclopaedia invented to provide information free from Wikipedia’s liberal bias – by which they mean evolution and other non-Biblical aberrations. In this mindset, neutrality itself is liberal bias.

I don’t claim RTÉ have no problems with objectivity, and I am sure that Varadkar is not actually a Creationist. But it is more than worrying to see a politician adopting the rhetoric of wilful ignorance. Does he really want to align himself with the likes of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum?

The Future Is Coloured Paper

No backlighting - it just looks like that

What with all the stuff this week, I almost missed a new technology for electronic paper – in colour – hitting the streets in Asia.

The current leader, E Ink, uses tiny black and white spheres suspended just below the display surface and carrying opposite charges. Applying a positive charge brings the white ones up, a negative the black. Thus the display is a pattern of dots just like printing on paper, reflecting ambient light rather than emitting it like normal screens.

This is thought to be more relaxing on the eyes, and so is the technology you’ll find on Kindles, Nooks, and most other e-readers. But it doesn’t work very well for colour. (The Nook Color or Kindle Fire use ordinary backlit displays.) You have to use filters, a subtractive process that leads to a dimmer display with very muted tones.

The Qualcomm technology – branded Mirasol, but also referred to by the fun term “microelectromechanical” – takes a whole new approach, using tiny mirror-cells that reflect light back at a different frequency (colour) when an electric charge is applied. The extra-clever bit – that frequency can be in the invisible ultraviolet, meaning the screen can “shine black”.

Does it work? Well the colours look a little washed out to me, like photographs in magazines from the 1950s. Actually, like photographs in magazines from the 1950s look now. It’s not exactly vibrant, but it’s quite a pleasant effect in a low-key, old-fashioned kind of way. I’d call it usable, we can live in hope of improvements.

And excitingly, Qualcomm say that the display refreshes (changes) fast enough for Web browsing or even video. The obvious question then is what this would be like on laptops, tablets and phones. Requiring no backlight could extend battery life drastically. Are we looking forward to portable computers with weeks-long battery life like today’s e-readers? According to their white paper (PDF) on the technology, once displaying a given colour a pixel in the Mirasol screen requires “almost no power” to maintain it. So yes, this technology may really be as parsimonious as E Ink.

But the display is not the only factor of course; such devices need more powerful processors than e-readers, which are basically just glorified page-turning machines after all. They have radios that need to be on a lot – in the case of phones, constantly. We’ll want them to run greedy applications like browsers. So I doubt we’ll soon be seeing a battery life of weeks. But a few days begins to sound like a real possibility. Wouldn’t that be nice? Soon we may have phones like the ones we had years ago!

Or more seriously, I can spend a day using the mobile Internet – perhaps even a trip of several days – without worrying about where I’ll find a friendly power outlet. I think I could put up with some muted colours for that.

The Phone That Should Have Been King

But boy, could it multitask. Sixteen apps running simultaneously on the N900’s task management screen. And sixteen is just the most you can show without scrolling. Like a PC, there is no upper limit except available memory.

Two years ago Nokia’s future was going to be Maemo, a cutting-edge operating system based on Linux with a sleek interface to replace the veteran Symbian OS. The phone that would bring it was the N900. This had the same processor as the rival iPhone 3GS, plus a much better screen and camera, neat slide-out keyboard, a kickstand and great stereo speakers for watching video, and even features the iPhone lacks to this day like real multitasking and a memory card slot.

As Nokia had been and was still the leading maker of smartphones, you might imagine a pent-up market of loyal customers gagging for a device that would show that upstart Apple. Yet when it arrived they stayed away in droves. The N900, very arguably the most advanced and capable phone yet made, was a magnificent, absolute, utter market failure.

What the hell went wrong? More than one thing, clearly. A phone with that much going for it could surely have survived one weakness, maybe even two or three, and still gone on to be a big seller.

Four though is pushing it.

Nokia N900, dial mode.
Not its best angle

The other week I showed it to an iPhone-using friend. She was interested, but asked – quite innocently – “Why is it so thick?” It’s true, it’s as thick as a brick. Downright chubby. Though its other dimensions are almost identical to the iPhone 3GS, it’s half again as deep. Is that such a bad thing? Thickness is actually a practical advantage in a phone, there’s little chance of cracking this one in your pocket. But such arguments weigh little in the scales of fashion. People have to be slim, therefore our phones have to be slim too – that seems to be about all the logic there is to it.

An even more damaging shortfall though was the strange absence of multitouch. Perhaps Nokia had too little experience with the necessary screen technology, but launching the N900 without a modern interface was like naming a ship “Abandon”. A resistive screen with a stylus for tapping little icons was an interface from obsolescent Windows Mobile and historic Palm devices. Nobody wanted one now.

Nobody, except a few freaks such as myself. Resistive is far better suited to drawing than the capacitive type of screen used for multitouch. Capacitive requires a large contact area with the surface, making precise detail impossible. Plus it lacks any dimension of pressure sensitivity, while resistive screens can be highly responsive to changes in the pen press.

Combined with pressure-aware Linux drawing applications like MyPaint, this ‘outdated’ resistive interface allowed realistic pen-like or brush-like drawing strokes. This made the N900 the best phone ever created for art,¹ a powerful but sensitive digital sketchbook you could carry in a pocket. Many of the cartoons appearing on this blog were done with it – pencilled, inked, coloured, lettered and uploaded without ever seeing paper or PC. You can even edit images with GIMP, a program with capabilities comparable to the full desktop version of Adobe Photoshop.

But the very thing that most endeared it to me was a huge turn-off to the wider public.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
Looks better this way

Then there was the lack of apps. As Apple were first to realise, shopping is part of the experience now. A phone is nothing without stuff you can buy for it. There are some very good apps available for Maemo – but almost none to buy. Its Open Source Software roots meant that people were keen to contribute useful stuff. With a little tweaking it could even run apps built for desktop Linux. But that actually worked against a market for the Maemo platform. Professional app developers were discouraged by having to compete with free.

And this cultural clash, Open Source on one hand and commerce on the other, created other unforeseen problems. If you’ve got an issue with a community-developed program, to whom do you complain?

You don’t. In the cooperative world of OSS you file a bug report, documenting the issue and the circumstances that produce it. Which is lovely, but customers who’ve paid money for a fancy phone hardly expect to have to help out as well.

English: The Nokia N900 showing system informa...
Terminal: Fatal

Nor do they expect tech support that tells them to open a terminal window and enter Linux commands. That isn’t actually as intimidating as it might sound, but “Buy this and soon you’ll be learning Linux” is not the sort of slogan that say Apple would use. Or indeed anyone who wanted to sell anything.

And yet… It was so damn promising. If they had moved quicker to smooth off the edges of Maemo, if something like the N9 had arrived a year earlier – while people were still actually waiting for it – it might have been a hit instead of a peculiar footnote². Instead, Nokia paid brutally for not getting their collective arse in gear.

But, it was a remarkable achievement and a fascinating experiment. Even when it’s no longer my primary phone I’ll keep the N900 around, especially for travel, as an incredibly miniaturised PC. They can be picked up new on Ebay for under $200 now, I recommend them highly.

 

___________________________________________________________________

  1. Though Samsung were later to make the impossible dream come true by putting an actual Wacom digitizer on a phone.
  2. A footnote to the footnote: There are rumours that Nokia have quietly continued their Linux-based development – just not for smartphones. Dubbed Meltemi, a descendent of Maemo is rumoured to be the future replacement for the S40 “dumbphone” system that has done so well for them for so long, and could be used to bring smartphone-like features to low-cost devices. That might prove competitive against the rising tide of (frequently awful) cut-price Androids. A sad end for the noble Maemo maybe, but it could save Nokia’s bacon – and of course make them less dependent on Microsoft. Who’s to say that a Linux smartphone will not rise again?

Living With The Samsung Galaxy Note

And now, a guest post. Matthew lives in the UK where they’ve had the Samsung Galaxy Note for a couple of months now, so he’s had time to discover what it’s really like to use. Bear in mind he has the international version as opposed to AT&T’s US-only one. This has a faster processor but no LTE or NFC.

Galaxy Note Guest Review By Matthew

The Note’s browser – click for actual pixels

I was looking for a device small enough to carry anywhere yet large enough to function as a tablet. My previous phone was a Dell Streak, an earlier 5″ phone/tablet hybrid. This was much-maligned – because of its size in part, though Dell did it no favours by failing to properly market it and releasing it with Android 1.6 (Donut). Once upgraded, the Streak was a capable device. The hardware was extremely solid, and the large screen very useful for web browsing and email. I hoped then that it would be a success and spark off a wave of similar-sized phones. With luck, the Galaxy Note will succeed where the Dell Streak failed.

Form Factor

The main thing giving potential buyers pause is of course the size. While the Note is undeniably large – 46.9 x 83 x 9.7 mm – it isn’t that big a step up from the many 4.3″ phones that are available, although when I compared it to a work colleague’s iPhone the difference was more apparent. A preconception reviewers seem to have is that it must be too large and heavy for making regular phone calls. While this was a possible issue with the Dell Streak, the Galaxy Note is a lot lighter and thinner – at 176 grams it’s only about 25% heavier than the iPhone. People with small hands may have more difficulty than I do, but unless (like my annoying housemate) you’re going to be making two-hour-long calls I can’t see the size being a problem for most people.

The Note comes with the same Gorilla glass as the Dell Streak – although it doesn’t feel quite as solid, possibly due to the reduced weight. Many may find it too large for everyday use, but for me it’s the ideal size – large enough for web browsing and occasional content creation, yet still small enough to be carried everywhere. One of the great things about Android is that the variety of devices out there means there is pretty much one for everyone, and many will feel the need for one this size.

For the non-phone functions it’s pretty usable in portrait mode with one hand, but in landscape using the Note is definitely a two-handed operation. The Keyboard is too large to be reaching across from one side to the other, and if you’re not careful it’s very easy to drop. You wouldn’t want to be trying to send text messages with it while walking down the street. Also, it’s very easy to pick up the device upside down without noticing, then wonder where the hardware keys have got too. (For you lefties though, it works perfectly well that way round.)

The second common objection is that users will look like wallies holding it next to their heads. I haven’t experienced that problem myself – most people at work have been impressed when they see what the Note can do. A couple have commented on the size but agree it’s worth the pay off, and those who have said the Note is too large all belong to the “All you need is something that will make calls” brigade.

As for carrying it around, it has to be said – you need big pockets. As I say, its not that big a step up from the larger Android smartphones, but it’s a lot less portable then an iPhone, let alone a regular-sized phone. If, as I would recommend, you attach one of the many hard cases available to protect the Galaxy Note, the bulk increases further. This hasn’t been an issue for me personally, I carry more stuff in my pockets than Doctor Who, but skinny jeans are definitely out.

The size, as well as the lack of dedicated camera button, means its not that great for taking spontaneous photos. This is a shame as it’s very good for viewing pictures on and has a fair amount of storage space.

For business users, the extra screen space and fast CPU really make a difference. The battery holds up very well for an Android phone and it’s pretty solid. For everyone else, it depends on how you use your phone. It’s an excellent multimedia device, and is great for showing off photos, viewing webpages, or as a quite capable e-book reader. Its size does make it that little bit less practical, but for me I feel it’s more than worth it.

For comparison, here’s a picture of the Galaxy note next to my old HTC Touch Pro II, HTC Kaiser, and my ancient trusty Nokia work phone. (Apologies for the quality.)

The Galaxy Note next to some of my earlier devices

Innards

The Note comes with a 1.4GHz dual-core chip, 1024MB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. There is also a microSD card slot that can expand the storage space, though without serious tinkering the Note currently only reads cards in the FAT32 format which has a file size limit of 4GB. So while it’s capable of playing 720p video with ease you may have to do some file recoding to get full-length movies to fit.

Physical Controls

There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, which will take regular headphones but has the usual third connector for use with the supplied earphones / hands-free microphone. This also functions as the aerial for the inbuilt FM Radio, although I’ve found it will receive a lot of stations with just regular headphones or speakers connected.

The power button is over on the top right, and the volume controls on the left. Both are easy to reach, however I did find myself accidentally pressing the power button on occasion. Also, there isn’t a dedicated camera button – rather an unusual omission. Down at the bottom is the microUSB connector¹. There’s no video/media socket, but the Galaxy Note is capable of HDMI output using what’s known as an MHL adapter (sadly not included, but available fairly cheaply).

At the bottom of the screen bezel are the usual setting and back buttons, and a physical home button. (The US version has all capacitive buttons.) Unfortunately these cannot be used with the S-Pen – which I will get to shortly – which makes using the stylus a slightly less seamless experience.

  1. We said earlier that the connector was proprietary. Apologies for this error.

Screen

The Galaxy Note has a vast 800 x 1280 pixel screen resolution, which at 5.3 inches gives it 284 dpi. The size makes reading on the display a much more pleasurable experience than on smaller devices. Full-size web pages can be read easily, and emails are much more accessible. One minor irk is that the colours on the AMOLED screen can have a strange cast to them. This can be partially rectified by setting the Screen mode to “Movie” (the US version seems to lack this option, at least at the moment). Nevertheless, the screen looks terrific.

Speakers / Microphone

I actually don’t make that many phone calls, but when I do I’ve found the Note perfectly capable. If the size isn’t an issue for you, the Note is definitely capable of being used as a primary phone.

The Pen

The second-most hyped feature of the Galaxy Note. While it was one of the main things that attracted me I must admit I use it very rarely, at least for everyday tasks. Android has evolved to the point where a stylus is redundant. That said, it does have a couple of very nifty features that I’ve been enjoying. Firstly, by touching the screen and clicking the button on the stylus, you can take a screenshot from any program – which has been pretty useful in writing this review. Furthermore, screenshots can be edited before being uploaded to Dropbox, or sent out via email or MMS:

On a more personal note I’m (very slowly) in the process of learning Japanese, and have been using the stylus heavily to practice my writing.

Battery Life

Battery life will of course vary depending on usage; the Note does have a generous 2500 mAh battery. With moderate browsing and emailing, the Note should easily last out the day.

Software

Like many Android users I’ve installed my own preferred apps on the Note, though I haven’t felt the need to install a third-party ROM. The Note currently comes with Android 2.3. Android 4.0 is due to land any time now, but it certainly doesn’t feel out of date.

The notification bar is very functional. As well as notifications from apps, I can see the battery status, current sound profile, and connectivity status. Opening up the status bar I can see my notifications in more detail, but also activate / deactivate the Wireless, Bluetooth, GPS, Silent Mode and Screen Rotation.

Expanded Notification Bar

Home Screen

Can’t speak too much about the home screen I’m afraid, as I replaced mine with ADWLauncher almost immediately (I’m pretty big on customizing my phones). Fairly major omission for a review I know, as Touchwiz is a significant feature on Samsung phones and is regarded as one of the best customized overlays. There’s the usual clock/weather widget, a calendar widget, Yahoo finances, and the Google Search bar and App shortcuts down at the bottom. As is usual with Android, the home screen can be rearranged to your heart’s content.

Keyboard

The Samsung keyboard works pretty nicely with the stylus. Touch the stylus button on the keyboard and a box opens allowing you to scribble words and have them translated instantly to text. It seems pretty accurate, though I’m not sure how much quicker it is than simply typing the words out.

Syncing

The Note requires you to sync with a Google Account, but also allows using an Active Exchange server. I haven’t tested this with a full Exchange account, however I have synced my Windows Live account which now supports the Exchange protocol. For anyone coming over from Windows Mobile, this means your contacts and appointments can remain on your Windows Live account and still be synced to the Note.

Email

The Note’s inbuilt email program is functional if a little basic. It supports standard IMAP / POP protocols, as well as Exchange Mail as already mentioned. Oddly, Gmail isn’t shown in this program by default and instead uses a separate program. As I rarely use my Gmail account this wasn’t an issue for me, but I can imagine it would be for anyone who wants to see their Gmail and other email accounts in one program. The Galaxy Note’s screen size allows the screen to be split in Landscape mode, with your inbox down the left and a preview window on the right.

Browser

Not much to say about the browser other than that it works – very well. Unlike on my Dell Streak, I’ve been using this to browse heavily and haven’t felt the need to install a third-party app. The browser will read web pages in full desktop or mobile mode, though I haven’t found a way of getting pages to display full desktop mode by default.

Calendar

The Note comes with Samsung’s own excellent S-Planner Calendar software. It’s a vast improvement over the standard calendar that comes with Android 2.3 and supports Year, Month, Day, 3 Day and Agenda views. While it will display multiple synced calendars, I haven’t yet found a way to successfully get it to sync with Google Tasks, which I do use heavily. Not too big a problem for me as I use a third-party widget to display my appointments and tasks, but it does lessen the usability of the S-Planner app.

Contacts / Phone

The Contacts / Phone screens have now been merged.

The Keypad screen allows you to search for contacts using the numeric keypad, a feature that was missing on the Dell Streak.

The Logs screen now displays text messages by default as well as your call log, which if you send as many texts as I do tends to clutter the screen up. It can be filtered to only show calls however.

The Contacts screen shows contacts from your Google Account, as well as any other account synced with the device – including Twitter and Facebook. Again this can clutter up the screen, but there is a search bar at the top. As usual, a contact that has entries in different accounts can have those accounts linked, allowing the device to pull a contact picture from Facebook or Twitter, or display their latest Twitter update or Facebook status. As I don’t use Facebook anymore I wasn’t able to test this feature fully; however it still doesn’t look as complete as HTCs excellent Sense interface on my old Windows Mobile Phone. Finally, there is a Favourites tab, showing you starred Android contacts, and the Groups screen, which splits your contacts down into whatever categories you have applied to them.

Google Maps

Google Maps has come on a long way since it was first introduced to Android devices, and is now an excellent navigation app. The Note’s screen size is larger than most commercial satnavs, and Google Maps looks glorious on it. It still however has the same flaws. Firstly, it requires an internet connection to download maps on the fly (although maps can be cached into memory), and the inbuilt speech engine (Pico TTS) doesn’t pronounce certain words that clearly. The Note does come with its own text-to-speech engine, but it didn’t work properly with Google Maps when I tried it.

All that said, Google Maps can certainly hold its own against commercial satnav devices, which is pretty impressive considering it is a free app.

Googles Map Screen

Googles Navigation Screen

Directions Screen

S-Memo

S-Memo is another app that makes excellent use of the stylus. Notes can quickly be typed or written out by pen and then saved, exported as an image, or shared out to the usual places. Handwritten notes can also be converted to text, and notes can be tagged or stacked. I’ve been using it at work in place of handwritten notes (which I invariably lose), it is a great little feature.

The S-Memo Ink-to-Text Feature

Polaris Office

The Note comes with Polaris Office rather than the usual Quick Note. While I don’t think the Note can completely replace a laptop for document editing, its larger screen serves it well. One feature I miss on Polaris Office is the ability to directly sync with Dropbox, which I used to find very useful for editing documents on multiple devices. I’ve yet to find one of my spreadsheets that won’t work on the Galaxy Note.

Sample Excel Sheet

Draft of this review

Multimedia

The Note is capable of 1080p and 720p playback. Strangely, I’ve found the native video player will play larger video files where the likes of Rockplayer won’t. I can only assume its because the inbuilt software can make full use of the Note’s hardware. The Music player is functional if slightly basic. It doesn’t have the same syncing ability as iTunes, but Android’s always been more about drag and drop. The inbuilt Gallery is great for flicking through images, which can be selected for editing, sharing, uploading or deletion. Unfortunately there’s no way to choose which directories show in the gallery, so if you use an app that has images spread out over multiple directories – Google Reader, for example – the Gallery can become so clogged as to be unusable.

Image Editor

While it’s certainly no Photoshop, it’s pretty impressive for a free app on a device this size. There’s the usual cropping abilities, resizing, inking and image adjusting. I’ve included a couple of pictures to demonstrate. Disclaimer – the cat isn’t mine.

 Summary

In summary, with the possible exception of my HTC Touch Pro II (I still miss having a physical keyboard), this has to be the best phone I’ve ever owned. It’s my MP3 device, phone, primary means of reading emails, satnav, note-taker and e-book reader. It’s portable enough that it can be taken anywhere (if your pockets are large enough), and is that reliable I haven’t had to do a hard reset yet. If you’re after a phone with a little more screen real estate and power than your average smart phone, the Note is just the thing.