The Galaxy Note In Depth – 1. Form Factor

Not how Google Earth looks on the average phone. Click to appreciate the full-size image

It isn’t yet possible to definitively review the Samsung Galaxy Note. We still await Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which has the potential to make huge differences.

Some of you have phone-buying decisions to make right now though, so I’m going to start at the finish and try to answer questions potential buyers might have. Questions like “Well, should I get this phone then?”

Yes, unequivocally. I can quit early today.

Oh all right, some more detail. Matthew already gave us a thorough run-down of the Note’s hardware and features, so I’ll try to talk more about personal impressions.

So what have you heard about the Note? That it’s big. Huge. Unwieldy even. Some reviewers said it would be difficult to use, even predicted that you would drop it all the time.

They were all wrong. There is nothing impractical about the Note’s size. It feels strange to hold at first, and you will worry you might drop it. But without wanting to tempt fate, a month has gone by sans fumble. Maybe it helps that I bought a case for it, but – though I certainly would recommend getting a case for a piece of glazing like this – I think it’s more just a matter of getting used to it.

You find yourself using it in a more two-handed way than you would a phone of less unusual dimensions – if you have tiny paws like mine at least. Since launch Samsung have actually added the option of a smaller number pad offset to the side to make it more usable with the thumb, but I dial a number so rarely these days I’m perfectly happy to do it with my other hand.

Some reviewers said people would point and laugh at you if you made calls on it in public. That was nonsense too. The public is used to big-screen phones like the Galaxy S II or Droid Razr. The Note is bigger again, sure, but not startlingly. I don’t think I’ve had even a second glance so far. Kind of disappointing really…

So there is very little downside to the the sheer vastness of the Note. The upside is out of all comparison. It’s just… so damn beautiful. (Look at the screenshot of Google Earth above. And remember, that’s been scaled down to fit in here. Click on the image to see the actual pixels.) And yet, also practical. The extra real estate makes everything work that bit better. Browsing, reading, using apps, watching video, entering text on the screen keyboard. The Galaxy Note is an ideal satnav device for example, its big screen allowing you to check out your route at a glance. Plus you can use it in portrait mode, which when you think about it is the way that satnavs really should have been designed in the first place.

Any faults? I don’t think so. Some said the colours were oversaturated, but I find them fine; perhaps Samsung tweaked that. It’s pentile instead of ‘proper’ RGB which means it has a lower effective resolution, but the pixels are so tiny you really can’t tell. It’s small for a tablet, yes. Some tablet-specific apps are going to be impractical, especially when Ice Cream Sandwich allows those written for Honeycomb to run on it. But it’s the biggest tablet you’ll ever get in your pants pocket to bring with you all day.

And yes it’s perfectly comfortable in your pants, despite every other review warning that it is “only for those with bigger pockets” or words to that effect. We learn from this that a lot of technology writers are either (a) surprisingly wary of new things or (b) tiny.

Next time, we’ll get to grips with that pen.

Excellent Gadget Time

I was saying that by turning off the always-on data connection, my Android phone will get through a full day with plenty power to spare. And that’s not jealously husbanding the battery either, but fully indulging what the phone can do. Including 3G data – when I actually want it.

Pretty neat, but what when I want to really rip it? Actually spend a whole day browsing, for example. While simultaneously live-streaming geotagged video. Desire expands to meet the limitations of the battery.

And yet, there is a way to have effectively endless battery life. How? It’s simple. Charge one battery while you use another.

You own a spare battery, right? Oh, you have an iPhone. I’m sorry. I suppose you can charge a spare iPhone.

There are a number of solutions to charging a battery while it’s not in your phone. This though is quite the tiniest I’ve ever seen. I saw some of them – different brand, but identical device – in my local electronics shop on clearance for 60 cents each. What to lose, I thought. A couple of days later I came back and bought all the ones they had left.

It works for many common phone and camera batteries. You adjust its prongs to match the contacts (an LED tells you when they’re right), clip it on, and plug it into any USB socket. It’s really about as no-frills as charging can get, and it weighs a barely-perceptible 11 grammes. Worth carrying just as an emergency backup in case you lose, break or forget your normal charger. It even has key ring!

I’m fortunate in that Samsung provided a collapsible travel charger, so I can fit that, a short USB-to-microUSB cable, the spare battery and one of these chargers all into an old glasses case. Plus headphones and spare stylus pen. That’s all I need to charge the phone or the battery. Now I can travel forever.

Good Bad Photography (2)

Pixlr-o-matic

image
This was a perfectly safe-looking house before I let Pixlr-o-matic at it

Oh, I’m liking this one. Pixlr-o-matic, unlike the Instagram and Hipster I discussed earlier, is not about applying pre-set combinations of effects. Instead you can choose the combination, from three different categories called Overlay, Filter and Frame. Plenty come with it, and you can quickly download many more – even seeing them applied in preview before you download, which is pretty amazing.

This is a really well thought-out app in the way that it manages to combine speed with flexibility. Obviously it takes longer to use than one of the others, simply because you have so many more options, but it means you can apply your own tastes rather than be restricted to the aesthetic ideas of an app’s creator. And to speed things up you can remove effects from the interface, getting ones you don’t like out of the way or even reducing it to just a few favourites. The rest remain accessible, but are a few taps away. For me, that flexibility easily outweighs the extra complication. There’s room for both types of app on a phone of course, but I see myself using this one far more often.

A couple of other great features:

A button to apply a random combination of filters that you can keep hitting until you’re pleasantly surprised. It abandons all control, but adds fun.

Single-click cropping to square. It just cuts off the sides, unfortunately there’s no zooming or panning, but it’s quick and it’s great to have the choice.

Best of all though, Pixlr-o-matic allows you to save your pictures. Are you surprised that that’s a bonus? Too many of these apps are so “social” that there is no option to save an image to your phone! You can only upload it.

This is the one Facebook should’ve bought. Maybe they just couldn’t pronounce it. Far, far better than Instagram or anything else I’ve found so far. And it costs exactly one billion dollars less.

Get it here.

A Day To Remember

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guess what happened in history today? I mean aside from the sinking of the Titanic.

The birth of Leonardo Da Vinci. And, the opening of the first McDonald’s.

1452: The last man to become both the greatest artist and the greatest scientist of his day was born.

1955: The enterprise that sought to squeeze the most possible cow into the most possible people began.

I propose that the United Nations declare the 15th of April world What The Hell Happened day.

Good Bad Photography (1)

Hipster

Lomography – the use of a uniquely crappy camera to take charmingly distorted pictures – was perhaps the last cry of film photography as a fashionable medium. It was soon overtaken by apps that could achieve similar effects and more, such as Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Developers quickly realised that with its ability to run software, a smartphone could be much more than an ordinary digital camera. Now, a photo is hardly a photo without an extreme colour cast and dark corners.

Then social networking got involved. Some may think the combination limited; after all, uploading images is just a subset of what Facebook or Google+ can do, and Flickr has had similar facilities for ages now without ever setting the world on fire. But on the other hand Pinterest – sharing other people’s pictures yet – has become the biggest social network after Facebook and Twitter, so it’s perhaps in the light of this that Instagram, one of the most successful free social/photography apps, was snapped up by Facebook on almost the same day that it became available for Android. For one billion dollars.

Oops, you blinked.

Networking is not so important to me, but I would like a good Lomo-style app to take fashionably bad photographs. I am impressed by how affecting these effects can be. The one above uses Hipster, an established Instagram-like app for Android. It’s OK, it has some interesting effects. But not many, and the tools seem a little limited. Very comparable to Instagram really, but with one big difference: The results are… unsquare. It leaves the images in widescreen ratio, not the cute square format that’s so key to the retro feel, and so far I’ve found no way to change that.

I don’t think this will be the one for me then. Look out for more trials to come.

Correction:

In my rush to find nice effects I completely overlooked the actual intention of Hipster. Though it’s similar to Instagram in most respects, its intention is to create postcard-like images automatically bearing the location they were taken, which I assume they scrape off Google Maps. Hence the wide format. I hadn’t realised this at first because the picture I took above was a long way from any landmark. If I had been, its name would’ve appeared in the black area on the left up there.

There’s a different font to suit each effect, and I suppose it achieves its goal; they do look like postcards. Unfortunately to me they mostly look like tastelessly effects-laden postcards from the 80s. Which is either insufficiently retro, or excessively ironic.

Similarly too, but not as tasteful as, Hipstamatic

Good Bad Photography (1)

Hipster

Lomography – the use of a uniquely crappy camera to take charmingly distorted pictures – was perhaps the last cry of film photography as a fashionable medium. It was soon overtaken by apps that could achieve similar effects and more, such as Hipstamatic for the iPhone. Developers quickly realised that with its ability to run software, a smartphone could be much more than an ordinary digital camera. Now, a photo is hardly a photo without an extreme colour cast and dark corners.

Then social networking got involved. Some may think the combination limited; after all, uploading images is just a subset of what Facebook or Google+ can do, and Flickr has had similar facilities for ages now without ever setting the world on fire. But on the other hand Pinterest – sharing other people’s pictures yet – has become the biggest social network after Facebook and Twitter, so it’s perhaps in the light of this that Instagram, one of the most successful free social/photography apps, was snapped up by Facebook on almost the same day that it became available for Android. For one billion dollars.

Oops, you blinked.

Networking is not so important to me, but I would like a good Lomo-style app to take fashionably bad photographs. I am impressed by how affecting these effects can be. The one above uses Hipster, an established Instagram-like app for Android. It’s OK, it has some interesting effects. But not many, and the tools seem a little limited. Very comparable to Instagram really, but with one big difference: The results are… unsquare. It leaves the images in widescreen ratio, not the cute square format that’s so key to the retro feel, and so far I’ve found no way to change that.

I don’t think this will be the one for me then. Look out for more trials to come.

Correction:

In my rush to find nice effects I completely overlooked the actual intention of Hipster. Though it’s similar to Instagram in most respects, its intention is to create postcard-like images automatically bearing the location they were taken, which I assume they scrape off Google Maps. Hence the wide format. I hadn’t realised this at first because the picture I took above was a long way from any landmark. If I had been, its name would’ve appeared in the black area on the left up there.

There’s a different font to suit each effect, and I suppose it achieves its goal; they do look like postcards. Unfortunately to me they mostly look like tastelessly effects-laden postcards from the 80s. Which is either insufficiently retro, or excessively ironic.

Similarly too, but not as tasteful as, Hipstamatic

I’m Tired So Here’s A Few Links

The sea is full of weirdness

I’m going to have to change my policy of not going to bed until I get a post up, because that is keeping me awake till 6 a.m. every freaking morning. So forgive me if today’s is lower on original content, and higher on pictures of cats. LOLcats it seems are by no means a new phenomenon.

Yes, I need sleep.

Or here’s the good State of Tennessee demonstrating that it’s abstinence-only approach to sex education is really just fear and/or hatred of sex itself. They propose to warn teenagers against holding hands.

Visit this Facebook page! It’s science, but just the funny and weird bits – like this.

That’s it, I’m even out of random stuff drifting around my head. I’ll try to write something that’s actually about something later today.

Living With An Android (1)

Enhancing Your Battery Life

It's the button that was missing

As phones have got bigger, brighter and more sophisticated, so their battery lives seem to have reverted to the stone age. Any decent one will of course still have sufficient to make and receive calls all day, but will it leave enough to also do the things you actually bought a smartphone for? A couple of hours browsing in the afternoon, maybe some handheld GPS navigation around town, and suddenly it’s looking like you may not make it home to your charger in time.

What’s to be done? Well Android does present a lot of power-saving options, but it’s not at all clear to the user just how much these will save or what functionality they sacrifice.

OK, some are no-brainers. You will extend battery life very significantly if you don’t turn on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS until you need to connect to a network, link your phone to some other device, or find out where you are, respectively. (And remember to turn them off again after!) It’s worth mentioning too though that Wi-Fi needs less power than a 3G connection, so use it to go online when you have the choice. Of course, that will also save you data charges.

That huge vivid screen drinks power like a power alkie falling off the power wagon. If you’re not trying to impress anyone with its shininess just now, set the brightness as low as you find usable. (Settings > Display > Brightness; Your phone’s automatic brightness setting, which allows it to adjust to the ambient light, may be the best compromise.) While you’re here in Display Settings, you can adjust the screen timeout – the length of time it stays lit after you stop touching it – to be as short as you can tolerate.

Those are the biggies; after that it’s all fiddling with minor adjustments that might or might not make a noticeable difference. What would be really nice to find is some hidden setting that dramatically improves battery life, a sort of magic button if you will. Not too much to ask, is it?

Well no it’s not. There is one simple thing you can do, and it will save you buttloads of electricity¹. You can turn off Packet Data.

Packet data is what’s more loosely referred to as “3G” – Internet over the mobile network. Your Android phone, by default, keeps a data connection going all the time. This means you can constantly receive things like emails, calls over Skype and other VoIP systems, MMS messages, and fresh new adverts for your ad-supported apps. Nice stuff – well mostly – but not exactly necessary. Especially not when you consider that the time you’re spending online without really meaning to is deducted directly from the time you can be online when you want. Simply maintaining that data connection is eating your power, even when nothing is being transferred.

One problem: Android is kinda designed around the always-on data connection, they don’t really mean you to turn it on and off easily. So the option is a little buried, under Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks. There you check and uncheck “Use packet data” depending on whether you want mobile Internet access right now. Four clicks down – pretty irritating for something you might want to change several times in one day.

But fear not – there is of course an app for that. Or to be more precise, a widget – a simple button you can stick on your home screen to turn packet data on and off handily. There are a great number to choose from on the Android Market Google Play in fact; some though are ugly-looking, some have ads, some other features that you may or may not want. One I found that seems to work just fine, looks nice and is both free and ad-free is called Data Switch. I can’t promise this one will work flawlessly for you (try restarting your phone if it doesn’t seem to at first), but it seems to work perfectly on the Galaxy Note.

While the Note’s battery is very reasonable by smartphone standards, this could make all the difference between worrying if it will last, and being relaxed about it. So if you really want to Skype me, call me first to let me know OK?

  1. Electricity used to be sold from large barrels called butts, each equal to two hogsheads or seven rundlets.  

EU To Ban Crucifixions – Ben Dunne

It’s now got worse, they want us to do away with crucifixions, they want us to deny we are Christians publicly.

Ben Dunne either advertising his chain of gyms or his contempt for democracy. Possibly both.

So said Ben Dunne, in a bizarre tirade to a radio chat show. The paper corrects him to ‘crucifixes’, sadly, but the rest of his wild and weird inaccuracies – that the EU wants Ireland to stop playing the Angelus bell on public radio, or Christianity is being banned and that European money is somehow contingent on this – still stand.

Of course, most of you don’t know who Ben Dunne is. Time to put on your safety harness, we’re off on a brief, scary ride through the dark side of Irish politics.

A former tycoon, famous for lavishing gifts of money on politicians, more famous for an embarrassingly public cocaine-and-hooker freakout in an Orlando hotel (my favourite response: A t-shirt with a map of Florida, a line of coke, and the legend “Ben There, Dunne That”), most famous now for his part in business dealings described by a public judicial investigation as, “profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking”. Yet there he was on the radio, ranting – even raving – in defence of his religion.

Pretty sure his religion was wishing he’d shut the hell up.

Before the last Lisbon Treaty, one of the things I got a commitment from senior people in politics about was that the Angelus wouldn’t be done away with.

He thinks he can get politicians to change continent-wide treaties to suit his personal desires. The scary thing is, there was a time when that might not have been delusion.

Of course, the Lisbon Treaty had as much to do with broadcasting the Angelus as it did with tourist visas for mermaids. Opposition to Ireland’s national broadcaster playing one religion’s chimes every day doesn’t come from the European Union. It comes from Irish people who want the separation of church and state to actually mean something. Anything.

Dunne is clearly teetering on the edge of derangement. You would feel sorry for him if it wasn’t for his egotism and bullish bluster, and for the incredibly destructive influence he has had on Irish democracy. He cannot be scapegoated for all political corruption – there’s simply far too much of it – but he is so perfectly emblematic of it. And in a way it explains his faith – or perhaps vice versa. How else could he have done all that, without an unshakeable belief in a saviour who can forgive anything?

But he is a man out of time. There were headlines when the census results were released about Ireland still being ‘overwhelmingly Catholic’ after all that has happened, but that really depends on what you mean by Catholic. Sure, 84 percent of the population identified themselves as such, but for a lot of people religious affiliation is mainly just that – a cultural, historical identity. Many assume that you are supposed to put down the religion you were born into, whatever you actually believe now.

Two thirds of those who call themselves Catholic don’t attend a weekly mass any more – and that’s according to a survey published the church (PDF). Three quarters find the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality “irrelevant”, and a similar proportion says woman should be allowed to be priests. Three in five think the Church is wrong about homosexuality. 87 percent think that priests ought to be allowed to marry.

If we define being Catholic as accepting Catholic dogma, there are almost no Catholics in Ireland at all. It’s mainly just Ben.

There Are Two Ways To Do This, And Your Way Isn’t One Of Them

SONY DSC-TX5
Sony made the camera she’s holding. No it isn’t very relevant, but I was getting nothing else except pictures of old videotape players. (Photo credit: cattias.photos)

Sony Corporation has just filed a record loss of $6.4 billion. How does anyone lose that much money? Particularly, how does one of the biggest makers of electronics, movies and music lose that much money? Maybe it’s piracy. After all when they lobby governments for new media-control legislation, record companies talk as if every download is a loss of a sale. Perhaps they’re actually putting that on their balance sheet now.

OK, the real reasons are probably more complicated. Sony is a complicated company. (Did you know it has a financial services arm?) But I think this in itself causes much of their problems. Making the content and the equipment to play it on is a strategy born of the format wars. Sony’s technically superior Betamax design lost out to VHS, in part because its rivals had better deals for film distribution. So when it came to the the battle between Blu-Ray and HD DVD, Sony was better prepared; it now owns about one sixth of Hollywood.

But format is now irrelevant, an anachronism. Sony won a war over a wasteland.

The makers of audio and video equipment are, to put it crudely, on our side. They know we don’t want the machines we buy hobbled to suit Big Entertainment. So hardware makers quietly let slip the codes that region-unlock their DVD players, Apple decides to sell only DRM-free music through iTunes, so on. But as a maker of both content and equipment, Sony is a house divided against itself. The most notorious example: the day one of the world’s bigger PC builders also became a distributor of malware. If you bought music from them, they returned the favour by taking control of your PC. I haven’t bought a Sony product since.

They must choose now. Only by getting out of entertainment production – an industry already past its best days anyway – will they be able to return to doing what they always did best: Shiny things.