Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich 3

Android 4.0 is of course an OS designed to work equally well on phones and tablets, and one of the chief features of the Note is its huge, tablet-like screen. So let’s have a look at the advantages of holding your phone sideways.

For a start, landscape mode is a great fit for a GPS device that has Google Street View!

This brings a whole new meaning to the term SatNav.

The included calendar app, S Planner, looks particularly fine on its side.

As does the updated Gmail client. Missing from the inbox view are buttons to scroll through mail. After a confounded moment, you realise that this is now done by swiping. Which is nice. The look is cleaner now. Especially when you choose to write a new mail…

How’s that for stripped down?

But making fullest use of gestures is the beta of Chrome for Mobile. It may not be quite stable yet (the main reason this post is late…) but even allowing for that it’s still better than any other mobile browser around. It’s in the “deck of cards” view that gestures really come into their own. You can use two thumbs to leaf through the page previews, a far faster way to find what you want than clicking on tabs.

I’m beginning to wonder if this really is the best mobile browser interface after all – and not the best interface of any browser, ever.

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich

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The latest version of Android is at last available for Samsung’s Galaxy Note!

Well, kind of. If you live in certain parts of Germany, and perhaps downwind. No one is sure when carriers will actually make it available in their location.

Tired of waiting I cracked, and installed Ice Cream Sandwich myself. A caveat then: As far as I know the version I am using is precisely the one that Samsung released to carriers in Ireland¹, but there may be more to be done with it before the networks roll it out. Particularly, while it appears to be the latest version of Android (4.0.3) complete with Samsung’s “TouchWiz” top layer, not all of the much-publicised Premium Suite seems to be present.

(The only obvious inclusion in fact is S Note, which seems to be a more capable replacement for the – already very useful – S Memo note-taking and sketching app.)

Anyway, that’s all beside the point. What’s it like!?! The initial impression might be a little disappointing – it hardly seems to have changed at all. But that’s because the front end is still Samsung’s TouchWiz customisation. Look closer and you begin to see quite the opposite – everything has changed. There hardly seems to be a single element of Android that hasn’t been either subtly or radically improved. This really is a new OS. It shows best perhaps in an improved tightness, in a great many more options and details, more fancy transitions. All in all, just a nicer overall experience.

For me of course, what matters most is the pen functions. And the good news is, my hopes are realised. That little dot appears on the screen to show it tracking the pen tip, so you know exactly where your line is going to appear when you draw. As odd as that might sound to those who haven’t tried it, this makes drawing far more spontaneous and intuitive. And the pen seems to have become even more responsive too. As you can see above, it gives you a natural, ink-like line. I can say unequivocally now that this must be the best pocket-sized electronic sketchpad you can acquire.

The wider public I think will be more impressed by something that doesn’t actually come with Ice Cream Sandwich, but requires it: The beta version of the new mobile Chrome browser. On a big screen like the Note’s you can set it to act like a desktop browser, and it can deal with complex, JavaScript-laden sites such as editing WordPress.  Clever pop-up magnifications help you choose small menu items, and it employs a metaphor that stretches back to PalmOS, the lost rival mobile system, and even all the way to the original WAP mobile browser – that of a “deck of cards”. Open tabs can be viewed almost as if they were a poker hand, and unwanted ones can be flicked away. It’s all very cute and fluidly animated, basically making other mobile browsers – even Apple’s – look crude and unfinished. And it’s still in beta.

This alone makes the upgrade something to look forward to. Hang on, it can’t be much longer now! And if you are thinking of buying a Samsung Galaxy Note, be assured that the bits that seemed rough on release are now smooth. The fabulous tablet-phone just got more fabulous.

As well as Vodafone, The Samsung Galaxy Note is now available in Ireland from 3 and O2.

 

  1. For the more technically inclined reader: The ROM I installed came from here; to flash it I used Odin, a simple process that doesn’t even require you to root.  Note that I am NOT recommending you try this yourself. It almost certainly voids your warranty, and there is a non-zero chance that it will irretrievably destroy your phone. 

Android Finds: Keep That Screen On

One thing that bugs me about Android is its eagerness to turn the screen off. Yes of course it’s a good idea for battery saving. But it’s less good for, say, reading. You can set the screen timeout delay for a maximum ten minutes, but sometimes even that’s not enough.

Especially when driving. Not that I read a lot while driving, you understand, but I do like to use the Maps app. Sure, that will keep the screen on when you use the navigation function, but to do that you need to enter a destination. What about when you don’t have a destination?

All right, not everyone is as weird as me. But sometimes I like to just drive around in places I don’t know. For example, today I decided to find how far south I could drive along the shores of Lough Corrib before impassable bog forced me back onto the main road¹. I’ve been wondering for years, but it’s the sort of thing you never find time to do in your adult life – until you get a day so hot that spending it driving around with all your windows open actually seems like the sensible thing to do. So I wanted a moving map, to make sure I was sticking to the shores and/or heading south, and I wanted to be able to read it at a glance, not be always unlocking the screen. But I had no destination to enter.

So I pulled over, searched Google Play, and found Screen On, a simple app from Greek company PinApps that lists all the other ones installed and offers the option of keeping the screen on while any of them is running. Lovely. And it has a couple of other cute features too – it can also keep the screen on while you’re taking a call. That sounds like a good idea, I’m frequently annoyed by the delay between ending a conversation and being able to hang up. I’ve yet to decide how well it works in practice though.

Better still, there’s an option to keep the screen going while charging. This was an available behaviour I opted into on my Nokia N900, because it kept the screen on whenever I was using the phone in bed or in the car. Some caveats though: Screens have finite lives, and I believe this is particularly true of OLEDs. Also, one as big as that of the Galaxy Note draws a formidable amount of power. If you leave it burning overnight, particularly if you have other stuff running too or if you’re not using a charger capable of the recommended 1Amp, you may find it hasn’t finished charging by morning! For these reasons, you should remember to manually switch the screen off by touching the power button.

But a great little app that does exactly what I wanted. The only way I would improve it is by having some contextual logic. I’d like it to keep the screen on, when I’m using a certain app, if the phone is on charge. That way there’d be a lot less risk of my flattening the battery through negligence.

Oh the trip? It was a lovely adventure, exploring a maze of boreens that had a nonchalant attitude towards the task of going somewhere. I saw nearby bits of country that I had no idea existed. At one point I drove a quarter of a mile down a narrow lane that just petered out, and so had to reverse all the way back. How often do you get to do that? But the answer to the actual question is that you can hardly get any further south along this shore of the Corrib than I am right here at home. As is fairly obvious from any map.

Afterwards I went to town – by the main road – and bought a big floppy ladies’ straw sun hat I found in a charity shop for a euro. It was quite clear that too much of the sun has been getting through to my brain.

 

  1. The curraghline. Built directly across a spongy bog and therefore liable to constant subsidence and crinkling, it has been described as “Ireland’s straightest and most uneven stretch of road”.

Good Bad Photography (3)

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Today we are trying out Photoshop Express, Adobe’s free, simple, and – let’s face it – almost entirely pointless image editing app.

It does the basics well. At least you assume it does, being from Adobe. I can’t honestly swear I can tell if one app is adjusting brightness or contrast better than another. The cropping, rotating, and flipping tool is impressively quick and smooth though, so it might be worth the effort of downloading for that.

The touch-propelled interface, where the whole screen is your slider control, is great for easy precision control on the phone. But what’s there to do with it? As far as treats go there’s a positively grudging selection of eight frames and seven filters. Even Instagram makes that look weak, never mind an effects cornucopia like Pixlr-o-matic. Apparently there are additional ones available to the iPhone version – for money – but there’s no readily apparent way to get them here.

It shows every sign therefore of being the deliberately watered-down free sibling of the paid-for Photoshop Touch app. Which alas I cannot use until Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4) finally reaches us. I’ll probably find a use for this on occasion, but it will never be my first resort.
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The Missing Kies

More Non-Fun With Samsung. It is amazing that a company rumoured to be the world’s No.1 phone maker can provide their customers with synchronisation software as enjoyable to use as being punched repeatedly in the face. Samsung Kies is slow, unstable, and just ill-conceived.

I decided to give it a thorough troubleshooting today, by removing anything on the computer that might have even a remote chance of interfering with it. My old Nokia syncing software, the crap that Apple piles on when you install Safari or iTunes – anything that might use Media Transfer Protocol basically – before removing and reinstalling Kies. It was a long shot, but it seemed to do some good. At least it will show thumbnails of photos now. That’s… something.

But I must confess – I discovered eventually that Kies wasn’t really failing to accomplish a basic task as I’d thought. It simply doesn’t do that task. Foolish me. Why would I think that a function with a name like “Sync Photos” would sync photos? My naïveté just appals me sometimes.

You see I wanted it to copy the pictures I’d taken with the phone and save them to the computer. On most parts of planet Earth that would mean creating a folder on your computer that always contains the same photographs as the phone. In, as we call it, sync.

For Samsung’s Kies however, syncing photos means copying them from the computer, to the phone. Because that’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Un-backup your pictures. Samsung it seems are so pleased with their phones that they think we’ll want to put all our photos on them, to show them off to their best advantage.

More seriously, they’re envisaging the phone as your central device, your hub. Things move to the phone, not away. All nice in theory, but complete crap in practice. The reality is that both for the sake of convenience and of  backing-up, you want the same files on both your phone and your computer. Synchronisation, as the name suggests, should be a two-way street.

(The cloud? If you have an Android phone you may have found it automatically uploading your photos to your Google account. The way of the future, right. The problem with the cloud is it’s altogether too nebulous. I’m not at all happy entrusting every picture I take to someone who mysteriously doesn’t even want paying for the service.)

So Kies won’t copy my pictures to the computer as a part of an automated syncing process. I have to do it manually. Which means I have to remember to do it manually. This is not good enough. All I want, ideally, is software that will copy my photographs. As well as synchronise any new contact info and events with my computer’s address book and calendar. Maybe copy over other important data too, like sketches I make on it. In the other direction, possibly copy any newly-downloaded podcasts to the phone so that I can listen to them on the move. And it would be nice if it could do that all automatically when I plugged my phone into the computer to charge. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Nope, not thanks to the Austrian guy who developed MyPhoneExplorer. This is everything that Kies should be but isn’t. On top of that it has some interesting features that Kies doesn’t think to include, like the facility to use your phone from your computer when it’s connected, making and taking calls and even typing texts on your keyboard. Plus it can archive your text messages, or indeed keep any data or application on the phone backed up.

It may take some time to set up – read the very useful help pages – but that’s because it can be made to do precisely what you want. And it’s free, though it does ask you to donate. You should. The amount of heartache it will save you is well worth a few euros. He has made life better.

Update: I should have mentioned that when installing it offers to give you a couple of other freeware programs. You can decline these though, and on principle I recommend that you do.

Works on most Android phones, not just Samsung’s, as well as Symbians from Sony Ericsson.

http://www.fjsoft.at/en/downloads.php

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

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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.

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

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.