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.

Shopping For Toys In Hell

It's the phone you write on

Bleurgh.

But first the good news: The Samsung Galaxy Note is finally available in Ireland, from Vodafone.

The mixed news: It’s pricey – ranging from €100 up front on a 24-month “I wish to buy all these airwaves” heavy use contract, to €300 if you only want to be committed for 18 months. That puts it on a level with only the iPhone 4S.

The medium news: Maths is hard. Or to be precise, arithmetic is tedious. But having hammered through nine different contract options, amortising the down payment to try and figure out which is really the best value, there is one inescapable conclusion. They’re all nearly the bloody same. The most expensive one has five times the minutes, ten times the texts and twice the data as the cheapest – but only costs a third more a month.

But will I need all those extra minutes, or can I save that third off the price? Well that really depends on how much I use now. And my current carrier O2 doesn’t put all that information in one place, so I have to go extracting it from each month’s bill… And of course it’s not presented in terms of what you actually used. Oh no, that would be far too simple. Unless that is you want to get it from the downloadable Excel spreadsheet – where they put your spend on voice, text and data all in a single column, so rendering it it ****ing useless.

What appears on the bill is how much you were charged for exceeding your allowance in that month. To work out what that means in terms of usage you have to divide it by the price, and nowhere on the site does it seem to say anymore what the tariffs for excess minutes, texts and data are for my contract. So I have to figure the pricing out from the spreadsheet – factoring in the VAT of course. And this still tells me nothing about the months when I was under my allowance; that I have to extrapolate from the bell curve (i.e., guess). Gaaaaah. My brain hurts. Shopping for toys ought to be more fun than this.

They do it to make their customers stay. We know that we might get a better deal somewhere else. We just can’t tell where.

 

 

No Compromise: Introducing The Galaxy Note

©SamsungThere are phones and there are tablets, and basically the only difference between them is size. But that difference is not trivial. Far from it; in mobile technology, form factor is everything. Difference in size means difference in purpose. A tablet is as big as is comfortable to use for ‘media consumption’ on the couch, a phone as small and portable as it can be while remaining usable. Anything intermediate is a compromise that falls between stools. Such is contemporary design wisdom.

And it’s wrong. People use their phones more and more for browsing, reading, viewing media and playing games. All else being equal, these will always be better on a bigger screen. So it’s very arguable that the best portable device is the biggest one you can comfortably carry. How big is that though, exactly?

Bigger than you might expect. Samsung‘s view – and I tend to agree with them – is that the upper threshold is what you can easily get in and out of an ordinary jeans pocket (video). In most ways, their new Galaxy Note is just an upgraded version of their popular Galaxy S II. What sets it apart is its simply humongous 5.3″ screen, surely as big as a mobile phone can get and still remain mobile. That’s not a compromise, that’s pushing an idea to its extreme. Seen this way it’s the recent generation of 7″ Android tablets that fell between two stools – smaller than the iPad, but not small enough to be truly portable.

Some reviewers have worried about looking foolish, holding such a large device up to the face. Well yes, maybe this is not the phone for the overly self-conscious. But I suspect it will attract more glances of interest, even envy, than amusement. It’s not merely the size of the screen that makes it stand out. With its resolution of 1280 x 800 – higher than the iPad – and luxuriant saturated AMOLED colours, it’s gaining a reputation as one of the most beautiful ever seen on a mobile device.

©SamsungBut the controversies only begin with the Note’s size. There’s also that pen. How can the addition of an input device somehow be a fault? For this we can blame Steve Jobs. Making a dig at the original Windows Mobile, he said “if you see a stylus, they blew it.” He was wrong too though. If you need a stylus they blew it, sure. Poking at tiny icons with a stick is not cool. But the Note has a touch interface as good as any of its rivals. More than one review has seemed almost to take offence at this. If you don’t need the pen to use the phone, what’s it doing there?

For sure, it would still be a fabulous device without it. You could use the Note merely as a huge-screened Web browser, HD video player and camera, e-book reader, satnav, tablet, gaming device etc. without ever withdrawing the pen from its bay. But for others – myself included – that pen is precisely the reason why we’ll be giving our money to Samsung. This is no plastic stylus. An advanced, sensitive pen would be a brilliant complement to a device big enough to use like a notebook. And once again Samsung has not cut any corners, using gold-standard technology from Wacom, makers of the Intuos and Cintiq tablets found in graphics studios worldwide. The sketching, annotation and handwriting possibilities this “S-Pen” adds put the Galaxy Note into a league of its own. Or would, if its screen hadn’t already.

It may not be on its own much longer though. It’s being joined by a rival product from fellow Koreans LG. Their Optimus Vu will have comparable dimensions and also comes equipped with a pen – rejoicing in the name “Rubberdium”. (No clues as to what the technology is yet, but they describe it as dedicated so it is probably an active device.) And it may be far from the last. The fourth iteration of Android, with its ability to scale to different screen sizes and its inbuilt support for pens, seems tailor-made for devices like this. (The Note does not actually have Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but will get it as soon as it’s ready – possibly next month.) With these features clearly part of Google’s vision, will we be seeing a phablet from Motorola next?

I hope so for the sake of diversity, but speaking for myself it’s hard to imagination any device in the near future improving on the Galaxy Note. Wacom technology appearing on a phone is a long-held dream I seriously thought would never come true. So I want to use this more than any device I’ve seen in nearly ten years. And frustratingly, about anywhere in the world seems to be getting the Note before Ireland. Vodafone has at least have confirmed they will be carrying it though. No details on pricing yet, but if you want you can register your interest here and get notified as soon as it goes on sale.

Just one question remains then – what will we call this new class of device? Phablet seems to be catching on, even if some abhor the word. Well, it’s not as bad as tabphone or phoneblet. I have a different suggestion though. We could take a word that technology has made redundant and give it a new job. Let’s call it the Phonebook.

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.

 

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.