Galaxy Note 2 – Not Bigger, Just Better

On the left, the current Galaxy Note. At right, the coming Note 2

As you know, I love Samsung’s Galaxy Note with a fervour that borders on the erotic. This is the greatest portable device ever invented. A notebook and a phone and a Web browser – what more do you need to do anything? And all in a package small enough to bring everywhere.

So Samsung’s problem now is, how do they sell me another one? I could hang onto this phone for years if they don’t offer a significant step forward. And rumours of dramatic new features have raged over the last few weeks, though I for one am glad that most didn’t turn out to be true. For example, that the Note 2 would have a flexible screen. An interesting concept, possible very convenient to carry, but how are you supposed to write and draw on a bendy surface?

The real Note 2 improves on the original in more predictable ways: Higher processor spec (quad core instead of dual, 1.6 instead of 1.4 GHz) and more RAM (2 GB, up from half that). One rumour to come true is that they went straight to Jelly Bean, the latest iteration of Android, rather than launching with the more established Ice Cream Sandwich. This is to be welcomed, as it brings a lot of smoothness and interface detail improvements.

And to go with this, there’s a significantly larger battery – 31,000 mAh instead of 25,000. We don’t know yet if it will meaningfully extend usage or if the more powerful processor will eat that all up, but I think there’s grounds for hope.

Bluetooth is upped to version 4, though I’ve no idea what real advantage that confers aside from keeping up with the iPhone. The screen will be covered with Gorilla Glass 2. Not the “indestructible” glass of some rumours nor the flexible screen, but its reduced thickness will improve the pen experience. There will also be NFC, the contact-communication technology that will allow you to exchange contacts and files, and (one day) make purchases, simply by touching your phone to things.

As for that form factor – is it “even bigger” than the original, as many have said? It’s debatable. The screen is larger diagonally, at 5.5 instead of 5.3 inches, but that is offset by a narrowing of the aspect ratio – from an unusual 16:10 to the widescreen-standard 16:9. This has been achieved simply by trimming 80 pixels from its width, so the only thing that stops the screen actually being smaller than the original is that the pixels themselves are larger now.

And therefore, their density slightly lower – which seems an odd decision in these days of retina screens, but the Note has plenty resolution to spare and it seems a sensible way to get more area without introducing weird pixel dimensions. The upshot is that the new Note is slightly narrower than the original, but noticeably longer. This may make it a little easier to hold in the hand, while giving it proportions that look more like the phones we’re used to.

So far, so comme ci, comme ça. All-round improvements, but nothing that completely sells me on it. I mean I’ll probably buy one eventually, but I’m not excited.

Until, that is, we come to the pen…

The new S Pen is a little longer, a little thicker. These things are good. But it’s now sensitive to 1,024 levels of pressure, as opposed to the original’s 256. This sensitivity means the pen responds in a more natural way, creating an even more realistic brush stroke. I already think the S Pen is a surprisingly good art tool, but this puts it on a par with Wacom’s most sensitive professional graphics tablets.

Further, Samsung have had the good idea of giving it a slightly rubbery tip instead of the normal hard plastic. This is to reproduce the natural resistance of a pen nib on paper even when you’re drawing on smooth glass (a problem I solved on my original Note with a matte anti-glare screen protector).

And there’s more… Remember how I was overjoyed that since Ice Cream Sandwich, the Note can detect the pen hovering above the screen? Samsung have really run with the possibilities now and introduced various behaviours that occur in hover mode. Using the pen, what’s more, will turn on palm rejection, allowing you to rest your hand on the screen while writing without driving the capacitive sensor nuts.

Any disappointments? Well the camera will still only be 8 Mpx. Not that the current Note’s is bad at all, but one of those rumours promised hugely increased resolution. (This turned out to be confusion with the new Galaxy Camera.) It is however said to be better and faster; we will see. And I was hoping for a more significant size increase, seeing as the giant Note went down far better than anyone expected. OK, maybe that was never going to happen. The larger it got, the more pockets it wouldn’t fit into. But as Samsung now have a 10″ tablet capable of making phone calls (you can even use this quite brilliant Bluetooth pen), maybe they’ll eventually do a 7″ one too. Yep, I’d carry it as a phone. I don’t care.

But meanwhile, I’m sold on this. While everything else may be just sensible – even conservative – technical progress, that improved pen is something I am dying to use. I will buy a Galaxy Note 2. That is, if I can afford it before the Note 3 comes out.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

Writing On An All-Screen Phone

What’s the best way to enter text on an all-screen phone? Some would say there is no good way, that nothing remotely compares to physical keys and screens are no good for anything much longer than a Tweet. I don’t agree, but it has to be admitted that on-screen keyboards like the default ones on iPhone and Android are no pleasure to use. Simply put, you’re never going to touch-type on keys you can’t feel, and the addition of “haptic feedback” – the fancy name for a buzzer that goes off when a key is pressed – does little to help. The old T9 predictive texting was faster.

Prediction can be used here too of course; a system like autocorrect on the iPhone helps – just not much. (And it can go famously wrong.) It’s very much a band-aid for a flawed approach. Far faster, because they play to a screen’s strengths, are systems that work by drawing a line through letters instead of tapping each one, like Swype.

So effective is it unfortunately that Swype has some exclusive deals with phone makers, meaning it comes pre-installed on certain better Androids but is unobtainable for the rest (though you can get a beta version). It’s not yet available for iPhone either, though curiously it is for Symbian.

But why write with one finger? Typing with both thumbs is much quicker, especially if you have a big screen. And there are some nice keyboards designed especially for it, split in the middle to be more literally under your thumb. Again though the lack of feel slows things down. Logically a good combination should be a thumboard and prediction – Swiftkey is probably the most famous example – but I’ve yet to find one that I really enjoy using.

So what about handwriting recognition? Writing with a pen is never as fast as typing of course, but that’s comparing it to real keys. The great thing about a pen (or stylus) for a screen is that it doesn’t require tactile feedback. So it’s a perfect fit? In theory, I think so.

In practise, not always. Decent recognition of cursive handwriting was only achieved on desktop computers a few years ago, so it’s a lot to expect from a phone. Users of Samsung Galaxy phones will probably have tried the inbuilt handwriting recognition – and given up again sharply. It’s tedious to use, thanks to low accuracy and an overcomplicated interface. There are other apps in the marketplace of course, but some of them are pretty expensive.

And then there’s 7notes with Mazec. Let’s face it, the name could’ve been more informative. A lot of people will overlook this because it’s presented as a note-taking app, and there are countless note-taking apps on Google Play and iTunes. 7notes doesn’t even seem a particularly good one – though it has the unusual ability to store handwritten notes and convert them to type later. Its ‘secret’ however is the Mazec text entry system. This installs like a keyboard and so can be used to write with any app, not just 7notes. Only it takes pen strokes instead of key presses.

Perfect it’s not – could handwriting recognition ever be? – but it can convert scrawl to type with impressive speed and accuracy, comparing well to the pen input in Windows. Obviously it’s ideal for use with a stylus, (and to any other owners of the Galaxy Note out there I say simply: Get this now), but it works very well with a finger.

And it’s cheap. Despite its Japanese-language sibling costing an astonishing (for an app) €9.70, the English version is only 99c for Android and Kindle Fire, and free for the iPhone and iPad. Best cost-to-usage ratio I’ve ever found in an app. It’s my default ‘keyboard’ now.

I just wrote this with it.

Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Chrome. Beautiful, Brittle

Good news if you’re using an Android phone or tablet. The mobile version of the Chrome browser, about which I have raved before, has finally been officially released. Chrome handles complex modern sites better than anything else available for mobile, a distinct advantage for the Android platform over iPhone. If you have a decently big screen you can enjoy an experience almost indistinguishable from a desktop browser, using real websites instead of over-simple mobile versions or apps. The illusion becomes perfect on the Galaxy Note, as hovering the pen near to the screen triggers “mouseover” events like dropdown menus, just as on a desktop computer – and just as I’d hoped.

All right, it doesn’t have Flash. This is Adobe’s (and ultimately, Apple’s) fault rather than Google’s though, and there should be a plug-in to fix it soon. It still seems to lack any full-screen mode too. But in every other respect it outclasses the competition, from Google’s own default mobile browser to even the likes of Dolphin HD. Naturally it still has that lovely playing-card interface, it’s as neat and simple as any Chrome variant, and it’s fast. Remember, this is coming from someone who vastly prefers Firefox on the desktop, both for its features and for its independence. Firefox for mobile is getting very good, but this leaves it standing.

Really just one thing stops me from telling you to go install Chrome for Android directly without passing Go or collecting two hundred euros. This would be its slight tendency to crash every five f***ing minutes. Seriously, it happened so many times while I was writing this that I’ve given up and am completing it in Jota. I’m enormously disappointed. I was hoping that the final release would fix the instability that plagued the beta. You know what? It’s actually worse.

I still suggest you download this, even try it as your default browser. It is that nice. I just wouldn’t recommend you use it to write anything longer than a Tweet.

Really Google, what the hell?

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.

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

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.