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.

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.