Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – Unpacked Event

OK I’ll buy one.

Best to be clear about that from the start. After viewing today’s IFA Berlin presentation, I’m already planning to push substantial amounts of money onto the nice Korean people. So anything I say from here on cannot be regarded as truly neutral. Spectacles set to rose.

That being acknowledged, let me tell you why I want to spend excessive money on this excessive device.

The Galaxy Note has quite literally been my constant companion for the last three years. I bought the original one the day it went on sale in Ireland, used it in countless ways for both work and play. I’ve watched it grow year on year – the more refined Note II, the seriously powerful Note III – and with each new model, I have…

Stuck with the original. Though every iteration was more desirable than the last, it would not have been genuinely more useful. Not enough to justify starting another long and expensive contract anyway. The industry may love conspicuous consumers, but for most real customers a phone of this quality is a long-term investment.

And with the Note 4, the time may have come to begin again.

I don’t claim to be overwhelmed. Not a single one of the wilder rumours panned out. The Note 4 has a powerful 3GB of RAM, but not a revolutionary 4GB. Standard storage is still only 32GB instead of 64. Even the S4’s weatherproofing, considered almost a given by the rumour mill and greatly to be desired on such an expensive device, doesn’t seem to have materialised. On the other hand, we can be glad that some of the legends did not come to pass. Foldable AMOLED screens are an exciting technology with many possible applications, but would you really want to write on one? And though part of me would love to see the screen size creep up to 6” and beyond, it’s probably best to call a halt at 5.7”. A phone has to fit in pockets.

Rumours and wishful thinking aside, the Note 4 lives up to expectations. Specifications have been enhanced by respectable margins pretty much across the board, and there are a few highly significant improvements like high-speed charging and an ultra-low power mode that can keep it ticking over for a fortnight. Also the ghost of plasticky tackiness seems finally to be exorcised, with a slender metal rim and grippy leather-look back (now without the questionable faux stitching) lending it the air of a precision instrument like a classic SLR camera. At last the looks live up to its cost and quality.

If the Note 4 lacks anything it is one knock-down new feature to get excited about, but perhaps this is not surprising considering the nature of the beast. We’re long past the early days of the iPhone when each year’s model brought another feature that had obviously been missing. The Note already does about everything any other phone does, plus a lot of other things as well, all while pushing the form factor to its limits. Therefore Samsung tends to add its most experimental technology not to the flagship device itself, but to a special edition.

That bill is consummately filled this time by the Edge version with its cute auxiliary interface down one side. It’s an interesting and useful enhancement, but I’m not sure if this special-model strategy is paying off for Samsung. No doubt they worry that adding a controversial feature could raise costs while actually reducing the phone’s potential market, but I think if they’d been daring enough to put the edge display on the standard version it would have made the phone grab attention everywhere it was seen in use. Though it’s a cool extra, I can’t see myself paying extra for a version that has it. Indeed I’ll be a little surprised if any carrier even gives me the option.

The other way Samsung “adds” features of course is by offering new peripherals to integrate with. This time we see a bigger and better Gear watch, which I like but am neither rich nor ostentatious enough to buy. More excitingly, collaboration with Oculus brings a Gear VR headset – simply slot the Note 4 into a pair of goggles and you’re in another world. A technological tour de force by any standard and a sure headline-grabber, but not a reason for me to buy.

What does it for me is the solid improvements to the features I use regularly. More than once I’ve upgraded a phone basically to get a better camera, and with 16MP and real optical image stabilization, the Note 4’s is streets ahead of the original’s (already excellent) 8MP offering. And with a resolution breaking 500 pixels per inch and super AMOLED colour and contrast, its screen outclasses not just the fine precedent of the original, but every display available today.

Of most importance to me though are the enhancements to the Note’s core differentiation – the S Pen. This may mean little to anyone except artists, but there will now be interchangeable tips to adjust the pen-on-paper feel. Best of all the new pen will have 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, the equal of professional graphics tablets. Do you really need that many levels to draw and annotate? No – but on the other hand you can never get too much sensitivity. The more nuance a pen is alive to, the more realistic the feel and the results.

I can’t see owners of the Note III rushing out to buy this, unless they are either blessed with excess wealth or cursed to own the most expensive phone available at any given moment. To them it would be only an incremental upgrade. For those of us who still have the Note or Note II however, decision time has come. And maybe it’s time for you too, if you haven’t yet sampled the delights of a device that, besides being everything a smartphone can be, is also a fine notebook and sketchpad.

The original Galaxy Note was a hard act to follow, so much so that it has taken three generations of enhancement to truly leave clear water. But a significantly better pen and camera make the Note 4 a significantly more useful tool.

Customised Galaxies

Screenshot_2013-08-23-02-52-42
With Sweet ROM the Note’s home screens will work in landscape mode.

Tired of Vodafone Ireland still trailing behind the curve, I decided to upgrade the Galaxy Note myself. Again. A year ago I installed Ice Cream Sandwich. Now we finally have Jelly Bean.

Only, not quite. This time I’ve eschewed not just Vodafone’s particular mix of Android, but Samsung’s too. Up until now I’ve stayed with the stock firmware so that I would be reviewing the standard user experience. This time I decided to go the whole hog and “root” the phone – which basically means giving myself administrator privileges so that I can change whatever I like. Obviously that involves some risk, but it makes your device a lot more interesting. Particularly it means you no longer have to stick to official builds, but can try out customised versions of Android.

A word of warning first though. Certain models of the Note, and several other Samsung Galaxy phones, are vulnerable to a problem known as “BrickBug”. Due to a design fault, if the memory chip it contains is erased in the wrong way it can never be written to again. Thus the device is rendered absolutely unusable and – short of an expensive mainboard replacement – irreparable. Which is depressing. So proceed with caution!

It can be worked around safely, but I won’t attempt to give comprehensive instructions here. Go straight to the horse’s mouth – the invaluable XDA-Developers forum. Actually it’s well worth looking around there before you do anything with an Android phone.

Indeed it was here that I came across the version of Android I chose to use: Sweet ROM. This is one guy’s personal mix that he released to the public, but I think he got the balance pretty right. And unlike many custom versions of Android it’s designed specifically for the Note and so retains all its pen abilities. Here’s the (almost) complete feature list provided by the author – which you can skip if you hate jargon:

CHANGELOG

  • LT9 Firmware
  • Kernel Philz XXLT9 v5.08.5 (thanks Phil3759)
  • Modem LT3
  • Deodexed & Zipaligned
  • Full Root
  • SuperSU (thanks Chainfire) & busybox
  • 24 Toggles including working 2G/3G toggle controlled in Settings (Silver 3D theme thanks Dr.Ketan)
  • Full Airview in Gallery, Video, Lockscreen Notifications, Email & Message. Partial in Snote & Splanner
  • Multi Window Add All Apps S4 white theme
  • SG4 Weather Widget
  • Samsung Camera Shutter Sound on off hack
  • MMS Hack – No SMS in call Log, 200 recipients & No SMS to MMS Auto Convert
  • TW Launcher rotate 270 degrees
  • Call record and no ascending ringtone & 2G/3G hack
  • Ink Effect Added to Settings/Lockscreen
  • Smart Rotation & Smart Stay
  • LockScreen Shortcuts, News Ticker & Weather all working
  • 4 Way Power Menu
  • Enabled extra widgets Negative Colors etc
  • Added Nova Launcher
  • added Flash Player
  • S4 Wallpapers (modded SecWallpaperChooser.apk)
  • Resized Popup Browser with call up app (thanks vijai2011 & kam333)
  • Transparent Status Bar with White S4 style icons & circle percentage battery
  • Added Internet Speed Meter Lite
  • Sub Symbols in stock keyboard
  • Build prop tweaks for battery & performance
  • All Mods & Hacks done myself (unless mentioned) using LT9 firmware
  • and more I can’t remember

To translate: it’s a lot of thoughtful tweaks done by an experienced user. And lovably, it cuts out most of the pre-installed (and irremovable) apps that phones come burdened with. Only real essentials are there; the rest you can choose whether to install.

It’s a great mix and I’m enjoying using it – it’s like my phone came back from a holiday to the feature. Now I have root though it’s almost trivial to switch to other customised versions, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be trying some more.

Interlude – Pictures of Trees

Well unsurprisingly, last Thursday brought on a relapse. Throat is sore again; my head feels like a hat. So it’s another photography special. Here’s some pictures that weren’t quite good enough to publish when I felt well.

Actually I meant to use them but didn’t have a chance at the time, what with the car crash a couple of days later. (It had been a busy summer, hasn’t it?) All taken in local woodland during August, using the Galaxy Note‘s default camera.

Martina and the Tree
Fairy shelving  units
A spring
Crazy modern architecture

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.

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.

Where's My Ice Cream?

Oooh, this isn’t supposed to happen.

You may remember a while ago I got fed up waiting for Vodafone to upgrade my phone’s “firmware” – that is to say, send out the newest version of Android. Google makes Android of course, but then the various phone manufacturers adapt it to their hardware. Finally the networks add their own modifications and extras.

If they can be bothered, it seems… Samsung took ages to get Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich, as she is known) ready for their Galaxy Note, and now it’s taking Vodafone Ireland months more to pass it on to us. Why? 02 Ireland released it in June. What the hell are Vodafone doing to it?

My guess would be putting in some awful advertising-partner crapware the customer is going to revile, but perhaps I’m too cynical¹.

So customers are getting increasingly pissed off – witness the acrimonious thread brewing on their support forums. Phones with the next major version of Android (4.1, or “Jelly Bean”) are beginning to hit the market, and we’re still waiting for 4.0. Myself I gave up on them, and did the upgrade at home using a non-Vodafone version of the firmware and some wood glue². All went well, except the program that’s supposed to look after all this took umbrage, and ever since has been curtly displaying the message “Your device does not support software upgrading by Kies”.

And yet here it is. Upgrading.

I don’t know whether to be excited or worried. It’s like being told that you’re getting a present, but that it first has to be extracted from your bottom using a corkscrew. Samsung’s “Kies” phone management software is, as I’ve mentioned before, an unhappy thing. I’m already on the second attempt here. The first time it spent about half an hour downloading the files for the upgrade. Once that was finished, it told me that it couldn’t recognise the phone and to restart it. Whereupon it begins to download those files all over again… That’s just basically idiotic, isn’t it?

And I don’t even know what this upgrade is. I’m just hoping that it’s the official Vodafone release of Android 4, including the “Premium Suite” of special Galaxy Note apps (and Angry Birds Space!) that Samsung promised in recompense for their part in the delay. ln theory that shouldn’t happen – you get updates to the version you have, not the one you’re meant to have – but I don’t know what else it could possibly be. Can’t wait until the download completes.

*          *          *          *

OK I fell asleep – after yet another failure and restart. But in the morning, after a few more restarts of both phone and PC, it finally worked.

The mystery update turns out to be not Vodafone’s build, but an upgrade to the generic one – from 4.0.3 to 4.0.4. Still no sign of the “Premium Suite”, which I expect will only come through the network. If it comes at all. At this point though I’m beginning to wonder if I want to get back onto Vodafone’s update stream, if people there are still stuck on Gingerbread (2.3) while I just got an update before I even heard it was available.

So what’s new? Performance improvements is all really, especially to the camera. Otherwise little major except… I almost daren’t say this for fear of seeing these words vanish before my eyes, but Google Chrome actually seems pretty stable now. That is devoutly to be wished for.

Mostly though, this is a polishing releases. Good and all, but not terribly exciting compared to Ice Cream Sandwich which pretty much made the Galaxy Note complete as an extraordinary cross between a phone and a notebook. It is the most useful device I’ve ever owned – a phone in my pocket that can do virtually everything I’d otherwise need to carry a PC or netbook or tablet for – and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Just don’t get it from Vodafone Ireland.

 

  1. I’m not too cynical.
  2. If you’re interested in the technical details, the wood glue is actually a very useful program called Odin.

Where's My Ice Cream?

Oooh, this isn’t supposed to happen.

You may remember a while ago I got fed up waiting for Vodafone to upgrade my phone’s “firmware” – that is to say, send out the newest version of Android. Google makes Android of course, but then the various phone manufacturers adapt it to their hardware. Finally the networks add their own modifications and extras.

If they can be bothered, it seems… Samsung took ages to get Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich, as she is known) ready for their Galaxy Note, and now it’s taking Vodafone Ireland months more to pass it on to us. Why? 02 Ireland released it in June. What the hell are Vodafone doing to it?

My guess would be putting in some awful advertising-partner crapware the customer is going to revile, but perhaps I’m too cynical¹.

So customers are getting increasingly pissed off – witness the acrimonious thread brewing on their support forums. Phones with the next major version of Android (4.1, or “Jelly Bean”) are beginning to hit the market, and we’re still waiting for 4.0. Myself I gave up on them, and did the upgrade at home using a non-Vodafone version of the firmware and some wood glue². All went well, except the program that’s supposed to look after all this took umbrage, and ever since has been curtly displaying the message “Your device does not support software upgrading by Kies”.

And yet here it is. Upgrading.

I don’t know whether to be excited or worried. It’s like being told that you’re getting a present, but that it first has to be extracted from your bottom using a corkscrew. Samsung’s “Kies” phone management software is, as I’ve mentioned before, an unhappy thing. I’m already on the second attempt here. The first time it spent about half an hour downloading the files for the upgrade. Once that was finished, it told me that it couldn’t recognise the phone and to restart it. Whereupon it begins to download those files all over again… That’s just basically idiotic, isn’t it?

And I don’t even know what this upgrade is. I’m just hoping that it’s the official Vodafone release of Android 4, including the “Premium Suite” of special Galaxy Note apps (and Angry Birds Space!) that Samsung promised in recompense for their part in the delay. ln theory that shouldn’t happen – you get updates to the version you have, not the one you’re meant to have – but I don’t know what else it could possibly be. Can’t wait until the download completes.

*          *          *          *

OK I fell asleep – after yet another failure and restart. But in the morning, after a few more restarts of both phone and PC, it finally worked.

The mystery update turns out to be not Vodafone’s build, but an upgrade to the generic one – from 4.0.3 to 4.0.4. Still no sign of the “Premium Suite”, which I expect will only come through the network. If it comes at all. At this point though I’m beginning to wonder if I want to get back onto Vodafone’s update stream, if people there are still stuck on Gingerbread (2.3) while I just got an update before I even heard it was available.

So what’s new? Performance improvements is all really, especially to the camera. Otherwise little major except… I almost daren’t say this for fear of seeing these words vanish before my eyes, but Google Chrome actually seems pretty stable now. That is devoutly to be wished for.

Mostly though, this is a polishing releases. Good and all, but not terribly exciting compared to Ice Cream Sandwich which pretty much made the Galaxy Note complete as an extraordinary cross between a phone and a notebook. It is the most useful device I’ve ever owned – a phone in my pocket that can do virtually everything I’d otherwise need to carry a PC or netbook or tablet for – and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Just don’t get it from Vodafone Ireland.

 

  1. I’m not too cynical.
  2. If you’re interested in the technical details, the wood glue is actually a very useful program called Odin.