Rarely do you begin a review and describe the device as simply “The Monster”. But when it comes to the Samsung Galaxy Note, it’s hard to describe it in any other terms, at least the first time you lay your hands on one. In the current market, there’s nothing that even comes close to the […]
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Review: Samsung Galaxy Note – Oversized iPhone Killer?

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Rarely do you begin a review and describe the device as simply “The Monster”. But when it comes to the Samsung Galaxy Note, it’s hard to describe it in any other terms, at least the first time you lay your hands on one. In the current market, there’s nothing that even comes close to the Note in terms of sheer screen size. Even the much discussed HTC One X has a display that’s over a half inch smaller.

But why you might ask is a clearly iOS and Mac oriented site (riddled with fanboys) even doing a review of an Android phone and how could anyone possibly even question it killing the iPhone? Well, the story begins shortly before the iPhone 4S was hitting the market. If you’re a regular reader you may recall a couple of us decided to test the waters and see if the greener grass on the other side of the fence was real grass. As I came to find out with Windows Phone 7 Mango, the grass was real but it had a few dead spots. For me specifically – I found a limited number of quality apps and a gaping hole in no support for VPN. WP7 has a great future, but Microsoft needs more time to really bring the OS and the app market up to snuff before I would consider it again.

When the iPhone 4S became available, I dumped WP7 and dutifully pre-ordered like the rest of us. The iPhone 4S was (and is) a wonderful device and I’m was glad I decided to pick one up. But fast forward a few months and I was just not feeling as satisfied with my decision as I thought I would. I was finding myself more often than not with the phone extremely close to my face so I could read the miniscule text (I guess I’m getting old). Naturally I bumped up the text size in the accessibility options, but that didn’t take effect everywhere and frankly just made things feel “off” – give it a try, you’ll see what I mean.

So, March 4th I found myself getting in the car and driving over to the AT&T store to check out what they had on the shelves. I was targeting the Samsung Galaxy Skyrocket since it had all the features I was looking for – specifically a bigger screen than the iPhone, decent resolution and a speedy processor. I arrived at the store, immediately located the Skyrocket and right next to it was the Note. Being a device nut like I am it only made sense to spend some time playing with both phones to see which one I really liked more. After a good half hour of poking and prodding, I couldn’t reach a decision.

I came home with the Note. Why? I’m a guy. And I’m compensating. I just can’t afford a lifted truck with 38 inch mudders and plastic nuts hanging from the back. /sarcasm

So, why the Note? Honestly, I couldn’t find a major reason in the store to not pick it up. The size was awkward, but the AT&T rep explained (and so did a lot of folks on xda-developers) that the size begins to melt away after a little while using the device. So, with no other obvious reasons not to chose the Note with it’s massive 5.3″ screen, S-Pen and gigantic battery – it only made sense to go big and return it if I wasn’t up to the task.

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The Details

Before we go any further, let’s cover the specs with comparisons to the iPhone 4S since it’s been what I’ve used until recently.

  • Dimensions: 5.78″ x 3.27″ x 0.38″ — iPhone 4s: 4.5″ x 2.31″ x 0.37″
  • Weight: 6.28 oz. — iPhone 4s: 4.9 oz
  • Battery: 2500 mAh. Talk time: 10 hours — iPhone 4S: 1420 mAh Talk Time: 8 hours
  • Display Size: 5.3″ 284 PPI 1280×800 HD Super AMOLED — iPhone 4S: 3.5″ 329 PPI 960×640
  • RAM: 1 GB — iPhone 4S: 512 MB
  • Storage: 16 GB + up to 64GB micro-sd — iPhone 4S: up to 64 GB
  • Processor: Snapdragon 1.4 Ghz dual core — iPhone 4S: 800 Mhz A5 dual core
  • Network: AT&T LTE/HSDPA — iPhone 4S: AT&T HSDPA / Verizon / Sprint
  • Input: Finger or S-Pen  — iPhone 4S: “If you see a stylus – they blew it
  • Other Stuff: Both have an 8MP camera and shoot 1080p video.The 4S has Bluetooth 4, the Note only BT3… although I have no idea what difference that really makes since I rarely use BT. Obviously the iPhone 4S runs iOS 5.x, The Monster does not. It’s currently stuck with Android 2.3.6 and awaiting a “when hell freezes over” but promised ICS upgrade.

Living with The Monster

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(The orange peel screen effect is a BodyGuardz. Not recommended for use with the S-Pen by the way.)

Remember way back and you’d be sitting in a Starbucks when some random person would come by and ask you if that was the iPhone? Well, living with the monster is a little like that, only they ask you “What is that?!” and then look at you like you’re from another planet when you explain it’s a phone. It’s getting better now that Samsung has started to really advertise the Note, but people still don’t quite understand how big the device is until they actually see it in person.

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Living with the Note is actually a lot simpler than you would imagine it to be based on its size, but let’s get a few things out of the way because it’s what people always want to know:

1. Skinny Jeans: Man up and go buy some Levi’s Boot Cut. You look like a fool in those pants and nobody wants to see your goolies. (Ladies: keep the jeans and put the phone in your purse/clutch/bag). The Note will fit in standard jean pockets that took blood flow into consideration. Yes, front and back. As a matter of fact if you have a mophie Juice Pack Air or Plus on your iPhone – the Note will fit better in your pocket than your iPhone does because it’s quite thin.

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(That thin green line is a screen protector – not bad build quality)

2.Sitting with the phone in your pocket: Your butt (and everyone else’s – don’t go getting all insulted) is too big for the phone to support. Your iPhone runs a risk of fracture from butt-induced-stress as well, so generally I don’t recommend it no matter what device you have (unless its an old Nokia). If you put the Note in your front pocket for sitting – no problem sans skinny jeans. If you’re wearing a tailored suit – take the phone (any phone) out of your pants and put it in your jacket’s interior pocket. Suit pants are not supposed to hold objects in pockets. Might as well toss a chew can in there as well hicktown. (j/k)

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3. One handed typing: I can and have typed out text messages with one hand on the Note. I don’t prefer to, but I have done it. I wouldn’t recommend it for more than a couple sentences however since you’ll likely pull a thumb muscle and that’s embarrassing. For those of you concerned about one handed typing on a regular basis – please, take a couple days and keep track of how much you REALLY type with one hand. Chances are for the most of you – you may start with one hand, but quickly transition to two hands because typing one handed is slooooow. If all else fails – It’s Android. Try a different Keyboard or use voice to text. (Side: Samsung has a one-handed keyboard prepped and it will be included with ICS on the Note.)

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4. It’s too big for my hands. Did your parents ever tell you to stop making stupid faces because it might get stuck like that? Mine did. And… it did unfortunately. Seriously though, I think our hands actually took that message to heart. I’m sure many of you (like me) have carried around smartphones for a while. I’ve had every model of iPhone, and prior to that a lot of Windows Mobile devices. All those phones had the same general dimensions with around 3-4″ of surface area (or smaller). You think after 4+ years of holding the same size device in your hands for hours a day you don’t build up some muscle memory? In the store I might as well have been holding on to an aircraft carrier. It was stupid big. But after a week or so, it felt better, and now after about a month, I can honestly say it’s a very comfortable device. In fact grabbing a smaller device (like the 4S or my daughter’s Nexus One) feels weird now. It (on occasion) can feel a little awkward when you’re reaching for the upper corner on the monster, but for every moment of awkward there’s 3 or 4 moments of “sweet!”

The Software

I’m not going to beat around the bush here – and sorry Android fans but some of this might sting a bit. I miss mail.app – because it worked for Exchange and it worked well. The built in Note email app (not Gmail) sputters, cries and then slows to a death crawl when you actually try using it. VPN support is lacking. To use a Cisco VPN I need to root and then download a widget. Or I could pay a ridiculous amount of license fees to Cisco and use their app which isn’t going to happen any time soon. I need a whole new messages app just for Emoji. Cut and paste – Apple users, thank Apple for actually spending the time to get it right. Android doesn’t. Same thing goes for that little magnifying glass for positioning the cursor. Apple got it right. Google didn’t. That’s what the first few days of being on Android felt like for me. Quickly comparing Android to iOS and finding shortcoming after shortcoming. I’m not doing it nearly as much now that I’m learning to accept what is and find alternatives, but there’s definitely some times I just want to scream.

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Developers: The 1990’s Palm UI is NOT a goal. Pay someone from this decade to help you with graphic design. (The above app is called aCar and UI aside is a great app for vehicle tracking).  Also developers … PUT MENU SHITE IN UNDER THE MENU BUTTON. Not tap and hold for some stuff, menu button for other stuff … and then even more stuff under some other button. There’s a menu button. Use it.

Bloatware: Thanks AT&T / Samsung / Google. I really needed 4 different social apps (none of which I’ll actually use) all to start up with the phone and be installed for life. There was well over 15 apps I would consider bloatware installed out of the box. A bunch of which I’m not allowed to uninstall without rooting. Ah, that’s what “Open” means. Open for the carrier to install a bunch of crap I’m not allowed to uninstall.

Lag. I know it’s been discussed that Android has lag issues. For the most part the Note is pretty good at maintaining a fairly lag free environment. I wouldn’t say the transitions are as smooth as you get with iOS, and you will on occasion get some odd slow downs, but for the most part the Note is very smooth. Samsung included the TouchWiz interface, which is pretty good, but I’ve stuck with Go Launcher simply because its smoother. ICS is supposed to improve the smoothness of the interface, so I’ll touch on that in a follow up at some point.

Long story short – it’s not iOS and it lacks a LOT of polish. It’s got some great apps and it’s incredibly customizable, but it still falls short in a lot of places (UI/UX being the top one). Number two being fragmentation. I love how half the good stuff I can’t buy, even though my device is perfectly capable of running them. My Android slogan has quickly become: “It’s not all bad, but it’s not all that great either.”

The Hardware

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The Galaxy Note is one part glass, one part battery and one part plastic. You won’t find the fancy metals of Apple here. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find a well built device with some thought put into it. Take the battery cover for example. Feels cheap, looks cheap, but it’s capable of bending in ways only a gymnast can. The only hardware complaint I can muster right now is the location of the power button sucks. Samsung opted to place the power and the volume rocker on opposite sides of the device. So, many times you unintentionally power off while squeezing to hit the volume. Hopefully one day Samsung will realize the power button goes on top of the phone.

The monster has a really nice weight to it and it’s very balanced so you don’t feel like it wants to back-flip out of your hands. It doesn’t bend or creak; it just feels solid and well constructed despite the large amount of plastic. Making phone calls (if you can get past thinking people will stare at you) is a non-event. I’d argue that my call quality has improved since moving to the Note and the number of dropped calls I’ve experienced has gone way down with no change in the network. Both the internal and external speakers are excellent, and unless you’re facing into the wind, I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about quality on the receiving end. Overall comfort while hold the phone to your ear is excellent as well – much more comfortable than I thought it would be. Long story short – it’s a better phone than the iPhone has been for years.

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The camera while being an 8MP shooter like the iPhone just isn’t (IMHO) nearly as good. The images feel washed out and not true to color. I also found the shutter to be way too slow and many times I ended up with a blurry subject (for example someone walking looks like The Flash zipping by). That may be just because I haven’t taken enough time with the device to figure out the best way to shoot with it, but that’s not something I ever had to think about with the iPhone. Video quality is great, but again its a bit on the bright side and definitely subject to shaking. Unless you want people getting sea sick watching your movie, I suggest not filming while walking and never while jogging. Overall, I give the camera a barely passing grade. Apple doesn’t need to worry about losing it’s top Flickr status to this guy.

Battery life has been solid. I can make it through my average day (about 18 hours) and have maybe 5-10% left depending on how much the screen is on. Like most users I get about 4 hours of actual screen being on and actively used per charge depending on how I handle the brightness. Stopping to think about it that might make some Apple fans mention how I “handle the brightness” and how Apple doesn’t need that. Let’s be honest – it would be nice to manage brightness easily on the iPhone, but unless you’re jailbreak, like managing many other things (WiFi / BT) it’s a PITA. I manage brightness on the monster by sliding my finger along the status bar left and right. No menus, no sbsettings – its downright simple. And when I’m feeling lazy, I have a widget on the homescreen which I can tap to turn auto brightness back on.

Speaking of brightness, the screen is excellent. Sure it doesn’t have the PPI that the iPhone 4s has, but it doesn’t make much difference when you’re not holding the phone so close. At full arm length, text is crisp, clear and more importantly it’s actually readable at that distance. Of all the things I’ve missed about the iPhone – the screen is not one of them.

S-Pen. The Killer App.

Like you I saw the commercials and went “big deal”. It’s a stylus. I grew out of styli when WM6 went the way of the dinosaur. Yes, it is a stylus but not the same $20 targus rubber nipple jobby you pick up from Best Buy to use on your iPad. This one actually has some smarts – not to mention accuracy (unlike the bubble ended pens), and no it doesn’t work on the iPad or the iPhone. A review I watched on YouTube summed up perfectly why the S-Pen is the killer app:

“You cannot beat pen and paper. There are still people in this world who carry pen and paper and the stylus is made for those people.”

More importantly for me… I WAS one of those people. And while you may not be able to beat pen and paper, you can come close and in some cases make it look old school.

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The S-Pen (for me) without a doubt is the killer app. Sure it’s not an app (S Memo is the app), but for all of you who were sitting there asking what Samsung was thinking bringing back the stylus – they were thinking of people like me who would rather markup a screenshot or jot down a quick note than have to carry a moleskine everywhere they go.

Wrapping It All Up

I started this process referring to the Note as a monster and wondering if it was an iPhone Killer. I’m going to end it the same way. A short while ago I ran into an issue with the Note,  so I took it back to AT&T and at the same time decided to switch back to the 4s. I was concerned that the issue I had would continue, and honestly Android didn’t hold much weight over iOS for me without the S-Pen so going to the Skyrocket wasn’t a thought. I figured I would live with the smaller screen size in hopes that Apple would increase it with the next device.

That switch lasted less than an hour and I knew I had made a mistake going back the 4s. Within 24 hours I was back at AT&T, paying the $35 restocking fee and going back to the Note. I love iOS, and if I could get it on the Galaxy Note I would in a heartbeat, but not even iOS can make up for the tiny screen size on the 4S or the functionality I’ve found with the S-Pen. While the Galaxy Note is a monster, once you’ve spent some time with the device it’s not as big and scary as it once seemed. It turns out the Samsung Galaxy Note is an iPhone Killer, at least for me. And that’s the only iPhone killer that really matters isn’t it… the one that kills your iPhone.

 

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