Monday, January 16, 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note

When Apple launched they iPad, they positioned it as a device meant to fill the gaping chasm between the smartphone and the notebook. However, some people thought that a 10-inch device would be too big to carry around so manufacturers started coming up with 7-inch tablets. But then someone thought even that was too big. That someone was Dell, who then went ahead and launched the Streak 5.

Unfortunately for Dell, the Streak 5 was not just big in size but also a big failure. Dell’s lack of reputation for making quality smartphones coupled with the fact that the Streak 5 was actually a pretty mediocre device resulted in the company abandoning it a few months later.

Now Samsung is trying to revive the 5-inch tablet segment with their Galaxy Note. Unlike Dell, however, Samsung has positioned the Galaxy Note as a large smartphone, rather than a small tablet. Also, unlike Dell, Samsung has a massive fan following in the smartphone segment and on paper at least the Galaxy Note looks promising. It is essentially a big Galaxy S II. How can anyone go wrong with that? But is the Galaxy Note really a great product? Let’s find out.
Design and Build
The Galaxy Note is massive in size, almost comically so. It looks exactly how the Galaxy S II would look if it was stretched from every side. I said comical because unlike the Streak 5, you can tell that the Galaxy Note is essentially a phone first, which is why its dimensions makes it look silly.

Thankfully the phone is pretty thin and also unusually light for its size. That’s mostly due to the plastic that is used for the entire body of the phone, except for the display. The plastic neither looks good nor does it feel good in your hand. The flimsy back cover also gets scratched up easily, which meant I had to keep the phone on its face but then picking up the phone became very difficult. The good thing about the plastic is that it isn’t fragile, so it won’t break easily if the phone were to fall.
The Galaxy Note has the power button on the right and a volume rocker on the left. All the buttons are placed right near the top, which coupled with the wide girth of the phone, makes using the keys a bit problematic.

The Galaxy Note comes with a capacitive stylus that is tucked inside the phone like the good ol’ days. The stylus has a button on it, which when pressed, lets you perform certain gestures. Unfortunately, for such a small stylus, the button is pretty big, which means you end up pressing it even when you don’t want to. The stylus does not work with any other capacitive touch screen.
On the back of the phone you can see the 8-megapixel camera lens on the top with LED flash and loud speakers near the bottom. The battery cover on the Galaxy Note is probably thinnest I’ve seen on any device. Had it been any thinner it would have been transparent. Underneath the cover lies the massive 2,500mAh battery. Unfortunately, the battery blocks both the SIM as well as the micro SD card slot. I noticed that the Note also lacked the NFC hardware inside but at this point, NFC is just an item on the spec sheet with little practical value so it’s not that big a deal.
Overall, as far as the design is concerned, the Galaxy Note is well built and light but too big to be used single-handed and the plastic body feels a bit cheap
The display on the Galaxy Note is its biggest feature, both literally and figuratively. It has a massive 5.3-inch, Super AMOLED display. But it’s not just the size that’s impressive. The Galaxy Note is the first smart phone to have an HD display. That’s 1280 x 800 pixels in the palm of your hands. 
Being a Super AMOLED display, it uses the infamous PenTile matrix layout for the sub pixel. Instead of the common RGB layout, the PenTile matrix display uses a RG-BG layout, which means that each pixel has only two sub pixels instead of the usual three. Each pixel has a green sub pixel and either a red or a blue sub pixel. The problem with this type of layout is that it reduces the sharpness of the display, making text in particular not as sharp as on traditional RGB display. 
This, however, is not a big enough issue on the Galaxy Note due to the high pixel density. Since there are so many pixels in a (relatively) small area, the lack of sharpness is not really noticeable as it was on lower resolution displays, such as the one on the Nexus S or the Galaxy S.  

Hardware and Software

Internally the Galaxy Note is identical to the Galaxy S II with the only difference being the CPU, which is clocked slightly higher. So instead of 1.2GHz you get a dual core 1.4GHz Cortex A9 with the same Mali-400 GPU and 1GB of RAM. As for the storage space you get 2GB phone memory, 16GB USB storage (of which 11GB is available to the user) and microSD expansion up to 32GB. 

The software on the Galaxy Note I was using was Android 2.3.6 with the very latest firmware available at that time. On top of Android, the Galaxy Note was running Samsung’s Touch Wiz 4.0 interface. Now when it comes to Touch Wiz, opinions are known to divide, with most people hating it with a vengeance. I’m personally not a big fan of the design of the UI, which I think looks gaudy and a bit juvenile. However, there is no denying the fact that it is a very functional addition to Android and is filled with useful features. For starters you get a ton of home screens and you can add or remove them as you please along with some great widgets. The notification menu has been pimped and has useful shortcuts to important functions such as the Wi-Fi. Bluetooth and my personal favorite, the automatic orientation switch.
Then there are other additions too, such as an FM radio, voice recorder, stop watch and countdown timer, basic things that are missing from stock Android. There is a proper built-in file manager, proper video player that can play almost any file you throw at it and an improved music player with support FLAC files and equalizers. So in the end, even though I hate the UI design, I would take it any day over stock Gingerbread due to the added functionality.

The Galaxy Note offers a different note taking application compared to the standard Touch Wiz. This one lets you use the built-in stylus to draw on the screen. I personally found very little use for this feature even though Samsung made a big deal out of it. I also find it very difficult to draw on a touchscreen due to the slippery nature of the display, which makes it hard to draw with precision. .

With all the horsepower under the hood I was expecting the Galaxy Note interface to be buttery smooth. In some cases it was but it wasn’t as good as one would hope. At times the phone would stutter unexpectedly, like in the Contacts application, where you would least expect it. The general lack of smoothness has been a common issue on Android and something that becomes instantly apparent when you use an iPhone or a phone running Windows Phone 7, even though these devices don’t have the same powerful hardware as Samsung’s latest.

I also had an issue with the keypad in Touch Wiz. It comes with Skype and the standard Samsung keyboard built-in. I’m not a big fan of ‘swipe and pray’ nature of the Skype keyboard and the Samsung keypad is just terrible. The stock Gingerbread keypad is actually a lot better and Samsung should have just stuck with it. I instead resorted to using Swift Key X on the Note but it not being optimized for the Note meant that it had its fair share of issues.
Having a stylus meant that there was bound to be handwriting recognition software on board and the Note did not disappoint. I will just go ahead and say that it is the most accurate handwriting recognition software that I’ve ever used. Considering my poor handwriting, which gets worse on a touchscreen, the phone did an admirable job of recognizing what I was scribbling.
Since this was the first time I was using an Android phone with an HD display I was a bit curious to see how the applications would work with this resolution. Surprisingly, quite a lot of the apps I tried stretched to fit the resolution. Naturally, this resulted in some amount of ugliness due to some of the UI elements stretching in ways they were never meant to. Sometimes the UI elements were unusually large and sometimes there would be a lot of empty space in an app, which usually wouldn’t be there. In some cases, such as the Speed app, the app used the highest resolution it supported, which seemed to be qHD and left large black borders on the side. Fortunately though, with more and more phones coming out with HD displays this year, soon application compatibility will not be a problem.

The Galaxy S II was lauded for its terrific camera and the Galaxy Note carries over the same camera. It is one of the best cameras I’ve seen on a phone till date. The stills look fantastic with the right amount of details, contrast and color saturation. Even the low-light images are quite respectable. One of things I liked about shooting on the Galaxy Note was the massive viewfinder that you get, which made things look good even before you shoot them.

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