Friday, 4 November 2011

The Galaxy Note "Real-user" Review: Part 1 - Unboxing, Initial impressions, Design/build quality, Screen and Benchmarks

So here it is, the first part of the Galaxy Note review. You know what a ridonkulous handset like the Note needs? An equally epic review. A review that can match it's RSI-inducing proportions. This will be that review.

Make the jump to get stuck in, if the length of this first post is anything to go by you'll need to get reading now if you are to stand any chance of finishing before the next part is up...


Initial impressions 


I realise how silly this sounds, but the Note is big. Really big. That was the only thing that ran through my mind the first time I held the Note in my hand, I'd go so far as to say the realisation was quite arresting. Now before you go thanking me for being captain obvious, I just want to be clear: obviously I knew the Note was going to be big. Did that prepare me for the reality? Not really. After a only a few hours of using it my Galaxy S II now feels like a tiny toy. If you've ever toyed with a Galaxy S II, held by many to be the largest usable handset out there, then you'll know that's saying something. 


Reader: meet Godzilla
After that wore off the next thought was "OMG, that screen is going to look epic powered on", and "I hope the pentile doesn't ruin it". Soon after that the device was indeed powered on, and I could gaze on the screen for the first time. I was again struck by how large the Note is, but this time it was all positives in the context of the gargantuan 5.3 inch 1280x800 Super AMOLED display with a pixel density of 285dpi (aside: be prepared to be faced with many synonyms for gargantuan during this review, the Note demands language as over the top as it is).


Interestingly I went out shortly after getting the Note powered up to collect my a new desktop computer, and quite accidentally got to gather a number of first impressions at the store. One of the security guards saw me playing with the S-Pen and asked what it was, I told him it was a phone and he was off like a shot gathering up nearly everyone who worked at the store. You know that scene in The Matrix where Mouse runs out and says "Morpheus is fightning Neo!" and everyone comes running? It was like that. I've never ever had a phone inspire that kind of reaction. Now I'll grant you that I was in a store where everyone has an interest in electronics, but still I struggle to see many others drawing a crowd like that. 

What were their reactions? Frankly I was surprised at how uniformly positive they were, only one person ventured it was "too big" to be used as a phone, and everyone else was just mesmerized by the screen and wowed by stylus. Yes, you read that right. People liked the stylus. I guess the bottom line out of all of that is that if you have the confidence to carry this big slab o'phone around with you, you'll attract attention. By analogy it's a bit like wearing a pair of very boldly framed glasses right? It says something about you, it declares "I'm OK with how I look, and I could care less if you don't like it". With that in mind I'm going to say ignore every other reviewers advice to take calls via bluetooth. If you're packing a Note and a call comes in hold your head up high, put the Note against your head, and don't look down for anyone.

...and if you missed my video unboxing and size comparison to the Galaxy S II, you can catch up with my live and unedited first impressions below.





Design  


It's a slab. How much can you really say about a slab? Well, as it happens I can probably say a great deal. Let's see...

If you've seen or held a Galaxy S II you'll have a fair idea about what to expect here, it's cut from the same design cloth, only larger. Much larger.


The rear casing this time around sports another
textured back like the SGSII, unlike the SGSII
this one manages not to look so cheap, while
actually offering a bit more grip into the bargain!
In terms of the hardware tour, the front of the device is of course dominated by the 5.3inch screen, and fortunately for Samsung they have kept the bezel blessedly small to compensate for that a little. There is an earpiece grill at the top, accompanied by the usual light and proximity sensors, while the bottom has a hardware Home button in the centre, flanked either side by capacitive Menu and Back keys. The edges of the device are relatively spartan, and recognisably Samsung for it. The bottom of the device has only the micro USB/USB OTG/MHL connection port, microphone, and S-Pen housing. The top has another microphone, and the 3.5mm audio jack. The right hand side has only the power button, whereas the left is home only to the volume rocker. The rear of the device has the 8mp camera and LED flash, and the speaker grill. There isn't a chin on the Note like we've seen with most other recent Samsung devices, and with the overall size of the device it's quite a welcome departure from Samsung's usual design language.

Naturally there are various compromises here, and for the most part they're the same as those that also affected the Galaxy S II. The flexible rear casing makes a return, but fortunately we now know from the experience of the SGSII that it's perfectly durable, and it's only in those infrequent moments where you have to peel it off that you shudder at how flimsy it feels. There is the rear-ward facing mono speaker, and it's still not ideal from the point of view of projecting sound when watching video. Even worse, in the case of the Note it outputs a slightly quieter and tinnier sound compared to the Galaxy S II, which runs counter to expectations in a larger and heavier device. The lack of a companion speaker for stereo sound is also more keenly felt here, since the Note is actually large enough to get some benefit from sound separation.

Non-hotswappable SIM and micro SD card slots. Joy.

Naturally a dedicated hardware camera shutter key is lacking, it's absence has now become a very highly conserved aspect of the Samsung design ethic. I guess I have become increasingly accustomed to it really, because although I'd certainly rather it were there, it's absence hasn't really raised hackles for me this time around. Expectations are key I suppose.

...and finally on the inside we now have SIM and micro SD card slots that are not hot-swappable.

Build quality and ergonomics


The return of the flexi-casing!
I want to start out here by drawing a distinction between build materials and build quality. The two terms tend to be thrown about like synonyms, but they're not. It's possible to have one without the other.

The Galaxy S II and HTC Sensation are two examples that spring to mind to make the point. The Galaxy S II build materials are disappointing plastics, like we see here with the Note, but it's durable. There are no moving parts or creaks, and as we saw recently on YouTube, it holds up to drops and knocks better than an iPhone 4S which is made from much nicer materials. In other words its build quality is good. Contrast this with the HTC Sensation, which is made from great materials with metal and high quality soft-touch plastics, but has a more suspect build quality with the 'sleeve' design causing creaks, dust accumulation under the screen, and volume rockers that break (of course not every Sensation is afflicted by these, but it's sporadic failure rate is higher than I've observed from other high-end handsets). Now obviously I want a handset with both, but if it's a matter of choosing I'll take build quality, thank you very much.

With that lecture behind us, what do we get with the Note? Well we do get more plastics from Samsung, but here everything feels less cheap than the in the case of the SGSII; the materials feel like more than the sum of their parts if you will. I think that the additional weight of the Note helps to foster that impression too, since very light devices somewhat inescapably tend to feel cheaper in the hand. The build quality itself seems very good, certainly up to the standard of the Galaxy S II and possibly better.

On the left th S-Pen at home in it's slot, no need
to feel insecure - it's a good fit and the S-Pen won't
 fall out, on the right the multi-purpose charging/USB/
USB OTG/MHL connection port
It goes without saying that the ergonomics of a device like this were always going to be difficult to manage. The Note has a fundamental conflict between it's core 'phablet' concept and the requirements of phone ergonomics - principally being pocketability and one-handed use. As design paradoxes go, that's a fairly major one right there, and it's not hard to see how this contributes a significant burden on the design of a device of this kind. So the burning question is, how did Samsung do at reconciling these differences?

Well, more or less as well as could be expected I think. The obvious things to try and get right are a small bezel, slim waistline, and a reasonably light weight. Check, check, and check. Is it enough? Not at all. The device is still too large to comfortably use one-handed for people with normal hands, and while it'll fit in many pockets, hipster-jeans fans are out of luck.

For myself, a self-confessed plus-size gadget fan, I certainly I found it difficult to handle initially. Activities like reaching across the Note with my thumb to hit the capacitive Back button, or the right hand-edge of the display for example took some adjusting to. I am getting used to it though, and I can pretty confidently say already that the size of the Note will not be a barrier to me using it as my daily driver. My partner on the other hand couldn't reach across more than about a third of the width of the screen with her thumb, so it's not even remotely a viable option for her.

Bottom line: all of Samsung's efforts to mitigate the size of the device are not going to be enough to make you change your mind about the Note if your first gut reaction was "too big for me". If however you were sitting on the fence then they could well make all the difference - get out there and try one one on for size!


I can't lie to you, the Note is BIG - see it here against it's younger
sibling the Galaxy S II, itself no small fry with a 4.3 inch screen...
Update


My 'pocketability' demo video is now up at YouTube, thought it probably belonged here:



The Screen

As mentioned earlier the display is of the Super AMOLED variety, measuring 5.3 inches, and sporting a massive 1280x800 pixel resolution (equating to a DPI of around 285). It has all the usual display characteristics we've come to expect from Super AMOLED displays - infinite blacks, amazing contrast ratio, near perfect viewing angles, and super saturated colours (which may or may not not be a plus, depending on your point of view, fortunately like the SGSII there are options in Settings --> Display --> Screen mode to alter the colour temperature a bit).

Now before I get into some nitpicking, let me allay your worst fears: no, the pentile matrix does not ruin the Note's display. The display is fantastic, OK?

Now you can breath again lets move on.

The display really is fantastic, but of course it's not perfect - the pentile matrix does have a small impact. If you bring the phone right up to your face and carefully inspect fine text, you will see the tell-tale hatching/feathering pattern making the text slightly indistinct. Will you notice it in regular use? Maybe. Now that I've gone to such lengths to key my vision into it I glimpse it occasionally in general use, but even so it's so much less noticeable than on the original Galaxy S and hasn't (yet) rankled.

I can also detect a bit of colour banding present, but I have to look hard for it (my vision is very tolerant of banding, so I don't tend to notice it unless I go searching for it). It's less than you can see on the Galaxy S II, so I'm not fussed about it, but of course if you are sensitive to the presence of banding then you'll need to get some 'eyes-on' time with a Note before committing.

It's the middle of the night here, and for the life of me I just cannot capture any pictures that illustrate this well in these lighting conditions (and that's with a camera that can do macro shots at a distance of 1cm). Rest assured these will be added to the post sometime tomorrow once I have some better light to wok with. I guess it's a positive that it's so hard to capture effectively, right?


Speed and synthetic benchmarks


Hopefully everyone reading this is up to speed on benchmarks; they are less important than how the phone performs in actual use, and additionally some of them actually aren't even particularly good (Quadrant, I'm looking at you). Despite their relative lack of real-world usefulness you all love them anyways, and so help us, so do we.

What I'm going to do here is run the Note through a number of benchmarks, and then give my early impressions for how the device is in terms of responsiveness; the benchmarks in context as it were.

So, here are the benchmarks, and a few words on how we rate their usefulness:

Quadrant

OK, I'll understand if you're a little confused here. I've barely paused for breath after maligning this ubiquitous benchmark, and now I'm leading the benchmarks with it?! Please understand that this coming first is in no way intended to be an endorsement. Quadrant is one of the worst benchmarks in terms of it's relationship to actual use, and if it weren't for the fact that so many of you are hopelessly enthralled by it, I wouldn't be reporting it here at all.

Think of this quadrant as one of your last fixes before the intervention comes: after the current round of device reviews (remember we also have the Razr and the Nexus coming to us this month) you will no longer see quadrant benchmarks reported in our reviews. I think most of you are realising that you need to give up the Quadrant anyways, you just need a little help packing it in once and for all. Right?

Regardless of what you think of Quadrant, the Note secured a good score, so there are no shortage of bragging rights for those of you who know people who still think it matters.

Annotating stuff on the Note is not getting old!



CF-Bench

Here is the first of the benchmarks we have some regard for here at AndroidNZ - Chainfire bench. CF-Bench for me probably has the biggest bearing on actual use, and for that reason alone stands above most others. As you can see from the screen the Note is no slouch here, edging out the Galaxy S II by a small margin presumably on the basis of it's faster dual cores. As we'll see later though, the fact that the Note scores higher than the SGSII here does raise some questions about CF-Bench's validity in terms of generalisability to actual use, but we'll come to that in due course.




Smartbench 2011

Smartbench is one of the better benchmarks out there in terms of it's results having some relationship to the reality of using your device, unfortunately it's clearly not ready for HD screens yet - it doesn't scale properly or give you results.

Annotating your shame, the worst way to be outed! 



Vellamo

Vellamo is a browser benchmark software made by Qualcomm. The Note scored reasonably well here, as you can see by some of the scores that flank it. If you factor in the fact that it's rendering almost three times as many pixels as most of the others around it, I think the result is good.



Sunspider

This is another browser benchmark, and the results for the Note here are nothing short of stunning. With it's score of 1549ms it bests the iPhone 4S at 2200 by a fair margin, and destroys the SGSII which runs at around 3727. One can only wonder how much better browsing benchmarks will be when the Note upgrades to Ice Cream Sandwich, which is reputed to bring sizeable improvements to the stock Android browser.





Browsermark


Another browser benchmark here, one that's a particular favourite of AndroidNZ editor Nick (apologies for leaving this out initially, thanks for the reminder!). The Note stock browser does quite well here, but if you look at Galaxy S II Browsermark results you'll see them at around the 90K mark. Why the difference? Mostly the relative resolutions I would say. If you do the math based on their relative pixel counts and CPU speeds, then the numbers seem to go toward confirming that speculation, but I'll readily admit I'm well out of my depth when it comes to really working through that kind of technical analysis. If you re-run the test in Opera Mobile you get a healthier result at around 55K. When you factor in the convenience of the extra screen size and resolution I don't think anyone will be disappointed with the browsing experience.



Nenamark 2

A graphics benchmark. In the screenshot below you can see my Galaxy S II's score on the bottom (I restored Nenamark from Titanium Backup so my SGSII data is still there), and the inferior score attained by the Note above that. Again, when you consider the numbers of pixels each is pushing I don't think the Note's result is anything to be sneered at. Apart from Shadowgun on the SGSII with 16x multi-sample anti-aliasing applied via Chainfire 3D, I haven't found anything that really stretches the Mali at all, so I don't think Note owners will find any particular cause for complaint with the GPU in the note.



Actual use

So for the most part the Note performed well in benchmarks, but now for the million dollar question - does that translate to the user experience? Not quite.

Not only does the phone recognise
the card, it works faultlessly with it
- every glorious GB!
You may already have seen some reports that there are just the tiniest hitches to the smoothness of general device operation, and I can confirm this to be the case in my own experience so far. Now before you go getting too discouraged by that let me talk to this point a little more.

The first thing many will be wondering is whether performance will degrade yet further, since the device is new, and may not be getting subjected to a full load of activity. I think I can realistically allay that fear a bit even at this stage. Since I've already Rooted the Note (guide and video here in case you missed it) I've already restored all my Galaxy S II apps and their data, copied across nearly all my internal SD data from my Galaxy S II and installed my nearly-full 64GB micro SDXC card (which works perfectly, in case you were wondering). On top of that the Galaxy S II did not exhibit slowdowns with use, a notable problem with it's forebear, and that also goes toward reassuring me that the Note will fare well over time. Naturally I'll comment more on this as the review evolves over successive parts in the coming couple of weeks, so we'll know for sure fairly soon either way.

With that out of the way lets talk about these little hitches, and the context from which that criticism arises. Basically everyone I've seen levelling this criticism at the Note has come to the Note having previously been a Galaxy S II user. Having been a Galaxy S II user since it's release, I'm in the same boat. The Galaxy S II is the current yardstick of fluidity in the Android realm, and if you've been lucky enough to be using one for any length of time, it will have spoilt most other 'Droids for you.

Basically, while the Note is perfectly zippy in it's own right, it certainly doesn't match the SGSII. It's not that it falls very far short mind you, just that you will note the difference from time to time (that was an unintentional Note pun there, it's no less egregious for lacking forethought however, so I'll pledge to try and keep them to a minimum as we proceed). I presume that's largely because of the additional pixels that the Note display possesses, but it may also have something to do with the comparatively high RAM usage in the Note. I'm not quite sure why this one uses so much more RAM at baseline that the Galaxy S II, but I would think having additional always-on services like the S-Pen is exacting a toll.

For reference the SGSII has ~833MB total,
and usually only about 400MB is in use, its
enough that RAM feels bottomless, not the
case here - Tasker has already thrown me
one low memory warning... explanations??


Summary 


Here is the sad part of the piece, at least as far as this author is concerned; the conclusion. The reason it's sad? Because I know that after all that, all you really want is a sound-bite to encapsulate everything.

Being the verbose man that I am, this is the closest I can get to some sound bites:

  • The Note is big. Really big. I like 'em large (minds out of the gutter lads), but even for me the Note takes some getting used to. My advice has to be to get some hands-on with one before taking the plunge.
  • The build materials are Samsung's usual forgettable plastics, but they're more than the sum of their parts here - when the back cover is in place the materials feel good, and do manage to exude some of the sense of luxury that owners usually want when they're shelling out this kind of money.
  • The build quality seems very good.
  • The screen is good, really good, even in spite of the use of pentile matrix. If you peer at the display at an abnormally close range you will see the hatching pattern characteristic of pentile screens, but for most people in normal use I don't really think this will be an issue (that said some people won't be able to stop noticing once their eyes have fastened to the hatching once, so I'd still recommend getting an 'eyes-on' the device to be absolutely sure that pentile matrix won't become irksome).
  • It benchmark's well, and in general use feels really good too, but it can't (yet) match the fluidity of the Galaxy S II, but then that's hardly surprising when the Galaxy S II only has to drive about 37.5% of the number of pixels that the Note is managing
  • As per usual I try to nitpick at everything, because I think that's what potential buyers need, so for the sake of clarity I do need to say that despite the criticisms I've levelled at the Note here I do feel overwhelmingly good about the handset right at this moment in time (will the honeymoon last?)

Somebody pinch me, I think I
said nice things about a stylus
Alright, that's all you get for today. I'm not entirely sure what will be next up, while I'd like to cover the Note's GPS in the next piece, I think I need more time out driving to really give you the kind of quality write-up that you deserve (and likely won't get anywhere else). Perhaps I'll give you a detailed look at the S-Pen and some of the productivity cred of the device, since I've honestly been surprised how much I'm using and enjoying the S-Pen so far. If you'd said to me 3 years ago that I'd be saying nice things about a stylus I'd have said you were insane, and yet here I am, all back to the future and feeling positive about it...

If I missed out your favourite benchmark that-you-just-simply-must-have-or-you-will-die, please drop me a line in the comments section below. Similarly, if I neglected to cover something you feel you really need to know in order to make a decision about purchasing the Note, let me know just how remiss I've been in your commentary (of course if you just want to say nice things about the first part of the review please feel free to help yourself also).