Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Galaxy Note "Real-user" Review: Part 2 - Entertainment and media - Music and video playback, gaming, browser

When all is said and done, can the
Note be the handset to cover all
your entertainment needs? Make
the jump for your answer!

OK, so today we have part two of the review. I know I had suggested that I would cover the S-Pen this time around, but it turns out there is a little more to the S-Pen than I had at first thought, and I just don't want to give the readers something half-baked (if you want half baked coverage on the S-Pen there are hundreds of YouTube videos at your disposal). Instead we're going to look at the entertainment pedigree of the Note.

Now I must admit, much of this is taken from my review of the Galaxy S II at the Clove Technology Blog. That's not because I'm lazy entirely because I'm lazy, it's actually because in many respects the Note and the Galaxy S II are almost exactly alike in these areas.

Like I seem to do quite often, I have to start here with a disclaimer of sorts - this time in terms of my own listening prowess. You see, in terms of evaluating the audio quality of the phone I have to set the appropriate context - that context being my own limitations as a listener. I think my ear is above average, nearly twenty years of playing guitar certainly helps there, but I am definitely no audiophile. While I’m in complete disclosure mode: I have some high frequency hearing loss from guitar and concert attendances over the years, and I don’t own a set of audiophile headphones. What does all that mean? Well, basically, audiophiles should move right along, my ear isn’t up to advising you about whether you’ll be happy with this phone. Most everyone who isn’t an audiophile will be happy enough with the Note's audio quality, and those same readers will likely find my take on the sound quality is pitched at the right level.

So…


AUDIO QUALITY

The stock player has numerous nice
touches, like here showing music player
controls within the notifications pulldown
- there are also nice lockscreen controls too
I should point out here that the Note, like the Galaxy S II before it, does not use the fantastic Wolfson DAC that is found in the original Galaxy S. Instead it uses a Yamaha DAC. You'd think a company with such a long-standing investment in sound would serve you up some great audio fidelity, right? Wrong. The sound quality in absolute terms is rather lacking, it's not even remotely as good as the Galaxy S with Voodoo Sound (the current high-bar for mobile phone sound quality). As was the case with the Galaxy S II before it however, I think the Note's audio quality will be fine for most people, even if their intent is to use it as their main music player.

Knowing how audiophiles received the SGSII when it was released, it is fairly safe to say that those same people may well be disappointed here also, and some badly so. I can only suggest that audiophiles try one out with their headset of choice, rather than gambling on the Note without having had an ‘ears-on’ experience. Alternately you might like to see the ludicrously detailed audio analysis of the same hardware in the SGSII from Android developer super-star Supercurio here (I have a sneaking suspicion that if you can understand even half of what he's saying then you probably want to side-step the Note, or use a dedicated device as your music player).

If you're not an audiophile per se, but if you are nevertheless a discerning enough listener to get bugged by the Note's sound quality foibles, there is some hope that you can achieve adequate sound quality if you go to PowerAMP; Android’s best music player. It has a pre-amp that will boost the volume output a noticeable, if not massive, amount, and also an extremely good customisable EQ (the EQ will let you save custom EQ settings per album, or even per song - how's that for granular control!).

As an aside there was a question from one reader about whether USB DAC's could be used via the USB OTG functionality of the Note in order to bypass the Yamaha DAC. If I'm honest I think the chances are pretty slim, but I purchased one to try it out anyways - see how much I care about what you need to know?! It arrives tomorrow, so I will make a brief post to let you all know if these can do the job.

The unassuming HiFiMAN Express [image
credited to Steve Guttenberg]
[UPDATE] Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the USB DAC did not work. I checked on the ASUS Transformer also, hoping that the Honeycomb native USB device support would work, but sadly came up empty there too. That doesn't bode particularly well for Ice Cream Sandwich supporting these devices either, so audiophiles will have to give up on that as a workaround for the present time (and keep hoping some talented dev at XDA can sort this out for us... Supercurio, you out there?) As an aside I tried it in my laptop and desktop PC's and was blown away by the increase in sound quality with the HiFiMAN Express, so if you're not an audiophile but in the market for better sound out of your computers without haemorrhaging cash check it out. It's available here, and here is a true audiophiles review of the product.


MEDIA PLAYBACK – AUDIO

For the most part the following is what I had to say on the stock Samsung player for the SGSII. Pretty much all the criticisms still stand, as Samsung has addressed nary a one of them. I found these problems very disappointing in the Galaxy S II, and time has done nothing but deepen the insult of their continuing presence.

The Samsung player lacks in a few areas, but still remains one of Android's most attractive looking
players - the Now Playing screen is kept clean by tucking away control for seek/shuffle/repeat - to
access these simply press the album art and a transparency with the required UI will appear

Samsung's stock player is the same one you’ll see iterated across their Android and Bada OS lines. As stock players go it's actually pretty good, coming with a customisable EQ, various sound effect environs to tweak its output sound, wide-codec support, music controls in the notifications tray and on the stock lockscreen, and the ability to tag songs all packaged neatly in a visually appealing interface (sadly the eye candy cover-flow view seen in the Galaxy S is still MIA, a victim of the patent war perhaps?). Once upon a time it was as good as it got for a default player in Android handsets, but no longer.

It just seems completely stalled from the point of view of development, and maddeningly some of the most frustrating defects remain. For example, it still can’t read genre tags properly. This seems like a pretty basic thing to get wrong. What makes this all the more incomprehensible is that this is Samsung we're talking about here - a company that makes numerous media players that can read tags correctly. Previously there was no way to work around this problem, as third party players take their tag-reading cues from the stock player. Fortunately the latest version of PowerAMP dispenses with this dependency, and performs it's own media scan to correctly identify tags.

Other deficiencies include the ongoing lack of a music widget for your homescreens, and the Galaxy range's autistic lack of social aptitude. The former of these two problems is a pretty egregious omission, since every other manufacturer has widgets for music controls, and I don't know any Android user who doesn't make use of them. The latter, while not particularly affronting in and of itself, is decidedly average when you look at what competitors are offering. Motorola's stock offering for example has native support for Scrobbling in LastFM, to name but one of the several social media services it has in it's arsenal. Samsung, it's past time your stock player learnt to play nicely with others, get onto it please.

We've lost the disc view, but at
least the thumbnail view is still
quite attractive, if less functional
As per usual some people were really keen to know about FLAC playback. I can confirm that like the SGSII it plays them fine, and like the SGSII it can't read their tags either (it's an entirely different kind of tag reading error to what I mentioned above, and unfortunately a worse error with the stock player failing to pick up numerous tags for FLAC files). For reference I ripped to FLAC with Exact Audio Copy, and then embedded album art and checked the tags with mp3tag. This method works for every other FLAC-capable device I've used the files in. Once again PowerAMP is the Note's saviour.

In terms of features that could have advanced the player to lift above its manufacturer-stock contemporaries it could have done with things like crossfading, gapless playback, more options around automated actions on headset insertion/removal, folder playback, and a better music indexing system than what stock Android offers (I’d love to not have to wait for media scanning to complete before I’m able to listen to music, please Samsung?).

...and guess what? PowerAMP has all these features. I know you shouldn't have to pay more money to get a properly functioning music player in your high-end device, trust me, I know. On the inside I'm railing at the injustice too. But I've got a pragmatic streak, and it says "You know what? Just buy PowerAMP. Sure, it ain't the cheapest app on the Market, but you know you'll be using it on every Android device you ever own. Buy it, achieve music player nirvana, find some other first-world problems to whinge about".

While we're on the subject of PowerAMP, be sure to check out the AndroidNZ coverage of it's latest release as it made it's way through the beta process here, and here, and in the video below:




MEDIA PLAYBACK – VIDEO

Before I go into nitpick mode, let us be clear - the Note as a video player is without peer in the mobile phone world. There are several reasons it deserves such high praise: with it's 5.3 inch 1280x800 resolution Super AMOLED HD screen watching video on the phone screen is an experience none can match, the codec support is matched only by other Galaxy handsets, and there are a multitude of options for example around subtitle handling and changing colour temperature. Furthermore, it has DLNA and MHL HDMI out to cover connection to your HD television - since it easily plays even 1080p content you’ll really value these options, as you'll see:


No doubt you'll have seen similar sentiments expressed in other reviews on the Note. Like the Galaxy S II before it, the Note as been getting rave reviews in relation to the stock video players wide-codec support. Unfortunately, like the Galaxy S II before it, those abilities have been somewhat overblown. Don't me wrong, the Samsung stock player is better than anyone else's (in part due to the Exynos SoC ability to playback high profile video), but it is not, as some would have you believe, perfect.

The stock player has a reasonable selection
of options for subtitle display
The video player has not had any update from the version we saw in the Galaxy S II, or at least not so far as I can tell - certainly all the same flaws exist. Some HD files fail to play, subtitles often don't work as advertised, and the audio codec support still lacks some relatively common formats for home-encoded video like DTS/vorbis/AC3.

Fortunately there is Dice Player, the best player on the Market for phones that it supports. Happily the Note happens to be one of those devices. Dice Player just plays everything you throw it at, or at least nearly everything. Not only that, it can handle dual-audio files, and supports an absolute plethora of subtitle types including external subs files and embedded MKV subs.

To really stress the playback capabilities of phones for review, I gathered a diverse bunch of test clips to throw at the latest and greatest devices a while back (once again credit goes to Xero Xenith at XDA-developers, and MobileTopia7 from Mobile-Review for providing the files). In the interests of full disclosure I’ve taken the liberty of exporting all the properties of the test subjects to a text file using Media Info - you can download the text file with all this information here.

As with the Galaxy S II the colour tone options
within the video player remain for those who
find the SAMOLED saturation a little much to
take - there is also a handy outdoors visibility
mode to crank contrast and brightness & make
the best of a bad situation for viewing
Although my sample set is a lot more taxing than what most other reviewers are using, I've no doubt it could be better - if you think I’ve missed a vital codec for your use, please send me a sample that I can add to the test batch in the future (obviously the sample should not have swearing/violence/nudity etc, and should not be a full movie).

To summarise the results in brief; the stock player failed on quite a number of the files, but Dice Player nailed them all with the exception of a 20,000kbps 1080p video file that even my laptop cannot play (for the full breakdown of results in a table with Sensation and Galaxy S II results for comparison, download this file). The results are effectively the same as on the Galaxy S II, although in the interval since I recorded those initial results Dice Player has had several updates improving it's software decoding - I didn't need another third party player to play any of the files any longer.

Here is a video shootout demonstrating some of the more demanding files playing on the Galaxy Note:




BROWSER

Not it's time to turn our attention to the browser. Readers who caught my Galaxy S II review at Clove will know that I declared it the best (stock) browsing experience to be had on a phone. Obviously time has moved on since then - the iPhone 4S is pumping out higher browser benchmarks, HTC has entered the fray with qHD resolution screens and a version of Android's stock browser with their own enhancements, and shortly the Galaxy Nexus will arrive with the latest version of Android's stock browser. How does the Note stack up to all of these?

Taking advantage of the extra size and resolution available on the
Note, Samsung have delivered some really nice additions to the
browser UI - the quick access to tabs, favourites and history, and
RSS subscriptions are welcome changes

To be frankly unequivocal: it beats them all, and by a margin, in spite of a few niggles along the way.

First, the positives. The most obvious advantage the Note has is the screen, obviously browsing at 1280x800 pixels on 5.3 inches is going to be a better experience than others can offer. On top of that the Note manages to replicate the Galaxy S II's feat of perfect flash video playback in the browser, something that no other Android device phone or tablet can match. When I say perfect flash playback, I really mean it too. The Note will handle even 1080p flash video in the browser without a hitch providing the bandwidth is there, although naturally enough you won't benefit at all from playing something higher than the phones resolution in the browser (it doesn't get output at the media's native resolution like it does from video players).

The user experience in terms of smoothness of operation is also really good, the hardware acceleration and dual core use that Samsung have added to their version of the browser making it's presence known. The smoothness sadly isn't quite up to what the Galaxy S II can produce, and this is born out in benchmarks too, but then that's hardly surprising - the Note is pushing around three times as many pixels, and the extra 25% power to each of the dual cores can't make up the difference. I don't think many users will have particular cause for complaint there though, for me this minor detractor in no way overshadows what the larger, higher resolution screen brings to the table as far as browsing is concerned.

Screen-grab from the stock browser playing 720p flash video - good 
thing it can manage this since  the YouTube  app doesn't download 
in proper HD even with 'HD' selected! The browser will even 1080p, 
but of course there is little point in doing that (except to show off to 
your  iPhone toting  mates, who are  probably convinced  that  they 
 don't really want  flash anyways...)

I should also point out that you can always use a full blown desktop browser via RDP, and even use bluetooth keyboard and mouse with MHL for a true desktop experience. If that interests you then I recommend Splashtop, my current RDP app of choice. Splashtop has several advantages over the other clients available for Android. Here are said advantages: it's cheap at only $6NZD, it is easy to set up and connect to, it can stream sound even if your PC doesn't have native RDP support, and it is also the only one I've found that will properly utilise bluetooth keyboards and mice (or Transformer keyboard dock). Basically it's awesome, and it's also never been better than it is on the Note. For a demo showing all this in action check the first video a little further up the review in the video section.

Naturally, no matter how good it is, browsing on the Note is not a perfect experience (at least not on the stock browser at any rate). It retains some of the problems Samsung's versions of the stock Android browser have exhibited ever since the original Galaxy S.

The first of these is the inability to permanently select a desktop user agent (often abbreviated "UA", the user agent is how a device identifies itself to the internet, and determines which versions of webpages you get in return - desktop/mobile/iOS etc). This has bothered me ever since the Galaxy S, and never more so than now, when we have this brilliant desktop-resolution screen to browse with. Fortunately there are ways around this. For starters, within the stock browser itself you can type the following without the quotation marks into the URL bar "about:useragent". When you hit enter you'll be greeting with a pop-up menu asking which UA you'd like to browse with. The options even include the iPhone UA, which is sometimes not a bad thing - it may not surprise you to learn that many sites have beautiful versions optimised for iOS devices. Unfortunately whatever you select will be forgotten the next time you re-start the browser. Another option is to just use another browser, and I can heartily recommend this, but more on that later.

The second issue for me is the lack of dynamic reflow. If you aren't familiar with that term it could be because, as far as I'm aware at any rate, I coined it. Dynamic reflow is the term I use to describe the behaviour where text will reflow to fit the screen at whatever level of zoom you're at, as opposed to what the Note does - you double tap to zoom to a preset level and the text reflows, but further zoom adjustments via pinch zooming do not reflow the text. Whereas the lack of a persistent desktop UA is actually worse in the Note than previous WVGA resolution 'Droids because of the display characteristics, this flaw is lessened in comparison thanks to the mammoth screen size - the text size on double tap to zoom is actually sufficient to allow easy reading. It's still not as nice as having the granular control of text size you get with dynamic reflow via pinch zooming however, so the stock browser loses points for this too. Like the desktop UA problem there is a way around this, which bring us to...

...third party browsers. I mentioned earlier I would touch on this, since you can easily overcome all of the stock browsers deficits with alternate browsers available on the Android Market. This is one of Android's strengths of course, the ability to just replace anything you don't like with something you do. There are a multitude of browsers in the Android Market, so for the uninitiated it can be difficult to find the one that fits best for you. This isn't intended to be an exhaustive guide to third party browsers by any means, so I'll simply recommend a couple of the most highly regarded ones.

Dolphin has a stellar reputation,
it's not hard to see why
My own favourite, or at least current favourite, is Opera Mobile. Opera Mobile has dynamic reflow, permanent desktop UA selection, plays flash video, has good tabbed browsing management, opera turbo to compress images and make sure your browsing only sips from your data allowance, and recently updated to include some data use monitoring functions for those feeling the pinch of restrictive mobile data plans. Opera Mobile is fast, smooth, and produces better benchmarks than the stock browser (shown in the first part of the review under benchmarks).

Dolphin HD is another of the most popular third party browsers available for Android, and well worth checking out if what ails the stock browser has you tearing your hair out in frustration. I haven't revisited Dolphin HD in a very long time, but it is extremely well loved by many, feature-packed, and also has numerous add-ons available in the Market to extend it's functionality.


GAMING

Don't get too caught up with Shadowgun, there are many 
amazing titles available for the Note in the Android Market
right now - like this:Rubicon's Great Little War Game
The Note should be the current pinacle of Android gaming, with it's best-in-Android-class MALI GPU and it's amazing screen. Obviously the key word in that sentence is the italicised one. Before you go getting all down in the mouth about my qualifier there, let me hasten to add that it is already a great gaming handset, it's just that it's far from reaching it's potential as the choices for high quality games are limited. So we're clear, the Note will play nearly all of the games on the Android Market, it's just that certain prominent high quality purveyors are not yet on board with the Note. Given the Note has just been released, and it's the first Android phone to have such a high resolution screen, I guess we can forgive both it and the developers for that for now.

If you've read earlier pieces of mine in relation to the Tegra-exlusive games you'll know I'm no great fan of what Tegra has done to fragment games compatibility on the basis of whether or not a device carries their hardware. Those limitations apply to Note also, so if you were hoping to get some Shadowgun on your Note to show off the amazing HD graphics to your buddies you're sadly out of luck.

Even without adding MSAA Shadowgun looks unbelievable
...or at least you would be, if it weren't for rock star developer Chainfire, of XDA fame. You see Chainfire wrote a little program called Chainfire 3D, which will let your non-Tegra device run most Tegra-only games. This of course requires Root access, and a little bit of setting up, but it's well worth it. If you don't already know how to Root your Galaxy Note, or how to set up Chainfire 3D, you're in luck; AndroidNZ has guides for all of these things. The Root guide is here, and the Chainfire 3D guide can be found here.

While you're busy Rooting and modding your Note to make it more games-ready, you might as well check out our guide for how to use a PS3 controller while you're at it (the guide is written for the Galaxy S II, but it works the same for the Note).

I know this all sounds too good to be true, but before you head to comments to say "pictures or it never happened", check out our video showing Shadowngun running on the Note with controls via a PS3 controller (forward to the the end):




Left: Sad panda is cut from a webpage and inserted into
Gameloft's page with the S-Pen and S-memo - neat!
Right: FPSe settings - dual cores are go!
A quick perusal of the Gameloft mobile site in the browser reveals that they haven't as yet added any support for the Note. Sad panda. I'm sure a degree of support will come, since Gameloft eventually gets around to releasing at least some of their HD titles for most devices, however I suspect the Note will not recieve as much love as other handsets given it's more niche appeal. With any luck some of the tablet versions will run via Chainfire 3D (you can install versions for other devices by lying about which device you're using at the time of purchase on the Gameloft desktop games store). I'll check when I get a chance and update the review here.


A recent N64oid update added cheats - great for if you suck

If you're still thinking high quality gaming titles look a little too thin on the ground for your liking at this stage, don't forget that emulators that are available for Android. In particular I would draw your attention to the excellent Nintendo 64 and Playstation emulators, N64oid and FPSe respectively. Both of these will play virtually all of the best titles of those consoles of yesteryear, which gives a pretty deep library of some of the greatest games of all time.

N64oid is available via Slideme, an alternative to the Android Market, and recent updates have made the experience incredible - particularly via MHL and if you have a few bluetooth controllers handy as you''ll see below.

FPSe still graces the Android Market, and like N64oid has had updates recently that really improve the experience - most notably adding support for dual core CPUs. I gave it a whirl on the Note last night an was amazed by the difference - you can turn all the graphics tweaks up to full and still enjoy fluid 60fps gameplay (for reference I was playing Tekken 3, formerly if you added Screen Filtering performance dropped considerably). Like N64oid FPSe will support multiple bluetooth controllers and is awesome in concert with MHL.


Finally, before we leave gaming and wrap this segment of the review up, it would be utterly neglectful not to mention one of the pre-installed games on the Note - the excellent Crayon Physics! This is a physics and drawing based game that I recall fondly from the old days on Windows Mobile, and although may judgement may be impaired by nostalgia, it seems to have aged very well in the years since I last played it. Naturally this kind of game is perfectly suited to the Note, and I look forward to seeing what other's might do with the S-Pen when Samsung release the APIs for it this December. A word of warning though, Crayon Physics doesn't appear to have been particularly well optimised for the Note's hardware, S-Pen aside. It causes the phone to heat quite rapidly and drains battery heavily. One to enjoy in brief bursts only.

An old time favourite makes a welcome return


SUMMARY

So after all that, how do I judge the Galaxy Note as an entertainment device?

Overall I think the Note is unsurpassed in terms of sheer entertainment, but like any device not without issues here and there.

Let's break it down into bullet points for you:
  • The Note is as good as it gets for browsing on a mobile device
  • For video playback it also sets the new high bar for mobiles
  • Likewise for browsing it becomes the new standard against which others will be measured, and it will be interesting to see how it fares Vs the Galaxy Nexus and Android's latest version of the browser in only a few days time
  • As a music player it doesn't fare quite so well, for most it will be adequate after the purchase of a third party player (I recommend PowerAMP), but audiophiles will have to look elsewhere, or commit to having a second device dedicated to music playback
  • For gaming the Note is good, and even has the makings of greatness, but it isn't there yet and may suffer from some developer indifference on account of it's niche nature

Next up I'll be covering the Note's GPS prowess, and I don't want to give it all away, but let's just say now that the it's abilities here are prodigious, and leave it at that.

I hope by now that readers are getting a feel for just how much we like to hear from you all - as always your feedback is most welcome.