Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Galaxy Note "Real-user" Review: Part 3 - GPS and Telephony

Here we are, part three of the Galaxy Note review to rule them all. This time I'm covering GPS and 'Reception', which covers not only WiFi and network reception, but also telephony aspects since they are inextricably linked to the signal strength attained by the Note.

You might recall that Samsung's flagship device of last year was lambasted for serious GPS issues - here is what I had to say of these previously at the Clove Blog: "You see, the first Galaxy S had problems with its GPS, rather large problems as it happens. While it could get a lock in an adequate timeframe, albeit slower than nearly every GPS-enabled handset I’ve owned since the N95, it just couldn’t hold it well enough to be relied upon. As a consequence, navigation was a rather painful experience at times. This was particularly evident in areas with densely packed and winding streets – your position would jump from street to neighbouring street continuously, triggering route recalculations each time. The result? Garbage voice guidance, confusion, frustration. Trying to do GPS-based tasks like sports-tracking, or geocaching that require even more accuracy? Forget about it." 

When I reviewed the Galaxy S II earlier this year for the Clove Blog, questions regarding it's GPS performance were far and away the most prominent question in the minds of prospective buyers. With the Galaxy S II things were a definite improvement, and for navigation at least I adjudicated it adequate for most users needs. Not exactly a ringing endorsement is it? Certainly the S II's GPS performance was not enough in the minds of many to cast the spectre of the Galaxy S's dreadful GPS firmly into the past. 

So then, is the Note the device that will finally put paid to Samsung's GPS shame, or will it yet again draw the ire of buyers? Answers after the break...

Can the Galaxy Note reproduce this kind of accuracy regularly???


When I reviewed the GPS unit in the Galaxy S II for Clove Technologies I wrote a little primer on GPS covering some of the basics of the technology. I thought that might not be a bad thing to include here - if you're familiar with the basics of GPS technology by all means skip ahead a little to get the goods on the Note's GPS performance - otherwise read on and heed the words of the ghost of blogging past:

"Firstly, let’s have a quick education session on GPS tracking. You need to know that civilian GPS units are restricted compared to their military counterparts. While a military GPS can place itself within a foot, a civilian unit’s maximum accuracy is around 3 metres. There are a few other things that have a bearing on GPS performance that you need to be aware of too – needing a clear view to the sky, atmospheric conditions, and the presence of tall buildings or trees near the unit. Indoors, on overcast days, or when surrounded by tall buildings or trees, GPS performance is degraded."

My what big satellite numbers
you have...
Since I wrote that, a couple of things have happened with GPS that are also worth a brief explanation. The first of these is inclusion for support of GLONASS in newer handsets, the iPhone 4S and Note being the first to bring this feature. GLONASS stands for Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema or Global Navigation Satellite System. Basically GLONASS is the Russian version of America's worldwide Global Positioning System, or GPS as you're no doubt accustomed to calling it. The GLONASS satellite network has 24 satellites servicing the globe, and although that networks civilian positioning accuracy is generally slightly less than the accuracy provided by the GPS network of satellites, it is more accurate at higher latitudes (North and South). Given that handsets like the Note will be integrating the information from both positioning networks, you can probably appreciate this is a great addition to satellite position for phones. 

GLONASS isn't the only new thing at the Note's disposal though; it will also be integrating information from an on-board barometer to give faster and more stable positioning locks. 

So, that all sounds great right, but how is it in real life?


In terms of lock speed the Note is unrivalled. Lock times are consistently between 2-4 seconds, virtually irrespective of weather conditions and other variables that matter for lesser phones. I usually have A-GPS enabled, which uses cell tower position data to speed lock times, using a small amount of cellular data in the process, but even with A-GPS off the lock times are still very good - better than I've ever seen before in a cellphone.


Initial lock speed is all well and good, but it's the quality of the lock that really tells you whether a GPS sensor is up to snuff.

In brief: it is.

For those who want to know more, here is the full disclosure:

For starters you can see a few illustrative pictures scattered throughout this review taken from Google's MyTracks app.  Additionally, I also have many full tracks available for you to pore over in fine detail, and most of them have notes about the weather conditions too. In order to view them, you need to copy the following links into Google Maps in your browser and enter them into the search bar there:

In terms of context, it’s worth noting a few things about the tracks. The phone is sitting under the windshield in its car mount, it has a good clear view to the sky in that position (you can see exactly where in the video below). Also, in their favour, is the relative lack of tall structures surrounding the routes shown. The tracks were mostly taken with an overcast sky – that just happens to be what May has served me up over here so far. There are other things you can’t know unless you were in the car with me – that corner I swung wide on because a car was parked close, that corner where I cut the apex because I’m a bad man and didn’t slow down for the corner, and so forth.

Enter the KML links above into the search bar, as you see onscreen here

If you look at them in Google Maps in the map view, and then in satellite view, you will often notice slight discrepancy between the positions of roads. I have no idea if one of them is more accurate than the other, however I can tell you that some of the satellite imagery is quite old. For example, the corner of Bader Drive and McKenzie street is shown in several North-bound trips - in all of them I appear to be swinging wide and driving on the pavement for a while - I’m actually on the road (believe it, or not). The tracking is fine, it's just that the road was widened a while back. Newsflash: Google Maps is not perfect.


As I did previously with the Galaxy S II, I made a video to demonstrate the GPS prowess of the Note:

If you’re worried that I used Root privileges to use apps like FasterFix to cheat the GPS test, let me put your mind at ease; besides having an insecure kernel to allow Rooting, my Galaxy Note is completely stock. All I’ve done with Root privileges is restore apps with Titanium Backup (seriously, my Battleheart save data is too precious, I would hate [and love!] to have to go through that game again!), and install ShootMe to facilitate the screencasting. There is no trickery or sleight of hand going on here.

[Brief aside: There are two text-to-speech engines in the SGSII – Samsung TTS and Pico TTS. The Samsung TTS has a much more pleasant and less robotic voice than the stock engine. Worth noting that if you enable it you will lose the reading of street names in Google Navigation. There are also some other TTS engines and voices available in the Android Market - the quality of some of them is truly excellent. More info here, look for SVOX]


I got >1000kB/s straight after this, best
speed I've ever had on Vodafone
I spend a bit of time agonising over this segment of the review. One part of me wanted to use lots of apps and benchmarks to illustrate the various signal strengths of the Note, and the other part just wanted to talk about the actual user experience, rather than get bogged down in more benchmarks whose relationship to actual use is questionable. In the end the latter notion won out, so what follows is simply my subjective experience of the Note's reception quality.

I'm quite open to the possibility I've made the wrong call here, so please do drop me a line in the comments section if there are some measures of signal strength that you feel are worth reporting on. In the final piece of the review I'll be doing a segment on addendums/errata/errors and omissions to wrap the review up tidily, so rest assured I will do my level best to give you the answers you need.

Firstly, lets tackle WiFi. My completely unscientific test for WiFi signal strength is whether I can use WiFi in my bedroom, which is about 8m from the households router, with 3 walls interspersed in the space between them (for reference the router is Wireless-G, rather than an N-spec router). I've tested in these conditions quite a lot - when my Tasker-based alarm profile fires each morning I dismiss it by pulling the USB charging cable out, Tasker then turns on Screen Filter and opens my RSS reader, and I read and browse for 15-20minutes before getting up (hello morning paper delivery!) The connection is rock solid and speeds are representative for my home network, so I can't see any issues here. Furthermore I haven't (yet) seen any posts decrying the WiFi in places like XDA, where people are anything but shy about venting their frustrations. If you're planning on using WiFi in more adverse conditions than those described here your mileage may vary, but I think for the majority of users this test is vigorous enough.

Tasker is a truly excellent Android
app - don't let the learning curve
peturb you! In 2.3.x you'll need
to have Root and copy Tasker to
system apps directory in order for
it to turn on GPS!
Network data reception is identical to my Galaxy S II, which is to say it is fine, but on a personal level I was hoping for more. You see, I have the misfortune of living in an area with relatively poor coverage for Vodafone NZ. 3G is very patchy at home, a problem exacerbated by living in a brick building (Vodafone's 3G broadcast frequencies don't penetrate buildings nearly as well as Telecom's 850Mhz), and virtually non-existent at work. These aren't problems from the Note's side of things of course, but just go to show that it's worth thinking about the relative network coverages in the areas you expect to be using your device. Fortunately the Note, like the Galaxy S II before it, is a quad-band enabled 3G phone supporting the 850, 900, 1900 and 2100Mhz broadcast frequencies, so you shouldn't be particularly limited in terms of which network to run with.


I guess I’m an early adopter in most things techonological, and possibly nothing illustrates that quite as well as the fact that telephony makes up a stark minority of my mobile usage. Bearing that in mind it’s not difficult to leap to the realisation that I’m not the best person to give you advice on this area. That said, I’m going to give my opinion anyway, just without any fanfare or pretense that my opinion is at all authoritative on this.

OK, so I'm still a little annotation-happy

In relation to call quality, the Note is fine for me. It seems virtually identical to my Galaxy S II in this regard, only the incoming call quality is a bit better in terms of volume and clarity, whereas callers have suggested the outgoing call quality may be marginally worse than the Galaxy S II. This is one of those subjective areas that is hard to really advise people on however, particularly when I note a minority of users having results that are strongly conflicting with my own. Those users are complaining of serious issues in call quality, the majority of us are not able to reproduce these problems, so I wonder whether there is a sporadic hardware problem here of the kind that afflicts all handsets.

I guess we're waiting for ICS to
get better res contact pics...
In terms of the UI and accessibility of telephony features the Note is just fine, although it's a shame they didn't re-work these a little to take advantage of the screen real-estate in portrait view as they did for the calendar app. Using Widgetlocker I can jump straight from the lockscreen to contacts, bring up the contact I want by just pressing the corresponding letter from the alphabet that runs in a strip down the right side of the screen, and then swipe left-right or right-left over their name in the list to call or text them respectively. Alternately you can invoke the dialler and start typing their name, it will progressively narrow the number of matching contacts until you have the one you’re after. Either option is quick and direct, which is just how I like it in those rare moments where I actually use my phone to call someone. One thing existing users of the Galaxy S and Galaxy S II might like to know is that you can now exclude SMS records from the Call Logs if you so desire, it's never particularly bothered me, but seems to be an issue that has raised a fair amount of noise at various user forums around the net.

Of course this is Android, so if the stock TouchWiz dialler/contacts list/SMS interface aren’t to your liking you can just change them to something else. At present I'm using Handcent for SMS duties, having frozen the stock SMS app in Titanium Backup to fix the screen-wake problem in the stock app (since the SGSII has the same issue I believe Samsung think this is a feature, not a bug, but I'm afraid users will beg to differ). Go-SMS also has a stellar reputation if Handcent isn't for you. I haven't replaced the stock dialler at this stage, however there are a number of replacement contacts management apps around. I briefly toyed with contapps and was impressed with it's Gingerbread-esque theme and deep social network integration, and I've also had RocketDial Pro come highly recommended from someone with a massive contact list that needed better organisation than the stock app offers.

Contapps is an attractive and functional alternative to the stock contacts and dialler apps


So, here we are at the end of another section, and I expect you'll be wanting your bite-sized summation:

  • The Galaxy Note has the best GPS I've ever experienced on a mobile, the inclusion of GLONASS and barometer support and the mammoth screen raise it above all it's contemporaries. To be perfectly honest I think the Note is the first handset to really usher in the impending end of standalone GPS navigation units, it is that good. Naturally standalone units will have continued relevance for things like aviation and maritime uses, but you have to wonder how numbered their days are there too...
  • WiFi reception has no issues
  • Network data reception is fine, but not better than handsets that precede the Note
  • Call quality, at least from where I'm sitting with the Note plastered to the side of my head, is fine. Marginally better inbound, but marginally worse outbound, than the Galaxy S II as a point of reference. Some users are having very poor experiences though, and at present the cause remains unknown, so unfortunately I have to equivocate a little here and say your mileage may vary
  • The telephony-related software in the Note hasn't changed particularly from the incarnation seen in the Galaxy S II, it was adequate then and remains adequate now, but you can't help but feel they could have optimised things a bit for the display - particularly when viewed in landscape

...and that's a wrap for today, up next I'll be looking at the S-pen, and then we're onto the run to the finish line just in time for the Galaxy Nexus to come (it's been delayed until the 23rd, if you missed that news).