|It's a little bit late, but then the end is a little bit|
early - forgive me?
You see, I was starting to ready my piece on the S-Pen when the thought occurred to me that I'd had enough time with the Note to cover things like battery life and bugs too. At that point the best way forward seemed to be just including the S-Pen material in the wrap-up (not to mention it fit my ABC acronym, and really, who can resist an ABC acronym right?). I should point out that although I've used the term 'wrap-up' just now, which implies some kind of to-the-point brevity, this piece will in fact live up to the epic length of the preceding parts, as befits a review of the behemoth that is the Galaxy Note.
So, what am I covering after the break? Obviously the S-Pen is a major focus of discussion, but that is far from everything that needs attention before we lay this review to rest. I'm also going to cover the Note's camera, it's stability in day-to-day use and any Note-worthy bugs (ba-dum-cha!), provide some updates/corrections/ addenda about various things that have come to light with more time with the device, and then (finally!) conclude the review.
Oh, and disregard all the mentions of the video in the review - that's actually going to follow shortly afterward.
All this awaits after one final jump...
|The S-Pen, performing important public services like improving your Fruit Ninja scores|
OK, so let's kick this off with a detailed look at the S-Pen.
The S-Pen... Apart from the size of the Note the S-Pen is probably the most polarising aspect of the Note. Some have lampooned the return of the stylus, others have been cautiously optimistic about how it's inclusion might play out - in particular thinking ahead to the imminent release of the S-Pen API to developers. The one thing about the S-Pen where there has tended to be consensus is that if you weren't already sold on the Note before thinking about the S-Pen, then the S-Pen is not something that will suddenly sell the Note to you. I'd agree with that assessment, even though I do use the S-Pen daily.
You may well have seen the S-Pen described as a capacitive stylus, so lets dispel that error right off the bat. The S-Pen utilises WACOMs digitiser technology - it's implementation requires a specific change in the touchscreen - and therefore it will not work with other capacitive touchscreen devices. It's the same reason that the S-Pen is unable to trigger the capacitive back and menu keys in the Note. I couldn't find anything particularly specific about how Samsung have integrated the technology here, but I presume it is not too dissimilar to how WACOM do it in their own products. This is what the WACOM white papers say of their other styli:
In terms of the design of the stylus itself, it's long enough and light enough to use comfortably, and doesn't feel in danger of slipping out of it's space in the phone. The only real criticism I can level at it on the design level is that the button on the side, necessary for taking screenshots, invoking the S-Note pop-up, and performing the "Back" and "Menu" functions of the phone, should not be the same colour as the rest of the S-Pen's shaft. It just makes it that little bit troublesome to find at times, a problem compounded by a relative lack of tactile feedback when it is pressed.
|I was surprised how often I|
actually used this feature!
There were a few other vagaries that I noted in use, and I see other users reporting a similar experience. These mostly seem to relate to the position of the S-Pen relative to the screen, and looking at the first paragraph of the WACOM white paper above this seems to make sense. When the pen is used at a typical 45 degree angle to the screen all is well. If you look very carefully you can see that the line drawn by the pen is very slightly above the actual pen point, but in use it seems perfectly natural, so I presume WACOM with their considerable experience have found this is ideal for most users. If however you change the angle between the S-Pen and the screen, the accuracy of the pen stroke becomes noticeably inaccurate. It is even possible to induce a couple of millimeters error at times. I presume that in practice this will only pose a problem to a distinct minority of users, those who have an aberrant pen grip ("You're holding it wrong!" - sounds awfully Apple doesn't it?).
|I suspect this is hard to do without|
an S-Pen handy...
[As an aside: the video editor is actually really quite good overall, even if the annotation feature isn't a slam dunk - I could actually see myself using it - especially with bluetooth keyboard and mouse via MHL]
Most reading here will be aware that the 8mp camera aboard the Galaxy Note uses the same camera module and software as the Galaxy S II. If you have no familiarity with the Galaxy S II's imaging prowess, rest assured - that's a good thing. The Galaxy S II has the best camera we've yet seen on an Android, and one of the best ever camera's seen in a smartphone full stop (this has been affirmed in a variety of different shoot outs, I recommend checking out the recent GSMarena one here). Given how much information is out there in relation to the Galaxy S II camera, I could probably just about leave this section at that, but let's cover the main points you need to be aware of.
|Expect to capture nice shots with auto-settings in good light|
|Even indoors with a little know-|
how about which settings help
in less ideal conditions you can
capture some good shots
In good light conditions the Note takes excellent shots on automatic settings. When viewed at full zoom you can appreciate the great balance it achieves between noise suppression and detail preservation. Colour reproduction, rather typically, is not completely accurate. It's not that it suffers from the kinds of chromatic aberration exhibited by HTC and Moto cams, just that Samsung have elected to pump up the saturation a little because most people actually find that more pleasing than truly accurate colour reproduction.
|Macro in good light conditions, with a little zoom you can see a|
stunning level of detail in the coffee cup here - make sure to check
out the shots shown here at their full resolution to get the best
feel for their quality!
You can argue the merits of that back and forth endlessly. Photography fans will argue that they'd rather have accurate reproduction, and increase the saturations later on their computer if they feel it's warranted. I tended to agree with that in the past, but when I took stock of the realities of the situation recently I decided I just don't buy that any more. Why? Because I have never actually messed with the colour reproduction of cellphone captured shots after the fact.
|Your eyes are not deceiving you, the|
Note, like the previous Galaxy models
has a case of pink-eye at times
In settings that are less ideal for photography, for example in low light, the Note is a less able performer. There is no getting around the fact that you have a tiny sensor, and that an LED flash is no replacement for a Xenon one. That's true of all non-Xenon flash equipped cellphone cameras, which is virtually all of them, so it's hard to be terribly critical of this failing. It would have been nice if Samsung had seen fit to include a backlit sensor to help out here, as these are becoming more commonplace in products from Sony and Apple, but I guess we'll have to wait for the Galaxy S III to see some more camera improvements from Samsung.
|This shot is taken in a pitch black room, showing how good the flash|
can be (my son insisted on wearing his new gumboots to bed!)
That said, even in less desirable conditions the Note will produce perfectly adequate shots once you've spent a little time tinkering with how the settings effect the end result. The LED flash is good, as far as these go. For illuminating completely dark scenes it's surprisingly effective, and in scenes where the subject is at a medium distance from the Note it performs quite well also. It's less helpful when the subject is closer, or in macro shots, but with the degree of granular control on offer in the camera here it's a cinch to turn it off where that's the case.
The main criticism I'd level at the stills camera is that shot-to-shot time is not what it should be. The SGSII, while not as snappy as the HTC Sensation, Motorola Razr, or Galaxy Nexus for shot-to-shot time, was nevertheless nimble enough that delay between shots wasn't a hassle. The Note is actually only slightly slower than the SGSII, but crucially the delay here crosses the threshold where it starts to annoy me a little. It's not a show stopper by any means, but it's not insignificant either. In the UI video above I demonstrate the shot-to-shot time so you can get a feel for whether it's within limits for you. Since this should be a software issue I'd hope it get fixed within the next few firmware updates.
As you know, we're all about the full disclosure here at AndroidNZ, and we know that you can't really adjudicate camera shots without taking a look at the full resolution shots - you can grab a zip with all the pictures taken above in their unadulterated glory here.
|Another very nice macro, taken indoors during the day (a good|
coffee too I might add, I love making coffee)
There are a few things worth noting in relation to video capture for the Note. First of all, recordings captured at 1080p retain the zoomed field of view exhibited in the Galaxy S II. It was annoying in that handset, and remains annoying here, making it unnecessarily difficult to frame recordings taken in full HD. Secondly, in lower light conditions the Note struggles. Frame rates and detail preservation drop off, and even worse the continuous auto-focus can occasionally be so temperamental as to render video capture unusable. Granted that doesn't happen often at all, but nevertheless it's a pretty egregious failing when you consider that the Galaxy S II had the same issue and therefore Samsung has had many months to sort it.
Naturally I've taken some example videos, and you can download the full files here: one recorded to the internal SD, and one recorded to the external SD (if you're wondering what class SD card you need to have in your Note I'd recommend reading what I had to say on this issue here). I haven't uploaded them to YouTube, and nor will I, since YouTube conversion introduces some playback issues that make it impossible to really adjudicate precisely how the video capture performs.
|Before, with flash (auto-settings made the flash fire)|
For many people, myself included, this is one of the most important aspects of any smartphone review. There isn't much point in having all the features in the world, if the battery life is so dire your phone conks out on you by lunchtime every day. Sadly battery technology is the one thing in mobile phones that hasn't really progressed at all, despite our increased clamour to use all the whizz-bang features our mobiles now possess to fill every quiet moment of our day. What's even worse than that, is that most reviews are based on a couple of days use with a handset, and sometimes less. Their comments on battery performance are speculation at best in some cases, and in a few cases I suspect outright fabrication.
It's not all doom and gloom though on the battery-life reporting front. Some sites like GSMarena are really upping their game in terms of battery life reporting, and even showing a willingness to respond to reader critiques of their method (for example they started detailing the background activity and screen brightness used in their video tests after several comments, including one from us here at AndroidNZ, questioned the usefulness of video playback figures without crucial contextual information).
I conducted similar tests here, using a 'seasoned' Galaxy Note battery. If you're not sure what I mean when I say 'seasoned' here, I'm basically referring to a battery that has been through enough charging cycles to reach it's peak capacity (you typically see improvements in battery life over 3-5+ cycles, these tests were performed after 7 or more).
The first of these tests was the video playback test. We performed this one prior to GSMarena publishing more detailed information on their video playback tests, but as it turns out our methods were essentially identical: phone set to airplane mode, brightness at 50%. Additionally we can tell you that the speaker volume was set to full throughout our test, and rather than using an SD Xvid file, we used a 1080p MKV file (with an HD screen and DLNA/MHL it's hard to fathom why anyone would want to watch SD video on the Note). The media info on the test file can be found here. Under these conditions the Note managed 8 hours and 16 minutes of playback time.
I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth already: "But that's an hour less than the iPhone managed at GSMarena, how will I live with myself if my iPhone toting friends can claim better video playback duration?!" Before you get yourself too worked up, consider some facts. Firstly, the Note is pushing around twice the number of pixels. Secondly, if you look at the actual screen area that each phone is powering you'll see that the despite 'only' a 1.8inch disparity in the screens diagonals, the Note screen surface area is around 2.22x the size of the iPhone's display. Finally, we're driving it harder here with a much more demanding file than what the iPhone had pitched against it (in the GSMarena tests they use an SD movie file, but in the case of the iPhone they had to convert the Xvid they are using on the other phones to a file format that would play natively on iOS). If you look at all these aspects in concert with the number of hours each handset managed, then suddenly you can see how impressive the Note's results really are. Basically, it's an apples with bananas comparison, and the real bottom line is this: if you were insane enough to watch 8 hours+ of continuous video on your phone screen, which handset would you rather do that on?
In their testing the Note managed an abysmal 3 hours 36 minutes (improving to around 4 hours with Opera Mobile, which they incorrectly stated is not hardware accelerated). The iPhone in comparison run out an excellent 6 hours 56 minutes. So, how did the Note stack up for me? Using Opera Mobile, with all the usual sync activities running simultaneously in the background, I managed a much healthier 5 hours and 25 minutes.
Why are our respective results so different? First of all there were a few discrepancies between our respective methodologies. They ran their test at 50% brightness, whereas I ran mine at around 35%. I don't know about everyone else here, but I know that I run my smartphones at the lowest possible brightness for any given task, and 50% brightness is much brighter than you'll need for browsing indoors with the Note. In fact, even at 35% I could have dimmed it further and still been perfectly comfortable. A further point of interest in relation to 50% brightness and the GSMarena tests - at 50% brightness the Samsung AMOLED screens are around 20% brighter than the iPhone, so their comparison isn't exactly direct in real terms as far as brightness goes - at an equivalent actual brightness the difference will still favour the iPhone, only not by so great a margin.
I'm sure a few other points of difference in method played a their part in our respective results, the main one worth mentioning being the difference in how the browsing was actually done. GSMarena used a script set to reload a web page, presumably the same one, every 10 seconds. We don't know what the web page was, and in particular how white the page is. I actually browsed on mine until the test completed. I'd hazard a guess my method reflects real use a little better than theirs, being that it is real use.
|The Note's battery life is going to|
make it hard moving to other
handsets, I think that is safe to say
Despite all of those tests, the real litmus test is how the device actually performs in day to day use. After all, the largely sane majority don't browse on their phone until the battery dies, or watch a couple of LOTR: Extended Editions back to back on their mobiles (or at least, I don't think they do?).
In terms of day-to-day use I found the Note an excellent work horse, besting every other phone I've used in the last couple of years.
My 'typical use' looks like this:
- Phone off charger at around 6:30am, give or take
- Catch up with Twitter/emails/RSS feeds in bed with Screen Filter on for half an hour or so
- After that Screen Filter is turned off, and I manually adjust the brightness to match conditions, aiming for the lowest brightness possible without handicapping usability at all (handy hint: in the Note, like the SGSII and original Galaxy S before that, brightness can be quickly adjusted by long-pressing in the notifications area and sliding your finger from left to right, providing you have turned of automatic brightness in Settings)
- Gmail on push at all times
- Twitter set to update at 10 minute intervals for two accounts
- RSS reader updating every 30 minutes, downloads article stubs and a preview thumbnail
- Facebook, weather, parcels tracking set to update hourly
- ~10 texts
- ~15 minutes of calls
- Half a dozen photos
- ...and after that it starts to get extremely variable, but includes some mix comprised of 30-60 minutes of browsing, 30-120 minutes of music, 30-120 minutes of gaming or video, 10-20 minutes GPS, and probably another 30 minutes or so using a variety of apps (not terribly specific, I know, but you can see that it's heavy use)
- The phone retires to charge every night regardless of how much charge it has left in it, usually between 11pm and 2am
With that use I'm having no issue making it through the day. On the heaviest days I still get down to the dregs before it goes back on the charger, but by that time I've had at least 16 hours on battery with 4 hours screen-on time. More moderate users should easily see two days use, and some will no doubt push toward three days between charges (to those users: do you really even need a smartphone at that point?).
Before moving on from the battery I will just add that on one day I tethered my laptop to the Note via WiFi for a heavy browsing session lasting 6.5 hours. Between that, a couple of hours standby and an hour of screen-on time, I'd consumed 80% of the battery. That's a pretty stellar result, so if tethering is something you do a lot of, the capacious 2500mA battery on offer in the Note is something to really consider.
Bugs and stability
|I'd expect the release of the Galaxy Nexus|
to result in these apps getting fixed fairly
I have had the occasional issue arise with third party software - mostly in relation to apps incorrectly scaling to the Note's 1280x800 resolution screen. Most of the apps in question have been minor players - SMS Backup and CallTrack being two that spring to mind, and once you've set these two up they just run in the background in any case. The only major apps that had any issues were Smartbench, and Swiftkey Tablet, which clipped the bottom of text in the word prediction row, but these have since updated to resolve issues. With the Galaxy Nexus in the wild now and an increasing number of HD Androids incoming I expect these scaling issues, which are even now sporadic at worst, to get sorted reasonably quickly.
Addendums, apologies, errors and corrections
It's a good thing I've never claimed to be perfect, it makes eating humble pie that much easier. This section of the review adds some thoughts to earlier segments of the review based on further experience, and covers omissions and so forth.
Firstly, there is some good stuff to add. For one thing I've managed to test the Note with USB keyboards and Mice and found that they work with a USB OTG cable. You really need to try out the prospective models you might be thinking of purchasing however, as many didn't work too. I've had confirmation from another owner that the Logitech peripherals which use their 'unifying' wireless receiver also work with the Note (I have not yet confirmed these work for myself). These offer a number of advantages: there are numerous different models, and the receiver likely uses less power than a USB keyboard or mouse would and removes the need for an externally powered hub making set up much more simple.
In other good news there have been some software updates. One of these is a small 15MB OTA update, I applied this one a couple of days ago and have thusfar found that scrolling/third party launchers are a lot smoother with the update (this update doesn't remove CWM or Root either, I've yet to find a downside that should prevent anyone from going ahead with the update). The other update, which I've yet to apply is an update to 2.3.6 - apparently this one gives further performance updates and increases battery life. I know at least one person has lost Root and CWM doing this update, so make sure the 2.3.6 ROM you update to has a corresponding CFRoot kernel available so you can redo the Root procedure.
Having had a second Note arrive also let me compare their build qualities. Salient differences I noted were the tactile feedback on the home key was worse on one than the other, and furthermore the one with the less convincing home key also had a problem with the bendy rear-casing in that it didn't quite fit flush with the device at the top edge. I haven't seen others complain of these things, so perhaps these are extremely sporadic/one-offs/too small a thing for non-reviewing users to notice, but this sort of thing always make me think you should at least open the device and give it a once over before leaving the store.
[To the person who brought my second Note - I kept the one with the problems!]
So, here we are at last. The end. That moment where you demand I summarise more than ten thousand words into a few measly bullet points. I'd balk at that, if it weren't for the overriding imperitive to "give the people what they want!", but since that's how life is here are your tidy sound bites:
- The best screen available in a mobile (the Galaxy Nexus will be landing with us shortly, so we may very soon be eating our words here, but for the moment this is true)
- Best in class GPS. Other GLONASS capable phones like the iPhone 4S and Motorola Razr might match the performance, but nothing else can match the performance in concert with that screen.
- Best in class video playback. Again, a scant few handsets can match the performance here, the Galaxy S II being the only one that really springs to mind. Once again that screen takes the Note over the top.
- Best in class mobile browsing. Here the performance is actually exceeded by the Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S, but the overall experience taking into account screen size, and more particularly screen resolution, takes the Note to the top of class.
- Excellent battery life. Sure, browsing will exact a pretty heavy toll, but looking overall at all use the Note will disappoint few.
- Root access is easily acquired, as we've come to expect from Samsung (we've got a guide here if you're sitting there wondering how to Root your Note!)
- The S-Pen. Sure, it's benefits will be pretty marginal to the majority, but to those who could use this functionality it's immense. People with a penchant for sketching on the go, for example graphics design types, or people who need handwriting recognition (clue for Western readers: styli are still quite relevant throughout broad swathes of the world, for example Asia), will really appreciate the S-Pen.
- The size of the device. It is simply too big for many. For all it's charms, the Note won't ever be anything more than a niche device.
- The possibility that the Note, as a niche device, won't get the developer love it deserves. This could well be upgraded to "ugly" status should this start to become apparent.
- While the build quality is just fine, the build materials underwhelm again.
- No hot-swap for either SIM or external memory cards.
- Audiophiles may well find they still need a standalone music player.
- The speaker is on the quiet side.
- Some of the stock software leaves a bit to be desired. If Android were as closed as some other OS environs this would warrant the ignominy of a slot in the "ugly" category, but there aren't really any deficiencies in stock software that can't be addressed with third party options.
- Something might come to me later, but for now I'm struggling to think of anything that deserves to find itself here. No doubt the size of the device would qualify for some.
Who should buy the Galaxy Note:
- Almost everyone who can handle the size of the device and is in the Market for an Android smartphone (the only people who fit this criterion who should consider something else at this time are those who want ICS NOW, and should therefore get the Galaxy Nexus)
- People who would rather have a smaller device, but can adapt to the size and for whom any of the following functions are absolutely paramount: video playback, browsing, or GPS functionality
Who should stay away:
- Most people. I realise that's going to sound incongruous given all the good things I've had to say about the Note, but the stark reality is that this handset will be too large for most people
- If you're not sure if this applies to you then your only recourse is to get some hands-on time with the Note, all the pocketability videos in the world can't replace having had the Note in your own hands
- Audiophiles who must use their handset for music also (there is a bit of a paradox there though, since genuine audiophiles are likely to require a dedicated device, and eschew using a cellphone as their on-the-go music player).
...and there it is, the Galaxy Note review is at an end.
Now I can relax for a day or so, before starting this all over again with the Galaxy Nexus.
We're going to have something of an interesting review format for the Nexus, since I'll actually be reviewing that handset at the Clove Blog, while AndroidNZ Associate Editor in Chief Nick "Lokhor" Monrad will be handling review duties here. With the Nexus only a few days away from us, more details will be coming very soon about the how that will unfold. Keep it locked here, and there, for some of the best Galaxy Nexus review coverage to be found on on the net.