Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note Review

Very few smartphones deserve the attribution “courageous.” The Samsung Galaxy Note unequivocally does. It is courageous because it is a valiant attempt at breaking down the smartphone-computing device-tablet conundrum that so many of us have faced over the last year or so.

It may appear that Samsung has taken a risky gamble by launching a product that looks like an over engineered Franken-phone, when compared to the general trend of producing sleeker, thinner, petite mobile phones. But, their gamble has paid off handsomely. The Note will go down in history as odd and polarizing, but successful at the same time. Because it was the first to deal forthrightly with a widely abused word of our times - convergence, by trying to bridge the gap between a phone and tablet. If you want to skip the design and features aspect, you can head right to the performance section of the review by clicking here, or to the verdict here.

Form Factor and Design
Don't let first appearances fool you. While the Galaxy Note is no doubt large and looks huge; when placed next to the slimmer Galaxy S II, but it is most certainly not ungainly. There is clearly no evolutionary theme evident in the jump from the sleeker Galaxy S II to the bulkier Galaxy Note, except that Samsung took a more mature and practical approach while conceptualizing the Note. The phone is about 9.7mm thick, and weighs around 178g. It’s not a thick phone, but it is definitely on the heavier side. Coming from the Galaxy S II, which weighs an anorexic 116g, the Note’s near-200grams (including the Flip Cover) is noticeably heavy.

Not too thick, considering its large size
Not too thick, considering its large size

You will notice its heft the most when you’re on longer calls. I have consciously tried using the phone with the Bose Bluetooth Headset Series 2 as much as I can, and I suggest you get a good Bluetooth headset to negate its weight and size issues. Even with its large size, Samsung has done well by keeping the device relatively slim and conveniently portable. It’ll slip right into your pocket without making it uncomfortable for you to go about your regular day. 

The rounded gun-metal borders make holding and gripping easy, and using gun-metal on the borders makes sense, because those areas will be the most frequent hand contact points. The gun-metal paint on the plastic stylus pen is already eroding; thankfully, this won’t be the case with the rest of the body.
Massive 5.3-inch display on the Note
Massive 5.3-inch display on the Note

Because such a large portion of the phone is the screen, and the protective glass that covers it, the front of the phone looks typically like an overgrown iPhone, except the minor differences in the home button shape and size. The standard back cover is a flimsy paper-thin piece of plastic, which leaves the protective glass over the camera lens jutting out, it will get scratched the very first time you place it flat on its back. But if you install the Samsung supplied Flip Cover, then it gives the Note a professional look and a sturdier, thicker back that has a recess area for the camera. 
The cover peeling off after a few weeks of use
The cover peeling off after a few weeks of use

The Flip Cover serves no real purpose, other than to provide the 5.3-inch display with a little more protection, and also cleans it with its inside felt finish. The quality of the Flip Cover though leaves a lot to be desired, and within a few days of use you will see it fray along the edges, with the rubberized coating coming off. In about 30-days of active use, the inside of the Flip cover is completely peeling off, making the Note look shabby. As is expected, there is already a flourishing accessory market for the Galaxy Note, and you should have no problem procuring better protection and cases. The Galaxy Note is designed with a two-handed approach, try using it with one hand and you'll struggle to do basic things. Making calls in a hurry with one hand is a curse-inducing task. You could try using Samsung's Voice Talk, but it never worked for us with the Galaxy S II and it wasn't a great experience with the Note as well, so it's best avoided. 

A bundled stylus that enables you to scribble
A bundled stylus that enables you to scribble...take notes

Now for some irritating nits, although most of them are minor, they can frustrate you if you don’t adjust around them. The placement of the volume and power buttons, as many have already pointed out is a major pain point. You will keep hitting the volume buttons with your index finger when you press the power button with your thumb. Moving them just a couple of centimeters off each other would’ve solved this. The buttons themselves are too narrow, not raised enough. The feedback from these buttons is weak, and what’s worse is that the time-gap between power-off and lock-screen is probably just a fraction of a second or more. So, if you keep it pressed for just a tiny bit longer, it will pop-up the power-off menu, instead of just locking the screen. 

I also found the main Home key a bit too thin for my liking. Because it’s thin and long, it tends to see-saw, instead of giving you a firm solid-feedback.

Features and Performance
Halfway through my first month of ownership, I was beginning to get a pretty good picture of the Galaxy Note’s strengths. The large, vibrant 5.3-inch WXGA screen and 1.4GHz of dual core goodness have clearly enhanced its usability.  And a more accommodative 2500mah battery pack, makes it more open to use for extended periods of time. It is this troika of power, battery-life, and screen size that makes the Galaxy Note really leap ahead into a self-created league of its own.

Space for a ton of apps and media
Space for a ton of apps and media

The phone shows no signs of hiccups during its initial usage, but as is the nature of the Android OS, it will bloat itself up and start showing signs of impending slow-down. If you keep spring-cleaning its innards from time to time, you should do okay. There have been instances when the OS has stuck itself into a loop: click back would take me to messaging, then back again to messaging, and then again! A hard reset was required to get it out of this vicious loop. These and many other nonsensical Android and Samsung TouchWiz UI specific problems can and do occur from time to time. It will sometimes lag behind your clicks for no apparent reason, and sometimes start typing after you’ve nearly finished the sentence. The delay from getting a phone call and the screen lighting up is also very discernible, so is the delay when you want to disconnect the call. As a pure phone-messaging device, Samsung’s TouchWiz UI really leaves a lot to be desired.

But as a content consumption device, the device is just unstoppably fast. I have started using the Dolphin HD browser heavily, and it just rips out pages from the web. Twitter and Facebook apps work without scroll hiccups, and jumping from app to app is a pretty smooth experience. I have now become accustomed to shifting to landscape mode, whenever I want to read a web-page, the extra width gives the text enough breathing space, and while it still requires zooming into sometimes, it’s not very strenuous on the eyes.  
Linpack and Antutu benchmark scores
Linpack and Antutu benchmark scores

In terms of sheer performance, its dual-core 1.4GHz processor doesn’t disappoint. Churning out 90.341 MFLOPs in the Linpack benchmark for Android, it demolishes its competition. Higher priced products, such as the HTC Sensation XL are left trailing behind. It’s no different with the AnTuTu benchmark. The Galaxy Note scores an impressive 6320 points, as compared to the 4,500-odd points of some of the other dual-core processor-powered devices in the market. So, it’s very clear that the Galaxy Note is more than just marginally faster.

Media Playback
With regards to video playback, Samsung has been always known for infusing their devices with plenty of codecs to suit your needs. The Galaxy Note is capable of reading MP4, DivX, XviD, WMV, H.264, H.263 file formats and even supports video playback of up to 1080p, if coded correctly. Sticking to the trend with their high-end and mid-range devices, Samsung has also provisioned the Note with a 5.1 surround sound enhancement setting. Unfortunately, you’re stuck with MHL (Mobile HI-Def Link) AV connectivity, rather than HDMI, which would have been a better option in this case. The audio player also includes features like EQ presets and an eight band graphic EQ option for those who prefer manual control.
Identical to the Galaxy S2's cameraCamera
The Galaxy Note’s camera is exactly like the Galaxy S II’s camera, and its performance is similar to its slimmer sibling. For more details on the camera head on over here.

Pretty impressive for a mobile camera
Pretty impressive for a mobile camera

S-Pen, Stylus Functionality
The Galaxy Note comes equipped with what Samsung has termed the S Pen, ‘S’ meaning ‘Smart’. The stylus works seamlessly on the capacitive touchscreen and is not unlike HTC’s Flyer that also had a similar accessory. The S Pen allows you to take screenshots by clicking on the button/pressing the nib down onto the screen. The device is also loaded up with image editing applications that allow you to create new images, notes etc. with the S Pen, like you would on a piece of paper. There are plenty of apps available for the Note that are designed to optimize the use of the S Pen as well. The pen, itself is quite slim and proved to be a handy tool in some instances. The stylus does take a while to get used to, and the button the stylus body is often hard to find and press. But if you spend enough time with it, then you get used to it, and it does help in taking quick notes on presentations and documents. 

GPS Functionality
It is worth mentioning that the Galaxy Note is now on par with the iPhone 4S, in terms of its GPS capabilities and now supports GLONASS. Note from Wikipedia - GLONASS acronym for Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema or Global Navigation Satellite System, is a radio-based satellite navigation system operated for the Russian government by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. It both complements and provides an alternative to the United States' Global Positioning System (GPS) and is currently the only alternative global navigational system in operation. There are other similar navigational systems which are planned to be launched in the future, such as the Chinese Compass navigation system and the Galileo positioning system of the European Union.

GPS functionality and performance is as impressive as the iPhone 4S
GPS functionality and performance is as impressive as the iPhone 4S

GPS locks are faster and more accurate. I tested it several times on NH8 and found that even when you turn the GPS manually off and then turn it back on, after you’ve traveled quite a bit at good speeds, the system locks onto your position within only a second or two. This is pretty impressive, considering that on dedicated GPS devices locking on to satellites does take a little extra time.Battery Life
The phone will last you an average of about 14 hours of regular use. Our average usage pattern has been roughly an hour or a little more of real call time, while the remaining 9-odd hours of intense computing: e-mail, office productivity, Twitter, Facebook, web browsing, audio-video, and an occasional game. Internet connectivity was always on (either 3G or WiFi, depending on what was available).

Our continuous video-loop test lasted for 9 hours and 15 minutes, which is quite a record. So, the device does have enough battery life to keep you entertained and working for a good working-day. However, there are some issues: despite going into a deep sleep mode, the phone still discharges battery at a steady rate. So if you were at 20 percent charge just before you went to sleep, then phone won’t last till it’s time to ring your morning alarm. It just cannot make the last 10 percent last for even 4-hours in a deep sleep mode. The drain from 30 percent charge to 1 percent can happen in as little as 6-hours, with absolutely no active screen use. Considering the fact that the phone has so much processing power at its disposal, it's worth considering underclocking the phone to 50MHz just before you go to sleep, this kind of active profile and processor management may actually take this phone through a full 24-hour cycle without a recharge.

But once on a full charge, which takes a good two hours or so, the phone will pull along for 14-hours easily, and for now we'll happily take that everyday. 

Do yourself a favour and go get the Galaxy Note. It’s a powerful tablet, that’s very thinly disguised as a smartphone. You will invariably spend 80 percent of your time doing things on it that you’d otherwise be doing on a tablet or a computer even. And just consider that it can make and receive calls as an added bonus. Samsung TouchWiz’s calling and general telecommunication functionality leaves a lot to be desired, and isn’t yet anywhere near HTC’s Sense UI, but it’s adequate and there are tweaks and apps available to give you your desired phone or messaging launcher. 
Best of both worlds - tablet and phone
Best of both worlds - tablet and phone

Then, after all that, there's the simple fact that the Galaxy Note won’t give up the ghost easily, its 2500mAh battery ensures that it will keep going for at least a full working day. You can go about using it as a phone-only without looking like a goof, and still have enough left to read a book, watch a movie, play a game, and browse to your heart’s content. 

It is also the fastest around, and it will never stumble or stutter as you move happily between writing an e-mail, watching an episode of Dexter and snapping a quick photograph. All of these taken together are the best arguments possible for having only one device to do it all. This is for real, and not some make believe futuristic device. 

Oh! And lest we forget: as we’ve noted so many times before, great devices rarely ever come cheap, so relatively speaking - and especially when there are phones and tablets that retail for upwards of Rs 40,000! —the Galaxy Note is also a great bargain. 

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