Samsung Galaxy Note Review (Part Two)

Daniel Bader

February 24, 2012 8:20 pm


In Part One of our Samsung Galaxy Note review, we looked extensively at the formidable hardware inside the 5.3-inch HD device, and how it translates to real-world usage. A lot of you said that it was far too big, others that it was definitely going to be your next smartphone.

Unlike Apple, which brings out one model per year, Samsung’s advantage is its choice. There is a congruity to all the designs, a practiced “Galaxy” discipline, but ultimately there is choice for every carrier, and most size, price and speed preferences.

As Samsung’s largest and most expensive handset, it is going to be divisive. But there is more to the Note than just the hardware: its TouchWIZ software has been altered to support the S Pen, and its wider, spacious form factor. Let’s take a run through the most important interface augmentations, and then tally up the results to see if the Note should be your next smartphone.

Dispelling Rumours

A couple things to get out of the way first. Unlike what’s noted on Bell’s website, the Note comes with 1GB of RAM. In truth, only around 770MB is accessible to the user, but this it is still considerably more than the 512MB that was initially rumoured.

The other rumour that’s going around is that the Note is “useless,” cumbersome and difficult to use as a telephone. To this I say, why are you even considering purchasing the Note if you want a smaller device? Samsung is marketing the Note as a crossover phone/tablet hybrid and will gladly take your money for a Galaxy S II, a Galaxy Nexus or a Galaxy Tab. The Note, with its inductive Wacom-powered S Pen, can be used solely as an oversized phone, or as a micro tablet. The Note is anything but useless or cumbersome — if you’ve ever used an iPad or even a Playbook, the Note will feel right in your hands — but it will take you eliminating your prejudices as to what qualifies as a “phone.” An iPhone this is not.

The S Pen

The bottom of the Note is home to an inductive stylus called the S Pen. We all know about it now, so let’s cut straight to the point. Does it add anything profoundly valuable to the enormous Note? Yes and no. It all depends on what type of user you are.

If you’re the type of user I like to call the “brainwave” — the one constantly doodling in his or her notebook, recalling daily affirmations, little scribbles or brief notes in Evernote, Springpad — the S Pen is a wonderful, versatile tool. By holding down the single button and touching the screen, you activate pre-defined functions. Press down on the screen (with the button held) and you will take a screenshot on which you can annotate using various pen sizes, brushes, colours and consistencies. Unlike capacitive stylii, the S Pen is pressure-sensitive, making it considerably easier to alter the thickness of a single pen stroke. I say easier and not easy because there is still a precious delay between your brain, your hand and the results on screen. You must constantly be aware of this, and compensate accordingly. As such, it’s difficult to find the effortless motion needed to put “brainwave” thoughts to digital paper.

Double-tap anywhere on the screen (with the button held) and a small box opens atop your current app, regardless of what you’re doing. This is S Memo Lite, and is merely a sketchpad used to scratch down a quick thought, or jot a reminder. It seems useful until you realize you can’t use this method to re-open an existing Lite note; you must enter S Memo proper, wherein your chicken scratch is saved.

S Memo is the equivalent of what Evernote became on HTC’s Flyer, though not quite as thorough. You can type, draw, paint, sketch and jot, with multiple pens, brushes and fonts. In a way this is the centrepiece of S Pen interaction, and as such is a little disappointing. Other than the core “memo” functionality, the S Pen is not used for much but sketching and annotation, in which it falls slightly short based on the noticeable and frustrating delay between pen and “paper.” Nevertheless, if you are accustomed to using a Wacom tablet to sketch or take notes, the S Pen has the potential to be useful. For me, I’d imagine only taking it out of the holster to show off.

You can use the S Pen to write prose, though the conversion software is appallingly inaccurate, and I’d imagine anyone accustomed to typing on a virtual keyboard will craft sentences much faster than writing out, and subsequently correcting, written sentences.

Last year, Samsung released a SDK for the S Pen in hopes that app developers would add support to their existing apps, or create new ones around its functionality. One such app is the excellent ezPDF Reader, available for $2.99. I found using the S Pen to annotate PDFs not only enjoyable, but more responsive than in Samsung’s own S Memo app, and goes to show that the technology is there, it’s just waiting for great apps to be build around it.

TouchWIZ 4 and the Curse of Gingerbread

The Galaxy Note will get Ice Cream Sandwich, but will is not good enough for me after three months of using the Galaxy Nexus. For a full overview of Samsung’s custom Android skin, check out our original Galaxy S II review, but suffice it to say, there is no learning arc here.

With seven home screens, each consisting of a 5×4 square grid, you have a lot more room for widgets, icons and folders. The app drawer, too, is a little bit more spacious but operates the same way as its predecessors: a horizontal grid of icons that can be rearranged by using the Edit feature. You can add extra pages and create folders, though the methods to do so are not nearly as intuitive as Google’s own folder creation in Android 4.0.

Samsung has altered its email and calendar apps to suit the extra wide real estate of the Note. In landscape mode, both apps open up a side panel; Email allows you scroll vertically through your correspondances; Calendar uses an optional tab profile to select different views. Samsung has implemented a two-finger gesture in the Calendar app to show and hide these tabs.

The Samsung browser is still heads and tails better than any other Android manufacturer’s, with buttery smooth hardware acceleration, independent brightness settings and unbelievably fast speeds over LTE. There were times I yearned for the more versatile tabs layout of Chrome for Android, but I still found the Note by far the most enjoyable mobile browsing experience I’ve ever had.

Overall performance throughout the UI is smooth, but not noticeably more so than previous Galaxy S II iterations. What I missed more than anything, going from the Galaxy Nexus to the Note, were Google’s first-party apps. Gmail, YouTube, Google Talk, Gallery are all untouched from Gingerbread’s original versions, and they feel not only clunky but slow. And while Samsung did its best to update most-used apps like Email, Calendar and Camera, they too pale in comparison to Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich versions. More than anything, I missed the swipe-to-clear feature from stock ICS’ notification bar, and the excellent battery and bandwidth usage sections in Settings. While I have no doubt Android 4.0 will arrive sometime this year for the Galaxy Note, it is not soon enough.

Voice Actions

While Vlingo is no Siri, its implementation on the latest Samsung devices is the best on the Android platform. The app cannot be activated automatically by double-tapping the home button like it could on the Galaxy S II, but once inside the Voice Talk app it listens for a custom voice memo such as “Hey Galaxy” (which is the default) or one of your choosing.

The app engine lacks the semantic comprehension abilities of Siri, but for pre-determined messages such as “Navigate to,” “Check schedule,” or “Play artist Radiohead,” it works surprisingly well. The app has large buttons for quick access to certain features, as well as a Driving Mode which will read notifications and incoming caller names over the loudspeaker or Bluetooth. To that end, Vlingo can be automatically activated whenever a Bluetooth headset is connected to the device but it needs to be combined with an OS-wide system like Motorola’s Smart Actions to be taken full advantage of.

Media Consumption and Gaming

The Galaxy Note uses a dual-core Snapdragon S3 processor clocked at 1.5Ghz, with an Adreno 220 GPU. As we went over in Part One, while performance is good, it’s nowhere near as capable as the Exynos processor inside the international Note, and this is no more evident than when watching media.

For the most part, the Note is a fantastic media consumption device. Anything from Netflix to Bell’s Mobile TV look and sound gorgeous, but load up anything more CPU-intensive than a low-bitrate 720p video and the device can’t keep up.

In games like Riptide GP and Sleepy Jack, both of which are GPU-intensive games, the Note maintained fairly smooth frame rates, but sputtered every once in a while — too often in my eyes. It’s unlikely the Note will let you down in the performance department — as a reviewer, I am extremely sensitive to performance deltas between devices — but as all three major carriers’ most expensive device, the Note should be its best performer.

The Business Model

An aspect of the Note I haven’t touched on is for business. Samsung would be remiss in failing to seize an opportunity to cater the Note to the business crowd. They have outfitted the device with several focused accessories, like a leather folio case, aimed at upping the class quotient on your inside-blazer companion. More than that, though, the Note really has the potential to improve quick note-taking in meetings, or for developers, consultants, architects and planners (to name a random few) whose livelihoods rely on the old notepad and pen combo. As I said earlier, the S Pen can’t quite emulate the storied and reliable fluidity of a good gel tip, but the Note is a far more versatile machine.

The Galaxy Note also boasts extensive VPN and certificate support for business users, as well as the customary Samsung ability to set a remote administrator. Even better, though, is a security feature that can alert you when a SIM card has been changed, and if so, send a message to a particular recipient. You can track, and remotely wipe, the device if stolen through the Samsung Account hub.

Bell Mobile TV

We had a chance to play with a pre-release version of the upcoming Bell Mobile TV app, and it’s a huge improvement over the original. No longer called TV&Radio, Mobile TV incorporates the same fullscreen viewing techniques as Android’s YouTube app. When you enter the app, your previously-viewed channel will begin playing in the top third of the screen; turn the device to landscape orientation and it becomes fullscreen. Though the Note doesn’t have a built-in stand, paired with a good case the device becomes a substantially more useful portable television than any smartphone before it.

Bell is heavily pushing its Mobile TV offering by incorporating 5 hours of free programming into many of its new voice & data plans, and for good reason. The quality over LTE is excellent, and the choice of content has expanded since we last looked at the app. CTV, CTV2, BNN, CBC News, YTV, MTV, TSN, TSN2, NFL-N, NHL Mobile TV, HBO, Comedy Time, bpm:tv and more are available, though certain packages are an extra $5/5 hours, which can quickly add up if you’re not careful. For example, HBO’s package is $5/5 hours for on-demand True Blood, Sex and the City, Entourage and The Sopranos.

The app has been fleshed out to include custom alerts for your favourite shows, a handy TV guide based on what’s available, and a Sirius satellite radio feature. If you’ve given up your home television, or do a lot of above-ground traveling, Mobile TV is a great investment. The one feature it’s missing, though, is offline playback, which will make it less attractive to frequent subway or plane commuters. Let’s hope Bell sees fit to add offline playback in a future version.

Conclusions

The Galaxy Note is a huge, confounding smartphone. To dismiss it would be foolish, but to use it as an example of a new era in mobile computing would be equally so. The S Pen is a new twist on a very old technology, and though its implementation is the best yet seen on a mobile device, its limited usefulness is evident whenever you open up an incompatible app. While a small segment of the market is going to love the S Pen, it is the massive device itself that is most intriguing.

Throughout writing this review, dozens of people have got in touch with me to tell me how much they love their Note. As divisive as its size may be, there are those who are always going to say, “bigger is better,” and the remarkable 1280×800 pixel screen begs to be used to its fullest extent. It’s also never failed to garner plenty of attention when I take it out with me; at parties or bars or sitting in Starbucks people have asked me, “is that the new Samsung Note? The one with the huge screen?” They pick it up, say, “Wow, this it’s lighter than I thought,” or “That screen is gorgeous!” But just as many scoff, comparing it derisively to their half-sized iPhone or Galaxy S II.

Truthfully, at first that person was me — who needs a device this big, I asked myself — but the more I grew accustomed to its size, and its sheer potential as a crossover device, the more it appealed to me. We’ve been told that when the Note gets Android 4.0 some time this year, a large portion of  its untapped potential will be unlocked, and we’re anxiously awaiting that time.

Until then, it’s no secret that the Note is one of the most expensive devices on the market. Its purchase is not something I would go into blind; seek out a store with a working demo, feel its weight and size in your hand, and come to terms with potentially using one for the next couple of years.

The Samsung Galaxy Note is available from Bell, Telus and Rogers for $199.99 on a 3-year term and between $699 and $779 outright.

 

  • iTards

    I only wish that it worked on Wind..

    • Canadaboy

      There is a very simple hack on XDA that repalces one (1) file – the software for the modem, which makes it run fine on Wind.

  • MrMarvelous

    Still too much for me. You’re right… there is no competition 2 ice cream sandwich. Galaxy Nexus ftw!

  • trevor

    Would love that instead of my bold anyday!!

  • Phatmisiek

    Have mine for a week now – could not be happier. Moving up from iPhone I was worried a bit, but I would not change this phone now. It is beg, but then so am I, it feels great in my hands and performs like a charm. Beside the ISC it lacks decent music software – I miss the ease of moving and syncing my music and podcasts between iTunes and iPhone.

  • SAM

    OH THE NOTE!!!
    GET THE NOTE!!!
    YOU GOT THE NOTE!!!
    SAMMIE YOU GOT US AGAIN FOREVER!!!
    OH YOU DID SO GOOD SAMMIE!!

  • Donovan

    Definitely getting this.

    • c4rrie

      i just ordered it like an hour ago im excited !

  • bell rep

    he said that the battery is what allows for NFC it is actually part of the battery cover not part of the battery on this model. on the nexus it is the battery though, so third party batteries are alright if you dont have to change the cover

  • Rick

    I love my Galaxy Note LTE and would not trade it for anything else but did notice a very little lag on a few occasion compared to my old Int.Galaxy Note (in which case had bad reception inside of buildings and slow download speed with Rogers). My new Galaxy Note LTE is with Bell and I am getting such fast speed on and off the LTE and great reception inside buildings.

  • TeamG

    Just sold my Galaxy Nexus and picked up the Note. Its a beast in specs and if you are into digital art drawing with the S Pen on this is MUCH better then a Capasitive Stylus with a Tablet (Sorry Asus). Get it. Battery lasts like 2 days! I am running it on Rogers LTE 4g and its blazing fast. Don’t worry about latest software, I used to think like that as well but you know what? If you want ICS go get it off XDA, DONE. Good job Samsung this thing is sick! I’m going to go play some N64 on my Note, thats big beautiful screen is perfect.

  • Mark

    “The Galaxy Note will get Ice Cream Sandwich, but will is not good enough for me after three months of using the Galaxy Nexus.”

    Love this line! After you’ve gotten used to caviar it is hard to go back to eating stale bread. The Note looks great though. This might forever mark the end of the clear line between phone and tablet.

  • Bruce

    I have had the note for over a week now and I love it. It is not too big and the battery lasts all day long. It is so much nicer than any other phone I looked at.

  • Doug Page

    What great informative review!!! Good Job Daniel for go to such a in depth level for this phablet…Would love to see a ICS preview on the phone before I purchase it….No more 3 year deals for me!!

  • wewewi

    Too bad Bell doesnt sell the international version like the GS2!

  • Chris C.

    The same overall score as the simplified review at IGN! How can this be!

  • Daniel

    Good long review, i felt you were pretty hard on the Nexus when you did the review but i guess it does have higher standards to run on being a Google Flagship.

    As for this phone, i’ve personally played with one for hours and days straight as i’m one of the caricature artists for the Note event in Vancouver.
    the Snapdragon is very evident i think, coming from my GNex to the Note i can feel it’s laggy and much slower, not a ton but enough to notice, it’s a bit larger and i do have big hands, i wouldn’t trade or buy it though…either wait for the SIII or get a Nexus if someone wants something now, otherwise the price and lower specs aren’t worth it in the long run ( of course unless you don’t care for specs or speed too much )
    Also not a fan of how wonky the back cover is, you need to really snap it on otherwise the corners pop up near the S-Pen.

  • phil

    Doesn’t anyone proofread these articles? Many typos and grammatical errors make it almost unreadable.

  • Canuckle215

    Draw me for the Note giveaway! I would love to have one and it sounds like at least one or two of the ICS releases on XDA are working pretty good.

    Otherwise, if Sasktel doesn’t get this by the end of next month, I’m either going with a nexus, OR waiting to hear if/what the SGSIII is going to pack.

  • lee

    Sounds like the reviewer may have a defective unit but every other review I’ve seen on the lte versions of the note including my testing show the note can play high bitrate 1080p videos of all formats with ease. I’ve tested with dice player and am able to play a 10gb high bitrate 1080p mkv over wifi with no skipped frames. Truly impressed.

  • Nick

    Great review Daniel.
    I love when you do long video reviews like this. Gives a much better idea of how the phone performs.
    I agree that the Snapdragon seems to slow this thing down, kind of like the SGS2 X

  • Herman

    personally I love the SG Note, I got it the first day it was released and have been playing 3-4 hrs every night and can’t get enough of it. It is a great unit in every aspect. I have had a new phone every year, from 3G to 4s, SG S2 LTE, none can compare with this beast. At first, I found it big but after a few day of playing with it, it is not big at all. All my friends are either going to get one or jealous from his current smart phone which they will have to stick with it for a while.

    I guarantee you that you will not regret getting the note, it is one of a kind.

    FYI. I had mine unlocked for $7.99. It is an international version now.

    Try it for yourself before you make negative comments

    Herman

    • J

      I’m not sure if you understand what is meant by “international version.”
      If you have the North American version of the phone, it has a Qualcomm processor that has support for LTE. The international version has an Exynos processor that does not support LTE.

  • Owen

    Great review Daniel. I have had the international version of the Note for about 4 weeks now. It is the best smartphone I have ever owned. I could not help but think in the ratings that some scores would be rated higher on the international version… Processor speed and battery life. While value and network speed might be down rated, for me these trade offs leave me pretty happy with the version that I have.

  • Vince

    Nice review.

    Just a tip the Rogers version of the Note seems to works on Fido out of the box, too.

    I love it, yes first impression is its big, then your iPhone looks very small.

    Screen is great, although Id still prefer a IPS screen with faster refresh and better low light performance. But with the brightness turned up a notch the Notes screen is fine.

    If use use your smartphone for data more than voice calls this device is perfect.

    Camera is similar quality as the iphone 4s, with the addition of more manual adjustments.
    A key one is recording at 720p or lower to save card space.
    One negative is when you use the gallery app to gmail a picture no option to resize it is given.
    Even the included photo editor does not have a resize option.

    The S pen as mentioned in the review has some lag that makes using it less than perfect.

    The key reason to get a Note is the screen size,
    that with androids text reflow makes it the best pocket web reading device I’ve used.

  • roy

    I recently signed a contract and never waited thinking the note was to big. Played with my friends….that was the biggest mistake ever. I so want one so bad! So sweeeeet!

  • steveblue

    Remember you can buy the international version outright – it is faster ( better cpu but no lte – I stick with wifi anyway), it has a home button, it is unlocked and yours and it has a tremendous dev community with ICS roms ready to go. Do not buy from or support carriers – they are all evil. Buy it yourself and move it to the lowest plan whenever you want – then sell it used for a new model. You will save money.

  • whocares

    djino

    -djino

  • Nexus

    Nice review however we know you don’t like it and yes we know it is a big phone. It bugs me when reviewers don’t give a unbiased review and throw in such negative emphasis. You may think the phone is too big however many others will not. I have had dozens of phones in the last year and am considering getting this one as well. I currently have the Nexus prime as well as the LG 3d and love them however after having the dell streak and several tablets I find myself wanting for a bigger screen. I do a lot of media consumption and reading so this would be perfect. I wish it had the xynos processor or the tegra 3 though. It is a shame that Samsung did not build their chip with LTE in mind. The current chip set in this phone from I have seen is slower in everyday usage even if it is clocked higher then the xynos chip.

    • Daniel Bader

      @Nexus,

      I’m not sure how you could have thought the review was negative. I gave the device an 8/10 and spoke highly of many of its hardware and software features, including the screen. The size is a problem for people, period. Maybe not for you, but for a lot of others. It would be biased NOT to put that in the review.

  • MikeW

    I’m in the market for a new phone. Hopefully they let me test it at the Kiosk by putting it in my pants pocket. I’d hate to have to get a phone purse in order to avoid having two bulges in my pants.

    • expat

      I have one, and it fits in my pockets, even jeans pockets. The screen is the big plus of this phone. Big and clear!!!

  • Don

    The only thing I’m hessitant with, is the fact that Galaxy S3 is around the corner, as well as HTC One X, and I’m wondering when the Galaxy Note 2 will come out with a Quad Processor.

    I want to make my upgrade worthwhile, I’ve skipped the Nexus, now highly considering the Note.

    • Wolf

      You might never end up buying a phone that way, although I completely understand your sentiment, i’ve been there. If you like a phone now regardless what’s around the corner I’d say buy it. You can always sell your phone if you need to if the one in 3 months is what you want, and with a phone like this, the value is something that will hold by then for sure.

      I check craiglist, see what they fetch for, and then realize what do I have to lose?

  • jazzi

    I should mention. I have a usb adapter off ebay ($2) and able to read media off a flash drive without problem in various apps like mobo.

  • Scott

    Great review. I have the GT-N7000 international (unlocked) version of the Note and I’m very happy with it. I previously owned a Dell Mini 5″ phablet, loved the phone but eventually sold it because Dell did a terrible job supporting it and eventually they just gave up on it (discontinued the product). The Note is so much better than the Dell, the screen is bigger yet it fits better in my pocket because the phone is so dang THIN! It’s very light too. I have a bluetooth headset for phone calls so I don’t have to hold the thing up to my head. :-)

    I haven’t found a use for the S pen, just played with it a couple of times. I always get at least 1 day battery life, sometimes 2 days on light usage. Can’t wait for ICS!

  • expat

    I just bought one last week for the GF. I needed a smart phone for her, so she can have Skype on the go. I am playing with it now, and even thinking of buying a second one for myself, although I don’t need another phone. It is the international version, which is OK, as LTE is just starting here.
    I found the map display and GPS very accurate, which will make a good navigator.
    I found it is not so big, to use as a phone, and an ear piece is not required.
    The S pen is also useless for my use.
    The keuboard is big enough, and I use it in 3 languages, so it is important for me.
    The price here is 700 USD, without any taxes.

  • Bob

    I want one……………but with Virgin Mobile

  • Jenn

    Why would people complain about the size? It is a phone cross over. Or as they are calling it now, a phablet. It is supposed to be bigger people. Some people just have nothing better to do then complain. If you don’t like the size, try carrying your Ipad around in your pocket and making phone calls from it.

  • Don

    I’ve had the Note for a week and am going to return it for a smaller phone. Previous phone was a BB Storm. The Note is physically painful to use. Portrait typing requires inordinate stretching of the thumbs. Landscape keyboard isn’t quite big enough for multi finger touch typing, so thumb typing is still reqd. The BB (and smaller droids) can be cradled comfortably in my palm, but the Note has to be held by its outside edges to prevent dropping it, so requires stretching of fingers to accomplish this. It gets uncomfortable very quickly. Does anyone else have these types of problems?

    • Andrew Goldenberg

      Try using Thumb Keyboard. It’s free from the app store and solves that issue.

      I prefer swype personally.

  • mamaboo

    the size just feels right to me after using a captivate. i have had the good fortune to win a galaxy note from samsung, and i am thrilled. it has been on my wish list since i first layed eyes on it — for many reasons. the s-pen should be great for me, i am an artist and i already use a wacompen and tablet, the switch to a portable anroid is much desired.

  • Annie Lachance

    I want one!

  • B

    Nice phone