Friday, January 6, 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note


It is an unwritten rule of sorts that if a device has a display below 5-inches it is considered a smartphone and if the display size crosses the 7-inch mark, it is a tablet. Lately, however, an increasing number of smartphones displays in excess of 4-inches have blurred the line between tablets and phones. Some companies have started to stray into the uncharted territory between 5-inches and 7-inches.

Dell was the first to test the waters with Streak, the first device to come armed with a 5-inch display. Then came Acer with the Iconia Smart. However, neither of these were well received by either customers or reviewers. But, undeterred, Samsung has also been thinking along the same lines. The world's best selling Android brand clearly felt this was an area they own and they came up with the Galaxy Note. It looks like the lovechild of the Galaxy S II and the Galaxy Tab, and it packs in some awesome firepower. Lets see if the Note has some noteworthy chops to make the market warm up to this new hybrid concept.

Design
At 9.65mm, the Galaxy Note is the thinnest device in the hybrid category and we dare say it is thinner than most smartphones on the market. It also weighs only 178 grams making the Galaxy Note a very pocket friendly device. This, however, does not necessarily make the Note a small device in itself. In fact, quite the opposite. Its gargantuan 5.3-inch display takes center stage and we had trouble with the phone or tablet struggle. Obviously, the device borrows its heritage from fellow Samsung products like the Galaxy S2 and the Galaxy Tab, but after handling it for a few minutes it became quite clear the Galaxy Note was basically a slightly plusher and much larger version of the Galaxy S2. Make no mistake, if you use this device to make calls in public places people will stare at you for all the wrong reasons.
As usual, Samsung has employed capacitive Android controls right below the display and have also incorporated the front facing 2 megapixel camera on the top of the display alongside the proximity and ambient light sensors.

Samsung has made subtle changes to the design of the Note from the Galaxy S2, where the sides are now tapered with a chrome like metallic material instead of the black one employed on the Galaxy S2. It's an acquired taste - some will like the new design, some will not. We will not desist from passing judgment on the change itself but we will say that it looks a wee bit less fragile than the Galaxy S2. That's a good thing, but still not very reassuring. As with the Galaxy S2, the standard power button is placed on the top right hand side, the volume rockers are placed on the left hand side of the device and the 3.5 mm audio jack is placed on the top. On the bottom end of the device Samsung has placed the microUSB/charging slot and, next to it, a silo for the 'S-Pen' which is a digital pen and a special feature of the Note.
Apart from this, the 8-megapixel camera is housed in the rear end of the device along side the flash. For the back cover Samsung employed a similar super slim plastic as it did with the Galaxy S2, but this time around it is tad a softer to touch.
Another thing we could not help noticing is an ever so slight contour on the back which makes the device ergonomically sound.

On the whole, we can safely say the device was quite pocket friendly, though not ideal, and light years ahead of the Dell Streak and the Acer Iconia Smart both of which were bulky and would often sneak out of the confines of our pockets.

Display

When it was first shown off at IFA 2011 in Berlin, the display of the Galaxy Note created a lot of hype as it was the first device to adopt a Super AMOLED HD display with a resolution of 1280x800. In our testing we found out the hype around the display of the Galaxy Note was worth it. On the large 5.3-inch display, the Super AMOLED HD panel was a sight to behold. It was just stunning, in spite of Samsung employing the rather ungainly Pentile-Matrix technology for the sub-pixels instead of the one seen on the Super AMOLED+ display of the Galaxy S2.

Obviously, with the massive increase in resolution there was also quite a massive upgrade to the pixels per inch count with the Galaxy Note encompassing 286 pixels per inch (PPi). Compare this to the Galaxy S 2's 218 PPi, which uses an 800x480 Super AMOLED+ panel. It still does not manage the magical retina resolution of the iPhone 4S, but the super gorgeous 5.3-inch panel more than makes up for this variance, as the text looks immensely sharp, colours in photos look vivid and overall viewing angles are absolutely stunning. To put it simply, this display is the best among the Android family at least till the Galaxy Nexus arrives on Indian shores.

Playback on videos is outright gorgeous. In our opinion, the 5.3-inch form factor is ideal for video content but, of course, that comes with a massive ergonomic trade off as the device itself becomes quite large for regular usage.

One area where the Galaxy Note excels due to its large display is typing. In this BlackBerry generation thumb typing is the name of the game and often-full touch screen devices fall short due to their virtual keyboards. Refreshingly with the Galaxy Note, one does not need precise typing skills on a virtual keyboard - a probable first, though the auto correct on Samsung's keyboard is still not the best and does not come close to the iPhone's.

The true strength of the Galaxy Note's display lies in the way it displays webpages. The display shows more content thanks to the higher resolution and that too in a more beautiful way. Suffice to say, it was probably the most pleasurable web browsing experience we've had - more so than on the iPad 2 - and that too with Flash support.
What more can one ask for? Obviously naysayers will say the Galaxy Nexus will beat the Note thanks to retina PPi count, but we will cross that bridge once we have the Galaxy Nexus actually in our hands.

Camera Quality
The Galaxy Note boasts of the exact same camera sensor as the Galaxy S2. Its performance is also pretty much the same. We mean superb, of course. More advanced camera devices such as the iPhone 4S have popped up in international markets but till we test them we will reserve comparisons. The 8 megapixel camera on the Galaxy Note offers a plethora of customization options that shutter bugs are definitely going to like. These include: Self Portrait, Scene, Focus, Effects, Exposure mode, Self Timer, ISO, White Balance, Metering, Anti shake, Blink detection and Auto contrast. Clearly, Samsung wants to impress photographers.

On the whole images are very sharp and colour contrast is quiet impressive though at times, due to post processing, the colours tend to look artificial. This though is a problem with most mobile cameras. In low light conditions the camera performs admirably though some glitches do pop in due to the flash and there are a few over exposed grainy images, but for the most part it's more than satisfying. Let's just say you will not need a point and shoot after you purchase the Galaxy Note.

The Galaxy Note ably shoots 1080p full HD video at 30 frames per seconds with minimal hiccups. The performance is at par with Galaxy S2, if not a tad better.
On the whole Samsung has packed the Galaxy Note with a very strong camera package, which is easily the best among the current crop of Android devices, but things could change once the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Nexus get here.

Operating System and Interface
The Galaxy Note runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread on which Samsung has applied its ugly TouchWiz layer. Don't get us wrong, TouchWiz has become quite a useful addition over the years but beautiful is one thing it is not. As we have mentioned many times in our reviews, the iconography on Samsung handsets look like cartoonized versions of iOS icons which is one of the reasons Apple is relentlessly pursuing a patent battle against Samsung. Apart from being copies, they look horrible. But otherwise, TouchWiz is quite handy. Samsung adds its Live Tile widgets for the device and there are numerous interface enhancements, which enrich the Android experience.

There are nice touches inside the contacts and call logs where we can swipe on the name to either message or call. Other niceties include tilt zooming inside the web browser which is assisted by the accelerometer and gyroscope. However, these features are not unique to the Galaxy Note but are part of the TouchWiz user interface.

Samsung has also spruced up the Music player and Video Player apps but they do not offer anything revolutionary. They just look different from their stock Android cousins. All features seem to be the same with the MP3 player playing most of the standard formats including lossless formats such as - FLAC and also offering numerous equalization options.

The video player plays most of the standard formats - except for HD video encoded in .mkv format, unfortunately.

Preloaded Software
Apart from the standard suite of Google apps, Samsung has loaded the Galaxy Note to the teeth with a myriad of apps. Some are handy, some border on bloatware.
To start, there are a number of 'S' apps such as the S Memo, the S Planner and S Choice apps store. All these 'S' labeled apps are designed especially for the S-Pen. While most will think the S-Pen is a glorified stylus, in truth it is a full-fledged digitizer. With the S-memo app, we can draw and sketch as if on paper. We can also take screenshots and edit them with the help of the S-Pen according to our whims and fancies. It pretty much became our personal digital notepad. We can even use handwriting recognition capabilities but these are not very accurate.
The S-Pen itself has a buttons placed which activates a variety of different features, such as taking screenshots.

The S-Planner is a calendar app optimized for the S-Pen, there is nothing revolutionary about it apart from cool quotient.

The S-choice is an apps store dedicated to apps optimized for the S-Pen. Samsung has also released a Software Developer Kit (SDK) for the S-Pen, allowing developers to build apps optimized for the S-Pen. As of now, the S-Choice store only offers 10 apps but Samsung expects the number will increase over time, but we are not entirely convinced.

Although the S-Pen is not the first of its kind in a mobile device, Samsung has definitely nailed the implementation. It is way better than the haphazard pen input on the HTC Flyer where the pen cannot be utilized throughout the OS. At the end of the day, however, it's still a novelty function - at least until the handwriting recognition algorithms are nailed because, in our opinion, only a superb handwriting experience will drive forward Pen based devices.

Besides the 'S' apps, Samsung has also loaded Polaris Office, which is a very capable office suite and also doubles as a file manager. It even supports the cloud with .Boxnet integration. It's a pity that .Boxnet does not offer the 50Gb free storage to its Android clients that it offers to iOS users, otherwise this would have been a lethal combination.

As with all Samsung devices, we get the Social Hub which is Samsung's social media aggregator. It integrates Twitter, Facebook, Email and SMS feeds in one. It's not the most intuitive way or not even the most handsome way of accessing ones personal information; frankly, we would rather use the default Facebook and Twitter apps for this.

Samsung has also loaded Kies Air Wi-Fi sync functionality, which works in tandem with a Kies Air desktop app or works directly via web browser. Definitely a handy tool, but Samsung could do a lot more to unclutter the interface especially in light of the iPhone's new found wireless capabilities thanks to iOS 5.

Performance
Samsung has armed the Galaxy Note with their latest Exynos processor dual-core which now clocks 1.4 GHz, a 0.2 GHz boost from the Galaxy S2's 1.2 GHz processor. All this firepower works in concert with I GB of RAM and, needless to say, the Galaxy Note is by far the fastest Android device we have ever reviewed. This is a claim we make on the basis of daily usage rather than on the basis of synthetic benchmarks such as Quadrant where the device scored a class leading 3980, besting the Galaxy S2's score of 3212.

While the performance was stunning there is something suspicious about how Samsung's Exynos processor scores on the Quadrant benchmark as both the results of the Galaxy S2 and the Galaxy Note are almost 33% higher than phones with different dual core processors. We say this as the performance variance is not so great in real work testing. In fact, because we test such things on a daily basis, we were able to make out minute differences.

Nonetheless, the Galaxy Note has sublime firepower and this fact was further vindicated by the Linpack Pro benchmark where it scored 96.54 MFLOPS in 1.75 seconds on a multi-thread analysis. In comparison to, this the Galaxy S2 lagged behind with 47.75 MFLOPs in 1.77 seconds.

Even on the BenchmarkPi test, the Galaxy Note had the chops to take on the best as it managed to calculate Pi in just 578 milliseconds while the Galaxy S2 trailed slightly at 617 milliseconds.
As far as web browsing went, we already mention it was the best we had experienced with Flash running smoothly. But just to check we ran the Rightware Browsermark test where it scored in excess of 55456 which, again, class leading.

In terms battery performance, Galaxy Note is impressive. Samsung has packed a gargantuan 2500 mAh battery though naysayers expected the 5.3-inch Super AMOLED HD display to down Samsung's 12 hour claim. For the most part, the Galaxy Note lives upto Samsung's lofty claims as it managed a decent 10 hours which included us making our regular calls, a bit of web browsing via 3G and Wi-Fi networks, and listening to music for a couple of hours.

Call quality is pretty good, though not top notch especially in crowded areas - like Palika Bazaar in New Delhi - where the call quality dipped a few notches. In comparison, our BlackBerry Bold 9700 maintained stellar calling performance, But this situation was not disastrous like the iPhone 4's antenna gate. At the end of the day, most people will be quite satisfied with call quality.

Apart from all these performance related goodies, Samsung also packs in 16GB of Flash based memory and for a memory card slot for multimedia gluttons.

Verdict
There is absolutely no doubt that the Samsung Galaxy Note currently offers the most cutting edge Android experience with its stunning high definition Super AMOLED display and super fast processor. The questions one should ask is - Am I comfortable with this weird form factor, or will I use the large display for productivity? If your answer is a yes, then go ahead and buy the Galaxy Note because it not only offers the best hardware on the market, but also the most slick form factor amongst all the hybrid devices. If the form factor is not palatable then one will be better off waiting for the Galaxy Nexus which will come with Google's shiny new Ice Cream Sandwich operating system and at the same time will provide all the hardware goodness of the Galaxy Note in a more subtle and sleek package.