First Look: The Samsung Galaxy Note

Posted on 11/03/2011

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Last night I attended the South African launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note at the rather plush Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel. It was quite a spectacle. To put things into perspective you know when you arrive at a venue and the name of the product being launched is emblazoned across some rather spectacular sports cars (missed photo opportunity) that something big is about to happen.

To be honest I was not sure what to expect from the device in that it is unusual, as I will explain. The easiest description to begin is that it has a bit of an identity crisis. It’s a device that I’m not sure knows what it want to be, and in some ways that makes it that little bit more interesting, in a world where devices running iOS and the nascent Windows Phone platform have  a predefined use case driving development and design.

But back to the star of the show. The Samsung Galaxy Note is the Korean companies latest and greatest device, one that they hope will be a game changer. From a technical perspective, the Note isn’t particularly striking with several high specced Android devices populating the mobile space. The device is powered by a 1.4 Ghz dual core processor, dedicated graphics and 1GB RAM for the multitasking. It also sports an 8mpx rear camera with a single LED flash and a 2mpx front facing camera. As a 2011 device full 1080p HD recording is supported. It also features a full array of radios and sensors, in line with mordern day expectations. All of this is housed in a body reminiscent of Samsung Galaxy SII device, a slim form factor, sleek black dominated in the front by the touch screen, the central home button flanked on either side by capacitive Options and Back buttons that light up in response to your touch.

But that’s not what the Note is about. At a distance it literally does look like it’s sibling the SII but step a little closer and it’s something all together different, sporting an astounding 5.3″ touch display. It really has to be seen to be believed. Turn it on and you are treated to one of the brightest, most vibrant and sharpest displays I have ever seen. The Super AMOLED Plus display packs a crazy resolution of 1280X800, a 16:10 aspect ratio, meaning that despite the mammoth screen size the pixel density is still pretty high at approximately 285 ppi.

At this point I should just point out that the Note is actually not the first device of it’s kind, size wise, though history has been less kind to it’s predecessor, also an Android device, the Dell Streak, with a slightly smaller 5.0″ screen. It was a device that suffered from a similar lack of identity that I was worried would afflict the Note.

Once you pick up the device however, some of the misgiving goe away, and the key here is execution. The Note is surprisingly light and unlike the SII, I feel the slimness here is actually a boon. Also the fact that the screen dominates the front to such an extent, it is not as bulky as you would expect. I’m not the biggest of lads out there, and the phone slipped nicely into my front pocket.

So far so good.

Playing with a device on and off, even over three hours or so, especially with a crowd of people looking to get their mitts on it, is not the best way to draw a impression, but I took in quite a bit of the device.

The Note runs Android 2.3, or Gingerbread, with Samsung’s now familiar Touchwizz skin on top of it. I have to say that on this device, Touchwizz really felt at home. I have yet to play with an Android device that I’m 100% happy with and I put that down to the OEM modifications, be it Sense, Motoblur or any other. This just felt right though. I think due to the epic resolution, screen real estate is put to much better use. The launcher now has 5 icons and widgets are more alive. The selection of widgets at a glance was impressive and they make use of the screen better than say the Tab 7 and even the SII. More icons are also packed into the application grid, now a 5X5 grid, bringing better usability and it looks nicer.

The standard applications looked pretty good even with a resolution that deviates from what most Android devices have (mostly WVGA), though Motorola and HTC have been experimenting with qHD at, a resolution of 960X540 pixels. The Gmail client looked great, as did the Contacts. The multimedia suite too just bristles with this stunning screen, particularly video playback. I tried out the browser and it is pretty impressive. Even without applying benchmarks or using a stopwatch, it is clear that pages load quickly, in most cases pinch zooming, scrolling was slick, but I have to wonder why text wrapping is not enabled by default since the Android browser is one of the few that has this feature. That’s not exhaustive but I have to say if the SII is the benchmark Android experience at the moment, then the Note is at least equal to that, with ample horse power and slickness.

What really sets the Note apart though, is something so antiquated since the rise of the capacitive touch screen had rendered it obsolete, the stylus. Samsung call it the S-pen and it adds a layer of usability that also takes advantage of the oodles of screen real estate. Samsung have thought hard about interacting with the Note, as it deviates so much from available devices from either end of the available spectrum.  It’s clear that the S-pen is, or Samsung wants it to be an integral part of the Note experience, as there is a battery of applications that have been designed around the S-pen.

An example is the reworked Calendar app called S-planner. S-planner works seamlessly with the S-pen. Tapping around on the screen, the app responds to input from the S-pen with remarkable briskness, rarely did I get a missed tap. The S-pen is also great from quick event input. A neat touch when using finger input is switching views. From the standard month overview, just pinch zoom and it shows you a weekly view. Repeat and you get a 5 day view, three day view, then a single day view. It’s all very slick and intuitive, and also syncs with your online calendars.  A better example though is the stunning S-memo, an advanced notes application which is designed to be used with the S-pen, and can incorporate multimedia items. For example you can capture a photo and annotate it in S-memo. You can choose different drawing styles, thickness and colours and draw away. When you input text, handwriting recognition is also present. It didn’t like my handwriting initially, but it learns and I found after 5 minutes that it was picking up the rather inelegant nuances of my cursive writing.

According to the presentations the S-pen has 128 points of pressure, and was put to good use by some of the guys at the launch putting their artistic talents to impressive use, conjuring some stunning creations. Samsung Apps has been rebranded as S-choice and curated on the Note to include a selection of S-pen ready apps for your use.

The S-pen though is incredibly versatile and even though a caveat oft repeated was that it would not work with most apps, it handled a lot of what I threw at it. In the eBook application for example the S-pen can be used as great bookmarking tool, either by highlighting and due to it’s precision this was lightning fast, or making random marks on a page, and capturing these. It’s also useful for handwriting recognition and prove how far this goes, I tried it with Whatsapp and lo and behold there I was scribbling a message away and it was converted into typed text.

Beyond that the S-pen is competent at navigating through out the interface so can minimize how much grease you dump on your screen. Another neat feature that I must not neglect to mention is that taking screenshots just got a whole lot easier with the S-pen. About a third of the way up from the tip of the S-pen is a button that if depressed when you touch the screen, takes a screenshot for you.

I do have one misgiving and it’s more to do with Android than the Note directly and it’s one of optimization. A few of the devices I played with were, despite these being some of the highest specced mobile devices on the planet, rather sluggish, and some of the demonstrations from the Samsung Mobilers probably didn’t go as smoothly as expected, even after freeing up memory by killing a whole bunch of processes. The tech inclined will understand what’s going on here but to the layman, knowing that they have an ultra fast device under the hood, will be a bit alarmed when the devices doesn’t respond as quickly as expected.

So as far as first impressions go, I must say this very big device made a very big impression. But I still haven’t addressed the fundamental questions. What is it meant to do? Who is it for? The marketeers will tell you it’s for everyone but it’s not quite that simple, if it is not just to end up as another device amongst a sea of capable, both hardware and software, devices.

I mentioned that the Note has an identity crisis. Lets face it, it’s not really a phone. It absolutely dwarfs the already gigantic SII and will undoubtedly do the same with the even bigger (from a phone perspective) Galaxy Nexus which still gives up 0.65″. It is also not a tablet. The smallest tablets are the 7″ brethren, which do the Note what it does to smartphones. So then what is it? Interestingly, something I picked up, one sentence in one of the presentations, is that Samsung is actually playing on this, and actually using this as a selling. The device was referred to as a ‘smartphone tablet‘, and in one fence-sitting moment a new category of device was created. This made me cringe at first. I wanted a definitive answer but overnight I have thought hard and long and here’s my layman’s take on it. By positioning the Note as a smartphone tablet, Samsung aims to create a new line of consumers, much like what happened with tablets, that want to take to advantage of the mobility of the smartphone and the usability that the tablet provides but do not want the hassle of carrying both. To put it one way, the Note actually passes the phone test. Hold it to your ear and it’s not ungainly. The 5.3″ screen is big enough, and with an excellent resolution to boot, such than unless you want an ~10″ sized model, it is more than sufficient from browsing and the like. I played around with Polaris Office and Excel was so much easier to use on this than the SII, nevermind a 3.5″ device like my N8. Add in the S-pen and productivity is improved quite a bit. I just don’t think a 7″ tablet provides that much greater an experience than the Note.

This also explains the pricing. It’s expensive, with figures R9000+ mentioned when I asked. But another way to look at it is this. Purchase a high end smartphone and a decent tablet, you are looking at R6-7000 for the smartphone, and R6000 for the tablet, minimum, or dump them and pay a reduced fee for something that is positioned to replace both.

I personally am undecided about the Note for my needs but it looks like Samsung have thought long and hard about what they want the device to do, and I am intrigued to see what the uptake will be once it is widely available.

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