Galaxy Note: Lame tablet, lousy smartphone

Samsung's 5.3-inch device repeats the sins of the first Android tablets, but also brings intriguing pen-computing capabilities

The first generation of Android tablets -- such as the original Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak -- were perversions of the Google Android smartphone operating system, blowing up the UI designed for a 3.5-inch screen to devices with displays as large as 7 inches. They were awkward devices that Google itself warned manufacturers not to create, asking them instead to await its true tablet version of Android. But for nearly a year, because of Google's slow progress, these ungainly smartphone-derived tablets were Android's only response to the iPad. Ironically, their disappointing execution helped cement Apple's near-monopoly on customer satisfaction. Finally, Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" arrived, followed by solid Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Motorola Mobility Droid Xyboard.

This January, Samsung announced the Galaxy Note, an Android smartphone with a 5.3-inch screen meant to straddle the line between smartphone and tablet. It boasts not just the huge screen, but a stylus for drawing and annotating, as well as some communications apps reworked to use its larger screen. AT&T describes it as an experiment in service of innovation and customers' varied needs. This weekend, it will ship in the United States on the AT&T Wireless 3G and (very small but growing) 4G networks for $300 with a two-year contract, $650 without. Run, don't walk, as fast as possible away from this monstrosity.

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The sad truth is that the Galaxy Note is as poorly conceived and executed as those first Android faux tablets -- despite the benefit of hindsight that Samsung should have gained from its own original Galaxy Tab failure. Although the notion of using a stylus for marking up images and using drawing apps is intriguing, the software on the Note fits the large screen poorly, taking little to no advantage of the oversized screen. And many of Samsung's customized-for-Note apps, such as its Calendar, are actually harder to use on the big screen than they are on a regular smartphone using the stock Android UI. You have to wonder why Samsung shipped such a pathetic failure.

The UI and the big screen come together badlyYou'll immediately notice the Galaxy Note's huge size -- and wonder whether you can actually hold it or if it fits in a shirt pocket. The answer to both questions is yes, surprisingly, at least for me, as I have fairly large hands. The Galaxy Note's 5.75-inch height and 3.25-inch width fit in my open palm, but without much leeway. Many women and even men won't be so lucky. The Note's 6.5-ounce weight is also an issue; it's fine for occasional single-handed operation, but it quickly grows heavy. This is a device -- like a tablet -- you'll want to hold in two hands for extended use.

Even two-handed operation can be problematic. In vertical orientation, thumb-typing is quite comfortable on the larger-than-usual onscreen keyboard. But in horizontal orientation, I strained to reach the innermost keys with my thumbs, despite my large hands. There's no split keyboard option to make those inner keys more accessible, as Apple's iOS 5 offers on the iPad.

The Galaxy Note's extralarge screen should be more readable and usable, not less, and if you access apps such as Amazon.com's Kindle Reader, the large screen does make life easier. However, most apps don't take advantage of the Galaxy Note's 1,280-by-800-pixel screen resolution (higher than the iPad's 1,024 by 768), so they're awkwardly blown up.

That's a function of using the Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" operating system, which was never designed for multiple screen sizes or resolutions, and Samsung can't use Android 3 "Honeycomb" because "Honeycomb" doesn't support phone features. And for reasons known only to Google, Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" is available only on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S; for every other device, manufacturers can merely promise, with fingers crossed, that "we plan to deliver an Android 4 update later this year."

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Galaxy Note self-reports as a smartphone since it uses the smartphone version of Android. As a result, most websites present their mobile-optimized smartphone versions instead of the regular desktop versions that you'd probably prefer on the larger screen. Samsung should have at least modified the stock Android browser to offer the option of requesting the desktop version of a website.

It's unlikely that Android developers are going to make special versions of their apps for the Galaxy Note's Android 2.3 OS; the market is too small and short-lived to justify that effort. Maybe when (or if) Android 4 becomes available will we see apps take better advantage of the Galaxy Note's large screen.

Recognizing the poor fit between existing apps and the Galaxy Note's large screen, Samsung did tweak the Email and Calendar apps for the extra real estate. For example, the Email app's UI has an option to place a message list on the left side of the screen when in horizontal orientation, as in Apple's iOS and Google's tablet version of Android. Too bad it's so hard to type email messages in that view or the list is hard to read because the text is much too large, cutting off most of it.

This ill fit is an issue in the tweaked Calendar app as well. It does provide much more detail, taking advantage of the larger screen. It's also easy to use the expand and pinch gestures to switch calendar views, actions not standard in Android. And you get a nice year view, though without the indicators of meeting-intensive days as provided by the iPad's year calendar.

But the Galaxy Note's week calendar is very hard to read, due to stuffing too much small text on brightly colored backgrounds. By contrast, Apple's iOS for the much smaller iPhone presents the week calendar (in horizontal orientation only) much more readably. The Galaxy Note's monthly calendar is better, but still suffers from a garish set of colors and backgrounds, as well as the cardinal sin of light text on colored backgrounds. Even the Android 4-based Samsung Galaxy Nexus does a better job than the Galaxy Note; though both use similarly small text and colored backgrounds, the Android 4 version picks more readable color combinations for its display.

In some cases, Samsung does make nice accommodations for the large screen. For example, given that holding the Galaxy Note is easier with two hands, it introduced an alternative set of gestures for zooming in and out. Rather than do the one-handed pinch and expand gestures, you can hold two fingers on the screen and tilt the whole device to zoom in or out. Just be careful to keep your fingers toward the edge when holding the Galaxy Note, so you don't accidentally zoom while your hands drift. (You can turn off this motion-based gesture.)

It's clear that whoever does Samsung's UI work, at least for the Galaxy Note, is not very good at it -- and no one else at the company seems to know or care.

Just how big is the Galaxy Note? Compare it to an iPhone 4S (at left) and a Galaxy Nexus (in the middle).

The stylus is an intriguing optionMany people fantasize about pen-based computing, where Microsoft has repeatedly failed for the last three generations of Windows and a decade's worth of Windows tablets. Never mind that handwriting recognition, like speech recognition, is a much slower input method for text entry, especially when you're dealing with large volumes of information. A pen-based device wouldn't make much sense -- but a pen-capable device could.

That's the other part of the experiment that is the Galaxy Note -- and one that's much better executed. At the bottom of the Galaxy Note is a stylus you pull out when desired; you can also buy additional styli in more traditional pen-style holders to better approximate a pen's feel. In most apps, the stylus acts like your finger. But it can do more.

For example, pressing the stylus's side button when long-tapping the screen with the stylus takes a screenshot, which the Android 2 normally can't do. You can then draw on that screen shot with the stylus, before saving it. Pressing the stylus's side button when double-tapping the screen with the stylus opens the S Memo note-taking application in which you can draw, type, or handwrite before saving. (Pressing the side button indicates a gesture. Other gestures are a left wipe for the Back button, a down swipe for the Home button, and an up swipe for the Menu button.)

Yes, I said "handwrite" -- there's a handwriting recognition mode that works quite well, even with my bad handwriting. That handwriting recognition is available in any application's text field. By default, you tap a handwriting icon to enable it (just as you use the standard Android microphone to enable voice recognition in most versions of Android), but you can also set the Galaxy Note to automatically switch to handwriting recognition when it detects the stylus on its screen. Either way, you write in a window that appears at the bottom of the screen, and the Galaxy Note interprets it as you write. My only beef with the handwriting recognition is that it is too fast, so a pause often results in a character being recognized before I'm done. Fortunately, there's a setting to make recognition wait until you tell it to convert your handwriting.

The Galaxy Note's screen is also pressure-sensitive, so apps that can detect varying pressures can interpret your degree of push as meaning to make lines thicker. Painting apps often do that with finger pressure, but the stylus allows for much more precise drawings.

Using the stylus has its awkward moments. The four main Android buttons -- Menu, Home, Back, and Search (this last one is not available in non-U.S. models) -- do not detect the stylus, and it takes time to learn to use the stylus gestures for the first three when you have a stylus in hand but to switch back to the buttons when you don't. (Most apps have a search button, so you can usually skip using the dedicated Search hardware button.) And you have to switch to your fingers to use the zoom gestures, leaving the stylus to dangle awkwardly or be placed somewhere in the meantime.

I don't see using the stylus as a primary input device, but it's great for annotations, checking off items, mixed text-and-drawings note-taking, and the like. This is one Galaxy Note innovation I could see being adopted on other devices -- regardless of screen size.

The rest of the NoteThe rest of the Galaxy Note's hardware is pretty much the same as any other Galaxy-class Samsung device. There's the very bright, almost garish Super AMOLED display, subject to flickering unless you turn off both the automatic brightness and automatic screen power adjustment settings. You get the dedicated Search button that has disappeared from most Android devices. There's the MicroUSB port, the audio jack, the volume rocker, the 2-megapixel front camera and 8-megapixel rear camera, and a MicroSD slot to add as much as 32GB of storage to the 10GB available onboard for user files and apps. You get the usual Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, as well as support for the emerging Wi-Fi Direct device-to-device networking standard. (I tried to test Wi-Fi Direct with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but the Note and the Nexus could not establish a connection.) The dual-core 1.5GHz ARM processor is slightly faster than the CPU in non-U.S. models of the Galaxy Note (to handle the 4G radio, according to AT&T) and on the high side for today's devices -- no doubt because of the larger screen and handwriting recognition.

The Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" operating system is the same as in other Samsung Galaxy devices, save for the added stylus support. The apps are typical as well, excepting the poorly modified Email and Calendar apps, as well as the addition of S Memo. For business users, the Galaxy Note comes with Samsung's security extensions that provide iOS- and Android 4-like Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policy support, as well as VPN support and on-device encryption. As with other Android devices, the VPN support doesn't include Cisco IPSec-secured networks. But the on-device data encryption is fast, taking just a few minutes, versus the hour or so on other Android devices supporting it.

Not supported is file transfer via USB cable to a Mac; Google's free Android File Transfer Utility for Mac doesn't work with Android 2.x, just Android 3 and 4. But I could transfer files to and from Windows XP, 7, and 8 Developer Preview PCs, as these have a native driver that sees Android devices as a standard USB storage device.

Samsung also installs the Polaris Office app for creating and editing Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. It's a poorly designed, awkward app. Do yourself a favor and get a reasonable productivity app such as Quickoffice Pro. Likewise, skip Samsung's included Social Hub app for unified social networking; it too is awkward and stripped of too many capabilities. Get the free Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook apps instead.

Interesting concept, poor executionThe Galaxy Note -- if it had apps that took appropriate advantage of its large screen -- could be a useful device. I can see the utility of a smartphone that can act more like a tablet when needed, especially with the stylus input option. Certainly, I experience the need firsthand when commuting on the train and have something to work on that's too complex for my regular smartphone's small screen -- so I wait until I get home or a seat opens up, then use my iPad instead.

But the Galaxy Note as currently delivered isn't the right vehicle for this experiment. I hope someone else tries to do it right.

This article, "Galaxy Note: Lame tablet, lousy smartphone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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This story, "Galaxy Note: Lame tablet, lousy smartphone" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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