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Long term test: Samsung Galaxy Note review

Before it was officially released, the Samsung Galaxy Note landed in our hands. We’re lucky blighters and we’re not even going to try to argue to the contrary. We’re also in a fantastic position to write a re-review of the Samsung Galaxy Note, three months in having used it for work, play and a fair bit of sketching. With its 5.3-inch Super AMOLED HD screen, 1.4GHz dual-core processor and substantial on-board storage, is the Note still impressing us like it did when we first met or have we gotten fed up with the size, irritated by the S-Pen and irked my Samsung’s TouchWiz?

Design – Big, but too big?

With a more curvaceous design than the Samsung Galaxy S2, the Samsung Galaxy Note is something of a confusion being exceptionally large, but also exceptionally thin at under 10mm.

After having used it for a while as our primary handset, we find we tend to avoid skinny jeans more than we used to, though when is that a bad thing? It fits in standard sized pockets comfortably thanks to its slenderness and the 3.5mm headphone jack being at the top is handy when listening to music.

Despite the massive 5.3-inch screen, when working across the UI and browsing the web it fits well in one hand while the other swipes. For text entry, it really can’t be beaten if you’re a two-handed thumb-typer. We have Steven Lin’s Android 2.3 keyboard installed and have adjusted key-height to suit our thumbs to make the most of the large display.

As for the screen quality, three months in and we’re still blown away by just how crisp everything looks. The Samsung Galaxy Note upscales video content very well and plays back 720p video beautifully. What’s even better is how the 1.4GHz dual-core processor even digests irksome file formats like MKVs when coupled with the likes of MX video player. Brightness levels are good and viewing angles are fantastic.

The Samsung Galaxy Note has also survived the durability test having been dropped on a hard surface on more than one occasion. While the handset’s sides are glossy chrome therefore and slip out of the hand when sweaty, greasy or wet, on the plus side – this phone can take a bashing.

The S-Pen – It’s just a stylus isn’t it?

Samsung would say an affirmative no. Fully aware of the connotations the word stylus word holds, they would have you believe that their S-Pen is a writing device for a new generation of mobile – and they would be correct. It along with the HTC Flyer’s stylus offer the most accurate capacitive writing tools we’ve come across.

You can see from our stylus comparison how easy it is to sketch on the Note and the Flyer with the other styli not coming close. In turn, the S-Pen makes the Samsung Galaxy Note more than just a phone come tablet, but a specialist tool should its user take full advantage of it. Here is an example of a quick sketch we created on the Note using Sketchbook Mobile.

It isn’t all roses though. The button on the S-Pen is fiddly at best with a tiny, totally flushed area to press. When held down, this activates the screen capture function with a single tap and the ability to annotate or deface your screengrabs at will. The great thing about this arguable gimmick is that we used it daily. Whether we were doodling flirtatiously on a love-interest’s face or sending circled map content to a colleague, the screenshot and S-Pen integration combines work and play brilliantly.

The button can also be held down with a double tap to pull up a quick-memo (note), though we hardly used this at all, usually happy to go through to the full S-Memo application.

All in all however, the S-Pen’s accuracy and tight integration with the Samsung Galaxy Note’s UI and physical design is a key selling point of the device.

User Interface – TouchWiz or TouchWoes?

Like HTC Sense on HTC phones, TouchWiz – Samsung’s custom launcher is laid atop Android. There’s a lot to be said for the UI given the simple appearance, quick homescreen navigation and custom widgets. The customisable dock at the bottom of the home screen is handy giving you the option to change four of five shortcuts and the ability to create folders in your apps drawer makes organisation a breeze.

That said, we didn’t leave TouchWiz unchallenged. Within a month of using the Note we installed custom launchers in favour of personalisation and gesture support. While we tried ADW Launcher, Launcher Pro and Go Launcher, it was this gesture support found in Go Launcher that made using the Note a more seamless experience and in turn won out.

What do we mean by this? With a small swipe on the bottom right portion of the big screen our camera quickly fired up, saving our thumbs travelling the length and breadth of the Note fascia. A swipe on the bottom left and we were browsing the web. S-Pen functionality also works with Go Launcher as do most of Samsung’s widgets and we therefore ended up using this launcher day in day out.

As we mentioned earlier, we also used a custom keyboard. While Samsung’s default keyboard has some great features such as a number row above its letters and the option to enter text with the S-Pen, its sizing and spacing didn’t work perfectly with our thumbs. We can happily recommend SwiftKey X for predictive prowess or as mentioned earlier, Gingerbread Keyboard for totally customisable key size and spacing.

Pre-installed applications

With a plethora of applications installed before you even get the phone, we’re happy to say the Samsung Galaxy Note is one of the first handsets that comes with a pre-installed app we use on a regular basis – S-Memo. Other applications are contained within hubs such as Readers Hub, Social Hub and Music Hub.

The standard Samsung music player works very well and coupled with the 7Digital integration within the Music Hub offers a complete solution for buying and playing music with a swish UI. When it came to how we access music on the Samsung Galaxy Note however, Spotify and Google Music tend to be our chosen methods based on their cloud functionality.

Reader Hub aggregates three applications: Kobo, Press Reader and Zinio. Beyond the free trials, we didn’t actually end up using any of these, though we can see real value in Press Reader if you’re an avid newspaper lover. Kobo is a perfectly adequate eReader but with a number of purchases on Kindle, we bypassed it in favour of the Kindle app. What’s fantastic about reading ebooks on the Samsung Galaxy Note is the screen resolution coupled with the Super AMOLED technology and its size. This is one of the few screens that can handle serif text thanks to its pixel-density. Add to that the deep blacks and night mode is a reader’s dream, with the cherry on the cake being the fact that the display isn’t all that much smaller than that of a Kindle.

Social hub aggregates feeds from Facebook through to Twitter and even personal messages. It works effectively, and is quick and easy to set up. With the huge screen-size of the Note, it’s great to have a social media tool oriented for the screen-size. That said, if you’re looking for a little extra control, check out TweakDeck. This application is similar to Tweetdeck, but offers with the addition of resizable text, allowing for perfect type on your oversized phone.

Multimedia – Still the daddy?

We didn’t think we’d find ourselves saying it, but despite the 16GB of memory on board, you’re probably going to want a 32GB memory card as well. The Samsung Galaxy Note is an absolute multimedia beast.

With it’s 8-megapixel camera not only are the pictures big, they’re bright and colourful with great detail and amongst one of the best LED flashes we’ve used on a mobile. The 1080p video recorder is also great with a comprehensive in phone editing suite, so we found ourselves recording considerably more video than we did, say on our HTC Sensation with its lower quality output.

The Note’s 5.3-inch Super AMOLED display lends itself to movies as we mentioned in our screen section. In turn this means we’re constantly throwing gigabites of content onto the internal storage filling it up quickly. HD content plays back smoothly, looks incredible and turns the Note into the ultimate pocketable PMP.

Performance and conenctivity – is 1.4GHz dual-core enough?

This is the funny one. With a blazingly fast 1.4GHz dual-core processor, the Samsung Galaxy Note has no issues with the most gruelling of tasks. We installed Shadow Gun and played for hours with no real slowdown to speak of. That said, press the home button and the longer you’ve had the phone, the longer it takes to go to your home screens. After 3 months, it takes in excess of 3 seconds on occasion.

These performance inconsistencies were highlighted in our review and we hoped would be fixed in a firmware update, however, are yet to see this.

Having said that, everything else is a breeze. Three months in, apps are stable with less force-closing than on most handsets we’ve used and the 1GB of RAM handles running applications like a champ. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even overclock your Samsung Galaxy Note to 1.7GHz upon rooting it using Abyss Note and a CPU clock speed setter. This is a sure fire way to turn your Samsung Galaxy Note into the most powerful pocket-heater in town.

Battery life on the Note is good, but not great. Conservative usage will give you a comfortable day to a day and a half, but the phone doesn’t lend itself to conservative usage with such a great screen and powerful processor. With all guns blazing such as sync and medium screen brightness therefore, the Samsung Galaxy Note lasts until about 6pm with an 8am start. Respectable, but not fantastic.

We can recommend investing in a spare battery and external charger. This is better for the battery, means you don’t have to curb usage and gives you peace of mind when your 15 per cent warning alarm rings.

Conclusion

After reading a recent hands on first-impression with the Samsung Galaxy Note that absolutely slated it for being a pointlessly over-sized device, after three months with it, we’re in a very strong position to whole-heartedly disagree.

The S-Pen wouldn’t work on a smaller form-factor and is a huge part of the Note’s appeal, for us at least. The display size is counterbalanced by a lithe chassis and lends itself to video and image content better than any phone on the market.

We were very sceptical, but the Samsung Galaxy Note has become an instant classic with it’s strength of performance across the board. So whether tablet, phone or phablet, it makes a statement, it makes a call and it makes a great impression on us three months down the line.
 

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