Greetings DisCONNECT readers! Have you been loyal? No? I don’t blame you. Today marks the first in a series of articles about swapping from iPhone to Android. Specifically, I’m going from an iPhone 4 to a Samsung Galaxy Note. This is going to be a sort of challenge event for me, to see how I adapt. Some of you who are considering a similar move (or maybe considering the Note itself) might find this entertaining and illuminating as well. For the record, this is my first Android phone. Before my iPhone 4 I had a 3G. I’ve also had an iPad 1 and currently have the new iPad. My experience with Android is fairly limited to playing with phones that friends have. Anyway without further stalling, let us proceed with the review and unboxing.
The Note comes in a nice box with a number of bits and pieces: a stack of pamphlets, a USB cable, power adapter, the device itself, headphones with different ear pieces, and the 2500mAh battery. Which is fairly sizeable, but this is an incredibly big phone. At 13.5cm diagonally for the screen size, it dwarfs the tiny iPhone 4. I’d like to tell you what the included pamphlets tell you, but they’re in Russian for me. The Note retails for close to the cost of the entry-level iPhone 4S here in Australia, unless you buy from retailers selling the overseas model (This is the GT-N7000), at which point it can be had for about $540. The specs for the Note are quite reasonable: 1.4GHz dual core processor, 5.3″ WXGA Super AMOLED screen with a resolution of 1280×800, an 8 MP rear camera with LED flash with a front 2 MP camera for video calls/Skype, 16GB internal memory (about 11GB useable) with a microSD slot for up to 32GB additional storage, GPS, etc. It comes installed with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), which is quite old, but an update to ICS 4.0 is coming very soon. If you’re experienced with rooting and so on (I’m not, something to read up on I guess) you can already update to 4.0. There’s even a leaked version of the update Samsung is going to release. Of particularly interest however is the inclusion of a stylus. These sorts of devices haven’t had a stylus for… well, since the iPhone really. Pretty much everything prior to that had a stylus.
The Note is big, we’ve established that already. It’s clear that it’s part phone, part tablet in design, which might pose a problem for some people… namely with one-handed operation. The phone is exceptionally light, probably because it’s mostly plastic in construction. My iPhone feels heavier in comparison, but there’s a lot more metal in the iPhone. My hands aren’t exceptionally large, but being a medic and having typed since I was 2 years old, they’re reasonably dexterous, so in one handed operation I can reach most parts of the phone. There are some places I can’t reach, or places where it’s uncomfortable to do so. I’d suggest that for most people one-handed operation is at least in part possible, but it isn’t as comfortable as on an iPhone or something with a much smaller screen. If you have small hands, arthritis, or are particularly clumsy, then it might not be practical at all. Go see one in action if you can. If not, take a stiff piece of cardboard and cut it to the size of the Note and try it in your hand. That’s how I determined if I could use it. On the subject of pant pockets, pretty much all of my pants would support the Note. If you’re wearing ridiculously skinny jeans, you’re probably a hipster and are hereby ordered to leave and go back to writing shitty poetry or posting shit photos onto Instagram. Oh wait, it was bought by Facebook. WHAT NOW?! No but seriously, stop reading DisCONNECT. Back to skinny jeans – should you be wearing such things I can foresee an issue with pockets, namely there’d be a massive phone-shaped bulge there, but most pockets have the depth to hold the Note. I wouldn’t recommend putting ANY phone (or object unless it’s a piece of paper) in your back pocket; it’s likely to break when you sit down, and such pockets might not have the depth for the Note (and it’d be uncomfortable).
Alright enough stalling. Let’s boot it up. The power button sits on the side. On the left is a volume rocker, and a home button at the bottom. Pretty simple. After changing the language on boot (bottom right button I managed to set up the phone. I can’t use my SIM card because the Note uses a normal SIM, while the iPhone 4 uses a micro SIM. Sorry. I did set up my wireless network and found I was easily able to type out the password (which has letters and numbers across the full keyboard) with one hand.
I was greeted with a rather interesting screen, which I understand is Samsung’s custom software TouchWiz. Coming from iOS, my first thought was “Christ, what a mess.” Which I guess is natural; iOS has things in neat little grids, and it’s only app icons. TouchWiz does offer a large amount of flexibility above iOS though. For a start I can have a nice, big display of the current weather right there on the screen, as well as large previews of bookmarks or my inbox. Which is great in my opinion; it breaks down another barrier between me and the stuff that I want. Does it really save time? Probably not, I mean it’s that THAT difficult to open up the Mail app. Given that I’m a Google acolyte though the integration is fantastic. Apple are quite insistent that things go through iCloud these days, and since I’m a Windows user I’m not exceptionally pleased with that decision. Android is a better fit in that respect I guess.
There’s a significant number of applications installed on the device. Most of the are hidden away in the Applications menu option. There’s a bunch of Google specific things such as Google search along with basic system functions like the music player and camera. Samsung also seems to be intent to allow the device to be operated by voice commands, offering a software package to do just that (as well as standard Google voice search commands, which is more utilitarian than Siri but at least it works very well). I’ll pick out a few apps to discuss individually but for the most part I’m quite pleased with the included software but some of the duplicates are a bit annoying. GMail has its own application, but then there’s a separate Email app from Samsung, which isn’t as up to date as GMail (it lags being by a fair margin) but does have a Widget for displaying the inbox and does have a notification badge. I wouldn’t complain but the interface is terrible compared to GMail, so I can’t really recommend it. It also links into the Social Hub, an attempt to merge a bunch of services. Can’t say I really like any of that, but whatever. Options are good, I just wish the options were better. Alternatively, I wish the GMail app made it a bit more obvious when I’ve received a new email.
Let’s talk about the included apps. The first one I checked out was Maps. I’m frequently driving all over the city to parts of town that I only vaguely know, so a robust GPS navigation option is fairly useful for me. On the iPhone Google Maps was limited to just street data, Places, Traffic, and the sat map. It’s much better on Android. On top of that however it supports turn by turn navigation, free, out of the box. If you want that for your iPhone you’d better be prepared to splash out the cash (for Australia I recommend MetroView, which is fairly cheap but exceptionally good, and it’s on Android too). I haven’t had a chance to use it properly yet, but it seems quite good and picked out routes I’d actually take as opposed to something ridiculous. My only complaint is that the GPS seems a bit slow to find a position, at least compared to the iPhone 4, and it would occasionally fail to get a fix indoors while the iPhone 4 was able to manage it without a great deal of difficulty. The massive screen makes navigation a lot easier though.
The Music app is about as good as the iPod app on the iPhone. It is however about a billion times easier to manage. I hate iTunes. I HATE IT. To be able to quickly and easily jack the phone in via USB and copy music across is an IMMENSE improvement over the iPhone. The same goes for video; just copy that file over, the device scans for new media, and adds it to the app. Oh my God Emperor of Mankind, that’s infinitely better. I honestly cannot overstate this. After grappling with iTunes, screwing around with its library, having to mess around with video conversion and fixing broken file links when something changes directory, this single, very simple thing, has made me smile the most. Seriously, iTunes is BULLSHIT. This? This is awesome. As an interesting side note, my a-JAYS Four canalphones with inline iPhone controls sort of work with the Note. The volume buttons don’t do anything, but the centre button works; it pauses and resumes playback. Curious! Also the Music app allows you to browse by folder! Why am I getting so excited about such a simple feature? Because the iPhone DOESN’T FRIGGIN’ ALLOW IT. I feel like I’m using a vastly improved version of Windows Mobile, except there’s actual apps and stuff for it. By the way, the included Samsung earphones are an improvement over the default Apple ones (mainly because the earpieces actually stay in your ears) but the cable is flimsy and annoying, and they don’t sound exceptionally good. They’ve got nothing on my a-Jays but you can definitely do worse (like Apple). Browse by folders… the future is now!
Next up is the camera. Generally phone cameras are suitable only for quick snaps with ample light. I use a DSLR for when I want to take a shot that I want in some detail, but obviously carrying around a DSLR isn’t practical. Given the lower cost of DSLRs many people are turning to them as a dedicated camera (instead of a point and shoot) and using their phone for snapshots. Lots of people suggest that the iPhone and new iPad have good cameras. I disagree; they’re reasonably good in bright light, but abysmal in anything else. Except in video, where they’re actually very good. I don’t have high hopes for the Note; you can see some comparison shots below between the iPhone 4 and Note (see the screenshot gallery at the end). In standard indoor light neither is anything to write home about; they’re both pretty grainy and washed out. For a bright outdoor scene though the Note looks a lot more vibrant, while the iPhone 4 looks washed out. To my eye the Note better matches what it actually looked like in real life, so I guess that’s a point to the Note. As the iPhone and Note have similar methods for accessing video and pictures taken by the device neither has an advantage. For video, I’d say it’s fairly close; I’m tempted to give this one to the iPhone 4 but the Note isn’t very far behind at all. At casual glance there’s no difference. The Note does however offer one useful feature; apart from counting record time, it counts size as well, so you can see how close you are to filling the device. Also the Note outputs video in MP4 format, which I think is preferable to MOV like the iPhone 4 does.
One of the much touted features is the stylus and the implication that the Note could be used like a tablet with a pen. It seems somewhat backwards today to use a stylus, considering we relied upon them in the early days of PDAs. That said a stylus is still useful for precision actions or things like drawing. The Note’s stylus has a hard plastic tip, quite different to the soft lumps of conductive foam or rubber that are usually used with iPads and the like (and those will still work too of course). It glides over the screen easily and has a button on it which can be used to pull off a few special functions, like opening up SNote (the included note taking app) or copying the screen to the clipboard. While I found the stylus was reasonably responsive when drawing in SNote, I found it to be fairly fiddly elsewhere. Again I don’t have massive hands so I wasn’t having much trouble holding the stylus, but trying to do very precise things (like click on little UI elements on a webpage) was trickier than I expected. I also noted a fair amount of lag outside of SNote. The stylus is a nice addition, but I don’t see it bringing back the stylus anytime soon. It’s good for SNote, but questionable outside of that.
The browser is a pretty important bit of kit, since most of us use our phones to access the Internet. The iPhone’s Safari browser incarnation has a significant problem in that it can’t play Flash animations. Personally I’m not a massive fan of Flash and I hope that HTML5 kills it off, but at the same time I’m a realist and for a browser to not support Flash can be pretty crippling. I picked the most ridiculous Flash-based site I know of to illustrate the difference between the two: http://www.smartiepantstheclown.com. I’ve seen this clown a number of times while I’ve been on duty, so consider this some free advertising. On an iOS device, you’ll see a black page with jack shit on it. Under the browser in Android, you’ll see the Flash animation. Which quite frankly makes me sick. VIOLENTLY sick. I apologise for putting that link there. I really do. Please forgive me, but it illustrates a point. The text on the buttons doesn’t render but the rest of the site does. It runs reasonably well but slows down occasionally (but not enough to crash the browser, despite doing its best efforts). In general browsing I found the browser to be very responsive and probably a bit better than Safari under iOS (though the UI isn’t as smooth). The Note’s massive screen makes browsing a lot more enjoyable than on an iPhone 4. Significantly more enjoyable!
Samsung include an app called Polaris Office, which is able to view and edit Microsoft Office files. Well at least it can edit Word documents, and it can view PowerPoint files. That’s pretty useful, and something the iPhone certainly can’t do out of the box. I can’t say I’d want to edit a document on here (nor would I on the iPhone for that matter!) but it’s not uncomfortable to read things from the screen. Speaking of documents, let’s check out Dropbox. Fetching Dropbox from the Market/Google Play or whatever they’re calling it these days was just as easy as getting it from the App Store. Perhaps more-so actually; the market is pretty snappy. The larger screen means Dropbox is a LOT better on the Note than the iPhone, and it’s a tiny bit quicker too. It makes reading documents a hell of a lot easier. Quick note: I honestly hate Facebook but like many others in the same boat not having it tends to leave you out of party invites or pretty much ANYTHING these days, so I did test the app on Android and it’s identical to the iOS version, though the UI isn’t as smooth.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the screen. The screen is very bright and looks exceptionally good. It has a similar pixel density to the new iPad and less than the iPhone 4, which means the screen does look exceptionally smart but if you look carefully you’ll see that the iPhone 4 looks sharper than the Note. But with that said, the Note’s larger screen size actually makes the majority of phone functions a lot easier to use. Web browsing is a delight on the Note, while it’s a pain in the arse on the iPhone 4. The iPhone screen sizes are positively tiny compared to many of the Android devices, even those not as large as the Note. Given that many people use their phones for quick web browsing I have to wonder if Apple aren’t stuck in the past here. I’ve found the phone fairly easy to use with one hand but there are two issues I’m having. Firstly my palm will occasionally wrap over the phone and hit the Back touch button, which is annoying. Secondly, I don’t like the position of the Power button. It’s on the right side of the phone and I have a tendency to press it by accident when playing with the cable or holding the phone in my hand. Apart from that though I have no real complaints with the design of the device, though it feels slightly cheap with its all plastic back. On the plus side, I can remove the battery and replace it! Will I need to do that? Probably not, but it’s nice to have the option.
Of course this is only Part 1 of the Note Challenge, and there’s a long way to go. On a fairly irregular basis I’ll be posting new articles describing the passage from iOS to Android, and whether it’s worth following me or avoiding the same mistake. There’s a lot of ground still to cover, but initial impressions so far are positive. Did I mention that I can copy music files directly across to the phone? I did? Well, it’s worth repeating. Actually that alone is compelling enough for me not to go back to iOS for my phone. Check back every so often (or subscribe) for the continuation of the series. Or not, I don’t get paid or anything for your views.