NOTE – Due to unforseen consequences (or to be more accurate, general laziness) this article is actually a fair way out of date. The update has rolled out to pretty much everywhere by now.
It’s been about a month since I had my Note, and it’s taken Samsung a fair bit of time to get the update out. The constant delays and bugs have made for a long wait in the dark, but it’s finally being pushed through. I ended up changing the country code on my Note to Austria (ATO) to get the update sooner rather than later, and I’ve finally got ICS operating on the phone, thus I can move on to describe what the phone is like with the much-awaited ICS update.
Firstly, I want to note that this was a real bitch to get. I don’t mean changing the country code, that part was easy even if it wipes the phone. Rather, getting the update via Kies was difficult. Samsung must have a ridiculously limited server capacity because it took me about 20 attempts to get it to download. Most of my attempts were met with timeout errors. I did swap to the Google DNS servers to see if it would help, and whether by coincidence or not it did work after I tried that. It took ages to download, but it did work and it did update. Less impressive was losing all of my apps and a number of different settings that Kies apparently didn’t want to backup. The Google Play Store app did make some attempt at restoring the installed applications, but it apparently got sick of it after one app and didn’t bother to download anything else. Things like my home screen settings weren’t saved, and the Play store vomited a bunch of icons all over my screen. Not impressed with that.
1: INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
TouchWiz is the same as ever. Not sure what else I can say about it except that it’s TouchWiz and I don’t like it, but it does on the whole seem to be a bit more responsive and a tad smoother than it was under Gingerbread. Pulling down the notification centre reveals a new option for Power Saving mode, which will slow the system down and reduce brightness but maximise battery life. It’s a handy little shortcut. The notification centre also allows you to dismiss notifications by swiping them to the left. There’s also a Settings button here for some reason.
The Settings menu also has had an overhaul. Right at the top are options to turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as monitor data usage (which also allows you to turn it off. This is actually a pretty neat feature which can also let you set a limit on how much mobile data can be used, and will warn you when you reach a designated level. Pretty neat, I like it! This section at the top of the Settings menu also has a submenu accessed by tapping More… which contains Flight Mode and a few other things. Most of the settings are the same as last time, just better organised. I did notice a new dedicated option to configure one-handed operation. Such settings were available previously but now there’s a central location for them, which is pretty neat especially on a phone as large as this one.
Holding down the Home button pops up the Recent Apps list, which appears as a nice scrolling list with screenshots of the app. To remove an app from the list, swipe it to the left. You can also access the Task Manager by a button at the bottom of this screen.
Apart from that, there are a few other stylistic changes as well, such as new images for volume control sliders and icons, the new font, and so on. Tapping the Menu touch button brings up a much, much nicer popup than that box that used to show up from the bottom. Unfortunately so much of what makes the new ICS interface great is hidden beneath that ugly piece of shit called TouchWiz, which is a real shame. God I hate TouchWiz! But it is more responsive with ICS, so it’s sort of bearable. I guess.
2: INCLUDED APPS
The GMail app has had an overhaul, and looks a lot better. The interface has received a much needed overhaul and is a lot more functional than it was before. I like the new interface a lot. My only concern is that it’s awfully white. As in bright, eye-searing white.
The Maps app and its associated features have also received UI overhauls, which make everything look a bit more modern. There’s also a new feature in settings labeled “Labs” which allows you to use a few experimental features, like being able to measure a distance or precache a designated area of the map. Hopefully Google will continue to add new features as time goes on. It’s a nice approach and I hope they continue to develop it. I don’t use the Navigation app that much, because I find MetroView does a much better job, but it too has had a much improved UI tossed onto it. Starting the app up gives you a nice screen to select a destination. The first one lets you speak a destination, type it in, select it from the map, or to Go Home, which will let you set your home address and navigate to it that way. It also displays a list of recent destinations. Swipe left to access Starred destinations and places, which are synchronised with the Maps website. Swipe right to get to your contracts addresses. Apart from that there don’t seem to be too many improvements. You know what I’d like? A speed readout. That’d be useful.
The web browser has had a bit of an interface update, and looks a bit cleaner than it did before. There’s also a nifty feature enabled under the Labs setting option for a thumb menu; slide from either edge of the screen and a little half-wheel pops up with different options, maximising screen space.
We’ll get onto the Premium suite in a moment, but as for all the other Samsung apps, they’re pretty much the same as they were last time. One exception is the camera app, which has received a few new updates. Not all of the improvements in ICS are applicable to the Note’s camera, but you do get panoramic shooting mode, which is actually pretty cool. I wish they’d allowed some of the default Google apps, like the People app, to show up. Most of the app improvements you might have been hoping for aren’t available on the Note or really much else save for the Galaxy Nexus. A lot of things are under the hood, such as performance improvements.
3: PREMIUM SUITE
Initially when I went to use S Memo, I ended up getting the old application and thinking this must have been a joke. I of course launched it from the bar at the bottom of the home screen, but checking the app draw shows a new S Note icon which loads the new version of the app. Some of the functionality improvements are handwriting recognition, formula recognition, shape recognition (draw a wobbly square, have to transform into a perfect one), and “Knowledge search”.
The default screen shows up a nice screen with notes organised into books. Clicking the Plus icon brings up a new menu with various templates. From there, the template pops up and you’re free to scribble to your heart’s content. Actually the formula and shape options work really well, for what they are. I’m rather surprised at how well it does at recognising some things. The knowledge search feature is fairly ridiculous, and I’m not even sure why it’s here. Basically, you scrawl something across the screen, which it attempts to interpret, and then searches Wolfram|Alpha for it. Sort of like Siri, except not even remotely as nice. Then again Siri is fairly limited in what it can accomplish outside of the US, so it’s not like it matters.
I know there’s supposed to be some app called My Story or something but I have no idea where the hell it is or what the hell it’s supposed to be used for.
4: CHROME BETA
One of the benefits for having ICS is that Google released a version of Chrome for ICS, which also synchronises bookmarks. That’s a pretty useful feature if you’re using Chrome as your main browser (and given how good it is, you probably should make use of it). Funnily enough it isn’t actually as good as the default browser. It’s still in beta of course, but for the most part I prefer the default with its little thumb menu. Also note that this version doesn’t support Flash. Actually the whole future of Flash on Android devices is in doubt, despite so many fanboys highlighting Flash support as being a strength of the platform. Guys, Flash is a battery-hungry piece of shit primarily used for advertisements, since most videos these days have swapped to MP4 iPhone friendly video or offer HTML5 friendly players. The lack of Flash support isn’t so much of an issue these days. It’s still early days but if Google keep working at it, I’d say it’ll replace the default browser for ICS phones fairly quickly once it catches up in functionality.
Let’s get one thing straight – the ICS update provides some performance improvements. This hasn’t been universally reported; plenty of people are complaining about bugs and other issues including reduced performance, erratic connection speeds, and a few other complaints. For my part, the update seems to make the phone a bit quicker. It isn’t a night and day change, but it can be noticed quite easily if you’re paying attention. Performance improvements are welcome. The updates to the included Google apps are also welcome, as well as the general improvement in organisation with menus and some of the new ICS interface features. In some cases they aren’t drastic changes but they are showing a consistent style choice, one which was needed. The Premium suite is a nice extra as well, though I can’t really say it’s a major selling point for the Note. The major selling point remains the massive screen, and if you aren’t interested in that, nothing will convince you otherwise.
But despite these improvements, the fact is that most of the ICS improvements which are worth shouting about aren’t really applicable to the Note. The improved interface is buried below TouchWiz, though if you’re looking for a launcher replacement I’d recommend Nova Launcher and some other stuff I’ll talk about in the next part. Samsung’s insistence on TouchWiz and their bundled apps means that you won’t see many of the ICS improvements people rave about. They’re specific to the Galaxy Nexus, at least until stable custom ROMs start flowing. It isn’t the super-massive improvement you may have been waiting for.
Of course over the course of the past month or so I’ve adapted to how Android operates to the point where iOS feels restrictive, so the lack of starting change isn’t really a surprise. But if you were waiting to see if ICS was going to wipe away your Android interface concerns, then it won’t do much unless you get the Galaxy Nexus. What improvements it does bring to the Note are fairly limited to performance boots and a few minor UI improvements. Otherwise much of the update remains under the hood… under the TouchWiz hood. It’s still a good update but was it worth the wait? If “worth the wait” translates to “worth waiting for Samsung to update their bloatware” then maybe not.
Part four, the conclusion, will be up in SOON (few days I guess), where I’ll finish off the transition between iOS and Android and fill in a few conclusions about battery life and ICS. See you then!