It’s time to end the Challenge and summarise how the transition went. I know I’m awfully late with it, but exams don’t answer themselves, and patients don’t heal themselves. Just as well they don’t, otherwise I’d be out of a profession!
Pretty much everything “good” boils down to “It doesn’t need iTunes” which is my biggest complaint about the iPhone and iPad. I like that iTunes backs up the phone in such a complete way. I don’t like how I need to use it just to copy a single MP3, or how it’ll wipe the phone unless I remembered to save my iTunes library (granted, this isn’t so much of an issue since iCloud came out). Being able to utilise external storage in the form of a micro SD card is pretty handy. The entire “don’t need iTunes” is a massive point but really there’s no other way to state it than this very brief paragraph. Just imagine that it rants on for another 3 paragraphs about how great it is not to need iTunes.
It’s also nice to be able to select the default application for completing various actions. I like being able to say that I want Google Chrome to launch instead of the default browser when I click a web link. I like being able to change the launcher if I decide I don’t like TouchWiz (and I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t like TouchWiz). Can’t get that sort of flexibility on iOS!
And… well, that’s really about it to be honest. It’s true that there are some apps in the Google Play store that you won’t find under iOS (like a DosBOX port) but the Galaxy Note’s screen size is still a bit too small for most of them to be particularly relevant, so I wouldn’t necessarily call them a plus. The only other thing worth noting is that the Google Play store does allow for “duplicate functionality”, which means there are other apps to replace the stock dialer or SMS apps for example. Whether you trust them or think they’re any good is another matter. It’s hard to imagine how you can screw up a dialer on a mobile phone though.
The absolute worst thing I’ve had with this phone is battery life. The Galaxy Note has to power a large screen, but to compensate it has a larger battery. That said, on the default kernel and ROM I’d be lucky to get through a full day of use. I can literally sit there and watch the battery percentage reliably drop over a few minutes. This is just browsing the Internet. Even worse, sometimes a rogue process will stay active and prevent the phone from going into Deep Sleep mode, which means the CPU will operate at 200Mhz all the time and drain the battery even when the phone is in “sleep” mode. This sort of stuff doesn’t happen under iOS. I’m frequently checking CPU Spy to make sure the phone is going into deep sleep so that I don’t get any nasty surprises. The best thing I did for battery life though was install a custom ROM, which is a fairly involved process on the Galaxy Note since flashing a rom from an ICS install may brick the phone (even if done correctly), so you’ll need to flash an older Gingerbread ROM or another non-ICS ROM to safely flash a new one. That’s given me a day’s usage, but it’s still nowhere near my iPhone which lasted forever by comparison.
I’ve also noticed that the phone seems to be less responsive and less stable in general than the iPhone 4S. A lot of transitions or actions aren’t overly smooth, particularly when compared to the fluid iOS interface. It’s a minor quibble but still occasionally catches me even after all this time. Stability however definitely is worse than iOS. Even on stock firmware I was more likely to encounter an app crash than under iOS. On custom firmware it’s more frequent, which is a bit of a catch-22 because the stock firmware drains the battery even faster.
The wait for ICS was agonising, and already we’re seeing Jelly Bean start to be shipped to Galaxy Nexus phones. The sad fact is that a 3rd party bedroom hacker will get a Jelly Bean ROM out for the Galaxy Note well before Samsung pushes an update (assuming they do). If I have one major criticism of the Android platform, and one major praise for Apple, it’s that carriers and manufacturers have too many opportunities to screw up the OS. Apple point-blank refuses to allow carrier crapware or other bloat onto their phone; you get an iPhone which is the same as everyone else’s. When an update rolls around, you all get it at the same time (assuming your device is supported). The Galaxy Note’s ICS update rollout was slow and went by region and sometimes by carrier. People sit there watching the XDA forums to see when it’ll hit, checking the servers constantly to see if it’s there. It’s ridiculous and it’s one of the reasons I went to a custom ROM even though it was a pain in the arse. I’m not really willing to sit through that again. iOS updates might be less frequent than Android updates, but they’re still miles ahead of Android in terms of delivery.
The size of the phone is still pretty good and I don’t exactly find it unwieldy but at the same time I’m not 100% convinced that the larger screen is making THAT much of a difference for me any more. Granted, it still makes an iPhone screen look like a sad joke, but otherwise I’m not as sold on the larger screen as I once was. It’s something that’s occasionally nice to have, but otherwise not all that important any more. I have more to say on this in the conclusion, given that the screen size is the primary selling point. In terms of pockets, while I don’t possess any pants where I don’t have a pocket where it won’t fit (I’m not a skinny-jeans wearing hipster though) I do find that it can be a bit annoying at times. This is particularly troublesome for my uniform pants – they’re cargo pants and have more pockets than I know what to do with, but the only pocket which they comfortably fit into are the knee pockets, and the phone happily crashes against my knee whenever I have to get up and walk. Otherwise it gets squashed when I kneel down and have it in the top pockets.
While I like the Google apps themselves, Samsung’s stock apps are at times rubbish and sluggish, particularly the dialer. Yes, there are software replacements, which is a bonus for the system, but I’d much rather they get it right the first time. In one particular scenario a friend of a patient asked to use my phone to call for someone to come pick her up. I ended up fumbling with the phone’s slow interface while I tried to get it to swap out of an accidental touch on the Contacts list… before it tried to dial somebody else and then exited on its own. This was on stock firmware too. I looked like an idiot for a while.
I’ve had plenty of time to become accustomed to the phone and the swap. To be honest, the saying “the grass is always greener” probably applies here. I did gain a massive advantage in no longer having to put up with iTunes being the worthless piece of shit that it is, which is a massive benefit. But after that effect wears off, I honestly can’t find myself being overly enamoured with the phone. The app selection may be greater in terms of what’s allowed, but to be honest it doesn’t seem to make that big of a deal. Yes, I can run DosBOX on my phone, but it’s totally unusable even on this screen. Yes, I can install WinAMP. But the stock music app is so friggin’ horrible that I have to. One thing I guess I can say for the iPhone approach is that all the stock apps do actually work pretty well. On the Galaxy Note, you’ll probably look for a replacement for all of Samsung’s included apps… and there’s a lot of them, though I doubt you’ll touch half of them.
So overall I guess in terms of software it isn’t really that big of a difference; in general I found any software I wanted for the iPhone was also available on Android, and there wasn’t much of interest that I could get on Android that I can’t get on an iPhone. Strip away that benefit, and there’s not much left to write home about. Most of the benefits I gained were offset by other issues, like annoying interface quirks and slowdowns, interface issues (honestly I find Android app interfaces to be less consistent than iOS interfaces), and things like that.
One of the absolute most damning things I can talk about though is battery life, which coming from iOS is astoundingly bad. On the stock firmware it was horrible. With custom firmware it’s tolerable but still not quite as good as my iPhone. Also it’s a lot of hoops to jump through to fix, something a general off-the-street user couldn’t be bothered with. Of particular concern is the danger for a process to go rogue and prevent the phone from going into deep sleep. I never had to worry about this under iOS.
In terms of the screen, I honestly don’t care any more. Initially I was really pleased with the huge screen and while it does have some benefits, after using it for a while I don’t think it really matters all that much. Desktop-optimised websites are still painful to read, and mobile-optimised sites work equally well on small screens anyway (or look horrible in some poorly-created cases). It really does fit into that uncomfortable slot between phone and tablet; too big to be overly convenient as a phone, too small to be of much use as a tablet. Although I’m not going to say that it’s uncomfortable to carry all the time, it does seem a bit unwieldy compared to a smaller phone (and I mean average Android phone size, not micro iPhone 4 size).
So, do I recommend a Galaxy Note? Maybe. I don’t hate the phone so much that I want to sell it and never see it again (though I’ve been tempted) but at the same time pretty much everything that I like about it is “no iTunes” so if that’s a big deal for you, any Android phone will fit the bill. While a larger screen is nice initially, it doesn’t really provide that big of a bonus for me to recommend it. Plus the battery life is a pain.
Do I recommend swapping from iOS to Android? I actually don’t feel safe making an argument for it. If you’ve used iOS for a long time swapping to Android is a bit of a rough process, and one that still isn’t comfortable for me. Again the primary benefit is not having to use iTunes but otherwise I think a lot of the arguments ‘for’ Android are ultimately irrelevant for most people when talking about mobile phones. There are fanboys on both sides, and neither have much in the way of objective, unbiased assessments to offer. In the tablet sector where things like DOSBOX are more relevant then sure, I’d say Android has a leg up in terms of a more open app market. But on a phone where we tend to cluster around a set of common apps, it’s not an issue for the most part. I probably wouldn’t do it ‘just for a change’ because it’s a bit of a pain. I probably wouldn’t recommend swapping to a Galaxy Note in this case, I’d probably suggest you go with some other handset.
Finally, yet probably more importantly, it’s worth noting that Windows 8’s imminent release may change the game. Apple’s strong suite is its ecosystem, which has encouraged a few people to jump ship to OS X for their desktop computer just to get better integration with their iPhone/iPad. If Windows 8 manages to duplicate that success with tablets, it may revitalise the Windows Phone market and bring it up to speed with iOS and Android. To be honest, a WP8 phone would probably be preferable to an Android device in terms of interface and a better alternative to iOS. Of course Windows 8 might fail to make significant inroads in the tablet sector, and WP7 is still wasting away without much in the way of app support.
Finally, the saga ends. TL;DR version:
1 – Galaxy Note isn’t awesome but it isn’t terrible
2 – Big screen wears off after a while
3 – Battery life sucks, install custom firmware to fix
4 – Benefit from iOS boils down to ‘no iTunes’ and not much else
5 – Windows 8 might change things