Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Don't call it a "phablet" - the Galaxy Note II

My phone could eat your phone for lunch and still have room for seconds.  My phone could beat up your phone.  My phone contains chunks of your phone in its stool. (That's a Phil Hartman reference, if you didn't get it.) This is the kind of thing that pops into my head every time I see my new Android 4.1-packing, 4G LTE-supporting, quad-core CPU-powered 5.5" Samsung Galaxy Note II next to literally any other phone out there. Well, except maybe the original Galaxy Note, which is actually bigger. This thing is a monster.

But don't call it a "phablet". Samsung doesn't, and that's because it isn't. It's a phone, and it works pretty much like any other phone... just bigger. It's Samsung's flagship phone, frankly, with a faster processor, bigger screen, newer OS and more features than their as-yet better-known and cheaper Galaxy S3.

To someone like me, with gorilla-sized hands and tarantula-like fingers, it feels like a phone should. As soon as I picked it up, I had a "where have you been all my life?" moment. Other phones have always felt tiny to me, and I've never understood how people could thumb-type on a touchscreen or do other things that smartphones supposedly let you do.

I can literally make a fist around my wife's iPhone 3GS

It looks like a keychain or something, right?

Now be honest - doesn't this look a little more natural?

If you're wondering why I'm comparing the Galaxy Note II to an ancient iPhone 3GS, it's just what I happened to have around. But let's remember, nobody thought the iPhone 3GS was "small" until bigger phones came along. Phones are getting bigger over time - pushed along by innovators like the Note II that are still on the bleeding edge of size.

Even my Epic 4G, which was pretty powerful by the standards of the day (it was a first-gen Galaxy S), was too small for me to really do much on it other than text and email... painfully. As a side note, I owned an iPhone 3GS for one day and returned it in part because it was literally impossible for me to type on legibly. I know I'm not the only one, or sites like Damn You Autocorrect wouldn't exist. The Epic 4G partially made up for being too small with its physical keyboard, which is why I bought it.

The Galaxy Note II ("GN2" from this point on) finally lets me do everything I've heard people could do on touchscreen-based smartphones. I can type! I can text! I can browse the web - almost without squinting! I can play twitch-type games and do all the other things. This is what a smartphone should be... if you've got big hands.

The 16:9 5.5" screen on this thing let me sell my Nexus 7 (I've kept my 10" Motorola Xoom, though). You can do 90% of what you can on a 7" screen in 5.5". The screen itself is beautiful, and at 1280x720 resolution - the same as the Nexus 7 but in a smaller size - I don't see any pixels at all at normal distance. It is a Super AMOLED screen, so it is capable of those exaggerated colors that the tech's known for, but the GN2 allows you to change settings for a much more accurate appearance that's very well calibrated. Menus and icons can definitely look dull on the natural or movie settings until you're used to it, though.

One thing, if you're deciding between a big phone or a small tablet - Android can specify two different UI's both for itself and its apps, and as a phone, the GN2 uses the phone interface. So unless you plan on hacking the thing, don't expect to run tablet apps or have a bunch of extra screen real estate out of the box. Everything looks like it does on pretty much every other Android phone... just bigger.

The hardware itself has a really solid feel despite being all plastic (and Gorilla Glass). Before you pooh-pooh plastic construction, take a look at this Samsung testing video, which includes plenty of disturbing shots of the GN2 getting robot butt-stabbed and peed on.

Now do you understand why plastic makes a good material for phones? You're not gonna see any shattered backs or scratched paint on the GN2 or other Samsung phones.

I do find it advisable to use a case for no reason other than the phone's slickness - this is the one real downside to its construction. The glossy plastic on both the back and sides gets greasy very quickly and it's incredibly easy to drop the phone. And one other quick note: initially the chrome trim on my phone didn't seem to sit flush against the screen, and I thought about returning it.  Then I watched a couple disassembly videos on YouTube to see how the phone's constructed, and that convinced me to just try pressing in on that bulge, hard. Almost immediately the chrome trim snapped into place. So clearly, my phone just wasn't put together quite right at the factory, but it was an easy fix. The phone frame's just held together with plastic tabs - it's a very easy phone to take completely apart and replace any broken part.

The GN2 does have a MicroSD memory card slot, common in Samsung phones but becoming less common in others - including Google's own Nexus line. That means you can do what I did and install a 64GB card for 80GB in total storage, for a true monster of a phone and real high definition video powerhouse. Only a few years ago, most laptops didn't come with that much storage, and I was salivating over a Japanese phone that supported 8GB. You can save more books and magazines to the phone than you'd ever need for a plane trip, and more HD movies than you'd ever need for a cross-country train trip. (And let's not forget those "private" videos that some people seem to like to carry around.) And I doubt you'd ever even need to worry about space available for photos or videos.

Yeah, 80GB becomes 70GB once you cut through the marketing-speak.

Speaking of the camera, a lot gets written about smartphone cameras these days and how they're replacing dedicated point and shoots. That may be true, but I personally still find basically all smartphone cameras to be crap. In bright light the GN2's performance is decent, but maybe it's just me... I find I shoot mostly in low light situations, because that's when the fun stuff happens. And in those situations, the tiny sensors on smartphones - including the GN2, iPhone 5 and others - just don't measure up. Too noisy, underexposed (to keep the gain at a minimum, I'm guessing), and too blurry as the image processor tries to reduce that noise by smoothing it out. Here's an unmolested low light photo from the GN2 that suffers from all of these problems in spades (click the image for the big version):

I'm going to keep carrying around my Nikon S8200 when I know I'll be taking snapshots, and my Canon Rebel T2i when I want something a bit more serious. This isn't an indictment of the GN2's camera, but all smartphones. They suck as cameras, even today, and are only worth even thinking about because a smartphone's a camera you'll always have with you.

The battery, on the other hand, is a huge and removable 3100mah, and while my Epic 4G was barely able to make it through a single day, I go to bed with this thing at around 75% every night - and I use it! You can never have "too much battery" and I actually hope the GN3 embiggens it further, but for now this is the best battery life this side of the Droid Razr MAXX (a phone you'd really only want for its battery life). Being removable, you can also carry as many spare batteries around as you want. Carry an infinite supply and you'll never have to charge!

Aside from the screen size, the GN2's other big feature (pun intended) is the pressure-sensitive S pen that basically turns your phone into a small Wacom drawing pad. Apple intended with the iPhone to do away with styli, which up until that point were thought of as necessary for PDA data entry. I'll grant Apple that it's true, a stylus isn't necessary, but it is definitely useful, especially as Samsung's implemented it on the GN2. One of the things that I always wished my Epic 4G could do was let me just jot down a quick note. And sure, I could unlock the screen, open some sort of memo app, then type something out, but it always felt clunky and harder than just picking up a pen and writing something on the nearest piece of unopened junk mail. It was pen-less smartphone technology, as pioneered by Apple, that seemed archaic and inelegant, not the simpler pen and paper.

I love that the GN2 lets me pull out the S pen with the phone asleep and immediately scribble something on the screen - just as if I were using a real pen and paper. It knows when you take the pen out, and it can immediately open an S Note window (yes, a window!). If I use the S pen for nothing else, this feature was absolutely worth the price premium vs. competing phones.

Notice I don't touch any controls on the phone until I turn it off, which would happen automatically if I didn't do it manually. And yeah, unfortunately that is an accurate reflection of my handwriting.

My GN2's the Sprint version, and it does come with Sprint Zone, but I don't really see any other Sprint-specific apps. No NASCAR, at least. There is a whole suite of Samsung apps, most of which are not useful to me (many just duplicate Google Play services, but not as well), but they do have a "find my phone" feature if you sign up for a free Samsung account. Clearly, Samsung is trying to be the Apple of the Android world (though I'm not commenting on whether they've stolen any patents - even if they have, massive companies like Apple are not who the patent system is designed to protect). Unfortunately, the Samsung apps seem generally to be uninstallable, and some of them run all the time whether you want them to or not. It's pretty shocking to look at my running apps and see 1.1GB in use without me having loaded a single thing - yeah, this phone is crammed with what I'd call bloatware.

But it's also loaded with cool software features I personally haven't seen in a phone before. Multi-window support, which makes the phone a true multitasker and the only one I personally know of. Custom home screens for different tasks - in addition to an S pen-specific home screen that pops up when you remove the pen, you can also set up custom home screens for when you insert headphones, when you dock the phone, or other situations. One cool feature I stumbled on completely by chance (and this is your warning!) is DLNA support. Don't know what that means? Well, if you have a fairly new TV, and it happens to be on, just make sure you're not watching anything on the phone that you wouldn't want others to see when you press this button:

Any of your own videos - you know, the kind without DRM, that you'll be storing on your SD card - can be watched on your TV through the phone, wirelessly. It is really pretty cool, especially because of how seamless it is. It just works, instantly - and I don't even have a Samsung TV!

Sorry for the close zooming there, but I'm not interested in showing off my messy house. I can assure you I touched nothing on either the phone or TV (or its remote) other than the DLNA button on the phone.

Fortunately, the phone is rootable, which allows you to remove all the junk if you're so inclined, and there are also plenty of community ROMs available for you to install that strip all the unnecessary stuff out.

I personally wouldn't do that myself, at least not yet. Samsung puts their own loader on Android called TouchWiz, and the latest version (made specifically for the GN2) is actually quite good - and it's responsible for many of the things that make the GN2 what it is. Multi-window support - that's a TouchWiz feature, not an Android one. The S pen feature I talked about above - that's another. TouchWiz itself is also plenty fast - the phone does hitch up every once in a while, but I'm pretty convinced that's because of the running apps and services, not TouchWiz.

I'm including this section mainly out of a sense of obligation, because in case I haven't mentioned it enough, this is a phone. The truth is I've never heard - nor has anyone on the other end of my calls, that I know of - any difference between any American phone that I've owned. The network you're on is the biggest factor in call quality, and Sprint's voice coverage is kind of middling, but no American network is perfect. There are always dropouts here and there, and there's always a tiny but noticeable digital delay. Most of the time, the sound quality itself is good, as you'd expect. Small speakers and microphones aren't rocket science.

I have high hopes now that Japan's Softbank is buying Sprint, and has pledged to heavily invest in their network. CEO Masayoshi Son has said he thinks American networks are a joke, and he wants to bring Sprint up to par with what you might expect in Japan. This actually helped convince me to stay with Sprint for my upgrade.

And what about competing phones? Well, just as I was ordering my GN2, HTC and Verizon announced the Droid DNA - another big phone (though slightly smaller than the GN2) with a 5" screen. The Droid DNA's got the tech world's hearts all aflutter over its 1080p screen. But other than that one feature, the Droid DNA's a pretty pedestrian phone, with a weak, non-removable battery, only 16GB of onboard storage and no SD slot expansion. It also has a locked bootloader, so when that day comes when HTC and Verizon stop updating it (and given their history, that day will come soon), you're SOL.

There's of course the iPhone 5, which I honestly considered again in anticipation of its announcement, but I was disappointed with its lower, weird resolution that doesn't match any HD spec. It's also too small, with Apple insisting on making a phone that everyone can use with one hand, including house cats.

There's the LG Nexus 4, which again is a smaller phone but one that ships without any bloatware. I was eagerly awaiting this phone, until Google announced it and it had neither a MicroSD slot nor LTE support.  Pass.

Then there are other, more accurately labeled "phablets", none of which really seem to get the balance right. The GN2 succeeds because it is a phone, just a big one. I don't think I'd have liked the original Note as much, which was wider and more like a small tablet. The LG Intuition is similar, and just look at those sharp corners. It's also running an older version of Android.

I've been thinking about the reason why Android is beating iOS (except in the immediate aftermath of any new iPhone release) and why Samsung, specifically, is beating all other Android smartphone manufacturers lately. And I pretty firmly believe it's because of, not despite, the sort of wild west mentality of Android combined with the way Samsung blends old-school PC-style customization and features galore with a clean, modern style. The Android ecosystem is like a little microcosm of America - it's huge, messy and kind of anarchic, but it's also open and free and you can do what you want. The elephant in the room when it comes to technology is that we like things to be a little messy. A perfectly closed, perfectly symmetrical and perfectly maintained ecosystem is just unfamiliar and unintuitive to us - it's not a reflection of our reality, and we feel constrained. It's like living a real life in America and a mobile life in North Korea.

Apple, most Android manufacturers and even Google themselves lately have increasingly taken a closed approach to how you use your device - locking the bootloader, removing expansion slots, making the battery non-removable, etc. They do these things ostensibly to avoid "confusion", because they apparently think we are idiots who can't figure out where our stuff is. (Isn't this a failing of the OS rather than the user?) Everybody who thinks this way about us consumers needs to stop. Right now.

Why does a company like Samsung, with their old-school styli, user serviceable plastic construction, "confusing" SD slots, removable batteries and unlocked bootloaders, endless customization options, monster specs and insanely long feature lists sell boatloads more devices than anyone else?

The question answers itself. That this isn't incredibly fucking obvious to the rest of the industry - including Google and Apple - makes me want to take these guys out back and slap them. No, I'm not saying millions of people have purchased Samsung phones because of an unlocked bootloader.  But add up all these features and the different people they appeal to and you've got a hit phone. The conventional wisdom that we all want simple devices that limit what we can do is wrong.

Like most other device categories (cars, A/V receivers, refrigerators), what we really want is the kitchen sink, and the freedom to choose what features we do and don't use. And the sales data supports that fact. Maybe the rumored new Samsung OS wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

There's not much I would say I dislike about the GN2. In fact, my next phone will almost definitely be a Galaxy Note III. But what I'd like to see in the next Note is a more grippable surface, a 1080p screen, and an even bigger battery. Oh, and less bloat. Other than that, just keep on keeping on, Samsung.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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