I was a little disappointed to discover that, five months after the release of Android 4.0—which all the cool kids call Ice Cream Sandwich—the Galaxy Note still ships with Android 2.3. Samsung hasn't released an Ice Cream Sandwich update for the device, either. Android 2.x isn't bad by any means, but speaking as an iPhone user, I've always found it a little clunky. The UI animations aren't always perfectly smooth, the widgets aren't terribly nice to look at, and call me crazy, but I swear the OS feels slow even on relatively powerful devices like the Note.
To its credit, Android does certain things iOS can't do. Home-screen widgets allow you to quickly enable and disable Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, maneuvers that require a trip into the Settings app on the iPhone. Voice dictation has been a standard feature for a long time now, whereas Apple still doesn't offer that functionality on devices older than the iPhone 4S and iPad 3. The Facebook integration (which syncs information from your Facebook friends list to your address book) is very handy, as well.
I suppose Android is more of a geek's platform in many respects. Google exposes considerably more configuration options and information about the system than Apple does, and users are given free rein to replace default apps if they so choose. The Google Play store also seems like less of a walled garden than the iTunes App Store. Or, at least, app rejections don't make headlines quite so often.
It's just too bad that the Note doesn't run Ice Cream Sandwich yet. According to the guys at SammyHub, who found a post on Samsung's Norwegian Facebook page, ICS isn't coming to the Note until next quarter.
On a big honkin' phone like the Galaxy Note, the web browser almost beckons you. There's something delightful about touching your way through the web on any device with responsive input, and a large display makes it all the better.
As you'd expect, the Galaxy Note requires a lot less zooming and panning than smaller phones. In fact, in landscape mode, you can almost get away with not zooming at all when reading TR. Sadly, most sites identify the Galaxy Note as a regular Android phone, redirecting the user to a stripped-down, mobile version designed for much smaller screens. While some sites provide a link that switches to the full-fat flavor, not all are that accommodating, which can become a little annoying. Ice Cream Sandwich puts a "request desktop site" option right in the browser, but it still can't be configured to request the desktop versions of web sites by default.
Panning and zooming in the Note's Gingerbread browser is very smooth overall. For some reason, however, I noticed a lot of checkerboarding when tracking around graphics-heavy pages. The effect can be a bit disconcerting, especially since the checkerboard pattern doesn't always go away until you've taken your finger off the screen. My first thought was to blame a video memory limitation (this thing is, after all, driving a 1280x800 display), but we're talking about a phone that can run snazzy-looking 3D games at the native resolution. So, I don't know.
Speaking of games...
One would expect any graphics-heavy application to be beautiful on such a large display, and the Galaxy Note doesn't disappoint there. 3D games like ShadowGun (pictured above) and Blood and Glory look gorgeous. They run well, although the experience falls short of seamless fluidity in both cases. Less demanding 3D titles, like Heliodroid 3D, are definitely smoother. In all cases, though, the big screen delivers more than just delicious eye candy: it gives you more room to position your fingers without covering up the image or touching the wrong controls by accident.
Sadly, not all titles natively support the Note's 1280x800 display resolution. Some games are going to look blurry because of the scaling required, and there's nothing you can do about it.
On the video front, the Galaxy Note has a YouTube app, and the Note also happily plays most non-streaming video formats like WMV, DivX/XviD, and H.264 via the included Videos app. I got pretty much the same experience with the standard-def XviD, 720p MP4, and "high-quality" YouTube videos I tried: smooth but not 100% fluid playback, with occasional dropped frames that didn't compromise audio/video synchronization. Although playback seemed slightly more fluid on my iPhone, the picture quality was a lot better on the Note. That display's contrast ratio and color reproduction really are something to behold.
The giganto display makes the Galaxy Note compelling as an e-book reader—maybe not as your primary reading device, but certainly a good Kindle or Nook substitute for public transport and waiting rooms. Google sells books through its own Play store, and there's an Android version of Amazon's Kindle app that works rather well. I've used the Kindle app on my iPhone, but the cramped screen and the small number of words per line can get to be a little uncomfortable. The Galaxy Note doesn't suffer from the same problem, and reading is surprisingly comfortable. The fact that Samsung gives you a quick rotation lock shortcut in the notification slide-down area is definitely a plus.
Now, there is a substantial downside to the large display.
If you've ever texted or Googled or Yelped on the go, chances are you did so with just one hand: fingers clasped around your phone, thumb hitting all the necessary buttons and keys. Your other hand might have been occupied carrying a shopping bag or keeping you steady in the bus or subway. Good luck replicating that with the Galaxy Note. The thing is just too friggin' big for one-handed typing, at least with my medium-sized hands. Unless you have lumberjack mitts, typing comfortably without losing your grip on the phone is going to require the use of both hands—or of the voice dictation facility, but that might get awkward in public.
Speaking of awkwardness, there's a definite and very palpable dignity cost to making a call in public:
Yeah. Using this thing gave me flashbacks of the big phone guy from old Trigger Happy TV episodes.
Don't get me wrong—call quality on the Galaxy Note is fine, and the earpiece speaker is plenty loud. It gets much louder than the one on my iPhone at the maximum setting, actually. But this device feels sort of unwieldy when I hold it up to my face, and the sheer size of it is pretty much guaranteed to attract stares. If you're happy to flaunt your geek cred in front of everybody (or have long given up any sense of self-respect), then that won't bother you. Anyone else may want to invest in a quality Bluetooth headset.