Samsung Galaxy Note GT-N7000 Gingerbread and ICS review

I decided to see if I could switch from a Tab + Smartphone to a single device, and that’s where the Galaxy Note came into the equation.   So off went the Sony Arc, and in came the Galaxy Note.

With the arc running ICS, the first thing I wanted to do was to update the Note the recently released ICS version, however I found that the update was not available for the CSC code of my phone.  So the elementary move was to see if I could change the CSC code and get the update, and the option was available and this is the time I also came across the warning of the eMMC bug which was randomly effecting Galaxy Note phones, though the issue was supposedly in existence in many of the Galax Note devices due to a hardware issue which required a particular flag to be disabled (impact being slower access to the internal memory).  Still uncertain is that fact if the 4.0.4 update has fixed this issue, as Samsung has not formally confirmed a fix as to date.

So like it or not I had to be stuck with Gingerbread on my Galaxy Note, and though ICS has many issues with application compatibility what is clear is that it does improve the browsing and usability on devices that have the hardware to harness it, and the Galaxy Note is definitely one of them.

UPDATE July 2012: Subsequently i tested devices owned by my friend with ICS 4.0.3 and the got myself a new note device that had 4.0.4 running out of the box. Review has been updated to reflect these findings.  The latest update also brings a lot more features to the Note including the formerly Galaxy S3 exclusive pop-up video feature.  A note only feature introduced in 4.0.4 is the signature unlock that leverages the stylus.

Initial Impression

A big phone for a phone, and many may shy from directly using it as a phone without a hands free or headset.  However while it was a bit awkward I had no problem using it like a typical phone.

One good thing is it does not heat up like the Sony arc for long term use, or when browsing, though it does get hot on long use.

The proximity detection feature that is also there in select Samsung models, where  when you take a call to shut the display is very useful as it does reduce the “ouch I put the call on hold, or damn I just cut it/ dialed someone else) in addition to saving  the battery by cutting out the display.

Display, Touch and Stylus experience

Switching from the 800×480 resolution of the Arc to the higher 1280×800 on par with many of the tablets I had used immediately made its presence with more real estate on the screen, and the Samsung AMOLED screen on the Note was extremely vibrant even at its lowest setting. The Galaxy Note is also special for a 2011 phone that it has the higher resolution that only started to get used on the Samsung built Google Nexus, and recently launched Samsung Galaxy S3 (however there are select variants of the Galaxy S2 also having this resolution in some markets).

The AMOLED screen is superb making it excellent for video and internet use. The text is clear and the higher resolution combined with a larger screen area makes it even more effective. I recently switched to a HTC One X, and also tried a Galaxy S3, no matter what you say the 5.3″ of the Note is still more important for any video or internet browsing user than a 4.7/4.8″ screen.

The Exynos processor coupled with the Mali 400MP GPU has a substantial increase in the fluidity and part of the reason must be also the larger amount of RAM on this (1GB).  While there was some lag in some screens in Gingerbread in ICS this has been reduced that one feels why you need a quad-core at all!

The much touted Stylus was something I had to try, and I tried it with the S-Memo application.  The default pen thickness to me is a bit too thick and does no justice to the what can be done.  Making the nib thinner makes it quite ideal for writing quick notes or scribing a sketch.  However when I used it on Gingerbread I felt that the application was lagging and lacking in smoothness.

Subsequently when I tried it on an ICS running Note I found that the writing was super smooth and  vast improvement over the Gingerbread version.  I am not sure this was entirely do with the ICS, or if the version included in the ICS build was far more optimized by Samsung.  On ICS the pen application seriously has very good potential for drawing, diagram creation, and for taking notes though the Samsung applications usability to be frank is rather dismal and bordering crap!

A major use of the pen was also to take screen captures,  where it proved to be a bit more usable than using the power and volume key combination for ICS native screen captures.

Interface

This was the first time after my Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 that I was coming in contact with the Touchwiz interface. While the interface is quite slick and has some interesting features,  it also brought in a lag, and subsequently resorted to using third party launchers for a more slicker navigation.  However due to the Galaxy Note having a thumping hardware spec even Touchwiz is more than bearable for me!

I used the Nemus launcher on my Note, though I find Apex to be better launcher for ICS.  Both these launchers maybe less full of eye candy compared to ADW or Go launcher, but seems to be far more tuned and lighter.

Size and Handling

While the phone is rather larger for a phone, it can still be used for taking calls but one handed operations are extremely hard for a normal person to use.  However the device is superb for use in landscape mode with both hands, making it ideal for gaming, reading, browsing, etc.

Processing and Storage

The dual-core Exynos processor from Samsung has been something that set the trend as the best of the breed in 2011, and even into mid 2012, its manages to compete well against the quad-core Tegra, and the quad-core Exynos.  The dual core S4 krait seems to be the unit that is breaking records, but the unit is more than capable of providing the required power not for this year but for the next if you hope to hold on to the device for a long term.

Another thing that makes the Note still a worth purchase is that unlike most phones in 2011, it comes with 1GB RAM, which is definitely required for ICS and Jelly Bean which require a lot more RAM than Gingerbread.

The Note comes with a fair amount of internal storage 16GB (some variants have 32GB), and it also comes with a microSD slot that can take up to another 32GB, providing ample storage.

Voice quality

The voice quality when using the phone is quite good. However for for its size I expected better from the in-built speaker phone. I felt that the Galaxy SII speakerphone was louder than the Note.

Multimedia

Samsung is known for bundling hardware support for practically all popular video formats, something many other manufacturers shy from.  Hence the default video player can handle all formats, but here again I prefer to use the MX Player for its better usability.

The Samsung music player is cool, and one of the features I like which I did not find in my Sony or HTC I the folder view, which is very useful when playing your music.

The camera unit seems identical to the Galaxy SII and its excellent for a camera phone. One of the key advantages that the Note and Galaxy S2 phones have is that they use a very very powerful flash, coupled with a fairly fast lens and decent sensor (for a camera phone) they produce top notch photos that even are hard to improve by the newer models such as the Galaxy S3 or the HTX One X/ Xperia S.  The video is also very good, and the Note is all ready to do 1080p, something that other brand phones only brought into the 2012 range!

The speakers on the Galaxy Note are adequate, but for the larger size I expected better.  Having tried both the Galaxy S2 and the Galaxy 7.7 tab I find that the speaker unit is either identical to the S2 or worse.  The worse could be due to the form fact or design that muffles it,  hence its not that loud.  My former Sony Arc thumped a fair bit of sound when it comes to music than the Note.

Battery

If you look at the battery life tests, this device just stands out for voice calls due to the extremely large capacity battery which is at least 50-80% more than what a normal phone battery is in the top of range phones.

However once you start to use the screen a lot for browsing or reading (and remember AMOLED is not very efficient when the screen is entirely white, a major problem when it comes to browsing or e-reading), the battery drain is greater than a smaller screen with an smaller battery.

However with general use similar to my Arc I can easily take the device over 2 days, something very hard to accomplish with most smart phones, though heavy internet users (one of my colleagues who owned a Note falls into this category), and in his case the battery ran dry in less than a day.

Connectivity options

An aspect that I did not write or consider much in my past reviews were on the SIM type, since the micro SIM is something we mainly associated with Apple.  Well seems like more and more of the newer crop are joining the micro SIM band.  Fortunately the Galaxy Note still uses a normal SIM, very useful when you suddenly need to remove and use the SIM on an older phone.

Benchmarks

I had the luxury of using my version of the Note running Gingerbread and also subsequently try the device of my friend which had been upgraded to ICS.  Here is a quick summary of standard results.  Nenamark results have shown explosive increments with ICS across all phones i have tested so it seems to be either some tweak on ICS or how the benchmark works.  Reasons for Antutu dropping so much has baffled me, and when i compared the CPU scores had dropped, but power saving was definitely disabled, and i had also stopped any background applications.  I will try to rerun that test and see if that had been a freaky result, since the overall graphical interaction responses of the Note with ICS had improved vastly compared to Gingerbread.

I again got myself a Note, and this time it had ICS 4.0.4 running, and performance had improved beyond the Gingerbread version and much better than the ICS 4.0.3 firmware.

Gingerbread 2.3.6 ICS 4.0.3 ICS 4.0.4
Linpack single 65.0  48.9
Linpack multi 90.5  80.9
Antutu 2.8.2 6280  5210  6475
Quadrant Standard 2819  3415  3547
Nenamark 2.2 27.0  41.7  42.4

Even Vellamo scores for web rendering related had dropped in 4.0.3. Here are the two captures for Gingerbread (above) and ICS (below). However with the 4.0.4 update the figures are back indicating the initial ICS release was not properly tweaked.

Impact of power saving on the Galaxy Note

When I first ran the results on my Gingerbread Note, I was rather disappointing if i had got a dud unit since the results were very poor.  Then I realized the reason was that I had the default power saving enabled.  Here are some results showing the impact of the power saving on tests

No power saving Power saving enabled
Antutu 2.8.2 6280 3898
Quadrant Standard 2819 2264

Conclusion

Many laughed at the size, and all expected it to crash just like the Dell Streak. But how wrong people were, including myself, the device has a niche, and a large niche at that which seems to be growing, and the upcoming 5.5″ Note 2 and the sales numbers for the Note tell the story of its success.

With smart phones growing in size, the current flagship phones are touting 4.7/4.8″ screens that are not too far shy of the Galaxy Note, indicating that people want screen space, something that the Apple phones are now loosing out on, and this is where the Android devices are hitting hard.

The story is not just resolution, its also about the screen space, and with more and more users now moving to texting, browsing, and video calls coupled with seeking to use the phone as a multimedia device, the Galaxy Note has hit a spot and unlike past device its comes with superb hardware, an excellent screen that matches anything in the market, and the stylus that has its uses. It has not fallen into the trap of compromising on its multimedia and comes with an excellent camera that produces superb photos and videos.

So if you own a Note, or want to own one don’t think big is stupid, trust me it is note, and many in office who had a laugh when they saw me using it have purchased the same and are very happy as it does cater to the modern generation!  My kids pediatrician who is a techno geek, has a Note, and thought he upgraded his day phone a S2 with the S3, he still has  the Note indicating the more powerful S3 with the larger screen still cannot replace what the Note can do!

Galaxy Note as a Phone

For many the Galaxy Note will be far too large to use it as a normal phone, since it is far to large for single handed use, and also too large in size to be keeping it to your ear in size and weight (can also impact your clown factor in office!).

However if you are a Bluetooth headset user, this issue completely vanishes, and the larger battery and practically of the Note makes it a superb device.

Also if you are rare voice caller and mainly  text person, who also wants to browser or view videos, then look no further unless you prefer a larger size in a tablet format either 7/7.7/10″.

Galaxy Note as a carry along Tablet

While the Note is large, my belief is that its suitable for browsing but falls short on the e-reader department as its just too small for long term reading.  The size is also too small to be comfortable for long term use, and this I where the 7/7.7″ format comes into use.

Hence if you are into texting and take only a rare call, then the 7.7/7 in tabs are far more suited as they have the ideal reading size, and usually also come with better battery life and equivalent hardware.  I also got the opportunity to buy and use a P6800 Galaxy 7.7 tab and believe this suites such users far more than the Galaxy Note for heavy e-reading and movies than the Note.

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