We’re running out of things to argue about. Seems like every high-end smartphone released this year has 26 processors, high-definition this, 800-gigapixel that, and a price tag that only looks reasonable because its chained up to a three-year contract.
The sad fact is, until Microsoft’s Windows phones gain some traction or Research in Motion climbs back out of the abyss with BlackBerry 10, there are basically two contestants in this race – Apple’s iPhone and the gaggle of phones running on Google’s Android operating system. And as far as hardware design goes, so many of these phones are simply flat panes of glass.
That’s why Samsung’s Galaxy Note II smartphone is so refreshing. Sure, it’s also just another flat pane of glass, but it differs from its cohort in one key respect – it is a very large pane of glass.
The Note II, which landed on our desk this week, hits Canadian stores on October 30, going for about $200 on a three-year contract. As the name implies, it is a successor to the original Note, released about a year ago. The Note II is essentially a touchscreen phone running on almost-but-not-quite the latest version of Android. It would be largely unmemorable, were it not for its size. With a 5.5-inch screen, the Note II lives in the somewhat uncharted waters between 4-inch smartphones and 7-inch tablets.
The Note II also comes out at a time when Samsung is hedging its bets. Hammered by multiple intellectual property lawsuits from chief rival Apple, the South Korean manufacturer is starting to explore phones that run on something other than Android (specifically, Windows Phone 8, of which you should start to see new Samsung offerings later this year). The Note II is another type of hedge – an attempt to build something that might lure one customer away from an iPhone, and another away from an iPad.
Of course, a lot of people are going to look at this thing and just see a giant, giant phone.
Let’s make this clear: the Note II is just way too big to use as a phone in the traditional, hold-it-up-to-your-ear-and-talk sense. You might as well be holding a loaf of bread against the side of your face. It also doesn’t help that the top of the phone, near the front-facing camera and one of the speakers, gets kind of hot after a while. And it really doesn’t help that the phone’s smooth, ridge-free design and rounded corners make it difficult to get a firm grip, meaning you’ll be in constant fear that your refrigerator door of a phone will fall out of your hands and end up crushing a small dog.
As you might guess, it’s also difficult to hold for long periods of time with one hand – eventually, the muscles between your thumb and index finger start to get sore. If you want to use the phone to watch a movie on a plane or some similar situation, you’ll probably want to splurge on a docking port. Even worse, one-hand typing is a cruel joke. Samsung has tried to address complaints about this from the previous version of the Note by equipping this new one with a one-handed typing mode, which basically just scoots all the letters to the left or right. This allows you to type with one thumb, and improves the experience from unbearable to only mildly annoying.
Were this any kind of product review, the previous two paragraphs would pretty much torpedo the Note’s chances of a recommendation – after all, I’m telling you that the Samsung’s phone does a pretty bad job of being a hand-held phone.
But in fact the Note II is actually a pretty good ... something. Not a phone, not a tablet, but something.
There’s a pretty calculated gamble on Samsung’s part here. Over the past few years, smartphone manufacturers have focused a lot more on the smart and a lot less on the phone. In fact, it’s fair to say a lot of smartphone users barely use the phone function at all, preferring instead to communicate by text message, e-mail or social networking. Even in these reviews, we often spend very little time talking about call quality because (at least on high-end Android devices) that particular feature has pretty much plateaued. On the Note II, Samsung has done almost nothing to customize the call screen – it’s almost exactly what you’d expect on an Android phone.
So who exactly does Samsung expect will buy this phone? Well, first off, someone who’s either going to be using Bluetooth to make calls, or isn’t going to be making too many calls under any circumstances. No, the person who buys this land yacht of a phone is primarily interested in all that screen real estate.
It’s no coincidence that the Note’s screen dimensions match the 16:9 aspect ratio most common on HD movies and TV shows. At 5.5 inches, the phone is just large enough that using it to watch a full movie doesn’t turn into a headache-inducing chore, but small enough that it just fits into the pocket of a baggy pair of pants.
(A non-scientific test of Globe colleagues’ clothing showed that the Note will absolutely not fit in the pocket of your average miniskirt or even slightly tight pair of jeans).
The screen itself is beautiful, and highly responsive to touch gestures, thanks to the 1.6-gigahertz quad-core processor Samsung has thrown inside the phone. At 180 grams, it’s either a fairly heavy smartphone or the lightest tablet you’ll ever buy.
In reality, nobody’s going to buy the Note II because of what’s inside: its AllShare streaming content technology (more on that later). Nor is anybody going to line up for the device because of its web browser (runs fine, but will still take you to the mobile version of a site) or the NFC chip buried in the back (a Samsung representative says the company is working with Canadian payment operators, and that we’ll see something happen on the mobile wallet front in the next few months. But for now, we’re still waiting). This phone is all about the massive screen.
But trying to pitch the Note to customers based entirely on screen size is a losing proposition. For every user who finds the screen perfect for viewing movies, 10 others are going to complain that the screen is too small, or the phone is too big, or both.
So Samsung is trying to frame the Note as a device for “creators.” The idea being that the screen is big enough for you to do more than just consume media. You can use the Note to actually be productive.
In addition to the usual touchscreen interface, the Note II comes with a digital pointer pen, tucked into the bottom right corner of the phone. Once you pull the pen out, the phone jumps to attention and brings up the “S Pen” screen. This screen is your gateway to designing various memos using the pen. Think of these memos as super-powered Post-It notes.
But while somewhat gimmicky, the notes illustrate the phone’s ability to let you create stuff. The digital pen itself is magnetized, and the screen can detect its position when it’s hovering over the phone, rather than physically touching it. This leads to a number of nifty uses. For example, you can hover the pen over a tool, and watch a description of that tool pop up before you press the screen and actually launch it. When watching a movie, you can slide the pen across the scroll bar and watch little preview panes pop up showing stills from that portion of the movie – press down on the pane you like, and the phone jumps to that point in the movie. As far a technical wizardry goes, it’s pretty neat.
When composing a note, the phone can be made to recognize your scribbles and transform them to typed English on the fly. For the most part, the software did a decent job deciphering my miserable handwriting (although “My name is Omar” somehow got muddled into “My Name is0mF”). There’s also a handwriting-to-formula feature that lets you write down mathematical functions and then automatically converts them to typed formulae. I have no idea why the vast majority of Note users would ever need such a feature, but it exists.
On the brawnier side, the phone also comes pre-loaded with Polaris Office, a kind of Microsoft Office lite. The app will let you create or edit the usual array of Word, Excel or PowerPoint files. Is it fun to use? Not in the slightest. Will it save your career every once in a while when you’re on the road with no computer in sight and need to edit a file? Yeah, maybe.
(On a tangential note, the amount of bloated, useless software that carriers and manufacturers pre-install on these smartphones is becoming offensive. My Samsung phone, running on Bell’s network, came with all manner of thoroughly unnecessary “apps,” including an anemic Sympatico.ca news portal, some kind of navigation app that could be mine for the low, low price of $60, and a mobile TV service. The latter app was of the few I found even remotely interesting, since it gives you access to BNN, CTV and a couple of other live channels. Unfortunately, the app ended up generating one of the most ludicrous error messages I’ve ever read: “Due to rights restrictions, this program can only be accessed over a cellular network. Please ensure that your WiFi connection is turned off.” Fortunately, Samsung makes it easy to quickly get rid of all this nonsense. Simply touch and hold on an app, and you can drag it upwards to the trash can.)
Getting entertainment content onto that massive screen isn’t difficult, but it isn’t as easy as it should be, either. Samsung is pushing a technology called AllShare Play to help you stream content from one device to another. Basically, you sign up for an account, pick the devices you want to share data across, and that’s it.
AllShare works especially well if a lot of your devices, such as your phone and TV, are built by Samsung. Indeed, that’s sort of the point with these cross-platform sharing tools, be they from Microsoft, Apple or Samsung – to urge you to buy all your hardware and/or software from the same company.
For all intents and purposes, AllShare is fine – it looks and feels a bit like an ugly, browser-based version of Windows Explorer. But unlike Motorola’s version of the same type of tool, AllShare can’t mimic your iTunes playlists, and takes a weirdly long time to load. To be fair, though, you can always skip AllShare and just plug your phone into your computer directly through a USB port and drop whatever files you want on it. With 16 gigs of memory (expandable to 64 gigs), you have a lot of space to play around with. The phone can also wirelessly stream HD video to a nearby TV (again, this is easier to do if the TV is also made by Samsung).
So Samsung’s two target demographics, it seems, are business-people who want to use their phones to create things, and tech-savvy types for whom making phone calls isn’t much of a priority. Is the Note II going to outsell Samsung’s flagship and relatively normal-sized Galaxy S III smartphone? Not a chance. But it’ll gain some traction among people who want the closest thing to a tablet they can still carry in their pockets.
The Note II is also a statement on the mobile device industry itself. This phone, along with the smaller version of the iPad that Apple is expected to announce later this month, bolsters the argument that there really isn’t much of a distinction between smartphones and tablets any more – it’s all just a bunch of flat screens you carry around with you. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that Apple executives were slamming rivals such as RIM for producing 7-inch tablets, saying 10 inches was the perfect size.
For now, if you’re buying a mobile device, you can either stick to one size, spend an ungodly sum of money on myriad phones and tablets of different sizes, or settle for a Goldilocks gadget like the Samsung Note II.
Hopefully, one day, somebody figures out how to build a high-def display that expands and retracts, so your phone can double as your tablet or even your TV. Such a gadget would be a technical marvel, to be sure. But more importantly, it would mean we’d never have to write about screen sizes again. Here’s hoping.