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BW Businessworld

Note On A Form Factor

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“Too big!” That’s a refrain you will hear enough when someone talks or writes about the Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, successor to the popular Note and according to Samsung selling away speedily in its new avatar at the rate of 3 million in the first month. 
 
And big it is, but not because someone resized it all wrong in photoshop, but because it was intended to have screen real estate. Before pegging its sheer size down as a disadvantage, one needs to realise that some err… like it big. I, for one, have always loved expansive screens on which images leap out, colours look juicy and text looks delicious. Smaller, to me, is a diminished experience. I am assuming there are others who feel similarly.  But this doesn’t mean I dislike the much smaller iPhone 5, which I wouldn’t say no to either; That’s a different experience and it’s just that the size of the Note II suits my usage better. In other words, this form factor is for those who like a phone-tablet and don’t mind doing whatever they need to in order to adjust to its dimensions, which happen to be 5.95 x 3.17 x 0.37 inches. It’s not a negative for those who like it — only for those who prefer a different size. 
 
The Ergonomics
Holding: The Note II has been reshaped in comparison to the original Note. It’s been narrowed, yet now wears a bigger screen of 5.5 inches. It has an easy grip despite its size, but it isn’t a one-handed device. I have never figured out why people need to use a phone with one hand anyway, except in rare situations. There are several videos online of reviewers demonstrating speedy fiddling on the Note using one hand — it even looks awkward and is simply unnecessary. What’s so urgent that the other hand can’t be deployed? But for those who insist, Samsung has put it some software tricks to help you go one-handed such as shift the dialer to one side, but I would say the nature of this gadget is not for urgent half-attentive use. It’s much more of a full involvement phone-tablet.
 
Carrying: On the go, the Note II is bound to be different from carrying a more typical mobile phone. Get it if you are willing to take the trouble to carry it. We women can just drop it into a handbag, but it’s a little heavy for a shirt pocket and will stick out of trouser back pockets. One tends to forgive it when one realises that the weight is all battery and that the battery can take you through about one-and-a-half days of usage, but if you don’t want to make that trade off, consider something lighter. 
 
I have seen people readily carry a whole iPad around, so the Note shouldn’t be that much of a problem for those who want its functionality and handiness. 
 
Dropping: At its dimensions, the Note II could possibly be easier to drop — just my opinion. With small phones, your hand can grip it enough to protect it more easily. With a large screen device, you don’t want someone to knock hard into you while you’re busy using it, or some such disaster. If it falls and you’re using the flap plus case, I am not sure the back will come apart to take the shock. I am not trying it however. Suffice is to say that if you want to use this gadget, you will have to be a little extra careful with it. As I use it, this is becoming second nature and I find myself doing things like firming up my grip when someone’s rushing past me too close. 
 
Calling: Making phone calls with a gadget this size can look unwieldy but doing so, I didn’t catch any curious glances in my direction. Possibly people just get used to seeing different sizes of devices being used. I no longer get odd looks if I take an occasional photo with my iPad, either for that matter. Of course, I just swish my hair over the Note II anyway and no one is the wiser... If you are someone who gets a call a minute though, another size of device may be more suitable. This device really comes into its own when you use its screen and stylus to good effect rather than mostly talk on the phone, though there are always Bluetooth earpieces. Once again, it’s about the user’s habits. Calling is actually not more than 20 per cent of my smartphone usage, so I don’t mind a larger device. Voice quality and the speaker are excellent. 
 
The Design And Style
Looks: There’s nothing special about the way the Note II looks. It’s like a big S3, particularly if you get a white one. With the grey, there’s an extra touch of elegance because there’s a silky-toned look to the back and the cover (which is optional and extra) matches. But it’s the same old Samsung plastic and one can’t help thinking of how nice it could have looked if some other material had been used but it seems like Samsung is stubbornly refusing to let go of the shiny plastic they have adopted. In fact, a textured material which also enhances the grip would have been a good idea. 
 
Build: We have a solid device here. Its weight is significant but reassuring, giving it some stability in your hands when you are using it. There are no sharp edges or corners on this smartphone, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing. Overall, it looks professional, particularly with the flap on. Unfortunately it isn’t a smart flap, switching the screen off like the iPad’s smart cover does. But there are widgets on the market that will let you turn off the screen quickly by flipping it downwards or with a quick shake, if you like. As long as you don’t drop the device in the process. 
 
The Pen Paradox
Handwriting: Don’t let anyone tell you that the stylus or “S-Pen” is an add-on you can ignore. To do that would be a waste because the Note II really comes into its own with the stylus. Otherwise, although it’s one of the most powerful mobile devices in the world (certainly at the time of launch) there are other large phones and “phablets” coming up each week, practically. The stylus in fact works exceptionally sensitively and this, so far, distinguishes the Note II from others. 
 
Like many others who use technology to the hilt, I have long since lost my once-pretty handwriting. Today I scrawl so badly that even a chemist wouldn’t be able to de-code my writing. But interestingly, the Note II can. I was startled at how intuitive and effective the handwriting recognition is on this device though I shouldn’t be because it has a Waccom digitizer layer and Waccom tablets are what designers have used for decades to do the most precise design and art work. I found that when I scribble a letter, change my mind, rescribble or go back a stroke or two and make a bigger mess of it, the Note II still gets what I was writing. I didn’t set out consciously wanting to use a stylus, but once I began trying it out I found it so buttery smooth, pressure sensitive, and easy and quick that I now automatically pull out the pen when I reach for the phone. To my surprise I have seriously begun to enjoy making lists, taking notes, writing pieces of articles, etc on this device. It doesn’t make my handwriting look any better because of of its slipperiness but converting to text on the fly has been mostly accurate. There are word suggestions but no spell checker, though there’s probably one you can download.
 
Drawing: I’m no artist but if I were, the fine precision with which I could draw something with this pen is amazing. There’s also a drawing app, Paper Artist which, if you don’t find adequate, can be supplemented with others from Google Play. Samsung has been pushing the creativity aspect of the Note II a lot and I’m sure those can sketch and design things will like noting down and developing their ideas on this gadget in addition to whatever else they do. 
 
Software: I wish there were a host of interesting apps that made use of the stylus but that’s not the case. However, there are the most important ones. There’s an S-Note app which gives you a bunch of templates for different kinds of input. And yes, you can readily convert writing to text on the fly. All it needs is for you to get into the settings and choose the combination that suits you most. The S-Note app has various modes and customization settings. You can even record audio into your notes.
 
Neat Tricks: The S Pen has a few nice tricks up its sleeve. First, it slips very neatly into a slot on the phone and if you set it to, will make a soft sound to let you know it’s properly in place. And because it’s inevitable that you would put the stylus down and forget about it, there’s a setting that alerts you when you walk away with the pen not inserted in its slot. This is even when you may have it in your other hand — it’s the walking off that does it. 
 
You can also set the S-Pen to pop up a memo the second you take it out of the slot. I have found I can take down a number someone tells me as they say it. 
 
The stylus also interacts with the screen when you hover over it. This is the Air View mode. You can see a tiny cursor change depending on the context. Hovering can be used to scroll, show pictures from an album, frames from a video show information from a menu, bits from an email, text from an SMS, etc. 
 
There’s a little button on the stylus for additional functions. It’s really difficult to find though and each time you have to feel all over the pen for it. That’s unfortunate because it only slows you down inside of making things easier. It’s also not easy to press. For instance, you can press and make a less than sign to go back a page. But in the time it takes to find the button, press it and draw the sign, you may as well just press the back virtual key on the device. 
 
The pen is something to be explored in depth by the user as settings will throw up more features and customisations. The button on the pen can take screen shots (even shaped ones) and let you annotate them. You can even flip over photos and write on their virtual back. You can create your own “Quick Commands” too. It will be fabulous if Samsung can support this with software updates or apps that make further use of this little powerful pen. 
 
And Everything Else
Full Specs: There would have been little point Samsung making this smartphone large and feature-filled and under-powering it. The Note II is instead a full spec powerhouse with a 1.6GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage with a micro-SD card for expansion. It’s running Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. An update to 4.2 which has recently been released, is awaited and should be interesting because it brings more features including a new keyboard with a swipe action that shows the word as you swipe.
 
There’s a giant 3100 mAh battery which lasts anything from one to one and a half days depends on how you use it. And it’s user replaceable, though I don’t see a situation where you would need to do that. The back of the phone opens very easily if you need to access the battery Or the micro-SD card or micro sim. 
 
All this powers a 5.5 inch HD Super AMOLED (1,280 x 720) display. It’s a great screen, not sharp like the Apple Retina Display, but nevertheless easy on the eye and with rich colors. Reading on this screen is very comfortable, which makes it fun to browse on in landscape and a totally usable e-reader. . Pictures and video look good and details such as water and smoke in movies are smooth and clear. The device has all of the features introduced on the Galaxy S3, including the “Smart Stay” for keeping the screen on while you look at it and voice commands through S-Voice, though Google’s Voice Search works very well too. 
 
Camera: The camera is an 8 megapixel with many settings including a good low-light mode, stabilization and a voice command capture. All the tagging, sharing, best photo selection etc that first turned up on the S3 are here. Video recording and playback is HD 1080.The audio is full and pleasing and there’s a nice set of earphones (with extra earbuds of different sizes) which you can also use to take calls. 
 
Jelly Bean: Because the device is now on Jelly Bean, you also get to use the fascinating Google Now which, if you feed it with your location, calendar and tasks will give you all sorts of information it considers relevant and useful to you, including traffic conditions when you go somewhere. Jelly Bean was supposed to bring a faster smoother Android and on this device it certainly does. Navigating around on the phone is very fast and browsing is top speed. 
 
With this version of Android you can customise your phone even more with information and widgets on the lock screen. Samsung’s TouchWhiz interface sits right on top of the Jelly Bean and while people have complained about this on other phones, here it makes sense because of the tons of features it brings. Take for example the way in which you can press one of the native buttons at the bottom to enable a slide out menu with some of the essential apps ready to access. These apps can also be used in split screen mode. Pull a video on to the screen and then pull in a browser to share the screen with it. Now you can watch and look for some info on the cast at the same time. Not all apps get into this split screen mode though. 
 
The Note II costs Rs 39,990 but is available for a little less in some places. The cover is an extra of about Rs.1500. All smartphones are, I think, exorbitant. Some nearly cost half a lakh. But the Note has so many features, endlessly customizable with Android, handy and focused as a productivity tool that I consider it value for money in a way that some phones are not. It’s a unique device that helps you get things done and for those who can get past the size, really worthy of consideration. 
 
Quick Comparisons
Galaxy Note: If you’re a prolific user of the original Note and have the budget, moving up to the Note II would be a good idea. The pen is so much more improved, the form factor so much easier to handle and the sheer power this device now has so great that you may not want to miss out. Sell your Note and go for it, is what I would say. 
 
7-inch Tablets: The experience on 7 inch-or-so device is really quite different. First of all, there’s no stylus and it’s the pen that distinguishes the Note and makes it so useful. The Note is more handy and productivity oriented. The 7-inch tablets including the iPad Mini are certainly portable but still not in the get things done category. 
 
The Full iPad: Whatever version you’re considering, it doesn’t compare with the Note II which is in a different usage slot altogether. I could summarise it this way: The iPad is a joy. The Note is a super convenience. The iPad is a more comprehensive tablet with unbeatable apps from Apple’s App Store. The Note II must rely on Android apps which are not of the same quality except for the pen and its apps that Samsung has put in, taking it in a different direction. You can do many of the same things on both, but not in the same way; not to the same comfort level. A choice between the two — if you don’t happen to want both — has to come from some examination of your likely usage. 
 
Large Smartphones: In this season of big phones, there are many choices. Even the Galaxy S3 is a contender. The Nexus 4, HTC One X+, several Windows phones, could be in the running if you are considering the Note II. The big difference of course is the stylus. You may not know you will enjoy using it, but if you begin, it’s likely to become increasingly useful. Problem is you have to get somewhere where you can try it out. But, if design and phone charisma, another operating system, colours, popularity and appeal, etc. all matter, you should have a good look at large smartphones as well. The choice here isn’t straightforward. 
 
The iPhone 5: These two devices are poles apart but because of the rivalries between the companies that make them and their carefully timed arrival so as to bump into one another, many find themselves trying to decide between these two. The two operating systems Android and iOS 6, are one of the factors you should decide on. Size and form factor is another. On the design front, the iPhone wins, as it does on calling — but then it is a phone not a phablet. Also consider what your other devices are because it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to access and sync all your data and content across devices making it necessary for them to talk tone another. 
 
LG Optimus Vu: It’s unfortunate that LG pitted its Optimus Vu against the Note II because there it doesn’t stand a chance. The first problem is its very peculiar square-ish shape which makes it difficult to even hold in one hand, let alone be used that way. It’s not the natural orientation for 16.9 aspect ratio videos, and looks even more bizarre being held up to one’s ear – like making a phone call with a picture frame. The Vu has an attractive screen but its pen sensitivity doesn’t match the Note’s and nor do its speed or power. LG also has a Vu II which could be a better bit of competition, but the same can’t be said of the Vu original. Worse, it’s also priced rather high at Rs 34,500 without the features of the Note II. 
 
mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter