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Samsung Galaxy Note falls between two roles

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The Galaxy Note is Samsung’s attempt to create a hybrid device, which fits somewhere between a smartphone and a tablet. SEAN BACHER puts it through its paces, taking notes along the way.

Until now, there have been smartphones and there have been tablets. Each device caters for a different market segment and audience and, as such, sport features that best serve each audience. For example, Samsung manufacturers a range of Galaxy phones that are designed to make phone calls, send text messages and keep up to date with Twitter and Facebook. The phones perform all of these functions and more in a neat, compact and easy to handle device. Samsung also makes a range of tablets. More bulky devices that cannot be stuffed into a pocket on the fly, but with bigger screens that are better suited to browsing the Internet and compiling documents and lengthy e-mails.

But now there is something else: the Samsung Galaxy Note. It’s a device that is difficult to classify as it is too big to be a phone, and too small to be called a tablet. Samsung agrees: it has positioned the Note as a ‚new category of device,‚ aimed at bringing the best of both worlds into one unit.

We put the Samsung Galaxy Note through the Gadget Five Question User test to see how well it merges the tablet and smartphone worlds.

1. Is it ready to use?

Getting the Note ready means you need to remove the back cover in order to slip in a SIM card. Normally this would be a fairly simple task, but not so on the Note. The cover has no less than eight plastic clips that you need to unclip before you can gain access to the SIM slot. The clips are cheaply made and the whole cover seems to peel off when you remove it, sounding like something has cracked each time a clip is unfastened. Once off though, it’s easy to slip a SIM in and click the cover back on.

After that, the Note is ready to be used as a phone. However, even without the SIM card it can already be used as a camera, video recorder, video maker, memo taker and mini-Office machine.

As with any Android device, accessing to the Android Market needs a Gmail address and password. Other credentials are also standard: Twitter also needs your logon details and e-mails can only be sent and received once the required server details and logon credentials have been saved.

Time, date and location settings need to be corrected, so that the Note can work out in which part of the world it is and deliver the correct weather information to the AccuWeather application included on the device.

2. Is it easy to use?

Samsung uses the TouchWiz interface on the Note, which is the same as the one found on the Galaxy Tab 10.1. This skin changes the entire underlying Android 2.3.5 operating system’s look and feel. TouchWiz includes a range of widgets or customisable applications. However, they are placed in no particular order when it is first turned on. It seems as if Samsung chose a range of widgets at random and stuck them on any of the seven Home Screens, merely cluttering up the device. This means that the first few hours of using the device includes deleting Samsung’s recommendations and replacing them with your own.

When the Note is initially setup, it should give you the option of using the Samsung widget layout, or proceeding with blank Home Screen setup. The latter would save most people a lot of time.

Due to the small (by tablet standards) 5.3‚ screen, things get very tricky when using the keyboard. In portrait mode, the buttons are very condensed and squashed together, often resulting in the wrong button being pressed, or more than one being pressed at the same time. This results in the backspace key being used quite often. But, because the backspace key is located just above the enter key, this presents an entirely new and sometimes embarrassing problem all on its own. Depending on the application being used, the enter key sometimes performs the same action as the send option, meaning that, instead of correcting a spelling mistake, you end up sending that message along with the spelling mistake.

Switching the phone over to landscape makes the keyboard much bigger. It is still not ideal for typing long e-mails, but well suited for sending a 140-character tweet or quick e-mail responses.

Included with the Note is a stylus called the S-Pen. This makes a great substitute for clunky fingers as it gives more accuracy when typing on the keyboard. Unfortunately, even though the stylus slides into its dedicated slot at the back of the note, pens do get lost.

The stylus really starts performing well when it is used to perform other functions. For example, the S-Memo application, which is part of the TouchWiz interface, is perfect for jotting down telephone numbers, shopping lists or addresses. All of these memos can be quickly shared through Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and by e-mail or MMS.

The stylus is also great for scribbling on any of the screenshots you take. For example, a screenshot can be taken of Google Maps, and a circle drawn around a certain address with directions for how to get there. This screenshot, along with your directions and scribbles, can be saved in a JPEG format and shared via any of the above-mentioned applications in no more than three steps.

The TouchWiz interface also uses the S-Planner. As the name suggests, it is a Samsung-designed calendar application and is by far one of the neatest and most intuitive calendars I have used for a while. The calendar uses the full screen to display a month, so there is no scrolling involved. The first few words of each appointment are easily legible and events only need to be selected if more details are needed. The S-Planner is able to pull multiple calendars into one screen, colour coding each event with its respective calendar. Both visual and audible reminders are sent out at predefined times before events.

Power and volume-up and ‚down adjustment buttons are the only buttons located on the edges of the 9.7mm thin Note, meaning that turning it on and off in the dark is really simple. The Power button is located on the right side of the unit, the volume buttons on the left, so there is no chance of turning the volume up when you really want to power the Note off.

One large Home button on the face, just below the screen, sends the current application to the background and brings up the Home Screen. Should it be held down, it launches the Task Manager, allowing for quick application switching. To the left of the Home button is a virtual Menu button that launches the Settings menu in various applications. To the right is a virtual Back button.

When the Note is turned on, there is are virtual buttons to launch the Phone app, the Contacts application, S-Memo, a button to view sent and received messages and a button to open the Applications menu. The order of these can be customised, and they can also be removed and additional ones added.

All of these buttons, menus and options are intuitive, and leads the user instantly into productive use of the device.

3. Does it operate as advertised?

The most astonishing feature the Note brings to the table is screen quality. The capacitive AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen offers a resolution of 1280X800 pixels. This results in crisp, rich colours that put most other phones to shame. In fact, sitting in a dark room watching a ripped DVD feels completely different on the Note. The colours are so bright you almost want to reach for your sunglasses. At the same time, black is actually black ‚ not just a greyed out part of the screen.

A dual-core 1.4Ghz ARM CPU powers the Samsung Note. Combined with 1GB RAM, it is capable of running even the most resource-intensive applications with no lag. Gadget’s benchmark test for tablets, Angry Birds, offered not even a hint of a lag (which we have noted occurs on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1).

The Note’s use of the AMOLED screen and powerful processor begs one question. How is the battery life? Surprisingly, it is excellent. There are several tablets that boast much better battery lives, but very few smartphones. On a single charge, the 2500mAh battery provided around eight hours of intermittent use – checking e-mail, playing a few games, watching a few YouTube videos, keeping up to date with Twitter and making a few phone calls.

Talking of phone calls, the Note has a problem. Yes, it makes and receives calls perfectly, there are no signal problems, the speaker is clear and the microphone works well. However, you look like a clown when holding the phone to your ear. At 146.9mm x 83mm x 9.7mm, it is delightfully thin, but also absurdly large for a phone. Luckily, it has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, so a headset can be connected and you can leave the clunky Note in an oversized pocket.

Even though the Galaxy Note is a bit bulky to be held to your ear, its great battery life, combined with a crisp, colourful screen and powerful processor makes it a great smartphone. However, using it as a tablet doesn’t work as well. Typing on the small screen sometimes makes you feel you are not using the correct tool for the job.

4. Is it innovative?

The combination of a smartphone and a tablet into one device is not innovative in itself. For example, Dell released its combo device, the Streak, earlier this year, but to a disastrous response. It scored the lowest on Gadget’s Ten Question Tablet Test. You can read the review here.

Coupling a stylus with a tablet is not innovative either. HTC did that with its Flyer (read the review here). However, the way Samsung married its specially developed applications with the S-Pen is an innovative step. As more applications become available from the Android Market, the stylus could become an indispensable part of the Note. After all, how can you take a note without a pen?

5. Is it value for money?

The Samsung Galaxy Note retails R8 500, which in anyone’s book is expensive. An entry-level iPad will cost R4 400, meaning there is an extra R4 100 to splash out on a mid to upper-level smartphone.

Samsung has definitely overpriced the device, considering the endless tablet and smartphone alternatives currently available in South Africa.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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