Galaxy Note: Lame tablet, lousy smartphone

Samsung's 5.3-inch device repeats the sins of the first Android tablets, but also brings intriguing pen-computing capabilities

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The Galaxy Note's extralarge screen should be more readable and usable, not less, and if you access apps such as Amazon.com's Kindle Reader, the large screen does make life easier. However, most apps don't take advantage of the Galaxy Note's 1,280-by-800-pixel screen resolution (higher than the iPad's 1,024 by 768), so they're awkwardly blown up.

That's a function of using the Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" operating system, which was never designed for multiple screen sizes or resolutions, and Samsung can't use Android 3 "Honeycomb" because "Honeycomb" doesn't support phone features. And for reasons known only to Google, Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" is available only on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S; for every other device, manufacturers can merely promise, with fingers crossed, that "we plan to deliver an Android 4 update later this year."

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Galaxy Note self-reports as a smartphone since it uses the smartphone version of Android. As a result, most websites present their mobile-optimized smartphone versions instead of the regular desktop versions that you'd probably prefer on the larger screen. Samsung should have at least modified the stock Android browser to offer the option of requesting the desktop version of a website.

It's unlikely that Android developers are going to make special versions of their apps for the Galaxy Note's Android 2.3 OS; the market is too small and short-lived to justify that effort. Maybe when (or if) Android 4 becomes available will we see apps take better advantage of the Galaxy Note's large screen.

Recognizing the poor fit between existing apps and the Galaxy Note's large screen, Samsung did tweak the Email and Calendar apps for the extra real estate. For example, the Email app's UI has an option to place a message list on the left side of the screen when in horizontal orientation, as in Apple's iOS and Google's tablet version of Android. Too bad it's so hard to type email messages in that view or the list is hard to read because the text is much too large, cutting off most of it.

This ill fit is an issue in the tweaked Calendar app as well. It does provide much more detail, taking advantage of the larger screen. It's also easy to use the expand and pinch gestures to switch calendar views, actions not standard in Android. And you get a nice year view, though without the indicators of meeting-intensive days as provided by the iPad's year calendar.

But the Galaxy Note's week calendar is very hard to read, due to stuffing too much small text on brightly colored backgrounds. By contrast, Apple's iOS for the much smaller iPhone presents the week calendar (in horizontal orientation only) much more readably. The Galaxy Note's monthly calendar is better, but still suffers from a garish set of colors and backgrounds, as well as the cardinal sin of light text on colored backgrounds. Even the Android 4-based Samsung Galaxy Nexus does a better job than the Galaxy Note; though both use similarly small text and colored backgrounds, the Android 4 version picks more readable color combinations for its display.

In some cases, Samsung does make nice accommodations for the large screen. For example, given that holding the Galaxy Note is easier with two hands, it introduced an alternative set of gestures for zooming in and out. Rather than do the one-handed pinch and expand gestures, you can hold two fingers on the screen and tilt the whole device to zoom in or out. Just be careful to keep your fingers toward the edge when holding the Galaxy Note, so you don't accidentally zoom while your hands drift. (You can turn off this motion-based gesture.)

It's clear that whoever does Samsung's UI work, at least for the Galaxy Note, is not very good at it -- and no one else at the company seems to know or care.

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Just how big is the Galaxy Note? Compare it to an iPhone 4S (at left) and a Galaxy Nexus (in the middle).
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