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 stylus is an intriguing option
Many people fantasize about pen-based computing, where Microsoft has repeatedly failed for the last three generations of Windows and a decade's worth of Windows tablets. Never mind that handwriting recognition, like speech recognition, is a much slower input method for text entry, especially when you're dealing with large volumes of information. A pen-based device wouldn't make much sense -- but a pen-capable device could.

That's the other part of the experiment that is the Galaxy Note -- and one that's much better executed. At the bottom of the Galaxy Note is a stylus you pull out when desired; you can also buy additional styli in more traditional pen-style holders to better approximate a pen's feel. In most apps, the stylus acts like your finger. But it can do more.

For example, pressing the stylus's side button when long-tapping the screen with the stylus takes a screenshot, which the Android 2 normally can't do. You can then draw on that screen shot with the stylus, before saving it. Pressing the stylus's side button when double-tapping the screen with the stylus opens the S Memo note-taking application in which you can draw, type, or handwrite before saving. (Pressing the side button indicates a gesture. Other gestures are a left wipe for the Back button, a down swipe for the Home button, and an up swipe for the Menu button.)

Yes, I said "handwrite" -- there's a handwriting recognition mode that works quite well, even with my bad handwriting. That handwriting recognition is available in any application's text field. By default, you tap a handwriting icon to enable it (just as you use the standard Android microphone to enable voice recognition in most versions of Android), but you can also set the Galaxy Note to automatically switch to handwriting recognition when it detects the stylus on its screen. Either way, you write in a window that appears at the bottom of the screen, and the Galaxy Note interprets it as you write. My only beef with the handwriting recognition is that it is too fast, so a pause often results in a character being recognized before I'm done. Fortunately, there's a setting to make recognition wait until you tell it to convert your handwriting.

The Galaxy Note's screen is also pressure-sensitive, so apps that can detect varying pressures can interpret your degree of push as meaning to make lines thicker. Painting apps often do that with finger pressure, but the stylus allows for much more precise drawings.

Using the stylus has its awkward moments. The four main Android buttons -- Menu, Home, Back, and Search (this last one is not available in non-U.S. models) -- do not detect the stylus, and it takes time to learn to use the stylus gestures for the first three when you have a stylus in hand but to switch back to the buttons when you don't. (Most apps have a search button, so you can usually skip using the dedicated Search hardware button.) And you have to switch to your fingers to use the zoom gestures, leaving the stylus to dangle awkwardly or be placed somewhere in the meantime.

I don't see using the stylus as a primary input device, but it's great for annotations, checking off items, mixed text-and-drawings note-taking, and the like. This is one Galaxy Note innovation I could see being adopted on other devices -- regardless of screen size.

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