Technology analysis of the latest gadgets, consoles, and computer architectures.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Galaxy Note 2: Smooth as Butter

Rapid development in the smartphone space can be summed up with a single observation. It took the AMD Athlon 6 years to move from single to dual cores, followed 2 years later with quad cores; in comparison, ARM SOCs moved from single to dual to quad cores in 2 years time.

The phone comfortably sitting in my pocket packs a quad-core SOC clocked at 1.6GHz with 2GB of RAM. This is mind-boggling to me, particularly considering that a budget AMD laptop (sub-$300), a Lenovo powered by the E1-1200 and also with 2GB of RAM, runs at the same clock frequency. Both the AMD Bobcat and Cortex-A9 MPCore architectures are dual-issue, out-of-order processors; the AMD is 64-bit and is a bit more complex with a 16-stage pipeline (vs. 9-stage with the A9), and the AMD incorporates a much more powerful GPU (HD 7310 vs. ARM's Mali-400MP). It would be interesting to compare the computing and graphics performance of the two processors; Windows RT and Ubuntu OS's phone push may make this a reality (let's go, Anandtech!).

Having sported both the HTC Evo 3D and HP Pre 3 during the past two years, I was really looking forward to a powerful smartphone that incorporates the app ecosystem of Android with a smooth and well designed device, and the Galaxy Note 2 fits that bill brilliantly. Android 4.1 (Jellybean) was the first release that Matias Duarte, the head UI designer of WebOS, was able to influence from top to bottom. Although on the surface Jellybean is very much Ice Cream Sandwich with font and icon tweaks, under the hood it is a sea change; Jellybean finally brings Android to a level playing field with Apple's iOS. The fit and polish of the device, from the slightly rounded edges to the home button and hidden back and menu keys, makes it feel great all around. Samsung also includes a Wacom-based digitized stylus, which brings back precise note taking and drawing on a capactive screen in a seamless way. TouchWiz seems much faster and less intrusive than HTC Sense; the shortcuts to control device features (including brightness) can be found in the dashboard, and all controls are very responsive. It does not enable support landscape viewing of the home screen, but Ultimate Rotation Control brings a true auto rotate to the home and lock screens with no perceivable overhead and no interaction after initial setup.

This write-up would not be complete without a mention of Palm Touchstone support. The WebOS community, upon discovering the simplicity of this modification, has taken the coils and magnets from old Pre back covers and attached them to modern smartphones, including the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Nexus. I did not feel inspired to mod the Evo 3D to support the Touchstone, but the Galaxy Note 2 in landscape on a dock, of which I have several, seemed like a perfect fit. Due to owning the U.S. Cellular version of this phone, I did not have the exposed contacts that I needed to make the modification without voiding my warranty, but I did attach the magnetic back to the cover.


In the car and on my nightstand, I place the Note 2 on the dock in landscape mode (after repositioning and centering the magnets), using CarHome Ultra and Inglorious Apps Dock, respectively, in each configuration. I've already ordered a pack of Samsung TecTiles that I plan to place in each environment to preload these apps and appropriate settings.


LTE on U.S. Cellular has been outstanding in Wisconsin. I've been able to stream podcasts without interruptions while driving between Madison, Port Washington, and Milwaukee, with top speeds of 20 mbits/sec and average close to 10. The unlimited LTE data option, currently available through March 31, is well worth the expense; in fact, I am contemplating adding the $20 a month hotspot option in place of the Verizon LTE prepaid plan on the iPad. The Google Voice widget makes it very easy to respond to text messages, and SynerGV is useful for placing calls during the day to avoid using minutes. With the reliable data connection, I have not found a need to use text messaging directly from the phone.

Less than two years ago, I switched from the Palm Pre to the HTC Evo 3D on Sprint. I had intended on writing about my experience, but having to use Gingerbread for far too long (it took over a year for Sprint and HTC to release Ice Cream Sandwich), my experience with Sense and sub-par performance (in spite of the dual-core Qualcomm Adreno 220) has kept me from providing an honest review. Things improved once Sprint replaced my faulty screen digitizer, but the slow network and lack of WiMax peaked my tolerance, prompting me to break my contract 5 months early. The Evo 3D will continue to be useful as a test device, especially with 3D HDMI support, but I may have to switch to CyanogenMod in the future to try a stock build of Jellybean once it is stable for this model.

I can honestly say that I am comfortable relying on the Note 2 as my daily driver. The Palm Pre 3 will be useful when I travel abroad, but I no longer find the need to use it alongside Android; the HP TouchPad is sufficient for my WebOS and Linux needs. Google Now seems useful, and I hope U.S. Cellular and Samsung will keep up with updates so that I can try out DayDream, Android's equivalent to WebOS Exhibition, introduced in v4.2. For those interested in Samsung TecTile (NFC) compatibility with Touchstone, stay tuned (and follow techramble on Twitter).

Update 1: Forgot to mention, I wish there were a non-root way to enable to soft on-screen back and menu keys, as the hardware capacitive touch keys do not function with the stylus. I wonder if Samsung will rectify this in an update, at least while using the stylus.