Wondering how our hard-working Testmodo reviewers are getting on with their first device, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3? For their second challenge, we set them the arduous task of looking at all the bells and whistles Samsung's added to stock Android.
If you are a manufacturer that relies on Android, you are building upon a rock solid, fast, modern mobile OS that has a great rate of improvement. That should make it easy to produce excellent phones as the software is all but taken care of for you. However, those pesky customers that might buy your phone today may well buy a competitor's phone tomorrow, especially if the only difference is the size or colour. Manufacturers tweak the software so that their phones are unique and add value. If you love something so much and only Samsung build it, then you're going to stick with Samsung. That's the theory anyway.
The reality is that this encourages manufacturers to bastardise Android so much, that it no longer resembles Android. When it comes to software, instead of focusing on a few really useful features and ensuring they work well, Samsung instead opted for quantity over quality for the Note 3. In terms of providing useful features, compare a sniper rifle with a sawn-off shotgun; given enough bullets both will hit the target. The difference is in how much of a mess you leave around the target. This is the collateral damage of a differentiated OS.
There are so many features that are great ideas on paper that I'll never use in practice. That's not to say it is all bad though; there are some truly useful and interesting features here that you simply cannot find on any other phone. The above image was produced on the Note using the stylus and it was incredibly easy to scribble out.
I'm just back from a developers' conference and figured the note-taking features of the Note 3 might beat the natural pen and paper approach. I was wrong. I very quickly gave up and reached for my paper notepad. The real notepad is bigger, writing on it is more natural and, of course, the battery life is much better! The provided S-Note app is the best note-taking app I've used on Android which supports freehand input (update: turns out Evernote also supports it). The quick graph insertion is also pretty good! However, the physical notepad still won where speed of entry is key.
The Pen Window feature is intriguing; draw a box somewhere over any window and you can choose an app to run within that box. Repeat for multiple boxes. Again, another feature which looks amazingly useful, until you realise there are only a few apps which can be run in this mode. If all apps supported running in this way, this could be the biggest reason to buy a Samsung. As it stands though, it is yet another "great idea I'll never use".
Screen Write lets you take a screenshot and scribble all over it. This is a convenient way of annotating the important parts of the screen before sending it on. Note the use of Screen Write to highlight the shockingly-fast 4G download speed here:
I have disabled all of the S Motion features. These include features like swiping your hand across the screen to trigger a screenshot (doesn't work reliably), face detection features to control keeping the screen on and scrolling etc... (doesn't detect my face and consumes battery trying) and other such gimmicks. These are clearly aimed at fulfilling a checklist of new and exciting features to look good on paper; none of them are worth keeping enabled in reality.
There are some added features that are brilliant however; the kind of features that make you angry at stock Android for not having. Built-in DLNA sharing button in the Gallery app for instance, letting you fling pictures and videos at smart TVs and other DLNA clients in your networks is wonderful.
By disabling features and avoiding apps not used, you shouldn't be affected with the Samsung extra value features right? Well, Samsung decided that there are a whole bundle of apps that you cannot remove from your phone. These are apps that you can disable but never remove. Storage on a mobile device is a precious commodity (even with a 32GB device) and not something to be taken for granted and certainly not something to be abused.
This is a phone with many annoyances. Yet, despite its flaws, it's still the best phone I've had the honour of using and calling my own. The fact that the majority of extras are useless to me does not change the fact that a select few are invaluable to me. Whilst I may wish Samsung would better focus its efforts on producing a select few high quality add ons and give up the gimmicks, they've done something unexpected: they have converted "a stock Android zealot" into a Samsung user.
One somewhat frustrating thing with all of the Air Command apps (Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder and Pen Window) Samsung's bundled onto the Galaxy Note 3 is that they want to work in portrait mode. If you want to force them into landscape mode, you must first open an app that can work in landscape mode, e.g. internet, rotate the phone into landscape position and then open one of the apps from the Air Command menu. Not a big deal but if you did want to have two apps open side-by-side, it would make sense to be able to do this as easily in landscape as you can in portrait.
Screen Write was very useful when highlighting locations or a route on a map for yourself, or to share with someone else, as you can see above. While signal strength is a tough challenge for any network at my house, when out and about I'm still finding 4GEE as satisfactory as I did in my first review.
As its name implies, S Finder is a search utility which cleverly looks for content on your device based on any keywords you type in, when the content was created, the type of content and any tags you may have saved (for example tags created in the Scrap Booker app). It also allows you to use various internet search engines if you want to look online instead. In this example I've highlighted (using the Screen Write app) that I searched for the word "test" in the last 7 days of content and you can see it turned up a tag called "test" along with 1 Scrapbook item where the tag was contained. Of course you can just use it to search for apps on your device too.
Samsung recently made a fair bit of hoo-ha about the My Magazine app. It's basically Flipboard for Samsung devices and it's developed in conjunction with them. It's accessed by pressing the home button briefly. You can choose from 3 overall channels to display, News, Personal and Social and within each of those you can choose sources but there's minimal configuration or option to add additional unlisted sources.
It works very well but note you can only read in portrait but photos can be viewed in landscape. Oddly, at times the app takes you into Flipboard and you have to sign into this the first time this happens.
Fitting nicely into the bottom right-hand corner of the phone, I found the S Pen to be a culture shift in terms of how you use your phone moving from a regular touchscreen to one where you're encouraged to use a stylus. I found myself using it more and more even if it was sometimes just to hear that little "swoosh" noise as I took the S Pen out. I like that the S Pen gives you functionality that you just don't get with other phones and an example of that is shown here. I use the Touchdown email client and quite often you can't read the full subject line of an email until you open it. With S Pen, it seems that hovering over the subject causes the whole subject line to be popped up. This is even more useful when in portrait mode. It's nifty little tricks like this that have sold me on using the S Pen.
Out of interest, I compared the signal strength and download speed of Vodafone 4G and EE 4G at different spots throughout my house (in North West London), which typically has a very poor signal strength. This isn't a very scientific test since I was using two different phones so antenna size could have played a part in it, but I thought the results were interesting anyway. The left pic is the EE network on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the right pic is Vodafone on a Nokia Lumia 925. Make of this what you will -- to my mind EE looks a lot better although like I said, signal strength is very poor at my house. I look forward to spending more time testing 4GEE in stronger areas.
First on the docket was the Action Memo. I took me several days to get into this tool, but once I did, I was pretty impressed. Action Memo does what it says on the tin; providing a tool for short and sweet "memos-to-yourself" that need actioning. This is a great feature for people like me, as I tend to write faster than I type when I'm walking in a rush. Using this tool, you can pop in emails, addresses, addresses or "things to look up" in a hurry, and the tool reads your handwriting. Depending on the nature of the content you've written, you can call, search your contacts, send a text message, email, search the web, search maps or create a task. I found Action Memo particularly useful at a networking event, as people strangely seem more comfortable "hand writing" their emails than they do typing them into my phone; perhaps it's nostalgic. Although not a "life-changing" feature, it's fun to use, and I'll probably continue to do so.
Next up I tested out Scrapbook, one of Samsung's built-in apps. I have to be honest, I couldn't find a lot of use for this app, try as I might. From what I could tell, Scrapbook didn't sync with any other accounts or apps, which is pretty useless to me, as I've already got Evernote, Pinterest, Pocket, Dropbox and Google Drive installed, all of which play nicely with Chrome on my MacBook Air and are a dream to use with EE's fast 4G. Considering my plethora of places to "save it for later" when it comes to media, articles and photos, I was already pretty averse to adding this one to the mix, but the poor user experience of this app left even more to be desired. Now, all of that being said, if you're not after an app that syncs elsewhere, and you are after a way to neatly organise a few things on your Note, this could be just the ticket. Not to mention, you are able to save YouTube videos to Scrapbook and play them back from within the app too, which is a neat tool if you want to remember to share funny things with friends later.
The last feature I decided to test was Screen Write. Although it's (apparently) a pretty obvious feature for a phablet with a pen, I hadn't even considered this tool before purposefully trying it, and what fun I had! Essentially, when you take a screenshot (of any function, app, web page, whatever), the notifications bar will prompt you to edit it, leading you to a photo editor. Extremely useful if you're an actual professional who needs to annotate images for business or research purposes, but even more useful if you're excited about scribbling "wanker" onto the faces of your enemies / celebrity hate-crushes and putting it on the internet. Huzzah.
Last but not least, I got a little crazy with the multi-window feature, which allows you to use two programs at once, splitting the screen. Although it's not a feature I will likely use very much personally in the future, I did enjoy (see image), being able to both google images of sloths, and look up YouTube videos of sloths at the same time, with EE's 4G handling both commands admirably. If you're after something that isn't sloth-related, I can see how it would prove extremely useful to those who use their Note 3 like a tiny work laptop when on-the-move.