Tag Archives: Android

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review

Front and back of samsung galaxy note 3 phoneAs you can guess from the title, I’m way behind on my mobile device reviews. But in some sense, this is a benefit since I’ve spent months rather than days with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Spoiler alert – I just traded it in on an LG G3 – so you can guess where this is headed.

Let me start at the beginning. I originally switched from iPhone to Android (Nexus 4) because I really wanted a larger screen. While the Nexus 4 was affordable with a reasonable screen, the camera was complete garbage, as well as audio recording and video conferencing, it being a combination of the two. Internal speaker output was also horrible, worse than the iPhone which was saying something.

Along came the HTC One. It had an amazing good screen, bright, sharp, and accurate color. With that you get really great built-in speakers considering the size, and good microphones for recording the occasional live band. I really liked this phone, and unlike many others I LOVED BlinkFeed. But I wanted to go even bigger and the HTC One Max was really a downgrade from the One, so I bought myself a Note 3.

Over time I found myself really addicted to the larger screen of the Note. I feel like the phone is just a hair too big for easy carrying, but man, I do like a big screen. Now in terms of screen quality, it’s above average, but like most Samsung phones not great. I know that probably sounds like heresy, since people rave about the bright colors, but I like taking photos and the color profile of the Note is terrible. You can tweak it some in the settings to remove that blue/green tint common to all Samsung phones, but you can’t make it entirely go away.

Strangely, and I can’t quantify this, I found that the HTC One screen appeared sharper or crisper than the Note, but I have no way of measuring this. The screen is smaller, but looks better.

The funny thing is that I really missed things about the HTC, which I kept around it being a developer model. I would miss BlinkFeed, or the speakers, or the better battery life, etc. So I’d move the sim and start playing with the One again, but always found myself switching back within a day or two. I finally admitted that I just can’t live in a screen that’s less than 5.5 inches, so I gave up fully on the One.

So let’s go over what’s good, bad, and ugly on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The Good:

As I’ve already said, the screen size is great, near optimal. Overall the phone is just a touch big for me, but of course this is a feature that will really depend on your hands and pockets. Since then I’ve found the LG G3 size to be even better, though it’s just a touch smaller, because it’s really more manageable.

Samsung really nailed the size / weight profile on the Note 3. The Note 2 is a bulky thing, but the Note 3 is lean and trim. I don’t find the leather trim as nice as a high-end metal phone, but it’s not horrible and a sight better than anything Samsung has done in the past.

Overall performance was decent. The phone is fast on most things and can run some of the heavy stress apps like cool games very well. Again though while performance is normally snappy, it has random UI hangs for a couple of seconds all to frequently. And again, this is a common feature of most Samsung phones. I think more and more that this is Touchwiz rather than the hardware.

The stylus – this can be a great thing or a silly thing. I thought I’d use it a lot, but in the end I almost never pull it out. I have more than one friend who swears by it, so I’d have to say you need to figure this one out for yourself. It’s certainly not a bad thing, but I found it was not necessary for me. I suspect if you do a lot of drawing, note taking, diagramming, artwork, etc. that you’d really like this. It’s a good stylus, good response, nice size, and building it into the device is a huge plus.

I’ve come around on the idea of a removable battery. I do a lot of travel, both business and pleasure. I spend a lot of time on airplanes and in remote places away from easy outlets. I like that I can carry a couple of spare batteries with me and be good to go for days or even a week. You can even get a double-size battery for the Note that will do two days even under my heavy load. Battery life is another thing, but I like the removable battery.

The Bad:

Unfortunately this list is much bigger than I’d like. First of all, when I got the device it would full-hang once or twice a week. By that I don’t mean the usual lagginess of a second or two, I mean the device is frozen and you’ve gotta pull the battery. Add to that random reboots, again two or three times a week. Just doing whatever, frequently not even using the phone, and randomly it just reboots itself. I’m not talking a quick thing either, a full slow boot that runs two complete cycles, a double-boot. Not sure what/where/why, but it’s a part of life with my Note at least. Add those two together and it’s nearly a daily occurrence.

After I got the latest Android update most of the flakiness went out of the OS, almost never frozen, and extremely rare random reboots. This however came at a price, namely that battery life was cut almost in half. Where I was used to going a full day on a battery I now found my crash-free life including a mid-day phone charge. This is completely unacceptable to me. Phones should ideally run several days on a single charge, meaning more than two even. A bare minimum requirement is one fully day or normal use.

Now there are those that tell me if I turn this off and that off and don’t use this app or that app I can extend the battery life. This is true, but it’s a huge compromise, and one I didn’t have to make with any other phone I’ve ever had. Yah, I said it, the Note 3 in spite of it’s huge battery has the worst battery life of any phone I’ve ever owned. Take that all of you crazy reviewers who look at the size of the battery and claim great battery life based merely on size. That’s NOT how it works.

The battery life was helped along in the wrong direction by a bunch of known issues. There is a media server issue that you have to configure for, photo gallery settings, dropbox settings, etc. Way too many things that end up chewing up battery during the day. Things that shouldn’t be using much battery at all. I ended up turning off the Knox security because it’s a monster battery chewer.

I’ve mentioned the horrible screen color above, but just to put it in this section for those scanning the bad – you really need to change the profile. The closest one I found to normal color is to set the “movie” profie.

The camera – again this is something that reviewers get wrong so frequently. The camera has a lot of megapixels. This doesn’t make it good. In fact, in small sensors, anything above 8 megapixels can and does lead to all kinds of noise and artifacts in your photos. The way to make a great phone camera is to put a bigger sensor in it, NOT more megapixels.

The camera has it’s ups and downs. If everything is perfect in bright daylight it can take a great picture. It’s almost the opposite of the HTC One, which is best in poor light. But the camera is lacking image stabilization, opting instead of software stabilization that is slow and produces fuzzy images. This is one of the key reasons I started looking for a new phone, I like to take pictures when I’m out doing stuff. This camera almost never made me happy with what I shot.

And finally, all the fancy Samsung screen hand waving face detecting bloat. After playing around briefly, I turned off every funny thing I could find. It only led to extremely random behavior – the phone had a mind of it’s own because of something you’d done without knowing it. In the end it was more manageable without that junk. Somehow I must have missed a setting in there somewhere, because any time I would hand the phone to show something to a friend, the phone would end up doing something and losing it’s place. Not being able to share stuff is annoying.

The Sad:

my Magazine isn’t nearly as cool/useful as BlinkFeed. not intelligent, not blended, not filtered. But that’s not the worst part. The darn thing crashes and restarts almost every time you use it. BlinkFeed when you get it setup right is a really great way to get your news, calendar items, Twitter, Facebook, etc all rolled up in one place, which some serious intelligence filtering and prioritizing. It’s so good that if HTC would give up the Ultrapixel cameras or at least either put more of them or a bigger sensor, I’d switch back in the blink of an eye.

Another thing that the HTC One does well that the Note 3 is bad at is contact management. Now I own’t blame Samsung for this, because no one gets this right except for HTC. Not Samsung, not LG, not Apple, not Microsoft, not anyone. For those who don’t know, HTC scans your contacts from your multiple accounts and suggests links, so that your mom on Facebook is also your mom in your address book and your mom on Skype. One combined view of the three records.

Everyone else lets you do this manually, which is bad enough, but they also have limits on how many links you can make for one person. You’d be surprised how easy it is to pass the limit. The end result is that my contacts are much messier without my HTC, but I don’t blame Samsung. I just wish they’d fix it, here’s a better way to differentiate than some of their whacky ideas.

The photo gallery has this really cool feature that pulls in your pictures from your cloud storage, but you have to turn it off because it makes the gallery unusably slow. If you have it on, you can forget about trying to send photos in text messages, emails, etc., because it’s not going to happen. Good idea, bad implementation.

Now to keyboard software. Their version of finger swiping isn’t as clever about learning as some of the others like SwiftKey. It frequently gives bad auto-correct suggestions when you don’t expect it (Apple iOS anyone?) and isn’t as fluid as the others. On the plus side, they realize they’re on a big screen and give a keyboard with letters and numbers at the same time. If they could bring this up to snuff it’d be great. I suspect that someone else will just produce a phablet appropriate keyboard before Samsung figures it out.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Conclusions:

If you don’t mind carrying it, the big size is addictive. You could almost replace your kindle with it and I suspect many people do. Reading and video aren’t too bad, I find myself doing things I would normally go grab a tablet for. When you combine this with an unlimited data plan, you can watch TV to your hearts content no matter where you are.

The big screen allows you to surf more effectively and if you’re trying to get some work done, review a doc, spreadsheet, or slideshow, you can’t beat it. In short, the best value is the screen size, and nothing else. Certainly for some the stylus is also a benefit, but your mileage will vary.

Overall I’d say yes, get a big phone. But unless you know you need the stylus, it doesn’t need to be a Note – take a look around at somme of the other options, like the LG G3 or Nokia Lumia 1520.

I’d love to hear about your big phone experiences.

Map Ado About Nothing

Navigation It’s amazing how much noise in mobile technology is created for issues that are at best marginal. For example, there was the iPhone 4 Antennagate. Honestly, my iPhone 4 didn’t give me any antenna problems, nor did my iPhone 4s. I really love my current Nexus 4 phone, but it actually does have problems dropping signal or weak signal. Sometimes it just won’t connect in a place where I know it should, and I have to reboot it. Of course, there is no Nexus 4 antennagate, though perhaps there should be.

So I thought I’d touch on another non-issue… maps in smartphone navigation. I haven’t done any comprehensive test of maps that you could call scientific, but I do know what my own experience is, and it somehow doesn’t match what the noise on the internet says. For the record, I have an android phone and table, and an iOS phone and tablet, so I can currently run checks that should be pretty good.

One thing that I’ve done frequently when I travel with colleagues from work is have us both run our mapping apps at the same time. In the past, I’ve had multiple occasions where the android device using Google maps got us to the wrong location, while the Apple device was correct. Bit caveat here – I normally use a paid app on the iPhone, either Navigon or Magellan. I happen to believe that with maps you get what you pay for, and my experience continues to support that. With that in mind, I really was comparing Google maps to paid maps.

And there’s the rub – if you’re used to old-fashioned web-base map applications with static routes and static turn-by-turn, then the Google map app is amazing. More still if you’ve been stuck in the tar pits and are using a paper map. The experience is so much better with Google, that the fans tend to overlook the comparison with serious GPS applications and devices, where Google maps looks mediocre at best. Don’t get me wrong, Google has a good track record of improving things they care about, and maps seems to be one of them, so it probably will get there. At the moment however, it takes a back seat to the traditional GPS big boys.

So Apple dumped Google map late last year for their own app, how has that worked out? Well there was a lot of noise about how horrible it was and how much money it would cost and how long it would take to fix them. As it turned out, many fixes were made much faster than the naysayers predicted. Surprise – Apple has deep pockets! Note that Apple still has a ways to go, especially against the afore-mentioned GPS big boys, but overall it’s not bad. Like Google, if Apple cares, they’ll fix the problems. If it’s a “marketing checkbox” for them, then it’ll never get fixed. I’d hope for the former, but since I almost always use 3rd party map apps and currently carry the Nexus 4 as my primary, it doesn’t really matter to me.

As far as the reason Apple changed, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the aspiring journalist, but a few possible reasons are:

a) Apple wants to screw us
b) Apple wants to screw Google
c) Apple wants to stop sending revenue in Google’s direction
d) Apple wanted to build voice turn-by-turn full app and Google license didn’t allow it

apple_maps_tomtom1apple_maps_tomtom2 A point to remember in this comparison is also that many people still don’t seem to know that TomTom supplies at least some of the map data behind Apple maps. Note from the picture on the left the TomTom name right above the “Drop Pin” button. On the right look for TomTom intellectual property in the last paragraph. Everyone loves TomTom, everyone hates Apple – what does that tell you about anti-fanboi-ism? The people at TomTom say that the data is fine, and the app has problems, and I suspect they’re correct. I suspect the overall question of accuracy is less troublesome than people make it out to be.

The question is how does it work out in real life usage. I have three examples I’d like to share. My first actual test was traveling to San Francisco for a conference. It was a quick trip, so I decided to use public transit and my feet. Yes, here Apple has a problem, they need public transit support. I was lucky, because I knew basically what I was doing to get from Airport to downtown. The maps came into play when I exited the subway and tried to find my hotel.

In the past, I’ve not been very happy with GPS when I’m on foot in a city. Out in the field they’re great, but when trapped between tall buildings and weak signal it’s tricky, plus nuances of direction and signal accuracy can be far more confusing. On this point Apple scored big for me. When you drill down to their 3D view, you can actually tell not just where you want to go, but where you actually are. Foot travel was a win for Apple. I do happen to enjoy Google’s street view, but I don’t find it useful for navigation.

Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4
Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4

The second experience was a recent trip to San Luis Obispo. At the hotel I found myself missing a wanted cable, (gotta have that HDMI cable so I can connect my table to the hotel TV) so I set out in search of the local Best Buy. It was my first trip carrying the Nexus 4, so I was using Google maps.

Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5
Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5

As you can see from the maps on either side, Google got it wrong, while Apple got it right. Unfortunately for me, I was only carrying the Nexus 4 at the time, and had to resort to stopping at a few stores to get directions. When I tried it on my iPhone later, you can see that it put me at the store front, rather than the middle of an empty field.

I know that this happens to Apple maps users as well, the point is that Google also suffers from it’s own share of inaccuracies. I will note that in this instance, I definitely like the better imagery of the Google maps, but accuracy has to come first. Imagery quality varies by locations, sometimes giving the nod to Google, and other times Apple.

Another situation happened to me on New Year’s Eve at the Pomona Valley Mining Co in Pomona, CA. I’ve driven past the place numerous times, as it sits on a hill above the freeway, but I’ve never actually been there and wasn’t sure how to approach it, so I took to the phone maps once again.

pomico_la_iphone4 The top picture, captured from my iPhone, shows a good route using Apple maps. Unfortunately, this was captured after-the-fact, having been misdirected by Google I was curious once again to see if the Apple maps had it right.

The bottom photo is where my Google maps on my Nexus 4 tried to send me. Note that it was correct up until the last, where it directed me for a final right turn, instead of a left and a quick-right. Lucky for me I stopped at the intersection with no traffic behind me and figured it out. pomico_la_nexus4_google

As a funny afterthought, I tried the same thing at home using Navigon on android and it got me to the same wrong place as Google maps, while Navigon on iOS just stopped at the road itself where Android was telling me to turn right, without telling me to turn left or right. This one surprised me, as I’ve had pretty good luck with Navigon. Magellan on iOS did the “right” thing by telling me to turn left. I’m not sure what maps sit behind Navigon on both platforms, but it would be interesting to know.

So there you have it, so far I’ve tried Apple maps three times against Google, and where I live and travel, Apple works out better than Google. What have your experiences with maps been? What app do you really love?

[Update 2016-03-11 It really depends where you live. In the Tysons Corner / McLean Virginia area Apple maps is horrible. In California it’s generally pretty good. Waze is really great in lots of areas – but mostly where there is heavy population density.]

What Are You Doing With Android?

I’m trying to get a better feel for the Android development community from a testing perspective? If you’re creating Android apps or plan to in the near future, please fill out the survey and let me know more about what you’re doing.

If you have other areas or specific tools you’re interested in, let me know in the comments below.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Hardware Specs

Twitter Statistics © by ©aius
With the plethora of new mobile devices constantly coming out, consumers are bombarded with geek-speak on which ones are best. From the geeks perspective it’s all about the hardware specs. And geeks buy new things all the time just to keep up with the latest.

For everyone else, you buy something to fill some need or desire. If it does it the way you want, then good. If not, don’t buy, get rid of it, upgrade it, etc.

The funny thing about the geek method is that they mistakenly think they’re getting the best thing, because the numbers are there, and as we all know, numbers don’t lie! And there’s the rub – hardware specs are not an indication of system performance.

Luckily for much of the public they don’t fall for such nonsense. It’s like saying that one car is faster than the other simply based on how many cubic inches or centimeters the engine has. Such a number will tell you that one engine is bigger than the other, nothing else. What it doesn’t tell you is which vehicle is faster, which is stronger, which is more responsive, which has better mileage, or anything else useful in and of itself.

Add to this the fact the the market for computing devices has changed. It used to be common for people to have machines that were simply underpowered for their daily needs. That hasn’t been true for years now, most computers you can buy will do what you want them to today, and for the next couple of years or even longer.

A recent article in Wired says it well:

Processor speed, disk size and RAM matter a lot less in tablets or post-PC devices than they did in the classic PC era, when they were expensive and scarce. Design, good software, slick interactivity and good media availability matter more, because that’s what’s scarce today.”

Or as they put it in Information Week’s iPhone Vs Android: It’s The Sum, Not The Specs:

“Comparing individual specs between smartphones is like opening up the hood of a Ford Mustang and the hood of a BMW M3 and pointing out why one is better than the other based on its innards. The Mustang’s engine displacement alone doesn’t make the Mustang better than the M3, any more than the M3’s suspension alone doesn’t make the M3 better than the Mustang.”

Such comparisons blind one to the important issues about a particular product. Questions like “Will it do what I want?” and “How fast will it do what I want?” are more important than “What is it’s PassMark rating?” Some people DO need a faster device for what they are doing, others do not. Some devices will be fast at some things and slow at others. Knowing how they perform for your needs is what’s important.

This was all very much at play last week and Apple (AAPL) released a new iPhone which not only failed to have a new shape, but didn’t have the latest important specs as declared by the geekocracy.

This is a fine example because it’s real, tangible, and recent. Should you buy an iPhone? Should you upgrade? What’s different about the new one? The breakdown is fairly simple.

First, what the new iPhone 4S doesn’t have (the “disappointing” part)

  • A new number – iPhone 5. Does this really matter to consumers?
  • A new shape – again, so what. Unless the shape is a real problem for you, this is a non-issue.
  • Bigger screen – a minor bummer, would have been nice. But bigger screens also carry a cost in battery life and portability. I’m pretty much at the limit for what can fit comfortably in my pocket. Some would have you believe that bigger=better.
  • NFC – stores don’t have it yet, so I don’t need it yet. It’s an early-adopter thing.
  • LTE – AT&T (ATT) isn’t ready, so I don’t mind, especially since I happen to live and work in what should be a good area for HSPA+. For Verizon users this is a major letdown. For Sprint (S), well hey, WiMax iPhone wasn’t going to happen anyway. In either case, you need either a bigger phone or less stuff inside to accommodate it, not to mention lousy battery life. I’m not interested in LTE until I know I can get an unlimited plan for it, otherwise I’ll stick with what I have.

What the iPhone 4S does have:

  • Radically better camera, especially for low-light. If you were going to buy a new point-and-shoot camera, this might do the job.
  • Dual-core – not sure if any apps will actually be faster – maybe not necessary depending on what you do with your phone. This does included a better GPU – great for certain things, maybe not noticeable for others. If your phone is slow, this is a good upgrade. If your phone doesn’t seem slow, then don’t worry about it.
  • Faster network for some AT&T users – This isn’t 4G, it’s HSPA+ and it’s hard to say yet who this will affect. Obviously if you’re not on AT&T this is a worthless feature. If you’re in an area that gives you faster service, this might be a good thing. Again, it depends on whether you’re experiencing slower than desired network performance, like web pages loading slowly.
  • Cloud-syncing – if you have a lot of iTunes content like movies, music, etc. this is nifty. If not, it’s another non-feature.
  • Voice assistant – this appears to be interesting in the videos they show but it’s still considered a beta feature. Great fun for geeks, probably not ready for prime-time yet.
  • More storage space – up to 64 GB. If you’re out of space and you actually need more space this is great. As opposed to being out of space because you don’t delete things you don’t need. This is a classic spec example – some would automatically say it’s a better phone, but the reality is 64GB is going to cost more. If you are happily living with a 16GB phone, why would you upgrade to this? It makes no sense. (disclosure – I’m a space hog – I’m on the edge with my current 32GB phone. But at least I recognize that my personal usage model is abnormal.)

See how easy it is to break things down to real issues? Very few actual hardware specs involved, and no simple assumption that bigger is faster, or that bigger/faster is better.

Luckily the geeks influence is waning over the public at large. A recent article in Beatweek gives a great history and breakdown – give it a read.

A prime example of the waning influence is the ill-fated WebOS. From it’s inception, WebOS was something the geeks loved. I’ve read countless articles about it being better, most without any substance as to why it’s better for me. But it’s new and it smells better – everyone will love it. The rest of the world hated WebOS – and the geeks still love it.

As for me, I’m going to judge things on how they work for me. For those who are only interested in the numbers – good luck with that.

[Update 2011-10-11]
Some people have received their iPhone early and already spec reports are coming in. The funny thing – the A5 CPU on the iPhone 4S appears to be running at 800 MHz, but still outperforms other phones with “faster” processors.

Dropping a CPU’s core voltage, yields a greater-than-linear decrease in power consumption, making the marginal loss in clock speed a good choice.

[/Update]

[Update 2011-10-17]
This one was too funny to pass up. From SlashGear:

Siri was Apple’s middle-finger gesture to the hardware arms-race that epitomizes the Android smartphone market today. Don’t just make a phone that runs 1-percent faster, make one that actually works better with users’ needs.

[/Update]