As much as I love technology, I’m no expert. So when Telus offered to let me take a couple of their new devices for a test drive I thought I should bring one in. Here is Adrian Crook’s take on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear Smartwatch.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The first thing most people notice about the Note 3 is the sheer size of its screen. Admittedly, screen size alone was what I was most curious about. I’d come from the iPhone 4S, to the Galaxy S4 and now, thanks to Telus, I’d been given two months to try out Samsung’s third revision of it’s Galaxy Note series of “phablets” (phone/tablet).
Aside from the aesthetic impact of its giant screen, the Note 3 display size has some practical applications. Watching YouTube or any other video is a joy, leaving nothing compromised. Going back to watching it on my old iPhone 4S felt as if I was looking through a keyhole.
On the productivity front, the Note 3’s screen real estate let me use Samsung’s Multiview feature in a realistic manner for the first time. Multiview allows two apps to be loaded side by side at the same time, meaning I could watch hockey highlights or a TED talk on the bottom of my phone while working through my Gmails on the top. Utilizing an launcher app such as Nova Launcher lets you customize icon size and the icon grid dimensions (i.e. how many rows and columns of icons that fit on your screen).
Photo and video image quality is a major factor in which smartphones I select. The Note 3 doesn’t disappoint here with a 13 mega pixel camera that takes shots slightly wider in format than the iPhone.
However, the wider and overall much larger form factor of the Note 3 (versus the iPhone, or really almost everything else on the market) meant that holding the phone while taking photos felt a bit dicey. I avoided dropping it, thankfully.
If you’re already familiar with the Android OS and use Google for one or more of your daily services, then you’ll know how useful Google integration is. Coming from iPhone where I often lost track of where my contacts were being stored (on the phone? in iCloud?), using Google Contacts meant I never had duplicate names or worried about losing my address book.
Google also auto-backed up all my photos and videos to a private area in my Google+ account, making them easy to share later and giving me peace of mind that they wouldn’t be lost forever if my phone was.
A cool side effect of this backup was the occasional notification from Google+ about an “Auto-Awesome” photo or video having been created. Google automatically reviews the content of your backed up photos to see if it can create panoramas, collages, or otherwise enhanced versions. It does the same with video content, sometimes creating an edited video with a soundtrack and integrated stills from the same time period and subject matter. A pretty neat trick that is instantly shareable with friends, but also easily editable if you want to trim a clip or add/remove a still. This is one of my favourite Android features, hands down.
Anyone living in the iPhone world exclusively will have little idea how cool Near Field Communication, or NFC, can be. Most high end Android phones support NFC and the Note 3 is no different. The practical applications for NFC are only just coming to market, but I was able to use it to pair the Note 3 quickly with Bluetooth devices such as the Samsung DA-F60 portable speaker. Simply holding the phone beside the speaker connected the two via Bluetooth, enabling me to play music from the phone to the speaker just a few seconds later.
I also invested in some NFC tags via Amazon, which cost about fifty cents apiece. NFC tags are small programmable adhesive discs you can place in locations where you’d like your phone to behave in a pre-set way. For instance, I stuck an NFC on my bedside table that, when the Note 3 is pressed against it for just a second, dims the phones screen and turns off the volume. Perfect for bedtime! That’s a feature that just doesn’t exist on the iPhone.
The Note 3 has another huge advantage over the iPhone for a power user like myself: its batteries can be replaced on the fly. On my iPhone I had to purchase a large battery case to make it through the day, turning my phone into something that looked police-issue. The Note 3 has large capacity batteries, but more importantly I was able to buy a standalone charger and spare battery (about $50), allowing me to swap batteries halfway through the day with no downtime or unwieldy case.
It’s important to note that I use my phone with virtually all optional, battery-draining features turned on, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, 4G & LTE data, GPS … you get the idea. I’m on my phone all day, whereas I expect most people would use it less during their work day at the office and perhaps turn off some features as well, meaning they’d make it through the day on one battery, no problem.
Text input on the Note 3 can be slightly harder with one hand due to the size of the screen, but Android’s third party OS-level keyboard support means using Swype, for instance, dramatically improved my word entry speed over what’s possible on iPhone. Swype allows a user to trace their fingers between the letters of a word, lifting it only to start a new word. The software recognizes the pattern and letters and is remarkably good at guessing what you’re entering, even when your swyping is pretty sloppy. This is a huge improvement over the iPhone’s circa 2007 tap-tap-tap text entry and I’m sure we’ll see iOS adopt support for third party keyboards soon.
Samsung’s S-Pen, the stylus that slides into the bottom of the Note 3, was not as much of a game changer for me as I anticipated. Its features vary between the gimmicky (drawing a window in which you can launch an app) to the somewhat useful (note taking) to the very useful screen annotation feature. As a mobile game design consultant, I’m often taking screenshots of games, marking them up and sending them to clients or colleagues. Being able to annotate these screengrabs with the S-Pen was an awesome productivity boon. I also like to draw when I explain a concept, even though I’m terrible at drawing per se, so using the S-Pen to scribble out details of a concept like a flow or org chart was quite handy at times.
Any of the downsides of the Note 3 are true first world problems as it’s a phone head and shoulders above most others. At 5.7 inches tall if you have tiny hands this one may not be for you, but if you really enjoy great productivity tech, it’s hard to beat the Note 3. Big thanks to Telus for the loaner – I’m hooked!
Telus also provided the Galaxy Gear smartwatch to us, to go with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phablet. Ironically, this is the pairing most often seen in Samsung in-store advertising – the Note 3 and Gear together – so more than once I had fun posing beside the ads in Future Shop or Best Buy.
But what about the more practical uses for the Gear? When the Gear smartwatch first came out, many Apple iWatch anticipaters took great pains to slam it for its initial feature set. To some degree, the criticism of Gear’s version one firmware was warranted, but since then Samsung has upgraded the watch’s operating system significantly.
For those unaware, the Gear pairs with the Note 3 (as well as the Galaxy S4, my previous phone) via Bluetooth. Most of the phones’ features, such as voice control, calling, texting, media control, notifications and more, require this connection to the phone. Without it, it’s not much more than a watch with a camera.
Thankfully, pairing the watch with the phone is exceptionally easy and a one-time exercise. Despite the fact that I change my phone’s battery at least once a day, with a complete powering off, the watch reconnects to the Note 3 in the background instantly upon powerup. I never once ran into an issue where the watch disconnected with the phone for an unexplained reason. However the nature of Bluetooth is your phone can’t be much more than 30 feet away to remain connected to the watch via Bluetooth.
I had the Gear for two months and in that time I found some of the watch’s features more useful than others. The media controller felt a bit extraneous as my phone was almost always as close to me as the watch and the steps required to open the watch, navigate to the media controller and skip a song, for instance, were more involved than pressing skip on the lock screen of the Note 3.
The Gear’s camera also left a lot to be desired, but is great in a pinch for snapping a photo of something you want to remember later, like a note scribbled on a whiteboard. You’ll want to use the Note 3’s camera for anything of significance, however, as it’s vastly superior.
The two biggest pluses of the Gear smartwatch relate to how it decreases the friction in using the Note 3. For instance, if the Note 3 detects the Gear is in close proximity to it, the Note 3 will disable its lockscreen automatically, requiring only a swipe gesture to get into the phone. For those of us accustomed to locking and unlocking our phones countless times a day, this is a huge relief and one of the true benefits of this technology.
Also on the list of things we smartphone addicts do thousands of times a day is checking notifications. Every time my phone buzzes or beeps, I mindlessly pull it out, unlock it, check the notification, and return it to my pocket. Nine times out of ten, the notification is someone liking my Instagram photo or starring a tweet of mine. Hardly groundbreaking. Rare is the notification so important I should have broken the flow of whatever I was doing – coffee with a friend, a business meeting, a walk with my mom – by removing my phone, unlocking it and checking the notification.
Herein lies the single best feature of the Gear smartwatch: it’s ability to show notifications from all your apps, on the watch. A subtle buzz or beep, whatever you prefer, prompts you to glance at your wrist which is enough to satiate your curiousity but not enough to make whomever your with aware of your distraction. It feels a bit like cheating, but it’s infinitely less obtrusive than checking a phone. Best of all, the combination of the Note 3 and Gear watch work together seamlessly so that when I’m using my phone, the watch doesn’t buzz to notify me redundantly of something I’ve already seen on my phone.
Notifications on my wrist is worth the price of the Gear alone.
On more than one occasion during my time with the Gear I was called Dick Tracy, especially when receiving a call on the watch. In fact, the Gear not only receives calls, but can place calls and write text messages, all via voice recognition. Speaking into a watch definitely has a spy quality to it, and while it can feel a bit conspicuous at times it’s also quite handy when your hands are occupied.
I’ve heard battery life as a complaint of the version one Gear, but the newest firmware has definitely addressed this. The Gear goes two to three days on a single charge, which I found more than adequate as I already have a elaborate charging routine for all my devices, so one more item isn’t an issue.
About a month before Telus loaned us the Gear smartwatch a colleague offered to sell me one at a pretty great price. At the time I couldn’t see why I needed it and ultimately said no, after some hmming and hawing. Now that the Gear’s been returned to Telus, I’m hoping he still has it to sell as the Gear has changed the way my phone and I work together.
Thanks again Telus, for the loaner!
Adrian Crook is an award-winning game consultant with over 18 years experience in the social, casual and core games sectors. He has produced and designed over two dozen products across platforms ranging from early Nintendo and Sega Genesis to PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2, PC, Xbox 360, Wii, Facebook, iOS and Online. In 2006, Adrian was named Producer of the Year by the Canadian New Media Awards and his products have won numerous awards, including “Game of the Year”.