A Quick Note on My New Phone

The first time I played a game on my phone was 2005, and it was before anyone would have called that tiny, dense machine “smart”. I was on a shuttle bus in Los Angeles, riding, groggy and bleary-eyed, to day two of E3 ‘05. Somewhere in a nearby seat, Certis was playing one of them-there newfangled Nintendo DS systems, occasionally making mocking and snide comments about my having nothing more to play with than my underwhelming Nokia phone. These were days where cell phones genuinely had only one purpose, and that was to provide communication wirelessly over distances. To be honest, that was still a sort of neat concept at the time.

The device in question was about half the size of your average DualShock controller, and its profile was dominated more by squishy number buttons than by screen. The game itself was a half-assed version of Jeopardy!, only the questions came up on your screen like a multiple choice test and you pressed numbers on your keys to make your guess. The screen had all the resolution of a TI-80 graphing calculator, with less functionality, and as I played, bored and disappointed, I remember having a hard time imagining how cell phones would ever be a platform for anything beyond getting phone calls in the car.

Ironically this was the E3 in which N-Gage talked openly about applying its underwhelming technology to a cell phone, which inspired the world to continue not buying them at all. It would be slightly more than 2 years until the iPhone launched and begin a tectonic shift in the geography of wireless applications. I would never have guessed that within the decade I would be carrying a machine in pocket the size of an X-box controller that could access the internet at broadband speeds, stream and play movies, provide high-resolution gaming and be loaded dense with applications that could do everything from tune my guitar to tell me how far I’ve run.

A little over a week ago I upgraded my phone to the new Samsung Galaxy Note 2, a quad-core driven piece of advanced technology that I might at any given moment describe as sexy, fast or unwieldy. That some people have taken to giving it a nice portmanteau name such as phablet is not particularly a shock when you hold it in your hands and revel in its 5.5-inch screen. A massive upgrade from my aging Motorola 3G Atrix, the Note 2 feels like the kind of upgrade I felt when I upgraded from a Super Nintendo to a PlayStation.

This is my third smartphone, the first having been an early iPhone that I never managed to quite click with, a phone I frankly felt stuck with for the majority of my ownership. Part of that may be a result of having bought it only 3 weeks before the iPhone 3G which immediately seemed to make my fancy new phone obsolete. Plus, as someone who has never quite adopted the Apple ethos — my first MP3 player was a Creative Nomad, not an iPod — it always felt like an alien experience.

Once I made the decision to switch to Android, the Atrix just felt much better aligned to what I was looking for from my phone. Admittedly, what I was not looking for was a gaming platform — an area in which Apple had established an early lead. Once I had the new system in hand, though, the Android interface just felt more familiar to me. The only real knock I could ever put on the Android was that during my years with the iPhone I had invested too heavily into iTunes, and as a result all of my fine, fine music was relatively locked away. That stopped being an issue when I discovered Spotify.

When it was time to replace the Atrix, though, the question wasn’t really whether I was getting another Android phone, but which one.

I spent a good hour with the patient and knowledgeable salesperson at Best Buy Mobile, which I point out only because I received such surprisingly excellent service that I thought they deserved kudos. While I toyed with the idea of abandoning AT&T, the reality is that I remain grandfathered into their unlimited data plan, and am thus bonded to the service in exchange for the ability to surf the web, download songs and watch Netflix wantonly without fear of financial reprisal.

The Galaxy Note 2 stood out to me immediately, and I spent the better part of that hour trying to talk myself away from the hefty $299 price tag. The phone called to me like a siren song, though, and once I held a demo unit in hand, the contract had been all but signed.

I usually walk out of a store like that, having spent more money than I had any right to, feeling immediate buyer’s remorse. Once I’d signed over another two years of my life, I expected to get to my car and pull out the phone and begin to immediately see the countless warts of the Note 2. That did not happen.

Here’s the first thing you need to know about the Note 2: It’s unbelievably fast. My admittedly old Atrix could take up to 2 minutes to cold boot, but on hitting the power button on my new phone I was on a home screen within 20 seconds. It’s a speed I don’t know how to comprehend for a phone, though I’m told it may have something to do with its Quad-Core 1.6Ghz Cortex-A9 processor, which I presume are words that, when strung together for tech-type people, make sense. To me it just means the phone is a silly kind of fast.

Though not by any way unique to the phone itself, the leap from what always felt like an unreliable 3G on my Atrix to 4G LTE was equally impressive. Not only do applications pop open, but the data transfer speeds aren’t anything like what I’d become used to. In the Twin Cities, I’m getting download speeds from between 6Mbps to a peak just today of 17Mbps.

I dunno, that seems good to me.

While there is really no comparing Apple’s Retina Display with most other phones, the screen is vibrant and, most importantly, gigantic. The difference between the 4-inch screen of my old Atrix and the 5.5 inch screen of the Note 2 is genuinely the difference between ever wanting to watch a movie or show on my phone. Having Netflix, HBOGo or even YouTube on my phone is no longer just a curiosity, but a legitimate application I have used.

The touchscreen itself also just feels better, likely in part because of the greatly expanded real estate. Best of all is the swipe functionality for the keyboard, which allows you to move your finger rapidly from letter to letter without lifting and touching each individual key, doesn’t just work, but is nearly flawless. Short of names, acronyms and proper nouns, swiping has made it entirely feasible to craft work emails on my phone without taking minutes at a time.

The phone also comes with a stylus and native support that allows you to write out notes, and in many cases (if your handwriting is good enough) to convert those notes to text. But while functional, it still doesn’t seem entirely practical. It comes in handy every now and again if I just need to quickly jot a small thing down, like say an impromptu grocery list or a quick reminder, but honestly it’s probably no faster than just using the keyboard, particularly considering the swipe tech.

What surprised me the most in the long run, though, was the outstanding battery life of the phone. For all that power and speed, you would reasonably assume that you could barely get through a day without charging, but even with relatively regular and high use, I still end my day with a half-full battery, and on light-use days with the phone mostly on standby, the battery meter barely seems to move. And, should I someday need to, the battery is replaceable.

I’m not naturally the kind of person who pays a lot of attention to my phone, but the Galaxy Note 2 is a machine that gives you good reason to pay attention and rewards you for it. There are experts on smart phones out there and I do not count myself among their august populations, but it’s hard for me to imagine a better phone for the technology of the age. When I sit back and think of a thing I want from this device that is not provided or accessible, I frankly draw a complete blank.

I’d like to give you something I think the phone could do better, or that I don’t necessarily like about it to provide some patina of objectivity, but either I am hopelessly smitten or don’t know what I should want that isn’t there. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing I don’t like about the Galaxy Note II. If you can get past its size, and we of the Giant-Folk rarely worry over such matters, I’d be hard pressed to believe there is a better phone on the market.

Comments

Just picked up a Note 2 to be my new phone in Sweden and am loving it so far. Of course that could just be the joy of being back online again. This is my first new phone since turning in my old 3GS and I've been blown away by the speed and responsiveness.

Also, considering I'm primarily a windows/linux user who uses Google for integration across machines, having a Google native phone has been a massive relief from the constant kludge of shoehorning everything through itunes. For all the good software available on IOS they certainly don't make it easy to actually use your hardware the way you'd want to.