Galaxy Note II and Samsung's design disconnect

Samsung Galaxy Note II

I just finished reviewing Samsung's Galaxy Note II (yes, it's been a busy week here at JR Raphael International Headquarters).

There's a lot to be said about a gadget like the Galaxy Note II. It isn't every day, after all, that you hold a touch-oriented device that's nearly six inches in length (insert your own "that's what she said" joke here) -- and is actually a fully functioning phone, too.

That's really Samsung's core concept with the Note -- to give you the best of both worlds, so to speak: a phone that's kind of like a tablet, and a tablet that's also like a phone. (And no, I won't call it a "phablet.") Why have two devices when you can have one that meets all your needs?

Whether or not the concept works for you, you've gotta give Samsung credit for trying something different. Though the form isn't exactly my cup of tea, personally, I can certainly appreciate that it serves a unique niche -- a niche that many people do identify with, particularly when you factor in the device's S Pen stylus.

Where I struggle, though, is to appreciate some of the design decisions Samsung's been making with its devices lately. Some of the company's choices are downright baffling and really do detract from the user experience. And that's a shame, because its products have a lot of potential to shine.

First, Samsung continues to muddy up its smartphones with its over-the-top and eyeball-hurting TouchWiz interface. To be clear, I'm not talking about the added software features -- things like Popup Play and Smart Stay -- that arguably add value to the product. I'm talking about the arbitrary UI changes that appear to have been made merely for the sake of change.

As I say in my Note II review:

The subdued and consistent visuals of Android 4.x are replaced by an overwhelming mess of colors, clashing icons and excessive elements. Intuitive processes like creating a home screen folder have been complicated for no apparent reason. All around, Samsung's interface feels like something a design instructor would use as an example of practices one should avoid.

Samsung Galaxy Note II Design

That UI meddling is bad enough -- power users know parts of that can be covered up with a custom launcher, at least -- but what perplexes me more is Samsung's continued resistance to Android 4.x-level button design.

The Note II, like the Galaxy S III before it, utilizes a mix of capacitive and physical navigation buttons instead of the virtual on-screen buttons Google has designed Android 4.x to use. Worse yet, one of those buttons is a menu button -- something phased out of Android after the 2.3 era in order to move away from hidden functions and make the platform more user-friendly.

The effect of this setup on the user experience is not insignificant. As I noted when reviewing the Galaxy S III:

Having a menu button makes the phone feel dated and results in a far less fluid and intuitive user experience. Functions remain hidden and hard to find, and the menu button doesn't even work consistently throughout the system (in the Camera app, for example, there's an on-screen menu button; pressing the physical button does nothing).

Samsung also elected not to include an app-switching button of any sort -- something that's now standard in [Android 4.x] -- and instead requires users to long-press the physical home button in order to activate the multitasking tool. The multitasking tool is one of the high points of [Android 4.x] and something you'll likely want to access often; having it buried in a place that requires a two-second long-press is a serious downer and another ding that makes the phone feel dated.

Sadly, the phone's button problems don't stop there: Philosophical approach aside, the mix of a hardware home button with capacitive back and menu buttons simply doesn't work. Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and feels bizarre. I can't count the number of times I found myself touching the home button only to realize I had to press it firmly to make it work.

All it takes is 10 minutes with a device that actually follows Google's Android 4.x design guidelines -- be it a tablet like the Nexus 7 or a phone like the Droid Razr HD -- to see how big of a difference this all makes.

The question ultimately becomes whether the Galaxy Note II has enough good things going for it to make up for its design-related drawbacks -- and that's something only you can decide. The phone does have an awful lot of positive qualities, including an excellent display, solid performance, and one of the best smartphone cameras around. Its S Pen is accurate and responsive, too, and that alone may be enough to win you over.

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I just wish Samsung would scale back its heavy-handed Android interface modifications already -- and stop relying on dated button designs that clash with the current state of the platform. Samsung makes some compelling devices. If it would embrace the future of Android instead of clinging to its past, there's no telling how fantastic its products could become.

[For a much more detailed look at the Note II and its pros and cons, see my in-depth review: Samsung Galaxy Note II: Is bigger really better?]

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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