Introductory Blah Blah
A few months ago, just before the summer if memory serves, I bought myself a Samsung Galaxy S4. It has been an almost complete disappointment; overheating, plasticky, filled to the brim with crapware and rather small if you could ever believe it.
I sold the S4 a couple of months ago and in its place I bought another Samsung. A €20 dumbphone that doesn’t even have a USB cable. It couldn’t even get the time from the networks; not even having a standard USB port. But it had a Bejeweled clone (and the sad fact is that the time I spent with the phone was spent mostly in that game) and a battery that easily lasts a week and more, and finally, it has an excellent reception and voice reproduction.
But this post is not a comparison between the S4 and the lowly dumbphone, because it would be a silly comparison of two very different phones and not one that the S4 could easily win. This is actually a pre-purchase comparsion between two other phones, the one meant to replace my S4.
Truth be told, while for the 80% of time the dumbphone did all I ever needed, there were times where the absence of a smartphone affected me. Hurt even, since I am a technology nerd and tend to adapt then depend on the technology around me. While I pondered buying a 7-inch tablet for that 20%, I already have a 10″ tablet which I am not willing to take outside unless there’s a good reason to do so (e.g. demoing on a client, or visiting my country house for the weekend).
So, after two months, I decided I want a new smartphone. But, since I’m weird and a man of extremes in certain matters in technology, my primary priority was a large screen. Yes, I went from the S4′s 5″ screen to the lowly E1200 screen looking for another large smartphone, larger than 5″ even, essentially a phablet. Could I get by without a phablet? Sure, but it would bug the hell out of me.
Searching around for a phablet, I initially rejected the following devices:
- The HTC One Max because, while the screen size of 5.9″ was acceptable (6″ would be ideal) its specs are rather old.
- Samsung Galaxy Mega. Great screen size, but worthless in specs, especially taking into account the price.
- Nokia Lumia 1520. It’s going to be a great phone, buuuuuuuut… it’s not even out yet (I can’t believe what they were thinking, missing out on the holidays will only hurt Nokia more) and it runs on Windows Phone, which, as much as I’d like, I am not sure I’d be eager to jump ship yet for various reasons.
Two devices caught my eye and passed the first test, the Samsung Note 3 and the Xperia Z Ultra. It’s funny, because when I initially bought the S4, I considered it a temporary phone that I could sell without much of a loss, until Note 3 was out. Well, Note 3 was delayed and when it was finally out, it was not quite the device I thought I’d jump on right away (more on that later).
Xperia Z Ultra
Let’s start with Sony’s device. The Xperia Z Ultra is essentially a small tablet with its 6.4″ form factor, yet it’s still usable as a phone, albeit a 2-handed one (which I don’t mind).
The camera is limited to 8MP and lacks a flash. I couldn’t care less about that, since people with such large phones usually don’t have reasons to use their cameras much. However I really don’t like the fact that it lacks a LED flash; I did use the S4′s led light rather frequently as a torch, but I can live without it… I think.
While Sony claims differently, it seems that the device isn’t really cutting edge and am unsure as to whether Sony will keep supporting it or even succeed it with a similar device. While the Xperia Z Ultra belongs to the same generation as the one of Xperia Z1, there’s absolutely no mention of a Z2 Ultra in accordance to the forthcoming Xperia Z2.
I guess I can live with that as well, though the phone could really use an update.
The device is limited to 16GB of internal storage that’s thankfully expandable. I don’t mind the size of the internal storage, but it makes the device seem as an afterthought once more, an experiment cursed to be unique. While I do realise that the target audience for a 6+” smartphone is limited, it still exists and the other offerings are limited; a niche market yet one that’s far from fulfilled.
The device has a plastic shield on both sides, front and rear that protect the glass underneath. The feel is indistinguishable from glass but the problem lies with the oleophobic coating of said protectors, in that they tend to rub off after a while.
Can I live with that? I guess. I could probably replace the shields if they go awry, even though the warranty will go away, but it’s still not as big of an issue.
Hoooo-boy, here we go. The battery is… OK. Nothing great, nothing too limited, enough to get by for a whole day, yet it feels kinda like living on the edge. Samsung’s power saving features helped without getting in the way and I guess Sony’s Stamina mode could help here as well (it certainly helps with my Xperia Tablet Z).
The screen is OK, nothing oversaturated but not bright enough. It CAN be annoying outside, that much I know from S4, but I (hope) I can live with that.
These are the annoyances the Z Ultra has. It’s nothing that great, it’s just that it feels a bit old as a device. But the specs and the screen size are not the only reason I am considering it, it’s because its opponent, the Note 3 ends up being so much worse in comparison. But let me explain.
Galaxy Note 3
As I was saying, having some minor experience with Note 2, I was impressed. I was so eager to get Note 3 I couldn’t believe what they finally came up with. Let’s have a detailed look at what annoys me so much about this device (note, I am not mentioning Region Lock, because as it is it doesn’t bother me since it’s continent-based).
It’s true. Like the S4, Samsung insist using plastic extensively. While I am not against plastic necessarily, I expect something more sophisticated, such as a rubberised texture. Other manufacturers use brushed aluminium and the results are exquisite in most cases. But no, Samsung chose to use a corny leather immitation with stitching too! It feels like bumpy plastic and am not sure it’s that much better than the shiny S4 cover.
It’s insulting to use such a cheap feeling material in such an expensive device, but it’s nothing that I cannot live with. Mostly thanks to the ability to replace the back cover with a flip cover which can be whatever material you can find (even real leather).
Also, even more insulting is the metallic bumper that surrounds the phone. It’s made of a very soft plastic which is very easy to dent yet it’s made to look like metal. Why couldn’t Samsung use real aluminium here is beyond me; the ruffled design only makes matters worse for when cleaning the device is in order.
I amazed at how easily Samsung devices overheat. I remember in particular that S4 could even become difficult to handle due to the temperatures it could reach.
Again, one can live with this, mostly, but it makes me worry about potential future damage due to the temperature.
Bugs, bugs bugs
Have a look at this video:
How could you release something so expensive with such horrible bugs? Hope that bugs such as this one can be fixed with software updates, or else you’re stuck with a device you need to RMA. More similar bugs are listed here: http://au.ibtimes.com/articles/511288/20131004/samsung-galaxy-note-3-5-issues-bugs.htm#.Upwnl7SVLmE
Is Sony free of such bugs? Not sure, but since the device was released lots of months ago, they had the time to work on firmware updates. Can Samsung fix the same bugs? If we are to believe the release schedule for S5 and the amount of devices in the S4 family, they seem to care more to flood the market with devices, rather than release few but solid devices.
Acting like scumbags
You know what a feature of recent Samsung devices is? Knox. I won’t get into detail on what it is; essentially allows for an extra layer of security and for companies to implement B.Y.O.D. policies, by utilising special software and hardware measures.
Samsung went one step ahead though and according to the reports, they implemented an e-fuse which leaves a permanent “mark” on your device when you attempt to change roms, apply rooting and so on, in other words, very first thing a power user does when he gets a phone. While there are ways to circumvent the protection, it’s rather unstable and does not respond well to firmware updates.
The problem is that Samsung does not directly state what the state of your warranty is should you void your KNOX marker. In the E.U. you have a recourse but it may end up being costly and tiresome. Using the rooting of a device as an excuse to void a warranty is unethical, filling your device with bloatware then blocking all firmware operations is unfathomable.
Oh the amount of bloatware found in Samsung devices. In the S4 (well, before it got the KNOX update too) I could flash a prerooted firmware with most extraneous applications removed; I cannot do that here with root blocked. Yay for ChatOn and similar “Samsung-only” crap that nobody uses (seriously, a chat application only for Samsung owners? What were they thinking?)
Okay, okay, I know this is controversial, but let me explain in detail:
The action memo opens up a pop-up where you can scribe something quickly then ask from the device to recognise it. You can write a phone number and have the device call it. Sure, it’s nice, but… is it really more comfortable to get the S-Pen out, press its button while hovering for half a second then trying to write on a slippery screen?
My problem is not with the capability itself, I like it in theory. The problem is that a slippery screen with a similarly slippery pen pin does not really allow for comfortable handwriting. I tried, it just doesn’t work. While it’s OK for scribing a quick phone number (risking problematic character recognition at the same time), you really can’t write any extended notes.
Oh, at the same time, it doesn’t even work with S-Note. Nice going Samsung.
The Scrapbooker is a nice concept. You browse the web and want to take a snapshot of what you’re reading? Circle it with the pen. Want to store a video? Likewise.
This is admittedly a nice feature. My only personal concern is that if I need to do this kind of research work, I will rarely do it on the phone; at most I will store the URLs of the sites I need and visit them home (yes, I know it can store more things than web pages).
It’s definitely the most useful feature of the S-Pen, but that’s it.
Simple stuff. Take a a screenshot; draw on it using the pen. Sounds nice, not something I can’t live without however; how often does not take a screenshot and then proceed to draw on it?
A search feature that doesn’t need the pen for any reason whatsoever, yet there it is.
Pull out then pen, draw a rectangle on it and it will open a mini window with an application on it, such as a browser, a calculator and as such.
You know what this reminds me of? Sony’s mini-apps which is available in both Z Ultra and Tablet Z. However it’s a far better implementation; just click the recent applications button, press one of the mini-apps buttons that appear and the application will open, allowing you to resize it, minimise it and so one. I find having to draw it (and essentially being inaccessible without the pen) superfluous, but there you have it.
Direct Pen Input
Actually, that’s nice, it allows you to write on a textbox using the pen. However, I much prefer Sony’s and Samsung’s Swype-like keyboards; they are faster and more reliable.
This allows you to draw a lasso around an object and take a screenshot of it. This works nicely actually since it can detect edges; no complains here.
This allows you to draw using especially the pressure sensitive capabilities of the S-Pen. I will admit that if you need such a feature it might as well be the one to trump all others. Unfortunately for me, this is not a top priority (while the screen is).
Here’s my strictly personal opinion about screen sizes, always with my rather large hands into account.
Samsung’s S4 at 5″ was a bit smaller than I wanted. Text input was a bit cumbersome. Galaxy Note II’s 5.5 inches allowed for a much better experience. So it should go without saying that Note 3′s 5.7″ are even better right?
Yes, they are. But I feel that they’re too little. I would expect Samsung to jump to 6 inches for a device with such specs and this is where the device loses to both Lumia 1520 and Xperia Z Ultra.
You know what one of the many features S4 was? The ability to scroll a web page using your eyes. Which only worked in one program, the stock browser. Nowhere else, yet this feature made it to Note 3.
Another “useful” feature is the ability to flip photo slides or browser tabs using the wave of your hand. Yeah…
That’s the problem with said features. There are a ton of them and they are all limited in use (because they are gimmicks essentially), yet they cost money to make which they are reflected in the final cost to the consumer.
All in all?
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that both devices focus each on different features. The Z Ultra clearly focuses on its large screen while the Note 3 obviously focuses on its S-Pen. Is the Z Ultra unwieldy? It depends, it’s not for me, but it might be for you. Is Samsung’s S-Pen really that useful? Again, it depends, but I found I could live without losing much of its functionality.
The Note 3 is a better device technologically and that makes sense; it came months after the Z Ultra. The problem for me lies with Samsung’s mentality: they serve buggy gimmicks and at the same time restrict your ability to use the phone.
Sony’s offering fits me perfectly. It lacks certain features Note 3 has, but the things I miss from it annoy me much less than the things I miss from Note 3.
Note that I am not a fanboy and as such I have no particular love or hate for any company, nor I am fool to believe that any company would care much about me as a consumer. It’s just that Samsung’s offering at this point tends to be far more insulting than Sony’s and unless Samsung receives some serious negative feedback about their recent actions this will only become worse.
I realise that my presentation reflects a negativity towards Samsung, but I have no animosity towards it. It’s just that when you pay for something that costs that much, Samsung’s mishaps are unforgivable, I’d even say insulting.