With Samsung's announcement that they're bringing Ice Cream Sandwich to the Galaxy Note, fans of the tablet-phone hybrid should be thrilled to finally get their hands on Android 4.0's numerous helpful features. Still, as Android skins become increasingly ubiquitous, it begs the question - how much of Ice Cream Sandwich will the Galaxy Note leave intact? We went hands-on with the Galaxy Note to see for ourselves.
You can't get Android 4.0 on the Galaxy Note in an over-the-air update, but Samsung makes the process mercifully easy. An official FAQ describes how to update the phone using Samsung's Kies media application, which can be downloaded for free. Just follow the instructions in the FAQ (complete with pictures) to get Ice Cream Sandwich up and running.
So, what Ice Cream Sandwich features made it on to the Galaxy Note? Thankfully, almost all of them. From adjustable widgets to multitasking, Note users can take advantage of Android 4.0's best enhancements.
While the Galaxy Note won't be getting soft-touch keys for Back, Home and Recent Apps (it has its own physical buttons), that doesn't mean Note users won't benefit from the same functionality. The Note's upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich has left intact its ability to open a list of recently used apps by long-pressing the Home button. Users can close applications simply by swiping them to the side with their fingers.
No Soft-Touch Virtual Buttons
The move to Ice Cream Sandwich has also left intact the functionality of the Note's physical buttons. Rather than popping open the recent apps menu like it does on other device, the menu button still opens a list of options for each app (such as Settings, Help and Send Feedback).
The home button (obviously) returns users to their main home screen, and - as mentioned above - can be used to open a list of recently used apps. The back button remains unchanged, as does the Search button - a decision we appreciated, given that new phones featuring Android 4.0 lamentably lack a dedicated Search button altogether.
Note users now have access to Android 4.0's handy drop-down notifications menu, complete with the ability to dismiss notifications with a swipe of the finger and change their settings right from the home screen.
Widgets can now also be resized by long-pressing on them and then dragging the corner toward the yellow grid lines.
Anyone who wants to make their phone a little more secure (or just can't be bothered to use their fingers to unlock their phone) should be pleased by the addition of Face Unlock. Sadly, that's just about the only new unlock option - Ice Cream Sandwich's handy new Lock Screen, which lets you open the camera without having to first unlock the phone, isn't implemented on the Galaxy Note.
Sharing-minded uses will appreciate the inclusion of Android Beam, which leverages the Galaxy Note's built-in NFC chip to share data such as YouTube videos, contact information, and other nuggets of information. Numerous apps have begun to incorporate Ice Cream Sandwich’s NFC functionality as well, making this a useful addition for Galaxy Note users.
The Galaxy Note's native browser greatly benefits from the update to Ice Cream Sandwich. Users can now view Web pages in desktop mode with a press of a button (which is especially handy, given that the Note's 5-inch display seems designed to view pages to their fullest extent), as well as save pages for offline reading. What's more, anyone who uses Chrome on their computer can sync their bookmarks to their Galaxy Note.
Chrome for Android
Of course, Galaxy Note users don't have to settle for the stock browser any longer; they can switch to Chrome for Android. Google's recently-graduated-from-beta mobile browser delivers improved tab switching, easier file downloading and a host of other cool features.
Set Your Own Data Limits
Frugal Galaxy Note users can also use Ice Cream Sandwich to set data limits - meaning they can listen to Pandora to their heart's content, without worrying about getting hammered by overage fees or having their data throttled.
Quick Response Texts
One of our favorite features of Ice Cream Sandwich, Quick Response Texts, allows users to send a text message when declining a call. This will prove handy for anyone who's driving or in a situation where answering a call is a bad idea.
The move to Ice Cream Sandwich also brings new support for the Note's stylus. Premium Suite includes a brand new S-Note productivity tools, which can translate handwritten math equations into easy-to-read formulas, answer handwritten questions using the Internet, and clean up hand-drawn shapes. A new widget allows users to access all of the different features of S Memo (type, draw, write, add photo or dictate using voice) right from the home screen with one touch. My Story App lets users write digital letters or cards (available for download from Samsung Apps).
Of all the tools bundled in Premium Suite, S Note proved the most impressive. The app recognized a huge number of mathematical symbols including the symbol for sum and exponents. Tapping on the Search button opened the browser of our choice and found the answer to our equation on WolframAlpha.com (S Note uses this Web site to answer all of its queries). The app's ability to convert hand-drawn shapes into cleaner versions was similarly intuitive, although less immediately useful.
The app also allows users to write questions directly into the application and then search for the answer on WolframAlpha.com by tapping the Search button. We found that S Note was very good at recognizing our handwriting, but it didn't automatically create a new space when we finished writing on the current line, forcing us to tap the Space button frequently.
S Note also allows users to import and annotate PDFs and images, which can prove incredibly useful if you need to take notes on a presentation or map on the fly.
Sadly, Ice Cream Sandwich doesn't offer a performance boost for the Galaxy Note. On the CPU portion of the Benchmark app, the Note notched a score of 2,203 - just three points shy of its original score on Android 2.3.
Similarly, the Note achieved an almost identical score in An3DBench on Ice Cream Sandwich as it did on Gingerbread, turning in 6,903 versus the 7,028.
Only a few features of Android 4.0 didn't make the migration onto the Galaxy Note. Most obviously, Samsung elected to keep its own TouchWiz Android skin - although we found that we wished we had Ice Cream Sandwich's more attractive user interface instead.
Also missing was the option to create silly faces and backgrounds when using video chat. Still, this wasn't a terrible loss.
Finally, Samsung decided not to include the People App in lieu of its own Social Hub application, which allows users to view of all their email, texts and other messages in a single inbox; sync their contacts and social networks; and manage their calendars across multiple accounts.
Overall, we were very pleased by the Galaxy Note's upgrade to Android 4.0. Almost all of the best features of Ice Cream Sandwich made it on to the Note, and the new productivity tools included in Premium Suite - particularly S Note - make the stylus an even greater asset for the phone/tablet hybrid.