The Galaxy Note II from the perspective of a digital artist
I’ve had a Note II for a few months and feel ready to offer some thoughts on its use for digital artists.
The context for this review is important and I want to justify my perspective and qualifications a bit. I’m an illustrator with clients under my belt like Nike, Burton, Rome, Harley-Davidson, and Nickelodeon (for Ren & Stimpy, Spongebob, and TMNT). I’m tech-minded and have been working digitally for more than a decade.
I’ve owned Wacom Cintiqs and Intuos tablets. Over the years, I’ve also purchased all sorts of off-brand, aftermarket digital art making tools on both the hardware and software side. I like to take things apart and see how they tick and I’m always looking to test new tools and present my findings in the form of reviews to the digital art community. If you can draw on it, I want to get hands on it.
Drawing on a phone or tablet with pressure sensitivity and pen-like accuracy is just as important to a chap like me as the breadth of an app store’s ecosystem or call quality. I heard the Galaxy Note II used a Wacom digitizer with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity.
I’ve owned iPhones since the 3G and have Mac Pros, Mac minis, iMacs, and Airs in my studio. But I’m no zealot. I have Linux and Windows boxes too. I just want to use the best tool for a given task.
The iPhones and iPads I own don’t cut it as art making tools. Can you make art on them? Technically, yes. But that art making is in spite of distinct limitations. Drawing with a large-tipped, capacitive stylus with no pressure sensitivity is cumbersome and innacurate.
The pressure sensitivity and accuracy of the stylus in the Note II sounded promising on paper, but how was it to use? Was writing with it a reasonable expectation? Was drawing too laggy to be of use? Did the pressure sensitivity register a natural curve from light to heavy pressure and translate that to accurate marks? Were there even any apps that took advantage of the stylus well?
As a digital sketchbook
I was able to consistently capture both quick ideas and longer studies on the device. A big surprise was the boon to my unplanned sketching. If an idea popped into my head, I had a means to quickly, efficiently, and discreetly record it.
Before the Note, I carried a medium sized sketchbook and pencil case of traditional art supplies or a laptop bag with an Air and a portable tablet monitor for drawing on the go.
Pulling out my grease pencil or brush and ink was a prohibitive action in many circumstances. With digital input, I have a ubiquitous capture device that contains all the colors and brush settings I can dream up with no messes and no prep. Slide out the stylus, unlock the phone, and I’m capturing ideas as fast as they come - anyplace, anytime.
Drawing with analog tools in public tends to ellicit a response from the folks I’m studying. They want to see what I’ve done. When drawing on my phone, people aren’t alerted to my activity at a distance.
Being able to get life-drawing in without tipping off the twenty or so people I’ve caricatured into hideous monsters over the last two hours is a benefit. Some people get bent out of shape when they see a realistically rendered likeness of themself with additional adornments like tentacles, horns, and sacrificed virgins tumbling out of their giant, dislocated, gaping maw. Go figure.
Drawing performance was adequate bordering on good. I bought almost every app that claimed stylus support, but kept coming back to Sketchbook Mobile.
Turning off stroke smoothing in Sketchbook significantly decreased the amount of lag present in my strokes. Disabling touch input for all but color picking is a toggle-able option that kept me from accidental mark making. Other apps claim it, Sketchbook’s implementation worked flawlessly.
I found the drawing lag slightly better when forcing hardware rendering of 2D images in the developer options on the phone. Similarly, making sure that Power Saving is turned off (or the CPU throttling sub-option therein is disabled) makes for better drawing.
There’s still more lag than I would find ideal, but it’s nothing that kept me from successfully drawing on the device. As a baseline, it’s more laggy than an Intuos tablet, Cintiq, or Yiynova tablet monitor.
The number of apps that support stylus pressure is on the low side, but for most quick, idea-capturing types of works, Sketchbook suffices. Don’t expect to ink finished art on the phone and you’ll be in the correct headspace for the type of performance you’ll get.
A bit on the small side, the stylus feels in hand like a stick of charcoal or conté. I found myself instinctually gripping it like one while drawing.
Out of the box, the pressure curve of the stylus felt truncated. There’s a potentiometer inside of the stylus that lets you adjust that feel on a hardware level, though.
Tweaking the potentiometer manually provided a more natural range of pressure sensitivity. Popping the cover off of the stylus’ side switch and adjusting the small, silver discs with an eyeglass screwdriver is not for the faint of heart, but rewards the brave among us with a custom tailored pressure curve.
If you plan on using the Note II as an art making device, you’re probably going to want to adjust the potentiometer.
As an iPhone replacement
Over the course of the last year or so, I found myself using largely Google apps on my iPhone. Maps. Gmail. Search. Chrome. Before long, my home screen consistend largely of Google apps while a secondary screen held folders full of Apple apps that were seldom used. Coincident, the Nexus 7 was released to positive reviews. I became Android curious and was receptive to the switch.
Calls were fine. I don’t use my phone to talk very often, natch, so that’s the least informed aspect of this review. Texting proved a little cumbersome, but largely because of a boneheaded move on my part. I switched my Sprint account to Google Voice and the service’s lack of MMS support means that any texts with media attachments get funneled to the in-built Samsung messaging app while the rest of my texts reside in Google Voice, leaving me two places to check.
I’d heard horror stories about the Play Store ecosystem, but there’s an Android analog for all but one app I use regularly, Shopify. Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Instagram, Netflix, Kindle, Tune-in, and my other most used iOS apps were present and accounted for.
Draft is a fantastic Markdown editor with Dropbox syncing. I found myself writing entire articles with the stylus. Being able to handwrite directly into Markdown is pretty amazing.
Sketchbook Mobile covers the vast majority of my sketching needs. It’s the best overall art app I tested on the Note II and is fine for ideation if not polished, finished works at high resolution.
Pocket Casts is a far superior podcast app to any I’d used on iOS (including the Pocket Casts port for that platform).
I ran into a couple of apps whose ad policies reminded me of the malware-addled Windows installs of days gone by, but aside from some Android apps feeling like second string iOS ports, I didn’t encounter as many problems as I expected.
The ability to change the default apps and their associated actions allowed me to ditch some of the Samsung-centric bits of software (like the Camera app and Keyboard, both of which grated on me from a useability standpoint) that I found less ideal. If I found a part of the experience troublesome, it was usually in my power to change it.
Does it feel plastic and cheap compared to an iPhone? Yes. Does Touchwiz irk me a bit? Yup. I much prefer stock Android. Is drawing laggy? Yes. But it’s still the most portable digital art tool I’ve tested to date.
The Note II has completely obviated my iPhone. I don’t carry an analog sketchbook most of the time any longer.
I’ve since purchased a stock Android tablet and have migrated entirely to the Android ecosystem. I don’t miss iOS. I don’t long for my iPhone. I’m just relieved to finally be able to digitally draw on the go, accurately. My phone is my sketchbook now.
If you decide to purchase a Note II (or anything else, really), using this Amazon affiliate link helps support my digital art hardware reviewing efforts.