Is this the answer to my prayer for a portable digital revision machine? It’s called the Galaxy Note 10.1, is in many ways a pretty standard ten-inch Android tablet, and costs £399 for the 16gb wifi version (this being Android you can easily add storage cheaply through a micro SD card).
I got mine through John Lewis since they offer a return service. But it won’t be going back. Nothing terribly special about the tablet except for the pen you see on the right, which slots neatly into the body. It’s a digital pen, the S pen first seen on the five-inch Note phone, a proper one with a fine tip and a fair number of apps built for it.
The black fatter pen in front is an £18 accessory — a stylus inside a bigger pen housing. It doesn’t fit into a slot but it’s a fair bit nicer to write with, though scarcely a necessity. Samsung have a decent range of apps that use the S pen, some games, some for drawing. I only got the Galaxy a couple of days ago and, as I explained in the previous post, only started to use it in anger when the proofs for The Killing II turned up in pdf. So please don’t regard this as a review of the tablet in general. All I want of this thing is the ability to mark up pdfs quickly and easily, to publication standard, nothing more.
And here’s the first confession: when I started playing with the Note I thought it was hopeless at the task and headed for a return. Samsung’s principal pen writing app is S Note. It takes around ten minutes to pull in a pdf of several hundred pages. When it gets there it looks like this (once you’ve scribbled on things).
Yes, you can scribble on your text, add typed notes, even voice annotations. And for dealing with a manuscript… it’s utterly useless. S Note appears to convert pdf to images on import. So you can’t, for instance, highlight text as text. And when you export back to a pdf every page is an image too, so the size is huge and the results pretty much unusable. I’m sure for short notes and things this could be fine. But for what I want… definitely not.
OK, well let’s try another supplied app, Polaris Office. Here it is opening not a pdf but a Word file and scribbling on that.
No use for publication proofs, which invariably are pdfs. But could I proof my own work this way? Well not really. As I said in the earlier article I want to proof a static page, not a live one tempting me to edit it. Oh, and Polaris insists on showing you carriage returns and page margins too, which is incredibly distracting.
Fine, so that’s the supplied software dealt with. Let’s try a third party app. There is an Android beta of iAnnotate, one of the best iPad pdf apps. I tried that and it was promising, but clearly beta and too shaky for serious use at the moment. Promising though. Then I went to EZpdf Reader, one of the most popular Android pdf apps.
Before I talk about putting ink on the screen let me briefly go into one of the key aspects of this whole question: navigation. You need an easy way to go backwards and forwards through pages. This seems such a rudimentary requirement but you’d be amazed how many solutions seem to ignore it. Physical page up and down buttons seem to have disappeared forever. Few apps can scroll pages with two fingers (another obvious solution). Even fewer with digital pens differentiate between pens and fingers when it comes to page flipping.
EZpdf takes a simple option. You can set the volume buttons to change pages in preferences, Volume Key Action.
Dead easy but it works very well. And there’a dedicated storage area for files so you can keep everything in a safe place.
Right, so we now know how to navigate. How do we mark up? This the main screen.
Click for a larger view. EZpdf if a general Android app, not one specially made for the Galaxy’s S pen. So all these tools are available through a crude stylus. But with the S pen they become so much more useful. At the bottom of the screen you see a range of pages in the document (these will disappear when you start working and only come back on a screen tap). At the top is the range of markup tools available to you.
First of all I tried the pencil naturally.
This soon became my preferred way to write things. It’s much like writing with a real pen. But note – there’s no undo. If you want to get rid of something you have to delete (and sometimes any associated annotation too). Not perfect but you can write in an apostrophe or comma and see what’s going on. Then when you’re done you hit the back button at the top of the screen, the changes are saved and you can go onto the next page.
A quick and easy way to mark something for deletion is to use the red line tool if you don’t want to scribble freehand. Text highlighting is also available, and you can add notes.
I’m now two hundred pages into this proof edit using the Note and EZpdf. That tells you something. I have zero patience with anything substandard. If this thing didn’t cut the mustard I wouldn’t still be using. But it does and thanks to it I used both those train journeys and some time in the hotel to get through a substantial amount of labour that would otherwise have waited. I’m two days ahead of where I would have been without the Note. It’s paid for itself.
That said, this has still some way to go. The screen is standard tablet resolution, not the retina resolution of the current iPad. So the text isn’t as clear as the iPad 3 though I find it perfectly readable and anyone who’s never seen a retina screen will too. The pen is, frankly, underused. There is a second button on the side that should be keyed into some kind of erase function. More undo options are needed. And I suspect a lot of people will simply struggle with the S Note app and give up.
But the truth is the hardware for serious manuscript editing is here with this device. What we need is better software. Given the Note is barely out a week you have to hope that will come, though I’m going to manage quite easily with this for some time.
Will my head be turned when the pen-friendly Windows tablets come out? I have my doubts. At £399 the Note isn’t cheap but it’s probably half the price of the pen-equipped Intel tablets Microsoft have been talking about. And there’s no intimation they will have pdf software any better than this. We’ll see.
In a nutshell: it’s taken me two years since I bought my first iPad, and quite a lot of time and money, but finally I can revise to publication quality on a tablet. This is going to save me vast amounts of time, and let me work on the go in ways I’ve been craving for years. Good news all round.