Samsung Galaxy Note II review

Review
Samsung Cheaper Galaxy Note II

Almost exactly eight months ago, I reviewed Samsung’s Galaxy Note “phablet” and called it the smartphone that “Samsunged” Samsung (005930). I very much enjoyed certain aspects of Samsung’s debut tablet-smartphone hybrid and I thought the company’s implementation of the S Pen stylus was unique and intriguing, but I wrote that the complete package was far too monstrous to be usable. I went even further to call the device “an answer without a question” and hoped aloud that it would mark a turning point where smartphones like the Galaxy Note might begin to shrink back down to more manageable sizes. Then Samsung sold more than 10 million of them and it ended up being the smartphone that Samsunged BGR.

So, massive phones are here to stay. Most other vendors haven’t yet had the nerve to launch handsets quite as large as the Note, but we’re getting there. And while other Android vendors struggle to find their way — and to stop losing money quarter after quarter — Samsung continues to crank out the hits while its profits climb skyward. The firm’s latest attempt at a blockbuster is the Galaxy Note II, and it will launch ahead of the holidays on every major carrier in the United States.

The Inside

Samsung’s second Galaxy Note smartphone outdoes its predecessor in nearly every way on paper.

A quad-core Exynos processor in the Galaxy Note II replaces the 1.5GHz dual-core unit in the earlier model, and the new brains of this operation is a chipset that consists of a 1.6GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU married to a quad-core ARM Mali-400 MP4 GPU. RAM has also been upped to 2GB and internal storage comes in at 16GB, 32GB or 64GB depending on the model you choose. The Note II also supports microSDXC cards up to 64GB in size.

In terms of connectivity, the new Note packs everything from 4G LTE (though my T-Mobile-branded review unit is not compatible with LTE), Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4 & 5 GHz) and Wi-Fi HT40 to USB 2.0, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. The device also supports all of Samsung’s modern connectivity-based services including S Beam, AllShare Cast and Wi-Fi Direct sharing from within the camera app.

The Note II runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean whereas the original model is still waiting for an update. To be fair though, the original Note has been updated to Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is more current than the OSes found on many newer devices.

Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface is included as well, of course, as are all of the bells and whistles that come along with it. Highlights include Smart Stay, which keeps the Note II display on as long as the device’s front-facing camera sees a pair of eyes looking at the device; Smart Rotation, which stops the device’s display from rotating between portrait and landscape if you’re lying in bed or in other situations where auto-rotation is a nuisance; S Suggest, which makes app recommendations and gets smarter as you use it; S Voice, which is a voice command and query function similar to Siri but not quite as comprehensive; and a variety of motion controls that allow users to tilt the device to zoom in or out, raise the phone to an ear while viewing a contact to automatically call that contact, and more.

Because the Note II is so massive, TouchWiz also includes a few nice options that make it more manageable for one-handed use. For example, users can shrink the dialer and calculator down to a more standard size and push their locations on the display closer to one side. This means a right-handed user will be able to reach all the buttons comfortably on the right side of the display, or the handset can be configured for left-handed users and the dialer or calculator will slide over to the left side of the screen.

Last but certainly not least, the 2,500 mAh battery in the original Note balloons to 3,100 mAh in the sequel — a much-needed 24% improvement. I still had trouble making it through a full day with the Note II on a single charge, but I found a marked improvement over the original Galaxy Note. I should also note that Wi-Fi has a tremendous negative impact on the Note II’s battery performance, and disabling Wi-Fi made it much easier for me to get through the day.

The Outside

Despite the fact that Samsung was able to pack far more tech into the Note II, this new smartphone is narrower and thinner than the Note it replaces.

The original Galaxy Note measured 146.85 x 82.95 x 9.65 millimeters and weighed 178 grams. The new Note II comes in at 151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4 millimeters and it weighs 180 grams. While the Galaxy Note II is indeed slightly taller and heavier than the original, it is also narrower and thinner than the Note so it feels more manageable, albeit barely.

But other vendors are launching smartphones that are far thinner than previous-generation models, so why is the new Note only marginally smaller than the last model? The answer to that question lies in the display.

While the Note II has roughly the same footprint as the original, it squeezes in a 5.55-inch display where the first Note included a 5.2-inch panel. The difference seems minimal on paper, but that 3.5-millimeter diagonal improvement is significant. The aspect ratio on the new 720p high-definition panel is also a more standard 16:9 instead of 16:10, which was the case on the original model.

Beneath the display on the face of the phone sits an oblong home button with a capacitive menu button to its left and a capacitive back button to its right. The phone’s ear speaker is found above the screen, flanked by an LED indicator light on its left and a front-facing camera to its right.

The jiggly, rattly power/lock/unlock button lies on the right side of the phone and a volume rocker is found on the left side. The top side is home to a standard 1/8-inch audio jack and a secondary microphone for noise cancellation, while the primary mic is found on the bottom along with a microUSB port and the phone’s stylus.

The Galaxy Note II’s rear speaker is located near the bottom of the back cover and the camera lens and LED flash are located near the top. I found the same issue with the Note II’s 8-megapixel camera that I’ve found with other cameras on recent high-end Samsung phones. The camera software is great, packed with features like Share shot, which automatically uploads images and shares them with friends; Panorama mode; Smile shot, which snaps a picture when the subject smiles; and Buddy photo share, which creates Wi-Fi direct connections with other nearby Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S III users and automatically shares photos as they are captured.

Despite all these great features though, image quality is lacking compared to devices like the HTC (2498) One X or Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 5, 4S and even 4. Zoomed out on the Galaxy Note II’s display, photos look fantastic and vivid. To be fair though, just about everything looks fantastic on the Note II’s display. But once photos are examined on a PC or the user zooms in right on the device, fuzzy edges and other issues common to photos taken with Samsung phones become apparent.

Call quality is outstanding on the Note II. The ear speaker gets very loud and is crystal clear, and speakerphone mode is clear enough to get the job done.

The Upside

The Galaxy Note II is bound to be just as polarizing as its predecessor thanks to its massive footprint, but this phablet has some things going for it that are difficult to argue with.

First and foremost, a fantastic display is on a high-end Samsung smartphone is basically a given at this point, and the Galaxy Note II does not disappoint. The phone’s huge 5.55-inch HD Super AMOLED panel still manages a pixel density of 267 ppi thanks to its 1,280 x 720-pixel resolution. While that falls short of the 285 ppi on the original Galaxy Note’s 1,280 x 800-pixel display, the observed difference is negligible.

Samsung’s AMOLED panel on the Note II is amazingly bright and colors are vivid. Contrast is also outstanding, as one might expect from a Samsung device, and images really come to life. And while the display does not use the “dreaded” PenTile subpixel arrangement, I do find that rival HD displays from companies like HTC and Apple top the Note II in terms of clarity.

Another huge point in the Galaxy Note II’s favor is the presence of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.

At the time of this writing, Android 4.1 was found on just 1.8% of Android devices globally according to Google’s publicly available data. Android 2.3 Gingerbread was found on the lion’s share of devices at 55.8% — after all, 2012 is the year of Gingerbread — and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich powered 23.7% of Android smartphones and tablets combined.

This makes the Galaxy Note II a hot ticket item. Samsung’s fastest-selling smartphone of all time, the Galaxy S III, doesn’t yet have access to Jelly Bean and while millions upon millions of users wait for it anxiously, Galaxy Note II owners will be able to enjoy all of the great new Jelly Bean features right out of the box.

Among those new features is Google Now, which I have called one of the most exciting mobile innovations of the year to this point. “Google Now gets you just the right information at just the right time,” according to Google’s website, and I couldn’t put it any better.

Google Now is a service that examines Google searches, calendar events, location and other information and uses that data intelligently to automatically present the user with relevant data. Perhaps the service is better explained using examples:

  • Each morning, Google Now will report the weather in your current location on a card and as an entry on the Android notification pane.
  • If you have a meeting or a doctor’s appointment in your calendar, Google Now will let you know when you should leave and what route to take as your appointment draws near.
  • If you’re standing on a platform waiting for a train, Google Now will let you know when the next train is due to arrive.
  • Google Now will tell you to leave early for work if there’s a traffic jam on your regular route.
  • If you’re booked on a flight that is delayed, Google Now will notify you. It’ll also stay on top of traffic between your current location and the airport so you know how early to leave.
  • Are you a Yankees fan? Google Now will give you the latest Yankees scores every day. (Staring next season, of course.)
  • If you fly to a foreign country, Google Now will pop up a translator card that defaults to the native language wherever you land. It’ll also make a currency converter card available and tell you what time it is in your home country.

To access Google Now on the Galaxy Note II, simply tap and hold the menu button while on a home screen.

Part of the touchscreen smartphone revolution that began five years ago was fostered by capacitive touch technology, which made finger input on smartphones far more usable than it had ever been before. As vendors adopted capacitive displays, the smartphone stylus became the butt of many jokes and it is now often associated with devices that are practically prehistoric by today’s standards. But with the advent of “phablets” and the many improvements that have been made regarding touchscreen technology and the stylus itself, styluses may be ready for a comeback.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note was the start of the smartphone stylus’ rebirth, and the Note II pushes stylus support even further.

S Pen support on the Note II has been improved in every way thanks to the combination of new sensor technology built into the screen as well as a number of software improvements. All of the nifty functions from the original Galaxy Note are there, such as opening a new note with a double-tap while holding the S Pen button, but the Note II can do so much more.

Drawing a circle (or any shape) around something on the screen while holding the stylus’ button will create a cropped screenshot, and users can now use the pen to hand-write calendar events or even email signatures. Annotation and editing functions have been tweaked as well, but my favorite new feature is Airview.

When the S Pen is held within about 10 millimeters of the Galaxy Note II display, a cursor appears on the screen and follows the tip of the stylus. Hover over certain things such as an email in a list or a drop-down menu on a website and Airview will peek inside and show you a preview. Hovering over images or videos will give you a preview as well, and hovering near the top or bottom of a page will scroll up or down. Any time the cursor passes over something that is Airview-enabled, the open circle will begin to glow.

There are also a number of gestures that can be performed with the S Pen, and I highly recommend that new Galaxy Note II owners spend a few minutes in the S Pen section of the device’s Help app to learn about all the great new functionality.

The Downside

When I reviewed the Galaxy Note, there was plenty that I enjoyed about the phone. There was just one thing that I really couldn’t work my way past, and that was the size. The same is true now.

The Galaxy Note II is positively massive. It’s almost a punch line.

I carried the Note II with me for several days and I cannot express how awkward it is to take a call on this handset. I’m not a small person, but holding the massive Note II to my face while talking on the phone is downright embarrassing. I caught curious looks on a number of occasions, and I found myself ducking into corners whenever possible. I suppose it’s still less embarrassing than wearing a Bluetooth headset, though.

There is clearly a market for phones of this size, but I can conclusively state that I cannot be counted among users who enjoy carrying a device this size.

Beyond the size of the Galaxy Note II — which will be a key feature for some and a deal breaker for others — the second major downside for me is the build quality of this phone.

Interestingly, build is one area where the original Galaxy Note outdoes its successor by leaps and bounds. While handsets from Apple, HTC, LG and Nokia continue to get more and more solid, Samsung seems to be taking major steps back in terms of the materials it chooses for its flagship phones and their build quality in general.

The original Note was one of the most sturdy smartphones Samsung has released in recent years. It was as solid as a rock with no creaks or jiggles to be found. The Galaxy Note II, on the other hand, feels a bit cheaper. This is a pretty big deal considering how pricey it is at $299.99 and up.

For one thing, the plastic back cover on the Note II and the clips that hold it in place are seemingly not very durable. My T-Mobile-branded review unit had a broken clip out of the box, so the battery cover can’t be attached in one corner. The cover is also made of a smooth, glossy plastic that doesn’t feel good in the hand at all. With HTC, Apple, Nokia and others launching phones made of aluminum and soft-touch unibody plastics, the Note II does not feel like a $300 phone.

The Bottom Line

The Galaxy Note proved conclusively that there is a market for supersized smartphones. Truth be told, I’m not sure where this market is — I can only recall seeing a Galaxy Note being used in public twice in and around New York City over the past six months — but it’s there.

For those who enjoy “phablets,” this is it. There is none better. HTC may soon introduce a strong challenger in the 5-inches-and-up segment, but until that phone is announced, the Note II has no worthy competition.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note II picks up where the original Note smartphone left off, and it’s better in almost every way. It’s faster, it’s thinner, the screen is bigger, the battery lasts longer, and the stylus support is significantly improved. Build quality and materials take a step backwards, but none of Samsung’s smartphones really shine in that department and the company still sells more smartphones than any other vendor on the planet.

At $299.99 and up, the Note II is big investment. When one considers that it is as much a small tablet as it is a large smartphone, however, this double-duty device becomes much more attractive at that price.

Updated to clarify that Samsung’s HD Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy Note II does not use a PenTile subpixel arrangement. 

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