Android enthusiasts will tell you that one of the biggest things they love about the Android ecosystem is the “variety” of different devices out there to choose from. However, when looking at all of these different devices, “variety” can be a big misnomer. Take a walk in you local retailer and generally what you will see is a sea of phones that generally look the same: a thin piece of plastic and glass with about a four-inch screen. There are certainly a ton of different models from different manufacturers, but overall the promise of variety from Android seems more like Apple and iOS’s lack of any variety when it really comes down to it. But once in a while a manufacturer delivers on that promise of variety with a device like no other, and Samsung has again delivered a device like no other with the Samsung Galaxy Note II. The second generation of the Samsung Galaxy Note, the phone that brought the term “phablet” to the mouths of millions of smartphone users and fans, capitalizes on what made the first-generation Galaxy Note (see our full review here) great by improving it inside and out.
At first glance, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is a sight to behold. The 5.5-inch screen makes even the largest screens look like something a Hobbit would carry, but it’s extra-large size can also be its biggest challenge as well which we will explore later. The high-definition Super AMOLED screen, a staple to all Samsung’s Galaxy devices, is an absolute delight to the eyes. Samsung has managed to pack in a 720p resolution (720 x 1280) into this giant screen, with a pixel density of 267 ppi (pixels per inch). This is impressive considering it has the same resolution of its smaller cousin the Galaxy S III with a screen three-quarters of an inch larger than the Galaxy S III. For display gurus out there, the Galaxy Note II does fall behind the Galaxy S III and the industry-leading iPhone 5, with the Galaxy S III’s pixel density at 306 ppi and the iPhone 5 at 326 ppi. However, the average user will not be able to discern any real difference with the naked eye, and will actually enjoy better color saturation with the Super AMOLED display over Apple’s LED backlit LCD screens. Samsung has also done a very good job improving the displays for bright light or direct sunlight; the Galaxy Note II does well in direct sunlight thanks to these improvements and its larger size. The larger screen is also great for watching videos, reading the web, or playing games thanks to the added real estate which puts less strain on the eyes than smaller-screened smartphones.
The Galaxy Note II is the first smartphone available from Samsung in the United States that features Samsung’s quad-core Exynos processor (if you recall it was supposed to be in the US version of the Galaxy S III, but was scrapped due to network interoperability issues at the time). Based on ARM’s Cortex-A9 processor, the Galaxy Note II’s four cores clock in at 1.6 Ghz each, giving this phone more than enough CPU speed to get what you need done quickly and efficiently. Samsung also packed in 2 GB of RAM in the Note II, double that of Apple’s iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S III. But before dripping geek drool all over your keyboard, it’s important to remember that this type of power is more of a necessity than a feature on the Note II. That extra large screen and the S-Pen (which we will visit later) require a lot of work to render. Benchmark scores from GeekBench 2 show that the Galaxy Note II, despite its specs prowess, is still outscored by phones with less cores and less RAM.
Again though, regardless of what benchmark scores tell us, it really comes down to the user experience. In the speed department, Galaxy Note II owners will not be disappointed as we saw no lags, slowdowns, or app crashes when putting the Note II through a barrage of real world tests. A big part of the overall user experience, however, is due to its extremely large size. For many users, the Galaxy Note II at first glance is intimidating despite its user-friendly software simply due to its size. That’s the real challenge with the Galaxy Note II: actually physically using the phone. Personally I had little to no problems handling the phone, however, I am also 6’5″ with larger hands. When placing the phone into my girlfriend’s hands, the first reaction from her was, “This thing is way too big! How in the hell can you hold this?” Even my 75-year old father, who at the time didn’t own a smartphone, at over six feet tall and rather large hands felt uncomfortable using the Note II, stating concerns about being able to put it comfortably into his jeans pocket and holding the phone without dropping it. In the end, my father’s first smartphone was the iPhone 5, one of the main reasons being he felt it was a more suitable size, stating “It’s a phone, not a tablet!”
Herein lies the real challenge for users, and Samsung for that matter, when it comes to the Note II. Despite it’s beautiful screen and impressive internals, many buyers will find the Note II just “too darn big” for what they would consider a smartphone. In my very informal surveying of people, the Galaxy Note II was favored more by men than women. While certainly women could enjoy the Note II with it’s unique abilities, many of them I spoke with stated that they felt the Note II was too big not only for their hands, but also their purses and articles of clothing (generally pockets on a pair of women’s pants are smaller than men’s pants). Many people also stated that they felt “ridiculous” holding up the Note II to the side of their face. The ideal user of the Note II is someone who either has large enough hands to use it comfortably or plans on using a Bluetooth device for most of their calls. Professionals who take a lot of notes will also appreciate the Note II’s next feature, the S Pen.
Samsung’s S Pen was first shown off with the original Galaxy Note, and is the gold standard in our opinions for smartphone and tablet styli. The S Pen stylus fits snugly in the underside of the Note II, and when removed the Note II immediately recognizes you’re ready to write and opens up the S Memo application on the phone. Besides serving as a writing utensil, the S Pen also allows users to navigate the phone, or go a little old school and use it as a replacement for finger taps on the screen. The phone will recognize the S Pen’s location when held about a centimeter above the screen, allowing some great little software tweaks which we will explore later.
Other than it’s large screen, S Pen, and beefed up CPU, the Galaxy Note II is essentially packing the same features as the Galaxy S III. The same 8 MP rear and 1.9 MP front-facing camera found on the Galaxy S III are included with the Galaxy Note II, as well as NFC. Even the layout of the buttons, with a center physical home button surrounded by the same touch sensitive buttons on each side, on the Galaxy S III are on the Note II. The headphone jack is found at the top of the device with the micro-USB port at the bottom. Without picking up and using the device, or from a distance, buyers could easily mistake the Note II for the Galaxy S III or a Galaxy S III “XL”. A large 3100 mAh battery stands up to the power needs of a 5.5-inch HD display and a quad-core processor with flying colors; we had no problems using our device all day without a charge under normal use (email, occasional web browsing, some app usage, 4G LTE on). The Galaxy Note II comes with 16GB of internal storage, and supports LTE as well as HSPA+ for those without LTE coverage in their area.
Overall, if you can look past the overwhelming size of the Note II, you’ll find a rock-solid device with some impressive specs to boot. The Galaxy Note II is surprisingly light and thin for its size, and supports all major US carriers. Smooth bezels and clean lines, as well as the physical center home button (something as an iPhone user I really enjoy) make this device appealing to the eye.
The Galaxy Note II ships with Android 4.1 “Jellybean”, the latest version of Google’s smartphone OS. Samsung made a good decision shipping with Jellybean, as the Note II’s large screen and extra features like the S Pen seem to scream Jellybean. Overall users will find a very similar experience to any other Android 4.1 device with the Note II. Google Now works as promised, as well as the efficiency gains with the optimization of Android in version 4.1. Samsung has, naturally, used a modified version of the love-it-or-hate-it TouchWiz UI on the Note II.
Where the Note II really shines is how Samsung has tweaked Android for some really inventive new ways to look at using your phone. Extra features that take advantage of the Note II’s larger screen are usually well implemented and useful and not just a bunch of whiz-bang! features users will rarely, if ever, use. The most revolutionary feature was the Galaxy Note II’s ability to use its large screen to run two apps at the same time on the screen. Galaxy Note II users can now, for example, watch a YouTube video on the top half or one side of their screen, while checking or responding to email on the bottom half or other side of their screen at the same time. This is the first time a smartphone has been able to do what users are used to doing daily on their laptops or PC’s: true multitasking. With the absence of a physical mouse or keyboard, Samsung has done a great job with implementing this feature into the Note II’s UI. Simply press and hold the back button and on the left side of the screen a menu will pop out that shows the available apps for this feature. A simple touch, hold, and dragging of the icon onto the main screen where you want the second app to be activates the multi-window feature. Developers will have to add this feature into their apps for them to be supported, and at launch the only apps supported were those from Samsung (Email, Browser, S Note, S Memo, etc.). However, a recent software update has enabled all Google applications like Gmail and YouTube into this multi-window support. The software update, unfortunately, was not pushed yet to our Verizon Wireless Note II at the time of this review. As nice as this feature is, core OS support would have been a better option for users as not all of their favorite apps will be supported, something that will quickly disappoint many users.
As we stated earlier, many users find the Note II a little unruly when trying to handle this super-sized device. Samsung has seemingly acknowledged this and has attempted to overcome this barrier-to-entry with some crafty software tricks on the Note II. The Galaxy Note II has a One-Handed Operation mode that makes some tasks such as dialing a number easier to do with one hand. Activating One-Handed Operation can be completed in the Settings menu, or in the Phone app, a simple menu key tap and touch of One-Handed Operation activates this mode and immediately assists the user with using the Note II with one hand. For example, in the dialer after activating One-Handed Operation, left and right arrows will appear that allow the user to pan the dialer left or right making numbers easier to reach with just one thumb. The ability to use just one hand (or one thumb) on your smartphone is something that many people don’t think about until they can no longer do it (and has been the message behind Apple’s marketing with the iPhone 5 and their choice of staying with a 4-inch display). While One-Handed Operation is certainly a step in the right direction, it serves as more of a Band-Aid, and not a perfect one at that, for a bigger problem when it comes to the overwhelming size of the Galaxy Note II.
Another neat software trick in the Note II is the Best Faces Mode in the camera application. As the name implies, this feature allows users to choose the “best faces” for people in their photos and easily replace the faces of photo subjects with desired ones. For example, as any parent knows, it can be like pulling teeth to get a group of small children to smile and sit still all at the same time. But with Best Faces, users can take multiples of the same photograph and then pick the “best face” for each little one in the photo and swap them into one final photo that shows all of them smiling and (seemingly) on their best behavior. After taking the photos, the Note II will show each picture with a box around each face. Using the S Pen, you can tap on the face you want to replace, and choose another face from a different photo (also marked by the same box) to replace the undesired one. As a parent of a three-year old myself, this feature is invaluable when it comes to capturing a great photo of your little one.
S Memo returns with the Galaxy Note II, and has added more “themes” for your notes. There’s your typical note theme, as well as others such as lists, drawings, etc. S Memo is the best note-taking application on any smartphone we’ve ever used, mostly due to its tight integration with the S Pen and its ease of sharing your notes, drawings, to-do lists, or whatever else you “draw up” with others. The S Pen also allows for users to write or “draw” onto photos taken from the Note II and share them or keep them. On vacation and Paris and want to write your own personalized digital postcard with the Eiffel Tower as the picture? Simply fire up the Gallery app, grab your S Pen and get to writing. A few taps later and your personalized digital postcard is on its way through the internet via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
With the Galaxy Note II’s NFC chip, sharing or paying for your stuff (more on that) is literally a tap away in many cases. The Galaxy Note II includes Android Beam (Google’s core OS NFC sharing software) as well as S Beam (Samsung’s own NFC software). Both are essentially similar in their abilities, with the former able to share with any other NFC-enabled Android device regardless of make or model. Google Wallet is also theoretically available for Galaxy Note II users, however, it must be supported by your carrier, and at this time Google Wallet was not supported by Verizon Wireless’s Galaxy Note II. Sprint Note II owners should fare better.
Overall, the Note II offers the same experience any other Android 4.1 device offers, but it is the extra little tweaks like Multi-Window that really make the Note II stand out in a class of its own. Android 4.1 “Jellybean” is the by far the best Android OS to date, and the Note II has the hardware more than capable of running Google’s next Android iteration which should arrive sometime in 2013. With smartphones being a two-year investment, users will be happy to know that their Note II will be able to keep pace for the majority of that time, and won’t feel like their month-old device is obsolete.
To Buy, Or Not To Buy, That Is The Question
At $299 with a two-year agreement, the Galaxy Note II isn’t the cheapest smartphone out there considering its relatively small internal storage size (an iPhone 5 at $299 has double the storage at 32GB). However, where it lacks in internal storage it makes up for in sheer size. The 5.5-inch HD display isn’t cheap, and toss in the quad-core Exynos processor and 2 GB of RAM and you’ve got one powerhouse of a smartphone. But again, there lies the issue with the Note II: you’re paying for its size, which may or may not appeal to you or even work for you. At such a large phone, many users will find it too big and unwieldy for everyday use, or find themselves frustrated with having to use two hands to work the phone. As much as many pundits out there have criticized Apple for it, there is an intrinsic value to being able to use your smartphone with just one hand. Imagine having to use two hands to move your mouse? The beauty of the mouse is that we are able to navigate the beautiful user interfaces of our computers and laptops with just one hand, so inherently we expect the same from our smartphones.
The Galaxy Note II, if you are OK with the possibility of having to use Bluetooth often (or you have extra large hands) is a great device, one of the best we’ve ever tested. The Multi-Window feature brings a whole new experience to using a smartphone, and had me hoping that someday, someday, we may see this feature on smaller handsets, and admittedly on iOS (especially the iPad or iPad Mini). However, for the average person looking for a smartphone, something portable and easy to use while on-the-go, we wouldn’t recommend this device for you, and would suggest looking elsewhere like the Samsung Galaxy S III or the iPhone 5. Rating: B+