I must start my review of the Galaxy Note II by admitting that I misjudged the original Galaxy Note. After a week with that device, it was my conclusion that Samsung had put together a great package of technical innovations whose premise of an oversized, stylus-equipped smartphone wouldn’t find a receptive audience. As it turned out, Samsung’s native South Korea fell in love with the 5.3-inch Note, which went on to sell over 10 million units in its first year on the market.
As unique and successful as the Note has been for Samsung, a year is a long time in mobile technology and the company has prepared an even more extensive spec sheet for its follow-up, the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II. Aside from the enlarged display, the two biggest upgrades are a move to the new quad-core Exynos processor that was so impressive in the Galaxy S III and to Android 4.1, Google’s latest software. In fact, the Galaxy Note II is among the very first of a new wave of devices to ship with Jelly Bean as the preloaded OS, scoring Samsung a small victory before it’s even made it out of the box. With such a strong pedigree, the Note II promises much. If you want to know just how much it delivers, read on.
Feels more like the Galaxy S III Note Edition than the Note II
My initial impression of the Galaxy Note II’s design — that it resembles the Galaxy S III a lot more than it does its predecessor Note device — has only been corroborated by my review time with the new slate. That’s hardly an accident: the GS III is Samsung’s latest top-tier smartphone and the company has borrowed from it liberally with the Note II, both in terms of hardware and software. You have to assume this is done in an effort to promote a consistent user experience across Samsung’s 2012 product line, which inevitably means the Note is carrying over the same strengths and weaknesses as the GS III.
The downside is more immediately apparent, as your first look at the Note II greets you with a plastic-rich, glossy construction that’s framed by an unsubtle chrome surround. There’s no getting around it, the materials Samsung has used here look cheap. You shouldn’t let that discourage you, however, since the actual ergonomics and durability on offer are very good. Samsung has managed to sell 20 million Galaxy S III phones already and though it needn’t expect any industrial design awards, there have been no major issues with the phone’s build quality.
Cheap on the outside, stacked on the inside
Samsung says its 2012 phones are "designed for humans" and the Note II lives up to that billing in one respect: its curved back and sides make for a comfortable and secure grip. At a time when design leaders like Apple and Nokia are opting for squarer, more visually impressive stylings with their new handsets, Samsung has remained resolutely loyal to the idea that a phone’s primary function is to fit properly in the hand. Of course, with the Note II, you’re crashing head first into the issue of whether the device in question is a phone at all — while holding it in one hand is no problem, operating it in the same fashion is a whole other matter.
Without recourse to your other hand or a flat surface to rest the Note II upon, you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated at the number of times you have to adjust your grip to perform routine navigational tasks. In my own experience, I was forced to disable auto-rotation on the handset’s display, as my adjustments consistently included enough moving around to trigger the UI to flip into landscape mode. In Samsung’s defense, the company does provide a settings submenu dedicated to one-handed operation, which does things like push the keypad, calculator and onscreen keyboard to your preferred side to assist one-handed input, but none of those things will make the notifications menu sit any lower on the screen. Unsurprisingly, then, I’ll be calling the Note II a tablet henceforth.
Compared to its predecessor, the Note II is marginally thinner, slightly heavier, and a tiny bit more curvy. In other words, it’s more or less the same. Being able to say that about a device offering a larger display and a significantly upgraded battery (now 3100mAh) is a credit to Samsung’s engineers, who’ve also wholly rethought the S Pen accessory, making it longer and purportedly easier to handle. I never had a problem with the original stylus, though the extra length on the new one comes in handy.
Samsung’s idea of giving you more for your money is to literally give you more. The Note II spec sheet is stacked in an almost gratuitous fashion. Inside this device you’ll find a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor, 2GB of RAM, up to 64GB of storage, a microSD card for potentially another 64GB, NFC, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, compatibility with GPS and GLONASS, all the usual motion, light, and orientation sensors… and a barometer. The data and power port at the bottom of the tablet can act as a USB 2.0 host, while also being compatible with the MHL interface.
There’ll be LTE versions in some markets, most notably the US, whereas the rest of the world will receive the HSPA+ variant, maxing out at 21Mbps of theoretical mobile bandwidth. The Note II, like most modern phones, requires a Micro SIM card.
No longer Pentile, but still short of the best out there
The Galaxy Note’s 1280 x 800 display actually loses a few lines of pixels in the new model, now offering a 1280 x 720 resolution, but Samsung believes the 16:9 aspect ratio and a move away from Pentile technology will be appreciated upgrades for users. Despite no longer employing the standard Pentile RGBG subpixel arrangement, the Note II still doesn’t have three identically sized subpixels per dot — it’s now just swapped the extra green for extra blue, so in functional terms, this can be considered a sort of Pentile lite. Another recurring downside to AMOLED panels is a blue tinge to the images displayed, which is very much apparent on the Galaxy Note II. I can’t help but feel that Samsung is nurturing a generation of people who’ll grow up to have a broken internal color balance.
On the positive side of the coin, AMOLED is bright and vibrant, offers very good viewing angles, and can reach unequaled levels of color saturation (which Samsung mercifully lets you adjust with a screen mode toggle). The Galaxy Note II’s screen is at its best when playing back video or games, where its deep blacks and correspondingly high contrast ratio can be shown off.
The main attraction of the Note II’s display, however, will be the integrated Wacom digitizer and the accompanying S Pen stylus. That, along with its size, will be far more important to users looking to purchase this device than the particular subpixel arrangement or color temperature. Rest assured that neither of the aforementioned shortcomings leads to a significant degradation in the quality of the user experience — they are things that keen-eyed users will notice and may find troubling, but they’re not deal breakers by any means.
Battery life, reception and audio
Judged by smartphone standards, the Galaxy Note II delivers outstanding battery endurance. Two days of regular, 3G-powered use are a perfectly reasonable expectation from this device. After one 30-hour stint with it — involving Gmail sync, web browsing, multiple phone calls, some limited photography and video playback — I was left with 68 percent of battery power remaining. The original Galaxy Note was a leader in battery life and this year’s generation is only reaffirming those credentials. It seems fair to measure the Note II’s battery life against smartphones because of its wireless connectivity options and its ability to replace a phone outright, although you shouldn’t forget about slightly larger devices like Google’s 7-inch Nexus 7. That tablet comes with a 4325mAh battery, which, like the Note II’s 3100mAh cell, is simply too large to fit inside most conventional phone designs (Motorola’s Droid RAZR Maxx being an honorable exception).
I had no reception issues while reviewing the Galaxy Note II. It kept connected to my network reliably, never came close to dropping a call, even in areas of my home where other phones have occasionally struggled, and delivered clear voice calls. I found call quality to be a particular highlight on the Galaxy S III, and while I can’t say the same about the Note II, it acquitted itself very well in performing the duties of a phone. It’s still a mighty large slab to hold up against your face when conducting a conversation, but there’s always the option of using a headset.
Data speeds with the Galaxy Note II matched the Nexus S by averaging 5.45Mbps. No surprises there, the Nexus S is another Samsung-produced device, however HTC’s One X and One S perform that little bit better, both averaging close to 6.5Mbps in the same area and on the same network. I doubt you’ll be able to tell that sort of a speed difference when just browsing the web on the move, but it’s still unusual to see such a clear and definite advantage for one company over another.
On the audio front, the Galaxy Note II reprises the loudspeaker positioning of its predecessor, placing it in the lower left corner of its rear section. The sound it produces is distinctly average, it’ll neither offend nor impress you in any great measure. What did impress me was the audio quality once I plugged in some good earphones — the Note II got the most out of Klipsch’s Image S4i and Bowers & Wilkins’ C5 in-ear headphones, powering them to pleasingly loud levels without introducing any distortion. Of course, in these circumstances the most important component are the headphones themselves, but Samsung does nothing to get in the way of enjoying your music (unlike, for example, HTC with its interfering Beats Audio tweaks).
Lasts for days and days... and days
Still images are sharp and detailed, video is no less impressive
The borrowing of components from the Galaxy S III continues with the Note II’s camera, which features the same backside-illuminated, 8-megapixel sensor as in the company’s flagship phone. Given that the camera was a strength for the GS III, you won’t be surprised to read that the Note II produces crisp, beautifully detailed images on a consistent basis. Closeup photos are particularly pleasing, with the autofocus working quickly and the background gaining a nicely blurred-out appearance.
The one downside I find myself having to repeat in smartphone camera reviews is a limited dynamic range, which becomes particularly evident when you’re trying to capture areas of extreme contrast in the same image. The most prevalent example is when photographing a bright sky behind a moderately or poorly lit foreground — depending on how the handset meters the light, you’ll end up with either an underexposed landscape or a blown-out sky that’s devoid of all detail. Unfortunately, without a much larger sensor such as in Nokia’s 808 PureView, dynamic range will always be a limitation of phone cameras, and it’s the sole complaint about what is still an extremely competent shooter on the Note II.
Video quality is no less impressive than stills. 1080p recording seems to be child’s play for the Exynos processor, and pausing playback of moving vehicles appears to freeze them in their place — there’s no unsightly motion blur generated by the video failing to keep up with the subjects’ movement. This comes in handy when using the option to capture a snapshot while video recording is ongoing. HTC and Apple have added similar facilities to their latest camera software, so it’s not unique to Samsung, but it’s still a neat extra to have.
In my review of the Galaxy S III, I noticed the video autofocus jumping back and forth a little too readily, oftentimes making vast adjustments when only small ones were necessary, and affecting the quality of the results. The Galaxy Note II’s software seems to be a little more intelligent, but the AF issue hasn’t been exorcised. At least there’s a tap-to-focus option that lets you take manual control and guide the Note II. It works well enough, but Samsung should really rectify its focusing system here — cameraphone users expect everything to work automatically, with the manual modes being optional rather than necessary.
S Pen, part deux
The new Note is now smart enough to know when you withdraw the S Pen from its silo, informing you with a sound alert and automatically jumping to an S Pen home screen. That stylus landing page is part of an optional Page Buddy set of auto popups, which also includes presets for when you plug in your headphones or dock the device. Unfortunately, you don’t get much in the way of utility out of it: just a ton of truly terrible templates for the S Note app, which you’ll be ignoring with a passion before long. I’m sure Samsung would have preferred to offer a wider variety of app options, but there’s still a dearth of high-quality S Pen apps out there, an issue that bothered me after the original Note’s launch and persists with its successor.
Setting aside the shortage of apps harnessing its power, the S Pen remains head and shoulders ahead of any other first-party stylus solution out there. It’s integrated beautifully into its host device, both physically and in software terms, and offers a high degree of precision without requiring batteries or any special care or attention. It asks for no tradeoffs, its addition to the device is a pure positive.
Handwriting recognition has improved to the point of becoming a legitimate input option
The S Pen can be used to navigate all around the TouchWiz UI, and in fact if Samsung had just followed Google’s guidance and placed the Android menu keys on the screen instead of using capacitive ones, you would have been able to replace finger taps with the stylus entirely. While I admit I didn’t think about using the S Pen at all for my first few hours with the Galaxy Note II, once I started playing around with it, I found myself using it more and more. On multiple occasions I even opted to write out a text message instead of typing it — a credit both to the pen’s ease of use and Samsung’s improved handwriting recognition. Samsung has really taken a leap forward in the latter department, as the original Galaxy Note struggled mightily to understand my written missives whereas the Note II is almost error-free.
Another improvement from Samsung is the so-called Air View function for the S Pen, which displays a dot on the Note II’s screen below the point where your stylus is hovering. You can think of it as facilitating a sort of laser-guided stylus use, it just helps to steer your placement of the pen and definitely enhances accuracy. Air View can also perform a few auxiliary tasks, such as previewing S Planner entries or showing thumbnails along a video’s timeline without requiring you to click on anything or disrupting whatever else you’re doing. It brings you a little closer to having mouse cursor-like functionality.
Wacom’s Electro-Magnetic Resonance (EMR) technology underpins the Galaxy Note II’s stylus operation and provides an added bonus. Should you ever lose your S Pen or prefer to swap it for something more comfortable, the Note II’s digitizer is compatible with other Wacom Penabled pens, so you’ll have a broader choice of accessories than if it was simply a Samsung in-house production.
Powered by Wacom, built by Samsung
Samsung continues to emphasize quantity over quality
First impressions first: after getting through the initial setup menu, I was blown away by the fluidity and smoothness of the Galaxy Note II’s home screen animations. Even by the high standards of the HTC One X that I use on a regular basis, the Note II is dazzlingly responsive. This is down to the combination of Samsung’s new Exynos processor and Google’s latest Android 4.1 update. That quad-core chip obliterated our previous benchmark records when it debuted on the Galaxy S III and its processing and graphical capabilities are apparent from the moment you pick up the Galaxy Note II as well. As to Google’s involvement in this improved performance, the Jelly Bean upgrade’s headline feature was something called Project Butter — an effort directed specifically at optimizing and smoothing animations throughout the Android user interface. You may consider the Galaxy Note II a validation of both Google and Samsung’s efforts to improve the basic user experience.
|Quadrant||Vellamo||GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p)||GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p)||AnTuTu|
|Galaxy Note II (Exynos)||5,867||2,442||115fps||68fps||13,527|
|Galaxy S III (Exynos)||5,283||2,008||101fps||59fps||10,568|
|Galaxy S III (AT&T, Snapdragon S4)||5,039||2,352||56fps||28fps||6,746|
|HTC One X (Tegra 3)||4,430||1,614||65fps||32fps||11,322|
|Galaxy Nexus (OMAP4460)||2,002||1,065||28fps||14fps||6,079|
The Note II’s rapid responsiveness extends to everything you do, whether you’re scrolling through endless contact lists or swiping between Gmail messages. It’s really difficult to trip this device up and force it to produce lag of any sort. In spite of this universally snappy experience, I found the Galaxy Note II to have one unexplained delay that has been bothering me since the original Note. When waking it from sleep, you’re consistently having to wait over a second between pressing the power button and seeing the screen come to life. That may sound like a trifling amount of time, but remember that the aforementioned UI improvements can be measured in fractions of a second. Overall, the Galaxy Note II offers the most fluid Android user experience I’ve enjoyed yet, bringing it on a par with the excellent iOS and Windows Phone.
For a full breakdown of Samsung’s latest TouchWiz customizations to Android, I refer you to my review of the Galaxy S III. That interface has been transplanted to the Galaxy Note II in its entirety, so anything that was true on the earlier device remains true today. In summary, opting for TouchWiz over other skins gets you a great app launcher, handy notification tray shortcuts, and a generally restrained set of visual tweaks that do little to no harm. You may find yourself disturbed by the loud water plops that accompany the dialer (this is, after all, the mighty Nature UX), but literal bells and whistles like that are optional and you can quickly civilize the gimmickry out of this device.
That may be true of the general interface, but in terms of added features, Samsung continues to emphasize quantity over quality. It’s opting to overwhelm users with options instead of making a few intelligent decisions on their behalf. For example, the context menu you can bring up while looking at a photo on the tablet includes no fewer than 16 options. Some of them I like, such as the ability to crop or add a Photo Note, but that list can be trimmed in half without removing core functionality. This deluge-over-discernment approach is repeated in the amount of extra software Samsung preloads on the Galaxy Note II, with a set of Hubs and the pervasive S series of apps prominently displayed on the default home screen. None of them add any real value to the user experience, and worse than that, the S Planner replacing the default Android Calendar app can be counted as a downgrade.
TouchWiz is not without its advantages
The Note II isn’t completely bereft of good new ideas. The extra number row atop the onscreen keyboard is very convenient and makes good use of the supersized display. I’d have liked to see more of this sort of optimization on the home screen layout, which still suffers from vast swathes of suboptimally used space. The new Photo Note option lets you scribble a handwritten missive on the "back" of your photos, with Samsung neatly emulating a printed image. Yes, it’s cutesy skeuomorphism gone 3D, but I actually like this feature and expect many people will enjoy using it. Samsung also throws in a handy Blocking Mode, which sounds a lot more menacing than it actually is. It simply allows you to determine which notifications you want to disable and when. So you can turn everything off during the night or just block the LED light from distracting you during the day. It can be thought of as Samsung’s answer to Apple’s well-received Do Not Disturb feature, though it’s a little cruder than the iOS implementation.
Being an Android 4.1 tablet, the Galaxy Note II naturally comes with Google Now, though you’ll have to do a bit of work to uncover where it is. Samsung buries the link to Google Now in its multitasking overview, which is accessed by long-pressing the Home button. That’s one long press and a shortcut tap for a feature that Google is pushing so actively that it can be accessed directly from the lock screen on stock Jelly Bean devices. Samsung has a reason not to be promoting Google’s voice search assistant, however, and that reason is S Voice, the Korean company’s in-house solution. You can access S Voice by double-tapping the Home button. Alas, S Voice continues to be hit-and-miss in terms of voice recognition and the range of scenarios where it is genuinely useful remains severely limited. Apple’s iOS 6 upgrade of Siri makes Samsung’s alternative look even more feeble.
The original Galaxy Note shipped with what Samsung itself might admit was unfinished software. I encountered a number of bugs during my testing of that device, and it’s pleasing to see a far more stable OS on the Galaxy Note II. Even better, I received a system update during my review process, so Samsung’s still actively improving everything. There is indeed room for improvement, as I still managed to stumble upon the clock widget confusion in the image above, but on the whole, the Note II has been solid and reliable. A welcome change.
Once again, Samsung brings the same phone to many carriers
T-Mobile’s Galaxy Note II, which starts at $369.99 on contract, is identical to the international version from a hardware perspective. It has the same processor and radios, no doubt due to the fact that T-Mobile doesn’t have an LTE network to launch it on in the first place. Nevertheless, we ran it through its benchmark paces and found that the results are within just a few percentage points of the international version. It’s just as fast and fluid in our testing — T-Mobile definitely didn’t break anything here.
T-Mobile also exercised restraint when it came to putting its own software to the device. The most significant addition is T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling feature. When activated, it’s a permanent fixture in your status bar, turning green when you’re on a Wi-Fi call. Call quality was quite good in our testing, both as a speakerphone and when ridiculously holding the tablet up to your head. Beyond that there are just a few T-Mobile-branded apps and widgets, but nothing that feels too onerous. The company has largely stayed out of Samsung’s way — whatever you may think of TouchWiz, at least T-Mobile isn’t adding its own metaphors to the mix.
As with the T-Mobile version of the Galaxy Note II, the version offered by AT&T is extremely similar to the international model. It is powered by the same internals, has the same display, and has the same camera. In light of that, its benchmark scores are right in line with the global variant's, and performance is just as good. The one major feature that the AT&T version offers over the international model or the T-Mobile version is proper 4G LTE network support. In our tests on AT&T's LTE network in New York, we saw download speeds nearing 20Mbps, and uploads that were almost as fast. Certainly nothing to complain about, and the LTE access just enhances the overall experience with the Note II.
AT&T has included its usual suite of questionably-useful branded apps on the Note II, such as AT&T Code Scanner, FamilyMap, Navigator, and the like. Fortunately, it didn't make many major adjustments to the Note II's actual TouchWiz interface, save for one odd omission. The AT&T model (and perhaps other US versions) does not have access to the split-screen multitasking that the international version has. Long-pressing on the back button, which normally launches the split-screen multitasking interface, does nothing on the AT&T Note II. Whether or not you will find that to be a problem is up to you, but we're left scratching our heads as to why it was omitted at all. AT&T's Galaxy Note II will be available on November 9th for $299.99.
Verizon has been a little more aggressive than AT&T in rolling out up-to-date software to the Note II — the phone has Samsung's "Multi-View" feature, which allows you to run two supported apps side-by-side. And the phone's comically high-capacity 3,100mAh battery keeps the phone going forever, despite the higher power demands of an LTE network. I struggled to push it beyond 50 percent drain in a single day of heavy usage, and when fully charged, it went overnight connected to LTE without making any perceptible dent whatsoever (it returned to 100 percent charge within about 10 minutes of plugging it in the next morning). The official Verge Battery Test yielded 9 hours, 45 minutes from full charge to power off.
Sadly, the Verizon logo tattooed onto the home button is one of the most absurd moves I've ever seen a carrier make in an attempt to brand a device and constantly remind you whose network you're using. Verizon should be ashamed, and Samsung should be ashamed for allowing it to happen. But let's be honest: I can't tell you not to buy a phone because of a logo. I'd like to, but I can't.
When first announced, the Galaxy Note II looked and felt very much like a supersized Galaxy S III with a slightly fancier stylus attached. After spending some quality time with it, I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s exactly what it is. And that’s a good, nay, a very good thing indeed. The S Pen has matured and improved in subtle but significant ways, while the GS III formula has only been upgraded with a larger battery and an even more generous screen size. At nearly 5 inches, Samsung’s flagship 2012 phone is already too big for a lot of people to comfortably use one-handed, so why should they not opt for the larger, but also more capable, Galaxy Note II?
Relative to its predecessor, the Galaxy Note II is a clear and unequivocal upgrade. It’s now more powerful, lasts even longer, and ships with the best software that Samsung has yet put on an Android device. It doesn’t feel as characterful or quirky as the original Galaxy Note, and it is indeed festooned with superfluous apps and software presets, but those are small hurdles you can either disable or avoid. The commercial success of the first Galaxy Note came as a surprise, however the same won’t be true of the Galaxy Note II. It represents the best possible marriage of the Note lineage and Samsung’s 2012 technology and is likely to cement the Korean company’s position as the premier Android device maker.
T-Mobile hasn’t messed with a good thing on the Galaxy Note II, leaving Samsung’s formula for pen computing on Android completely intact. Yes, it’s a ridiculously large device that fits more in the small tablet category than the large phone category, but if you’re ready for that going in, it’s a treat of a device. The S-Pen ecosystem, while still nascent, is at least edging up to a place where it could be genuinely useful for the discerning stylus aficionado.
As with the international variant, it’s a definite upgrade over the original Note — but on T-Mobile, the Note was only release this past August. That will make it a hard sell for all but the most dedicated upgraders. The lack of LTE bothers us here as much as it does on any T-Mobile device, but the trade-off is that at least you’ll get excellent battery life.
AT&T's take on the Galaxy Note II is much like T-Mobile's, in that it is not a terribly different device than the global model. Save for the lack of split-screen multitasking, the AT&T version is largely the same experience. But the one thing the AT&T model has over the others thus far is support for LTE, and it works phenomenally.
Of course, LTE support doesn't change the fact that the Note II is a monstrous device that is more tablet than phone. The S Pen, while novel, still has limited uses and a relatively small app ecosystem. But for those who were fans of the original Galaxy Note, the sequel will likely impress them.
“That is the biggest phone I’ve ever seen,” a server at a restaurant commented to me while I was out on the town testing Verizon’s Galaxy Note II. I don’t think she was lying to me. The phone wouldn’t have been out on the table in the first place if it readily fit in my pocket while sitting.
The merits and demerits of a 5.5-inch phone have already been discussed to death — there’s really no point in rehashing them here — but I would remind would-be buyers of this monster that it takes a full-time commitment to two-handed usage and careful handling. You might think that a larger device would be more difficult to drop, but the Note II is huge enough (and slippery enough, thanks to its generous application of glossy plastic) that your comparably tiny hand is at near-constant risk of causing a $300 whoopsie.
The bottom line? If you need a 5.5-inch phone and you’re on Verizon, this is the one for you. But you probably don’t need a 5.5-inch phone.