Samsung Galaxy Note II review and hands on: Being noteworthy just got better

The original Samsung Galaxy Note shocked the world with success when most thought it was just a flashing star. It was the first phone to sport a display bigger than 5-inches, 5.3 to be exact. Was it too big, was it a tablet, or was it a phablet? Nobody knew what to think about it, but it didn’t stop consumers from gobbling it up. Was it the S Pen or the large display that caught everyone’s attention? I lean towards the latter, but there’s no argument that the Galaxy Note was a hit for Samsung, and it’s now time for the next chapter. We already saw a tablet version called the Galaxy Note 10.1, but this is the second chapter for the phone. Called the Galaxy Note II, it sports an even bigger display along with a more powerful processor and a larger battery all in a body that is no bigger than it’s predecessor. Does the Galaxy Note II live up to the hype? Hit the break to find out

Design

The Note II resembles the Galaxy S III in design. It has the same plasticy love or hate feel along with the “inspired by nature” theme. Other than the size, you wouldn’t know the difference between the Note II and the Galaxy S III. The big question is how does it feel in the hand? It feels good, but you can forget one handed operation unless you have extra large hands.

The S Pen has a new design, which is similar to the Note 10.1′s version. It’s more comfortable in the hand, and the button isn’t as easy to hit by mistake. Just like the original Note, the S Pen slides perfectly into the holder. It fits so good that I guarantee that if you didn’t know it came with the phone, you might not notice it for a while.

As I mentioned in my opening, the display is larger than it’s predecessor (5.5-inches vs 5.3-inches), but the body didn’t get any bigger. Well it did get a little longer, but since it’s thinner and not as wide, it doesn’t feel larger. Last year’s model was 5.78-inches high x 3.27-inches wide x 9.65mm thick. The Note II is 5.95-inches high x 3.17-inches wide x 9.40mm. This year’s model is a little heavier, 183 grams vs. 178 grams, and is most likely because of the larger battery.

Since it’s the same design as the Galaxy S III, the buttons and ports are identical. Along the right side towards the top, you will find the power button. On the left side also towards the top you will find the volume rocker. The top sports the microphone jack to the left, and the bottom has the microUSB port. Just like the Galaxy S III, Samsung decided to ignore Google’s guidelines for onscreen buttons and opted for the large menu button at the bottom center along with capacitive buttons to the right and left for back and menu.

For colors, the choices are Marble White or Titanium Grey

All in all, I am not a fan of Samsung’s build, but it’s definitely an upgrade over the original Note because it’s thinner and sleeker.

Hardware

The Galaxy Note II sports a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED (1280 x 720) display, a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos Cortex A9 processor, Mali-400MP GPU, 2GB of RAM, 16/32/64GB of storage, microSD for up to an additional 64GB, 8MP rear camera, 1.9MP front camera, Corning Gorilla Glass 2, 3100mAh battery, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, GPS, and NFC.

As far as radios go, the Note II is compatible with just about any type of network you can think of: GSM 850/900/1800/1900, HSDPA 850/900/2100, HSDPA 850/900/2100 – N7105, and LTE 800/1800/2600/900 – N7105. I happen to be testing the U.S. AT&T version with LTE.

Performance

The 1.6GHz quad-core blows through anything you can throw at it. It is one of the fastest phones available today and I dare anyone to disagree with that. As you know, I am not a fan of benchmarks, and it seems even more meaningless with a phone like this, but I did run the obligatory AnTuTu, which came in at 13,568. That is one of the highest scores I have ever seen, which isn’t surprising. A similar quad-core phone, the Optimus G scored 11,213.

The Note II has slightly less resolution than the original Note. The original had a 5.3-inch display with a resolution of 1280 x 800, while the Note II has a 5.5-inch display with 1280 x 720. Samsung makes some of the nicest displays out there and the Note II is no exception. It’s an upgrade from the original Note in that it’s no longer PenTile, but it’s still not up there with the HTC One X. Still, you need a really keen eye to find any faults. It is 5.5-inches of pure beauty and I have zero to complain about.

Battery

The Galaxy Note II sports a whopping 3100mAh battery. That seems large, but surprisingly, it’s still smaller than the 3300mAh battery found in both the DROID RAZR MAXX and DROID RAZR MAXX HD. This is a much bigger phone, but since the battery is removable, it was probably hard to match the prowess of Motorola. It does have a larger display to push so its life isn’t going to last as long as Motorola’s offerings, but it’s still is one of the best out there. I did my usual rundown test running continuous video while the display is turned up to 2/3′s brightness and it’s connected to 4G LTE (AT&T). I also made sure to have GPS turned on and  both WiFi and Bluetooth turned on but not connected. I was able to get 9 hours and 30 minutes, which is very good. In everyday life terms, you should get through wake up to bedtime without having to plug it in, which is what’s really important.

Software

The original Galaxy Note was one of the more innovative phones when it came to software, and the Galaxy Note II steps it up a ton. Samsung already enhanced the S Pen functionality with the Note 10.1, and the Note II takes that and adds a little more.

The highlight is that Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is onboard and it’s the first Samsung TouchWiz phone to sport it. It also has all the familiar features that came with the Galaxy S III, such as Smart Stay, Popup Video, Share Shot, Group Cast, S Beam, and AllShare Play.

What the Note II brings to the table is a plethora of S Pen enhancements. The familiar note taking and document creation tool is back, but with more features. With S Note you can have multiple pages and insert just about any object including clipped images, maps, or even videos. It now has an audio recording feature as well. Upon opening S Note for the first time, you will find a lot of examples (books) for business style, education, idea sketches, and lifestyle. You will also find templates such as a simple note, idea note, meeting note, magazine, diary, recipe, travel, memo, and birthday. When you go into one of these templates, you will see predefined areas for adding images and text. Just like the Note 10.1, you will find tools that will turn your crooked shapes into real ones, as well as the ability to solve your formulas, and convert your handwriting to text. You can still change your pen type and colors with ease as that type of functionality hasn’t changed much.

The next improvement is Airview. Airview allows you to hover your S Pen over things and see further information. For example, in your list of emails (stock email app only) screen, you can hover over individual ones to see more text without actually going into the email, and in the gallery, you can hover over a folder to get a glimpse of the images that are in it.

Speaking of the gallery. You can now create your own photo albums. So if you want to create one for your vacation it’s as simple as adding an album and selecting the photos you want to add to it and dragging them. The other cool feature is the ability to write on the back of photos just like the old days. Once you have a photo on your display, just tap the menu button and choose “Draw on image.” The photo flips over and you can write notes on the back of the photo.

New to the Note II is a S Note pop up when you remove the S Pen. The assumption is since you removed the S Pen, you are probably ready to take notes. You can quickly go right into a previous note or create a new one.

I mentioned that Popup Video is included in the Note II, but there is also Popup Note, which is a miniature version of the S Note. Just double tap on the screen with the S Pen and it appears over whatever application you are using.

There is also the multi-window feature, which lets you have two apps on the display at the same time. For example you could have an internet page on top of the display and the S Note app at the bottom. Samsung believes this is true multitasking in that you can crop an image easily and drag it to an S Note or maybe you want to drag an image to your email. You open a second app by long pressing the back button, which will give you a list of available apps that work. Apps such as Gmail, S Note, YouTube, Maps, the Browser and so on. We saw this first implemented with the Galaxy Note 10.1, but this time it features more apps. It’s only available on the international version and Sprint version so far. Software updates should take place soon for the T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon versions soon that will enable it.

You can see many of these features I explained in my hands on video below

YouTube Preview Image

Camera

The camera is the same camera that’s in the Galaxy S III. It’s one of the best cameras on a smartphone. I personally prefer the HTC One X, but I know it’s a constant debate as to which one is better. You will get the same quality along with the same great features as the Galaxy S III like burst shooting, Best Photo, Share Shot, HDR, panorama, and so much more. One feature that I believe is new with the Note II is Best Faces. When you take a photo of a group, you will hear the shutter sound a few times in a row. Then when the photo preview opens, you will see a yellow box atop each face. You can tap the yellow box for each face and get different choices. You can select whatever faces you want for each person and save it, which is pretty slick.

I have included some example photos (last two required flash), but again it’s the same quality as the Galaxy S III. As with most smartphone cameras, shots involving movement is always an issue, and it’s no exception with the Note II.

Closing

Samsung has really created a niche for themselves with the Note line. You won’t find functionality similar to the S Pen on any phone to date. You also won’t find too many phones with displays larger than 5-inches. I do think the Note II is a lot of phone for most people, and I am not talking about the size. There is so much functionality that the average consumer will never utilize it. That’s why I think most consumers are drawn to the size of the Note as opposed to the S Pen. I think they look at the S Pen as a perk and expect to use it, but in my humble opinion, I don’t think they use it so much. I have nothing to back that up on other than my feeling. In the end, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have that functionality just in case. The bottomline is if you want the biggest display on your phone money (approximately $299) can buy? If you do, then the Note II is for you. The next question is if you really think you will use the S Pen? If so, then again, your decision is easy. If you answered no to both of these questions, then it’s also quite simple. Save $100 and get yourself a Galaxy S III. You can’t go wrong with either one.

» See more articles by Robert Nazarian


  • Spoken Word™

    I guess if you have baby hands you can forget 1 handed operation. I have regular sized man hands and have no issues. Hell, the original note was wider and here in NY it was mostly women that I saw with it and even they didn’t seem to have any 1 handed use issues.

  • http://twitter.com/josephtrezza Joseph Trezza

    Note 2 display is not pentile

    • dkg

      Yes it is

  • RevrendIke3x

    This is the best review of the Note 2 I’ve read thus far. Mr. Nazarian went in with an open mind and it showed. Thanx for the informative article.

    • Holly Areton

      Rob always has does the best reviews! Keep up the good work :)s

  • http://twitter.com/_KID_ANDROID_ KID ANDROID

    like Joseph said the display is not penile its RBG Matrix and I’ve had both the original and now the Galaxy Note 2 and the display on the G-Note 2 looks much better even with the lower res. it’s crisper clearer and super vibrant. I have large hands I’m 6’7″ 300lbs and the original was difficult to hold comfortably with one hand while actually using the device to play games but the G-Note 2 is the perfect size and aspect ratio for a device ever. I’m absolutely blown away by how much better this new 2nd model is then the original in every single aspect. I love the design of the hard aware and software and it’s blazing fast, long lasting and the display is on par or I think better than the retina displays. Samsung has made a real gem and I’m so happy I chose to upgrade from the original. – KID ANDROID. ( Team.Android.Canada).