The original Samsung Galaxy Note brought us into the phablet world just about a year ago.  Samsung introduced us to a 5.3-inch screen and it was received with an equal amount of love and disdain from potential consumers. Many were perplexed as to why one would carry a tablet as a daily phone.  The smartphone industry has been heading to larger displays for as long as smartphones have been around, so it is no surprise that Samsung released its latest Note with a huge 5.55-inch screen. The Note II offers much more than a large screen. It has blazing fast brains to match, Jelly Bean preloaded, and the potential to blow away the competition  There are weren’t many things I found the Note II to be lacking, so lets see what the Samsung Galaxy Note II has to offer.

Samsung Galaxy Note II Video Review

Call Quality


The phone offers great call quality and it sounds like Samsung has made improvements over the original Galaxy Note. I felt that at times that it was hard to listen to callers on the line with the original Note but, with the Note II, I made a call at a very loud restaurant and I could hear just fine.  Our mobile editor Brandon Russell was on the other end and he didn’t hear much background noise.  Reception appears to be fairly decent.  I live in an area that has some coverage issues, but I took phone calls without any of them dropping.  The oddity I experienced on the iPhone 5 – one second delay between when I answer the phone and when the caller can hear me – does not exist on the Galaxy Note II.  The speakerphone is loud and clear, also, and that’s a feature that phone manufacturers seem to ignore from time to time.
I felt that at times that it was hard to listen to callers on the line with the original Note but, with the Note II, I made a call at a very loud restaurant and I could hear just fine.

Hardware

Quality

The phone is made of plastic. That’s kind of a bummer, but that’s just the material Samsung and a lot of other manufacturers use to build phones and I don’t think they will be going away from it. That being said, the quality of the build is drastically improved over the original Note. It also feels and looks like the Galaxy S III; it includes the same hardware home button but is just much, much bigger.

I really like the S III design and I think Samsung was wise to stick with it; consumers like familiarity and people buy things they are used to seeing.  In terms of the build and durability, having used both the S III and the original Note extensively, I believe the Note II will hold up a lot better than the original Note.  The S III and Note II both offer a high-gloss finish with replaceable back panel that you don’t have to worry about scratching. Since it’s replaceable, you can always buy another one.  I will say, however, the previous Note’s back panel was quite flimsy and easily showed wear on its back after a couple months of use.  It looks great visually, especially the chromatic flare the titanium grey model has, but it also feels nice in your hands with its rounded corners. Oh no, alert Apple!  Samsung is rolling this out with several covers in a rainbow of colors so hopefully you can find one that matches your tastes.

With a 5.55-inch inch display phablet in your pocket, you’re going to have to deal with a bit of weight.  The phone is definitely heavier than the iPhone 5 (3.96 ounces) but, at 6.4 ounces, it packs a lot of size, speed and battery.

Display

You can dispute the usefulness of TouchWiz and whether or not the S Pen is a useful tool or not, but you can not deny how clear and beautiful the 5.55-inch HD Super AMOLED display is.  With a 1280 x 720 resolution and a 267 ppi, the pixel density is lower than the iPhone 5′s screen  (326 ppi) but is still a gorgeous.  The Note II also packs the sturdier and less shatter-prone Corning Gorilla Glass 2.  This device is ready to take a few rounds of drops, slips and hits, but we don’t recommend exposing it to those risks.

One thing you do have to contend with is how to handle such a massive screen.  Samsung, as it has done with the previous Note, gives you the option of one handed “shortcuts” to help you use the device without both hands.  One-handed operation mode gives you keypads, virtual keyboards, and the ability to unlock with just one hand. I notice with the Note II, I find myself loading up all the “favorite” apps on the side of the screen, and you may choose to do the same after some time.

Processor

Samsung’s own 1.6 GHz Exynos 4412 quad-core processor powers this speedy device and it doesn’t disappoint.  Pages and apps loaded quickly. We played through video games (a little Bad Piggies and Frontline Commando) and it ran through them all with quick load times and appreciated the great graphics performance.

Check out the benchmarks we ran:

  • Quadrant score of 6382
Galaxy S II quadrant score
  • AnTuTu benchmark score of 13604
  • Vellamo Liquid score of 1832
  • Vellamo Metal score of 621

You can determine what those scores/rankings mean to you, but from first hand experience the Note II is surprisingly fast. I already noticed on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus  7 how zippy processing is with Jelly Bean installed, but the combination of a faster processor and Jelly Bean makes for a far more enjoyable experience. I certainly did not notice any “Android lag” as I have with other hardware.

I certainly did not notice any “Android lag” as I have with other hardware.

Battery

A device with as much processing and display power needs an equally impressive battery.  Samsung added a whopping 3,100 mAh lithium ion battery.  That number may not mean much to most, but it basically translates to excellent battery life for most phones. For comparison’s sake, the iPhone 5 allegedly packs a 1,440 mAh battery (I had to do some digging around, Apple doesn’t readily post this information) and the Droid RAZR MAXX’s offers a 3,300 mAh battery.

I did not use any battery saving options the come packed on the phone’s OS, nor did I turn the display’s brightness up or down.  I tried very hard to drain the phone’s battery and found it lasted about 12 hours after 8 hours of phone calls and some video games and web browsing using HSPA+ (see below, my network issues and LTE), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled.  I say those are pretty impressive results considering the large display and fast processor.

Camera/Video

I loved the camera on the original Note. I thought it took gorgeous photos and of course the instant gratification of viewing those photos and videos on the massive screen make the experience that much more enjoyable. If you like the shots on the Galaxy S III, you will not be disappointed with the camera on the Note II.  By all accounts the technical specifications haven’t changed much on the cameras; both feature an 8-megapixel sensor, LED flash, 1080p recording support and a 1.9 MP front-facing camera.

I can’t say that I notice any differences in the photo quality between the Note II and the SIII, but the Note II packs a few extra bells and whistles.  Noticeably a bevy of new effects, enough to make a hipster blush and turn his back on Instagram, because ‘gram is too mainstream now.  The effects are available on both camera and video mode (previously video mode had no filters).  I’m still looking for the purple flare filter, though.

Of the new additions, the added effects are probably my favorite, but Samsung has also added, Outdoor Visibility (I swear this was a feature on the Galaxy SII and the Note but cant find it on the SIII), Contextual Filename (naming files based on location. It requires GPS tracking, so when you take photos at Disneyland, your photos in turn will be titled Disneyland, rather than image_3902.jpg), taking photos using voice commands (phrases like capture, shoot, smile or cheese).  Otherwise your camera still remains the same from the SIII. I will say I like Samsung’s camera options the best out of all smartphones currently on the market and the quality is superb.

The Gallery is more convenient to navigate than on other smartphones, with a row of folders or galleries on your left, and a preview of the content in the folders on your right. You might as well take advantage of that larger screen.

I can’t say that I notice any differences in the photo quality between the Note II and the SIII, but the Note II packs a few extra bells and whistles.

S Pen

People will love or hate the S Pen and I believe that depends whether you plan to actually use it.  I used to carry around my iPad everywhere and take lots of notes with a stylus, so for me I like the idea of combining the best of phone and tablet and being able to take written notes.  Samsung’s S Pen received a whole new makeover and is less round and doesn’t feel as cheap as before, it’s gotten a bit more rectangular and feels more no. 2 pencil-like.  I like the way it feels versus the previous Note;  it felt too small and delicate for me.

Samsung really invested a lot of resources in to the S Pen and it is something that definitely stands apart from other phones. I’ll run though a few features:

  • General: You can take notes, scribble, sketch through the apps Samsung provides. The S Pen is pressure sensitive, so artists out there can showcase their S Pen techniques.
  • Air View creates an icon that hovers on your display to give you better accuracy of the stylus. The icon disappears once you move the S Pen more than an inch away from the screen.  You can also use it to preview photos, videos, calendar events and emails before you actually open them.
  • Quick commands launches anything with a few pre-programmed commands. If you press on the stylus button and a flick/swipe on the screen your shortcuts will appear and you can program different symbols to be shortcuts to launch apps faster.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR).  I was a huge Palm fan about 10-15 years ago, especially of Palm Graffiti. I thought it was a neat way to capture written text and convert it to typed words.  There was definitely a learning curve and I felt it was about 90% accurate, but I thought it was cool. Well, with the S Pen, you can write out in a much more natural manner and it will convert the handwriting to text instantly. It’s great for note taking if you get tired of typing QWERTY-style with thumbs
  • Screengrabs, where you can lasso an area on your display and capture, like a screen shot but more focused.
  • S Pen Keeper alerts you when you walk away from your S Pen without plugging it back in. That means you you cant lose it.
  • Easy Home Screen: I know I may get a lot of flack for this, but this is really useful, especially for those users who are intimidated by smartphones, particularly those with huge screens.  This is a usage option delivers the most frequently used apps, features and widgets and places them on the first two pages of the phone by default. Widgets such as favorite contacts, phone, gallery, clock, email, browser, calendar, battery, settings, brightness and more are included. Like I said, for some users, this will be helpful.

4G/HSPA+/LTE

 

Galaxy Note II speedtest

I wasn’t able to get LTE connectivity with the Note II. Since we acquired an unlocked European model through Negri Electronics, it isn’t written for AT&T specification. Still, I found that the data speeds I was able to get were just fine. Sprint, Verizon and AT&T will all launch LTE versions of the Note II in the United States, so we’ll revisit our speed tests with those models.

Wi-Fi

The Galaxy Note II comes with a dual-band Wi-Fi antenna that supports 802.11 a/b/g/n on both 2.4GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands.  The phone always maintained a solid connection and I didn’t experience any Wi-Fi drops during my testing.

The Note II also comes with Bluetooth 4.0.  I tried it out on my car and it worked pretty well. Bluetooth 4.0 enabled me to seamlessly stream music, even from Pandora to my car. It was a much smoother experience than with my iPhone 5, but it could be dependent on my car and not on the actual phone.

Software

Jelly Bean

I’m excited to see devices starting to roll out with Jelly Bean installed.  We’ve talked about Jelly Bean’s features before so I wont dig too deep. A couple features that I will quickly note as my favorites are Google Voice Search and Google Now. Google Voice Search is an Android equivalent of Siri and, quite frankly, I like Apple Siri’s integration more than Google Voice Search.

Still, I appreciate the UI and less robotic sound of Google Voice Search over Siri. I love Google Now’s ability to foresee traffic delays and have found that it is a really great personal assistant.  We could spend forever talking about the pros and cons, for and against Siri and Google’s own applications, but competition is great for these worthy competitors.  I think these applications are still a few versions away from perfection, but as long as these two keep upping their performance and competing against each other consumers will be happy.

S Voice seems to me something Samsung should just put an end too, but then again it falls right in line with carriers and manufacturers adding their own spin to existing features of anOS.  S Voice does appear to be more accurate than on the Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich versions of the Note.  However, I do find it redundant to have a Google version of an app that does similar functions to Siri or Google Voice Search, but that falls short.

TouchWiz

I prefer the purity of Android Jelly Bean.  I think most carriers and hardware manufacturer’s mess with the OS when they add their own spin to it.  The intention is, I’m sure, well intended, but in execution I find that key features end up missing or botched.  TouchWiz is in the same category, I understand you get a few morsels of features that Samsung adds to devices, but Jelly Bean can stand on it’s own without meddling developers.  However, In this iteration I appreciate a few TouchWiz nuggets. The ability to easily view two apps at once is incredible, I love that I can “pop-out” a video for viewing on the home screen, and the experience is still smooth.

Blocking Mode

Blocking Mode is one of many of Samsung’s additions to Jelly Bean.  It appears in the Samsung Galaxy SIII’s Jelly Bean update as well as on the Note II and it is essentially the same functionality as iOS 6’s “Do Not Disturb” feature. Motorola’s variation (SMARTACTIONS) of this feature does it the best, it “learns” what you do to record these privacy settings.  Both the iOS and Samsung TouchWiz versions requires you to manually turn these settings on or off, which means it lacks the intelligent know-how of SMARTACTIONS.

Fragmentation

You can say what you want about hardware fragmentation across Android devices, but I feel developers have done a great job integrating Note II’s larger size.  I was surprised to see how well apps filled the screen, especially considering that a lot of my iPhone 5 apps still require developers to update to the new dimensions.  Jelly Bean was meant to help solve Google’s fragmentation issues and, as I mentioned before, I found lagginess to be non-existent and was quite happy with having this phone as my daily driver.

Pocket Test

The all important “pocket test” is a must with any phone, especially for a 5.9” x 3.1” x 0.3” device.  I was asked several times by friends and family whether or not I think the phablet is too big.  I often respond saying that the is gorgeous and the photo and videos look crisp. So it’s perfect for media mavens. Plus, itss fast, the camera is great and it fits in my pocket just fine. In fact, I don’t think it feels any different than when I keep an iPhone or Galaxy S III in my jeans.

Conclusion


I love the Galaxy Note II. This is the best phone I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing so far. I wholeheartedly think this device is a step above any phone on the market.  Sure, it’s big and it looks like Flava Flav should have it gold-chained around his neck. Yes, the price point will probably be around $299 with a two-year contract. I’m guessing, since that is what the original Note was priced around, and that is about 50 percent higher than other leading smartphones. Still, I believe it is worth every cent.Samsung created a great phone. I felt the original Note was a good-to-great phone, but felt the build was a bit cheap. This iteration, while still made of plastic, sports the S III build and design, but packs in more power and more software tools. I think the advances of S Pen and TouchWiz integration will probably get people to rethink their opinions of such a large display.  With the phablet, you really do eliminate the need to carry around a phone and tablet (if your business/personal needs require you to, or if you really want a cool toy).The hardware beats anything else out on the market, at least when it comes to the quad-core processor and its performance in my tests.I give the Note II an extremely high, but worthy, 9 out of 10 and an editor’s choice.  I took a full point off for some odd TouchWiz features that were less than appealing, S Voice disjointed integration, and Blocking Mode being fairly uninventive.  Otherwise, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is a first-class phone and highly recommended device.

Rating

9.0
I’m guessing, since that is what the original Note was priced around, and that is about 50 percent higher than other leading smartphones. Still, I believe it is worth every cent.

Text by Roy Choi and Todd Haselton, Video by Jon Rettinger and Jon Morrison