Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II (T-Mobile)

Feature overload, and worth every second (November 1st, 2012)

When the Galaxy Note debuted last year, it did so largely to confused reviews from the tech press. Was this a phone? A tablet? Some misbegotten amalgamation of the two? Soon enough, a portmanteau emerged to describe Samsung's creation: phablet. The phablet quickly went on to solid sales, and Samsung expects no less from its follow-up, the Galaxy Note II. So is the new Note anything noteworthy?

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Samsung

Price: $300 to $370 subsidized

The Good


  • - Big, beautiful screen
    - Considerable processing power
    - Long battery life
    - S Pen

The Bad


  • - Occasional feature overload
    - Volume button placement
    - Drops some good Android 4.1 UI features
    - Capacitive buttons can be hit by accident

When the Galaxy Note debuted last year, it did so largely to confused reviews from the tech press. Was this a phone? A tablet? Some misbegotten amalgamation of the two? Soon enough, a portmanteau emerged to describe Samsung's creation: phablet. The phablet quickly went on to solid sales, and Samsung expects no less from its follow-up, the Galaxy Note II. So is the new Note anything noteworthy?

Design

It's a big phone. You know that, of course, as you've likely read any number of jokes and jests about the original Note. Little is different with its successor: the Galaxy Note II is a massive phone, bordering on tablet. If it seems like we're harping on its size, that's nothing compared to what you'll experience whenever you pull the phablet out of your pocket. In our time with the Note II, we've had people approach us from across alleys and malls, from the other sides of streets and walkways; all asking the same question: is that a phone?



It's really big. We've got big hands here at Electronista, and it's about all the phone we can handle. If the sleek and slim and thin iPhone 5 is the biggest smartphone you're comfortable handling, or if you're overwhelmed by Galaxy S III, then this is not the handset for you. If you're willing and able to step up a level in handset girth, though, you're in for a treat.

The Galaxy Note II, like Samsung's other flagship handsets and tablets, sports a plastic casing. Its chassis is more in the vein of the Galaxy S III, though; it's solid, lending an air of sturdiness to the device. Never in our handling of it have we thought the Note II would break due to an unfortunate drop. Rap your fingernails against it, and you won't get the reassuring ting of keratin on aluminum, but you'll hear and feel the solid knock of a well-constructed frame.



That rear casing can be removed, relatively easily, from the body of the Note II, allowing access to the SIM card and battery. The first time you swap out the standard rear casing for a replacement or for the Flip Cover Samsung also makes, you may be surprised by how easily it pops off. Rest assured: that ease of removal is not a sign of cheap construction.

The Galaxy Note II has a well-distributed weight to it. At 6.35 ounces, it's 35.4 percent heavier than the Galaxy S III and 60.8 percent heavier than the iPhone 5. One will never forget that it's in pocket but, for its size, it's a deceptively light device. For all that comparative heft, though, the Note II just feels right in the hand, as though one is holding something substantial.



Buttons on the Note II are something of a puzzle. The volume buttons are on the left edge, while the power button is on the right. The power can be accessed easily enough, and likewise for the volume buttons, so long as one is not using the Flip Cover.

We'd recommend, though, that you get the Flip Cover; no need to risk scratching or cracking that big, beautiful screen. Going the safe route with the Flip Cover, though, means that your volume buttons are now awkwardly obscured when the cover is closed, requiring a user to either open the cover to control the volume or to use the volume controls on the in-ear headphones Samsung includes with the device. It seems a small annoyance until one recalls that the volume keys also act as zoom buttons for the camera app. Their placement lends a sort of balance to the device, but at the cost of ease of operation. Samsung would do well to slightly rework the device's design next time around.

The inclusion of a physical home button and two capacitive buttons is a double-edged sword. Physical buttons ensure that a user has use of the Note II's entire screen, with not a pixel going to waste. The capacitive Android buttons, though, can be fickle in their sensitivity. More than once, we found ourselves back at the home screen, having accidentally backed out of the camera app after brushing the capacitive back arrow. Samsung's solution, though, is likely the best balance one can achieve between physical and on-screen buttons.

Display

Most issues one might have with the design will likely vanish, though, as soon as one turns on the Note II's 5.5-inch screen. The HD Super AMOLED display on the Note II outputs at 1280x720. Since the new Note's screen is a bit bigger than that of its predecessor, it actually has a lower pixel density (267ppi) than the original (285ppi). Both are outdone by the Galaxy S III, with its pixel density of 306ppi, and the iPhone 5's 326ppi retina display, but one would likely be hard pressed to find anything to complain about.



If we were forced to point out any particular flaw, it would be the auto-adjusting screen brightness. Depending on ambient conditions, you may find the screen brightening and dimming somewhat quickly. Its automatic setting for the outdoors was never quite suitable to our needs, so we found ourselves turning off the automatic setting from time to time.

Images, movies, and web pages display beautifully on the Note II's massive screen, but one aspect that surprised us was the reading experience. Kindle books on the device display beautifully, with even the smallest print crisply legible at a distance. We've been much enamored of Google's Nexus 7 tablet, and since its release the Kindle app on that device has become our primary reading platform. Since getting our review unit of the Note II, though, the Nexus 7 has lain largely unused.



And therein lies half the genius of the Note series: they are portable enough to serve as a phone, but the screen really is large enough -- and the device is powerful enough -- to handle many of the tasks you'd reserve for a small form factor tablet.

Performance

This year's Note got significant upgrades in both processor and memory. Where the original Note had a 1.4GHz dual-core Exynos with 1GB of RAM, the new model sports a 1.6GHz quad-core chip with 2GB of RAM.

We ran the new Note through the Geekbench 2 benchmark tests, and the upgrades Samsung gave its not-so-little handset for this year really shine through. Where last year's dual-core model had a Geekbench score of 1223, in our test the Note II scored a blistering 1987. It's the top scoring Android device so far, outpacing the Galaxy Note 10.1 (1816), Galaxy S III (1732), HTC One S (1539), and the Nexus 7 (1493). It also significantly outpaced our results for the iPhone 5 (1646).



Running SunSpider browser benchmarks on the stock browser -- which may be a modified version of Chrome -- we got a score of 1021ms, faster than the 1400+ scores we've seen for the Galaxy S III, but a bit behind the iPhone 5's 944ms. Actual Chrome scored 1192.6ms, while Firefox scored 1212.4ms.

Put plainly: the Galaxy Note II is a beast of a device. Websites load quickly -- and the large screen makes desktop-version sites a pleasure instead of a chore -- and apps load blazingly fast. We put the Note II through its paces with a number of 3D games, and it performed admirably. Titles like Dead Trigger, Shadowgun, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted load quickly and run smooth as butter. The massive screen also makes touchscreen gaming a bit less atrocious, as your thumbs aren't covering half of the display at all times.



Connection, battery life

We reviewed the T-Mobile version of the Galaxy Note II, which reportedly has 4G LTE support built in even though the carrier does not yet support LTE. For now, the T-Mobile Note II runs on that carrier's HSPA+ 42 network, even though the indicator on the display will read 4G. T-Mobile is spending $4 billion to upgrade its coverage to 4G LTE, with a rollout expected next year, at which time the Note II will likely receive an OTA update to enable 4G LTE connectivity.

In use, T-Mobile's network is, of course, noticeably slower than 4G LTE connections. We saw download speeds as low as 342kbps and upload speeds at around 1231kbps. For comparison, we ran the test simultaneously with a Droid Razr M connected to Verizon's 4G LTE network, getting download speeds of 10.5Mbps and uploads of 3.2Mbps.



As to battery life, we'd describe it in just one word: remarkable. Samsung packed a 3100mAh battery into the Note II, 24 percent larger than the one found on the original note. In real life, this translates to hours upon hours of heavy use. Electronista used the Note II for gaming, taking pictures, surfing the web, recording video, watching video, streaming music, phone calls, and more. We connected multiple other devices to its Wi-Fi hotspot feature (it's not blazing, but fast enough to suffice) and surfed for hours, streaming video, downloading files, and more.

The battery in the Note II took everything we could throw at it and kept on coming.

Once or twice, we were able to get it down into the red, but never without very heavy usage. In everyday use, this device will likely be more than the average consumer needs. Should one find one's battery indicator dipping into the yellow or the red, the Note II also has a power saving mode that limits CPU performance, lowers screen brightness, and turns off haptic feedback.

Camera

The camera on the Note II is, to be frank, somewhat overwhelming. The camera app presents the users with no fewer than 27 shot-editing options upon opening. That's not including more than 20 additional (and occasionally overlapping) options in another settings menu. And that is just for the front-facing still camera. More options abound for the video setting.


[Full-size image - download]


Beyond the occasional bit of messing about, your average user is unlikely to get much out of most of these settings. The panorama mode is suitable, and few other modes are quite useful, including a Best Face feature that snaps multiple images of a group of people and then allows the user to swap in faces from each in order to assure one gets the best, most smile-filled shot. The artistic features, including an array of color filters and stylization options, may be useful to creative professionals, but for others they're unlikely to result in much more than the occasional novelty shot.





The images the Note II's camera produces are suitably crisp in most situations. The device can be stymied by fast motion occasionally, and users will definitely want to take advantage of the low-light mode when in the appropriate situation. Images taken in both that mode and the Note II's HDR mode tend to yield rich colors, and they look just as good on other screens as they do on that of the Note II.



Recording video, as with taking still pictures, brings its own array of filters and options. These, we're sure, will yield some interesting videos. The Note II's camera yields solid, crisp video in normal light. Low light operation does seem to introduce a bit of graininess to the final product, but no more than one might expect for a smartphone camera.


[The Far East Movement in variable light]




[Bulldog in Slo-Mo]




[Puppies at normal speed, normal light]


The S Pen

Truth be told, we've been anxious to get to this part of the review for some time. If, as we said before, half the genius of the Note series lies in its size and power, the other half lies in its pen. The S Pen, along with the software Samsung has developed for it, is the one aspect of the Galaxy Note II that sets it above any other phone on the market. Any other phone. The S Pen and accompanying software take the Note II from "large, powerful novelty device" to "serious productivity machine."



If you never used the original Note, you may be under the impression that it and its successor are just large cell phones with built-in styluses. The difference between the S Pen on the Galaxy Note II and a traditional stylus, though, is about as big as the difference between a smartphone and a feature phone: their capabilities overlap, but once you've used the one, you'll have a hard time going back to the other.

Samsung boasts that the S Pen -- successfully redesigned from the first version to be more ergonomic -- has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. This makes for thicker lines when one presses hard and lighter lines with a lighter press. The pressure sensitivity works in apps like Sketchbook, as well as in Samsung's pre-installed apps. We're no artists, but we do like to sketch, and the S Pen provides a fantastic experience for that. Put the device in the hands of an actual artist, and the possibilities are wide open. For creative individuals especially, but for the productivity-minded in general as well, the Note II's capabilities put it in a class of its own.





We've used the Note II to take pictures and video at product launches, take notes on those pictures and videos, take notes in interviews, outline reports before writing them, and more. And that's using only the standard note setting in S Note.

.The Note II is also capable of recognizing handwritten input. This paragraph, for example' was written with the S Pen before being copied and pasted into the review. It's not by any means' perfect but it largely gets the gob done, and with practice one could become more adept at scribbling on the Note # than at pecking away at a QWERTY fouchscreen keyboard.

One last nifty feature Samsung has built into the device involves keeping track of the S Pen. Detach the pen, and the Note II pops up an indicator showing that it's been detached. Leave it detached, put the phone to sleep, and try to walk away, and you'll soon receive a buzzing notification that you've left your S Pen somewhere. It's not foolproof, of course, but it's an indispensable feature, especially when replacement S Pens run $40 apiece.

The S Pen does more than what's been mentioned above: lots more. It takes image clips from the screen. It acts like a mouse. It shows previews of videos when one hovers over parts of a timeline. Samsung has developed an array of templates and options to take advantage of the S Pen. Most of these -- including the Magazine and Birthday templates -- we can't imagine getting too much use out of, but the bare functionality of the device and its software are more than enough.

Too. Much. Phone?

In fact, the broad array of features built into the device, despite their occasional niftiness, is actually one of our few big complaints about the Galaxy Note II. As with the camera, it's easy to be overwhelmed by just how much Samsung has packed into the Note II. We've been steadily showing it off to friends since receiving our review copy; more than a few times, we've heard, "It's just too much phone!"

Those friends weren't talking about the device's size.

They were talking about the fact that the phone's screen automatically rotates to an S Pen Page when the tool is removed from its dock. A similar action occurs when plugging in headphones. It's a nice feature, but it's really disconcerting in action.

They were talking about how there are dozens of actions and features you can perform depending on what you do with the S Pen's button and where and how.

In short, just as they said, it was too much phone for them, and it may be too much phone for the average user. Reader, if you feel this review is long, consider this: we haven't even touched on S Voice (surprisingly capable), Popup Video (nifty but largely a novelty), Air View (cool), NFC (more useful than you'd think), Android 4.1 (runs beautifully), TouchWiz (smooth, capable, unfortunately negates some cool Android interface features), the endlessly cool hand-swipe screen capture gesture, or any number of other features -- great and small -- that Samsung's packed into the Note II. We've had a couple of weeks with it as a primary phone by now, and there are still features we're sure we haven't used yet. Open a program for the first time and a dialog window may appear giving you options to control a feature you've only just learned of.

It really can be overwhelming, even if it's kind of fun the whole time.

Final thoughts

The Galaxy Note II is an amazing device, one of the best we've ever handled. That much should be plain by now. We wonder, though, if it might not be even more amazing were Samsung to have dialed back the feature set just a bit and honed what was left to perfection. For instance, holding off on the hovering movie feature in order to make sure that, when one records a sketch in S Note, one can easily share that sketch in a commonly accessible format. Or, perhaps, three S Note templates instead of nine, and those three honed beyond reproach.

Too much phone? Perhaps for some. Even for us, from time to time. For all we've said of feature overload, though, we've enjoyed our time with the Note II immensely. We found those features that best fit our workflow and integrated them. From time to time, we've added other functions, but we mainly adhere to a core set of features in our daily interactions with the device. A different user may look at features we deemed unnecessary and find them indispensable.

For just about anybody set on using a smartphone to produce things, though -- be it art, a document, a video, a birthday card, whatever -- will find some useful feature in this device. What's more, they'll likely find it a more capable device for content creation than any other handset on the market. Samsung touts the Note II as "the Next Big Thing." We still don't think it's the phone for everyone, but if you're the kind of person it suits, the Note II is sure to have a big and continuing impact on the way you use technology.

by Kevin Bostic


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