Samsung Galaxy Note II Review: The Perfect Pocket Notebook Replacement
With the release of the original Galaxy Note, Samsung became the leader in the phablet market with the 5.3-inch smartphone that controversially straddles the smartphone and the tablet market with its large but portable display. Now, with the Note II, Samsung is continuing to refine its presence in this market that it helped popularize. And while the Note II offers a more evolved and refined user experience from the original Note, the device is also an important one for Samsung as it is the first time that a quad-core Exynos processor is debuting in the U.S. market alongside with 4G LTE network (for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon models) connectivity where available.
The Galaxy Note II earns the GottaBeMobile’s Editors’ Choice Award due to its ability to juggle multiple tasks. Though the T-Mobile USA version we reviewed did not ship with simultaneous-tasking, allowing two applications to run side-by-side, the international GSM version recently was updated to support this feature and we’re hopeful that a future firmware update will enable the capability in the U.S. With pop-out viewers, hovering features, and clever use of hardware sensors, the Galaxy Note II is among the smartest smartphones right now, and coupled with a large 5.5-inch display, the device really begs users to push the limits.
The Galaxy Note II has been announced for U.S. carriers AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless, and U.S. Cellular.
Galaxy Note II (U.S. Edition) | ~$300 | AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular
Note II Review Guide
Comparable Devices & Alternatives
The Galaxy Note II marks the second major smartphone from Samsung that is released in the U.S. where the design is unchanged from the international GSM variant–the first phone to do this is the Galaxy S III. The Galaxy Note II is a melding of the designs of the original Galaxy Note II with the Galaxy S III, featuring the home button of the Galaxy S III that is flanked on either side by a capacitive touch button. The front of the phone is dominated by a large 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED display with a 720p HD resolution.
The Note II is both thinner and taller than its predecessor when held in portrait orientation and the device is a bit more narrow as well thanks to a 16:9 aspect ratio so it is slightly more comfortable to hold. The device has a front-facing camera, an LED notification light, and an ambient light sensor and proximity sensor on the front. In my use, it appears that the LED notification light isn’t as bright as that on the Galaxy S III. The LED notification light turns off automatically when the display is on and resumes again if you turn off the display without addressing the notifications. Like the Galaxy S III, the Note II does away with the textured back battery cover in favor of a glossy rear cover that is made of polycarbonate and is removable to reveal a rather capacious 3100 mAh battery, which is larger than the Note. There’s also access to a hot swappable micro SD card slot–up to 64 GB of additional storage can be added–without having to remove the battery. The micro SIM card is only accessible with the battery removed. The speaker grill is located towards the bottom and sounds decently loud. Though it isn’t as loud as some Motorola phones, like the Droid RAZR, the speakers on Samsung’s devices sound fuller and richer. On the top, you have an 8-megapixel camera along with an LED flash, similar to the design and layout of the Galaxy S III. And like the original Note, the Note II also comes with its own S Pen and a holder for the active digitizing pen inside the phone. The pen is now asymmetrical, making it easier to hold, and has grooves on the side button so users could quickly discern if they’re pressing the button. The nub that rubs against the screen is now made up of a hard rubber material, which Samsung says should give the new S Pen a closer feeling to writing on paper, giving the pen a little bit more friction when using it. Unfortunately, though, the new S Pen doesn’t fit with and work in the S Pen Holder accessory that was introduced with the original Note. The S Pen Holder is a thicker pen barrel to make it even easier to hold and use the S Pen. The new S Pen is also given new functionality and features, which we’ll talk more about when we cover the software of the Galaxy Note II.
The HD Super AMOLED display now measures 5.5-inch diagonally, up from the 5.3-inch HD Super AMOLED display of the original. However, Samsung changed the aspect ratio slightly so the new Note II now uses a 16:9 aspect ratio, which makes the device, in portrait orientation, not only slightly taller, but also slightly more narrow. In terms of pixels, the screen is 1280 X 720 pixels.
Additionally, the screen technology may sound the same as the Galaxy S III and the original Galaxy Note, but with the Galaxy Note II, Samsung is employing a different OLED technology. Instead of using the traditional PenTile-based display, which users had complained about for pixelation in rendering text and images, the Note II’s display appears a bit more sharp. On its brightest setting, the Note II’s display appears brighter than the Galaxy S III’s display, which has a 4.8-inch panel with the same 1280 X 720 HD 16:9 aspect ratio.
The Galaxy Note II is among the first devices to hit the U.S. that combines quad-core processing with a 4G LTE radio. That not only gives the device a lot of processing power, but also makes the web and Internet-experience plenty fast. LTE is supported on the AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless model. The T-Mobile USA model that I tested is capped with HSPA+ for 4G as T-Mobile does not yet have an LTE network.
In actual use, HSPA+ is still fast enough for most of my Internet tasks and you can read more about AT&T 4G v. T-Mobile HSPA+ speeds in our Galaxy S III review. In use at my home, I got between 4-8 Mbps on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network, which has a theoretical download speed of 42 Mbps. AT&T and Verizon promise speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G connectivity for their LTE networks.
On the T-Mobile 4G HSPA+ unit, call quality sounded fine through both the loud speaker and the speaker phone. I mainly used the Note II with a Bluetooth headset to avoid awkwardly holding a 5.5-inch tablet to my ears, but in a pinch, holding the Note II to your face isn’t quite too bad–it does harken to the old eras of PDAs. In terms of battery life, the capacious 3100 mAh battery gave the Note II plenty of juice to last me the whole day of heavy use, which consisted of push emails, IM messages, web browsing, and minimal use of the camera.
I’ve noticed that using the camera extensively, for either photos or videos, would quickly eat away at the battery. Given the large HD display, the battery life is quite good. And coupled with a fast processor and fast mobile broadband speeds, I think users will find that they will use the Note II more than they anticipate thanks to the large display and fast speeds–it is like having a mini tablet at your disposal with built-in phone capabilities.
Blocking Mode. New to the Note II is a feature called Blocking Mode, which is similar to iOS 6′s Do Not Disturb functionality. When Blocking Mode is turned on, you can select to not be notified of new events, notifications, and calls so you can have time to rest or concentrate on other things.
Blocking Mode can be automated to begin and end at certain times and you can also create a white list of callers who will always be able to reach you even when Blocking Mode is enabled, such as your kids, spouse, or parents.
The Galaxy Note II debuts with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out of the box, which is currently Google’s latest Android operating system. The device comes with the same TouchWiz UI that debuted on the Galaxy S III and performance of TouchWiz is buttery smooth thanks to the 1.6 GHz ARM-based quad-core Exynos processor.
Samsung is bundling a number of custom apps with the phone, including Game Hub, Music Hub, Paper Artist, S Note, All Share Play, and Group Cast, for example, and have enhanced a number of apps, including the Browser and Gallery, to deliver additional functionality. TouchWiz is getting more refined and essentially brings all the great features that debuted on the Galaxy S III over to the Galaxy Note II, including the number of sharing features, such as S Beam, and camera enhancements, such as Share Shot and Buddy Photo Share.
T-Mobile also has a number of apps added to the device, including Name ID, which gives you the name of the person calling instead of their number even if they’re not stored on your phone book, T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile My Account, and Visual Voicemail. As Samsung is now beginning to market their devices as enterprise-ready, the Note II will also feature a VPN client.
Also see the Samsung Galaxy S III review as a lot of information applies to the Note II as well.
Tablet-Centric UI. When Samsung debuted the Galaxy S III, I was a bit disappointed that the multi-pane views that were enabled in apps such as Email, Contacts, Calendar, and Messaging were gone. On the large screen Galaxy S II variants for the U.S., Samsung allowed those apps to enter a two-pane, tablet-like mode when the screen was rotated into landscape view, but took away those capabilities with the Galaxy S III. On the Galaxy S III, those apps had a single-pane smartphone view in both landscape and portrait mode. Fortunately, with a capacious 5.5-inch HD display, Samsung is re-introducing the multi-pane tablet UI on select apps.
This means, for example, if you’re triaging your emails, you can see a list of all your emails in your inbox on the left column and then on the right column you will have your email previews. Disappointingly, this only works on select apps. In contacts, switching between landscape and portait gives you the same view. In Messaging, you get a similar resizable multi-pane view as you do with the Email app.
Additionally, a welcomed change is the software keyboard, which like the Note, accepts a Swype-like method for entry where users can swipe their fingers across the keyboard and connect letters to form words. The keyboard auto-correct engine is more akin to Swype and is less annoying than the implementation on the Samsung Keyboard on the Galaxy S III, which is definitely a good thing. Also, with the extra screen real estate, a fifth dedicated number row is added to the keyboard both in portrait and landscape orientation. With the dedicated number row, users who use alpha-numeric passwords won’t have to reach for the alternate symbol key on the keyboard and can type at ease. Power to the Pen. The Galaxy Note II extends the active digitizer capabilities of the original Note, which allows you to draw and write accurately on the display. With the Note II, Samsung has given the pen even more power and functionality. There is now a feature called ‘Air View’ that allows you to hover your S Pen over the display without touching the screen to pull up previews. For instance, when you’re hovering over a specific email in an email list and a pop-up will quickly appear to give you a small preview without having to tap on or go into the email. This allows you to decide if you want to open the email or not.
Hovering with the pen towards the top or bottom of a list will allow you to scroll through the list without having to flick at your screen.
Where the hover, or Air View, feature really kicks in is with web pages. With sites that have deep layers of drop-down menus, such as Amazon.com or Porsche.com, the hover feature will allow you to hover over drop down menus to open up those menus. In the past, on touch-centric products such as smartphones and tablets, tapping on specific menus would open the link, rather than drop down the menu. This hover mode now emulates the action of using a mouse on web pages.
The downside is that with Android 4.1, there is now no longer support for Adobe Flash for the Browser where the hover feature would be awesome to use on.
Smart Sensors. Like the Galaxy S III, many of the smart features made their way over to the Note II, like double tapping at the top of a list to scroll to the top again, tilt to zoom in gallery mode, shake to update, direct call to call the current contact on the screen, and Smart Stay, which detects if your face is looking at the screen with the front-facing camera to keep the screen on so the display won’t time out if you’re actually using the phone.
Another cool feature is Quick Glance. If the phone has been off for a while, you can wave your hand over the front facing camera and the display will turn out to tell you if you have any new mails, missed calls, or messages awaiting your attention.
Smart Rotation is another neat feature, especially for those who use their phones reclining in bed. This would work with the front-facing camera and accelerometer so even if you’re laying sideways and holding the phone at an awkward angle, the phone will use the front camera to see the orientation of your face before auto-rotating the display.
One-Handed Usability. The biggest complaint with the original Note is that it is too monstrous to be able to use in one hand. With the Note, users would either have to hold the phablet in both hands and peck using two thumbs at a time, or hold the device in one hand and poke with the thumb on the free hand. Now, with the Note II, Samsung is telling Apple’s iPhone to move over as the keyboard and dial pad can be customized to be used single-handedly. In the settings menu, if users want one-handed usability, they can check the appropriate boxes and the keyboard and/or keypad will be compressed and skewed over so that a user can hold the phone in one hand and reach with the thumb in the same hand.
Best of all, the settings can be adjusted accordingly so that right-handed and left-handed users can use the phone. Neat trick that definitely adds to the usability of the device!
Pop-Ups Are Good! Usually, we despise pop-ups on our desktops, but on mobile, Samsung’s implementation of pop-ups will help to deliver a multi-tasking environment that allows users to juggle different tasks at the same time. Though the experience is still a bit clunky, it shows a step in the right direction, especially since the hardware can handle multitasking with quad-core processor and 2 GB RAM on board.
There are two areas where pop-ups are made available. The first area is with the browser. For example, if you’re in your Email app and someone sends you a cool link that you want to open, but don’t want to get distracted from getting through reading your inbox, a pop-up browser can come in handy so you can juggle email triaging and get a little bit of fun in with that link. Clicking on the link will pull up a pop-up browser that you can position and move around on your 5.5-inch display. If the link is cool enough, you can easily maximize it into a full-screen browser.
The downside still is that the pop-up browser still has a lot of wasted chrome around it, which means that it is still clunky for the smaller 5.5-inch display on the Galaxy Note II. Perhaps, on the larger 10.1-inch display of the Galaxy Note 10.1, the pop-up browser will feel more like its appropriately sized. Though you can move the browser around and reposition it, you still cannot re-size the pop-up browser at this time, unfortunately.
The second pop-up feature is one that we featured previously on the Galaxy S III and that’s with a pop-up video player. If you have a video playing, now you can play it in a po-up browser anywhere on any screen so you can juggle other tasks while watching videos. For educational videos, for example, this means you can open up a note taker app, like S Note, and jot notes of the content of the video. And unlike the pop-up browser, the pop-up video player can be resized.
The Galaxy Note II has a 2-megapixel HD front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera. This is a great phone for your Google Hangout video chats or Skype video calls and both cameras work decently well in low light environments. On the rear, the 8-megapixel shooter is accompanied by an LED flash, similar to the Galaxy S III, and can record 1080p HD videos with applomb thanks to its powerful processor.
There are a number of filters on the camera to give shots a real-time Instagram-like effect. Additionally, Samsung also included a number of new settings on the camera.
There’s a low-light mode that helps users capture images without a flash. Speaking of the flash, if you do happen to use a flash, the flash on the Galaxy Note II doesn’t appear to be as bright as that on the Galaxy S III.
And then there is the sharing features–such as Share Shot and Buddy Photo Share–that make it easy to share images. The former connects all Galaxy phones and tablets to a WiFi Direct network and images captured on one phone will be saved on all connected Galaxy devices on the same network. The latter feature allows tagged faces to quickly be emailed or MMSed to participants.
One of my favorite camera features is called Best Face. When you’re taking a group photo, more than likely someone’s eyes would be closed or someone else will not be smiling. The Best Face feature works like an HDR photo in that it takes a series of quick, successive pictures.
Then Best Face will use software to analyze the photo and select the best face for each individual in that photo and group them together in a final image. The result is quick and quite impressive with minimal artifacts, though you do get some hard edit lines sometimes depending on the photo and the background.
Video: Galaxy S III Camera Demo–As the Note II has similar features as the Galaxy S III, you can see a lot of the features from our Galaxy S III camera review.
For me, multimedia is definitely a mixed bag on the Galaxy Note II and it’s not really Samsung’s fault as much as it is the fault of Google’s ecosystem. With a gorgeous 5.5-inch HD display and the 4G LTE networks to back up the quad-core power of the phablet, I’d love to be able to get more movies and TV shows on the Note II to watch, but as it stands Google’s Play Store for movies and TV shows falls short of Apple’s iTunes Store with a lot less content.
And in the past, I was able to make due with Google’s shortcoming as I can watch full-length episodes of some of my favorite current TV shows, like CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, on websites, such as CBS.com, for free. However, that method requires Adobe Flash and beginning with Android 4.1, Google had announced that it would be dropping support for Adobe Flash, limiting the content that is available for the Note II.
To Samsung’s credit, it is trying to offset Google’s shortcomings with its own Media Hub and Music Hub apps, the former allowing users to purchase videos and the latter offers subscription music streaming. However, in the video department, iTunes still shines though you can get appls like Netflix and Hulu Plus.
There are other multimedia features that the Note II tries to improve on, including the pop-up video player that we mentioned previously.
Also, with the video player, now you can scrub through videos with live previews on the Note II.
Another feature is the Gallery app for the camera. With the Gallery app, you can now create albums more easily by dragging and dropping photos together.
The Gallery app has also gotten a little makeover with a visually stunning spiral view–though that adds little functionality, if any–as well as a Timeline view your photos.
With the Galaxy Note II, Samsung is improving on a form factor that it has helped to popularize. The Note II is more than just a smartphone or a tablet, and the sum of the parts definitely is more ‘valuable’ than each individual part as the device’s capacious 5.5-inch display is still pocketable and small enough to be mobile, but yet is large enough to do serious work while on the go. The new S Pen and the S Note app both help to add to the productive value, and the Note II delivers.
For those who like to keep handwritten notes or who like to have a small pocket notebook or Moleskin journal nearby at all times, the Note II is the perfect digital replacement allowing you to capture notes, ideas, thoughts both in the analog (via handwriting) and the digital format. Embedding rich multimedia photos and videos, copied texts and website screenshots, handwriting and annotations, and audio recording to go with those notes, the Note II can be a great companion to students and users in enterprises, such as insurance claims adjusters, researchers and mathematicians who need to jot down formulas, writers and creative professionals who need to draw and sketch ideas as soon as those creative impulses flow through their heads.
At the end of the day, the new capabilities that are built into the S Pen makes the Note II approach the power of Tablet PCs of yore, but without the cost and bulk. However, when you factor in all the power you’re getting with such a device, you’re left wondering if a 5.5-inch really is big enough for what you want to or can do with the Note II.
- Quad-core 1.6 GHz Samsung Exynos Processor
- 2 GB RAM
- 16 GB storage; various versions go up to 64 GB
- micro SD card expansion
- micro USB
- Accelerometer/proximity sensor
- Bluetooth/WiFi/NFC radios
- 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED display with non-PenTiles 1280 X 720-pixel resolution
- 4G HSPA+/LTE models
- 5.95 x 3.17 x 0.37 in
- 6.46 oz.
- Gorilla Glass 2 display