It’s not very often that a company can create a new segment in a market and be successful at it the first time they try. This is exactly what happened when Samsung launched the original Galaxy Note. Analysts said it would be a novelty product with very little widespread appeal, mainly because of its size. Well, they were wrong, it sold millions.
The successor has arrived and Samsung have already shipped 5 million Galaxy Note II devices in two months. We wanted to know if the capabilities of the stylus has improved, and also the product as a whole, so we put it through its paces.
Here are some of the key features:
- Quad-band GSM and quad-band 3G with 21 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA support
- 5.5″ 16M-color Super-AMOLED with 720 x 1280 resolution; Corning Gorilla Glass 2
- Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with TouchWiz
- 1.6 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU, Mali-400MP GPU, 2GB of RAM, Exynos 4412 chipset
- S Pen active stylus with deep system integration
- 8 MP autofocus camera with LED flash
- 1080p HD video recording at 30fps
- 16/32/64GB internal storage, microSD slot
- NFC support
- Bluetooth v4.0
- microUSB port with USB host and TV-out (1080p) support, MHL, charging
- Great audio quality
- 1.9MP secondary video-call camera
- Huge 3100 mAh battery
There are a couple of obvious upgrades over the previous Note. The most important that come to mind are the large battery, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and the improved screen. Let’s see how the device shapes up.
Design and Build
The first thing you will notice is that it looks a lot like the Galaxy SIII. Put the two side by side and they appear almost identical in shape and form.
Even though this device is much larger, it is just as nice on the eyes as its smaller cousin. It’s no surprise that Samsung stuck with their hyperglaze finish on the plastic. Like on the SIII, it’s not brilliant, but it isn’t the same plastic as used on some other devices, where it feels even cheaper.
At the top you will find the 3.5mm audio jack, with the USB connector at the bottom. The bottom houses the stylus compartment and is also where you will find the microphone.
On the left you have the volume rocker and the right only has the power button. All in all, it’s a very stylish, sleek looking device (except for the dimensions, of course). It is only 9.4mm thick, which in proportion to the size of the device works very nicely to help the device feel better in the hand and lighter than you would expect.
The back is simple yet stylish, where you will only find the 8MP main camera and flash, and the speaker. As stated the plastic at the back doesn’t feel cheap if you compare it to better built devices like an HTC or Nokia.
At the front you will find the earpiece and the 1.9MP front facing camera. You also find the Home button, between the Menu and Back buttons hidden in the bezel. As you can see, in almost every way it looks like a larger Galaxy SIII, with a couple of exceptions. First is of course the screen and stylus.
S-Pen and Screen
The first thing that people who weren’t fans of the original Note will point out is that the screen wasn’t all that great. While it didn’t look too bad, it used PenTile technology, of which I must say I was not a big fan. On such a large screen the larger pixel arrangements were possible to see with the naked eye close up.
This time however, Samsung delivered on requests from customers and fitted an AMOLED screen, with a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution. Eagle-eyed readers will note that it is the same on the SIII, which has a smaller screen. You would expect that the Note II screen would then not be as crisp, but you don’t notice a difference at all (unless under microscope). While it is by no means the best screen on the market, it should satisfy the average user.
On top of the 5.5 inch display (up from 5.3 inch) they installed Gorilla Glass 2. This is the exact reason that the device is actually thinner than the predecessor, despite having a larger battery (more on that later). The Gorilla Glass is very reflective to light as shown in the picture above.
When it comes to the stylus, or what Samsung call the S-Pen, the device detects when you remove it and brings up a menu with shortcuts to your latest S Notes. It also shows the shortcuts docked at the bottom of your home screen, where the S-Pen might be most useful.
The S-Pen does feel a lot better in the hand than on the original Note, as well as the Note 10.1, as it’s a bit heavier. The device actually detects when you walk away from your stylus, should you have forgotten to put it back into its slot. It works from a couple of steps away, but we haven’t come to the point where it will tell you exactly where it is (imagine how cool that would be).
The Galaxy Note II can distinguish between 1024 different levels of pressure from the S-Pen onto the screen, and that shines through when drawing or writing. The screen can also detect the S-Pen from a distance of about 1cm, like on the Galaxy Note 10.1. This hovering detection feature, called, Air View, can be used in a couple of instances which will be discussed when we look at the software.
Performance and Battery Life
This is where the device starts to differentiate itself from the Samsung Galaxy SIII. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is powered by the Samsung built Exynos 4412 chipset which is a 1.6GHz quad-core processor, which performs a bit better than the 1.4GHz quad-core chipset from the SIII. This performance boost is reflected in the benchmarks tests.
It launches with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. As we know, Jelly Bean enables modern devices to run so much better, as we found out when the SIII got the update recently. Furthermore, it has double the RAM that the smaller smartphone has, coming in at 2GB. These two facts are the biggest reasons for the brilliant performance of the Galaxy Note II. You won’t see a stutter from the device, with frame rates up among the best. It will go toe to toe with any Android device on the planet.
I am not going to talk too much about the Touchwiz interface on Jelly Bean, as I have gone on about it before in the SIII review. Even though it is still very thick on this device, I am happy to say that Samsung have sorted out the issues they had before so on the newest version it runs smoothly, supplying a better feel and performance on this device than when the SIII was launched with Ice Cream Sandwich (the SIII should also now deliver that level of performance).
The battery on the Samsung Galaxy Note II is very large, a full 3100 mAh. Yes, you would need a larger battery to power a larger screen, but it goes further than you would think. On full charge, you have about 17 hours talk time, 8.5 hours browsing and 11 hours video playback at your disposal. Those are among the most impressive figures you will find, and with regular use, you can go two days without needing a charge, which is extremely rare these days.
As stated, there is no need to go into the general features of TouchWiz again (you can find them here), but I will just run through a couple of them. Most shortcomings that came with TouchWiz have been rectified; this device is by far the most customizable, feature-filled mobile gadget we’ve come across. I won’t discuss them all at length; that would take some time, because every now again you accidentally stumble onto something new. The S-Pen gives you so many options to perform regular tasks, and it is a lot of fun to explore them all.
From the lock screen, you have dedicated shortcuts to apps that you drag up to open. Otherwise you can unlock the device, which is done by tapping on the screen and dragging in any direction, or by holding and tilting the device in a chosen direction. It also has Face Unlock and a combination of Face and voice unlock.
The lock screen itself can also be hugely customized. You can add a news ticker at the bottom, or even have an expanded one. The clock and dates are also customizable on the lock screen as you might expect. You can also enable a second clock.
You can start the camera by tapping the screen and turning the device on its side. You have voice-based wake-up commands that can either launch S-Voice (the voice assistant also discussed here), or launch a specific app.
Quick Glance is also a new feature where you can have a quick view of the basics of the device. While the device is locked, you cover the top of the Note II (where the proximity sensor is), and the screen lights up and displays the status bar, battery percentage, counters for missed calls and messages, upcoming alarms, current music track info and more. Even though we have used the device for a couple of weeks, we are sure there is more to discover.
One of the major changes of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is of course the notifications, which can now be more than a single row and display more information. It can also be easily manipulated with two finger swipe gestures which work well. As soon as app developers start taking advantage of the possibilities in Notifications, we can see exciting new features come to the fore.
Following guidelines set in stock Android, the app and widget drawer and other features are mostly as you would expect on this Samsung device. The apps and widgets are split with their own tabs, like they were since ICS.
The home screen is still the same as on the SIII, with the button opening the app drawer on the bottom right. There are still the four docked icons at the bottom, all customizable of course and with the possibility to make them folders if you would prefer. The menu still looks and works the same. There is now a slight difference when you press and hold the power button, with the option now to restart the device as well, rather than just switch off.
Another feature that came from the SIII is the on-screen pinch, to zoom out and easily manage home screen panes to a maximum of seven. That is more than enough to add plenty of content as you can have full screen widgets as well. The resizing of widgets has also stayed the same.
If you have several apps running, you can use the task switcher to change between them. You open the list by pressing and holding the home button. The vertical list shows a screenshot of the app as well as its name. You can close one at a time by swiping them to either side. Samsung have made a couple of changes to the stock Android functionality of this menu, though.
Samsung designed a task manager, which you open from the menu at the bottom. From there you can close all apps, or check the app info. You can also do this by pressing and holding on a specific app, then selecting App Info.
Samsung have also implemented a new optional menu, which can be switched on and off according to your preference. You would have noticed the little round blue tab on the left hand side of the screen in screenshots above. That is where the menu is opened.
Selecting Edit will then allow you to dump some apps off of the side menu which you would perhaps not use very often. This is especially handy when your home screens are full of widgets, and you prefer to have the apps in their own compact shortcut menu.
Other than your regular home screen, you also find dedicated panes. They appear with certain triggers, like when the S-Pen is removed, or when earphones are inserted or something is plugged into the dock connector. Samsung calls this feature Page Buddy. The S-Pen one is by far the most useful. When the S-Pen is removed, you even have a row of recommended app shortcuts in the notification area (we would have liked to be able to change those shortcuts, though).
Let’s focus on some of the S-Pen functionality within the user interface, as this the essence of the entire Galaxy Note II experience. It has great usability, and truly enhances the device over what can be done by the hand alone.
The first handy feature is Quick Command, where you can easily and simply open apps with gestures. You press the S Pen button and swipe up to open the command window. Here you can draw a “?” to do a quick search, “#” to dial a number, “@” sign to launch email or “~” to send a text. Furthermore you can add a keyword, to do a direct search or send a mail to a specific recipient, for example. The hand recognition has been greatly improved, and the accuracy of these commands are uncanny.
Other than the ones that come standard, you can add your own commands too. You can add easy commands that will enable WiFi or open a specific app, to name but a few as there’s a long list to choose from. You pick your own symbol that relates to a specific function.
Then there’s Air View that was mentioned before. You can hover the S-Pen over various things to preview certain content on the device, like expand S Planner (the Samsung calendar app), preview photos in a folder or scan through a video (check it out in the video review to follow soon).
The S-Pen also lets you take a snippet from anything on the screen and use it in an app; e-mail or S Note, for example. It works well, but the only problem we have with it is still the limited amount of apps you can use it with (as was the case on the Galaxy Note 10.1, although there are now more in the Note II).
The functionality of the S-Pen is quite brilliant, and there will be more and more apps becoming available that can make use of its full potential; hopefully sooner, rather than later.
Overall, the user experience on the device is second to none. It is a huge leap forward for Samsung, because this might have been a space they were lacking in the past. Please note that all the other aspects of the user interface are exactly the same as they are on the Galaxy SIII.
As stated earlier, exactly the same cameras are shipped on the Galaxy Note II that were on its smaller sibling. The 8MP rear camera takes very nice photos, albeit not the best we have seen. The burst mode is a nice function where it will suggest the best photo after taking multiple shots in rapid succession. The image quality is very good, as is the HD video recording.
The 1.9MP front facing camera also performs as well as expected, with some enhanced features in the sensors to make video conferencing easier with better picture quality in low light conditions.
Jelly Bean actually helps the performance of the cameras, and picture quality is a bit better overall than it was on Ice Cream Sandwich.
You’ll notice that I tried not to refer to the Samsung Galaxy Note II as a smartphone, as it’s perhaps too large to be thought of as a phone. Perhaps it should be seen as a brilliant personal media player and browser with the ability to make phone calls? However you want to see it, this smartphone/tablet hybrid, or “phablet” as some call it, does seem to tick all the right boxes.
The Note II delivers well-built hardware improvements and software enhancements, not only over the first Note, but also over almost anything else available at present. The screen is gorgeous (although not yet the 1080p that we are starting to see with some of the newest 5+ inch devices), the camera is more than capable, but best of all is that it is among the quickest performing, most responsive devices you will find on any platform.
Furthermore, it brings you all the beany goodness of Android 4.1, like Google Now and the smoother performance. It also comes with Samsung’s most refined version of TouchWiz to date, not the performance sapping monster of old. Quite frankly, the sheer quantity of features it now offers is staggering. Most of them are actually useful as well, unlike some of their previous features.
Paradoxically, one of the Note II’s greatest strengths could also be its greatest weakness. If I was a betting man I would wager that for every person who loves the massive screen and the size of the device, there’s probably more than one that doesn’t. If all this functionality and performance was able to fit into a package the size of the SIII, I would be first in line the day it launched. The redesigned case and narrower profile does make it easier to handle, but there’s no getting around the size.
If you are not bothered by the size, though, this could very well be the best Android device you can buy today and easily compares to anything offered on iOS and Windows Phone.
After having had the opportunity to experience it, I must admit, I am truly sad that I have to hand the Galaxy Note II back to Samsung.