Samsung’s first crack at a smartphone larger than five inches came last year in the form of the Galaxy Note. It was wildly different than most phones we’d seen before: it was massive, for one, and involved the use of a stylus pen, a sorely outdated concept at the time. Who would be willing to buy this thing? Yet, despite its enormous size, this tablet / phone (forgive us: phablet) captured more hearts and wallets than even Sammy had probably expected. The S Pen showed that it was more than just a simple stylus, artists and tech enthusiasts alike loved it and a successful marketing campaign helped push millions of units. The Note was an undeniable hit.
Did Samsung realize at the time that it was sitting on a gold mine? It’s hard to know for sure, but its success meant only one thing: an inevitable sequel. The Galaxy Note II, introduced a year after its parent, has some big shoes to fill. We believe it’s up to the task, though: it boasts a quad-core Exynos processor, twice the RAM, an even larger display and a whole new bag of S Pen tricks. It sounds compelling, but does the new version truly trump the old? Is it worth another sound investment (pricing varies, but it starts around £530 for a SIM-free version) just a year down the road?
To gaze upon the newborn Galaxy Note II is to take a crash course in Samsung’s preferred design language. Whereas the original bears the same overall look and squarish corners as the Galaxy S II, its successor is — you guessed it — just as inspired by nature and “designed for humans” as the Galaxy S III. We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of you mixing them up (the size difference is a dead giveaway, but the phones look quite similar otherwise). Indeed, Samsung is now in the habit of changing things up on a yearly basis, which may seem more boring than once every couple months. By adopting an annual design cycle, however, devices like the Note II likely get pushed through the initial stages of development much faster than they would otherwise. We also imagine that the company’s new strategy of consistency will have a significant impact on Samsung’s brand recognition.
Owners of the original Galaxy Note — whether it be the global N7000 or one of its many variants — know all too well how it feels to get the occasional “what is that thing?” from random passersby. So will the peanut gallery continue to snicker when you take this out in public? At 3.16 inches (80.5mm) wide, 5.95 inches (151.1mm) tall and 0.37 inches (9.4mm) deep, the Note II is slightly thinner, narrower and taller than its parent. This, along with the pebble-like shape, definitely offers a more comfortable experience when you’re cradling it in your hand, though it’s just a tad heavier at 6.35 ounces (180g). Despite being more attractive than the first Note, it’s nonetheless an indisputably large device, and will continue to draw stares for that reason. (In other words, you’ll want to come up with a standard talk track for those times you’re approached by curious strangers.)
While we all want our smartphones to stick around for a long time, the matter of build quality is extremely important here, given the fact that the phone’s size makes it more prone to drops. That’s why we’re happy with the company’s decision to use a polycarbonate chassis, similar to the one on the Galaxy S III. After handling the Note II on a regular basis, we’re confident that Samsung’s crafted a durable, solid device. (As an aside, you can find a few drop tests circulating the web. Spoiler: it holds up extremely well.)
Because the new Note has a larger display and thinner chassis, the buttons on each side have been scaled down a notch. The power key, for instance, now rests in a much more natural position that’s easier to find by feel. The only downside? It’s also much easier to press the button accidentally.
Since we’re discussing button placement, we’ll continue with the full Vanna White-style tour: beginning with the front, you’ll find an LED notification light (which wasn’t on the first Note), an earpiece, sensors and a 1.9-megapixel camera above the display, while the large physical home button found below the screen is flanked by two capacitive keys (menu and back) on either side. The bezel on the top and bottom are smaller than on the OG Note, though the left and right bezels are about the same.
The front is frankly the busiest part of the phone; Samsung professes a policy of minimalism the rest of the way around the Note II. There’s a power button on the right, volume rocker on the left, S Pen holder and micro-USB charging port (with MHL capabilities — more on that later) on the bottom and 3.5mm headphone jack up top. Even the back keeps relatively quiet, sporting the 8-megapixel camera module and LED flash just barely above the singular Samsung logo, as well as a speaker grille that hangs out near the bottom. The battery cover lies completely flat across the back of the phone (with the exception of the slightly raised camera and speaker) and curves inward as it prepares to meet up with the edge
A design decision we’ve always appreciated from Samsung is the removable battery, which has been increased to 3,100mAh (up from 2,500mAh on the original Note). Above it you’ll see slots for micro-SIM and microSDXC cards as well as contacts for NFC and wireless charging.
Our particular review unit, provided to us by our friends at Negri Electronics, is the white N7100, the global version which lacks the superfast LTE speeds many users crave. Thus, folks looking for the fastest Note II around will need to grab the N7105, which offers the next-gen data in bands 7 (2600MHz) and 20 (800MHz). For those keeping score, you can see if your country utilizes these frequencies here. Speed demons in the US may also be interested in variants of the Note II coming out to AT&T, Verizon,Sprint and US Cellular, though there should be very few cosmetic discrepancies between them and their global counterparts — much like we saw with the Galaxy S III series.
Both global versions of the Note II are capable of 21.6Mbps HSPA+ (850, 900, 1900 and 2100MHz) along with quadband GSM / EDGE. They also boast dual-band (2.4 and 5GHz) WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n with WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0, DLNA and NFC. If you’re a gadget aficionado in need of the full spec list, we’ve compiled all these specifics below.
|Galaxy Note N7000||Galaxy Note II N7100|
|Dimensions||5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches (146.9 x 83 x 9.7 mm)||5.95 x 3.16 x 0.37 inches (151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4 mm)|
|Weight||6.28 oz. (178g)||6.35 oz. (180g)|
|Screen size||5.3 inches||5.5 inches|
|Screen resolution||1,280 x 800 pixels (285ppi)||1,280 x 720 pixels (267ppi)|
|Screen type||HD Super AMOLED||HD Super AMOLED|
|Internal storage||16GB||16 / 32 / 64GB|
|External storage||microSD (up to 32GB)||microSD (up to 64GB)|
|NFC||In select variants||Yes|
|Radios||HSPA+ / UMTS, GSM / EDGE, LTE||HSPA+ / UMTS, GSM / EDGE; LTE (in the N7105)|
|Bluetooth||version 3.0||version 4.0 LE|
|SoC||1.4GHz dual-core Exynos 4212||1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412|
|MHL||Yes||Yes, but requires Samsung adapter|
|Operating system||Android 2.3 (upgraded to 4.0)||Android 4.1 Jelly Bean|
The Note II’s display has earned a whole section unto itself because it’s, well, a little different. And we’re not just talking about the fact that the newer version uses a larger panel with even fewer pixels than the original: there’s more to it than meets the eye (the naked eye, at least). First, a little background: when the sequel was announced with a 1,280 x 720 HD Super AMOLED panel, we naturally assumed that it would be sporting a PenTile matrix. After all, that’s exactly how this type of display has been laid out in other handsets, so it’s easy to break out the ‘ol jump-to-conclusions mat. However, the microscope (and Samsung’s spokespeople) tell us that this isn’t the case at all.
Oddly, though, it isn’t the traditional RGB matrix as we’ve been accustomed to on most non-PenTile phones, either. Instead, it appears to be laid out in a non-striped BGR matrix in which the blue subpixels are perpendicular to green and red, rather than in parallel. This puts the display in a magical place where few Super AMOLEDs have gone before, but it’s still a hefty improvement over the first Note. Don’t get us wrong: we raved about the OG’s 1,280 x 800 display (and rightfully so), but its follow-up looks slightly better despite the lower ppi (267, versus the original’s 285). We doubt casual observers will notice the difference, but when closely viewing the two side by side, we found more pixels on the older device. Darks are a little darker on the second-gen model, and colors are just a bit more saturated, too. The viewing angles on the next-gen Note are also great for watching movies, but they’re essentially the same as the original. Daylight viewing wasn’t a problem with the brightness cranked up above 75 percent.
The Galaxy Note II is the first Samsung device to ship with Jelly Bean (Android 4.1.1, to be exact). All of the OS’ new and enhanced features have been worked into TouchWiz UI. This includes Google Now (long-press the menu button to activate it), expandable notifications and predictive keyboard — heck, even the Jelly Bean easter egg is there. It also includes the laundry list of new services Sammy introduced on the Galaxy S III, such as Smart Stay, S Voice, AllShare Cast and S Beam. (S Beam, by the way, adds the ability to transfer Note II docs to other Note II devices, but since we only have one tester phone, we haven’t had the chance to try this out.) Popup video, which allows your selected video to “hover” over other apps, allowing you to multitask, also makes a repeat appearance here, and it’s definitely a better experience when you have such a large screen to use it on.
TouchWiz on Jelly Bean isn’t unlike the experience you’ve had on Ice Cream Sandwich — Samsung, as you’d expect, wants to keep the UX as consistent as possible. One of the biggest areas of change is the notification menu: in addition to the expandable notifications (which can be accessed by taking two fingers and pulling down on the notification), the brightness settings are now accessible underneath the quick toggles, and the status bar now houses the settings button and offers the date and time in a larger font. There are plenty of other new tweaks that make excellent use of the new S Pen capabilities, which we’ll explain in more detail shortly.
Blocking mode is Samsung’s take on Do Not Disturb. You can disable a number of various notifications, set a specific timeframe for them to be turned off and even set up a whitelist of allowed contacts that can bypass the block and sound a notification when they call you.
While we expect a device like the Note II to appeal mainly to smartphone buffs, Samsung is at least making an attempt to make first-time users feel comfortable. You can opt to change from the standard home screen to what’s called “easy mode,” which is essentially just a different launcher complete with customized pages and large widgets. Aside from that, there are very few things that differ from your normal TouchWiz experience — it’s a rather half-baked attempt at wooing a new demographic.
Samsung’s set of motion controls are much improved from the old Note to the new, with the sequel now matching (and exceeding, in a couple cases) the Galaxy S III’s functionality in this department. To recap, you can scroll to the top of a screen by double-tapping the top edge of the phone; tilt to zoom in and out of the screen in the gallery or browser; pan the phone to move icons on the main screen; shake your phone to look for updates; turn over the phone to mute sounds; directly call whatever contact is displayed on the screen; and more. There are a few newcomers to the Samsung fold: quick glance shows you a few basic notifications when you wave your hand over the proximity sensor and there are a few new advanced settings to adjust the level of sensitivity required to trigger motion when panning or tilting your device.
Finally, another slick new feature is Smart Rotation. If you’re like us, there’s a certain annoyance that comes with using the phone while in bed or on the couch because it switches screen orientation on a frequent basis. While you can typically find toggles that lock this, it’s not always the best solution — watching movies or looking at pictures are a couple of examples. Smart Rotation uses the front-facing camera to determine where your face is, and will prevent the screen from switching to landscape mode if you’re still using your phone in a portrait position.
One more thing: as with the Galaxy S III, Note II owners are entitled to 50GB of Dropbox storage.
The crown jewel of any Note device is its accompanying stylus (we know, we’re not supposed to call it that), also known as the S Pen, and Samsung continues to improve on it with each new version. Indeed, the original Note, Note 10.1 and Note II all have somewhat unique pens, but they all have the same overarching design and can work interchangeably. That’s handy information for anyone who loses their Wacom appendage, though there’s one drawback: not all S Pens are shaped the same, so they don’t all fit interchangeably in each other’s cradles. The original Note pen fits loosely inside the Note II’s cradle, and we wouldn’t count on it staying in for very long before popping out.
Ergonomics are a huge consideration when Samsung designs its pens and indeed, each iteration seems to have a better in-hand feel. The Note II’s S Pen is slightly fatter on the button side, which — when pressing your thumb against it — contributes to more of a true pencil feel. Also adding to the nostalgia of using an old-fashioned number two is the larger rubber tip, slightly bigger diameter (8mm) and increased length of the pen itself. It also doesn’t hurt that you can tell the phone if you’re right or left-handed (sorry, ambidextrous users, you have to choose).
We suppose it shouldn’t come as a revelation that the second Note’s S Pen and Wacom digitizer have more in common with the Note 10.1 than the original Note. First, the device recognizes when you’ve removed the pen from its holster and, smartly assuming you’ll imminently be using it, takes you to a special page with several pen-optimized apps. (It also lets you set an alarm that activates if your S Pen and Note get too far away from each other.) Also, much like the tablet, the Note II is capable of recognizing up to 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, a four-fold increase over the OG Note’s 256. As a result, we noticed an improvement in accuracy and precision when using the pen for writing, sketching and other activities. What’s more, the screen does a much better job of calculating how much pressure you’re applying.
This only scratches the surface of what the S Pen is capable of. The Note II not only ushers in enhancements to existing features; it also brings a suite of new features that make the phone even more tantalizing than last year’s model. Even the button itself is refreshed: you can now hold down the button while drawing gestures on the screen to access features like the Quick Command tool (we’ll cover this later) and a few other navigational abilities. Additionally, you can now copy specific parts of the screen with Easy Clip, which is activated by holding down the button and drawing around the area you want to clip. Once it’s clipped, you can choose to save or discard what you’ve selected. You can also select text by holding the button, tapping the screen and dragging the pen across. And we’re just getting started — the button is capable of plenty more, and we’ll discuss its many new talents later in the review.
Before we dive into the first feature, it’s important to note that the Wacom digitizer included in the phone is capable of sensing the S Pen as it hovers over the screen, in the same fashion that we’ve seen in Bamboo Pads for the last few years. As you hold the pen above the panel you’ll notice a floating cursor on the screen. This opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, one of them being Air View. Using this feature, the Note II takes advantage of the hover functionality in several ways. For instance, you can hold the pen over emails in your inbox (in the general email app for now, at least) and a pop-up box displays the first few lines. Do the same in your calendar and those pesky appointments pop out at you in more detail as you scan through. Hold your pen over an unknown icon and its function will appear, the same way as when your mouse is held over something on your computer). Our favorite use of Air View is the ability to see GIF-like previews of movies just by holding the S Pen over a thumbnail. (Cool feature worth a mention: all of the video thumbnails in the player show these same types of previews without the pen, which makes the whole screen look alive, but the S Pen makes the pop-up screen larger.)
Next up on the list of hover-friendly additions, you can now use your S Pen to scroll up and down on a page or list. In other words, it’s now just a matter of holding the pen directly above the top or bottom of the scrollable screen. Sure, it seems gimmicky and unnecessary, but we discovered that we used this feature more often than we thought we would. The scrolling action is a little slow, so it’s doubtful you’d want to use this on a lengthy website, but it’s handy when you just need to go down the screen a little bit at a time — say, in a settings menu or Twitter feed.
Another neat feature that takes advantage of the newfound hovering capability is the ability to toggle between brush, pencil and eraser simply by holding the pen above the screen and clicking the button. This makes for a quick and seamless experience when you’re constantly making mistakes (or changing your mind) as you draw.
When you’re in S Note, you can also hold the pen above the screen and long-press its button to activate another new feature called Idea Sketch. A blank notepad appears, you write down the name of a particular category (or just browse through the list) and a whole bunch of possible illustrations show up for you to choose from. Once you choose one that suits your fancy, it appears in S Note where you can adjust the size and outline style — and then you can either find inspiration from it, or just color between the lines like it’s a coloring book.
Earlier we mentioned that Popup Video is available on the Note II, but that isn’t the only thing that pops up — you can do the same thing with Popup Note, which is activated by holding the S Pen button and double-tapping on the screen. This is basically a miniature version of the S Note app, which takes up less than half of the screen real estate. This means you can take notes and watch videos simultaneously. (Popup Browser is also available.) This is the best example of true multitasking that we’ve ever seen on a smartphone, and there were no lags, coughs, stutters or any sign whatsoever that the quad-core Exynos processor was buckling under the load. If this is only the beginning of what these phablets are capable of with the right engine under the hood, color us impressed.
We’re not done quite yet, multitasking fans. Samsung advertises another feature called Multi-Window that parallels — nay, exceeds — the aforementioned Popup Note in awesomeness. We recently saw an implementation of this in the Galaxy Note 10.1, and it’s back, here in the Note II as Multi-Window. The implementation is a little different this time around, with a long press on the back button brining up a side bar of apps to choose from. On its tablet incarnation, this consisted of a choice of six. This time we have much more to choose from, including YouTube, ChatOn, GMail, Maps, Internet and, well, you get the idea. This list is also customizable so you can cut the ones you don’t want, and bring your faves to the top. In practice, it works well. We had videos running while we checked our email, and happily scoured Google maps whilst we kept some restaurant reviews open in the other pane. Likewise, it’s nice to see that you can use this in both orientations, with the phone’s buttons being applied to the window that is currently in focus (sounds obvious, but anything’s possible). We’d be interested to see how this might scale down onto something with a little less display going on, but the Note II’s ample square-inchage certainly makes this a feature worth using. If you’ve ever used a dual-monitor setup for your desktop, you’ll understand the massive productivity boost such a feature could bring to your smartphone — especially given the amount of screen space the Note II offers.
Quick Command is another new feature that takes advantage of the S Pen’s gesture prowess. It’s activated by pressing the button while dragging the pen up from the bottom. A familiar-looking handwriting box shows up, prompting you to write a command symbol followed by a keyword. For instance, write “@ Susie” to send an email to Susie; “? [search term]” performs a web search; “# Joseph” tells the phone to call Joseph, and so on. On the surface, this doesn’t seem particularly useful when S Voice or Google voice search can do the same stuff, but here’s the kicker: it’s fully customizable, and you can add in whatever commands you want — and these commands can open up applications or perform a set of automated tasks (think SmartActions or Tasker). You could program it to turn WiFi, GPS and Blocking Mode on just by drawing a “C,” if that’s what floats your boat.
S Voice makes a return appearance, despite the existence of similar functionality in Jelly Bean. Not a surprise. What did take us aback is that it now includes S Pen handwriting recognition. This is definitely an interesting addition; from our perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to write down a phrase that we could easily speak in less time — not to mention the fact that Quick Command already addresses this capability, albeit in a separate app. This seems like a feature that Samsung threw in just because it could. Yet it’s there if you want it, and we suppose there are a few folks that are gushing at the idea.
As you’ve no doubt come to understand, the Note II is fully loaded. The S Pen experience between the first- and second-generation devices is a night-and-day difference: the original Note seems like just a working concept in comparison. This is by far the best pen / stylus / whatchamacallit we’ve used on a smartphone. If you were a fan of the Note, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with its successor.
Finally, Samsung has released version 2.2 of its S Pen SDK, which gives third-party developers the ability to beef up their apps with support for hovering, new brushes, special effects and context awareness. There’s no guarantee your favorite app will magically have cool new S Pen features, but the option is there for devs to put in a little extra spice if they’re interested.
Given what we already know of the Note II’s similarities to the Galaxy S III, would it be much of a shocker to see the two sporting nearly identical cameras? Thanks to a little help from Supercurio, we did some digging and discovered that the two phones use the exact same rear camera modules (known in the code as the s5c73m3). Yes, both utilize maximum resolutions of eight megapixels (3,264 x 2,448 resolution), f/2.6 aperture and 3.7mm focal length in stills, while allowing for 1080p video capture. The front-facing cameras are the same as well: they max out at 1.9MP and are capable of 720p video recording. (Warning: they default to 1.3MP, which is 1,280 x 960. The 1.9MP setting offers 1,392 x 1,392 pixel resolution.)
But while the two devices may be hardware bosom buddies, there are likely to be a few minor differences in firmware — especially since the Note II has additional features not yet offered in the GS III. So before we dive into the performance, let’s discuss what the device has to offer. First, it has a new “best face” mode, which is Samsung’s version of Scalado Rewind: it takes five group photos and lets you choose the best faces. This is handy if Bob blinks in the first picture and Julie’s making a weird face in the second — just take the best of each person and put them together in one magical finished product. There’s also a new “low light” mode, which as the name implies, is meant to deliver an improved performance in that arena.
Aside from these newcomers, you’ll find the same litany of settings present in the GS III, such as HDR (with strong and normal settings, a choice you’re not given on the GS III), panorama, share shot, plenty of scene modes, burst shot, macro focus, white balance, ISO, metering and exposure adjustment.
We’ve always been impressed with Samsung’s camera performance because the company seems more interested in quality than megapixel count. While both Notes perform admirably, the next-gen version gave us slightly better results than the original. The new Note produced more natural colors — its senior cranked out shots that were typically oversaturated and oftentimes washed out in the daylight. You’ll see a smidge more detail in the sequel, as well. The Note II was also the winner in managing dynamic range, bringing out the best contrast and producing natural colors in the shadows. As for how our protagonist performs against the Galaxy S III, it appears to be more or less a wash; as expected, the images were incredibly similar and any differences resulting from firmware processing were minor.
The LED flash on the second Note is considerably better than the original, providing more light and color saturation. (When compared to the GS III, however, it’s tough to see any difference between the two.) The Note II also does a great job of capturing low-light images, as the new low-light mode fares well at grabbing errant photons. Comparing it with the Note and GS III, however, ends up in a draw: after taking several types of low-light shots, each one had its own moment of glory in at least a few contests.
As mentioned, the Note II is capable of capturing 1080p video in MPEG-4 format. A quick perusal of the specs shows that it uses AVC profile 4.0, has a bitrate of 17 Mbps (the GS III is 17 Mbps, while the HTC One X is 10 Mbps and the ASUS Padfone is 20 Mbps) and offers a frame rate of 30fps. You’re given the option of taking high-res (3,264 x 2,176) stills as you record your movies, but if you wait until playback to grab that precious shot, the pixel count will match that of the vid it was taken from.
In terms of features, the Note II introduces fast-motion (up to 8x) and slow-motion (down to one-eighth) recording modes for videos. You may not want to get too serious with these features, but it’s a fun opportunity to be creative (example: fast motion vids are best accompanied by the Benny Hill theme song).
Overall, the video performance was pretty good: yours truly felt comfortable taking home movies with the family and leaving the fancy camcorder aside. It did well at capturing detailed motion without getting choppy, and picked up our voices loud and clear. We heard some gusts on a rather windy day, but it was able to filter most of the additional noise out. The only issue we had was with panning back and forth, where the imagery was choppy, almost to the point of inducing nausea. Frankly, we’re chalking most of it up to trying to keep such a large device stable.
To answer the question we posed at the beginning of this review, this thing is the real deal, and it’s decisively better than the device that began the whole phablet craze. With SIM-free versions starting in the ballpark of £530, it’s a bit on the pricey side, but for good reason: it offers best-in-market performance, an S Pen experience that blows its predecessor out of the water, a solid OS in Jelly Bean and plenty of other features that will make this a tempting offer to even the most petite-handed individual. To do so in a package that’s actually thinner and narrower than the first Note is a tremendous accomplishment, and one that’ll be hard to match. Get ready to have your cake and eat it too.