“Is it a phone? Is it a tablet? It’s Galaxy Note!”
So read the quote that kicked off the ad campaign surrounding the original Galaxy Note, the 5.3-inch hybrid device Samsung unveiled last year. Like many Samsung ad slogans, this one was a tad inaccessible, but at least the first two-thirds of it accurately stated the question a lot of us were asking: was the product a smartphone or was it a tablet? And furthermore, what place did it have in the market? What exactly did “it’s Galaxy Note” mean?
To the surprise of some -and the delight of Samsung, no doubt- those questions didn’t keep the original Galaxy Note from skyrocketing to success. As of August, Samsung had sold 10 million units worldwide, proving that “phablets” did indeed have a place in consumers’ hearts and pockets. Before long, the company had single-handedly carved out a new category in mobile computing devices, and went on to expand the Note brand to include devices in other categories as well. A follow-on phablet seemed assured.
The Galaxy Note II is that device. We first got our hands on it at this year’s IFA, and we’ve just wrapped up a solid week of testing our own review unit here in the States. We’ve editorialized on its hybrid nature, waxed poetic in video demos of its features, and even podcasted at length about this new kid on the phablet block. So, does the new smartphone/tablet live up to the high bar set by its predecessor? Grab your favorite beverage, put your feet up, and read on to find out.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
As usual for a flagship product update, Samsung has brought many enhancements to the Galaxy Note II (“N7100” if you’re nasty). Gone is the original Note’s dual-core processor, replaced by the same Samsung Exynos 4412 quad-core SoC found in the Galaxy S III. This one runs a touch faster, though, maxing out at 1.6GHz.
The device also features LTE support in addition to the usual GSM and HSPA radios. That’s welcome news for maturing 4G markets like the United States, which have until now had to settle for dual-core processors if they wanted LTE in their smartphones.
Also onboard is 2GB of RAM, with storage options varying from 16 to 32 to 64GB, with expansion up to an additional 64GB available via microSD.
On a device this size, display specs are even more important than usual, and Samsung hasn’t lost sight of that. The Super AMOLED display technology from last year’s model remains, but the screen has seen a size bump from 5.3″ to 5.5.” Ordinarily, we’d call that excessive -it seems superfluous to increase screen size when your display is already a half-inch larger than its nearest competitor- but here it makes sense, because Samsung has also changed the screen’s shape. In place of the original Note’s 800×1280 display is a narrower panel measuring 720×1280, shaped to better fit the new device’s slimmer dimensions (more on this below).
Samsung has also sprung another surprise on us with the Note II’s display, ditching the long-criticized PenTile layout for a genuine RGB pixel matrix that’s deployed, as OLED Info puts it, in “a rather unique arrangement.” This will come as a welcome surprise to those who’ve had to suffer with the inaccurate white-color reproduction and “fuzzy edges” common to most PenTile displays, formerly a Samsung mainstay. The exceedingly particular will still find nits to pick here: the Note II’s display features a rather average pixel density of 267ppi, but we include that piece of information only for completeness’ sake. We’ve got good eyesight, and we weren’t bothered in the least by this minor deficiency.
Part of the reason we didn’t focus so much on trying to count pixels was the sheer beauty of the screen. The retention of Super AMOLED technology has resulted in a display that provides very deep blacks, and intense color saturation. Daylight readability was acceptable at high brightness levels, but where the screen really shines is at night and in dimly-lit rooms, where the near-pitch-blackness of darker display areas is especially evident on such a large canvas.
Some might find the color saturation a bit too rich, but the global version of the Note II we tested features a tweak in the settings menu to control the level of color the display puts out. Be warned, though: for whatever reason, US carriers removed that same menu option from the American version of the Galaxy S III, so don’t necessarily expect that kind of customizability if you’re planning on buying a carrier-branded Galaxy Note II variant.
Just like the original, the Note II features a Wacom digitizer built into the display to register input from the S Pen stylus. This time around, the pressure sensitivity has been boosted to 1,024 levels of registrable contact, but it’s a totally invisible technology. There’s still no visual indication to the user that this is anything other than a normal capacitive display, which is nice.
In the old days, science-fiction television shows used physical models to represent space ships. These shows sometimes suffered from a problem called the “scaling paradox.” This resulted from time-strapped directors re-using ship models at the wrong scale, resulting in a ship model that was originally supposed to represent a 100-meter-long craft being comically “up-scaled” to a 600-meter behemoth in order to accommodate the needs of a given episode.
The Galaxy Note II looks like a scaling paradox, is what we’re saying. But not in relation to its progenitor, as you might expect; no, the new Note looks like a comically scaled-up version of its smartphone cousin, the Galaxy S III.
The similarity is so strong it’s impossible to overlook. It’s the first thing we noticed at our IFA hands-on, and if you’re familiar with Samsung’s product family, it’s the most striking aspect of the new device. If you like the Galaxy S III, you’ll probably like the Galaxy Note II– because it’s the same thing, only more so. Home button flanked by capacitive menu and back keys? Check. Thin bezel bordering a large display? Check. Front-facing camera and prominent sensors placed opposite a big bright notification LED? Check. Even the casing colors offered are similar.
To be sure, there are a few differences. Possibly due to its mammoth size, the Galaxy Note II feels more sturdy than the Galaxy S III. It’s a much heavier device at 183g, even out-weighing the original Galaxy Note, but in proportion to its hardware footprint it almost doesn’t feel heavy enough. The new Note II lifts the sheer-sided retangular-ity from its predecessor, adopts the prominent silver bezel and polycarbonate construction of the Galaxy S III, and marries them in a modern expression of what Samsung thinks a high-end smartphone should be.
Whether you agree with that design direction will determine how stoked you are about the Galaxy Note II. We do have a few minor quibbles: we wish Samsung would provide users with a matte finish option, as the hyperglaze coating atop the polycarbonate is slippery, prone to scratching, and a fertile ground for oily fingerprints. Also, the device is just so big that the massive stretch of empty space on the back cover, unbroken by any texturing or other visual cues on our “Marble White” unit, makes the Note II appear unfinished somehow; fortunately, the “Titanium Gray” model features a faux brushed-metal effect that goes a ways toward solving this.
There’s nothing “wrong” with the design, per se; we like its beefier build more than the too-light Galaxy S III and the too-square Galaxy Note, and its slimmer (80.5mm) thinner (9.4mm) chassis feels great in the hand. It’s also nice to see Samsung correcting for its corner-cutting on the SIII, with that model’s visible bezel seam replaced by a sturdy, single-cast piece on the Galaxy Note II. The new king of phablets, as we’re pretty sure this model will be crowned in short order, is a solid, reliable-feeling, handsome piece of gadgetry. We just wish it weren’t so afraid to stand out from the crowd on merits other than its size and its stylus.
Speaking of that stylus: Samsung’s S Pen has been re-engineered for the new Galaxy Note, and it’s no small overhaul. The new S Pen is rectangular instead of cylindrical, and features a textured pattern on its button that makes it (slightly) easier to find with a thumb. The new shape evokes the feel of a pencil in the hand, and the tip has apparently been changed to a rubber material that’s supposed to offer more resistance, leading to a more authentic writing experience when using it on the Note II’s display. In short, the new S Pen is trying as hard as it can to be less stylus and more pen, in keeping with its name.
And it mostly succeeds in that quest. Though the new S Pen feels lighter in the hand than its thinner forerunner, it also feels like a more finished product. The larger, more prominent “hat” on top might not offer much in the way of actual utility beyond locking the pen into the silo on its parent device -where it sits quite snugly- but it lends a psychosomatic sense of physical balance to the pen when writing.
The new rubber tip doesn’t do much to change the sensation of using the pen on the Galaxy Note II’s screen – it still feels like a plastic pen writing on a glass surface – but it’s not unpleasant, either. In all, the new S Pen is quite a comfortable writing implement, and a marked improvement over the older, cheaper stylus that debuted on the original Note.
Samsung has ported much of the Galaxy S III software experience to the Note II, and that includes the full suite of enhanced services we reported on in our review of that device. The TouchWiz Nature UX is here in all its drip-splashy glory, with water-ripple unlock screens and forest-noise ringtones to sate your nature-loving needs.
Fortunately, that’s not where the software story ends. The Note II ships with one of the newest Android builds available on a Samsung device, version 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, and as a result the device offers enhanced notifications, Google Now, and the UI frame-rate and responsiveness optimizations included in Project Butter. Samsung has also taken the opportunity to cook quite a few of its own new features into the OS, expanding on the foundation it laid with the Galaxy S III to offer a few usability enhancements like Smart Motion, which watches your face to keeps the display locked to vertical orientation if you lie down while reading.
We’ve criticized Android in the past, particularly on tablets, for the negative aspects of its scalability. On larger devices, the OS sometimes just expands existing screen elements to fill more space, instead of intelligently using the bigger canvas to show more information. Often the blame is heaped upon third-party developers for this deficiency, but the Android OS itself isn’t immune, and the default home screen on the Galaxy Note II is a good example: out of the box, it’s really just a scaled-up smartphone UI.
Fortunately, Samsung wasn’t content to leave it at that. It’s built little touches into the UI to better take advantage of the Note II’s screen real estate. On the smaller side, the persistent number row of the Galaxy Note’s keyboard has been brought to the newer model, a very handy feature that almost makes up for the keyboard’s too-passive autocorrect. That same keyboard can also be minimized and anchored to one side of the screen, providing easier one-handed typing to righties and lefties both. Also, apps like Messaging and Email will display multiple columns when rotated to landscape mode, reflecting the Note II’s half-tablet breeding.
The most prominent and useful new touches, though, go a long way toward dispelling any notion that the Galaxy Note II is merely a souped-up smartphone. These features, called Pop Up Browser and Multi Screen, do a fantastic job of using the device’s enhanced screen real estate to good effect.
Pop Up Browser is an expansion of the Galaxy S III’s Pop Up Play functionality we explored in-depth a few months back. That was an early example of the power and convenience a floating window on a smartphone could offer. Here, though, the floating frame isn’t just a video player; it actually contains a miniature internet browser.
That means a lot of saved time if you’re a frequent link-clicker in social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook. Before, clicking on a link immediately dumped you into a full-screen instance of the browser, effectively halting your social session. That’s not the case on the Galaxy Note II; with Pop Up Browser selected as default, clicking on a link just brings up the browser in its own little window, and you can continue scrolling away in your social app (or wherever you happen to be) while the page loads. When the page finishes loading, you read it; then you have the option of either closing the window, or maximizing it. The latter option annoyingly results in a page refresh as you’re promoted to the device’s full browser, but that’s a small price to pay for such convenience.
Our Galaxy Note II review unit didn’t originally ship with Samsung’s more robust multitasking ability, so we thought Pop Up Browser was as good as it was going to get during the review period. Fortunately, Samsung was quick to release an update unlocking the feature, and we’ve found the aptly-named Multi Screen to be an excellent companion.
As we mention in the full video review above, Multi Screen is what Kyocera tried to do with “simul-tasking” on its ill-fated Echo: run two apps simultaneously, side by side, on the same desktop. There’s another similarity in that both implementations only support certain apps; not all applications can run side-by-side. But that’s where the commonality ends, because Samsung’s version actually works very well.
Here’s how: a long-press of the back button anywhere in the UI calls up a scrollable dock, anchored to the side of the display. This dock contains all of the apps supported by Multi Screen. Tapping one of the app icons – say, S Note- launches the app in full screen, much like the standard app launcher. Holding an app icon, though, allows you to drag the app onto the main screen area, where you can select one of two available slots covering half the screen. Once you release the icon -say, YouTube- the app opens in that slot. The result in this example: YouTube and S Note running side by side on the same screen, with both apps “in focus” and ready to receive inputs. Now, you can take all the notes you want on that Gangnam Style video.
We used Multi Screen just after receiving the update containing it, when a friend posted a photo from his new neighborhood on Facebook. Wanting to see where he lived in relation to the closest city, we called up Maps alongside Facebook in Multi Screen. Soon enough, we were looking at the same location. In two apps. At the same time.
Both of these features help sell the notion of the Galaxy Note II as much, much more than an overblown smartphone; with powerful multitasking options like these, it’s easy to see why the term “phablet” isn’t just a cute appellation, but a necessary distinction. This ain’t your granddaddy’s smartphone.
That’s also evident in the software Samsung has built in to support the S Pen. The Galaxy Note II knows when its stylus has been removed, and that communication between host and peripheral allows for all kinds of special features, from auto-launching certain apps upon pen removal, to a nifty little feature that detects device motion when the S Pen’s silo is empty -the kind of motion that accompanies getting up and leaving a coffee shop, say- and alerts you so you don’t leave the stylus behind.
Out of the box, the device is programmed to open the S Pen’s Page Buddy screen on pen removal, a hidden homescreen only visible when the pen is detached. This allows a user to jump into various templates in the S Note app for quick memo creation or retrieval. The S Pen version of Page Buddy is somewhat handy, but its limited options combined with the somewhat clunky software design of S Note mean it’s not the most useful stylus-based software element. During our time with the device, we preferred to keep Page Buddy off. Sometimes you’re just removing the S Pen to pan around a map or scrub the timeline in a video, and you don’t want to be taken back to a shortcut page every time you do– especially one of such limited utility.
Fortunately there’s much more to the S Pen’s software support. As on the original Note, the device knows when the S Pen is hovering over the display, and it projects a small cursor dot over the corresponding screen position. This serves as an analog to a mouse pointer, allowing you to deploy, say, a webpage’s drop-down menus without clicking, and providing some neat preview functionality in the Gallery and Menu applications.
It’s in these applications that the S Pen shines. Where it falls short, for us, is in instances where actual writing comes in.
We’ve covered this matter in our S Pen Lesson and Galaxy Note II vs Galaxy Note videos, but it needs to be said here as well: using the Galaxy Note II as a memo-taking implement is a sub-par experience. That’s true for most, if not all, electronic note-taking we’ve done, so it’s not a specific hit against the Galaxy Note II. But the software’s response does lag slightly behind the pen’s input in writing mode. It’s not much, and it’s significantly less lag than was present on the original Galaxy Note, but it’s still there. The stream of electronic “ink” always trails a few pixels behind the pen at normal speed, and tens of pixels behind if you’re really moving the S Pen. Getting it close to a 1:1 ratio requires writing at a pretty slow pace, or with an unnatural amount of force.
Thankfully, as with most things, adaptation is possible. After a while, you get the hang of scrawling out some legible text on the pop-up version of S Note – a handy little feature accessible by holding down the S Pen button and double tapping anywhere on the display. But we continue to find that, in situations where time is of the essence -situations memo-taking apps are presumably built for- we’re still much faster at typing a quick memo then drawing one.
In these situations, with the S Pen deployed, the Galaxy Note II ceases to become a speed-demon productivity machine and starts treading into novelty territory. There are all manner of pen-driven shortcuts, like the Quick Commands box where you can draw a picture to launch an app, and the quick-screenshot ability with lasso-like instant cropping. There’s even a workaround for the fact that the device’s menu and back keys don’t register the S Pen’s input; drawing an up or a back arrow on the display serves those functions. But like most novelty features, these are fun to show off once or twice, but they often don’t get used very often after the first few weeks of ownership. Launching the email app by drawing an “@” symbol is a fun party trick, but isn’t it faster just to tap an app icon?
For our part, we have the most success with the S Pen while using it in applications for which fingertips just won’t do, like quick annotations or photo editing using the excellent -and fun- Paper Art app.
Maybe the most interesting thing about using the S Pen is how it changes your mentality as a user. Surfing the web or scrolling through a Twitter feed isn’t the same experience when done using a stylus. There’s a sense of being fully invested in the device. You’re not absentmindedly using it one-handed while half your focus is elsewhere; you’re tapping, scrolling, and panning with both hands using a pen that’s projecting a cursor on the display.
Along with the aforementioned multitasking features and the device’s large size, it makes using the Galaxy Note II feel like a much more immersive, more desktop-oriented computing experience. In a good way. It feels like, if you needed to, you could get a whole lot done; much more so than on a more conventional smartphone.
Hope you enjoyed the brief reprieve from our discussion on how similar the Galaxy Note II is to the Galaxy S III, because we’re right back in the middle of it with the camera. In its full review of this device (link at bottom), Engadget was able to determine that the Galaxy Note II does in fact use the same camera module as the Galaxy S III.
Theoretically, that means that barring some major overhaul in Samsung’s camera viewfinder software, the Galaxy Note II’s 8MP shooter should take photos of similar quality to that of the Galaxy S III. That’s exactly what we’ve found.
Even the 1.9MP front-facing camera is better than most, though it predictably creates a fuzzier image with far less color saturation than the primary shooter generates.
As for the viewfinder software, it’s undergone a few tweaks. There’s no longer any need to dig into a menu to enable burst shot. The feature is always available while the camera is in still mode, via a press-and-hold on the shutter button. Also, building on its reputation as maker of the most option-laden smartphone cameras, Samsung has incorporated two more shooting modes, “best photo” and “best faces.” Like the other Samsung-sourced camera features we’ve talked about, these modes will be of limited use to some, and huge utility to others. “Best faces” is the more interesting of the two, allowing you to capture a group of people with a five-photo burst, then select everyone’s best face from all five photos; the software then stitches them into one picture.
Video performance is equally good, though it doesn’t seem so when shooting. For some reason, the Galaxy Note II either ratchets down the display brightness or doesn’t accurately display white balance while recording video. This results in the video looking too dark on the screen while it’s being taken. The good news: the video turns out fine when played back on the device, or on a computer. White balance and auto-focus are reasonably quick, frame rate is good, and there’s minimal jitter even with anti-shake disabled. You’re also using the biggest viewfinder in the mobile world, which makes life a bit easier if you’re trying to capture footage from odd angles, or while holding the device above your head.
There’s a lot of power humming along inside the Galaxy Note II, with that 1.6GHz Exynos 4412 Quad delivering some very impressive performance on paper.
That’s mirrored -mostly- in daily use. The able processor combined with the refined software of Android Jelly Bean makes for a very reliable, fluid experience. We were already impressed by the fluidity and stability of TouchWiz Nature UX on earlier builds of Android, so the jump to Jelly Bean hasn’t been a revolutionary one, but overall the software has performed up to standard.
But there is something worth mentioning. We’re not sure if it’s our lingering doubts about Cortex versus Krait processor architecture or something else, but we’re pretty sure we can discern a bit more lag in the Exynos-powered Galaxy Note II, running the supposedly-more-buttery Jelly Bean, than in the Snapdragon-powered Galaxy S III running Ice Cream Sandwich. It calls to mind a similar performance disparity we noticed between the international and American versions of the HTC One X, with the American dual-core version handily beating out the quad-core model in terms of UI responsiveness. That’s an almost identical situation to the one we found in our review of the Sprint Galaxy S III.
It’s not much; just the occasional stutter when jumping to the widgets page in the launcher, or during the first few seconds loading two apps into Multi Screen, and it’s certainly not a deal breaker by any means. It’s still a very responsive device overall; one of the best we’ve handled, in fact, and the numbers below bear that out. It’s just jarring to encounter any lag at all on such a powerful device, and we thought it worth a brief mention. The elite among the power users might perhaps raise an eyebrow at this, but the other 99.5 percent of the planet’s population won’t notice it at all.
The Galaxy Note II fiddles with our expectations when it comes to endurance. On the one hand, that big 3100 mAh battery implies a battery life measured in days; on the other, that big 5.5-inch display and LTE-capable radio are huge energy-suckers.
The result isn’t quite a draw, as we first thought. Given a few days of “run in,” our Galaxy Note II review unit now delivers solid performance, lasting a full day with moderate-to-heavy use. That includes multiple email accounts and several social media apps polling in the background, weather apps checking in, news apps automatically refreshing, GPS usage for navigation, heavy data-based text messaging via Google Voice, and sporadic sessions of heavy browsing while streaming music via Spotify. Given that usage pattern, interspersed with long periods of inactivity, we were able to last more than a day on a single charge.
You’ll still want to have a charger nearby if you’re a heavy user; this device isn’t a miracle worker, and “heavy user” is often synonymous with “phablet owner.” That said, you’ll probably be forced to plug in a bit less often with the Galaxy Note II than with other devices.
Call Quality/Network Performance
We tested the Galaxy Note II in Greater Boston, New York City, and Eastern Long Island -and the rural areas in between- over the course of about a week. The device used AT&T’s HSPA network for the duration of the test period, with no LTE connectivity.
Performance in the reception department seems solid, the device holding onto a signal as well as our Galaxy S III when coverage is present. Fringe areas (Eastern Long Island) and zones of high cell-site loading (NYC) have given us some challenges, but that’s not the Galaxy Note II’s fault, and the latter problems shouldn’t translate to LTE-using customers when compatible American versions of the device are released. We haven’t noticed any problems with the HSPA radio in the unit; data speed is excellent when network conditions allow for it. WiFi performance is also good, with reception again average.
Call quality is also quite good, though holding a phablet to one’s head is one of the strangest sensations in communications; it doesn’t really feel much different, but if you catch your reflection in a mirror, it does look a little absurd. Callers said we sounded fine, even over speakerphone. That last point is where the Galaxy Note II really shines from an audio perspective; the speaker is big, bassy, and loud, especially when the device is playing multimedia files. It’s not quite as impressive in phone calls, Samsung having chosen for some reason to crank down the maximum volume when in calling mode, but it’s louder than most mobile speakerphones we’ve encountered. If you’re a music-listener with an aversion to headphones, this is the phone for you.
+ Huge, brilliant display
+ Powerful custom multitasking
+ Good battery life
+ S Pen useful in various scenarios
+ Android Jelly Bean with TouchWiz Nature UX
+ Excellent camera
– Casing material slick and prone to scratches
– S Pen less useful than it could be
– Too large and heavy for some users
– UI lag is slight, but shouldn’t exist on such powerful hardware
Pricing and Availability
The Galaxy Note II officially launched on September 26th in South Korea, but will eventually roll out to 128 countries as part of its progressive global unveiling. Right now you can get the unlocked quadband version from Clove Technology. A state-side release is expected soon, with availability on all four U.S. carriers — even T-Mobile USA, which leaked information indicates might be expecting an October 24 launch. Pricing information is not yet available, but we doubt it’ll be cheap: prices for unlocked models on Google Shopping search results currently average around $700 for the 16GB version.
Feature Articles & Video
Sure, the Dell Streak may have broken the five-inch barrier first, but it took Samsung to make it popular. In every meaningful sense, the original Galaxy Note launched the phablet category, an accomplishment for which it’s been rightly praised. But even though it sold millions more than some of us expected, it didn’t quite manage to make “phablets” a household name.
Today, the world is different. The Samsung name is stronger than ever before, with its Galaxy and Note sub-brands right out in front on the war for mind share. Given the public’s increased awareness of Samsung’s products, and the growing tendency of the average consumer to treat the words “Galaxy” and “Android” as synonymous, the Galaxy Note II stands a very good chance of doing something even more significant than its forerunner. It might be the device that catapults phablets to the point of mainstream acceptance. It’s going to launch on many more carriers than its predecessor, and we can reasonably assume Samsung will use its advertising resources to full effect. It’s going to be everywhere. With high-end smartphones already pushing the 5-inch mark, and the Galaxy Note II’s physical proportions not much larger than some of those jumbophones, some people in the market for a specced-out device will no doubt be tempted to make the jump to a phablet.
Based on everything this device offers, the quiet competence with which its software operates, and the solid confidence its massive hardware inspires, justifying that jump is looking easier and easier. With the Galaxy Note II leading the pack, future of the phablet category -and Samsung’s dominance of it- has never looked brighter.
Original Galaxy Note sales figure source: The Verge
Galaxy Note II display pixel photo via OLED-Info