Monday, December 10, 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note II Review

When Samsung basically created the “phablet” segment of the smartphone market, many industry observers, including yours truly, denounced the viability of a device that large. Fortunately for Samsung, their market research was dead on, as there was a big demand for a supersized device in a sea of already large devices and so the Galaxy Note was born. Being the surprise success of 2011, it obviously warranted a sequel in the Galaxy Note II. Today, we see if the successor to the first “phablet” has enough tricks up its sleeve to impress even the people most skeptical of its size.

Overall Construction
The Galaxy Note II is a stark departure from the design language used in the original Galaxy Note. It’s clear that the design was drawn up at the same time as the Galaxy S III as it share so many of the same traits. From the hyperglazed back cover, to the rounded “pebble”-like back, to the faux-chrome trim, the Galaxy Note II could, from far, be mistaken for a Galaxy S III. But up close, especially if put side to side, the Note II dwarfs the S III and clearly differentiates itself from the marquee flagship smartphone.

From first glance, if you’re familiar with the looks of the S III the Note II will just seem like a stretched out S III. Just like the Galaxy S III, we felt the Note II a tad to glossy and plasticky for our tastes as is takes away from what is really a solidly built phone. Tightly gripping the phone (to the best of our abilities) yielded no flew whatsoever.

At 9.4 mm thick, the Note II is quite thin considering the enormous footprint of the device. Thin enough in fact that it felt just as pocketable as an S III or One X. This should come as a relief to many as the initial reactions from most people was “how would that fit in my pocket?”, but to the surprise of most the phone was as pocketable as or better than their smaller smartphone.

In terms of weight, at 183g the Note is about 30% heavier than the Galaxy S III. While on paper this seems significant, the phone feels incredibly light and well balanced. This also meant surprisingly good ergonomics, which was greatly enhanced over the original Note by making the handset narrower and overall much easier to use one handed.

Overall, the Note II is a fantastic feeling and nice looking piece of hardware, but we still look forward to the day that Samsung uses more premium materials like the custom alloys in their Series 9 laptops.

Samsung Galaxy Note II

When hearing the specs list of the Note II when it was first announced, three things about the screen jumped out at us immediately. For one, Samsung did the unthinkable and went BIGGER with a 5.5-inch display. They also surprised most by actually bumping resolution slightly down from 1280x800 to 1280x720 (720p). Lastly, but most importantly completely dropped the PenTile pixel arrangement for an RGB layout.

My first thought when seeing that the Note II was going to have a larger screen was; “Are they crazy? Do they want to make this MORE of a niche device?” But after handling the phone myself I can see why they went with a larger screen. The Note line is unique in that the users who want it have already forgotten the idea of smaller displays, so to Samsung this pretty much signaled “why not go bigger?” and so they did. With the improved ergonomics of the 16:9 ratio, the move certainly seems to be the right one.

With the increase in screen size and the slight lowering of screen resolution to 720p the Note II actually goes down in pixel density compared to its predecessor and to competing flagship phones like the S III and One X. But regardless, at 267DPI we found little difference to complain about when compared to the S III for the simple fact that it uses a non-PenTile display.

While the Note II isn’t using a non-PenTile display it isn’t exactly using a traditional RGB configuration. But to be perfectly frank there was no discernible way to see the difference between the Note II’s RGB configuration and a traditional configuration. This produces one of the nicest displays we’ve seen on a smartphone.

Overall the screen on the Note II, from color to black levels to viewing angles were as good if not better than what we’ve seen in its smaller cousin the S III but with the added sharpness of a regular RGB matrix.

Following the Galaxy S III design pattern, the Note II has a capacitive Back and Menu button and physical Home Button. Although, unlike the S III, the home button on the Note II is very solid feeling. The Volume buttons and Power/Lock buttons are placed perfectly for a device this size.

Just like on the Galaxy S III, we do not like the fact that Samsung stuck with the inclusion of the Menu button. As stated in our S III review, this is bad for the advancement and unification of the Android User Experience. In the end, we hope Samsung ends up moving away from the Menu button.

Battery Life
With a massive 3100mAh battery, there is no other phone in Canada than can match the sheer size of the battery in the Note II. Of course this might be to compensate for the massive screen and Quad Core /w LTE combo but in practice nothing we could throw at the Note II could significantly dent its battery life.

While the Note II isn’t equipped with the same battery efficient Snapdragon S4 processor, the Quad Core Exynos + LTE radio was not a match for the brute for size of the 3100mAh battery. In our review, we easily got two days on medium/heavy usage and three on light usage.

Internal Hardware
As we just mentioned, the Note II is powered by a Quad-Core Exynos processor. The Dual-Core Exynos in the original Galaxy S II was a screamer and so it’s only natural that the Quad-Core version in the Note II be even faster.

- 1.6 GHz Samsung Quad-Core Exynos 4412 Processor
- 2GB of RAM
- 16/32/64GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable to up to 64GB
- Mali-400MP Graphics Processor
- 4G LTE and HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 8 MP camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

While a lot of fuss was made about Quad-Core vs Dual-Core, there is no doubt that the Exynos Processor of the Note II is one of the fastest mobile CPUs in the world. Couple it with an LTE radio and you get one of the fastest overall experiences on any smartphone. From navigating the OS, to browsing the web, to playing intensive 3D games, everything ran perfectly smooth on the Note II.

While the Mali-400 isn’t exactly the latest and greatest GPU, it still stands its ground in outstanding fashion. From simple 2D games like Angry Birds to intense 3D games like Dead Trigger, the Mali-400 is more than enough to provide solid frame rates for the best gaming experience.

What's also really great to see is that the Note II comes in a 64GB version and can be topped off with another 64GB via microSD Card for a whopping 128GB of storage, something practically unheard of in the smartphone world.

LTE 4G Capabilities
We tested the Galaxy Note II on Bell’s LTE Network in Montreal. Speeds were pretty good in the Montreal Downtown Core ranging from 15-20mbps. Speed is about par for LTE networks, so we expect a Note II on other LTE networks to perform similarly (doesn't apply to WIND/Mobilicity/Videotron.

As usual, your mileage will vary on signal strength and more importantly, given that this is multi carrier phone, the LTE coverage of your carrier in your area.

Speaker and microphone
Like other Samsung devices, microphone and speaker performance was good. But more importantly the loud speaker was quite loud and clear and ideal of media consumption on such a large and beautiful screen.

As is the trend with the rest of the phone, the Note II borrows more hardware from the Galaxy S III as it uses the same camera with the same 8 MP sensor with LED flash. As expected the camera produces excellent still with great color reproduction, clarity and was surprisingly better at low light situations thanks to software tweaks in the camera software. Also, 1080p full HD video was clear and vivid as expected.

Sample Pictures


Samsung TouchWiz 4.0 /w Android 4.1

If you’re looking for a more detailed description of the various TouchWiz enhancements like: Vibration pattern, S Voice, S Memo, S Beam, Smart Stay or App Drawer organization check out our Samsung Galaxy S III Review.

For the review of the Galaxy Note II we’ve decided to focus on the S Pen integration and software enhancements unique to the Note. For one, in the Galaxy Note, we noticed a lot of emphasis on contextual actions built right into TouchWiz called “Page Buddies”.

For example when plugging in headphone, pulling out the stylus or setting the Galaxy Note in a Dock, the page buddy page is brought up and gives a set of options to choose from as well as apps that “relate” to the action. We found this a pretty nice feature that will certainly please first time Galaxy Note users.

Then there is the S Pen integration, from the note taking app S Notes with its various template pages, stylus support, mathematical function transcriber and drawing features to the use of S Pen as a text input there is yet to be another smartphone or tablet that comes close to the tight integration in the Note II. The closest we’ve seen was in the HTC Flyer which had nice integration for its but has obviously been surpassed.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not the note taking / artist type, but if I were I could definitely see the allure of the tight S Pen integration. There must be a reason why the Galaxy Note II has sold so well and I’m almost certain this is the reason why.

What is somewhat awkward in the Galaxy Note II is Samsung's integration of Jelly Bean features. Project Butter probably didn't speed up the Note much more than it already was but Google Now is very oddly integrated as it's part of the multitasking menu which isn't intuitive to get to in the first place. That and the fact that Google Now clashes in many ways with Samsung's own S Voice. We're definitely curious as to what Samsung will do in future phones regarding these issues.


The Samsung Galaxy Note II holds a special place in the smartphone market, at the top of a segment that its predecessor created. Now being a top the sparsely populated “phablet” class is one thing, but what does this mean to mainstream consumers? If you can get over the incredibly large size of the device, the Galaxy Note II is arguable the best Android Experience we’ve ever had the chance to review.

As far as smartphone functionality is concerned the Galaxy Note II is an absolute monster in raw benchmarking performance, real world performance and battery life. To many, those advantages warrant overlooking the enormous footprint of the Note II, but for most others the size is just simply too much.

Samsung was correct in stating that they basically have two flagship phones in their smartphone lineup, but in reality the Galaxy S III is the better suited phone for the general populace. But in the aspects where the Galaxy Note II excels there is simply no contest, if you’re looking for a phone with tight stylus integration and media consumption capabilities, look no further than the Galaxy Note II.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 8/10
- Nice looks, (relatively) good ergonomics but sub-par feeling materials. Size is not for the weary.

Screen: 9.5/10
- Fantastic screen that tops the Galaxy S III’s display which is no slouch.

Buttons: 8/10
- Improved Home key, clear look when capacitive buttons fade away, still feel that the menu button is a step backwards for Android as a platform.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Fastest Android phone we’ve ever used. Period.

Battery Life: 10/10
- Longest lasting big screen smartphone on the market.

Speaker and Microphone: 9/10
- Solid performance all around

Camera: 10/10
- Amazing Camera, great video performance.

UI Changes: 8.5/10
- While we like this TouchWiz better than previous versions there isn’t any tangible improvements from the ICS to Jelly Bean version. Google Now awkwardly integrated into the OS and somewhat clashes with S Voice with overlapping functionality.

Addition Enhancements: 9/10
- All of the features from the Galaxy S III + S Pen integration makes the Note II are great additions that set the Note II apart.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 8/10
- Some preloaded apps (Bell Version). Bloatware levels will vary from carrier to carrier.

Final Score: 9/10

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