A couple of weeks ago I got my hands on the Samsung Galaxy Note II to put it through its paces and review what is Samsung’s latest powerhouse device, with a spec list even more impressive than the hugely successful and popular Galaxy S III that came out earlier in the year. Might I add this is not just a test unit but my daily phone and for a couple of reasons. Well, three in all. First and foremost was the screen size, which of my (6 month) old Sony at 4.3″ just wasn’t big enough for me. I do a fair amount of web browsing on my phone and like the large real estate the phone gives for this. The Samsung Galaxy Note II has a 5.55″ screen and although it has a lower ppi (pixel per inch) density than the Sony Xperia S I had, the Note II does have a much clearer screen, thanks to some clever sub-pixel wizardry I’ll touch on later.
The second factor to aide my decision in plunging my short arms into my deep pockets was the sheer power of the device. Running a 1.6GHz quad-core processor and 2GB RAM it makes it one of the most powerful phones on the market right now, with the likes of Google’s new Nexus 4 up there too. The third point is a little gimmicky, but the S Pen that the Samsung Galaxy Note II comes with. It really is the cherry on top. Gone are the days of resistive touchscreens with clunky pens, this is a full capacitive touchscreen that allows the use of a pen, but I’ll pick up on that later too.
It was the aforementioned spec list of this phone which I felt was incredible. As a quick run down, this phone has a 1.6GHz quad-core chipset with 2GB RAM along with Android’s latest Jelly Bean OS which has their famous Project Butter implementation which controls the GPU and CPU governance, this phone is really fast. An 8MP camera takes stunning photos with a really intuitive autofocus, and full 1080p video recording capabilities with image stabilisation for some impressive HD videos. A 1.9MP camera up front for video calls is a good quality image, though honestly it’s not something I ever use, I have always felt self-portrait photos taken with the front facing camera a little too “MySpace-esque” for my liking.
The S Pen is the true selling point of this phone, if the 5.55” screen isn’t quite enough of an attention grabber for you. Samsung have built into their TouchWiz UI some really clever tricks which help the S Pen feel part of the phone, not just an aftermarket attachment. There are little tweaks like when pressing the pen’s button and double tapping on screen calls up a post-it note you can doodle or makes notes on, with quick toggles on screen to make it smaller, full screen, and by touching and dragging the header bar the top can be dragged around the screen. The S Pen also fits perfectly inside the phone, and has been developed on since the original Samsung Galaxy Note to be much more ergonomic and with a nice satin feel has a much more tactile quality.
I have never been a fan of manufacturer’s added software or “bloatware” they add to enhance an operating system, most notably HTC’s Sense UI as I feel it is just adding to the overall OS which has to be run by the phone’s processor, however this time Samsung have done a great job adding useful tweaks into their UI, TouchWiz. The overall UI for the Samsung Galaxy Note II is very similar to the Galaxy S III’s interface whilst building on that with added functionality for the S Pen. The post-it note function for notes, drawings and sheer text can be doodled or written on and saved, which is really handy when pen and paper aren’t to hand. I’ve used this a few times and it’s really good, though personally speaking it’s not something I’ll use daily, but that’s not to say others wouldn’t use it. TouchWiz also has a swype-like text input function built in which when using the pen makes for really fast and simple text input. Similar can be seen on Android’s latest 4.2 update. If you find the screen a bit large for one-handed operation, there is a setting in which you can set it for left or right hand use on the Samsung Keyboard which just shrinks it down a little and makes for simple one handed use. This was a feature I really liked, however when I had to text anything I found myself reaching for the pen to use the swipe function which I have always liked. Samsung get a good +1 from me for their UI tweaks to Android for this phone. Yes it is bloatware, but they are all useful tweaks. This said I unlocked the bootloader and had the phone rooted within a week to put a nightly version of CyanogenMod 10 on, which removes all of the aforementioned bloatware and runs a pure vanilla version of Android (v4.1.2 at the moment) with just a few tweaks to the UI like wallpapers and lock screen functions, courtesy of Trebuchet. A much preferred option for myself.
The screen is another jaw-dropping highlight of the Samsung Galaxy Note II. It’s size at 5.55″ makes it the largest screened phone on the market at the moment and fills that nice void between a standard phone at the now typical 4″ or 4.3″ screen size and the now popular 7″ tablets and, on bridging that said gap Samsung have decided to name this a phablet, part phone part tablet, almost making a new category of devices. Although this screen is bigger than the original Samsung Galaxy Note, the Note II has as narrower screen, thanks to changing the aspect ratio from 16:10 to 16:9 which gives it that lovely cinema style screen and really lends itself towards watching videos and YouTube.
Now in reducing the width of the screen, it has resulted in a slightly lower resolution at 1280×720 down from its predecessor at 1280×800 and also a lower ppi (pixel per inch) density down from 285ppi to 267ppi. Samsung have played around with the matrix and gives a higher perceivable clarity and sharpness. Here’s the techy bit. They have done away with the PenTile matrix and changed the colour from green to blue of the sub pixel, also breaking the main pixels up from single red and blue cells, to half red half green cells. As you can see from the image, this really makes a huge difference to the crispness of the screen. It is nice to see Samsung standing up and proving that a high ppi doesn’t necessarily mean a better quality screen.
The camera quality is good. It’s not the best quality camera phone on the market, but Samsung make up for that with some nice functionality on the phone, like burst shot, capturing stills while video recording and different colourways to apply to photos such as sepia and black and white. Taking photos was one area the size of the phone comes into fruition and hinderance. It really is nice to have this lovely screen size to utilise as a viewfinder, though physically holding it for photo taking felt too much. I felt like one of those tourists you see in London taking photos of Big Ben with an iPad. That just can’t be practical! For me I’ve never looked at a phone as also my dedicated camera, for me a phone is also my MP3 player and media device, so I can live with using it just for the occasional snapshots and using my D-SLR for real “David Bailey” moments.
So screen size, a fancy pen and a more powerful processor than most 5 year old laptops, just how good is this to use as a daily device? It took me about 48 hours to adjust to the size of the phone/phablet in my hands. Luckily I’ve large enough hands to not worry about single-handed operation, however Samsung have put some nice tweaks into TouchWiz to cater for those that struggle with the screen size. I always felt more inclined to reach for the S Pen before I cursed the large screen and went playing with the one-handed operation adjustments within the settings. Now I have removed the Samsung software and run CyanogenMod these functions aren’t there, and as I’d not used them, I don’t miss them. It’s one of those screen sizes you will either adjust to really quickly and love, or instantly not get on with. At 183g this is not a light phone, though I have never liked light phones as I personally like to always know it’s in my pocket, particularly when zipping on the underground in London. The overall size of the phone is not a concern for use, but I do now think which jeans to throw on as some have shallow or narrow pockets that then makes this uncomfy throw in.
Being on Android you know the overall usability of the device is going to be great, it’s so simple and effective, putting all control in the end user and allowing you to show the information, apps and widgets on your homescreen as you wish. It’s great that Samsung pushed this device out to the public with the latest version of Android, nearly, running Jelly Bean v4.1.1 which is only a stone’s throw away from the very new v4.2 Jelly Bean update, which I hope Samsung pushes to Galaxy Note II users in the new year.
Ultimately I am really pleased with the Samsung Galaxy Note II. It did take me a couple of days to get used to the size, but within mere moments I was in love with the screen, its size and clarity are excellent. One gripe are the capacitive touch keys at the bottom of the front of the phone. They are very sensitive and sometimes when holding the phone in my hand firmly I have accidently pressed them. Their positioning perhaps could have been re-thought. The hardware home key does sometimes require a firm press, a gentle click in doesn’t always activate the command due. With a phone screen this size I’m surprised Samsung didn’t opt for Android’s in screen navigation bar, though that wouldn’t sit in line with the Galaxy branding style. I’m not sure where manufacturers are going to go with screen size now, I do feel this is as large as you’d want to go. There are parts of the Note II I don’t like, partly Samsung’s “bloatware” as although some of it, in particular the S Pen tweaks were good, I didn’t really use them and personally didn’t need them, however I do see how they are good tweaks, so good that people are currently looking at building them into custom software ROM’s. The S Pen itself is fantastic. It has a sublime ergonomic quality to it, and I go to grab it out the bottom of the phone each time I pick it up, regardless of whether I need to use it or not. It works fantastically well controlling games like Angry Birds of my favourite game Flow, and the handwriting recognition really is good, even picking up most of my scrawls for actual words.
If you can adjust to the screen size, your hands and pockets are big enough to hold it, it really is worth considering over the Samsung Galaxy S III as it does have that larger processor for faster operating speeds. The Samsung Galaxy Note II comes in 16/32/64GB internal memory versions, though all are capable of taking up to a 64GB MicroSD card, so internal memory isn’t greatly needed and you will find that most retailers like Carphone Warehouse or E2Save will just be stocking the 16GB variant until the price drops a little. In white and grey now, the colour options are limited though there has been speculation of new colours coming out in the new year.
I’d highly recommend this phone if you like big phones, or even just powerful phones and it’s worth considering if you are looking at the Samsung Galaxy S III, give the Note II a look at see what you think. I for one am certain I made the right decision and thoroughly pleased with this phone, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe it!