Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is one of the fastest Android phones on the market
Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is one of the fastest Android phones on the market.

Design and display

There's no mistaking the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Note II is a huge phone, one that will simply be too big for many people. But those people who aren't put off by the large size will be pleased to know that Samsung has made the phone thinner and slightly smaller in width than its predecessor. The Note II is 9.4mm thick compared to 9.7mm and is 80.5mm wide compared to 83mm. Granted, it's 2g heavier than its predecessor and around 4mm taller, but these increases are so small that you'll barely notice if you're coming from the original Note. Increasing the screen size yet decreasing width and thickness means Samsung's engineers certainly deserve plaudits.

Perhaps the best way to describe the Samsung Galaxy Note II is an oversized Galaxy S III. It has a similar glossy plastic finish, an almost identical bezel surrounding the screen and the same curved shape. Don't consider this similar look and feel negative, though, as the design of the Galaxy Note II is very impressive. While it's debatable that the phone can be used effectively with one hand, the rounded corners and curved edges definitely make it easier to handle than its predecessor.

One downside is the finish. The Titanium Grey model we reviewed has an extremely glossy look. We found it glossier than the pebble blue version of the Galaxy S III and therefore hard to keep free of grubby fingerprints and marks. It also looks a little cheap in our opinion, even if the excellent build quality isn't an issue. Samsung also sells a "mountain white" variant of the Galaxy Note II.

The buttons and controls of the Galaxy Note II are fairly straightforward. There's a power/lock key on the right side, a volume rocker on the left and a home button on the front below the screen. A micro-USB port on the bottom charges the phone, while the headphone jack is located on the top. We found the volume keys well positioned but the extra size of the Galaxy Note II means they are easy to accidentally press when in your pocket, an issue when you're listening to music through headphones.

Samsung has equipped the Galaxy Note II with an even larger 5.5in screen, up 0.2in from its predecessors 5.3in display. The screen uses the same super AMOLED technology as the original Galaxy Note but has a slightly lower resolution of 1280x720 compared to 1280x800. The lower resolution gives the Galaxy Note II a pixel density rating of 267ppi compared to its predecessor's 285ppi. This isn't a significant downgrade, however, and we suspect 99 per cent of users won't be able to tell the difference if the phones are side-by-side.

The Galaxy Note II's screen is certainly impressive. It's bright and vibrant, just as you'd expect from a super AMOLED panel, has excellent viewing angles and displays rich blacks. The crisp, clear text combined with the extra large size makes the Note II a great device for reading. The screen does have the tendency to oversaturate some colours but the result is usually a vivid and eye catching image. If you're not happy with the colours, a setting in the display menu allows you to adjust the saturation from four presets: dynamic, standard, movie and natural.

S Pen

Samsung's Wacom-designed S Pen is a significant improvement over the one that shipped with the first Galaxy Note. It now has a rubberised tip, which Samsung says was designed to make it feel more like a regular pen. It also has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, just like the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. This is an upgrade over the original Galaxy Note S Pen, which only had 256 levels of pressure sensitivity.

Physical features aside, the S Pen adds plenty of new software features. Firstly, the Galaxy Note II knows when you remove the pen from the case and automatically displays an S Pen home screen. You can also set the phone to pop-up a mini S Note on the screen whenever the pen is removed, too, which is an impressive feature we quickly grew fond of.

One of our biggest criticisms of the original Galaxy Note was its poor implementation of handwriting recognition but this has significantly improved on the Galaxy Note II. The feature works well enough that we found ourselves using it more frequently. Unlike the original model where you really had to write as accurate as possible to avoid mistakes, the Galaxy Note II translates writing into text even if you aren't jotting things down clearly. It still struggles a little with spaces and capital letters at the start of sentences, but it's certainly a big improvement over the original Note.

The S Pen also utilises a feature Samsung calls Air View. When you hover the S Pen above the screen without touching it, a dot appears on the screen, much like a mouse cursor. Hover above various on-screen items, such as a calendar entry or a video timeline, and the feature will present more information. We didn't use the feature too often but liked the fact you can hover above menu icons to show a description of what that icon does.

The biggest issue with the S Pen is not the pen itself but the lack of apps that have been specifically optimised for it. Samsung's S Note app is handy and a great example of what the S Pen is capable of, but that aside, there aren't many good quality, third-party apps designed with the S Pen in mind.

A quick look in the Samsung Apps store shows a few other apps under the category "Best S Pen apps" but none of these are really noteworthy. Most of them seem overpriced and while many of them will work fine with the S Pen, not all are completely optimised for it. Most won't be able to take advantage of the S Pen's pressure sensitivity capabilities, which is really what gives the S Pen a distinct advantage over an ordinary stylus.

Software and performance

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is one of the fastest and most responsive Android phones we've ever used. From the moment you take it out of the box and turn it on, you'll be impressed with how smooth and fluid it is. We suspect that Google's Jelly Bean 4.1 Android software has a lot to do with this but Samsung also deserves plenty of credit for managing to include its TouchWIZ UI overlay without affecting responsiveness.

Whether its swiping between home screens, opening apps, playing games or using the camera, the Galaxy Note II is certainly fast and efficient. It's faster than any Android device we've ever used, including the impressive Galaxy S III. While these are only small improvements over already impressive devices, the Galaxy Note II feels much more polished than other Android phones on the market.

Using the Galaxy Note II is a very similar experience to the Galaxy S III, with Samsung clearly banking on software innovation to win over consumers. Most of the company's TouchWIZ features on the Galaxy S III have been carried over to the Note II without any changes. Once again we like direct call, calling a contact you are currently messaging by simply holding the phone up to your ear, and smart alert, which vibrates and flashes the notification LED when you pick up the phone if you've missed a call or text message. Turning the phone over on a desk or table to mute an incoming call, placing your hand on the screen to pause a video, and swiping your hand over the screen to capture a screenshot are also nice features of the TouchWIZ software. "Pop-up Play", which allows you to watch a video in a small window that can be dragged anywhere on the screen, also works well, especially on the Note II's large screen.

The Galaxy Note II does get a few new software features, too. The best of these is undoubtedly the "multi-window" feature which allows two apps to run side-by-side on the same screen. The feature is activated by pressing and holding the back button while in an app, where a dock will appear on the left side of the screen. Simply hold and drag an available icon onto the screen and that app will appear on half of the screen. A bar between the two open apps can be dragged to resize the apps, too. Best of all, the feature worked with many third-party apps we installed including Twitter and Facebook, and there was no evident lag or slowdown when using the feature.

There's also a number of handy software touches that show Samsung is intent on providing the best user experience possible. The number row at the top of the keyboard, for example, eliminates the need to access a sub menu to input numbers and makes great use of that large screen. The "one-handed operation" settings are good value, adjusting the position of the dialling keypad, in-call buttons, keyboard and unlock pattern to aid left or right handed use. There's also a Blocking Mode, which is much the same as the "do not disturb" feature on Apple's iPhone, allowing you to disable notifications at preset time periods.

One really nice feature is the ability to attach notes to the back of captured photos with the S Pen, complete with a great looking screen transition that mimics the appearance of a printed photo. It's a touch that we'd normally expect to see from the likes of Apple, but Samsung nails it here. It adds positively to the overall user experience, even if you probably won't end up using it too often.

Despite all these impressive features, the Galaxy Note II isn't perfect. TouchWIZ certainly adds plenty of functionality but we wish Samsung would try and tie more into the stock, holo UI theme that Google uses on Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. TouchWIZ looks much like a cartoonish version of iOS and some of its implementation could use some work. Despite the Galaxy Note II's huge screen, for example, the software only allows you to have four icons vertically across the home screen. This is a waste of valuable space that could be taken up by more icons or larger home screen widgets.

Further, we often experienced a 1-2 second delay when pressing the power or home button to wake the screen from sleep, especially if we hadn't used the phone for a time period. We've seen the same issue on the Galaxy S III and the original Galaxy Note so Samsung still hasn't resolved this problem. We also dislike the fact that Google Now is buried in the multitasking menu, though you can also access it by long pressing the menu button.

Camera and battery life

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is equipped with the same 8-megapixel camera sensor that was used in the Galaxy S III. While it won't replace a dedicated point and shoot camera if you are after top quality images, the Galaxy Note II is a genuinely impressive phone camera. It captures a high level of detail, produces pictures with excellent colour reproduction and offers a wealth of settings. These include Best Photo, which takes 20 shots in burst mode (six photos per second) and uses software algorithms to select the best photo. The Galaxy Note II's camera can also take still photos while recording video, and features both HDR and panorama modes.

The Galaxy Note II has a 1.9-megapixel front facing camera that shoots 720p video. Though the quality of images and photos from this camera aren't hugely impressive, they are a notch above what we are used to seeing from front facing cameras on most other camera phones. The video works particularly well in third party apps like Tango and Skype with comparatively minimal noise and grain.

The Samsung Galaxy Note II we reviewed comes with 16GB of internal memory, though it remains to be seen which variants will officially go on sale in Australia when the phone is released Down Under. The N7100 model we reviewed is a 3G device only, so it doesn't support the 1800MHz 4G networks operated by Telstra and Optus in Australia. Samsung will eventually sell an N7105 model that features 4G capability on the 1800MHz network, but there is no confirmation this is the model that will be sold in Australia — so far, Samsung has refused to comment about a potential Australian release of the Galaxy Note II.

One point to keep in mind with a 4G model is that it isn't likely to possess the same battery life as the 3G-only version. LTE connectivity is known to be a huge battery drain but the N7105 model features the same 3100mAh battery as the N7000. That is likely to translate into less battery life, though we'll be keen to put that to the test if and when we can get our hands on the N7105 variant.

Speaking of battery life, it is excellent. The Galaxy Note II easily powered through a full day of use without needing a charge and often pushed into well into a second day before requiring a top up. If you're a moderate or light user, we suspect you should be able to get a full two days of use out of the device before charging, which is a great result. Despite the large screen, we found that it only accounted for around 35-40 per cent of battery per change.

The Samsung Galaxy Note II hasn't officially been released in Australia, but you can purchase it through online store MobiCity, who supplied our review unit.

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