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As with my previous reviews, I won’t be going into too much technical jargon regarding the Sprint variant of the Samsung Galaxy Note II such as specific numbers when it comes to performance and internals since I try and gear these towards a broader audience. With that, let’s begin.
Design / Build
From the outset, the Note II looks nearly identical to its little sibling the Galaxy S III. The word “little” is quite fitting here since the Note II is gargantuan in comparison, especially if you’re coming from a phone that’s four inches or less. Before this phone, I owned the HTC Evo 4G LTE, otherwise known as Sprint’s variant of the HTC One X. That phone and its gorgeously sharp 4.7 inch screen was already large so the Note II and its 5.5 inch screen was a massive leap forward.
The Note II is huge for a smartphone, bordering on a mini tablet of sorts with phone capabilities. If you have small hands it will require the use of both hands when attempting to press some buttons but thankfully I don’t have that problem. I’ve read some reviews saying that a Bluetooth device is a strong necessity because you’ll look ridiculous holding it up to your ear out in public. A Bluetooth device is useful but since I don’t believe in paying too much mind to what others think about one’s appearance, I don’t condone factoring that in as part of your decision to buy the device. Despite the size, the device feels solid in the hand and its slim form factor means you can get a good grasp on it without feeling like it’s going to slip.
Aside from the display the entire phone is plastic which does make the device feel a little cheap. Considering the Galaxy S line of phones are Samsung’s top of the line devices and they pack a huge amount of features and power, you’d think the company would use better materials. I only mention this because having previously owned the high end HTC phone, the build quality feels like a downgrade.
The other distinctive feature that sets the Note II apart from the Galaxy S III is the S-Pen stylus, quietly tucked away on the bottom. I thought the fact that the S-Pen also came in titanium gray was a nice touch, I’ll go deeper into this nifty accessory later.
There is also the back, home and menu buttons on the front which follow the general Android standards though for whatever reason Samsung decided to swap the locations of the back and menu buttons. As for the home button, it’s a physical, elongated oval of sorts instead of what one typically sees on an Android phone. Again, I don’t quite understand the reasoning behind it but it does lessen the odds of accidentally pressing the key and exiting out of an app. Then again, I’d almost be willing to believe that the unusual shape is a means of keeping Apple from siccing their lawyers due to similarities with the iPhone.
When I reviewed the mouthful that is the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch, I gushed about its “eye popping” screen. The Note II does for the most part continue to cause eye explosions.. Samsung’s trademark for gorgeous displays continues thanks to the richly saturated colors. The slight perk here is that the display is now “HD” and so those colors are accompanied by sharp text and pictures that look stunning on the unquestionably huge display.
Speaking of sharp–and the reason why I said for the most part–the display is not quite as sharp as that of the HTC Evo 4G LTE. While I was able to notice the difference when reading webpages comprised mostly of text, it’s very negligible. In fact, the average person won’t notice the difference.
With those details in mind, reading on the Note II is an absolute pleasure because the screen is so large. I always found the more “typically sized” phones to be a tad too small for reading e-books and therefore relegated myself to using my tablet exclusively. With the Note II, the size is perfect and thanks to the syncing capabilities of the Moon+ Reader app, I can jump between both devices comfortably when I’m out and about or at home.
Software and Performance
I wasn’t a fan of Samsung’s TouchWiz custom user interface and that opinion has not changed. While I prefer the stock Android interface, I find HTC’s Sense to be much slicker. It seems that TouchWiz has slightly improved since I owned the Galaxy S II so I dislike it less but it’s still a minor annoyance that I could do without. It just doesn’t look as nice as Sense or even stock Android which is disappointing on a phone like this one.
Going back to the size of the phone for a second, something that’s important to mention is Samsung’s inclusion of usability features. Clearly taking into account that the phone might be too big for some hands, you can choose to shift essential apps and features like the keyboard, dialer and calculator to the right or left which makes the phone considerably easier to operate with one hand.
Like the Galaxy S III, the Note II has the nifty new features like the popup video that allows you to watch a video and drag it as well as resize it anywhere on your screen, freeing you to use another app simultaneously. The popup browser works in a similar manner and is something I use very often since it allows you to open a link to another page without actually jumping/exiting out of the app you’re currently using, something that’s great if for example you’re just skimming a news article.
Smart Stay uses the front facing camera to detect whether you’re still looking at the phone and will therefore keep the screen on, removing the common problem of having to touch the screen every so often to make sure it doesn’t time out and turn off.
You may have heard of Blocking Mode. This feature lets you specify a designated time to block all incoming calls and notifications for a pre-determined amount of time while still allowing specific contacts to get in touch with you. It’s a godsend during the evenings since like many I use my phone as my alarm and therefore keep it near my bed, preventing any noises from some random email I may receive at three o’clock in the morning which has happened on more than one occasion.
Side note: A lot of people have claimed that Samsung “stole” this feature from Apple and its iOS 6 “Do Not Disturb” mode. Before owning the Note II, I used an app called Silent Time which essentially does the same thing as Blocking Mode/Do Not Disturb and has been around for about three years now.
The multi-window feature of the Note II is one of its several exclusive features and also incredibly useful, at least as of this writing. Essentially a more intuitive version of multitasking, all of the screen real estate means you can use two apps simultaneously, one right above the other. This might be useful if for example you’re referencing a webpage in your browser while writing about it in an email or text message. The feature works with several of the “core” apps like Google’s Chrome browser or YouTube and is easily accessible by holding down the back button.
The Note II ships with Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean which brings features like Google Now, expanded notifications and dramatically improved all around performance. I’ve mentioned before that Samsung is–or at least was–notoriously slow when it came to Android software updates. Since then their update timeframe has slightly decreased but you’ll still be waiting some time before the Note II will get all of the goodies in the new version, especially because of its unique features and heavy customizations. The fact that the phone ships with Android 4.1 makes that wait much more bearable.
Finally, the Note II has some heavy duty internals that allow it to run without the slightest hiccup. To put it simply, I have yet to throw anything at this device in terms of graphically intensive games or apps that it can’t handle or would cause it to slow down in performance. Even with multiple apps open and using the S-Pen, the Note II scoffed at my attempts to slow it down and laughed in my face.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II S-Pen
The Note II would basically be a Galaxy S III on steroids if it weren’t for the S-Pen hidden away on the bottom of the device. The stylus adds an enormous degree of value and well, “awesomeness” to the Note II’s capabilities. It looks like the average one you’ve likely come across except for the silver tip on the end emblazoned with the Samsung logo and the small button on the side that detects actions when browsing through homescreens.
When using the Note II with the S-Pen, there’s a tiny circular marker that will appear on the screen when you hold the stylus a few millimeters away from the device. By simply hovering over a picture or video in the gallery, it will automatically enlarge or, in the case of the video, will play a preview without actually opening either the picture or the video. The same feature works for email and text messages; hovering over one of them will reveal additional details such as the body text. If you just want to take a quick glance at something, this feature will be your best friend.
There are several pre-defined gestures on the Note II that you can use when browsing through homescreens. By holding down on the small button located on the side, you can for example draw the at symbol (@) to automatically fire up the email app. Drawing the less than sign will function the same as pressing the back button. Best of all, you can define your own shortcuts to do various actions to suit your needs.
S Note is designed for use with the pen and although it’s designed for notes, the templates give you a great idea of the amount of creativity and productivity you can accomplish with it. Artists or just people who like to doodle will likely have a great time with this app and its companion Paper Artist which lets you add filters and draw on existing images in your gallery. Much like the stylus on a drawing tablet, gently pressing down on the tip will trigger various levels of “pressure” that translates to thicker or thinner lines which allows for even greater creative freedom.
Another really cool feature that can be used practically anywhere is the selection tool. Hold down the button on the S-Pen and then draw a complete outline around anything you may want to capture such as a specific part of a photo or a certain product on the internet. The Note II will automatically save the “clip” which you can then insert into a note, email or text message, share on a social network or even print if you wanted to.
Unfortunately, the amount of S-Pen friendly apps is currently pretty limited but the ones you can use greatly add to its usefulness. Evernote is one of my favorite productivity apps and works beautifully with the S-Pen.
I won’t go into S Voice too much aside to say that it’s a voice assistant that tries too hard to emulate Apple’s Siri and lacks the natural sounding voice and intelligent search capabilities of Google Now.
Lastly, the Note II comes with features that can detect when the S-Pen has been removed or when you may accidentally wander away from it and risk losing it. The former feature works beautifully when writing text messages or emails as it will automatically bring up a small writing area below the keyboard that does a surprisingly accurate job of turning your handwriting into text.
As for the latter detection feature, the implementation isn’t quite as effective as you might think. Instead of a sort of distance sensor, the only way the alarm will sound is if you have set the S-Pen removal detector option on and the phone swings from side to side which it interprets as though you are walking away from the stylus.
Camera and Battery
Samsung’s Galaxy S line of phones are known for their excellent camera and picture quality and the Note II continues the tradition. The eight megapixel camera takes some gorgeous photos that look that much better on that enormous, deeply saturated screen. Unlike the Galaxy S II which allowed a maximum of 720p for video shooting, the Note II takes it all the way up to the now standard 1080p and it looks as sharp and detailed as you might expect.
In terms of camera software features, there are several modes that you can use to take photos such as a burst mode that will snap a series of photos in a row and is accompanied by features like “Best face” which will swap the expression of an individual in a series of photos for another where they may be making an expression that is more to your liking. I haven’t tried it but it sounds pretty intriguing. In fact, the phone is packed with plenty of extra bells and whistles that will let you get very creative, something that becomes that much better thanks to the aforementioned creative capabilities of the S-Pen.
The large size of the Note II means there is additional space to pack in a larger than average battery and because of that battery, the Note II runs for an awfully long time without needing a charge. In fact, the most I’ve ever managed to deplete the battery is to about forty percent after a solid amount of Wi-Fi and 4G usage, web browsing and playing games. You could probably go without charging it for an entire day and still have enough battery to make it at least until the following afternoon, if not longer. Though I don’t see the average person needing to, the battery is removable unlike many high end phones these days so you could carry an extra one and swap it should the need ever arise.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II is a risky, bold yet ultimately successful stab at combining tablet and productivity features into a phone backed up by solid hardware and genuinely useful software that’s made even better by the S-Pen, perhaps the best effort so far at creating an all-in-one modern day personal agenda. It won’t replace a traditional tablet and there are indeed people who will immediately reject the elephant in the room: its large, yet not unwieldy size. The improvement in readability, the natural feeling writing and note taking capabilities and the fact that phones are increasingly getting larger may signal that Samsung may already be hinting at what’s to come, albeit perhaps exaggeratedly so. If the size and asking price (generally $300 with a two year contract) aren’t deal breakers, it’s one of the best Android phones you can buy right now.