Reviewing something like the Samsung Galaxy Note II is a big task. There is a lot to explore and a lot to talk about, because the device offers so many features. From the handy S-pen stylus to the extra spacious 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display, the Galaxy Note II is full of features that should quench most gadget enthusiasts' desire for power on the go.
But the big question is... how does it feel in actual use? If you want to find out, read on.
A BIG PHONE
It has only been seven months since we reviewed the first Galaxy Note. What could they have improved in less than a year?
A lot, actually.
The first Note had monster specs for its time, but the Note II goes one better. It comes with a quad-core Exynos processor running at 1.6 GHz, Mali-400MP graphics, 2GB of RAM, 16GB storage, microSD slot up to 64GB, and a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display at 720p resolution. On the specs sheet and in actual use, the Galaxy Note II is the fastest Android device on the market today.
Hardware design has been greatly improved as well. The first Galaxy Note had a very blocky design that made it intimidating at a glance. On the other hand, the Note II takes after the Galaxy S III with rounder corners and a longer body that's sleek and easier to maneuver.
A BIG DISPLAY
The Galaxy Note II’s 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display has a 1280 x 720 resolution (267 ppi pixel density). While that is a decrease from the first Galaxy Note’s 1280 x 800 display (285 ppi pixel density), the resolution decrease does not make a big difference in actual use.
While moving away from the standard Pentile subpixel arrangement, the Note II’s display still employs unequally sized subpixels. It seems that blue pixels are half as big as red and green pixels.
My gripe with the first Galaxy Note’s display was that it had a very apparent blue tinge. Although this problem is not entirely resolved, the Note II’s display does much better in hiding its blue hues. I am guessing that decreasing the blue subpixel size has something to do with this.
While its color accuracy leaves something to be desired, the Note II’s Super AMOLED display is very bright and vibrant with deep blacks and high contrast ratio. This makes the Note II optimal for gaming and watching movies. Photos taken on the Note II also look great on its display, displaying life-like vibrant colors.
Samsung greatly improved one-handed usability of the Note II to make it... usable in one hand.
Although the diagonal size has increased from 5.3 inches to 5.5 inches, the Note II’s display is slightly slimmer than its predecessor's. The first Galaxy Note measures 146.9 x 83 x 9.7mm, where as the Galaxy Note II measures 151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4mm. 2.5mm of width and 0.3mm of thickness makes a noticeable difference in the hands. From 1280 x 800 to 1280 x 720, the Note II sheds 80 pixels horizontally, but I would gladly take better one-handed usability over more pixels.
Samsung also included one-handed operation options in the settings to help its users. As you can see above, the keyboard can be squished to either side of the screen to make one-handed typing possible on the Galaxy Note II. I found this setting to be immensely helpful.
In addition to the keyboard, phone dialer, calculator, and phone unlock pattern all support the new one-handed operation mode. One improvement I would like to see is the option to switch between one-handed operation mode and the regular mode without going into the settings every time, because this option can only be turned on in the settings right now.
S-PEN, MARK II
The new and improved S-pen looks identical to the old S-pen from the first Galaxy Note, but it feels better in actual use. Samsung made the stylus tip softer and more solid to better mimic traditional writing utensils. It’s still a far cry from real pen and paper, but it does feel better to use.
But the pen is only the tip of the ice berg. The software is what makes the S-Pen useful. Inside the Note II, you’ll still find the familiar S-Note application for drawing and taking notes, as well as a new photo manipulation application called Paper Artist. S-Note applications have even more fun and useful features that creative types and business users alike will love.
The new S-Pen also supports hovering mode that Samsung calls 'Air View', which comes useful in a variety of apps. The new wacom digitizer embedded under the screen emits charges, so that the S-Pen is detectable from about 1cm away. This new function is used in the Video Player application, where hovering over the timeline shows preview windows of the video content.
Air View is also utilized in the S-Planner calendar app, where hovering over dates will show details of events scheduled for that day. This is helpful if your calendar is full of events and you don’t want to click on each day to see the scheduled events. Air View is very impressive and functional, and I would love to see more applications take advantage of this.
The Galaxy Note II comes with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean pre-installed, and this is a great improvement over the first Galaxy Note which came with Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Like all Gaalxy devices, the Note II comes with TouchWhiz pre-installed. This version of TouchWhiz is identical to the one in the Galaxy S III, so I won't elaborate on it. I am still not a fan of the water droplet sounds in this version of TouchWhiz, but those sounds can be disabled if you want.
As expected, the Galaxy Note II scores very high in benchmarking apps. It scores around 6,000 points on Quadrant Standard and 2,000 points on Geekbench, which are the highest scores we’ve seen for all Android devices. Apps and animations on Android has never seemed so fluid and smooth.
LTE performance is great on the Note II, fetching 20 megabits down on average on the Bell LTE network. You can browse on LTE without killing the battery, since the user-replaceable 3,100 mAh battery lasts a long time. I found the Note II to have about 50% longer battery life than the Galaxy S III or the iPhone 5.
People call the Galaxy Note II a phablet, a cross between a phone and a tablet, but I disagree. It feels more like a big smartphone, and I love it as a smartphone. Whether I am managing my day or entertaining myself, the Galaxy Note II does the job perfectly. The big screen simply gives you more, and it is perfectly usable in one hand.
For the reasons above, I recommend the Note II for everyone. There’s still room improvement, namely color accuracy and even better one-handed operation, but the Note II is as close to perfection as a 2012 Android device can get.
The Galaxy Note II is available now at TELUS, Rogers, and Bell for $199.99 on 3-year plans.