The successor to last year’s Galaxy Note ‘phablet’ is packed with cutting-edge features and includes stunning quad-core performance, a gorgeous Super-AMOLED screen and intuitive and unique usability
When Samsung launched the original Galaxy Note late last year, the unique smartphone/tablet hybrid’s huge touchscreen and impressive performance made it an ideal choice for multimedia use. Its successor is now bigger than ever and packed with power and features, but you’ll need large hands and a hefty wallet to enjoy it.
While the screen has been bumped up from 5.3 to 5.5 inches, the Galaxy Note II is a sleeker device than its predecessor, but still far from compact. Despite its longer chassis, Samsung has shaved 2mm from its width and 0.3mm from its depth, to make it as pocketable as possible. But at 183g it is still a bulky device to carry.
With its curved edges and ergonomic design the device feels great in the hand, but those with smaller hands may struggle at times. The huge screen in particular poses a problem, as it’s not easy to hold the device in one hand and use your thumb to tap on-screen options. This is a phone made to be used with two hands.
Whatever your feelings about its size, there’s no denying the quality of the Super-AMOLED screen. While the 720 x 1,280 pixel resolution is slightly lower than the 800 pixel width of the original Galaxy Note, images are rendered beautifully.
While some may argue that colours are a little over-saturated, we found they added an extra punch to our media files and lifted even the most drab images to gorgeous levels of vibrancy.
Our only disappointment was that the screen isn’t quite as bright as we’d hoped. It’s certainly bright enough for comfortable use in most conditions, but we expected such a gorgeous screen to be a bit more dazzling. Contrast is flawless, however, with its deep black levels helping lighter colours to stand out even more.
Where the device really stands out is when viewing photos and movies or playing games. The huge screen provides the perfect way to stay entertained when you’re out and about and the extra screen size makes a huge difference in your viewing experience, especially when compared to smaller smartphone screens.
Inevitably for such a high-end Galaxy device, usability is excellent. The capacitive touchscreen responds well and it’s easy to tap and swipe your way through the Android interface. Usability is enhanced even further by the inclusion of Samsung’s handy and powerful stylus – or S Pen as the manufacturer calls it.
The S Pen measures 112mm long and slots neatly into a hole at the bottom of the device. A small vibration lets you know when it has been removed and the Galaxy Note II then smoothly launches its S Pen home screen, giving you instant access to Samsung’s range of pre-installed S Pen-compatible apps. This is a nice touch and makes it really easy to get started.
Draw and more
Taking notes, drawing pictures and adding annotations to files are all simple using the stylus. But where the S Pen goes above and beyond traditional styli is in the extra usability it provides. A large part of this comes from its built-in button and its ability to pinpoint the stylus’s position even when it’s held a short distance away from the touchscreen.
For instance, by holding the button and double-tapping the screen with the stylus, a handy notepad pops up. You can then use the stylus to scribble quick notes on the pad, making it ideal for noting down an address or directions when taking a call.
When the stylus is held up to 1cm away from the screen, it also creates an on-screen mouse cursor you can hover over images, videos, calendar events and more to create a pop-up preview of whatever you’re highlighting. This is not quite as useful as it sounds, however, as we found that the previews are barely larger than the original thumbnails you hover over.
The S Pen works well and is surprisingly useful. And since the device can also be fully controlled by touch, it merely adds to the already excellent interactive usability.
Another area where the Galaxy Note II excels is its stunning performance. The high-powered quad-core processor runs at 1.6GHz and is backed by a huge 2GB of RAM. This is twice as much RAM as the high-powered Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC One X and Apple iPhone 5. Benchmark tests revealed a level of power far ahead of these market-leading devices – the Galaxy Note II sped through everything we threw at it, making light work of multitasking and smoothly running HD video. This is simply the most powerful phone on offer.
And this power doesn’t come at the cost of battery life. Packing a huge 3,100mAh battery, we were able to watch movies for more than 10 hours before recharging. There is also plenty of storage – a choice of 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models are on offer and you can add as much as 64GB with a microSD card.
Unfortunately, the eight-megapixel rear-facing camera lets things down slightly, delivering images that are firmly average. Its excellent array of settings and features compensates somewhat, however, helping raise the camera above its humdrum image quality and making it a decent tool for capturing photos and videos.
For starters you get the usual array of Android camera settings, letting you tweak exposure and resolution settings, white balance and more. Then you can also choose from a range of photo modes, such as Best Face, Low Light and Smile Shot, which make it easier to get optimum results in a range of situations.
The two features we liked most, however, were Panorama and Burst Mode. The former is becoming more common on high-end phones and lets you take wraparound panoramic images with one click. The latter rapidly captures multiple images when you hold the camera button.
To capture a panoramic photo, you just line up your first shot, tap the shutter button and then slowly move the camera left or right. The camera automatically captures all the required images as you pan and then stitches them together.
Results aren’t quite as good as on the iPhone 5, which set a new benchmark for how easy and powerful a phone’s panorama mode can be, and it’s often clear where the images are stitched together.
Burst Mode is better still and captures up to 20 photos in quick succession when you hold the shutter button. It’s a feature we’d like to see provided on more phones, but you can fill your storage quickly with the volume of photos it captures.
Android Jelly Bean
We were pleased to see that Samsung has equipped the Galaxy Note II with the latest 4.1 Jelly Bean version of the Android operating system. While the OS was released in July, we’ve yet to see many smartphones launch with this excellent software pre-installed.
Android 4.1 is by far the best version yet and provides fantastic usability for users of all levels of experience. While its easy interface can help newcomers feel at home right away, there are enough advanced features for experts to tweak and enjoy the full power of the phone’s OS.
It also packs handy proprietary Samsung tools, including the useful but flawed S Voice voice control app. Similar to Apple’s Siri on the iPhone, this recognises your voice and reacts to your commands.
NFC built in
Another feature we were pleased to see is the Galaxy Note II’s full NFC support. While NFC is still in its early stages, the ability to synchronise and share data with devices such as the Galaxy S III is a welcome one and adds to the excellent specification of this handset.
You also get full 4G LTE support – while 4G is still not widespread here in the UK, it’s great to see support here, as it future-proofs the device and will let you enjoy cutting-edge connectivity.
Although we were sure we would find the Galaxy Note II too large to be comfortably used as our main smartphone, its stunning performance, great specification and fantastic screen erased any doubts we had. And once we’d got used to carrying this bulky device, we really enjoyed our time using it.
While such a huge phone could easily be seen as a niche product, the success of the original Galaxy Note proved there is certainly a market for big-screened handsets. And by easily improving on its already excellent predecessor, the Galaxy Note II is the ultimate phone/tablet hybrid and a stunning mobile multimedia device.