Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II (AT&T/Sprint)

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The Cadillac of smartphones. The “phablet”. The anti-iPhone. Samsung’s Galaxy Note II is big, brawny and in your face with a laundry list of features backing up its hardware might. But sheer power and a seemingly never-ending list of features don’t automatically make a good device great. The Note II, however, is certainly great.

Hardware

The specs for the Galaxy Note II are everything an Android junkie could possibly yearn for: 5.5-inch 720p display, Samsung’s own Exynos 4 4412 quad-core processor clocked at 1.6 GHz, ARM Mali-400 MP4 GPU (quad-core), 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of built-in storage with room for more thanks to a microSD slot (up to 64 GB cards). Cameras weigh in at 8 and 1.9 megapixels (rear/front)

A stretched Galaxy S III. Ok. it’s slightly different. But if you take a minute to examine the two together, you’ll see we’re right. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though (if you like the S III’s design). The Note II is constructed mainly from plastic. It makes it feel super light in the hand despite the large size. It’s a good trick on Samsung’s part. At the same time, that plastic construction makes the phone look (and feel) cheap, too. Call us old fashioned, we like a nice weighty phone and/or some nicer (read: not plastic) materials. Whether it be metal, exotic materials, etc., “feel” in the hand isn’t just weight. It incorporates materials, design and weight. When all three come together it’s a beautiful piece of art.

As far as placement goes, the Note 2 holds its volume rocker on the upper left side while the right side features the power button – a smart move. Samsung is one of the few manufacturers (of big phones) that gets it. You don’t put the damn power button on a 4.5-inch+ device at the top. You can’t reach it. And it’s infuriating. So, thank you, Samsung. Moving on…the top features nothing but the standard 3.5mm headphone jack while the bottom houses the trust microUSB port. We’ll take a minute to also praise Samsung for placement again; the microUSB port should never be anywhere else but the bottom center of the device. HTC, wake up. Your ridiculous microUSB port placement is maddening and a total experience killer. Samsung 2 HTC -2. Finally, ’round back you have the 8-megapixel camera, LED flash and a speaker at the bottom. Also at the very bottom – the S-Pen. It hides nicely out of the way and clicks snuggly into place ensuring you’ll have to really try to lose it; it’s not just going to fall out.

On looks alone we’d say the Note 2 is ever so slightly better looking than the S 3. Of course, though, we’re sure plenty will disagree.

The most important part of the modern smartphone is of course the display. It’s the thing you gaze at and touch constantly each and every time you interact with your phone. Getting knocked for a bad display is a death sentence these days. When it comes to the Note 2 it’s honestly 50/50 for us. The size is nice (for some things). But for most tasks, one-handed and quick use is our primary concern. And the Note 2 is so massive and unwieldy it almost always requires two hands (or at least a decent amount of you attention to keep from dropping it) to use efficiently. Now. We understand there are smaller hands floating around these offices and that many of you out there will cry out that we’re wimps, girls and other negative words with small hands. You’re right. We are. But guess what? So are millions of other people. On the flip side, the original Note was just as massive and it sold like hotcakes. Though, we’d be curious to see the hand size of users factored in. Honest. Fact of the matter is, you’ll either love the massive display or hate it. We happen to be more on the “it’s not for us” side. You’re hands may sing a different tune.

Moving away from the act of holding the Note 2 and into looking at it, we’ll get a bit more harsh. The Super AMOLED tech being used on the Note 2’s display is still pretty “meh” to us. Yes, it’s 720p. Yes the “jaggies” of previous AMOLED displays has been greatly reduced. But it’s still noticeable when you sit it next to a proper display (such as the HTC One X/+). But more noticeable than jaggies is the blue tint. It’s a characteristic of AMOLED displays. And while Samsung has improved on that too, it’s still noticeable. Finally, it’s dim. The Note 2 is only pumping out ~220nits – the iPhone does more than double that. Of course, this is where things get complicated. While the Note 2 is dimmer than the iPhone 5, the contrast ratio is far higher meaning in low light areas the colors look better when the display is adjusted – but more on that in a minute. Step outside or into a brighter environment and the Note 2’s lead in picture quality is diminished as the iPhone 5’s brighter display allows it to compensate for the greater surrounding brightness. What is interesting, though, is that the Note 2’s display is neither PenTile nor a standard RGB matrix. Instead, Samsung has the red/green parallel to each other while the blue sub-pixel is perpendicular to the other two. It’s better than the PenTile many have come to hate. As for being equal to a traditional RGB matrix, we’re not quite sure it measures up. Still, it’s better than before and that’s all that matters.

As for that “changing the display”, Samsung has a handy section in the display settings area where you can select between four different screen modes: “Dynamic”, “Standard”, “Natural” and “Movie”. Believe it or not, Movie is actually better than “natural” and far better than the over-saturated mess that is “standard”. If you jump out of the screen mode area and scroll to the bottom of the display properties you’ll see an option to “Auto adjust screen tone”. Unchecking that combined with setting the screen mode to dynamic or movie makes the display much more accurate in terms of color reproduction, more bearable to look at (in our opinion of course) and most of all, able to push brightness a bit higher. Doing these two things make the AMOLED tech we’ve complained about for so long very close in terms of performance to the better LCD displays on the market including the iPhone 5 and HTC One X/+.

Something I, (Jordan) would like to add to this, I’ve used both the Note and the Note II for around 3 weeks each. You might recall our Note review, but the comfort level between the two is a huge update. The Note 2 provides a better and more compact feel over the first model, even though it features a larger display. I also used the Galaxy S3, and the Note 2 adopted that form and it really works for it. Even thought it’s agonizing to hold with one hand, it does a much better job at comfort than the first version. – Jordan

Software & S-Pen

Samsung is different than most Android manufacturers in that 1) their added, in-house software slapped on top of Android is actually somewhat useful. The addition of added functionality via the S-Pen takes their software meddling to a completely different level, really. Thanks to the S-Pen, doodling on screen whether for fun or to remember something important for later is incredibly easy. Not only that, the larger display makes the more precise input of the S-Pen beneficial in a myriad of circumstances. Whether it be pecking out a short email, writing a note for later or playing the latest game, the S-Pen and latest version of Touch Wiz is actually very useful.

While we’re on the subject of the S-Pen, we’ll highlight how incredibly handy some of the features like Quick Command are. Hold the S-Pen button and drag up from the bottom of the screen to reveal a writing section where one can write out commands. Another – long-press the back button for the newer style multi-tasking app switcher which includes a handful of user customizable apps that can be quickly jumped to and fro at any point. Even better – holding the S-Pen button and double tapping on the display activates the much talked about popup video where Note 2 users can play a video and carry on with many other tasks/apps at the same time.

All of the hype around the tweaked S-Pen wouldn’t be possible without the 4x improvement in performance. The Note 2’s S-Pen recognizes 1,024 different pressure levels compared to the original Note’s mere 256 – and it’s very noticeable.

Just a few of our favorites parts with the new S-Pen on the Note II:

  • Quickly snapping screenshots
  • Circling items on screen and scribbling down notes
  • “AirView” – view an onscreen cursor of sorts when the S-Pen is hovering a few mm above the screen so you can see what you’re pointing at before actually tapping it
  • Potential for much more…

Outside of the new S-Pen, features are pretty much the same as you’d find in the Galaxy S III. Again, a couple notables that we are fond of include the notification drawer toggles (though, we now prefer Motorola’s new slide-out pane layout much better), “battery saver mode”, ability to change display modes to adjust color saturation and accuracy to your liking, and the Samsung keyboard with Swype. Believe it or not, we also we love the battery percentage number that can be toggled on/off in the status bar next to the battery. It’s as minor as it gets but highly appreciated.

Other perks such as expandable notifications (specific to Jelly Bean), Block mode (selective notifications toggled on/off by number/person) and a slew of little “hidden” perks like the ability to wave your hand over the proximity sensor to wake the screen and show a few alerts (Samsung calls it “Quick Glance”) and mute phone calls by simply turning the phone over. One of our favorites is the ability to have the phone “watch” your eyes so that it doesn’t dim or turn off the display as long as the front-facing camera senses your eyeballs peering at it. It doesn’t always work that well in real-life, but when it does it’s great. Building off that particular facing watching feature, the Note 2 will also prevent rotating the phone based on the orientation of your face in respect to the phone. For example, laying on your side in bed and tapping away on your Note 2 in portrait mode (albeit sideways now) will usually result in the phone sensing this and preventing the rotating of the display into landscape – a very nice feature to have.

Camera & Video

More good news – the Note 2’s camera won’t disappoint. The 8-megapixel shooter is potent and places it at the top of the heap as far as smartphones go. Color accuracy and white balance is, in most circumstances, great. Low-light shots are also notably good for a smartphone and certainly comparable to the Galaxy S III’s photo chops (which are also pretty awesome). Aiding the hardware are robust software features like photo filters, picture editing (crop, red-eye removal, etc.) and “Best Face”. Best Face takes five pictures in quick succession and then gives you the ability to choose which is the most perfect.

While we don’t have an original Note in-house to compare, it seems that the LED flash on the Note 2 is improved enough to make a difference in many situations. A quick glance through user forums and some other Note 2 reviews seems to confirm this.

The 1080p 30fps video captured by Note 2 videographers is, like still images, handedly sitting at the front of the pack. Playback is smooth and overall picture quality spot on. One particular issue we did notice was that most times when the phone was panned back and forth while recording, onscreen video would stutter pretty heavily. It’s jarring on a device that is for all intents and purposes, the fastest device we’ve ever used, though not a deal breaker all things considered.

Backing up “normal” video recording are nifty effects like a fast 8x mode and super-slow 1/8th mode that kept us entertained at least for a few minutes each day.

Performance

When it comes to performance in terms of speed, the Note II is a speed demon. Quadrant scores north of 5.5k prove this. But equally so, the battery life is nothing short of impressive. The 3,100 mAh unit the Note 2 ships with is smaller than some of the RAZR MAXX phones by Motorola. But then again, those Motorola phones don’t have a quad-core beast humming inside of them nor a massive 5.5-inch display. In the couple of weeks we had the Note 2 in our clammy mitts we managed to get at least a solid day (18-24 hours) out of this thing. That included plenty of tweeting, status updates, web browsing and even some video streaming tossed in. (The kid has a serious Gumby obsession.) On some days we managed to go a day and a half to two days.

You see, when it is actively being used, the components inside do put a ton of stress on the battery. But when it’s sitting idle, that processor and screen sip from that gigantic electron reservoir strapped on its back. It’s one of the Note 2’s biggest selling points, really. Where other manufacturers *cough* HTC *cough* continually fail to deliver, Samsung continues to push the envelope.

While we’ve been more than impressed with battery life and CPU/GPU speeds, cellular performance has been a mixed bag. We’re not sure exactly what’s going on here (hardware, software, etc.) but the AT&T Note 2 we have has pretty bad LTE performance compared to other devices. Running side-by-side our iPhone 5, the Note 2 consistently performed no less than 10% worse on LTE than the iPhone 5, many times running a fraction of the iPhone’s speed. We’ve run tests all over town and can continuously and consistently repeat the tests. On 3G (HSPA+) it’s a closer race with things being pretty even, though, more often than not the Note 2 is ~5% slower. At this point we’re thinking it’s possibly the location of the antenna inside the Note 2. However, one can never rule out software. Whatever the case may be, LTE performance is the only real thing about the Note 2 that we’d call “disappointing”.

When using the Sprint version, we didn’t notice any connection issues, but that could be due to the fact that Sprint hasn’t rolled out any LTE in the Portland area, not that they have really done this anywhere else. 3G speeds on Sprint aren’t the best, but because of their slower speeds, and probably the lack of people on the network (at least for me here in PDX), I notice not one single connection issue. Both calls and data crushed through without a hitch, slower than I would like, but still a solid performance. – Jordan

Wrap-up

In the modern smartphone world, the Note 2 is the big daddy Cadillac. It’s brute strength and sheer size command respect. The AT&T LTE issue is slightly worrying and a potential deal breaker for customers on the major GSM carrier.

Adding to its immense physical proportions are bags upon bags of features (both native to Jelly Bean and Samsung add-ons). The S-Pen also takes the Note 2 to a completely different level over previous gems like the Galaxy S III. In a world of increasingly competitive smartphones, the Note 2 stands on a pedestal of its own, far and away above just about every other device on the market. If the best is all you’re after, we’re hard pressed to find anything better in terms of the combined power, longevity and utility.

Mike Norris and Jordan Carpenter contributed to this review.

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About Author

Gadget lover, smartphone collector, and beer connoisseur. I've been writing about gadgets and mobile technology since 2008 and loving every minute of it. Outside of the digital landscape, I enjoy being active outdoors and playing guitar and drums. I'm always up for a good conversation so feel free to drop me a line on any of my social accounts or via email.