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Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 2

By

March 30, 2013

Gizmag reviews Samsung's newest phablet, the Galaxy Note 2

Gizmag reviews Samsung's newest phablet, the Galaxy Note 2

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“What the hell is a phablet?” There’s a good chance you’ve either heard this phrase or uttered it yourself. And for good reason: “phablet” may be one of the silliest words in the English language. But it appears this portmanteau of the words phone and tablet is here to stay. Scratch that: Samsung’s hot-selling Galaxy Note – the only significant product in the category – is here to stay. Is it the real deal, or just a flash in the pan? Read on, as we review the Samsung Galaxy Note II.

Bigger ... and better?

The Note 2 makes the iPhone 5 look puny

The Galaxy Note 2 is enormous. Just look at it next to the iPhone 5 (above). To some customers, it's going to be too damn big. At first, I thought for sure that I would be one of those people.

But here’s the thing: I got used to this hulking monstrosity really quickly. In fact, after enjoying the Note’s enormous 5.5-inch display, I have a hard time going back to smaller phones. It’s that good. It makes their screens (especially iPhone screens) look cramped and puny.

There are more comfortable phones to hold. But – after using the Note 2 for several days – my hands adjusted to its size much faster than my eyes could readjust to smaller screens. In fact, my eyes don’t particularly want to bother going back.

Phablets aren’t for everyone. But you might be surprised how quickly you forget their supposed drawbacks – and get lost in their numerous benefits.

The PDA strikes back

S Note lets you jot quick notes from anywhere

In the early to mid-2000s, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were the go-to gizmos for mobile productivity. Then the iPhone came along, and destroyed everything in its wake. When HP bought what was left of Palm (maker of the prototypical PDA, the Palm Pilot) in 2010, you’d may as well have held a funeral for the PDA.

Yet phablets like the O.G. Galaxy Note and Galaxy Note 2 aren’t all that different from PDAs. You could even say that they borrow from the best of the multitouch smartphone and the PDA.

When Steve Jobs mocked styluses (or is it styli?) at the original iPhone unveiling, it’s as if the tech world took his pitch as gospel. After all, we saw that the iPhone was infinitely better than any mobile device before it. If it didn’t need a stylus, then surely any other device worth its salt wouldn’t need one either.

But the Galaxy Note 2 reminds us that the best way for one company doesn’t have to be the best way for everyone. On a 5.5-inch display, a stylus is right at home. And Samsung has added some innovative software features that transform the Note’s plastic pointy-thing into a vaunted S Pen.

The S Pen is surprisingly useful

Want to scroll through a long article without incessant swiping? Hover the S Pen near the bottom of the screen, and the page will advance. No touch required.

Need to jot a quick note while you’re in the middle of an intense level of Plants vs. Zombies? Double-tap to activate S Notes, quickly scribble, erase, type, and save. Back to the game.

But those are just the most obvious “features” of the S Pen. More important is the overall sense of precision that it gives you. Hitting tiny buttons on webpages is easier. Creating selections in Photoshop Touch finally works. Trace keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey fit with the S Pen like hand in glove.

I felt more productive and in control with the stylus. And – much like how the phablet’s huge screen makes other smartphone screens look piddly – the S Pen made my fingers feel like crude pointing devices.

After years of finger painting, we’ve rediscovered the paintbrush. Somewhere an out-of-work Palm employee is weeping.

That screen

The Galaxy Note II has a remarkable display

On a technical level, the Note 2’s display packs far fewer pixels than 1080p phones like the Galaxy S 4, HTC One, and Xperia Z. Hell, it even has 18 percent fewer pixels-per-inch than the (almost) three-year-old iPhone 4.

And you know what? Your eyeballs won’t give a hoot about those numbers. Because the Galaxy Note 2’s display is outstanding.

It’s a 720p (1280 x 720) Super AMOLED screen that, as we’ve already established, is spread over 5.5 inches. It houses 267 pixels per inch: around the same as the iPad with Retina Display.

You’d may as well call this a Retina Display too, because it’s razor sharp. Good luck differentiating any individual pixels.

Like all AMOLED displays, the Note’s screen has hyper-saturated colors. Think remastered Wizard of Oz saturated. It’s a matter of personal preference, but this saturation doesn’t bother me. It's high contrast, with the blackest blacks you’ll find (black pixels in AMOLED displays don’t emit any light).

But the real draw of this screen is, again, its size. It will quickly make you forget how huge and gaudy the thing looked at first glance.

Performance

The phablet's backing is a plastic removable battery cover

There’s nothing wrong with benchmarks. They’re the closest we have to a scientific measurement of a device’s raw performance.

But all of the geeky one-upmanship over them gets a little silly. Why? Because we’re at the point where every recent high-end smartphone is going to blaze through most apps you throw at it.

So unless you’re worrying about future-proofing for software that will be made two years from now, benchmark wars boil down to an obsession over minor differences between Beastly Phone A and Kick-Ass Phone B.

That applies to the Note 2. Despite having been on the market for six months, it’s still one of the faster phones you can buy. It didn’t remotely struggle with anything I threw at it.

It’s quick, smooth, and responsive. Its 1.6 GHz quad core Exynos processor is a powerhouse. Jelly Bean’s Project Butter performance improvements help too.

Will newer devices beat its benchmarks? Yep.

What will this mean for 99 percent of us? Not a damn thing.

My advice is to enjoy your ridiculously fast phone (or phablet), and take minor performance differences with grains of salt. Unless you’re still using it three years from now, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many apps that will push it to its limits.

Camera

This untouched picture shows the capabilities of the Note's camera

The Galaxy Note II takes outstanding pictures. The shot above wasn’t processed at all. In daylight, it will capture vivid colors and lots of detail.

It also performs surprisingly well in medium-lit indoor shots. For low lighting situations, it does as adequately as you could ask it to.

I won’t blabber on about the camera. Most recent high-end smartphones have terrific cameras, and can easily replace a point-and-shoot for most users. The Note II is a card-carrying member of that club.

Software

The Note has some cool stylus-integrated software features

The Note II runs Android. My review unit (on Verizon) ran Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, but other models are on 4.1.2.

Either way, this is a full version behind Google’s latest (4.2.2). I didn’t find this to be a problem (4.2 Jelly Bean is a minor update over 4.1 Jelly Bean), but if you’re worried about that sort of thing, you might want to look into the Galaxy S 4 or a Nexus device.

You get the full suite of Google apps. Say hello to the excellent Gmail, Google Maps (navigation looks great on the huge display), and YouTube.

If you haven’t yet discovered Google Now, you’re in for a treat. It kicks the virtual ass of Apple’s Siri, with faster voice recognition and handy predictive capabilities (as long as you don’t mind uploading your life to Google’s servers). It’s quicker access to the information you’re looking for, without Siri’s tiresome spunkiness.

And then there’s TouchWiz. The Note 2’s version of Samsung’s custom skin is more than just an aesthetic facelift. Some of its cool details:

  • Press a finger on the lockscreen while rotating your phone into landscape mode, and the camera will launch.
  • Forget to replace the stylus, and the Note will make a noise to alert you.
  • Drag two apps over from the sidebar, and use them simultaneously, in multi-window mode.
  • While you’re using the Note, its display will stay lit. But if you put it on a table and walk away, it will dim. Yep, facial recognition. Cool.

These are just a few of the nice touches Samsung threw in. The star of the show, though, is the already-covered S Pen integration. Samsung’s software achieved the impossible: it makes a stylus fun to use again.

Battery life

The Flip Cover protects the screen when not in use

Did I mention the battery on this thing? It’s flipping outstanding.

While testing the Note II, I used it as my primary mobile device: replacing both smartphone and tablet. On workdays, I was on it for a good portion of the day. Lots of web browsing, messaging, and reading. I shifted between Wi-Fi and LTE. Brightness stayed at 75 percent or higher.

The result? Its battery never dipped below 40 percent before the day was over.

If you can drain this bad boy in a day, then I tip my hat to you. You either spent your entire day playing Modern Combat 4 with the screen’s brightness cranked up, or you’re the world’s most hardcore power user.

The bottom line: 99 percent of us have nothing to worry about here. This battery is a beast. Expect iPad-like uptime.

LTE

Not every version of the Galaxy Note II has 4G LTE radios. And your local carrier might not support LTE anyway.

If you can get LTE, though, you’re in for a treat. Upload speeds, download speeds, latency (the absence of lag), and indoor penetration are all terrific. Verizon has great coverage in my area, and its LTE is like having a great Wi-Fi network everywhere you go.

If you don’t have LTE, though, you might still enjoy HSPA+ (“4G”) speeds. In some areas, its performance might not be too far off from LTE.

Check with your local carrier for the scoop.

Flip Cover

The Note II harkens back to the days of PDAs

The entire time I used the Note II, I used it with Samsung’s Flip Cover. It’s a battery cover attached to a piece of plastic with felt lining. Remove the Note’s original battery cover, replace it with the Flip Cover, and you're good to go.

It covers the Note’s huge screen when you aren’t using it. You can use it as a kickstand when watching videos. It also makes the Note more comfortable to hold, folding back and acting as a sort of hand-cushion.

Maybe it was related to the whole patent litigation mess, but the Flip Cover lacks the capabilities of the iPad Smart Cover. You know: turn the screen on when you open it, turn it off when you close it. That would have worked well here.

A bigger issue is that the Flip Cover isn’t great for photography. You can't leave it folded back, because it blocks the lens. So when you're framing a shot, there’s a giant flap hanging down below the screen. It makes it trickier to grip the device and reach across to change settings or manually focus.

If you can live with those two issues, though, the Flip Cover is a great addition to the Note II. Isn't it appropriate that a pen-operated device opens and closes like a book?

Wrap-up

I can’t tell you whether you’ll want to buy the Galaxy Note II or not. A huge phone like this definitely isn’t for everyone.

But if you’ve avoided phablets like the plague because of their absurd size, you might want to at least give it a chance. Go to a store, and play with one. Borrow a friend's. Whatever it takes.

Because that absurd size also has some absurd advantages. Get used to that spacious, gorgeous screen – and the retro-innovative S Pen input – and you might start to rethink your phablet prejudice.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
9 Comments

I watched a person using a Galaxy Note with a stylus; it reacted to a hover as well as a touch. Touch is good, but a stylus combines greater accuracy with more options.

A big screen that fits in a pocket, a stylus to give pin-point accuracy, a phone, perhaps full computer applications, 12 mp cameras ...these are about to happen.

Threesixty
31st March, 2013 @ 03:01 am PDT

I have it since its release and it is the best DEVICE (note i do not say phone) i ever had (and believe me i have many). It is complete product capable of anything you trow at it.

DaveBG
1st April, 2013 @ 05:56 am PDT

Good review. I have had mine for a month and am loving all the features and 4G speed. I leave it on for wifi search and the battery lasts and lasts. My wife takes it for Sudoku and jewels when she can get me to let go of it and she uses the stylus every time. It replaced a Droid 3 with a slider keyboard and I use my voice and swipe typing without a hiccup.

Bill Felkey
2nd April, 2013 @ 09:42 am PDT

Looking to upgrade my phone with the Note II. Read somewhere that the Verizon version was stripped of features, such as wireless charging and Google Wallet, among others. Anyone know if there is any truth to this? I am a VZW customer and was hesitating to purchase after reading this review. Thanks.

PhabAddicted
4th April, 2013 @ 05:04 am PDT

There is an app called proximity sensor that make the flip cover turn the phone off and on just using the cover. Works well but you may need to paste an extra extra thin card stock inside the cover to make it work.

Which is the other problem with the cover as the screen can sense touches on the cover if the device is on. The extra card helps with that as well.

All in all I agree with the other comment - the BEST device on the market period! Also I have 3 batteries so even if I do use the battery up while I am out, a quick 2 minute change and I am good to go.

BSW
4th April, 2013 @ 10:21 am PDT

I've had mine for about two weeks and it definitely works for me. I miss pocket pcs. I miss my iMate k-jam. Note 2 combined all the features I need and want with some extras thrown in.

Battery power is not a big issue for me because I always have one or two spares for every mobile or device I use. My data plan is unlimited and I keep it on 24/7 together with tether.

Size is just right. I didn't have adjustment problems.

Performance is great. Am back playing mmorpg and on mobile.

Joey Magno-Sotto
12th April, 2013 @ 09:59 am PDT

I just upgraded to this phablet from an HTC Incredible 2 a few days ago and I was IN LOVE the moment I found out Swype was already integrated. I have yet to figure out all of it's functions but what I have discovered has been excpetional.

The screen itself def makes it harder to appreciate any other phone. I have yet to really run down the battery, even with heavy use. And I love the quick access to the camera! That's a big deal for me when they stopped having dedicated camera buttons.

I am waiting on a case and screen protectors from amazon (def recommend). I wanted the flip cover, but glad I read about it blocking the camera. That is downer for me. Overall, this phab is phab-u-let! ;)

Ra E Dayton
22nd April, 2013 @ 11:24 am PDT

Very interesting article. Jut acquired a new Galaxy NOTE II, and find it marvellous. It definitely outshines iPhone 5. It is a pity I renewed my UK mobile number contract and got iPhone 5 but hardly use it when in France. The NOTE II on my French number outstrips anything that iPhone 5 does or can do.

Just convinced my friend and she acquired NOTE II yesterday, identical to mine - white with the lovely flip cover !!!

Having said all above, I am bit perplexed when I want to copy photos from NOTRE II onto my PC, as they appear "inverted" i.e. upside down which is annoying. Am I to rotate each one of the 15o photos I have taken????? Can anyone advise pleeeeeeease. Thanks in advance.

NRD
9th May, 2013 @ 05:55 am PDT

Great article, but has the 64GB version been released anywhere? Hopefully the 64GB Note 3 will come out the day of the launch. That is if they make a 64GB version.

Vojt Ted Barys
20th May, 2013 @ 10:57 am PDT
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