• Design
  • Display
  • Performance
  • Software
  • Battery Life

The Samsung Galaxy Note II has quite a bit to live up to. The original Note may not have been a mass market hit, nor was it the most popular or most talked about device, but it did get one thing right. It stood right on the line between smartphone and tablet, creating a niche following and helping to build a new product category of massive, nearly tablet sized smartphones. (I refuse to call them “phablets.”)

In a way, this makes the Note II’s job both easier and harder. It isn’t such a stretch to think of having a massive phone as before the original Note gained – dare I say it – notability, but this also means that the Galaxy Note II isn’t really an exciting new product. It is simply a more refined version of the previous Note, which also builds on Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

As a result, the smartphone should satisfy owners of the original Note, as well as perhaps draw in some new users who want a larger smartphone. However, can the Note II stand on its own and make a case for the middle ground between phone and tablet, and is it a worthwhile upgrade for users searching for a regular Android smartphone? Read on to find out.

Quick Specs

At least on paper, the Galaxy Note II is a very impressive smartphone. Packed into the admittedly large 5.9 x 3.1 x 0.3 inch frame is a quad-core 1.6GHz Cortex A9 processor, paired with a Mali-400 GPU and a full 2GB of RAM. The display is a large 5.5-inch Super AMOLED panel, sporting a resolution of 1280 x 720.

Connectivity includes LTE, Wifi a/b/g/n, DLNA, WiFi direct, and NFC. A microUSB MHL port provides charging and HDMI out capabilities, while the microSD card slot allows for more expansion of storage in addition to the 16GB of built in storage.

A fairly large 3,100mAh battery powers the whole show, including many sensors such as the  accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, barometer, and light sensor. Samsung also made the back cover of the device removable, allowing users to access and replace the battery, microSD card, and access the microSIM card.

Packaging

As usual, there isn’t too much to say about this device’s packaging other than that it was quite effective in getting the device to me unscathed. There weren’t any particularly exciting accessories included in the box, nor was the packaging any different from most other smartphones sold today. Still, for a closer look at what comes in the Note II’s box, you can check out my previous Note II unboxing.

Hardware

As I mentioned in my unboxing, the Note II reminds me much more of the Galaxy S III than the original Note. Just like the S III, the Note II is remarkably light even for its size, although when compared to the iPhone 5 it still feels a bit heavy. (And it certainly looks quite bulky.)

The materials used in the Note II are Samsung’s usual stock: durable, but cheap feeling plastics. The entire device is rounded, and there are no sharp edges to be found. Every edge seems to melt into the next, giving the entire device a very smooth feeling. It doesn’t exactly feel rugged, but while the plastic detracts from the premium feel of the device, it does help to avoid the entire thing feeling fragile.

As usual, the top of the device houses the speaker, front camera, light sensors, and Samsung logo. Except for the speaker, these are all underneath the glass, allowing for a very smooth finish. The speaker itself looks small, but is actually plenty loud, and the silver cover both keeps dirt out quite well and accents the rest of the phone’s darker body.

The bottom of the device houses a physical home key and two capacitive buttons, not helping Google’s quest to switch to virtual buttons in Android devices. On the left of the home buttons is the menu button, and on the right is a back button. These capacitive buttons work fine, but the backlight goes dark much too quickly, which can lead to missed button presses if you don’t already know the layout.

In addition, while the menu button works fine, it is in direct defiance of Google’s new design guidelines. For now, the menu access for various apps simply switches from an interface element to the physical button, but that may not work forever.

On the bottom of the device is the standard microUSB port, in addition to the well hidden S-Pen. The USB port supports MHL, but other than that has no surprises. The S-Pen storage is also designed quite well, good enough that I often forgot that the device actually has a pen in it at all times. The pen slot also has sensors to detect whether the pen is in the device, which come in handy for some software features that will be mentioned later.

In traditional Samsung placement, the power button is found on the right side of the device, just about where your thumb should rest naturally if you hold the device in your right hand. Since the Note is larger than other phones, this meas that the button is actually further down the device and closer to the middle of the bezel. The action of the button is good, if just a little too soft, allowing for it to be pressed accidentally in pockets and the like.

Slightly higher up than the power button and on the opposite side of the device is the volume rocker. Other than being perhaps a bit small, it too works quite well and has the same sort of feel as the power button.

At the top of the device, Samsung has placed a noise cancelling microphone and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. I, for one, am not a big fan of this placement. I much the headphone jack on the bottom of the device, which is where it was on my Galaxy Nexus. (In fact, I think that the bottom headphone jack may have been a trend that Samsung pioneered back in the PMP days.)

Placement on the bottom of the device simply makes it easier to put the device into pockets, and means that it is oriented correctly when it is removed. The difference is realistically minor, but those of you who are used to the lower placement for headphone jacks will likely know what I am talking about when I say that this configuration is just a little bit annoying.

The back of the device is a glossy Samsung plastic, with a brushed metal appearance. Despite the decent looking fake metal, the back is just a slippery and cheap feeling as ever. In the Galaxy S III review, I noted that while cheap feeling, the plastic used by Samsung is quite durable, and the back covers can be bent nearly in half without a problem. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the device doesn’t feel cheap, which to an extent the Note II certainly does.

I won’t get into the hardware details of the S-Pen here since most of its uses stem from Samsung’s software, but I will say that in addition to being well hidden, the pen is a good size and feels very sturdy. The chrome tip might seem a bit flashy, but its actual purpose is to allow the pen to blend in with the Note II’s bezel, which it does quite well.

The back of the device also houses the 8MP camera with flash, which are position in the center and look, once again, much like the S III. The only complaint that I have with the camera is that it is raised slightly, making it more prone to scratches. However, the actual camera glass is recessed within the silver bezel, which should help avoid most problems.

Android purists are sure to welcome the removable back cover, plastic or not. While it feels like it will break when you peel it off, somehow the plastic manages to stay together, and the inside of the back cover is revealed. The removable battery is quite large, but still leaves space for the camera, microSIM slot, and microSD card slot. Because the device has 16GB of included memory, the SD slot is empty and ready for expansion.

As a whole, I have to say once again that the Galaxy Note II reminds me quite a bit of the Galaxy S III stretched out a little bigger. From the smooth and rounded “pebble” feel, to the plastic construction, physical home button, and centered camera, the Note II is essentially a bigger S III.

The S-Pen slot is one major change and integrated well, but otherwise Samsung makes no attempts to offset the physical size of the device with its design. The Note II isn’t really very thin or particularly light, and is nearly too wide to be used comfortably in one hand. As a result, while the hardware is just as solid as that of the Galaxy S III, the in hand feel simply isn’t as good. Those with larger hands might find the Note II great, but if the Galaxy S III is a good size for you, then the Note II will feel just a bit unwieldy.

Screen

The 5.5-inch display is an area in which the Note II should shine, and it does. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shine quite as much as it might have. The 1280 x 720 resolution is good, but it isn’t any higher than the resolutions found on much smaller smartphones. As a result, the pixel density of the display is only about 267ppi, compared to the iPhone 5′s 326ppi and Nexus 4′s 320ppi.

Fortunately, this difference isn’t really very noticeable in most situations. AMOLED technology makes the display look extremely good, with colors that pop and true blacks. The one area where AMOLED displays usually have a little bit of trouble is brightness, and while the Note II isn’t quite up to the same brightness levels as the HTC One X, the display still looks very good. It passes the bright sunlight test by remaining readable, which means that the highest brightness setting should be sufficient for most people.

For the most part, the display on the Galaxy Note II will work great for all situations. It is clear, bright, colorful, and looks good in pretty much any light. However, the pixel density may be an issue for some, but for the most part the display’s quality is quite good.

Display size is a slightly different story. Intended to place the Note II nearly into the category of small tablets, the 5.5-inch display is quite big for a phone. The Note II still fits in most pockets, and can be used one handed, but most times seems a bit too big. At times, such as when watching Netflix or browsing the web on the couch, the larger display is a very nice thing to have. Most other times, though, the display only serves to make the regular interface a bit larger, which isn’t all that useful. So, while the display certainly looks good and the larger size is advantageous for certain activities, it does have some drawbacks mostly in the size category.

Software

While the Galaxy Note II is currently running a customized version of Android 4.1.1, Samsung’s customizations make the device’s software almost identical to the Galaxy S III’s Android version. In fact, most everything that you need to know about the Galaxy Note II’s version of Android can be found in the Galaxy S III’s software review, apart from a few changes such as Google Now and expandable notifications. As a result, this section may be a bit shorter than usual, but you should still be able to get a good idea of how the Note II’s software works.

Still, there are some things that make the Note II unique, and some aspects of Samsung’s software that are worth revisiting. Also, while I actually liked the version of TouchWiz on the Galaxy S III to an extent, the same software expanded to the Note II doesn’t really work for me, something I’ll explain further later.

First, I’ll start with something positive. The Note II can respond to a limited set of contextual changes and suggest related actions, such as pulling up media apps when you plug in your headphones. The screen seen on the left is actually an extra homescreen that disappears and reappears as needed, but the fact that it pops up whenever you plug headphones in can get a bit annoying. The more subtle notification bar shortcuts are much better in my opinion, but take away valuable real estate from the actual notifications that you probably want to see.

There aren’t too many preloaded bloat apps on the Galaxy Note II, but there are enough that it is clear quite a few people had a hand in the app selection. Verizon includes its “My Verizon Mobile,” “Voicemail,” “VZ Navigator,” and “Mobile Hotspot” apps, Sprint includes “Music Hub,” “Music Player,” “S Note,” “S Suggest,” S Voice,” and “Viewdini.” Other non-stock apps include “AllShare Play,” “Amazon,” “Kindle,” “Audible,” “Group Cast,” “Help,” “Kies Air,”Setup Wizard,” “Polaris Office,” and “NFL Mobile.” While the case could be made that some of these apps are useful to have (although many clearly aren’t), the fact still remains that the Galaxy Note II is loaded with quite a few third-party apps from the factory that users may or may not want.

A particularly odd inclusion in the list is the Zappos app, which I wouldn’t have noticed had it not prompted me to update just today. I don’t have anything against Zappos, but the clear inclusion of an app that has nothing to do with Samsung, Verizon, or Android devices in general is such an obvious advertisement that I was quite surprised to find it on a flagship product.

One of the most unique features of the Galaxy Note II is the S-Pen, an accessory found on only a few Samsung devices including the original Note and the Galaxy Note 10.1. While the S-Pen works quite well and is conveniently stored inside the device, I simply struggled to find a good use for it. It isn’t much better than typing for grocery lists, I’d rather take notes on paper or with a keyboard than with the S-Pen, and I don’t use the Note II for the kind of content creation suggested by the above screen, which displays when the pen is removed from the device. I have a feeling that some people would find the S-Pen quite useful, but for me it is more of a novelty than a useful feature. Of course, our own Bryan also has a Note II, and will likely have a different opinion than I do after learning to get the most out of the S-Pen (stay tuned).

Instead of Chrome, which ships with all Android versions 4.1 and higher (and as such should have been loaded on the Galaxy Note II), Samsung included its own browser. It works quite well, with smooth scrolling and zooming, although the performance may be more related to hardware than software. The animations and tab switching are quite flashy, and the browser may support Chrome bookmark sync, although I didn’t find the setting. While the stock browser actually works quite well, if I had a Note II for personal use one of my first downloads would be Chrome simply because I know it works and it is what I am used to using on all my other devices.

One of the interesting features of the Note II, while not Samsung specific, is the different homescreen setups. Samsung includes a few, along the lines of “Media,” “Work,” and “Home,” and also allows user to customize their own. While HTC Sense has a similar feature, it really isn’t present in stock Android. While some may find it useful, I tend to setup one set of homescreens and stick with it, so profiles aren’t an important feature for me.

More unique to Samsung are the various motion and gesture actions found in the “Motion” menu. I didn’t try out very many since I simply had no reason to, but these simple shortcuts allow you to use certain gestures and actions to perform tasks. I don’t doubt that those used to this setup will find it useful, but it takes a while to get useful.

The notification area on the Note II is very functional, but also quite cluttered. At the top, a horizontally scrolling bar of toggles allows the user to access various common and not-so-common functions, from standard connectivity to the multi window popup up. The brightness setting is included below this area, with a persistent slider and checkbox.

Bizarrely, a smaller WiFi toggle is omitted in favor of a larger notification that shows the name of the network, but doesn’t even toggle WiFi on and off. Not only does this limit notification space, it also isn’t as useful as a simple toggle. Once you get past all the clutter, the Note II’s notification bar is much like any other, but you still won’t be able to see very many notifications at once.

One of the few examples other than the multi window of Samsung taking advantage of the Note II’s screen size is the keyboard. Instead of hiding the number row, it is always visible above the keys. This makes many things more efficient, but actually slows me down when typing common phrases such as my password. Since I’ve typed my password for so long on the stock Android keyboard, part of the memorized motion is hitting the symbol key and finding the numbers where the top row of letters were. Otherwise, the Samsung keyboard works quite well, and also includes a decent Swype-like feature.

The multitasking interface has been only slightly modified by Samsung, and includes shortcuts to a task manager, Google, and a button to kill all open apps. The task manager shortcut simply opens the “Running Apps” portion of the settings, while the “Google” and “Remove All” buttons both perform exactly as you would expect.

The last interestingly unique bit of software on the Note II is the dual screen feature, which takes advantage of the Note’s large display to display two different applications at the same time. The number of applications that support this feature is fairly slim, but it actually works surprisingly well. The notification toggle from the previous section brings up a small tab on the side of the display, which when tapped brings up a list of possible dual screen applications. From there, you simply have to drag the application that you want onto the screen, and it will appear. From there, you can change the size of each app, force the two windows to switch places, or return to fullscreen mode. Once again, this was an interesting feature, but due to the small size of the individual windows, one that isn’t very useful in regular use.

It may seem contradictory to say, but this time around I don’t really like Samsung’s TouchWiz or how it works with the device. It functions quite well, and all the features you would expect are there. It even has a couple of unique options, such as the multi window feature and motion controls.

However, it simply doesn’t seem suited for a flagship smartphone.It may be because Samsung simply took TouchWiz and expanded it to the fit the larger display (the homescreen doesn’t even hold any more icons than the S III), but TouchWiz on the Note II just feels a little bit awkward. The cartoonish aspects of TouchWiz are exaggerated by the large size of nearly all UI elements, the colors don’t look very serious or professional, the loud drop, pop, and click sounds are downright annoying, and only limited portions of the software actually take advantage of the huge display.

I may be a bit biased, but although TouchWiz works very well as a whole, I simply find the interface to be uninspiring, unprofessional, and even a bit garish at times. It almost doesn’t feel like Samsung took the Note II seriously, even though from a strictly technical standpoint everything works. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the combination of Android 4.1, TouchWiz, and Verizon customizations seem so flawed, but what I can say for certain is that I don’t like the stock software on the Note II at all. It works, and some people may not mind it, but in my opinion any number of custom solutions with a larger icon grid, less garish icons, and a simpler theme would have been better, even if it meant losing things like multi window apps and context based homescreens.

Performance

As you can see objectively in the benchmarks below, the Galaxy Note II is something of a performance monster. Between the 2GB of RAM and quad-core 1.6GHz processor, the device rarely felt anything but fast. Transitions are smooth, apps open quickly, there is virtually no lag, and the entire experience is generally smooth.

Videos and games also look great, and none ever had trouble running. Unlike with the Droid RAZR MAXX HD, I also didn’t have any compatibility issues because of the processor, meaning that the Note II should run anything that you throw at it. Although I may not like the software running the device, I can’t deny that it is a hardware powerhouse at this point, and runs extremely well not just for an Android device, but for a flagship smartphone in general.

Benchmarks

For those who prefer benchmarks to anecdotal evidence, here are some results from standard Android benchmark tests.

Quadrant

Vellamo

Linpack single and multi-thread

Antutu

Connectivity

The detailed connectivity information is mentioned in the “Quick Specs” portion of the review, but this portion focuses more on the wireless performance of the Note II’s radios. LTE is clearly the main event, as with most smartphones on the market right now. The included WiFi a/b/g/n works very well and has above average range, but there is little need for it simply because LTE is so fast. Even though I actually got slightly lower speedtest results than I have on other Verizon smartphones, you would be hard pressed to notice the difference in real life. Web pages on the Note II open extremely quickly, there is almost no wait for connected applications, and the connection speed in general is never a bottleneck, at least here in Atlanta.

Call quality was also very good, although the Note II wasn’t so much better than average to warrant commendation. In general, calls were clear and easy to hear from the speaker, and those on the other end of the line reported that microphone pickup was good, even in noisy and crowded areas. The speakerphone is also quite loud, and works much better than on my Galaxy Nexus. With Verizon’s coverage, I never dropped or missed a call, which is quite nice even though I rarely used the Note II for actual phone conversations.

Camera

I’ve never been a connoisseur of cameras, so I don’t usually go into too much detail when talking about them. For me, smartphone cameras work on a pass/fail system in my mind. Since I know that a smartphone camera still won’t replace my point and shoot or DSLR yet, the camera simply has to be “good enough” to take the kind of pictures that I need to take when I don’t have a dedicated camera, or when I forget to bring one.

However, I do have to say that I am quite impressed with the performance of the Galaxy Note II’s camera, particularly in lower light situations. The pictures do have the artifacts that always come with a smartphone camera, but at most sizes the images look very good. Not only that, the Note II’s camera focuses quickly and the shutter speed is nearly instant. Combined with the above average picture quality, this makes for a useful and practical smartphone camera.

In the images below, you can see both landscapes and close up images in varying degrees of light. The last two images are indoors, with the same pot photographed in the sunlight. When clicked, the images are their original size, and so may not fit well on all monitors.

        

Battery Life

Despite the somewhat impressive numbers above, I would have to say that battery life on the Galaxy Note II is only just a bit better than average. The numbers above include nearly a day of just standby time, whereas in regular use the Note II starts to get low on power at about eight or nine in the evening. Make no mistake, the Note II will power through an entire day of moderately heavy use, and outlasts my Nexus 4 on an objective basis, but it simply doesn’t have the battery life that I would expect from a device its size.

Naturally, the large display draws quite a bit of power, but due to the lower resolution it shouldn’t be so much more than a normally sized phone, and the extra space in the device should allow for a larger battery. So, while the 3,100mAh batter will certainly get you through a day, don’t expect to go much longer without looking for the charger.

Conclusion

I mentioned in my unboxing that my overall impression of the Galaxy Note II was that Samsung’s designers had taken a Galaxy S III, used the resize tool on it, and added a stylus. And this, I think, is the Galaxy Note II’s downfall. It isn’t bad, but it could have been better than it is. The larger screen size brings along ergonomic and portability downfalls that could be outweighed by features unique to the screen size, but in the end the Note II doesn’t do enough different from the Galaxy S III and other top Android devices.

I realize that the cumulative score is less than the average of each category score, but this is simply because I do realize that on paper the Galaxy Note II is a great phone. The specifications certainly outclass the S III, in theory the display is at least somewhat superior, the software has a couple of enhancements, and the battery is bigger. However, as a whole the Note II simply doesn’t put this all together in a coherent package that makes me want to buy it over the Galaxy S III or Nexus 4. It does many things right, but it simply isn’t great.

Even though I might trade my phone for a 7-inch HSPA+ tablet, to me the Samsung Galaxy Note II hasn’t made a strong enough case for me to get rid of both my Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 in favor of a massive smartphone. Instead of a good hybrid between the tablet and smartphone, the Galaxy Note II felt to me more like a large print Galaxy S III, which is a remark that one of my relatives actually made after seeing the device.

With the right software, ParanoidAndroid perhaps, the Note II could have been much better. Even then, I still don’t know if I would pick it over the combination of the Nexus 4 and Nexus 7. Not only are combined retail prices of the two Nexus devices close to the price of a single Note II, the two device setup has only one major compromise, and that is carrying around two devices. The Note II, though, has many. Its size makes it less practical as an actual phone, and even makes it annoying to carry around in a pocket, but the larger display isn’t really so large as to take advantage of tablet apps or two-pane content, and even if it could the stock software simply doesn’t.

The Galaxy Note II may make sense for some people (and indeed it does), but in the end it simply didn’t do what it need to (and perhaps could have) in order to make a case for itself over the S III, One X, and Nexus 4. Maybe I’m just not sold on the idea of a phone/tablet hybrid, or even just a huge phone, to begin with, but the Note II didn’t do anything to help convince me that it is such a useful product category.