This month—at least for me—has become the “review big phones” month. Just last week, I reviewed the new HTC DROID DNA for Verizon and now I’ve gotten my hands on the Samsung Galaxy Note II. This true “phablet” is a beast, not only from the outside, but on the inside too. Like I did for my review of the DROID DNA and probably most devices going forward, I’m going to review this phone based on my experience and not just provide a rundown list of where stuff is located and bullet points on specs. If you want all that jazz, then hit up the link at the bottom of the review, which will take you to Samsung’s website where you can read all about the Note II in glorious details. I’ll casually explain the specs, but in a way that makes sense as I used the device, so that this review will be understandable by not only the hardcore tech folks, but also the average consumer.
Let’s get to basics, this phone is a monster. If you have held the previous Note, then you can begin to imagine how big the Note II is, especially with a larger 5.5-inch display. If you have small, delicate hands… this phone is not for you. I just want to be blunt. The Note II is wide, tall and has a smooth back, that in smaller hands, could be difficult to hold. It’s also not exactly shy in the weight department either. After having used my DROID DNA for well over two weeks, which features a 5-inch display and yet only weighs 4.97oz, as compared to the Note II’s 6.46oz, I noticed the difference right away. While 2oz doesn’t sound like much, when it comes to a device you’re going to be carrying around everywhere, or even holding to your face during a 20 minute or longer phone call, trust me, you’ll notice. That all being said, it doesn’t mean that the Note II is a bad device, or even one that I wouldn’t recommend. It simply means that this device is for a very specific type of person. I’m not going to use stereotypes to generalize my statement, as I think you’ll understand, the point is, if you think the Galaxy S III is big, heavy and hard to hold, then you should shy away from this monster of a phone.
During my time with the Note II, I’ve come to really love the device’s speed. It uses the latest Exynos (4412) quad-core processor from Samsung, which enables the device to handle pretty much, if not everything, a user can throw at it. And because the Note II runs on Google’s Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean—which features Project Butter—the Note II is an extremely smooth device. When combined with 2GB of RAM, the Note II’s response time in games like EA Games’ Need for Speed: Most Wanted or ShadowGun: Deadzone is instant. In the time I’ve had the Note II—just like the DNA—I haven’t noticed a single bit of lag, be it in games, apps or just normal use of the phones interface. Simply put, the phone’s performance is fantastic and it’s easily on top of the Android world in terms of other power house phones, with devices like the DROID DNA, Nexus 4, Optimus G and the Galaxy S III.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy Note II—like the Galaxy S III—uses Samsung’s TouchWiz. I personally can’t stand these interface replacements that companies like HTC and Samsung slap on their Android devices. I understand that they want their devices to be unique, but it honestly kills the user experience, especially when Google’s worked so hard to make stock Android so great. That being said, like I did with the DROID DNA, I installed Apex Launcher and with a few icon changes, made my device look and feel like stock Android 4.1. This is how I prefer to use my Note II and pretty much any Android device that isn’t a Nexus.
The Note II has a 5.5-inch Super HD AMOLED display, with a resolution of 1280×720. This is the same resolution that is found in the 4.8-inch display of the Galaxy S III, however, due to the Note II’s 5.5-inch screen size, the resolution is diluted and brings the PPI (pixels-per-inch) down to just 267ppi. To put that into perspective, the smaller 4-inch iPhone 5 has 326ppi, while the DROID DNA’s (which features a 1080p display) 5-inch display has an astonishing 440ppi (or 441, depending on who you reference). The Note II’s display is nothing to sneeze at, it certainly isn’t as clear as the DNA or Nexus 4 or other 720p displays, that feature a smaller screen size. The Note II does feature Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2, which is thinner and stronger and will help device take a beating, which will come in handy when that display is repeated tapped with the included S-Pen.
Perhaps the biggest draw to the Note II, aside from its massive display, would be the use of Samsung’s S-Pen. The S-Pen is a basically a capacitive pen (replacing your finger), that uses WACOM’s pen/tablet technology which allows users to draw and write naturally on the phone’s display. With the Note II, Samsung added in a cool new feature, simply hover the pen over the display—about centimeter above it—and you’ll see a little blue circle appear on the screen. This circle tells the user where the pen will appear on the display, prior to actually touching it. It also allows you scroll up and down on certain apps without even touching the screen. The S-Pen feels more like it is part of the phone then just an afterthought or gimmick, unlike with the first Note. The Note II has more software that has been optimized for the Pen, even subtle things, like when you take the Pen out of the phone, it turns the device on and unlocks it. When you put it back, it makes a quick “swoosh” sound letting you know that it has been put back in place securely. Perhaps my favorite little attention to detail is when you tap the displays screen when on the lock screen. As with the Galaxy S III, the Note II features Samsung’s inspired by “Nature” lock screen, which looks like water ripples when you tap it with your finger, however, when tapped with the S-Pen, each tap looks like drops of blue ink spilled into water and then it disappears, it’s a very cool effect.
Being a trained artist, I immediately feel in love with the Note II’s S-Pen, especially when drawing in apps like SketchBook Mobile Express (by Autodesk). Because of the Note’s massive display, drawing on it was a breeze and because of S-Pen’s accurate detection, there was no lag to my drawing, it was like sketching on actual paper, pressure sensitivity and all. Here are a few examples of sketches I did on the Note II.
As a phone, the Note II works as well as the Galaxy S III, only it feels like you’re holding a small clipboard to your head. If you have a big head, I guess this isn’t a problem, but for me, it was slightly embarrassing. It didn’t stop me from using it though, but don’t be surprised to hear people mutter under their breath about your phone’s size. As an example, while shopping in Target, I was reading Twitter and over heard a girl tell her boyfriend, “look at the size of that phone!” In this case, I just smiled and thought to myself… yeah <insert any dirty thought here>. While speaking on the phone, I did find myself constantly trying to find the ear piece when it was pressed to my face, this is probably due to the odd size of the Note and it may be something that users could get use to over time. We’ll see. As for data, the Note II is a 4G LTE device and on Verizon’s network, it doesn’t disappoint. I was able to pull down some evry impressive LTE speeds. There was one issue, that I feel I need to discuss, as it sort of drove me nuts. When using the phone on a WiFi network I that I frequent, when I would leave the area, the WiFi should have disconnected. The Note even showed that I had no [WiFi] reception, yet it refused to switch back to cellular data. I tried putting the device to sleep, then waking it up again but to no avail. I had to shut it off and reboot. This happened a few times and can be annoying. I noticed that it only happens when I’m actively using the Note when breaking the connection. If I’m on a WiFi connection, then put it to sleep and walk away far from the connection, when I wake it up, it’s fine and auto connects to the Cellular network as intended.
The Note II comes with a massive 3100 mAh battery, which it needs to support the display and processor. I found my batter was draining quickly, if when the device was not in use. I had to disconnect some of my apps from syncing “behind the scenes.” I changed my wallpaper to something darker and lowered the brightness, to just over half. I know some people were concerned with the 2020 mAh battery found in the DNA, but I have to say that the DNA—for me, at least—out lasted the Note in every test. At the end of the day, the DROID DNA, under have usage, typically had about 25-30% left, the Note II would be down to about 10% – 14%. Either way, it lasted a whole day under heavy usage, so I don’t think most people would be disappointed, not to mention the Note II also has a removable battery, so you can always swap it out if you need more juice.
When it comes to taking pictures with the Note II, it’s right in line with the Galaxy S III, as it shares the same 8-megapixel camera and LED flash. Due to the quad-core processor, the Note II does take photos extremely quick, with almost no shutter lag. With a 5.5-inch display, users have a fantastic view finder when taking pictures or video. The Note II also shares some of the Galaxy S III’s great camera options, like burst mode (taking up to 20 pictures in about 3 seconds), best shot, and taking still shots while recording 1080p video. The Note II also features the same front-facing camera, a 1.9-megapixel shooter that works well for video chat, but that’s about it. One of the cool things about the Note II, is having the ability to take a quick picture, draw on it with the S-Pen and send it to a friend, all in a matter of seconds (or minutes if you prefer to draw a lot). You can also take screenshots (by holding the down the button on the S-Pen and hold then holding the tip of the S-Pen to the display for 2-seconds, you’ll hear a click) and draw on those too.
Camera Examples (Untouched, scaled to 1100px)
I was also lucky enough to try out the Note II’s new Flip Cover (the orange thing on the Note II in all the pictures). The flip cover is a case/cover hybrid. Rather than attach to the device over top of the existing hardware, the flip cover forces users to remove the Note II’s plastic back battery cover and snap on the replacement cover. Attached to the replacement battery door is a cover that has a flexible spine that allows users to open and close the cover like a book, while still remaining attached to the device’s back, all without adding any new thickness. On the outside of the cover, the surface feels like canvas, while on the other side, it’s a soft felt like material, which doesn’t scratch the display.
In the end, I can’t really say too many bad things about the Note II. I love it, maybe not as much as my DROID DNA, but it’s certainly a “fun” phone. I also can’t give the Note II any bad marks for being BIG, as that is certainly its appeal to many people. But I will say it’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re a fan of big phones, then you’ll more than likely love the Note II as well. Because of its weight, it feels sturdy, the display is clear enough, for its size, but it’s certainly no 1080p (maybe in the Note III) display like that of the DROID DNA. The S-Pen is a blast to play with, as I found myself using it for the gesture-based keyboard and just general navigation throughout the phone. There are a few WiFi hiccups that need to be addressed, but with 2GB of RAM and a snappy Exynos quad-core processor, games, apps and movies are a pleasure to experience on the device. If you’re on the fence about the Note II, the Galaxy S III or the DROID DNA, check them out at a local store, you may like the Note II’s look and feel, but prefer the Galaxy S III’s size to be more your style. The DNA is also another alternative for those looking for a big screened Android device, as it has the best display on the market, a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM as well, but it lacks the removable battery found in the Note II and GS III, as well as upgradeable storage. Overall, the Note II has more pluses than minuses, but is it the best Android device on the market? That’s debatable, but if you ask me, I’d say no, it’s not, but it is in my top three.