When Samsung launched the original Galaxy Note late last year, the unique smartphone/tablet hybrid’s huge screen and impressive performance made it an ideal choice for multimedia fans.
Its successor is now bigger than ever and packed with stunning power and features, but you’ll need big hands and a large wallet to fully enjoy it.
The new design is in line with Samsung’s stunning Galaxy S III and the chassis looks great. You can choose from white or titanium colour schemes and each carries its own uniquely high-end style. The high gloss finish on the rear easily picks up smudges, fingerprints and scuffs, however, so adequate protection is advised.
That’s not to say the device is poorly built, though. The tough Gorilla Glass 2 screen and firm plastic chassis provide a high-quality feel and we liked how well-made it felt throughout. Only the removable rear panel feels a bit flimsy, but this goes towards keeping the device as thin and light as Samsung could possibly make 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 to hold, 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 onscreen options. This is a phone made to be used with two hands.
With its whopping 5.5-inch screen, the sheer size is sure to divide opinion. For every person that loves the extra space it provides for watching movies and browsing the web, there will be just as many that find its cumbersome size ridiculous and unrealistic for use as their main smartphone.
Whatever your feelings towards its size, there’s no denying the quality of the Super AMOLED screen. While the 720 x 1280 pixel resolution is slightly lower than the 800 pixel width of the original Galaxy Note, images are rendered beautifully, photos and videos are brought to vivid life and the screen looks stunning.
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. And you can easily lower colour saturation to a more natural level, if you prefer, with a quick trip to the Screen Mode settings menu.
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 all 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. And as with the original Galaxy Note, though, usability is further enhanced by Samsung’s handy and powerful S Pen stylus.
The stylus measures 112mm long and slots neatly in 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 pre-installed S Pen-compatible apps to get you started.
Taking notes, drawing pictures and adding annotations to files are easy 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 ability to pinpoint the stylus’ position even when it’s held away from the screen.
For instance, by holding the button and double-tapping the screen with the stylus, a handy notepad pops up onscreen. 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, or doodling if you’re speaking to someone particularly boring.
When the stylus is held up to 1cm away from the screen, it also creates a mouse cursor which can be hovered over images and videos, or calendar events, to create a popup preview of whatever you’re highlighting. This is not as useful as it sounds, however, as the previews are barely larger than the thumbnails you hover over.
While the idea of using a stylus harkens back to the dark-ages of tablet computing, before the iPad’s easy touch usability revolutionised the industry, 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 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 as the high-powered Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC One X and Apple iPhone 5 and performance puts its rivals in shade.
Benchmark tests revealed a level of power far ahead of these market-leading devices and the effect in daily use is evident. The Galaxy Note II sped through everything we threw at it, making light work of multitasking and smoothly running high-definition video. If you’re after the most powerful phone you can buy, this is it.
Staggeringly, this power doesn’t come at the cost of battery life. Packing a huge 3100mAh battery – 1000mAh more than the Galaxy S III and 600mAh more than the original Galaxy Note – we were able to watch movies for more than 10 hours before recharging, adding to the excellent multimedia usability.
There is also plenty of storage on offer, letting you load the device with all your photos, videos and music. A choice of 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models are available and you can add as much as an extra 64GB of storage via MicroSD card. The card reader is handily located next to the battery, for easily switching cards on the fly.
Unfortunately the 8-Megapixel rear-facing camera lets the side down slightly, delivering images that are firmly average. But its excellent array of settings and features compensates somewhat, helping raise the camera above its humdrum image quality and making it easy to capture 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 choose from a range of photo modes, such as Best Face, Low Light and Smile Shot, to quickly 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, such as the new Apple iPhone 5, and lets you take wraparound panoramic images with just one click, while the latter rapidly captures multiple images with a tap of the camera button.
To capture a panoramic photo, you just line up your first shot, tap the camera’s shutter button and then slowly move the camera left or right. It then automatically captures all the required images as you pan the phone left or right and then stitches them all together into a single panoramic image.
Results aren’t quite as good as on the iPhone 5, which set a new benchmark for how easy and powerful a panoramic mode can be on a smartphone, and it’s often clear where the images are stitched together, but it still works well and lets you get some impressive results – particularly when snapping landscapes.
Burst Mode is better still and captures up to twenty photos in quick succession when you hold down the shutter button. Ideal for sports and action shots, it’s a handy feature that we’d like to see provided on more smartphones. Although of course you can fill your storage quite quickly with the volume of shots it captures.
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 back in July, we’ve still yet to see many smartphones launch with this excellent software preinstalled, so its presence here is welcome.
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 to feel at home right away, there are enough advanced features behind the scenes for experts to tweak settings to their heart’s content and enjoy the full power of the 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, you can use S-Voice to speak to the phone and have it recognise your voice and react to your commands – although the results aren’t always quite as accurate as you’d like.
Another feature that we were pleased to see is that the Galaxy Note II offers full NFC support. While NFC use is still sporadic and in its early stages, the ability to synchronise and share data with compatible devices, such as the Galaxy S III, is a welcome one and adds to the already excellent specification of this handset.
And the Galaxy Note II also packs full 4G LTE support, letting you enjoy the fastest internet connections when using a compatible network. While 4G is still in its early stages in the UK, it’s great to see support included here, as it future-proofs the device and ensures you can enjoy cutting-edge mobile connectivity as soon as it becomes more widespread.
Although we were sure we would find the Galaxy Note II to be too large to be comfortably used as our main smartphone, its stunning performance, great specification and fantastic screen quality quickly erased any doubts we had. And once we’d gotten 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 a market for big-screened handsets such as this. And by improving on its already excellent predecessor, the Galaxy Note II is the ultimate phone/tablet hybrid and a stunning mobile multimedia device.
While the sheer size of the Galaxy Note II is likely to deter many smartphone buyers, there’s no denying the power and quality of this fantastic device. As long as you can live with its size and weight you’ll find it to be a cutting-edge handset that is capable of far more than the average smartphone.
And although a couple of minor missteps – namely the camera quality and lower-than-we’d-like screen brightness – hold it back it from greatness, this is still a stunning smartphone and another great addition to Samsung’s Galaxy range.