The Samsung Galaxy Note II has a 5.5-inch display on the diagonal, which is arguably its defining feature. It’s for people who want an unapologetically big smartphone. Or really, a phablet—a device that strives to be equal parts smartphone and tablet, and in this it generally succeeds.
Like Samsung’s Galaxy S III smartphone, it feels like a lot of device, in multiple regards. But while I found the size of the Galaxy S III at times overwhelming, I felt differently about the Note II. It’s more obviously a small tablet than a giant smartphone, so toting it around over a weekend I had different expectations of it and so found it more pleasant to use. There was no thought of it fitting into the shallow pocket of a fall jacket, so I never tried to put it there. Accepted for what it is, the Note II offers a number of unique delights.
For this reason—and because the Note II is fast and gorgeous and takes beautiful photos and is a pleasure to watch videos on and do a number of things one generally prefers to use a tablet or laptop for than a smartphone—I expect Samsung will sell as many of these as it has its last four devices. In September, Samsung introduced the Note II as its “fifth iconic device in 12 months.”
Sprint will begin selling the Note II Oct. 25 for $299.99. For the same price, AT&T will begin offering it Nov. 9—it will be AT&T’s first smartphone with a quad-core processor—and within weeks if not days it will also arrive on the Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular networks.
An Android device, the Note II runs version 4.1—Jelly Bean. Google calls this the “fastest and smoothest” version of Android yet, with its main benefits being a more “fast, fluid and smooth” user experience, to again borrow from Google. More specifically, it adds Android Beam, for sharing photos and videos, offers an improved browser with better support for animations and HTML5, brings a handful of new features to the camera, is smarter about data usage, includes Face Unlock, and, among dozens of other new features, improves the keyboard with a better dictionary and seamless recognition of other languages.
It came as a quick surprise and delight when the Note II understood that I was typing a Pinyin word—the way of writing Chinese with Latin letters—in an otherwise English email and offered the word before I’d finished typing.
Samsung Galaxy Note II, With Android Jelly Bean, Demands Attention
Of Samsung’s four other recent handsets, it’s the original Note that Samsung, of course, expects the Note II to be compared to, and happily. That quad-core processor is far faster than the dual-core on the original Note and the Note II’s battery lasts 25 percent longer, though the devices essentially come in at the same weight.
And while the Note featured a 5.3-inch display, Samsung slimmed the bezel around the Note II’s display, enabling the viewing area to grow to 5.5 inches while making the overall size increase hardly noticeable. In fact, the Note II is slightly thinner and narrower than the Note.
Other differences involve the S Pen stylus, which is now thicker and longer, so it’s easier to hold, and has different—softer and more resistant—pen tips, so users can choose which feels best to them. The tip of the S Pen can also now be moved along the bar of a video, so a user can see the action (and cut to the part they’d like) without watching the whole thing.
Note II users also have the option of beaming content to other Note II users, with Android S Beam, and the way the device handles photos is new—images in an album can be viewed in a climbing spiral or in a “galaxy far, far away” fashion, and for group photos, there’s the ability to snap a handful of photos at once and use a combination of the best individual expressions from each. All these deliver as promised and are easy to use.
Call quality was also good—crisp—and though I tried to avoid it, holding the Note II to my head to make a call wasn’t as awkward as I’d expected. (Jefferies analyst Peter Misek has likened speaking into the Galaxy S III to holding a waffle to the head.) The Note II reminded me of holding, well, a telephone.
Really, though, the extras—and the Note II, like the Galaxy S III, is packed with them—are what they are. The world had no great need for a spiral-view photo album or to be able to tap or shake the phone to make it do something that can be accomplished with a finger swipe. If people are going to buy the Note II, it’s very likely for its display, its camera, its battery life and its tablet functionality.
Samsung Galaxy Note II, With Android Jelly Bean, Demands Attention
The size of the display, and its crispness, make it a pleasure to do everything from emailing to using Google Maps; it’s simply easy to see and manipulate apps. The battery stood up to all I asked of it. While I often find my phone dead in my shoulder bag, if I leave it there overnight, the Note II, after on-and-off use over Saturday and Sunday, still had juice to spare when I plugged it in Monday morning.
But what impressed me most about the Note II was the rear camera. There are lots of options and features and filters, it’s easy to move between the front and back cameras, as well as between photos and video modes, and one can even pause during recording and then restart—an actually very helpful feature. But, really, it’s the display that makes taking and viewing images and video so satisfying—the size is nice, of course, but it’s the resolution and how saturated but crisp it makes images look that made it a treat to use.
The display is a Super AMOLED (active-matrix organic LED) with 16 million colors and a resolution of 720 by 1280. Together, these make each photo—particularly in bright light—seem better than the last. Transferred to my MacBook, the photos still look good, but they didn’t pop the way they did on the Note II. As much as sharing photos—and Samsung has included lots of ways to do this—I just wanted to show them off on the Note II’s display.
As for the Note II’s tablet functionality, this is rather well-trodden ground, as the Note and Note 10.1 also paired an S Pen with applications meant to offer the user the perks of handwritten input. In theory, these apps are a great idea, but in execution, they’re often frustrating to use. I found them not intuitive—there were things I knew were possibilities, but I couldn’t naturally figure out how to do them. Even when I turned to Google for answers, I couldn’t always find them. That feels like too much work, which suggests a need to improve the design of the S Note apps.
Indeed, there’s a lot of figuring out that goes into taking advantage of all of the Note II’s capabilities, which are considerable—windows are constantly popping up, showing the user shortcuts and tips and tricks, far more of them than I could remember or that eventually felt like fun or convenience. I have to wonder whether, with time, a user actually learns all of these or just figures out the three or four he likes and then ignores the rest.
Another design quibble: The power button is directly opposite the volume buttons. Whether holding the Note II from the front or the back, one has to be very conscious of trying to push one without pushing the other.
By the broad strokes, though, this is a great device, and one that millions of people are likely to feel excited to have with them on a long flight, or when stuck in a line, or even when needing to look over business documents, whether in the office or out. More than a follow-up to the Note, it seemed to me an appropriate follow-up to the Galaxy S III. Once committed to a size that, for most people, is unrealistic to use with one hand, you might as well go all the way.