Samsung brought in their latest hybrid device, at a level between mobile and tablet device, but calling it a smartphone finally when they launched the Samsung Galaxy Note II. They had no reason but to just increase the number of sales of their “Note” range of smartphones, because the Galaxy Note first gen. had made a great name and a huge number of sales all around, and Note II really doesn’t have much of a difference than a bit of brush-up from the Note.
To introduce it and to show how the Note II has got better, there is an increase in the screen size from 5.3-inch to 5.5-inch, and display increased from Super AMOLED to the same with an HD display upgrade, Better connectivity options with Bluetooth upgrade, Android Jelly Bean 4.1 version, and a good upgrade from 2500 mAh to 3100 mAh. Not to forget, the S Pen, i.e. the stylus did get a lot thicker and better in functioning.
Let us get into the complete review with all the aspects explained and compared with the device which people would want to upgrade to, only if they see a few things upgraded well, i.e. with the Galaxy Note N7000.
Design, Form Factor and Display
An year back when the Galaxy Note came into the market, even we felt like those thousands of users that the device looked a bit ugly only when you have it beside the hear while you are answering a call, but now that feeling is totally gone, although the size has got a little bigger from the 5.3-inch screen of Note to the 5.5-inch screen size of the Galaxy Note II. The dimensions are at 151.1mm x 80.5mm x 9.4mm, unnoticeable but the thickness has been reduced a bit from the 9.7mm thickness earlier. Samsung hasn’t changed much in the display, with the display getting the same technology but the actual graphics display looks better, although the resolution has been trimmed down a little from 1280 x 800 pixels to 1280 x 720 pixels which would make many 720p compatible apps work better.
We’ve got the hyperglaze panel on the back, which looks good but we aren’t sure for how long would this shine stay, because the Note that we have with a year of usage, has got a little rough though never tortured with heavy usage. The same would be the fate of the Galaxy Note II’s back panel. Going deep with all the parts of the device, the front panel has got the large screen with the earpiece on the top of it. Just beside on the right of the earpiece are the 1.9-megapixel camera and the proximity sensor. On the left of the earpiece, are the ambient light sensor and the LED light sensor, that would let you know of any notifications of the unread messages, mails and calls that you missed. The bottom home key is made narrower with rounded edges, and looks elegant below the screen.
The left and right rims have got the volume and power keys respectively, and although the camera is quite effective in taking some excellent pictures you need to use the on-screen icon to activate the camera, and there is no dedicated physical camera key provided. The 3.5mm headset jack lies on the top rim on the left side and a secondary mic for the noise reduction, and the bottom has a MicroUSB slot in the center. In a way, Samsung keeping the keys limited is good esthetically, but it limits the functioning and many would miss the camera key which would have been a good addition to the large screen for easier clicking of pictures. The slot for the S Pen is in the bottom right corner, with the stylus running from the bottom towards the top end of the battery inside the body of the phone.
The back panel is similar to that of the previous Note, but the Samsung logo comes near to the camera at the top, and the camera looks exactly similar to that of the Galaxy S III, with the thin silverish border around the lend, and a flash adjacent to the camera.
S Pen has a lot to talk about. It’s got better in design, thicker for a better handling and the functioning has been enhanced. It was something that had attracted many smartphone lovers, and the same trend would continue as the stylus has got rectangular edges providing a neat grip while using it on the large screen.
Open the back cover, and one of the enhancements that users would love is the battery – a straight 600 mAh increase, with the 3100 mAh battery replacing the 2500 mAh one in the 1st gen Note. The MicroSD card can be freely removed or placed, without removing the battery, but the SIM card removal would need you to pull out the battery which justifies the phone functioning – Switch off the phone before you insert / remove the SIM. The NFC antenna lies on the back cover which is quite thin and a bit flexible.
While we did the pocket test where the Galaxy Note had fit in perfectly into a normal jeans pocket last time, there won’t be any much difference with the Note II in the pocket, though comparing the size with the flagship device of Samsung (Galaxy S III) would be vague, as the latter is smaller than the beast by around a centimeter and they both don’t stand in the same league. Both state out their own USP, when the size of both is ignored.
The display has got better, although the pixel count has been reduced from 800 to 720 pixels horizontally. The picture strength and sharpness is now better, after the strip of 80 pixels is reduced, and the brightness though cannot be called the best, when compared to the other high-end smartphones like the Apple iPhone 5 and the HTC One X, but when compared to the other Samsung smartphones, the display of Note II fared better.
The S Pen – Thicker, Sharper and Better
Something very better and improved, is the stylus which has got a better and edged design with extra thickness for a better hold. It’s 11.3 cm in length and about 7mm in thickness, and though its not comparable to the stylus that comes with the Galaxy Note 10.1, its very much comfortable to use. One of the excellent features of the Note II is the automatic detection when you are S Pen is withdrawn, and it would show you a section where you get the shortcuts of apps and features to use with the S Pen.
The ribbed pattern around the button on the S Pen makes it easier to locate, and the button has quite a few good functions to do. The S Pen can be detected from a few mm distance from the display, and a pin point is shown on the screen where it responded to the S Pen. Unlike the earlier version of the Galaxy Note, this device has got a better control and response to the S Pen, and even the sharp adjustments while editing images is possible.
Operating System, Interface and Apps
Running on the latest operating system version of Android, i.e. the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the Galaxy Note II comes in with a very revamped interface from TouchWiz. It’s more like what the interface of the Galaxy S III was, with the pebbled and natural feel and the sounds of water droplets while you touch the screen, even trying to unlock the screen.
The lock screen would make you proceed to the home screen if you tap and drag your finger or the S Pen in any direction until a second or more of the water droplets sound comes, and if you wish to open one of the apps from the shortcuts in the bottom, it would need you to pull the icon for a second. The lock screen functionality doesn’t end here because you can place a news ticker at the bottom of the screen and read the latest news.
Unlocking the screen doesn’t happen with only that option – You could do it with the Face Unlock, Voice Unlock and a couple other ways.
The notification panel can be dragged down while the phone is locked, and you could reach the settings and other shortcuts even without unlocking the screen. The Home Screen has got five icons at the bottom dock – Phone, Contacts, Messaging, Internet and Apps. The area above it is similar to the TouchWiz phones, with numerous options to add widgets, shortcuts etc.
One of the most productive and enhanced areas is the notification panel where things are arranged in an organized way, with the top area showing time and date, with the wrench icon showing the shortcut for phone settings.
Below that is the toggles for Wi-Fi, GPS, Sound, Screen Rotation, Bluetooth, Mobile Data, Blocking Mode, Power Saving Mode, AllShare Cast and Sync.
Just below the big list of toggles, there is the brightness setting where you could set the brightness, or can check the Auto option to make the sensors do their job and set the brightness based on the surrounding conditions.
If the S Pen is pulled out, the notification panel automatically show a list of recommended shortcuts for the S Pen – Gallery, Internet, Youtube, S Memo and Quick Command.
The notifications are not like before, as they come in more than a single row. Thanks to the Jelly Bean, you would now get to see options directly on the notification panel rather than just the plain notifications with a single option of removing them.
The bottom line of the Notification panel, which is usually the held area while opening or closing the panel, gives the data about the ongoing network – Carrier name, or Emergency Calls if there is no SIM card, or No Internet Connection if the phone isn’t connected to the Internet through any of the options.
The App Drawer has a 5 x 5 arrangement, and it doesn’t continue with the Widget section which can be viewed through the tab on the top of the drawer. There are three sections on the top for users to directly go to – Apps, Widgets and Downloads. The Note II comes already with huge number of widgets, spread around in 9 pages good enough to fill the home screens if you want to make the device totally productive and have live widgets keeping you updated with happenings around the world.
The Apps can be arranged in three ways – Customizable list where one can arrange the apps in the way they wish, Alphabetical Grid where you can’t arrange the apps but they are in alphabetical list for easier searching, Alphabetical list where a vertical list of all apps can be seen.
Home Screens – Jelly Bean comes in with several widgets, and this added up by Samsung’s own apps and widgets, gives a big list to check out and utilize based on usage. Reorganizing, resizing and shifting the app position is made easier, with the widget crossing over an already present one, if its larger than the latter and won’t fit in that particular home screen. Adding, removing or reordering the home screen panes is possible, and just like the other TouchWiz high-end devices, there is a possibility of having 7 home screens at once. To the right of the last home screen, there is a tiny pencil icon, indicating the shortcut to the S Note. These kind of shortcuts are the dedicated pages on the home screens, called as Page Buddy by Samsung and this has 4 of them – for the S Pen, Earphones, Docking mode and Roaming.
Many of the shortcuts, features are very user-friendly and one would not notice how some stuff is done by automation on their Note II. For those who wanted to have easier way to use the home screens and widgets, there is a shifting possible between the Easy and Basic modes for home screens, through the Settings. The Easy Mode would provide an easier experience for the users trying out this huge smartphone for the first time, and Basic Mode is what would give all the apps and widgets on the home screen, and is highly customizable.
One of the impressive features is the one-handed operations where you can now have no disturbance while using the large screen, because the keypad, keyboard and the calculator move to either the right or left side based on your preference. There is a small arrow mark adjacent to the moved keyboard if you wish to change the side. This comes to good use when you are using your hand instead of the S Pen while trying to type with a single hand on the Note II.
Smart Stay and Smart Rotation – These two features would surely run, only when there is quite some light in the surrounding and they would need the front camera to get enough glimpse of what is visible to it. Smart Stay would turn off the screen if your eyes are closed, and Smart Rotation would turn the phone to landscape mode if you are lying down and watching the phone in horizontal position. Quite smart, but would have their own limitations, and the Smart Stay was a feature we saw already in the Galaxy S III.
The Apps that Samsung rolled out from their side include the Samsung ChatOn, S Note, S Planner, S Suggest, S Voice and their App station apart from the default Android apps. The Paper Artist is an excellent app, out of the box, where you can do unexpected stuff using the S Pen. Capture pictures and edit them in the way you want, using several effects while or after capturing a picture. We did something to try it out, and this happened just within 60 seconds –
Camera – The Galaxy Note Excellence, Repeated
Nothing went wrong once again with the camera in the Note II, and the capturing got quite better than the Galaxy Note. Although the same 8-megapixel lens, still camera photography could take photos with 3264 x 2448 pixels and the video capture with 1080p HD quality. The front camera isn’t any less, with decent pictures and video of 720p, along with the added help in Smart Stay and Smart Rotation features of the device.
Huge list of options while using the camera, including the geotagging, HDR mode, Panorama, Burst shot, Share shot, smile and face detection, the digital image stabilization and lot more to enhance the experience of photography in the Galaxy Note II. Mentioning it again, the Galaxy Note II with a dedicated camera key would have pulled in many Nokia PureView fans too, making this one a complete entertainment + productive package. We tried to capture videos and take pictures simultaneously, send those via mail and share through social media and bet you, there was not even a moment of dragging or slowing down, all thanks to the quad-core processor of the device.
Best Faces – A feature that would capture 5 pictures in a burst, keeping the faces of people in track and then would allow you to select particular faces and would bring out a single final photo without having you to keep trying to ask people to have a perfect smile and view on the camera when the picture is being clicked.
The camera functioning, processing and levels of capture and brightness were similar to the camera of Galaxy S III, which was easily better than the original Galaxy Note. Several shooting modes like Single shot, Best photo, Best faces, Face detection, Share shot, Panorama, Buddy photo share, Beauty, Smile shot and Low light can be selected from, and there are effects like Warm vintage, Posterize, Solarize, Green point, Blue point, Red yellow point, Washed out, Cartoonify, Black and White, Sepia and Negative.
A 1080p HD video is captured at a frame rate of 30 fps, and the Note II isn’t limiting the video capture to just the start and stop, but there are modes where you can either slow down or fasten the motion. Touch focusing on the object is possible while the video is being recorded, and if you wish not to disturb and let the stuff happen automatically, there is an option to toggle to the Autofocus mode in the video capture.
The difference that can be easily noticed between the Galaxy Note II camera and the Original Note camera is the brightness levels for the bright object, where the Note II makes the surroundings brighter automatically adjusting the levels, but the Note camera couldn’t capture well beyond the bright focused object, and made the background a bit blurred. Not much to compare with the camera of the Galaxy S III, where the functioning and picture quality is almost incomparable.
Camera Comparison – Galaxy Note II vs Galaxy Note vs Galaxy S III
Galaxy Note II Camera – 8-megapixel, no effects, bright conditions
Galaxy S III Camera – 8-megapixel, no effects, bright conditions
Galaxy Note Camera – 8-megapixel, no effects, bright conditions
Connectivity – Nothing that can be called Absent
The Samsung Galaxy Note II has a real long list of options to be connected to the web, to the devices and the computer in one of the many possible options. The 3G connectivity supported by the HSPA network with download speed at 21Mbps, and uploads at 5.76Mbps but that totally would depend on the network around you.
Bluetooth is at the latest 4.0 technology, and Wi-Fi has the 2.4GHz and 5GHz band compatibility with coverage to a/b/g/n networks. There is a lot to cover about the connectivity of the Galaxy Note II, especially the S Beam, Wi-Fi Direct, the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Tethering and we would be sharing how each of them could be done to get the best from the device.
The AllShare Play and AllShare Cast are now two different parts of the AllShare, where the former would be for sharing and transferring multimedia content and files to the computer, while the latter would help in live streaming of content from and to the larger devices from the Note II.
The MHL Port makes the wired connectivity more productive, with the USB-On-The-Go option, and even the HDMI connectivity is possible by connecting the HDMI port to the MHL port. The Note II has support even for the USB Mouse and Keyboard. There is a support for direct connection to the printers and printing of documents, but that is limited to just the Samsung printers.
Final Verdict – It’s totally worth the price, worth an upgrade
To start it off simple, someone who has not used a Galaxy Note earlier, this is something you need to get experience of – The Galaxy Note II is a perfect hybrid between the mobile phones and tablet devices. You will fall in love with all the intuitive features and the high specifications of this huge device, but when you already have used the first gen. Galaxy Note, you need to have a checklist of the requirements for an upgrade, only then choosing the Note II would come into question. Samsung though didn’t just launch a basic upgrade (like Apple iPhone 4 to 4S), as there is a better processor, screen, battery and the upgraded S Pen with lots of amazing features.
Now, the actual question. Is the Galaxy Note II worth the upgrade and price it asks? For us, yes! With the S Pen well integrated to provide much more than earlier, with the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS, with the 720p display, with the slimmer and lengthier body, with the upgraded battery (3200 mAh capacity), there is no way one can call the Galaxy Note II a device which would not provide them a good user experience.
There are several Samsung apps which are specifically made to take advantage of the S Pen in many ways. It’s an All-in-one smartphone, where the millions of users of Note already had removed the weird feeling of holding the phone near the ear for making calls, most of the non-users made a habit of taking it normally. The Galaxy Note II has no device to match its external specifications except the camera, which is similar to that of the Galaxy S III, but there are several other smartphones with a better camera – HTC One X, Nokia 808 PureView and we are expecting the Nokia Lumia 920 to have a better capturing, but none of the devices would provide a similar battery life to that of the Note II.
We had called the Samsung Galaxy S III as the best smartphone in the Android market, but now the answer has changed. Here we have, the Galaxy Note II which beats every other high-end smartphone in many aspects. No point comparing it with the Apple’s latest iPhone 5, because the specs won’t match at all and we aren’t so cruel to piss off all the Apple fans in a single shot
We won’t still say that having a bigger screen and a stylus is enough to call the device a winner, but for those who feel that the S Pen would have filled many purposes, there’s nothing that would be able to compete with the Note II.