The smartphone game has gone from pocket-friendly devices to phones that'll stretch your denim. And the leader of the phablet pack is Samsung's Galaxy Note II. With a massive 5.5-inch display, this phone makes quite the impression. But Samsung does a lot with this size, including enhanced S Pen functionality, quad-core power and a battery that can last all day. But at $369 on T-Mobile's HSPA+42 4G network, is the Note II worth the cost?
Editors' Note: Portions of this review were taken from our other reviews of the Galaxy Note II.
Although cyclopean in size compared with other smartphones, the 5.9 x 3.2 x 0.37-inch, 6.3-ounce Galaxy Note II actually boasts a smaller footprint than the original. The Note II is slightly taller than the first Galaxy Note (5.8 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches, 6.5 ounces), but it's narrower and thinner. We also appreciated that Samsung moved the power button further down on the right side, which helped make the Note II feel less awkward to use with one hand.
The Galaxy Note II bears a striking resemblance to the Samsung's smaller flagship phone, the Galaxy S III. The Note II features the same rounded corners and physical home button, flanked on either side by capacitive buttons for Menu and Back.
T-Mobile, like Sprint, offers the Galaxy Note II in two colors: Titanium Gray, the color our device sported, and Marble White. The Note II's polycarbonate body felt solid (although somewhat slick), and you can pop off the back cover to access the SIM card, battery and microSD card slot.
Still, the Note II makes even large 4.7-inch phones like the Galaxy S III seem puny by comparison. Unless you've got extra-long fingers, you'll be happy that Samsung thought to include "one-handed operation" settings. For example, you can check a box that tells the Note II to shift the dialpad to the right when you're making a call.
Although the Note II's display is a slightly less sharp than the original Note (1280 x 720 versus 1280 x 800 pixels), the 5.5-inch Super AMOLED screen looks superior in every other way. Reading online proved much more enjoyable thanks to the Note II's larger screen, and we enjoyed wider viewing angles and richer colors when watching a high-definition trailer for "The Hobbit" on YouTube.
Unfortunately, although the Galaxy Note II boasts a brighter screen than either the original Note or the Galaxy S III, it's significantly dimmer than the competition. Using our light meter, we measured 218 lux for the Note II, versus 165 lux for the Note and 213 lux for the Galaxy S III. The average smartphone display easily trumps that, with a brightness of 300 lux, while the iPhone 5's 4-inch display measured a searing 525 lux.
Like the display, the Note II's back-mounted speaker also manages to outclass the Galaxy S III. When listening to the Radiohead's "Reckoner" on both devices, the Note II delivered louder and richer tones. The speaker even managed to maintain its accuracy when we placed it on a desk, and didn't become muffled when we held the phone in our hand.
OS and Interface
The Galaxy Note II runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with a healthy dose of additional features courtesy of the TouchWiz interface, giving you access to stellar Jelly Bean features such as Google Now and offline voice typing, as well as bold new additions to Google's OS from Samsung.
The notification menu, for instance, now features a brightness control slider in addition to shortcuts for toggling Wi-Fi, GPS, screen rotation and more. Another huge plus: there's a dedicated number row above the letters on Samsung's touch keyboard, which means you don't have to switch back and forth between letters and numbers to type things like addresses and passwords.
The Note II includes seven customizable home screens, with the time and weather widget front and center. Touch the Google search box and you'll be brought to Google Now, which learns from your searches to present handy info at a glance. For example, Google Now can show you how long it's going to take you to get home based on the traffic, the latest score from your favorite teams and whether your plane is on time.
The lock screen on the Note II not only lets you customize shortcuts to different apps, but also displays a news ticker at the bottom of the screen. You can even scribble a quick note by double-tapping the screen with the S Pen while holding down its button.
Other notable features include Popup Video for watching clips while you use other apps, and you can now resize the window. There's also a new Popup Browser option that enables Note II users to view a Web page (say, in an email) without leaving the Email app.
S Voice hasn't changed since we reviewed the Galaxy S III. It's functional, but Apple's Siri is just smarter. When we asked S Voice for a five-day forecast, we got just the current conditions. You're probably better off using Google Voice Search. It's not as feature-rich, but it's faster and less prone to network errors.
Motions and Sharing
Like the Galaxy S III, the Note II includes a bunch of clever motion-sensitive gestures, from Direct Call (dialing a contact displayed on screen by bringing the phone up to your ear) to double-tapping the top of the phone to go to the top of a list (like your inbox). A slick new feature called Quick Glance displays alerts when you wave your hand over the camera with the screen off, but it only shows the number of missed calls and emails and your battery life status.
As you might expect, the Note II borrows all of the sharing features from the S III, including S Beam for sharing photos, videos and other files between two Galaxy devices with a tap.
The Note II lets you switch applications using the standard recent apps page, accessible by long-pressing the home button to see the recent app menu. But we're more excited by multiwindow, which will let you use two apps side by side at one time. Once this feature is delivered via a software update, you'll be able to activate it by long-pressing the back button, revealing a tab on the left side of the screen. Swipe the tab open to reveal shortcuts to 13 apps you can drag onto the main screen (from ChatOn and Chrome to Gallery and Facebook). Once you drag a second app over to the right, you'll see a split-screen showing both apps running at once.
Thanks to a new pen design and the same Wacom digitizer used inside the Galaxy Note 10.1, the Note II offers a vastly superior pen input experience compared with the original Note. There's no lag when writing, and the flatter and larger pen feels more ergonomic, complete with a textured button for performing shortcuts. Having 1,024 levels of sensitivity makes for a smoother experience and gives users a lot more control when using drawing apps.
Samsung helps you get started with the S Pen by automatically launching an special home screen when you take the stylus out of its slot that displays your most recent notes and templates for starting a new one. (You can turn this setting off.)
Like the Note 10.1, the S Note app itself is smart enough to create crisp shapes from your sketches and even look up formulas. In addition, handwriting recognition has improved. You can choose from a Palm Pilot-like window on the bottom of the screen or let the Note II translate on the fly. Annoyingly, the S Note app often doesn't insert a space between words, so we mostly stuck with handwritten notes. At least palm rejection is no longer an issue.
Samsung has found clever new ways to leverage pen input beyond digital ink. The Air View feature lets you hover the S Pen over content to preview it, whether it's the first sentence of an email or photos in the Gallery app. We especially like how you can skim through a video in the timeline via Air View.
After a while, we actually enjoyed navigating the Note II with a pen, though sometimes we had to repeat our taps. We also wish the pen worked with the back and menu buttons beneath the screen; you have to use your finger.
So what about pen-enabled apps? The bundled Paper Artist app on our Note II lets us import photos to create sketches, and we found SignDoc Mobile (for signing documents) and Draw Mania under the Best S Pen Apps section of the Samsung Apps store.
There are other pen apps available in the Google Play store. TouchRetouch, for example, helps remove unwanted objects for photos. There's also Zen Brush and Omni Sketch for aspiring artists, iAnnotate PDF for annotating PDFs and Touchnote Postcards for sending personalized postcards.
Packing one of Samsung's own 1.6-GHz quad-core Exynos processors and 2GB of RAM, the Note II is more powerful than Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan combined. The Note II's home screens glided by without a hitch and apps opened instantly. Even the Note II's camera app opened as soon as we tapped its icon.
Naturally, the Galaxy Note II proved a tough match for its Android competitors, notching a 4,416 on the CPU Benchmark test. Samsung's Flagship Galaxy S III with its 1.5-GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 2GB of RAM scored a 4,214 on the same test. HTC's One X, which also packs an S4 processor but just 1GB of RAM, however, managed a surprising 4,885, while the quad-core-equipped LG Optimus G rang up a score of 5,706. The Note II did, however, easily clear the category average of 2,949.
When it came to the An3DBench graphics test, the Note II ran roughshod over the competition, pulling down a score of 7,652. The LG Optimus G came in more than 300 points lower with its score of 7,350. HTC's One X managed a score of 7,138 and Samsung's Galaxy S III registered a score of 6,994. Both of those scores were lower than the category average of 7,151.
During our real-world testing, the Note II was a dream. We were easily able to play the zombie shooter game "Dead Trigger" and open several other apps without encountering and lag or slowdown. We even fired off shot after shot using the Note II's camera app and never noticed a hint of lag.
T-Mobile's Galaxy Note II hides a secret that most users will never notice, and that is that the device comes equipped with a 4G LTE radio in addition to T-Mobile's standard HSPA+42 radio. The LTE capability is currently inactive since T-Mobile isn't expected to begin rolling out its LTE network until 2013, but at least you're getting a future-proof device.
While it's not LTE-fast, the Note II pulled down relatively impressive data speeds on T-Mobile's HSPA+42 network. On Speedtest.net, we recorded an average download speed of 5.2 Mbps and an average upload speed of 1.3 Mbps. Those speeds are far better than the 0.40 Mbps down and 0.35 Mbps down we recorded on the Sprint version of the Note II. Still, the Galaxy Note II running on AT&T's LTE network registered 22.5 Mbps down and 12.9 Mbps up, respectively.
Websites loaded quickly on the T-Mobile Galaxy Note II, but were slightly quicker on the AT&T version. The T-Mobile Galaxy Note II loaded CNN.com's mobile site in an average 5.3 seconds and NYTimes.com's mobile site in 4.5 seconds. The image-intensive mobile version of ESPN.com loaded in 6.3 seconds. By comparison, AT&T's Galaxy Note II loaded CNN.com's mobile site in 2.1 seconds and NYTimes.com's mobile site in 2.7 seconds.
In addition to the standard Web browser seen on Samsung's Galaxy S III, the Galaxy Note II includes a popup browser that can be used to view Web pages while within other apps like Gmail. The popup browser can be expanded to full-screen mode, but can't be used to download files. Unlike the unlocked version of the Note II, T-Mobile's model doesn't ship with Chrome preinstalled -- although a trip to the Play Store quickly remedied that situation.
Apps and Content
In addition to the standard Android 4.1 Jelly Bean applications such as Play Books, Play Magazines, Play Music and Google Now, Samsung includes a plethora of its own apps. AllShare Play and Kies Air allow you to share and play media wirelessly; Game Hub, Media Hub and Music Hub serve as a portal for free and premium games, music, movies and TV shows; and Music Player is Samsung's alternative to Google's Play Music app.
Samsung also includes two app stores of its own app stores. Samsung Apps functions as an alternative to the Play Store, but requires a separate Samsung account. S Suggest, on the other hand, simply aggregates the best apps from Google Play and Samsung Apps and recommends apps based on those you (and other Galaxy Note II users) have already installed.
T-Mobile has also loaded a few of its own apps on the Galaxy Note II, including T-Mobile TV, which allows you to watch live and on-demand TV shows. T-Mobile's My Account gives you quick access to your T-Mobile account information, notifications, support and more.
Beyond the Samsung and T-Mobile specific offerings, the Galaxy Note II comes loaded with Flipboard, a social networking and news magazine; Polaris Office 4.0; EA's Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Zynga's Games app store.
Camera and Camcorder
The Galaxy Note II's 8-megapixel camera is not only fast, it's capable of taking striking photos. One shot we took of a blue motorcycle had a fantastic level of detail, right down to raindrops on the leather seat from a recent shower. Indoors, an image taken of co-workers looked somewhat fuzzy and noisy, an issue we encountered with the Galaxy S III, too.
Like the S III, the Galaxy Note II also includes a bevy of camera settings you can tweak and multiple shooting modes, including Panorama.
There's also Share Shot, for broadcasting pictures via Wi-Fi to nearby Galaxy devices with the same feature. Buddy Photo Share continues to recognize friends and family in the frame to quickly connect with them via email, phone and social networks.
The most amazing feature of the Note II's camera is the new Best Faces mode, which takes a series of shots and lets you choose the best-looking mug for everyone in the frame. Magically, the Note II then combines all of the individual faces into one shot. Even when we zoomed into the finished photo, we couldn't tell that the original image had been modified.
We tested the Note II's 1080p camcorder by shooting New York City traffic. Everything from the reflections on moving vehicles to the brick work in buildings looked highly detailed, and there was no hitching. The sensitive mic picked up squeaky breaks and voices on the street.
Call Quality and Battery Life
We made a call over T-Mobile's voice network in New York City and were impressed with the quality. A call made to a friend's landline was clear and static-free. The other caller told us that our voice came through cleanly, but that the sound of taxis driving by and chatter was, unfortunately, just as audible.
Impressively, Samsung upgraded the Note II with a 3,100 mAh battery, up from 2,100 mAh on the original Note. As a result, the Note II outlasts most smartphones on the market.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing via T-Mobile's network HSPA+42 4G network with the display set to 40 percent, the Note II lasted an incredible 10 hours and 12 minutes. That runtime almost doubles the Android category average of 5:58 and beats the Galaxy Note III (6:55) by nearly three hours, and the iPhone 5 by more than two. T-Mobile's Note II also beat out the Sprint's Note II (9:51), as well as AT&T's Note II (9:27). However, the AT&T version uses 4G LTE, which sucks down more power.
Pricing and Value
T-Mobile users have two options when it comes to purchasing the Galaxy Note II: they can either buy the phone with a two-year T-Mobile contract for $369 or pick it up with no annual contract for $649. A standard unlimited voice, text and 4G data plan will cost you 89.99 per month. Over the course of two years, that adds up to $2,159. Add to that the $369 you pay for the phone at purchase, and you'll end up paying a total of $2,528.
If you opt for the no-contract Note II, you can take advantage of a $70 monthly plan that gets you unlimited voice, text and 5GB of 4G data. Pass your 5GB limit, however, and you'll see your data speeds throttled. Stretched out over two years, that would cost you $1,680 per month. Throw the $649 cost of the phone on top of that and you're looking at a total price of $2,329. That's a modest savings over the contract version of the phone.
With a gorgeous 5.5-inch Super AMOLED Display, quad-core CPU, improved S Pen and industry-leading battery life, the Galaxy Note II from Samsung is easily one of the best phones on T-Mobile. But should you get it from this carrier? The lack of 4G LTE (for now, anyway) and relatively high $369 price make this device a tougher sell than the AT&T and Verizon Wireless versions. Still, if you're in the market for a big-screen phone, the Galaxy Note II can't be beat.