Huge and vibrant high-def display; Fast quad-core performance; Much improved S Pen ; Dual-view multitasking option; Long battery life
Design just too big for some shoppers; Camera struggles in low light; S Voice still feels second-rate
The Galaxy Note II is the king of big-screen phones, combining quad-core power, much-improved pen capabilities and innovative new features.
Go bigger or go home. That's an appropriate mantra for the Galaxy Note II, which grows the original Galaxy Note's already polarizing 5.3-inch display to a category-busting 5.5 inches. (For those scoring at home, the Kindle is 6 inches.) That same mantra applies to the performance and features of Samsung's sequel. The Note II delivers quad-core power, Android Jelly Bean goodness, plus lots of new tricks for the S Pen, putting more tablet in this phablet. Does Samsung's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach work?
Editors' Note: We tested the international version of the Galaxy Note II, the N7100. We will follow up with full reviews for all the major carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.
DesignGalaxy S III, complete with the same rounded corners and home button. Two capacitive buttons (Menu and Back) that disappear after a few seconds flank this physical key. We tested the marble white version with silver trim, but the Note II will also be available in titanium gray. The polycarbonate body felt solid (albeit somewhat slippery), and popping off the back cover is a snap for accessing the SIM card, battery and microSD card slot. Galaxy Note (5.8 x 3.27 x 0.38 inches), the former is narrower and slightly thinner. Little changes, such as moving the power button further down on the right side, help the Note II feel less unwieldy when used with one hand.
Nevertheless, Samsung includes "one-handed operation" settings for a reason. 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. We still had to stretch our thumb awkwardly across the display to open the phone app.
On our light meter, we measured 229 lux for the Note II, versus 165 lux for the Note and 213 lux for the Galaxy S III. We had some difficulty reading the Note II's screen in direct sunlight, but it was easier to see content than on the S III. The average smartphone is 298 lux, and the iPhone 5's 4-inch display (525 lux) is significantly brighter.
Nevertheless, the Note II is tailor-made for watching movies. When viewing the "Monsters University" trailer in high quality on YouTube, we enjoyed extra-wide viewing angles, superb contrast and rich (if oversaturated) colors. Two people could easily watch a flick on this phone.
The back-mounted speaker on the Note II gets quite loud, providing a little more punch and richer tones than the S III when we played the same Coldplay track on both devices. The Note II's sound didn't get muffled when we placed it on a desk, and we didn't accidentally cover it when holding the phone in our hand. We could also easily hear S Voice's responses through the speaker from across a small office.
Software and Interface
For the Note II, Samsung combined its TouchWiz interface with the latest Android 4.1 Jelly Bean software, which means you get great features such as Google Now and offline voice typing. This is definitely a Samsung experience, though, as the company continues to be bold in adding features to Google's OS.
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.
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
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.
Multitasking on Steroids
Yes, the Note II lets you switch between apps by long-pressing the home button to see the recent app menu. But there's a multiview feature you won't find on any other Android phone that takes multitasking to the next level. It's a very cool hidden Easter egg.Galaxy Note 10.1 we could resize the windows for the two apps or swap their positions.
In the future, we'd like to see apps interact with each other in this mode. For example, it would be great to be able to drag and drop a photo from the Gallery into an outgoing email or Facebook post. But overall, Samsung has done an admirable job taking full advantage of the Note II's big screen.
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.)
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 collection is growing, but there's not a ton to write home about. The bundles Paper Artist app on our Note II lets us import photos to create sketches, and we found SingnDoc Mobile (for signing documents) and Draw Mania under the Best S Pen Apps section of the Samsung Apps store.
The fact that these were the only two choices listed is pretty sad, but there are others 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.
To truly appreciate the power of the Note II, you need to play demanding 3D games. We tried "Dead Trigger," a zombie-shooting title, and animations were fluid even with multiple baddies on the ginormous screen. We also appreciated fine details such as the divots put in stone walls from our wayward bullets.
The Note II also outpaces most of the Android competition in benchmark testing. On the Benchmark CPU app, the Note II notched 4,642, compared with 4,214 for the Galaxy S III and 2,795 for the Android phone average. The original Note scored a lowly 2,206. However, the HTC One X's dual-core S4 chip scored a higher 4,885.
In An3DBench, which measures graphics performance, the Note II's score of 7,707 handily beat the One X (7,138), the S III (6,994) and the 7,139 category average. When we ran Quadrant, which measures CPU, I/O and graphics performance, the Note II registered 5,763, about 1,000 points higher than the S III (4,731) and a lot better than the One X (4,105).
To see how the Note II stacks up against the iPhone 5's A6 chip, we ran a couple of benchmarks that support both devices. In Passmark, which measures CPU, graphics, desk and memory performance, the Note II scored 2,549, compared with 3,850 for Apple's device. Interestingly, the A6 chip mopped the floor with the Exynos CPU in Linpack's multithreading test (581 versus 122.9).
Despite the fact that the AT&T SIM we plugged into the Note II didn't connect to the carrier's LTE network, we saw swift speeds over HSPA+. Mobile sites like ESPN.com, NYTimes.com and Yahoo.com loaded in 7 to 8 seconds, while full desktop sites such as Laptopmag.com took 11 seconds. On our site, the Note II and S III displayed the same number of stories above the fold, but the text was larger on the Note II.
Stay tuned for 4G LTE test results from major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless.
Apps and Content
The good news is that if you create an account, you'll also be able to download books, music, games, movies and TV shows through Samsung's various hubs.
MORE: 25 Best Android Apps
We prefer Google's approach with the Play Store because you can buy all of the content under one roof instead of using separate apps. On the plus side, you can stream videos purchased from Samsung's store to a Samsung TV or the AllShare Cast Wireless hub connected to your set.
Other Samsung-bundled apps include S Planner, a messy-looking replacement for Google's calendar, Voice Recorder, ChatOn for messaging and an FM Radio. Flipboard and Dropbox (with a hefty 50GB of free storage) are also on board.
Camera and Camcorder
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.
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
Using AT&T's network, the Galaxy Note II delivered clear call quality when we dialed cellphones and land lines in New York and New Jersey. One caller said he could hear a slight echo when we engaged the speakerphone, but it went away when we turned it off. On our end, other callers came through with plenty of volume with only a slight metallic tone to voices. Not a fan of reaching across the screen to dial someone? You can engage one-handed mode in settings to shrink and shift the dialpad to the left or right side of the screen.
Samsung equipped the Note II with a beefy 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 and should you give enough endurance to last through a full day of work and play.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous 4G Web surfing on 40 percent brightness, the device lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes. That runtime trounces the Android category average of 5:58 and beats the Galaxy Note III (6:55) by nearly an hour. The iPhone 5 lasted a shorter 7:13 in our tests.
Do we think the masses are ready for 5.5-inch phablets? No, but we're glad than the Note II is heading to all the major carriers this fall. That's because more people will be able to decide for themselves whether bigger is better and because developers will likely start cranking out more pen-optimized apps. Ultimately, the Note II involves some compromise because of its size--it's simply not a one-handed device--but its power and versatility are unmatched in the smartphone world.
|Form Factor||Candybar Touchscreen|
|Operating System||Android 4.1|
|Networks||3G: HSPA+21Mbps(HSDPA 21Mbps / HSUPA 5.76Mbps) 4G LTE: 100Mbps / 50Mbps|
|CPU||1.6-GHz quad core|
|Memory Expansion Type||microSD Card|
|Display (main)||5.55-inch Super AMOLED (1280 x 720)|
|Bluetooth Type||Bluetooth 4.0 LE|
|Front Camera Resolution||1.9MP|
|Camera Resolution||8 MP|
|Audio formats supported||MIDI|
|Audio formats supported||FLAC|
|Audio formats supported||eAAC+|
|Audio formats supported||AMR-NB|
|Audio formats supported||WAV|
|Audio formats supported||AMR|
|Audio formats supported||OGG|
|Audio formats supported||AAC+|
|Audio formats supported||MP3|
|Audio formats supported||AAC|
|Video formats supported||H.264|
|Video formats supported||H.263|
|Video formats supported||Divx|
|Video formats supported||WMV|
|Video formats supported||MPEG-4|
|Talk / Standby Time|
|Size||5.9 x 3.2 x .37 inches|
|SAR Rating (Head)|
|SAR Rating (Body)|