Nov 30 AT 3:52 PM Nick Gray 316 Comments

Over the past year, Samsung has pushed its way to the top, becoming the most dominant force in the Android marketplace. While HTC, Motorola, Sony and LG struggle to maintain or gain market share, Samsung’s been busy creating a whole new category of phones that make even the Samsung Galaxy S III feel and look small. Last year, many had their doubt about the Galaxy Note and how consumers would react to its massive size, but there’s no denying that the phone has been a huge success. Now the question is whether or not Samsung can keep its winning streak alive with the Note II.

1. Hardware

Internal hardware is definitely not the most important thing to the general public, but it certainly differentiates a good phone from a great phone. If we were judging the Samsung Galaxy Note II based on specs alone, this device would be crowned as king of all smartphones. Samsung has equipped the Note II with a quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A9 Exynos 4412 processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, microSD card slot (up to 64GB), 8 MP main camera, 1.9 MP front-facing camera, microUSB (MHL) v2.0, USB Host support, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct and a removable 3,100 mAh battery–all wrapped up inside a 151.1×80.5 x 9.4 mm shell that weighs in at 183 grams (6.46 oz). Those specs are certainly impressive, but the cherry on top of the Note II is its massive 5.5-inch, 720×1280 pixel (267 ppi) Super AMOLED capacitive display protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 2 . Not to mention the all-new S Pen for taking notes and sketching pictures to your heart’s content.

2. Design and Build Quality

If you’ve seen the Samsung Galaxy S III, we wouldn’t be surprised if you happened to mistake the Note II for its larger sibling. Samsung has taken the same design language it used in its flagship Android phone and scaled it up a few notches for the Note II. Besides the size difference, there are only two real distinctions in design between the Note II and the Galaxy S III: 1) the reduced amount of space below the screen on the Note II and 2) the slot for the S Pen on the bottom of the device. The Note II’s power button is conveniently placed half way up the right side of the phone with the volume rocker placed on the left side. Like the S III, the Note II features a large home button beneath the screen. This button can be used to turn the screen on, and it also displays recently used apps when long-pressed. Samsung has done an amazing job of optimizing space on the Note II, but we’re not all that impressed with the overall design and build quality of the phone. The plastic casing holds up well in day-to-day use, but it simply doesn’t have that high-quality feel I expect from the most expensive smartphones on the market.

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3. Display

I’ll be completely honest: the thought of a phone with a 5.5-inch display does not sound appealing. The beauty of a phone is that it is a portable device that can easily slide in and out of a pocket. Unfortunately, the Note II is one of the more unwieldy phones I have ever used. And that’s all due to the size of the display. That being said, the  5.5-inch display on the Note II is one of its most attractive features. The 720×1280 pixel Super AMOLED panel used on the device actually looks slightly better than the one used on the Galaxy S III, most likely due to its slightly warmer color tone reproduction. The 267 ppi pixel density may not compare to the 440 ppi of the new HTC Droid DNA, but it’s certainly more than acceptable. Having a 5.5-inch display is a necessity if you plan on using the S Pen with this device, but that’s not all it’s good for. Browsing the web, playing games and watching YouTube and Netflix are all more enjoyable on the Note II than any other Android phone I have sitting on my desk.

4. Software

Like any other Samsung phone on the market, the Note II comes with the latest version of TouchWiz. What makes the phone stand out is that it runs Android 4.1 right out of the box. That means you get support for Google Now, Project Butter, enhanced notifications and a few other tweaks that most Android users have not yet been able to sample. While it would be nearly impossible to find more than a handful of readers on this site who would recommend TouchWiz over Android’s stock UI, I have found very few issues with Samsung’s custom UI. As we pointed out in our review of the Samsung Galaxy S III, TouchWiz is probably the best among OEM skins. TouchWiz allows users to add their own apps to the launcher dock. In turn, this  adds those same apps to the lock screen so that they can be launched with a simple swipe. TouchWiz is much lighter than it has been and offers quite a few customization options. The down side is that Samsung has chosen to overload the phone with its own array of custom applications. There are roughly a half-dozen various Samsung Hub and S apps loaded on the device. Realistically, this could probably be consolidated into 3-4 more robust apps. And then there’s the look of the UI; whoever dreamed it up seems to have no experience in UI design. TouchWiz will get the job done for most people, but I’d still recommend installing a third-party launcher and a handful of other apps to replace Samsung’s stock offerings.

5. S Pen

The massive 5.5-inch display on the Note II may be the initial feature that sets it apart from the competition, but the S Pen is really the factor that puts the device in a class of its own. The Wacom Electro-Magnetic Resonance (EMR) technology used in the S Pen is simply phenomenal and provides extremely accurate input without needing a battery-powered pen. If you use Samsung’s Touch Wiz launcher, removing the S Pen from the phone will automatically launch an S Pen screen that presents a variety of different tasks for which the S Pen can be used. If you’re not really sure what you would want to do with the S Pen, Samsung has put together an extensive set of demo templates. While the templates are great for getting ideas, I never actually used any of them. Instead, I found myself opting for a plain white note pad to do some sketching or lined paper for taking notes. The original S Pen that came with the Samsung Galaxy Note was good, but the Note II’s S Pen is a huge improvement. Samsung has made the S Pen longer and wider, which makes it a lot more comfortable to use for longer periods of time. It’s still not as comfortable as a regular sized pen, but it’s hard to complain about that since the S Pen tucks away into the body of the phone for safe keeping.

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Having a digital pen to take take notes on your phone is fun, but Samsung has added a few extra features to make the S Pen even more useful:

  • Easy Clip: outline and crop any content on the screen in any shape to save, share or paste. Clips can be pasted and edited with a note or shared via Android’s media sharing protocols.
  • Air View: hover with the S Pen over an email, calendar entry, image gallery or video to preview the content without having to open it. Also helpful in identifying unrecognizable icons in various applications.
  • Quick Command: open the command pad with an upward swipe on the screen with the S Pen button pressed down to access the apps or services you use most.

While the S Pen works as advertised, I found that I seldom used it. I’m a big fan of active pen technology and own the HTC Flyer, which I use to take notes during meetings. My thought was that I’d love the S Pen on the Note II since it would allow me to take notes without having to carry around my Flyer. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite turn out that way. The 5.5-inch display on the Note II is huge for a phone and works fine if you’re doodling with the S Pen, but I found it to be too small for my note taking needs. I could only get two to three words on a single line, and I had to constantly scroll the page after only writing half a sentence.

As for the new, more triangular shape of the pen? I preferred the roundness of the S Pen from the original Note, because it was easier to wiggle the pen into place. The current model’s corners require more of your attention to decipher which edge should face the back, whereas before you could just mindlessly twirl it a bit as you pushed.

6. Performance

If you’re looking for a phone with exceptional multi-tasking capabilities that will tear through the latest 3D games, the Samsung Galaxy Note II may be exactly what the doctor prescribed. The quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A9 Exynos 4412 processor and 2GB of RAM inside the Samsung Galaxy Note II deliver exceptional performance across the board. Unfortunately, incredible hardware doesn’t always guarantee glitch-free software performance. As fast as the phone is, we did run into stutters and hiccups in the Samsung TouchWiz UI from time to time. Fortunately, none of that was carried over to third part apps or games. Benchmark scores from the Samsung Galaxy Note II are among the best in the world, but don’t be too surprised if it gets knocked down a few pegs as more quad-core Qualcomm S4 phones hit the market in the coming months.

Benchmark Test Score
AnTuTU 13,527
Quadrant 5,861
Nenamark 2 60.3 FPS
Vellamo 2,439
SunSpider 0.9.1 1,038

7. Cameras

It used to be that smartphones were all about getting things done, but 2012 has been the year when camera performance has been pushed to the very top of people’s priority lists. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is equipped with an 8 MP camera, featuring an advanced BSI (back side illuminated) chip that allows for brighter shots in low-light situations. If you’re familiar with the camera features on the GSIII, the Note II doesn’t hold any surprises. Overall, image quality is impressive and falls in line with the HTC One series and other high-end Android phones. Like all other OEMs, Samsung uses its own camera application, which adds a few extra tricks on top of the stock Android 4.1 camera app. Some of the more useful features include burst mode (capture up to 20 rapid-fire pictures by holding down the shutter button), a modified panorama mode that helps capture better shots and HDR image processing. The Samsung Galaxy Note II isn’t going to replace your mid-range point-and-shoot camera any time soon, but the image quality is definitely good enough that you might actually want to print some of the shots you take and hang them on your cube wall at work.

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The 1080p video capture on the Note II is, again, on par with other high-end Android phones. Videos shot in bright daylight look great, but graininess settles in once the sun goes down. However, even the grainy video captures by the Note II are a lot better than most videos captured by those pocket HD video cameras that were all the rage a few years ago.

Anyone who’s obsessed with taking self-portraits will  love the Note II.  The front-facing camera on the phone is actually one of the best on the market. Samsung has blessed the phone with an unusually sharp 1.9 megapixel chip and a fairly decent lens. We found the high-quality of the front-facing camera extremely pleasing when using the Note II with a few video chat apps and Google Plus hangouts.

8. Battery

Power users will find it extremely hard to fully drain the 3,100 mAh battery in the Note II. On average, the battery has been able to keep the Samsung  Galaxy Note II up and running  for a little over 14 hours with at least 3 hours of screen-on time. In that time period, I used the Note II to stay on top of multiple email accounts, browse the web, listen to Pandora for a few hours, tweet, and snap 10-20 pictures. When I handed the Note II off to my wife for a few days, she was able to easily get 24-30 hours of up time before plugging the phone back in to recharge. Naturally, battery life will vary based on how you use the device, but we’re pretty sure battery life won’t be something you’d complain about if you owned this device.

9. Call quality and sound

We all like to use our phones for surfing the web, playing games and browsing Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, but we often forget that they also make phone calls. Fortunately, the Note II can manage your calls with ease. The device does not seem to suffer from any reception issues, and calls come through loud and crisp for users on both ends. Our only minor gripe is with the slightly tinny tone of the speakerphone, but it’s not something we’d notice if weren’t listening for it.

Buying a high-end smartphone these days without 4G is like buying a sports car to drive on narrow cobblestone roads. It works, but what’s the point? Fortunately, the Samsung Galaxy Note II comes equipped with LTE and HSPA+ radios, giving it access to amazing data speeds on all major carriers. While T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network isn’t technically 4G, we still managed to get download speeds that exceeded 12 Mbps in a handful of different markets, making it one of the fastest HSPA+ phones we’ve tested this year.

10. Accessories

I’ve never been a big fan of buying hugely popular devices simply because I like to think that I have a unique style, but I can say that there’s a huge benefit in buying a phone that has already sold more than 5 million units: accessories. Samsung’s official accessory list for the Note II includes the Flip Cover, Universal Smart Dock and the AllShare Cast Wireless Hub. But if you’re not interested in what Samsung has put out, you have dozens of case, dock and multimedia accessory options available from countless well-established accessory makers.

Samsung Galaxy Note II9 / 10
If you add up all the features of the Samsung Galaxy Note II, you’d find it very hard not to see that it’s the most unique Android device on the market. There are a few phones that are slightly most powerful, but none of them offer active pen integration or a 5.5-inch display. That being said, the size of the phone isn’t for everyone. The Note II is bulky and a bit awkward, but that certainly wouldn’t keep us from recommending the phone to our friends and family.

Nick is a tech enthusiast who has a soft spot for HTC and its devices. He started (the first HTC blog) back in 2007 and later joined the Android and Me family in the summer of 2010.

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