If the recent influx of smartphones with displays measuring over five inches is any indication, Samsung hit a chord with the Galaxy Note. Not to be outdone by the competition, Samsung is striking while the iron is hot with the release of a followup with an even bigger screen. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 improves on the “phablet” concept in nearly every respect, and honed in stylus functionality makes for a unique experience, but is the form factor here to stay? Read on for the full review.
The Galaxy Note 2 is a monster. The phone features a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display and measures in at 5.95 x 3.17 x 0.37 inches. Still, it somehow manages to both look and feel smaller than the original Galaxy Note. Chalk this up to Samsung’s decision to base the Note 2 on the design language of the Galaxy S3. This means rounded edges, soft curves, and an almost seamless construction. It also means we see the same materials in use, so while the phone definitely feels solid, the external casing is still comprised mostly of plastic.
Back to that Super AMOLED display, it comes in at 720p and, unlike the GS3, does not rely on Pentile technology. This equates to a pixel density of 267 pixels per inch. As you might expect from a hi-res display bordering on the size of a tablet, the result was pretty impressive. This is a nice, crisp, bright screen with bold, rich color reproduction.
The Note 2 is powered by Samsung’s quad-core Exynos 4412 processor clocked at 1.6GHz along with 2GB RAM, and interactions with the handset feel buttery smooth. You get all the trappings of a high-end device, otherwise, including an 8MP rear camera with LED flash, 1.9MP front-facing camera, NFC capabilities, and LTE capabilities depending on your network. We looked at the T-Mobile version, which obviously is not LTE-enabled. Instead, it relies on the carriers HSPA+ network.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 certainly has everything the most hardcore smartphone fan would want, but it’s a pretty freaking huge device.
Out of the box, the Galaxy Note 2 comes with Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean along with Samsung’s TouchWiz UX. This is, for all intents and purposes, the same TouchWiz we saw with the GS3 (noticing a theme?) with a few additions tailored toward stylus interaction and a larger display.
Included are features such as pop-up play (picture-in-picture mode for multi-tasking while viewing video), “easy” mode for Android beginners, and a number of other customizations including the ability to launch context-aware homescreens. This is most easily demonstrated by removing the stylus, which triggers a homescreen full of shortcuts and tools specific to Samsung’s S Pen.
If there is one drawback to the software, it’s that between all of the OS customizations, the S Pen, and additional features, the Note 2 can feel a bit overwhelming. In some cases this was frustrating (figuring out certain useful stylus gestures), while in other cases, such as holding down the menu button to launch Google Now, the discovery was a pleasant surprise.
A small but nice addition thanks to the extra screen real estate is the inclusion of a dedicated number row on the Note 2’s default software keyboard.
The S Pen
A major element of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is the included S Pen, which resides tucked away within the main body of the phone. The Note 2 would probably be fine without it, but once you start using some of the S Pen’s unique abilities you likely won’t want to interact with the device without a stylus.
It seems pretty intuitive, especially with features like AirView, which lets you to hover the S Pen over the display and still interact with the phone. AirView allows you to scroll through homescreens, web pages, or documents as well as do things you simply couldn’t do with your finger, such as previewing ahead in a video without interrupting the current playback position.
The S Pen can be used to take a screenshot, crop any part of the current screen into a new note or clipboard element, as well as perform navigational shortcuts. And because the stylus is built on Wacom technology, we can’t forget that it’s actually a great tool for taking handwritten notes or doodling in your spare time. It is responsive and pressure sensitive to allow a bit of an artist’s touch to come through.
The Galaxy Note 2’s camera sample speak for themselves, but when talking about the phone’s 8MP sensor with auto-focus, LED flash, and 1080p video capabilities perhaps it’s best to focus on some of the additional features Samsung has built into the software powering it. Samsung carries on with the additions that began with the GS3, providing modes such as Best Photo (choose the best image from a series of burst-shot photos), Best Face (similar to Best Photo, but as the name implies stitches together the photo with the best-looking headshots), and more.
Regardless of the photo mode, the results were pretty solid all around. As is the case with most smartphone cameras, for every one picture that looks simply amazing you will probably get a few for the trashcan. This is no fault of the Note 2, but simply a reminder that a lot more goes into great photography than just having great tools. But the good news is, the Galaxy Note 2 can capture some pretty nice photos (and HD video as well).
To answer the question from the beginning of this review, if the Galaxy Note 2 is any indication, the “phablet” is definitely here to stay. The Note 2 offers tons of functionality and deep levels of productivity in a sleek package. Sleek, however, does not mean small, and this will be a drawback for many. Features like the S Pen and its full range of interactions with the phone add to the Note 2’s charm, but f the stylus isn’t enough to justify the extra size, you might be better off picking up a Galaxy S3. The Note 2, however, makes a solid choice no matter how you slice it.