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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Review

Highs

  • Design minimizes bulk, keeping this big phone slim-seeming
  • Android 4.1 Jelly Bean available at launch
  • Camera app includes robust feature set
  • User-replaceable battery
  • Improved S Pen functionality
  • Speedy peformance
  • Available on all major carriers
  • Long battery life

Rating

Our Score 8.5
User Score 10

Lows

  • TouchWiz gets in the way of Jelly Bean too much
  • Some S Pen features only work in Samsung apps
  • Display resolution lower than previous generation
For the people who crave larger screens and don't want a tablet, the Note 2 is the best choice available right now.

When Samsung first debuted the Galaxy Note smartphone, there were plenty of detractors who said that the device was too big to be a phone and no one wanted a stylus, anyway. Throughout the past year, the Note has proven the exact opposite to the tune of millions sold. Now the Note is back for a second act, sporting an even bigger display and some new tricks.

If big phones aren’t your thing, then the Note 2 isn’t going to convince you otherwise. However, for those who want a phone at this size, the new Note is out to make you forget the old one and all those pretenders that sprang up in its wake. Even better, it’s launching on all four major mobile carriers and U.S. Cellular, so you don’t have to switch to get your hands on one.

Design and Feel

The second generation Galaxy Note brings a slightly larger 5.5-inch display but doesn’t add much size. In fact, the Note 2 is a hair narrower and skinnier than the original and only 0.1 inches taller, coming in at 5.9 x 3.2 x 0.37 inches. Samsung did an even better job this time around minimizing how big the Note 2 feels, giving it curves and rounded edges. It looks like the big brother of the Galaxy S3 and not like a slab of glass a la the LG Intuition.

Even with these smart design decisions, the Note 2 remains a sizable phone that doesn’t fit easily into tight pants pockets. This doesn’t matter to everyone, but is something to consider before you buy. Once you get used to the size, it is comfortable to hold given the curved chrome edges. The 6.4-ounce weight takes getting used to, even when coming from a largish phone like the S3, but isn’t overly heavy.

Just like the S3, the U.S. version of the Note 2 retains the physical Home button flanked by Menu and Back (even though the phone runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean). The Power button is on the upper right edge of the device across from the Volume rocker on the upper left. We’re not fans of this positioning since it’s easy to accidentally press one or the other, but it happens less often since we were less likely to handle the phone with one hand.

samsung galaxy note 2 design

The Note 2 is a two-handed device, and there’s no getting around that. If being able to use a device easily with one hand is important to you, then you’re not going to like dealing with this device. There are some settings for one-handed operation that put the phone keypad, Calculator keys, unlock pattern, and the Samsung keyboard nearer one edge of the screen or the other. This works all right for keypads, but not on the keyboard. It’s nice that Samsung included this feature, but the Note 2 is for people who don’t mind two-handed use. For those people, the Note 2’s wide screen offers plenty of room for comfortable typing in both portrait and landscape.

Around back, the 8-megapixel camera sits almost flush with the back, indented just a little to prevent lens scratching, next to a flash. A tiny speaker grille has a small bump on it to keep it raised off flat surfaces, improving volume for alarms and music. Though small, these speakers are quite loud and offer decent quality for speakerphone calls or sharing video without headphones.

A Micro USB port sites on the bottom and a microSD card slot under the back cover. Taking off the back also reveals a removable battery and the SIM card slot.

S Pen

Samsung made several welcome improvements to the S Pen experience, many first seen on the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet and ported to the phone side. The most noticeable is that the stylus now has hovering capabilities made possible by the Wacom digitizer technology behind the pen/screen interaction. Greater sensitivity has also improved palm rejection, making the Note 2 an even better note-taking device.

The S Pen itself is more comfortable and ergonomic thanks to some design tweaks. One edge is flat to keep it from rolling away and the textured side button is easier to find or avoid. The interchangeable nib is an improvement over the last generation; writing feels more natural for those of us raised with pen and paper.

As with the last generation, the S Pen works just like a finger for swiping, tapping, etc., plus comes with extra tricks and gestures to make it easy to navigate Android without having to touch the Back or Menu buttons (which don’t respond to the pen, still). Once you get accustomed to the gestures they’re easy to remember and use.

samsung galaxy note 2 hardware pen

Even more useful are the S Pen’s hover features. The screen can now detect the stylus from several millimeters away, displaying a small dot when it’s near. Hover over buttons to see pop-up labels, hover at the top or bottom of scrollable content to scroll without touching the screen, or expand a picture or video without having to tap. The only frustrating thing is that some of these hover features, such as the ability to read more lines in an email without opening it, only work in Samsung apps. We would have liked to see that last feature in the Gmail app, too.

Just like the Note 10.1, the Note 2 vibrates when you pull the S Pen from its port and pops up a notification. It also adds an extra home screen that displays pen-compatible apps. This “Page Buddy” feature isn’t all that useful, and thankfully Samsung allows people to turn it off.

A few pen-enabled apps come pre-loaded, including S Note. This app includes some welcome improvements such as the addition of shape match and formula match for students. Samsung’s keyboard has a handwriting recognition option that is finally good enough to actually use. It recognized even terrible handwriting 95 percent of the time and doesn’t require a steep learning curve. We hand wrote several emails, composing faster than with the traditional keyboard at some points.

Operating System

The Galaxy Note 2 comes pre-loaded with “Jelly Bean,” the newest version of Android (4.1). However, if you fell in love with or just got used to the way Jelly Bean looks and feels on the Google Nexus or Nexus 7, you’re going to be surprised by the Note’s version (perhaps unpleasantly so). That’s because Samsung once again covers the interface with its own skin called TouchWiz. For some users, this is heresy. Others don’t mind because skins, or visual tweaks, do sometimes make using Android easier. However, this time Samsung may have gone too far in trying to make a more beginner-friendly experience.

During initial setup, users are offered the choice of two home screen modes, Basic and Easy. Basic is the familiar layout, while Easy is supposed to be for first-time smartphone owners. However, the only thing Easy mode does is make the UI unattractive. Users can switch between modes any time via settings.

TouchWiz changes the way Android works, taking away some nice Jelly Bean features, such as swiping up to activate Google Now (instead, you access this from the Recent Apps screen or the Search widget) and placing one app icon on top of another to create a folder. Many of these tweaks make Android 4.1 work more like Android 2.3. While we can appreciate that this is useful for people upgrading from older versions of Android, some of Jelly Bean’s changes are both welcome and improvements over the way things used to work.

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The display sports a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution – ever so slightly smaller than the 1280 x 800 pixel display on the original Note. While still HD and pixel dense enough, the slightly lower resolution resulted in UI elements looking chunkier and more cartoonish than they should. Plus, instead of getting five icons across on Home screens as you did on the original Note, there are now only four. That’s disappointing.

All that said, much of what is good about Jelly Bean is here, including the improved Notifications drawer and Google Now. And some of Samsung’s additions are welcome. We like the ability to call the person we’re texting just by raising the phone to our ear, muting audio by turning the display face down, and not having to worry about the screen timing out while we’re looking at it.

The Note 2 is made for multitasking, thus there are several pop-up and pop-out features that allow users to layer content on top of apps. The pop-up browser isn’t as useful as it could be, but pop-up S Note is perfect for a quick jot when you’re on the phone or in the middle of something.

The International version of the Note 2 has a multiscreen feature similar to what we saw on the Note 10.1. Currently, the U.S. versions do not have this, but it may arrive via a software update down the line, just as it did internationally.

Overall, the interface and operating system is a mixed bag. The problematic bits of TouchWiz aren’t annoying enough to make the Note unusable or undesirable, especially since all the good features nicely balance them. It still left us wishing TouchWiz would back off a bit more and let Jelly Bean shine.

Hardware specifications

Inside, a 1.6GHz quad core processor drives the Galaxy Note 2, backed by 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage (32GB and 64GB will also be available from some carriers). This powerful combination makes for a speedy device overall, even with the tweaks TouchWiz brings to the table. Scrolling swiping isn’t as butter smooth as the iPhone 5, but we didn’t experience noticeable stuttering or lag.

On the Quadrant test, the Note II scored an impressive 5,944, almost 1,000 points over the Galaxy S3, which is one of the highest scoring phones we’ve tested.

samsung galaxy note 2 s pen screen

We’re not sure why Samsung chose to make the display bigger on the Note II but cut resolution to 1280 x 720 — previously it was 1280 x 800. This has an impact on the interface that we’ll discuss below. Otherwise, the screen remains one of the best aspects of the phone, as it should be. The Super AMOLED technology makes for true blacks and bright colors and the size means it’s possible to fit more on the screen. It’s great for reading eBooks or web pages and seeing more of your email and messages without scrolling.

The Note 2 is coming to five carriers at launch and will run on HSPA+ and 4G LTE networks. Our review unit is a T-Mobile model. Speeds varied widely on this 4G network. With full bars we saw downloads as fast as 19Mbps, but at two bars this dropped to around 4.5Mbps.

Other specs include a Micro USB port, microSD card slot, headphone jack, a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, DLNA for AllShare Play, NFC, and GPS.

Cameras

The 8-megapixel camera on the back shoots shots decent enough for sharing, though they aren’t as sharp or detailed as we like. Image quality is on par with the Galaxy S3, meaning it trails the HTC One X and the Phone 5, but not by a huge margin.

samsung galaxy note 2 camera sample outside

Samsung’s camera app offers a good set of advanced settings and options like white balance, exposure control, and HDR to help improve shots. It’s also faster than the previous generation, snapping quick pics. We like the Best Faces mode which allows users to take several shots of a group, then choose the best individual faces from each, combining them into one perfect picture.

samsung galaxy note 2 camera sample inside

Beyond these, there’s a robust feature set centered around sharing. We like the ability to tag faces with names in our contacts as it makes it far easier to sort and find pictures of people later on. And the Share Shot feature, which connects multiple Samsung phones in a mini network for easier photo sharing, is a good idea, but not practical if no one but you has a new Galaxy device. And, chances are, that’s probably the case.

The 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera is decent and handles low light situations better than the average smartphone. It delivers video good enough for Google Hangouts.

Call Quality

Holding the Galaxy Note II up to your ear for conversations may feel odd and look silly and obscure your peripheral vision, but at least the calls sound good. Friends on the other end said our voices came through mostly clear and the earpiece is loud enough in most situations at 75 percent or less.

If you can’t countenance doing such a thing (or you’re the type of person who doesn’t make many calls to begin with), audio via Bluetooth headsets such as the Plantronics Voyager Legend or these Samsung earbuds is just as good. With both options you get some remote control action as well.

Battery Life

A big screen requires a big battery, especially a Super AMOLED display. This time Samsung went with a 3100mAh battery and the result is super long life. During our testing, the Note 2 lasted more than 14 hours of heavy usage without dropping below 25 percent without any power saving tweaks. You’ll only lose a bit of battery when the display is off and the phone on standby, so it’s possible to go a couple of days without charging depending on usage.

Conclusion

The Galaxy Note II is a worthy second act for Samsung’s big screen phone. It makes an even better case for the inclusion of the stylus than the first generation, improves on performance and battery life, and does it all while not adding bulk. A giant smartphone isn’t for everyone. For the people who crave larger screens and don’t want a tablet, the Note 2 is the best choice available right now.

Pricing varies across carriers. AT&T, Sprint, and US Cellular announced that they will offer the Note 2 for $300 (with contract).  T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless will also sell the phone but haven’t announced pricing or availability yet. Sprint sales start this week with other carriers to follow in November.

Highs:

  • Design minimizes bulk, making a big phone seem slim
  • Runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, robust camera app
  • Improved S Pen functionality
  • Speedy performance
  • Available on all major carriers
  • Large user-replaceable battery

Lows:

  • TouchWiz gets in the way of Jelly Bean too much
  • Some S Pen features only work in Samsung apps
  • Display resolution lower than previous generation

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