The Samsung Galaxy Note II is an Android Jelly Bean driven hybrid between a smartphone and a tablet. Its key features are a 5.5-inch large HD Super AMOLED display and an integrated active stylus, called S Pen. Assisted by multi-window view and many other smart features, multitasking becomes the Samsung Galaxy Note II’s middle name.
For this review, we purchased the model GT-N7105, which is equipped with Qualcomm 4G, also known as LTE. While the review unit came with Telekom (T-Mobile) branding, we will be giving away a brand new unit without branding.
Introducing the Samsung Galaxy Note II
This slightly oversized smartphone is intended for people who want to work on the go or be creative with their phone. The large 5.5-inch display makes it easier to browse websites or read text. It also provides enough screen space for viewing and using two apps side by side. Multitasking is a key benefit of the Galaxy Note II.
Furthermore, the Galaxy Note II’s S Pen is much more than just a handy tool for the stubby fingered or the creative person with great handwriting. Far from the type of stylus Steve Jobs despised so much, it truly interacts with the phone in ways that your fingers just can’t.
With its Galaxy Note II, Samsung has carved out a niche for itself. Other than the Note II’s predecessor, which measures 5.3 inches, there presently is no phone of this size on the market, although the Sony Xperia Z (5-inch) and Samsung’s own Galaxy S III (4.8-inch) come close. In comparison, the iPhone 5 seems cute with its 4-inch screen. Most notably, none of the competitors carry an integrated stylus.
The 16GB Samsung Galaxy Note II is available for around $680 (and is also available in 32 and 64 GB configurations), while the slightly smaller Galaxy S III is sold for around $540. At the time of writing this article, no US prices were available for the newly launched competitor, the Sony Xperia Z. However, in Europe that phone sells at around €630, the same price as the Samsung Galaxy Note II.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II came in a medium sized, sturdy, yet stylish white cardboard box, just big enough to enclose the phone.
Accessories, battery, and documentation were packed on a second layer underneath the phone. My package included a standard USB to micro-USB cable, a USB power adapter, as well as a set of headphones with microphone, control buttons, and extra ear pads in various sizes. The headset plugs into the phone via a standard 3.5 mm 4-conductor phone jack.
The documentation was minimal: a short Quick Start Guide in English and German as well as a booklet containing the warranty card on its cover and warranty conditions in multiple languages inside. And that is absolutely sufficient for online documentation and PDF lovers like myself.
Hardware and Specs
Samsung’s high end Galaxy Note II comes with a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display that has a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. This is actually slightly less than the original Galaxy Note, which sports 1280 x 800 pixels on a 5.3-inch screen. With this size screen, the Galaxy Note II is large. It measures 5.95 inches (151.1 mm) in height, 3.17 inches (80.5 mm) in width, and 0.37 inches (9.4 mm) in depth. Consequently, it’s also rather heavy, weighing in at around 6.3 oz (180 g). The 3,100 mAh removable Li-Ion battery contributes significantly to the weight.
In terms of computing capacity, the phone is powered by a 1.6 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 processor and 2 GB of RAM. The review unit came with 16 GB of internal storage, which can be expanded with a microSD card of up to 64 GB. The standard operating system is Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
We are reviwing the Samsung Galaxy Note II model GT-N7105, which is the international version with LTE (4G). In addition to GSM/GPRS/EDGE, this model can also connect to LTE and HSPA+. Unlike some other versions, it does not come with an FM radio tuner.
Note that the phone only has space for one micro-SIM card. If you still have an old mini-SIM card, you can find plenty of DIY instructions for turning your old SIM card into a micro-SIM card online. We have also written an article about it here. Keep in mind that the mini-SIM is slightly thicker than a micro-SIM and you might have trouble removing it once you slide it all the way in.
On first impression, the Samsung Galaxy Note II has great build quality. The front aspect consists entirely of glass, the frame looks like metal, but might just be plastic, like the back cover, but with a chrome finish.
To insert the battery, I had to remove the back cover, which proved difficult as it didn’t come off easily. And when trying to push it back on, I was worried of breaking the small plastic pins that hold it in place. However, the parts are solid and the phone survived the procedure completely undamaged.
Let’s look at the device layout. A camera can be found both on the front and back sides. The 8 megapixel rear camera can shoot full HD videos and is accompanied by a flash light. The 1.9 MP front camera is sufficient for video chatting and records videos or stills at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. Next to the front camera are sensors for proximity and light.
On the front, green, red, and blue notification lights in the top left hand corner indicate battery charging status or pending messages. The blue notification light is triggered by incoming text messages, missed calls, or notifications from various apps, such as Skype, Gmail, or the calendar.
The Galaxy Note II has two microphones; one at the top next to the headset jack which is used during speakerphone mode, and one at the bottom next to the multipurpose jack. The S Pen sits at the bottom left of the back side.
The powerful 3,100 mAh Li-Ion battery has been estimated to fuel up to 17 hours of talk time on a 3G network, up to 35 hours on a 2G network, and up to 980 hours of standby. GSMArena found an endurance rating of 69 hours on one battery charge, which included one hour calling on a 3G network, one hour web browsing, one hour watching video per day, and standby for the rest of the time.
While using the phone extensively for the past three days, I needed to recharge once and am almost ready for a second recharge since the initial full recharge. So while the Samsung Galaxy Note II contains a strong battery and lasts long compared to the competition, you can expect to recharge almost daily, if you intend to use the phone a lot for emailing, checking messages, taking notes, watching videos, and playing games.
Working with the S Pen
For me, the Samsung Galaxy Note II replaces an ancient 2008 HTC Touch Pro Windows phone. The Touch Pro also came with a stylus, which was very necessary given its tiny display. I am mentioning this because years of using this little stylus have tainted my perception of Samsung’s S Pen.
Compared to HTC’s stylus, the Galaxy Note II S Pen leaves much to be desired. The HTC is magnificent in that its stylus slides out effortlessly and upon putting it back, is pulled in and held in place by a magnet. Ingenious! Removing or inserting the S Pen on the other hand requires fingernails and is a real drag compared to using the HTC Touch Pro stylus.
The storage flaw aside, the S Pen is an impressive little tool. It is light, reasonably sized, and if you had a peek at the video above, you already know about its stunning features. Let me give you a summary of my favorite features.
Personally, I love taking handwritten notes, which is why I have been partial to devices that come with a stylus. In the S Pen menu under Settings I enabled the option to Open Popup Note when the pen is detached. So whenever I pull out the pen now, an empty note opens. Notice that you can magically switch between writing and erasing by clicking the S Pen button. Most notably, however, you can move around the note and still use whatever app is open below it.
The S Pen does more than elegantly replacing your finger for taking notes. It has a mesmerizing little feature called Air View. The pure proximity of the pen to the display makes a little circle appear on screen. As you hover the S Pen over certain areas, previews, drop-down menus, or tool tips appear. Moreover, you can use Air View to scroll without touching the screen.
When you depend on taking screenshots, you will love the S Pen. Press the S Pen button, then touch the screen and remain in one position for a second. This will take a screenshot and in the next step you can edit your screenshot, i.e. add notes or crop it. Furthermore, when you move the S Pen on the screen while holding the button, you can lasso a custom area of the screen and capture it.
The S Pen is incredibly useful and you will discover more features while you’re using it; for example, gestures. However, it does have its shortcomings. While it does replace your finger on screen and can also be used to press the home button (although I’m not sure how good that is for its tip), the S Pen does not work with the menu or back button. So unfortunately, it’s not able to completely replace your finger, for example when you are wearing gloves.
Moreover, I wish the S Pen button would do more. I think it could actually open menus when clicking the button, rather than having to physically touch the screen. But this is probably expecting way too much. After all, it’s just a better stylus, not a remote control.
Living with the Samsung Galaxy Note II
Over the past three days, I have been using the Galaxy Note II for everyday mobile phone tasks, such as checking emails via the Gmail app, browsing the internet using Dolphin, taking notes with the S Pen, watching videos, and chatting via Skype, GTalk, and WhatsApp. Yes, I typically don’t use my phone much for actually talking on the phone. Having used a Windows phone for the past 5 years and an Android Honeycomb tablet for the past 1.5 years, Android Jelly Bean running on this beautiful device from Samsung feels like a liberation.
After the initial setup, I kept getting the error message ‘CloudAgent has stopped working‘ whenever I tried to view photos via the gallery. After some research I concluded it was an error caused by Dropbox. Fortunately, it disappeared after running all due updates. This has been the only real issue I ran into and it resolved itself.
As for the size, I love it. I have always preferred large displays or other additional features over stripped down, limited, and minimalistic devices. Although the Note II is slightly heavier than my old phone, it feels lighter due to its shape. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is a slim phone and still small enough to fit into a pocket, at least with good will.
I didn’t play much with the cameras, but my superficial impression is that they take very decent pictures. The rear camera comes with a 4x zoom and the flash enables good shots even under less than optimal light conditions. Other reviews claim the rear camera is great.
Generally, the phone is full of complex menus and not immediately intuitive features. I stumbled across many of them by accident. And sometimes you think you have figured something out and then it doesn’t work the same way the next time you want to use it somewhere else. However, much of that may be due to not having used Android 4.1 before. So if you are familiar with Jelly Bean, you will probably not be overwhelmed at all.
Taken together, getting used to this phone comes with a bit of a learning curve. The S Pen is the biggest challenge, however, is is also my favorite feature. Overall the Samsung Galaxy Note II is a great device that has its uses for a particular audience, including professionals, students, and artists.
Should You Buy It?
As always, it depends. If you are excited about the S Pen, the large display for multitasking, and if you really need this to be a phone, not a tablet, then the Samsung Galaxy Note II absolutely is for you.
However, if you couldn’t care less about a stylus and would rather have a full HD screen resolution, then I recommend the recently released Sony Xperia Z. If you prefer a smaller device, then there is a host of alternative smartphones on the market, not least the Samsung Galaxy S III.
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