Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II defined by its pen

Samsung Galaxy Note II
At a Glance
  • Samsung Galaxy Note II (T-Mobile)

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  • Samsung Galaxy Note II (AT&T)

    PCWorld Rating

Toeing that fine line between tablet and phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is one of the biggest smartphones released this year. The phone features a whopping 5.5-inch display, making it larger than the original Galaxy Note, and is one of the first phones to ship with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. However, while the Note II boasts an impressive array of specs and features, the phone's prodigious size definitely isn't for everyone. (Pricing wasn't available at the time of writing.)

Design

At 5.95 by 3.16 by 0.37-inches, the Note II could easily be mistaken for a small tablet. The front face is dominated by a 5.5-inch, 1280-by-720-pixel HD Super AMOLED display, which is a minor downgrade in resolution from the 1280 by 800 display that shipped on the original Note. The screen still looks sharp, although colors tended to be a bit on the saturated side. When comparing the Note II with the Samsung Galaxy S III and the original Galaxy Note, I noticed that the screen on the Note II is not as bright as the screens on the other two. Even on the highest brightness settings, the screen didn't look all that vibrant, making it a bit difficult to use the Note II outdoors (especially on sunny days).

Whereas the original Note looked like a boring black rectangle, the Note II boasts rounded edges and appealing curves reminiscent of those seen on the Galaxy S III. These design choices help make the Note II easier to hold, though the phone really requires two hands to operate. Attempting to use the Note II one-handed proved extremely difficult: I found myself constantly having to shift my grip to navigate the phone's menus one-handed.

I was able to fit the Note II into my pants pocket without any problems, though several coworkers who tried pocketing the phone complained that the Note II dug into their thighs when they sat down. It's a phone you'll definitely want to get your hands on to check out before you purchase one; if you struggle trying to use phones with bigger screens (like the Galaxy S III and the Motorola Droid Razr HD), then the Note II may not be for you.

The Stylus

People made a lot of jokes when they first heard that the original Note would come with a stylus, though it ended up being one of the phone's most memorable features. The Wacom-made stylus (or S Pen) on the Note II is similar to the one that shipped with the first Note, but its shape has been updated to make it easier to hold. The new S Pen also has a different tip, which makes it feel like you're using a pencil on a pad of paper.

One of the first things I did after getting my hands on the Note II was to pop the S Pen out of its slot (located at the bottom of the phone), and proceed to doodle all over the screen. After just a few short hours, it felt natural to slide out the stylus and jot down a note or two on the phone's screen whenever I wanted to remember something important. By pressing a button on the side of the S Pen, I can also clip out specific areas of the screen that I want to save and reference later. Sure, these are things you can do with most smartphones today, in one manner or another, but using the stylus to accomplish these tasks is just more enjoyable.

Performance

With a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM, the Note II can handle pretty much anything you throw at it. Even with multiple apps running at once, the phone never showed any signs of slowing down, and I was not able to detect any lag while using the device. And, unlike most dual-core phones, the Note II didn't feel hot while playing graphically intensive games like Dead Trigger or Shadowgun.

Call quality on both the AT&T and T-Mobile versions of the Note II is good, but a tiny bit fuzzy. Voices come through loud and clear, and the people I called said that they had no problems hearing or understanding me. These calls were in an area with good T-Mobile and AT&T reception, so your results will vary depending on carrier coverage in your area. Data speeds on both versions of the Note II were also commendable, though the LTE-compatible AT&T Note II is faster. Using the FCC-approved Ookla Speed Test app on the T-Mobile Note II here in San Francisco, I recorded average download speeds of 7.3 megabits per second and average upload speeds of 2.71 mbps. The AT&T Note II scored an average download speed of 16 mbps and an average upload speed of 9.67 mbps.

With its high-capacity 3100mAh battery, the Note II can go for quite a while before needing to be plugged in. Over the course of five days with the Note II, I had to charge the phone only twice—and this was after several hours of browsing the Web, playing games, and watching videos. Very impressive indeed.

Software

A sketch made using the S Pen and a third-party app.

The Note II is one of the first non-Nexus phones to ship running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, albeit with Samsung's custom TouchWiz overlay. This version of TouchWiz isn't much different from the one that ships with the Galaxy S III, although it includes extra software and features that make use of the S Pen's unique properties. You can, for instance, hover the pen over an email or text message in order to get a preview of that item's contents, or use the S Pen with the bundled S Note software to jot down a note or two. However, much as with the original Note, the S Pen works only with a select handful of software—most of which is made by Samsung. A few third-party apps work with the stylus—drawing and signature apps in particular—but the preinstalled Samsung applications will probably get the most use when it comes to doing things with the S Pen.

The T-Mobile version of the Note II comes preloaded with a considerable amount of bloatware. Aside from the usual slew of T-Mobile branded apps (T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile My Account, and so on), the Note II also comes with Paper Artist, the Amazon shopping app, and a bookmark where you can purchase Need For Speed Most Wanted (when the game releases on October 30th). The AT&T version of the Note II also comes with bloatware, but it seems to be limited to just AT&T's branded apps. On both the AT&T and T-Mobile versions of the phone you can hide the apps you don't want in a folder in the app drawer, but sadly none of the preinstalled apps on either version of the phone can be removed without rooting.

Camera

A sample image taken with the Samsung Galaxy Note II

Although it's equipped with an 8-megapixel camera, photos and video taken with the Note II are nothing to write home about. Photos are clear with good color accuracy, but aren't all that sharp. You won't want to use the Note II to capture any precious memories, but it'll work fine for the average Facebook or Twitter photo. The Note II can record in 1080p, and videos are largely free of artifacts and other digital maladies. I did notice a jelly-like effect when moving the camera around while recording videos on the Note II, but that didn't seem to carry over into the video itself.

The camera app on the Note II is customizable, and packs a few neat extras. Aside from panoramic and HDR (high dynamic range) shooting modes, the Note II also features a burst-shot option that can rapidly take up to 20 photos in mere seconds. The feature works best to capture fast-moving objects, such as kids or pets, and was really one of my favorite features of the Note II's camera.

Bottom line

The Samsung Galaxy Note II has a lot going for it: With its fast processor, huge display, and great battery life, the Note II makes for a stellar multimedia machine that you won't have to charge in the middle of the day. The Note II's S Pen and pen-optimized apps can be used for both creativity and productivity, and are really the defining features of the handset. The phone's larger size won't appeal to everyone, but I recommend you try the phone and S Pen themselves before dismissing a relatively solid handset.

This story, "Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II defined by its pen" was originally published by TechHive.

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