Last year at IFA, Samsung introduced a new class of handset with the launch of its original Galaxy Note, smartphones with huge displays (5-inch+) that we internally call “phablets”. Its successor, the Galaxy Note 2 features a larger display (5.5”), a faster quad-core processor, increased RAM (2 GB), Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean) and an awesomely enhanced S-Pen stylus for sketching or writing directly on the phone. Given the state-of-the-art spec list, the Galaxy Note 2 should be really fast and deliver high performance.
Some people would argue that this is not a phone anymore, since it is too large to carry in the pocket and also that you may look ridiculous with this gigantic phone on your cheek when you place a phone call. However, I usually get tremendous feedback regarding the form factor from men who wear jackets (with a large internal pocket) and women who carry purses. I personally love the device (version 1 and 2) and, to challenge the size argument, Hubert did carry it regularly in his jeans’ front pockets and he was fine.
In this review, will cover how it feels to use the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in the real world. Ready?
|Samsung Galaxy Note||Samsung Galaxy Note 2|
|Display type||Super AMOLED||Super AMOLED|
|Main chip||dual-core Snapdragon S3 (USA)||Exynos 4412 quad-core|
|Internal storage (GB)||16||16, 32, 64|
|Battery capacity||2500mAh||3100 mAh|
|Back Camera||8 Megapixel||8 Megapixel|
|Front Camera||2 Megapixel||1.9 Megapixel|
|Dimensions||5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38||5.95 x 3.17 x 0.37|
We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that we tell you what we do with our smartphone(s): we typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. We browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. Not many phone calls are made at all, 10 minutes a day, tops.
On the “apps” side, Hubert has a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but he rarely plays games or indulge in something super-intensive like video editing. Eliane likes to check-in often and tends to install a lot more apps on her phone. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…
When I played with the original Galaxy Note, I really liked the design, simply because it can be used as a phone AND as a tablet, and the large screen is very useful when using maps or to read web pages.
Although the display size is larger (increased from 5.3” to 5.5” ), the Galaxy Note 2 is narrower and taller than its predecessor (decreased from 3.27” to 3.17” – height increased from 5.78″ to 5.95”). The general shape is similar with a slightly thinner and heavier body (from 0.38” to 0.37”- from 6.28 oz to 6.35 oz).
The main difference is the absence of the texture on the back on the white version (the one we have) compared to the original Galaxy Note black version we have at the office. From the pictures on the website, we can tell that the Galaxy Note 2 “titanium Gray” model features a subtle texture on the back that looks smoother than the previous one.
The narrower form factor probably aims at making the device (a bit) easier to operate with one hand, as many people are highly sensitive to this characteristic in a smartphone. Now, it is possible to type with the thumb holding the Note 2 in the palm, and I have mid-sized hands. With the previous model, it is also “possible” but very uncomfortable, and reaching the keys at the far left of the keyboard was a challenge.
The U.S version, just like the European version, gets a physical home button at the bottom of the screen, unlike the previous Galaxy Note model available in the U.S which featured exclusively touch sensitive icons for the Menu, Home, Back and Search commands. The Menu icon is placed at the left of the Home button and on the right, you will find the back icon, like on other recent Galaxy smartphones.
In my opinion, the back button should always be on the left of the device, since web conventions has long established the browser back button to be on the upper left of the window. LG and HTC for example place the back icon at the left of the home command on their smartphones. This is not so important since most users will learn very quickly the placement of all commands, but some consistency would be good.
Overall, the build quality of the new Galaxy Note 2 is better than the older model, and personally I really prefer the smooth back cover on the new white model than the textured one on the Note 1 black model (a white version was not available in the U.S previously). The T-Mobile logo is placed on the back at the top, with the product name at the bottom while the Samsung logo is on the front, at the top between the phone speaker and the upper edge of the display.
Similarly to the Note 1 and the Galaxy S3, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 chassis is enclosed in a silver frame that covers all four sides of the device. You will find the power button on the right side and the volume button on the left side. The micro USB connector is located in the middle of the bottom side with the S-Pen on its right. The audio jack is placed at the top,on the left.
The camera lens is integrated in the upper/middle of the back side with the LED flash on its left, just like on the previous model. The silver frame around the camera lens is slightly curvy, which is different from the square shaped frame on the original Note. The Galaxy S3 gets its LED on the left side of the camera, while its speaker is placed on its right. The loudspeaker on the Galaxy Note 2 features the exact same grid than the previous model, and it is placed at the exact same spot, on the back, bottom left.
All the shapes used for the design language of this product are very consistent with the latest Galaxy S3 smartphone, making it a highly recognizable as part of the Galaxy brand.
Display (very good)
This is surely the most appealing aspect of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2: the 5.5” display is huge, and the common question that we get is: is it too big? Our answer is “no”, quickly followed by “depending on how you use your phone”.
Large display with one-handed operation features
By introducing the phablet category, Samsung knows that it is reaching the outer-limit of what people can tolerate in terms of mobility and portability. The fact is: the average human hand size won’t change for the foreseeable future. However, the Samsung Galaxy Note is also the most comfortable touch handset out there when it comes to watching movies, typing on the keyboard, or simply ready text, which is much more agreeable than it is on a 3.5” or a 4” display.
Your experience with the Galaxy Note 2 depends on how much you like using your handset with one hand. It is clear that with a large screen, it is not possible to have a tight grip on your handset, and easily tap/slide with one hand. If you are used to do a lot of things with one hand, this may be a deal breaker. Surprisingly, this didn’t bug us 90% of the time, and I was always able to make things work. On the other hand, the benefits of having a large display are omnipresent.
That is the reason why Samsung puts significant efforts to improve the one-handed experience: the device is thinner and narrower than its predecessor, and, on the software side, a few features specifically designed for one-handed operation have been added. You will find One-handed operation options in the settings, that can display a smaller phone dialer and a smaller Samsung keyboard that can both be positioned either on the left or right side. You can also get a modified Samsung calculator app and the unlock pattern can be resized (although I did not find how for that last one).
As usual with Samsung’s Super AMOLED, the image quality of the display is very good, however, we are a bit disappointed that although the display size has been increased the resolution remained the same, even slightly smaller: 1280×720 for the Galaxy Note 2 and 1280×800 for Galaxy Note.
Consequently, the display gets a slightly lower pixel density (267 ppi) which I find to be good enough since the overall image quality of the 5.5″ display is great. However I would have loved to see an 1080 HD display (1920×1080) in the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Samsung may not have the technology yet: the first 5” HD display we have seen to date was at CEATEC and Sharp got an innovation award for it from Ubergizmo’s co-founder Hubert Nguyen.
What’s new compared to the previous Galaxy Note? (Very Good)
As described in the introduction and in the specifications list, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 has been beefed up on all sides (processor, RAM, latest version of Android) to provide top-notch performance. Just playing with it right out of the box it was easy to notice that it is way faster than its predecessor. We will review in detail the performance compared to other competitive devices in the Performance paragraph.
New S-Pen Stylus (Excellent): The most significant addition of the Galaxy Note 2 is the enhancement of the S-Pen, which is also featured in the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet that we reviewed recently. The S-pen now features 1024 level of pressure sensitivity, up from 256 levels in the original Galaxy Note. The difference with the old S-Pen is huge and it feels way better, now you can modulate your strokes very subtly when you draw with any painting tool. Samsung added a few new feature to use with the S-Pen:
Sliding the S-Pen out turns the display on (very good): When the Note 2 is asleep, as soon as you slide the S-Pen out of its compartment, the displays turn on, which is neat.
1024 pressure sensitivity levels (excellent): The S-Pen with 1024 pressure sensitivity levels was introduced first with the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. I spent a few hours playing with it using Photoshop and it is a blast! The high sensitivity makes it feels almost like a real pen with multiple tip styles available (pen, brush …)
Enhanced cropping with the S-Pen (interesting)
On the original Galaxy Note it was possible to crop a screenshot but you had to capture it first. With the new S-Pen you can now clip images directly from any application without capturing a screenshot simply by holding the button on the S-pen and trace a line around the area you would like to clip.
Then, the clipped image is displayed large on screen and it will save automatically to the clipbaord if you do not perform any action. You can always copy the clipped image to one of the four application that are displayed at the bottom of the display. The clipboard is accessible from a number of applications directly from the keyboard by holding the keyboard options button.
I wish it would be possible to turn on an option to draw straight edges to the cropped area, I was not able to get a perfectly rectangular clipped picture.
Enhanced S-Pen features: You can personalize your email with a handwritten signature or a drawing done with the S-Pen. In the calendar, when in month mode you can annotate or draw on important dates. In the Polaris Office app you can annotate PowerPoint documents.
Airview is the brand name that Samsung gave to the hovering capability of the S-Pen: the Galaxy Note 2 can detect the S Pen even when it is held a centimeter from the screen.
This particular feature can be used in different contexts in various applications: it allows to preview a thumbnail of the video from its timeline in the video player app, preview a photo gallery or preview an email just by hovering the S Pen above the screen. Airview provides a critical feature found in all computers: mouse hovering. Airview works also in a number of websites that support hovering actions (especially with Flash sites), according to Samsung, you can try it at samsung.com, porsche.com and amazon.com.
Virtual keyboard (very good): the Galaxy Note 2 keyboard is really nice and you can use it with only one hand with the One-hand operation option in the settings: it will reduce the size of the keyboard and you can select to place it on the right or left side of the display.
Typing with the thumbs using both hands landscape mode is the most comfortable position to input text fast. The number keys row placed at the top is really convenient and increases the typing speed as well, other Android smartphones with smaller displays do not feature that row on the keyboard, and users have to switch between numerical and alphabetical keys more often.
With the Galaxy Note 2 the, keyboard responsiveness has been greatly improved, there was an annoying lag in the previous model’s keyboard that has completely disappeared with this version.
Google Maps: Google Maps, which is already excellent on Android, is even better with the 720p 5.5” display of the Galaxy Note 2.
While in NYC I could compare the Google Maps with the map application featured on the iPhone 5 and as you all know, there was no reason to use the iPhone 5, there was so few information compared to what Google offers… Tim Cook, CEO, Apple, recently advised the iPhone 5 users to use alternate map applications such as Bing maps.
The app does a great job of utilizing the extra pixels on the screen, so while the overall readability and sharpness stay equal to a regular 4” smartphone, you can actually see “more map” on the screen, which is great. Of course, it is also possible to zoom in if you want more readability of the small details. I really love using the maps on the large display, especially when visiting a new city with public transportation. This is mapping at its finest!
In terms of entertainment, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is one of the best handset out there, mainly because its huge display. There is no way around it, just like it is true for HDTVs, when it comes to entertainment, bigger is better.
Video Playback (excellent)
In our tests, the video playback looked very nice, which is mainly due to the screen size and image quality. In the handset market, it’s pretty hard to beat a 5.5” Super-AMOLED in terms of size and overall image quality. However, the 4.7” displays of the Galaxy S3 or the LG Optimus G are quite as good for watching video, and since they have slightly higher pixel density, one could argue that the image quality can be perceptibly better. At this point, we think that size trumps pixel density, but ideally, a 1080p Galaxy Note 2 would have been perfect.
Loudspeaker audio (Excellent)
Among the high-end smartphones we tested, the iPhone 5 gets the most powerful loudspeaker (surprising for such a small phone), and the Galaxy Note 2 is on par with it when it comes to loudness. Thanks to its large size, we guess that it is easier to cram a powerful speaker in it, and the speaker can more easily move air around, which is ultimately what powerful audio is.
Gaming: In terms of gaming performance, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 scores among the best handset out there. In our independent tests, it comes in third position behind the iPhone 5 and the LG Optimus G, but it is clearly ahead of every other phone that we have tested this year. You can find more raw performance information later in the review, but in general, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 should not disappoint.
Just like its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 2 is excellent when it comes to imaging. If you are familiar with the Samsung Galaxy S3, they are very comparable. And the Note 2 has no problem going against the iPhone 5, in case you are familiar with that one. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 seems to have a wider angle than the iPhone 5, which is pretty nice for landscape shots. I also thought that the Galaxy Note 2 had more life-like photos then the iPhone 5, which tends to overexpose shots. We have uploaded photos from the Note 2 and iPhone 5 to our flickr account so that you can see the full-size photos for yourself. Those photos were taken a bit casually, so we may have to do something a bit more scientific for side-by-side comparison.
The over-exposition in iOS may come in handy in low-light situation, but overall, the Samsung Galaxy Note does a great job there as well. The photos are less noisy, but it’s fair to say that for web apps (Facebook, Instagram…) noise doesn’t really matter.
Videos: what was true with photos largely reflects on the video aspect of things. The Samsung Galaxy Note is certainly excellent at shooting 1080p videos, and again, the wider angle helps in our opinion. In this particular video shootout, we think that the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 came out a clear winner against the iPhone 5. We have also uploaded 1080p video streams so that you can compare.
Performance (very good)
Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 takes the lead in the Antutu benchmark, and because the new king of the hill for this particular test. We suspect that the slightly higher frequency (1.6GHz) of the Exynos chip gives it an advantage that translates into the Antutu score.
GLBenchmark Egypt, offscreen 1080p: this test has been designed to “stress” the graphics processor (GPU) by running a game-like demo which features a fight between various characters in many different environments (indoors, outdoors…).
the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 ends up in second place with a framerate of 17FPS. This is sharply better than most smartphone that we reviewed recently. Yet, the LG Optimus G and the iPhone 5 remain in front of the group. Still, this means that gaming should be rather comfortable, and graphics operations in general are speedy.
But synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is that the user experience on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is much better than on the original Galaxy Note. This is mainly due to the higher responsiveness of the device, which is easily on par with Samsung’s own Galaxy S3 that currently tops the charts for Android phones.
Responsiveness was the only dark spot during our Samsung Galaxy Note review, and we’re glad to see that Samsung took the necessary steps to make things really fast.
Battery life (very good)
Overnight battery depletion: Just like its predecessor the Galaxy Note LTE, the Galaxy Note 2 battery life is very good, well the capacity has been increased from 2500mAh to 3100 mAh, it’s awesome. It’s not uncommon for LTE devices to lose up to 25% of their battery life overnight. Even the RAZR Maxx loses 14% of its huge 3300mAh battery overnight. But the Galaxy Note 2 LTE only loses 6% of its 3100 mAh overnight (9 hours, 4G LTE on, GPS off). That is definitely a good surprise.
Intensive usage: I played a HD video for one hour and the battery dropped from 80% to 67 % – which is 13% per hour with intensive use. Knowing that battery depletion is linear we can calculate that the battery will last roughly 7 hours and 40 minutes while watching videos non-stop.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is one of the best 4G LTE device that we had the opportunity to test (the LG Optimus G, the iPhone 5 or the Galaxy S3 would be contenders for that title), and the combination of a large 5.5” screen, LTE speeds and a good battery life makes this a rather unique and efficient combo.
With the enhancement of the S-pen, the Galaxy Note 2 becomes a real interesting tool for creative people, it can now really be used for drawing, additionally editing photos with the S-Pen in Photoshop is a joy.
I personally enjoy to use the Galaxy Note 2 as a phone that acts like a tablet, surely because I carry it in my purse. Consuming content of any kind on that device is very comfortable, whether reading a book, browsing desktop version websites or watching movies.
Of course, it is up to you to decide if the large format work for you or not, but from what we’ve seen people either love it, or won’t consider it at all, so this should to be an easy decision.