When it comes to handheld devices – and we will return to the old chestnut of is-it-a-phone or is-it-a-tablet – you’ve got to decide if you want it to be hand held. Or hands held.
Samsung certainly has the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 pegged as a mobile phone, essentially a Samsung Galaxy S III with an even bigger screen. But with its 5.5in display, it’s equally easy to see the Note II, like the last year’s Note before it, as a miniature tablet. A handset this broad and tall falls more naturally into two-handed operation.
See: more Google phone reviews. See also: Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 vs Galaxy SIII vs Galaxy Note II comparison review.
We like the user’s introduction to the handset: upon thumbing the power switch on the upper right side, the lock screen shows an elegant white feather quill on a blue background, setting images of a creative writing device. And writing and scribbling is the added attraction for this rather powerful slice of hands-held computing.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2: Style us
It includes a touch stylus, which slides into its own slot underneath when not required. Pulling the stylus out and bringing it close to the screen (sometimes) lets the Note II know that you’re about to do some sketching, scribbling or doodling, and will bring up an area at the bottom of the screen for stylus input.
It’s recognition of cursive joined-up English handwriting was quite impressive. We found its handwriting recognition overall to be very good, almost usable as a full-time text input option. But we were still frustrated by transcription errors, which take more time to correct than just tapping all our text in through a virtual Qwerty keyboard in the first place.
But beyond text, there’s plenty of scope to draw and sketch, helped by the use of technology licensed from Wacom, a pressure-sensitive stylus that Samsung calls the S Pen.
You can hover above the screen and click a stylus button for added functions. This Air View feature needs some practice to make it work effectively for you.
In fact practice is what’s required to use many of the Note II’s features. At one end of the user-friendly scale lies the iPhone and iPad, while Samsung’s Note II is more of an Othello device. To coin the old board game’s catchphrase, it’s something like a minute to learn, but a lifetime to master.
Perhaps not a lifetime. But Samsung was unable to lend us a sample more than a few days, and that was not enough time for us to come to terms with this intricate device.
More complexities were found in the Multi Window feature, which lets you view two apps running side by side on the screen at once.
This interesting new facility was added with an OTA software update – but we found no explanation offered how to use it. It did seem to leave an annoying rounded tab on the screen at all times. When dragged across the screen this would reveal a strip of the limited range of apps that are compatible with the feature.
We could then, for example, have a video playing while browsing a web page. It's a neat way to truly show off a mobile device's multi-tasking ability, and we're sure some users will find ways to make it a handy option.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2: Tablet vs smartphone
There’s no denying this is a large device, by modern mobile phone standards. It’s around 151mm high and 81mm wide, and 10.5mm thick (and not 9.4mm thick as Samsung’s mendacious specs would have you believe).
Our review sample weighed a not-insubstantial 214g, although it was fitted with the optional Samsung cover flap that wraps around the screen front.
In use we found this really is a two-handed device. Samsung offers an option within Android’s Settings titled ‘One-handed operation’. This lets you switch the on-screen keyboard, dial pad and calculator to one side of the screen.
It’s a thoughtful gesture – but it only moves these controls a few millimetres in either direction (for left- or right-handed users). And to bring up the dial pad, for example, will typically require two hands anyway as its icon is out of reach; once you’ve started handling with both hands it’s easier to just continue that way.
Build quality is satisfactory, feeling weighty and all-of-a-piece in the hand. Screen quality is very good: while listed as a Super AMOLED type, it doesn’t have the over-ripe colouring we’ve seen from these displays on earlier Samsung phones.
Picture quality from the rear-facing 8Mp camera was rated ‘good’, if not as good as smartphones that invest more technology into their imaging capability. High-contrast areas showed obvious purple fringing, for instance, although the camera was fast in operation.
HD video was more than usable but suffered from focus-hunting issues even in good light. Grain level was low, improving clarity although shot footage could get a little smeary on even slow pans.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2: Internal specifications
The essential innards of the Samsung Galaxy Note II are the same as the Galaxy S III. So inside we find a Samsung Exynos 4412 SoC, using a quad-core ARM processor. Only this time the ARM Cortex-A9 chip is running at 1.6GHz instead of the S III’s 1.4GHz.
This bodes well for sheer performance, as it’s the highest clocked ARM smartphone processor we’ve ever come across. Intel goes higher, up to 2.0GHz, but only with a single-core chip – and arguably not one yet suited for low-power mobiles.
HTC has promised an update to its One X Android phone, the HTC One X+, pushing clock speed from 1.5GHz to 1.7GHz. How much power you need from a smartphone is perhaps the more important question, as Google's hardware partners seem to be in an arms race whose only spectators are early adopting Android followers.
To give a fast-feeling phone, attention must go into optimising the operating-system software with the graphics processing hardware. For the software, Samsung has built its version of Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), making the Note II one of three devices we've seen to include this year’s version of the Google OS, after the Nexus 7, Galaxy Nexus and Acer Iconia A110.
Google Android 4.1 is said to have better optimised graphics, bettering the already improved interface responsiveness of Android 4.0. Powering those graphics is also the same processor found in the Samsung Galaxy S III, an ARM Mali-400 MP.
This is a relatively speedy component, faster than the graphics in the nVidia Tegra 3, if short of the fastest solutions currently available.
Using this Mali-400 MP, the Note II approached the graphics performance of the iPhone 4S: in the Egypt HD game test, Samsung’s phone could play at 17fps, against 19fps for the previous-generation Apple phone. The iPhone 5 played the Egypt HD benchmark onscreen at 38fps, capped here by a V-Sync limit.
To gauge the main processor speed, we used the Geekbench 2 test. Averaged over five runs, the Note II scored 1958 points, the highest overall score we’ve seen in this particular test. It comfortable betters the 1659 points we averaged with the Galaxy S III and the 1650 points of the iPhone 5.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2: Network performance
The Galaxy Note II shares the cellular modem technology of the Samsung Galaxy S III, and with it the ability to work with the UK’s forthcoming 4G LTE network, Everything Everywhere (EE).
This new network is still to be launched later this month, so we tried the Note II with the fastest UK 3G network, to see what kind of mobile broadband performance is available today.
From our test location at the IDG offices, we ran a battery of network tests over a short time span in early October, and compared to the fastest 3G cellular handset we’ve measured so far, the Apple iPhone 5.
From the Samsung we saw a mean average of 11.1 Mbps for download speed, and 2.35 Mbps upload.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II performed very well, giving the double-digit megabit-per-second figures that were not so very far off what we’ve seen in our own real-world tests of EE’s LTE network.
Its 3G performance could be bettered under these test conditions though. Using the same Three SIM on the reference handset, we saw average download speeds of 15.4 Mbps, and 2.73 Mbps download.
In our limited use of the Note II over a few days, battery life was good enough to last two days of sporadic use, a reasonably healthy runtime, helped in part by the large 11.78Wh removable lithium battery inside.