Thursday, November 29, 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note II Review by Kirk Spencer

The Galaxy Note II has finally landed on Verizon Wireless and many of you might be wondering if it's worth picking up. We've had our hands on a Sprint model for the past few weeks and we thought it would be a good time to post our final review of the Galaxy Note II by Samsung. If you've seen the specs for this phone then let me say that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more to this phone than specs.

Having said all that, here is a list of the specs for the Sprint version of the phone. For the most part what you see here will be the same across the different carriers with the exceptions being the Network. We’ll spend the rest of the review talking about everything the phone has to offer and what our experience has been with the phone.
Product Dimensions (inches) 5.949” x 3.17” x 0.37”
Weight (ounces) 6.34 oz.
Color Titanium Gray
Battery, Standby 3G: Up to 250 Hours, 4G: Up to 300 Hours*
Battery, Talk Time Up to 15 Hours*
Battery Type and Size 3.8 Volt, Lithium Ion, 3100mAh
Music Play Time Up to 40 Hours*
Video Play Time Up to 7.5 Hours*
Internet Use Time Up to 9.5 Hours*
Frequencies and Data Type GSM/Edge/GPRS: 850, 900, 1800, 1900
Data Speed 2G: CDMA, GSM/EDGE, 3G: CDMA EV_DOrA, 4G LTE: 100Mbps/ 50Mbps
Platform Android™ 4.1, Jelly Bean
CPU / Processor
Processor Speed, Type Exynos™ 1.6GHz Quad-core
Main Display Resolution 1280 x 720
Main Display Size 5.5"
Main Display Technology HD Super AMOLED™
User Interface
Features Widgets; TouchWiz; Smart Unlock; Accelerometer
Camera Resolution 8.0 Megapixel
Front-facing Camera Resolution 1.9 Megapixel
Digital Optical Zoom 4x Digital
Features Auto Focus; Shot Modes, Best Face, Best Photo, Beauty, Buddy Photo Share, Burst Shot, Face Detection, HDR, Low Light, Panorama, Share Shot, Single Shot, Smile Shot; Geo-tagging; Editing Modes; Camcorder; DivX®; HD Recording; HD Playback; Video Share; TV-Out; Online Image Uploading
Features Music Player; Compatible Music Files, 3GP, AAC, AAC+, M4A, MIDI, MMF, MP3, PMD, QCP, WAV, WMA; Audio, Streaming; Ringtones, Polyphonic 72-note; MP3/Music Tones
Features Video Player; Compatible Video Files, H.263, H.264, MPEG4, VC-1, VP8, Dvx; Video, Streaming
Fun and Entertainment
Features Downloadable Content; Wallpapers, Animated; Samsung Widget Gallery; Samsung Media Hub
Business & Office
Features Microsoft® Office-compatible; ThinkFree Office/Polaris® Office; Voice Memo
Messaging Options
Features Email; Corporate Email; Picture Messaging; Text Messaging; Instant Messaging; Threaded / Chat-style Messages; Video Messaging; Swype™ / T9 Trace; Predictive Text (T9®/XT9®)
Features Bluetooth® Profiles, (Apt-X Codec support) LE; Wi-Fi®; Wi-Fi® Hotspot; HTML Browser; Java™; GPS
Internal Memory 16GB
External Memory/microSD™ Capacity Up to 64GB
Calling Functions
Features Speakerphone; Voice Recognition;Voicemail; Visual Voicemail; Speech-to-text; Text-to-speech; Etiquette/Gesture Mode; Picture Caller ID; Multitasking; Call Restrictions; Hearing Aid Compatible (HAC); TTY; Airline Mode

Build Quality
The phone has the same slick feel we’ve seen before from Samsung. The brushed metal look on the back has some kind of a lacquer finish to it. On the back you see the branding of the device and manufacturer. The speaker is in the bottom left. The 8 Megapixel camera with flash is centered at the top. Since we’re looking at the back of the phone, the volume rocker is on the right side and the power button is on the left side of the phone. On the bottom of the phone there is a standard micro USB port and you can also see the S Pen.

The phone is about as thin as the iPhone 4s. You can also see in this image that the headphone jack is on the top of the phone.

Some of you might be wondering just how big 5.5” really is. If you’re not familiar with how screen sizes are generally measured, it is diagonally. The Galaxy Nexus is a 4.65” phone and though it’s slightly less than an inch bigger the Galaxy Note II’s screen is almost as big as the entire Galaxy Nexus phone. To put this into a little more perspective here is an image of the iPhone 4s and the Galaxy Note II.
The Galaxy Note II is almost as wide as the iPhone 4s is tall. The Note II is also referred to as a phablet, so here’s one more picture of the phone next to a 7” tablet.
The Galaxy Note II lives up to its phablet name in every way. The screen size is right between what I would call the conventional smart phone screen size and tablet screen size. Some people might be turned off by how big the screen is, but I would encourage you to spend some hands on time with the device before turning it away. Go to a store, pick one up and see how it feels. This is definitely a two handed device, but that’s the price you pay for so much screen. Samsung realized this and they've provided a few settings to help with one handed operation. My recommendation would be to stick to using two hands. If you're in a situation where you can only use one hand like driving a car then you probably shouldn't be using the phone anyway. If you can't get away from it, try out the single handed feature in the phone dialer and the additional single handed features in the phone's settings.

The Galaxy Note II is an HD Super AMOLED screen with a 1280x720 resolution. If you haven’t already heard the screen is not a PenTile display. The sub pixel arrangement is a unique form of RGB with a red and green sub pixel stacked on top of each other and a blue pixel to the left spanning the length of the green and red sub pixels. I've been a huge fan of AMOLED screens and the Galaxy Note II’s screen is the best one I've seen yet.

The Galaxy Note II sports an 8 Megapixel camera. Just like what we’ve seen with the rest of the phone, Samsung has provided several additional features to the camera software which really help to take a good picture. These are some sample pictures which were taken with the phone’s camera. We took some inside with normal lighting, outside, and we turned off the lights and took a picture using the flash in a low light setting to see how the phone worked in each of the situations.

The camera supports different shooting modes like Best photo, Best face, Panorama, and Share shot.

Best photo will take 8 images in quick succession. When the camera is done taking the pictures it will open a screen to pick which images out of the selection you would like to save and it will discard the rest. This is the perfect feature to capture just the right picture of a sporting event, or your son sliding in to home base.

Best face is an extremely useful shooting mode when taking group photos. If you choose the Best face shooting mode it will take 5 images with a slight pause in between each image. After taking the picture you will see a photo preview screen with yellow boxes surrounding each person's face. Click on any of the faces surrounded by a yellow box and you can pick out of a selection of images taken which face is the best face for that one person. I was doubtful of how well this feature would work, but after testing it out I was surprised at how well it mixes in the different faces.

Panorama images shooting mode works as you would expect. It provides a nice guideline to help you follow and to get the best panoramic picture possible.

S Pen
The S Pen introduces new ways to use your android device. Pressing the button on the pen and tracing something on the screen will take a screenshot of the section you've outlined. One of my favorite features of the pen is the Airview feature. Hovering the pen over the screen is similar to a mouse hover. You can see additional tool-tips, screen previews of videos and sub-menus on web pages while browsing the web. In the device settings there are settings for the S Pen which let you specify the dominant hand. You can also turn on the S Pen keeper setting which will sound an alarm if you leave the pen behind.

My only complaint with the S Pen is that it only works on the screen. You still have to use your fingers for the menu and back buttons to the left and right of the physical home button on the bottom of the phone. It would have been nice to be able to use the S Pen for those as well to keep my greasy fingers off the entire beautiful front face of the phone.

We mentioned previously that there is a lot more to this phone than specs. Normally I am not a huge proponent of modifications to the stock Android environment. However, I would like to take some time to point out some of the things Samsung has done to enhance the user experience which go beyond the modifications to their Launcher application.

The built in video player provides a Pop up Play feature which lets you continue watching a video while performing other tasks like browsing the web. I don't think this is something you will do all the time, but it's nice to see this level of innovation coming from Samsung.

The Gallery application has features to enhance photo organization. It also adds in a bit of eye candy with different options for scrolling through your photos with the gallery views. You can use the S Pen to write on the back of images.

Easy Mode provides a set of widgets and larger buttons making phone use even easier. If you've ever been frustrated with small buttons in Android this is probably a feature you will want to try.

The Phone application is enhanced with several new features. You can boost the call volume above and beyond the normal volume levels. There is a setting to increase the ringer volume while the phone is in your pocket. Custom sound profiles can be created and there is even an option to easily build custom vibration patterns.

Smart stay is a cool feature that keeps the screen on as long as the phone detects that you are looking at it. I've never been one to set a short timeout on my phones. I almost always set it to 10 minutes as one of the very first things when I get a new phone. I turned on Smart stay and set my screen timeout to 15 seconds. After using this feature I realized that I was able to squeeze out more battery life from the times I would set the phone down and not use it. The best part about it was that I did not have to keep touching the screen every 15 seconds while I was looking at the phone.

Smart rotation looks at the position of your eyes before it rotates the screen. If you're like me you've used your smartphone in bed countless times. I almost always have to turn off rotation before using my phone in bed because it will inevitably want to rotate on me at the most inconvenient times. Smart rotation does a pretty good job of eliminating that annoyance. I can't say that it's perfect, but it is definitely better than the alternative.

We wanted to try out the gaming experience on a 5.5” screen. You might have noticed a few games in the iPhone 4s vs Note II screenshot up above. I played DeadZone for a few hours. I didn't experience any stutter while playing and the additional size made it easier to keep my finger out of the way while using the on screen controls. Samurai vs Zombies looks absolutely amazing on the Note II’s screen. I first started playing SvZ on my 10” tablet and the first time I saw SvZ on a phone I was turned off. Everything was so small and it just didn't feel as nice. The 5.5” screen solves that problem and the game play is amazing. The Mali GPU is more than capable of delivering an enjoyable gaming experience. The screen size and vibrancy of colors are the icing on the cake.

When it comes to performance there is real world performance and benchmarks. The entire time time we've spent with the phone it has been quick to respond taking full advantage of its hardware and Jelly Bean's Project Butter. Every action is responsive and fluid. The animations between screens are prompt. Applications open quickly, browsing the web is surprisingly responsive and we haven't noticed any noteworthy lag with the phone. It has been the best experience we've had with any android phone in terms of responsiveness to date.

I know some of you will want to see benchmark results, so here is a result from the latest version of AnTuTu v3.0.1.
Our results were right on par with what other users have seen in the AnTuTu benchmark. The dark green is the 3D result and the light green is the 2D result. I won't spend more time posting benchmarks. I think it is sufficient to note that the phone lists as one of the top devices here and in our real world experience it was nothing but buttery smooth in all aspects including gaming.

A 5.5” screen is definitely going to be demanding in terms of power consumption. Samsung includes a surprisingly large 3100 mAh battery with the Note II. Usage is subjective so take your standard usage into consideration here. Most users should be able to go a full day on a single charge and possibly longer. Samsung provides some power saving features in the phone's settings which some of you may be interested in. If you watch battery percentage constantly then don't forget you're dealing with percentages. 1% on a 3100 mAh battery will last longer than 1% on a smaller battery. My experience with the battery life was nothing but positive. The phone easily lasts a fully day with what I would consider standard usage (checking e-mail, reading my rss feeds, texting, Google+ usage, browsing the web a bit, etc).

The Note II comes with NFC capabilities. NFC is still an emerging technology, but the potential to pay for things using your phone or to quickly share content is all possible with NFC. The Note II has two NFC related settings, one to turn on NFC and the other to turn on S Beam which enables the sharing of photos, videos, music files, maps, web pages, apps, contacts and S Note files.

The Galaxy Note II also comes with a pair of headphones in the box. The headphones double as a headset for taking phone calls. Included in the package are four sets of different sized ear buds so you can pick the one that provides the most comfort for your ears. The shielding for the wiring is thicker than your $10 pair of headphones. We won't spend too much time on the headphones, but we did give them a good run. They were capable of producing clean bass. They were not too bright and I actually played around with the equalizer to bring out more of the higher tones till I was satisfied with the results. Don't expect the quality you would get from a $200-$300 pair of headphones, but to get these included as part of the package is definitely an added bonus which we feel is one more way the Galaxy Nexus II stand out among the current crop of high end devices.

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is one of the best phones on the market today. The combination of extraordinary hardware and software features all wrapped up into one device is an experience we wish everyone could have. If you are on the fence about the screen size, consider everything else the phone has to offer and go get some hands on time with it at a local retail store. The quality of hardware, software and overall design make this phone a clear winner of our Editors Choice Award.  For more info, check out Samsungs website at