A year on and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 takes its place as Samsung's oversized Galaxy phablet a la mode. Loaded with no less than a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor, 2GB of RAM, a 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED display, microSD expandability and Jelly Bean out of the box, not only is this phablet impressively specced for a smartphone, it's also a nifty jotter. Housing an S-Pen and Wacom digitiser, it comes complete with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and a host of bespoke apps to take full advantage of it. If you aren't excited by any of this, you may want to stop reading and consider buying an iPhone 5. If however you're inexplicably titillated, we'd strongly recommend you read on to see just how the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 holds up against life with the Recombu reviews team.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - Design
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2. It looks like a blown up Samsung Galaxy S3 and considering the design was one of our least favourite aspects of the GS3 this doesn't kick things off to the best of starts, but it isn't all bad, we promise.
Glossy, shiny plastic adorns the Note 2 in its entirety. With 5.5-inches of screen this is something you’re going to have to get over pretty quickly given the sheer volume of plastic on show. Once you do though, if you’re anything like us you’ll realise that this works far better on the Note 2 than it does on the S3. This isn’t thanks to extra design flair, but the sheer size requiring this phone to be as light and ergonomic as it possibly can be. The soft corners rounded back and glossy body means that it sits in the hand comfortably and slips in the pocket with no grip to speak of - sensible for such a large phablet trying to be a phone.
Getting down to specifics and the Note 2 packs an undeniably monstrous 5.5-inch screen rocking Gorilla Glass 2 protection. Centred below is a physical home button and two capacitive buttons either side. On the left sits a shiny faux metal volume rocker while to the right an equally shiny power button. At the bottom is the microUSB come MHL port while up at the top is the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Nuzzled within the shiny, shiny, high gloss back is the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash as well as the loud speaker. As with the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Galaxy Note 2’s back cover is removable and underneath it sits a 3100mAh battery, micro SIM card slot and microSD card slot. When face down, the bottom left hand side is where you’ll find the S-Pen cavity.
Somewhere between the Samsung Galaxy Note and Note 10.1 in size, the latest iteration of S-Pen is flat as opposed to round, which when coupled with the larger size makes for a considerably more comfortable in-hand experience than its predecessor. Pulling out the pen generates a soft vibrate and on screen acknowledgement.
Despite being bigger than the original Note therefore, this shiny new phablet doesn’t feel as imposing, shaving off some of the width thanks to the aspect ratio of the screen and the high gloss body making for smoother handling. Despite the design looking more differentiated from an aesthetic point of view though, it certainly isn’t perfect. For starters, it doesn't look like a £528 device. It’s big and trying to be small, yet the physical home button means there’s bezel where on-screen buttons lie - these could have, should have been on screen buttons. The high gloss will also doubtless turn some people off, paling in comparison to the matte HTC One X+ and the rich iPhone 5. So all in all, good, just not great.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - Screen
The 720p display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is standout for a few reasons. Not only is it the biggest of any smartphone, but it also packs a new type of AMOLED screen technology. Still an HD Super AMOLED panel, the arrangement of the sub-pixels makes for a sharper picture than one might expect from the technology found in the Samsung Galaxy S3 for example. The real-world benefit of this is an image that looks altogether less PenTile and bitty.
Colours still keep their AMOLED flair and blacks retain their depth. Viewing angles are strong and the responsiveness is showcased incredibly well by the 5.5-inches the Note 2 offers up. Whites are better than on the older AMOLEDs like the Galaxy Nexus for example, though still not as pure as on hight quality LCDs such as the iPhone 5 and HTC One X. Video playing applications like Netflix and myPlayer+ are incredibly well suited to the 720p aspect ration and thanks to its size and quality the Galaxy Note 2 is perfect for sharing photos and videos.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - User Interface
Samsung's TouchWiz Nature UX is back and it's been tweaked again for its latest reprise on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Never have our sentiments towards Samsung's skin been more love / hate. What do we mean? We love some of the innovation in the Note 2 but we hate how bloated it feels, even stuttering at times, despite the processor speed.
We’ll start with the basics. TouchWiz is running on top of Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, making the Note 2 the first mainstream Jelly Bean device. While there’s a semblance of Android in the pull down notification bar and the apps drawer, between the 3D transitions, variable number of home screens and S-Pen integration, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2’s version of TouchWiz is the furthest from stock Android to date.
The first customisation hits you during your Note 2’s set up in the form of something Samsung dub Easy Mode. Acutely aware of the complexities of Android and the mass appeal of their Galaxy range, Samsung gives you the option to populate your home screens with some big, simple widgets from the get go, giving you quick access to your favourite apps, contacts and settings in a finger friendly, easily navigable fashion.
Perhaps the next most striking customisation to the Galaxy Note 2’s UI over that of the S3 comes in the form of its context sensitive home screens. When for example you remove the S-Pen, an S-Pen home screen is added to your pre-set number of home screens. When you plug in your headphones into the jack, an audio home screen is added. These can be customised, with all your changes saved for next time the home screen is activated. In addition the four shortcuts at the bottom of the screen transform into the four most used applications when that home screen is active. So, on our audio home screen, the four shortcuts were Spotify, PocketCasts, GReader Pro and Samsung’s Music Player, whereas for our S-Pen home screen our four shortcuts were S-Note, Infinity Painter, LayerPaint and Sketchbook Mobile. Heavy skinning? Yes. Exceptionally useful? Most certainly.
What else have Samsung tweaked the life out of that wasn’t tweaked on the Samsung Galaxy S3? They’ve brought back their retro side-bar a la Samsung Tocco / Omnia / Omnia HD. A long press of the back button will pull up this customisable side bar that can simply be swiped into frame and swiped out. They’ve also included the S-Pen shortcuts allowing screenshots to be captured with a stylus long press, not to mention quick notes, created with a double tap.
The keyboard has also been tweaked. First off, there’s improved text prediction. As per SwiftKey, Samsung’s stock keyboard now pulls information from your your Facebook, Gmail and Twitter profiles. The keyboard also allows you to do things like enable Swype style sliding input not to mention activate one handed mode as found in the original Note post ICS update.
For anyone with large hands, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is comfortable to use when two handed thumb typing. With a simple pinch enabling one handed mode, the keyboard shrinks, leaning either left or right. This means one handed use is also realistic in spite of the 5.5-inch display. That said, anyone with smaller hands should try before you buy. While you’re at it, make sure you try out the handwriting recognition. It’s good. Not as on-point as the Note 10.1, but considerably better than that of the original Samsung Galaxy Note.
This has all been a good UI review thus far and rightly so. Samsung have gone to great lengths to add value to their Samsung Galaxy Note 2 UI. That said, the more that’s going on, the more there is to go wrong and Samsung certainly raise the bar with the Note 2. It does a lot, and on occasion, it cracks. Accessing the re-worked two-pane gallery from an application for example can take as long as 10 seconds to open. The keyboard can play up every now and then, needing to be closed and opened. These are clearly software issues and neither of these ruin the experience using the Note 2, but they concern us nonetheless.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - S-Pen
As per the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2’s touch sensitive Wacom digitizer packs 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, making for the best phablet stylus integration on the block. The on board S-Note app is pre-loaded and takes full advantage of every layer of sensitivity. Samsung also introduce Paper Artist on their king sized contender, a neat photo editing app that takes a photo either from the camera or gallery and applies a double layered filter to it, loaded with fun effects that can be tweaked with either the S-Pen or a finger swipe.
Unlike when the original Note came out, now there are other apps available that take advantage of the pen input on the Note 2 beyond the fantastic Sketchbook and S-Note. Some applications like LayerPaint and Infinite Painter (above) even register pressure sensitivity truly setting the Note 2 apart from its predecessor. All this coupled with the larger, flatter form described earlier means anyone who wants quality pen input digital style will be well and truly spoilt with Samsung’s latest offering.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - Camera and Multimedia
The 8-megapixel camera on the Note 2 packs an f/2.6 lens and is more than likely the same unit as that found on the Samsung Galaxy S3. It’s results are similar with great levels of detail coupled with slightly less impressive noise handling. In addition to the great Samsung camera UI, there’s also a 6 frame per second burst mode at full resolution, allowing 20 fast capture 8-megapixel shots.
As can be seen above, the Note 2 is perfectly capable of capturing some pretty pleasing, atmospheric shots. Dynamic range is decent, with exposure set using the overall scene as opposed to the area you tap on the screen. Speaking of the screen, 5.5-inches makes for a great viewfinder with which to frame your shots. Real world shooting and despite being cumbersome to wield, the Note 2 managed to deliver a respectable image at a gig and indoor across differently lit environments proving the camera capable with quick focus and fast capture. Below, an example can be found of the 6fps burst mode (click through to see the image in motion).
Below is an example of the HDR mode (right) which proved impressive when compared to a non-HDR image (left).
Capable of capturing video at 1080p, Full HD resolution, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2's video as with its still image quality is on par with the Galaxy S3. Focus can be set automatically or with a simple screen tap and full resolution stills can be captured mid-recording. Output looks great on the Note itself, and as you can see below exports well for the most part. Detail is strong and colours rich, though dropping the lights turns noise into a problem rather quickly.
It isn't just video recorded on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 that looks great on its Super AMOLED screen. As mentioned prior, apps like Netflix really do illustrate just how good the display is for video with its 720p resolution showcasing movies perfectly. Viewing video on the Note 2 is also helped along by the shed load of pre-installed codecs onboard and the same smart floating video player as found on the Samsung Galaxy S3. This phablet can also output video to a TV via either DLNA or MHL thanks to the multi-purpose USB port.
The loud-speaker does a good job in terms of delivering loud audio volume, though naturally at higher levels output gets tinny. Through the 3.5mm headphone jack, music sounds great with equaliser settings available to tweak in the onboard music player. With apps like Spotify however, sound is a little less rounded and rich given the fixed EQ.
Finally, gaming. We'll touch on this in terms of performance a little later, but suffice to say with its quad-core 1.6GHz Exynos processor, it can handle anything you throw at it. The 5.5-inch screen is also ideal, leaving plenty of room for things like controls and showcasing beautiful graphics beautifully, making the Galaxy Note 2 a multimedia powerhouse head and shoulders above the rest.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - Connectivity and Storage
Taking full advantage of its plastic body and the Android on board, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 doesn't just pack 3G, DC-HSPA, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth, NFC, a GPS and Bluetooth, it also crams in microSD card expandability to complement the 16 or 32GB of on board memory.
Samsung's All Share DLNA service is also present as is an MHL port for wired output of video to a big screen. Pulling down the notifications tab will present you with a host of connectivity toggles and naturally, these can also be toggled in the settings.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - Performance and Battery
If benchmarks were the whole story, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 would be the single greatest handset available right now. Just check out the screens below - all other quad-cores are blown out of the water by Samsung's 1.6GHz Exynos beast of a processor and the 2GB of RAM on board.
Benchmarks however aren't the whole story, not by a long stretch. Sure, they will identify the brute force behind a phone but they don't take into account UI quirks. No. That's our job and sadly, as mentioned earlier, there are a couple of quirks buried within the Note 2. While all the incredibly intensive stuff like 3D games, HD movies and pressure sensitive illustration runs like a charm, it's all marred by a couple of UI glitches, notably around the redrawn gallery. In addition to the gallery being very stuttery at times, accessing gallery content through 3rd party apps such as instagram can take over 10 seconds to open. While a glitch like this might have washed on a mid-ranger, it jars so heavily with the rest of the UI on the Note 2 that it's acutely annoying every time it rears its ugly head - which is very often if you're into sharing images.
Speaking on such a large phone may take some getting used to, however audio quality is good. The larger form actually lends itself to meeting both your ear at the top end by the speaker and mouth at the bottom by the mic.
Battery life impressed us on the Note 2. We've been forcing ourselves to get accustomed to smartphones with under a day's worth of battery life of late, however this big screened phablet doesn't need much in the way of TLC in order to make it through a full day thanks to the 3100 mAh cell on board. Thanks to the fact the battery is removable you can comfortably carry a spare for travelling if you need more than a day from yours.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - Conclusion
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 would have been awarded 5 out of 5 if not for a some jarring UI glitches. Admittedly, its design is also weaker than we would have hoped for a handset costing £528 offline, but what the Note 2 does deliver is the best pen integration of any smartphone available. It also offers the best gaming performance, video playback performance, most considered user interface and amongst the best battery life around. This balance across the board means that anyone who wants something with more oomph than the Galaxy S3, a little extra when compared to the HTC One X or a device ultimately more optimised than the LG Optimus 4X HD should think long and hard about the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Just do so bearing in mind, this isn't a mobile phone - it's altogether bigger. Try it out, make sure it fits in your hand, in your pocket, in your life and then when you're as enamoured by it as we are, buy it.
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