There are without question a lot of options these days for smartphones; particularly those which are fast, have good cameras, and can perform very well for media purposes. And while the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III are easily the most popular of the bunch, there aren’t many devices out there which one can describe as phablets, or rather phones that are closer to the size of a tablet. Samsung had previously introduced their Galaxy Note, which was a behemoth of a phone that was pretty cool in its own right, but didn’t seem to have the form factor to draw a lot of attention. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of fans of the phone, but also seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Enter Samsung’s newer Galaxy Note II, which not only looks a lot sexier, but has plenty of new updates under the hood to easily trounce its predecessor.
Design and Screen
Let’s start off by discussing its form factor and its screen. For starters, the Note II actually resembles the Galaxy S III, both with its curvy corners, slimness and overall design. In fact, unless you were looking at it up close, you’d probably think it was an S III from a distance. However, when you sit them next to each other, the size differential is immediately clear. The Note II comes in at 5.95 x 3.17 x 0.37 inches, while weighing 6.34 ounces and aside from the screen itself, is made out of plastic. Though I do like the heftiness of it, I’m not too crazy about the plastic, especially in white, as it cheapens the look of it. Samsung also offers the Note II in a metallic-gray color that at least looks sexier since the plastic looks like aluminum. The main home button is found at the bottom with two touch keys found on each side - one used as a back key and the other for bringing up the menu for any screen you’re on.
Running on Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), the Note II comes with a speedy 1.6 GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal memory. You do get a microSD card slot, which is upgradable to 64 GB, however. The phone’s massive screen is 5.5 inches and is an HD Super AMOLED screen with a 1280 x 720 resolution. The original note by comparison was 1280 x 800 but had a 16:10 aspect ratio, while the Note II is 16:9, which makes it the preferred ratio for watching movies and playing games. The screen’s 267ppi is nothing to sneeze at but isn’t quite as sharp as the images you get on the Galaxy S III (306ppi) or the iPhone 5 (326ppi). Still, you’ll get bright and colorful images with plenty of detail, which really shines with movies and Android games.
The Note II’s rear-facing camera is a respectable 8-megapixels, with a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera. Having tested it out indoors and outdoors with a variety of lighting conditions, I found the camera to perform quite well in good lighting conditions, while indoors or in lower-lit areas, the images were a tad on the grainy side. Video recording looked pretty good in 1080p and you can snap photos at the same time as you record video, which is a great feature, though if you end up using the Image Stabilizer option, to reduce shakiness, you’ll lose that ability. What I dug the most about the camera were the features themselves. The Note II, just like the S III, features Best Shot mode, which lets you shoot 8 photos at once and helps you pick out the best one. By far my favorite feature was Best Faces. Who hasn’t taken group photos of friends or family and been irked that one or more person is either blinking, not smiling or has a stupid look on their faces? Well with Best Faces, you take a photo of your group and the camera takes multiple shots. When you preview the photo, you’ll see a yellow box on top of each face. Hitting that yellow box lets you pick the best choice for each face, making for instantaneous editing and letting you finalize the photo.
Without question, the highlight of the Note II is the included stylus, aptly named the S Pen, which was also found on the original Note. The S Pen however has been improved upon and definitely provides better performance. With the S Pen, users can do all sorts of things, such as annotate, doodle, draw or create signatures. You can for instance, finish off an email with your own signature, or draw directly into a message by tapping the S Pen button when using the Email app. Another nice ability is being able to handwrite notes when using the calendar. While looking at your calendar, you can circle dates, write reminds or draw on it. You can choose to look at the calendar in normal mode, or also tap a button to see all of your annotations. One of the best uses of the S Pen is making annotations in PowerPoint documents, which is fantastic for anyone using the Note II for their job or for school. While using the Polaris Office app, you can tap the “Free Draw” button to draw directly onto a presentation, which gets included with the document when you send it out.
Most important to the S Pen is the S Note app, which is easily accessible once you pull out the S Pen from its port. With S Note, you can take notes, create documents and just plain doodle if you feel up to it. In addition, you can even record your writing, which is useful if you’re drawing, solving math equations and more. You can even record yourself speaking while you are drawing/taking notes, improving your overall presentation. For those concerned about losing the S Pen, the phone does let you know when you’ve taken it out, though I found the feature that’s supposed to warn you when you’ve walked away from the S Pen to not be working properly, so you’ll still need to keep a close eye on it. Hopefully Samsung releases a firmware update to fix that issue.
When using the S Pen, you can also hover it over videos in the Video Player, which lets you see a preview of the video in an Airview window. You can move the S Pen back and forth to fast-forward and rewind, while the Airview feature also lets you see previews of photos or emails without having to touch the screen.
Calling and Connectivity
The Galaxy Note II uses a quad-band EDGE (850, 1900, 1800, 1900MHz) and dual-band HSPA+ 42 (1700/2100MHz) device with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi support on 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Easily the coolest feature on T-Mobile is the ability to use the Wi-Fi calling feature, which lets users connect to any hotspot and make voice calls. This is especially useful if you're in an area where the signal may be low or non-existant and I'd really wish other providers offered this as well. Having tested the feature, I found it to work perfectly both at home and at a local coffee shop. Data-wise, in the San Francisco area, download speeds averaged about 8-9Mbps though upload speeds were only about 1.5Mbps.
The Samsung Note II is a giant of a phone. It seems a bit awkward at first holding it up to your ear (honestly I’d recommend a bluetooth earpiece), but Samsung does provide for one-handed operation when using the screen to dial and text. That being said, the phone is a blast to use; be it for watching Netflix, writing emails, browsing the internet and just about anything else you can do with it. The bottom line is that this is easily the most enjoyable Android phone I’ve used to date and should be considered by anyone looking for the latest and greatest. Whether you need something close to being a tablet, or just like the added real estate for your screen, the Note II is ripe for anyone needing a little something extra with their phone. You can nab it from T-Mobile with a 2-year contract for $369.99, though we've seen it for as low as $279 or $299 at retailers such as Best Buy.