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Samsung Galaxy Note II Smartphone Review
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Date: Oct 24, 2012
Section:Mobile
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction & Specifications
The original Samsung Galaxy Note was a bit of an oddity in the smartphone market. When it was first introduced, many reviewers, analysts, and industry pundits scoffed at the device’s relatively large form factor. The 5.3” screen on the original Note looked simply gargantuan next to anything else available on the market at the time, leading many folks to call the original Note a “phablet”. It wasn’t quite large enough to be a full-blown tablet, but was considered too big by some to be called a smartphone, hence “phablet”.

In spite of the widespread criticisms of the original Galaxy Note’s form factor, a funny thing happened—Samsung sold a boatload of the devices. In fact, by mid-August Samsung had sold over 10 million Galaxy Notes worldwide, making it an unmitigated success. And what do you get when the first product in an unchartered market is a success? A sequel, that’s what.

Today Samsung is launching the Galaxy Note II in the U.S. An international version of the device has been available for some time, but variants compatible with most of the major wireless carriers here in the states will become available shortly. We’ve had a T-Mobile compatible version of the Galaxy Note II in house for testing and have our impressions and results posted on the pages ahead. First up though, is a quick look at the Galaxy Note II’s main features and specifications. As you’ll see, they’re pretty impressive...


Samsung Galaxy Note II
Specifications & Features
Network
  • 3G: HSPA+21Mbps (HSDPA 21Mbps / HSUPA 5.76Mbps)
  • 4G LTE: 100Mbps / 50Mbps
Processor
  • 1.6 GHz quad-core processor
OS
  • Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)
Display
  • 140.9 mm (5.5") HD Super AMOLED (1,280 x 720)
Dimension
  • 80.5 x 151.1 x 9.4 mm, 180g
Battery
  • Standard battery, Li-ion 3,100mAh
Memory
  • 16/32/64GB User memory + 2GB (RAM)
  • microSD slot (up to 64GB)
S Pen Optimized Features
  • S Pen Experience
  • S Note, S Planner, Email with hand-writing integration
  • S Pen Keeper
  • Quick Command, Easy Clip, Photo Note, Paper Artist
  • Shape Match, Formula Match
1 Step tasking / Multitasking features
  • Air View
  • Popup Note, Popup Video
  • Page Buddy / Tag Buddy / Word Buddy
Connectivity / Sharing Features
  • Bluetooth v 4.0 (Apt-X Codec support) LE
  • USB 2.0 Host
  • WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4 & 5 GHz), Wi-Fi HT40
  • Wi-Fi Direct
  • NFC
  • S Beam
  • Samsung AllShare Play & Control
  • Samsung AllShare Cast (WiFi Display)
  • Mirroring & Extention
  • Samsung AllShare Framework

Camera

  • Main (Rear) : 8 Megapixel Auto Focus Camera with LED Flash, BSI
  • Sub (Front) : 1.9 Megapixel VT Camera, BSI
  • Best Photo, Best Face, Low light shot
Video
  • Codec: MPEG4, H.263, H.264, VC-1, DivX, WMV7, WMV8, WMV9, VP8
  • Format: 3GP(MP4), WMV(ASF), AVI, FLV, MKV, WebM
  • Full HD(1080p) Playback & Recording
Audio
  • Codec: MP3, OGG, WMA, AAC, ACC+, eAAC+, AMR(NB,WB), MIDI, WAV, AC-3, Flac
  • Music Player with SoundAlive
  • 3.5mm Ear Jack
Other
  • Samsung TouchWiz / Samsung L!ve Panel
  • Samsung Kies /Samsung Kies Air
  • Samsung ChatOn mobile communication service
  • Smart Stay, Direct claa, Screen Recorder, Quick Glance
  • Samsung ChatOn mobile communication service
  • Samsung S Suggest
Content / Services
  • Samsung Apps
  • Samsung Hub
  • Game Hub
  • Media Hub (US only)
  • Learning Hub / Music Hub / Video Hub
Sensor
  • Accelerometer, RGB Light, Digital Compass, Proximity, Gyro, Barometer
GPS
  • A-GPS
  • Glonass

Enterprise Solutions

  • On Device Encryption (H/W)
  • Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync
  • VPN(F5, Cisco, Juniper)
  • MDM(Sybase Afaria, MobileIron, SOTI, Good)
  • CCX
  • VMware MVP


 

The list of specifications above put the Samsung Galaxy Note II among an elite group of smartphones. Not only does it pack a quad-core SoC and 2GB of RAM, but it’s outfitted with a gigantic (relatively speaking) screen and the latest version of Google’s Android mobile OS, a.k.a. Jelly Bean.

Samsung has powered this device with a proprietary SoC that, as you’ll see a little later, offers excellent performance. The Samsung Exynos 4 Quad at the heart of the Galaxy Note II proved to be a beast of a SoC. The Exynos 4 Quad was referred to internally as the Exynos 4412. The chip features quad, ARM Cortex-A9 cores, clocked at up to 1.6GHz, with an ARM Mali-400 MP4 GPU and a 32-bit dual-channel memory controller. It’s the same chip used in the international version of the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. In the Galaxy Note II, the Exynos 4 Quad chip (and the rest of the Note II’s components) are linked to a relatively large 3100mAh, 3.8v battery. The combination of the high-performing Exynos 4 Quad and a high-capacity battery culminate in a device that not only put up some of the best performance numbers we’ve seen from an Android-based device, but excellent battery life as well.


Samsung Galaxy Note II Accessory Bundle

The Galaxy Note II also features 16/32/64GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. The storage configurations are standard for the current crop of high-end smartphones, but 2GB of RAM is a definite plus in a sea of 1GB or 512MB equipped devices. In addition, the Note II sports an easily accessible microSD card slot for users looking to expand their storage options or easily transfer files to the device. An accelerometer, digital compass, flash, gyroscope and 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (2.4 & 5 GHz) are also standard equipment, as is support for the majority of 3G and 4G network types in the U.S., including LTE.

The standout features with the Note II are obviously its large screen and S-pen stylus. At 5.5” diagonally, the screen is gigantic next to virtually every other modern smartphone on the market today. The S-Pen is similar to the stylus offered with the Note 10.1 tablet and offers additional functionality and precision, versus clumsy finger input. More on the screen and S-Pen in just a little bit, though.

Before we dig into the Note II, we should show you what’s included with the device. What you see pictured here is the T-Mobile version of the Samsung Galaxy Note II, model T-889. Included with the Note II was a fairly extensive documentation pack, a pair of ear-buds with interchangeable ear-cups, a micro-USB cable and a charger. We should also mention that Samsung will have a whole line-up of accessories available for the Note II, in multiple colors, including the excellent flip cover that was so popular with original Note and Galaxy S III owners.
 

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Design and Exterior

The Galaxy Note II is a refinement of the original Galaxy Note, with design language borrowed from the popular Galaxy S III. The Note II’s got more rounded corners than the original, along with a metallic, chrome band that runs around the edges of the device.


The Samsung Galaxy Note II in White. Grey will also be available.

The Galaxy Note II is a refinement of the original Galaxy Note, with design language borrowed from the popular Galaxy S III. The Note II’s got more rounded corners than the original, along with a metallic, chrome band that runs around the edges of the device.

Samsung Galaxy S 4G 4.2 ounces
Motorola Droid Razr 4.48 ounces
Nexus S 4.55 ounces
HTC One X 4.58 ounces
HTC Droid Incredible 4.6 ounces
Apple iPhone 4 4.8 ounces
Apple iPhone 4S 4.9 ounces
LG Spectrum 4.99 ounces
Samsung Droid Charge 5.04 ounces
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx 5.1 ounces
Motorola Droid Bionic 5.57 ounces
Motorola Photon 4G 5.6 ounces
HTC EVO 3D 6 ounces
Samsung Galaxy Note II 6.34 ounces

 
Looking at the weight and dimensions for other high-end smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy Note II may seem gargantuan by comparison, but it’s really not. Yes, this thing is big—no doubt about it. But it’s only about 1/4" taller and wider than the Galaxy S III, and the weight wasn’t an issue at all. At first glance, the Note II will seem “too big” to most people, but once you use the device for any length of time, size no longer seems to be an issue. The Note II is still easily pocketable and the large screen makes for an excellent user experience in our opinion. There's a reason Samsung has sold millions of the original Note around the world and the device has such a following.

 
Samsung Galaxy Note II / Galaxy S III Size Comparison

The Galaxy Note II’s build quality is very good, but there are some quibbles to mention. Because the Note II has a removable battery cover made of a plastic composite material, the back of the device doesn’t feel quite as solid as those on phones that don’t have any removable panels. The chrome band around the device is also easily scratched and feels like a soft plastic, although it does look like metal.

As we’ve mentioned, the front of the device features the front facing camera (1.9MP), notification LED, ear-piece and proximity sensor. At the bottom front are capacitive back and menu buttons, along with a physical home button. The 5.5” screen, however, dominates the front of the device.


On the back you’ll find the Note II’s 8MP rear camera with LED flash, a small speaker grill, as well as the cutout for the S-Pen. The bottom of the device houses its micro-USB port and main microphone; the top of the device has a 3.5mm headphone jack and the noise cancelling microphone. The right side is bare save for the Note II’s power button and the left side is home only to the volume rocker.
 

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User Interface and Experience

The Samsung Galaxy Note II ships with Android Jelly Bean (v4.1) right out of the box, with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface enhancements installed on top. Overall, we like many of the additions offered by TouchWiz and the build of Jelly Bean on the phone feels very polished and fluid. The work Google has put into Jelly Bean and Samsung has put into TouchWiz really show on the Note II.

   

 
Samsung Galaxy Note II Stock Home Screens

When the Note II is first powered on, the home screens are fairly loaded up with widgets and shortcuts, but they can be quickly and easily customized. Responsiveness to touch is excellent on the Note II, perhaps the best we have experienced on any device. There is virtually no lag when touching / dragging items, pinch to zoom is fluid and responsive, and transition animations are buttery smooth. Launching applications is also very quick; during everyday use, the Note II simply felt fast.

The 5.5” Super AMOLED screen on the Note II is also very good. Samsung came up with a new sub-pixel arrangement with this screen, which features an elongated blue sub-pixel alongside the red and green sub-pixels. There are fewer sub-pixels in the Note II’s display than a similar resolution IPS LCD, but there are actually more sub-pixels in the Note II’s display versus the previous-gen Note, despite the predecessor’s higher screen resolution. As we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, colors are very vibrant and somewhat over saturated, and the screen has decent brightness. It’s not as bright as the screen on the HTX One X or iPhone, but the screen on the Note II has excellent contrast and deep blacks, which make up for it.

As is the case with many smartphones, the glossy display is somewhat hard to see in direct sunlight, but that is par for the course. Viewing angles are very good, which makes for easy sharing of content with others around you, even when not directly in front of the device. The true HD screen offers a relatively high resolution of 1280x720, which results in crisp and sharp images that rival the best smartphones available today.

   
Samsung Galaxy Note II Widgets and Apps

In addition to the standard fare included with Android 4.1, the Samsung Galaxy Note II comes preloaded with a number of other applications. Preloaded on the device are Samsung L!ve Panel, Samsung Kies / Kies Air, Samsung ChatOn mobile communication service, Smart Stay, Screen Recorder, Quick Glance and Samsung S Suggest. In addition, there are a number of S-Pen tailored apps installed on the Note II as well, including S Note, S Planner, Email with hand-writing integration, S Pen Keeper, Quick Command, Easy Clip, Photo Note, Paper Artist, Shape Match and Formula Match.

We should note that the S-Pen is a great addition to the Note II in our opinion. The Galaxy Note II’s screen is perfectly happy with finger / gesture input, but the S-Pen adds a much-appreciated level of precision. Writing notes and/or editing images are simply better when you’ve got the additional precision offered by the S-Pen. The S-Pen also makes it easy to take screen-captures, and then edit them immediately thereafter. It’s a great feature that can make taking notes on articles, or whatever you may be viewing on-screen, quick and easy.

Since the Note II is also a phone, we should probably speak a bit about voice quality as well. We recently met with a company called Audience, who demoed their EarSmart technology. EarSmart is a real-time noise suppression—not cancellation—technology that can be tailored for specific levels of noise suppression. In the demos we say, the technology was able to essentially filter out background noise as a person spoke into a microphone, which is what a smartphone has to do when a user is speaking in a noisy environment. The Note II performed very well in that regard. When using the Note II in a car with the windows down, for example, the wind noise was blocked out to the listener at the other end of the call. Music playing in the car was also mostly suppressed. In quiet environments, the Note II’s call quality was also excellent.
 

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Camera Performance and Battery Life

The Samsung Galaxy Note II ships with an 8MP rear facing camera with auto-focus and a build in LED flash and a front facing 1.9MP camera for video-chat purposes. The mail camera also features full 1080P video recording capabilities and Best Photo, Best Face, and Low light shot utilities.



 

 
Samsung Galaxy Note II Sample Photos

We found the Note II’s camera to be very good, but not great. There is minimal shutter lag (the Note II is capable of a 20-shot burst like many other recent smartphones) and the resolution is good. We found most of the images to be somewhat under-saturated, however. In natural light or indoors, when the flash is not used, images looks good, but as you can see in the sample above, they are not very vibrant. When the flash is used though, especially with relatively close objects, the images can look over-saturated. We’d speculate that Samsung tuned the cameras to produce images that look optimal on the Note II’s HD Super AMOLED screen, but once they’re shared from the phone, the slight deficiencies become evident.

HotHardware Battery Life Test
How Long Does It Last?

 
With any 4G phone with a large screen, battery life can be an issue. Samsung doesn't make any specific battery life claims, but the 3.8v / 3100maH battery are a major improvement over the original Note. Not only is the battery's capacity increased, but the voltage is higher as well. To take the Galaxy Note II's battery to task, we fired up our standard HotHardware battery test. In this test, we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text and the page automatically refreshes itself every three minutes. We set the Note II's display to 50% brightness and turned off Wi-Fi for the duration.

Despite the Galaxy Note II's relatively large screen, it put up some very impressive battery life numbers, comparable to some of the best phones we tested. We should also point out that standby times are excellent. We left the phone sitting for about 1.5 days and the battery had only drained a couple of percentage points. With moderate to heavy use, Note II owners should have no trouble making it through a work day. Under light use, we'd expect two full days of usable battery life would also be possible.

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Performance: CPU and GPU

In addition to using the Samsung Galaxy Note II in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the device compared to some of the other smartphones we have recently evaluated.

CPU testing
Android CPU testing

In the Linpack for Android benchmark, the Samsung Galaxy Note II's quad-core Exynos SoC didn't compare favorably with some of the Snapdragon S4-based smartphones on the market, but the Note II surged ahead in the multi-threaded test and put up the highest score we have seen to date.

Graphics testing
Android graphics testing





The Galaxy Note II put up some excellent graphics-related benchmark scores. The iPhone 4S and 5 hold onto commanding leads in the GL Benchmark tests, but the Note II put up the best scores we have seen from an Android device in both GL Benchmark and An3DBench XL.

JavaScript testing
JavaScript Android and iPhone testing

The Galaxy Note II's combination of Jelly Bean and an Exynos SoC put up the best Sunspider score we've seen from an Android device as well. Only the iPhone 5 put up a better score here, and even then the delta was relatively small.
 

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Performance: Network and Browsing
Since networks and browsing speeds are a key feature of any smartphone, we also conducted some formal speed tests to see how well the Samsung Galaxy Note II compared to some of today's hottest smartphones using the SpeedTest.net app and Rightware's Browsermark benchmark.
 
SpeedTest.Net Performance
Network Speeds

 

Unfortunately, the Galaxy Note II we received for testing was configured for T-Mobile's network, which can't come close to matching the speeds of AT&T's or Verizon's true 4G LTE network. Still, at 11.3Mb down and 2.2Mb up, we don't think many users would complain about the Note II's download speeds using TMo.

Rightware Browsermark
Web Browsing Performance

The Samsung Galaxy Note II put up an excellent score in Rightware's Browsermark. The iPhone 5 blew everything out of the water upon its release a few weeks ago, but the Samsung Galaxy Note II was able to overtake the iPhone 5 and outpace every other smartphone we have tested to date.
 
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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The Samsung Galaxy Note II is the best performing, Android-based smartphone we have ever tested. In terms of its CPU and GPU performance, the Note II’s Exynos 4 Quad SoC with its quartet of ARM cores and Mali 400 GPU put up the best numbers we have seen to date, besting phones like the HTC One X and Galaxy S III. Only the iPhone 5 offered better graphics performance, but the Note II was able to overtake Apple’s latest iPhone in BrowserMark and hang right alongside it in SunSpider. Despite its relatively large screen, the Samsung Galaxy Note II also offered excellent battery life and its camera was decent as well. The images were somewhat under-saturated for our tastes, but the resolution is there and the camera is quick too. Although we haven’t devised a means to easily quantify voice quality just yet, we’re comfortable saying the Galaxy Note II also offers excellent voice quality, should you actually be making calls on the device. It is a smartphone, after all.


The Samsung Galaxy Note II in White

If we run down the list of things that make a good smart phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note II has them all. The device has a very nice screen, it’s very fast, offers good battery life, its camera and voice quality are also good, it’s running the latest version of Android, and the build quality is top notch, save for a couple of minor quibbles. Samsung also goes a few steps further and includes the S-Pen stylus, which adds some additional functionality over and above “touch-only” smartphones. And Samsung’s TouchWiz UI enables a few unique features as well, like the pop-up video player. In light of its features and performance, the Galaxy Note II is a clear winner, no ifs ands or buts about it.

The only things that are likely to give consumers pause are the Galaxy Note II’s form factor and price. The T-Mobile variant we showed you here is expected to sell for $349 on contract. AT&T has announced a $299 price point, also on contract. That puts the Note II in the upper echelon in terms of pricing. The Galaxy Note II’s form factor also makes it stand out. With its huge 5.5” screen the Galaxy Note II is the husky kid of the smartphone market. It’s the Hulk, Thor, or Eric Cartman, of smartphones—whatever metaphor works for you. Deciding whether or not that’s a bad thing, however, is going to be up to individual preference. When the original Galaxy Note hit the scene, it was easy to say the thing was “too big”, because there was no context for a device of its size. After 10 million+ Galaxy Notes were sold though, it’s clear consumers are open to form factors this size and actually want them. It's not fair the label the Galaxy Note II "too big". You simply don’t sell 10 million smartphones if they're so big that nobody wants them.

With that said, in our opinion, the Galaxy Note II is absolutely worthy of consideration. If you dig the form factor and have the funds to score one of these devices, by all means give it a shot. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is a great device and you may even make a couple of new friends when strangers ask why you’re holding a tablet up to your head to make phone calls.

 

  • Great Performance
  • Good Battery Life
  • Vibrant Screen
  • S-Pen Support
  • Jelly Bean Out Of The Box

 

  • Big
  • Relatively Expensive


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