One of last yearís unexpected hits was the Samsung Galaxy Note. It was basically a Galaxy S II with a stylus, a bigger, higher resolution display and a bigger battery. I had a nice laugh when I first saw it. I wondered, who would want to use such a large phone?
It screamed Ďmy phone is better than your phone because itís biggerí. I figured it would appeal to guys who wear huge watches, drive showy cars, that sort of thing. Nothing like a good stereotype right? Anyways, if you go out, youíll notice a lot of girls with Notes. Turns out a Note fits just fine in a purse. Maybe size really doesnít matter.
Anyways, itís been about a year now and a lot has changed. Samsung is now the de-facto power in the Android smartphone space, so thereís a lot of anticipation for the Galaxy Noteís successor.
In case you missed it please check out my first impressions of the Note II. There are some pictures there that I didn't include here.
First off, the Note II ships with Jellybean. Itís one of the first phones that ships with Android 4.1 Jellybean as standard. While on paper, 4.1 isnít a huge upgrade from 4.0, in person it actually makes a big difference because itís much smoother. Smoothness wonít really help you surf the web or email any faster but it certainly makes things much nicer. Itís the same reason why the iPhone and Windows Phones are also Ďniceí. Thereís also Google Now which Iíll talk about later.
The Note II now has a 5.5Ē display vs the old oneís 5.3Ē. Itís surface area is actually not that much bigger because the screenís aspect ratio has changed. After dusting off my calculator, the new one is only about 2% bigger. The old one had a resolution of 1280x800 while the new one is 1280x720. So, the new one is slightly taller but more narrow. This actually makes the Note a little easier to use in portrait mode which is how I use mine 95% of the time.
Galaxy Note II screen close up
Unlike the S IIIís PenTile array Super AMOLED display, the Note IIís is arranged in a different pattern. I find RGBG stripe arrays look cleaner, especially when youíre viewing white text against dark backgrounds.
original Galaxy Note screen close up
Indoors, the screen looks fantastic. It looks very bright, has deep blacks and great viewing angles. I sometimes found text looked a little jagged when I had black text on a white background with the brightness turned all the way up. Itís a minor thing.
Like the S IIIís screen, outdoors in direct sunlight the Note can get over powered. This causes the screen to turn black.
When viewing videos, there is an Ďoutdoorí setting. Basically, the device takes everything on the screen and cranks it up to 11. Itís kind of interesting that the colours donít all get turned up the same amount. Look how red everything is. That said, when outdoors, itís less noticeable - the point is to try to beat the sun by trying to be brighter than it. While it does help, it doesnít turn the Note II into a One X or a Sony Xperia S or ION. Those phones work much better under direct sunlight.
Probably the biggest change is under the hood. The old Note came with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 dual core processor clocked at 1.5Ghz. Basically, Samsung chose the S3 because it had LTE support. While I wouldnít say that the Note was a slow phone, when I use it there are many times where it feels a little underpowered. The camera on the original Note felt very slow and during certain games some visual features had to be disabled, that sort of thing.
The new one has a quad-core Exynos processor from Samsung thatís clocked at 1.6Ghz which offers a substantial improvement in performance. Weíll explore what effect it has on the Note IIís performance later.
2GB of RAM is double what you get from the old one. Itís the same amount that Galaxy S III has. When I reviewed the S III a while back, I wondered what benefit an extra 1GB of RAM would have but it actually makes the S III a very capable at multi-tasking. You can switch one program, run a bunch of others and then switch back without it breaking a sweat.
While the original Note had a relatively large 2500mAh battery, the Note IIís battery weighs in at an impressive 3100mAh. To put in in perspective, itís almost twice the size as the Galaxy S IIís battery.
The new Note is also a little narrower. It doesnít feel all that different than the original in this regard. Itís still way too big to use it with one hand. That said Samsung tried to include a few software features to make it easier to use with one hand. The keyboard can be shrunk and docked to the left or right side of the screen. Itís a nice try but I donít think many people will use that feature.
In my hand, I prefer the feel of the Note II over the S III. The S III is too plastic and light. The Note II is also plastic but it has a heft to it that gives you a sense of occasion thatís missing from the S III.
The Note IIís battery cover fits much more securely because the plastic tabs on it are much bigger plus there is more of them.
microUSB, S-Pen silo
camera, flash, speaker.
I couldnít help noticing that the power and volume buttons have moved down a little. Theyíre lower on the side. When I hold the note with my right hand, my thumb naturally falls on the power button. While the buttonís action is kind of cheap feeling the positioning is fantastic.
Itís kind of ironic but I think text entry is a weak point on a device named the ĎNoteí. The default Samsung keyboard is laid out nicely with a useful row for numbers. The problem is that I canít seem to get it to auto-correct what Iím typing. I have to type it out and then choose the correct spelling. Itís not a good work flow.
Thereís SWYPE where you can enter text by sliding your finger or stylus from letter to letter. A lot of people like this but Iím not fond of it.
Also built-in is handwriting recognition. It actually works okay but I canít imagine anyone using this over a keyboard.
Anyways, if you get the Note, I suggest you go out and get a third-party keyboard like Swiftkey.
The Note II will have the usual Samsung accessories. A flip cover, some TPU cases and a dock. The dock has an HDMI out, 3 USB and a microUSB (for power) so you can connect a keyboard, mouse and a monitor to use it like a computer. It makes a lot more sense than the idiotic GS3 docks.
Another interesting accessory is an AllShare Cast dongle. With it you can project whatever youíre looking at on the screen onto a HDMI equipped TV. It works better than youíd think though Iím not sure if it works well enough for gaming. If nothing else it could make a good practical joke. When a Note II owner isnít looking, project their screen onto a TV.
Thereís a new AllShare Cast feature which streams what you see on the Note wirelessly via WiFi. Apparently, this feature is already built into Samsungís newest high-end TVs. If you donít have a fancy TV, thereís also a AllShare Cast dongle that takes the wireless signal and sends it to your TV via HDMI.
I saw a demo of it and it actually works. Unfortunately, it stuttered when displaying full screen video and games. Iím not sure if this is a limitation of the device or perhaps there was Ďdirtyí air which affected the quality of the WiFi signal.
The notification area has been customized. Aside from the quick access buttons which have always been around, there are shortcuts to recommended S Pen programs when you pull it from itís silo. Iíve also noticed you can preview more of a message when you get it.
Like the original Note, the Note II includes a stylus called the S-Pen. The Note IIís S-Pen is both thicker and longer than the original. Iím sure it gives the original Note serious case of S-Pen envy.
The IIís S-Pen tip now has a bit of give to it. It actually makes a huge difference. You donít feel like youíre hammering away at the Note with a cheap plastic stylus. Now it feels like a fancier plastic stylus.
On the original, you could use it to take screen shots which you could write or use it to write notes with Samsung S-Note and S-Memo applications. On the II, Samsung has added more software which makes use of the S-Pen. You can choose a specific area on the screen to capture.
Thereís also a new hover feature. The Note II can sense the S-Pen when itís at least an inch and a half away from the screen. This is a good distance. Itís far enough away that you should be able to use it when youíre moving around.
Anyways, there are 2 cases where hovering is really useful. First off, when youíre viewing your pictures you can hover over an image to see a bigger version of. If youíre watching a video you can hover over the navigation bar to preview.
Another new feature is quick command. You can use it to start certain functions. You can search for something using the browser by writing in a question mark followed by your search term. @ followed by someoneís name will start the email client and their name in the to field. !Toronto will find Toronto on the map. #Howard will call Howard, ~Howard will start a text for Howard.
Quick Command is a cool feature but I wonder whether anyone will actually use them. Itís probably one of those features that looks cool in a commercials but no one really uses. Sometimes less is more. Just because you can do something, doesnít always mean you should.
Like the original Note, the Note II has a 8MP camera. While they have the same resolution they donít appear to have the same sensor. At night I lowered my bedroom lights to their lowest setting and took some pictures with the Note II, original Note, GS3 and iPhone 5.
Samsung Galaxy S III
Apple iPhone 5
Samsung Galaxy Note II
Samsung Galaxy Note
The Note IIís sensor is slightly more sensitive than the GS3 and original Note though itís far behind the iPhone 5. Still, itís a noticeable improvement. Looking at the numbers, the Note II is able to go up to ISO 1250 while the GS3 goes up to at 800. Iím not sure if thatís the reason why the Note II is better in low-light.
Another area where the Note II is a huge improvement is in its shot-to-shot times. The original Note was terrible in this regard.
The Note II can now shoot as fast as the GS3. It can pretty much take pictures as quickly as you can tap the shutter button while holding the phone still. Thereís a burst mode, which takes pictures at up to 6.5 frames per second. I love how you can now take bursts of photos but simply pressing and holding the shutter button. You no longer have to switch to burst mode like you do on the GS3.
You can actually set the camera ISO manually. It goes up to ISO 800 Check out this picture. Itís not that impressive right?
Iím actually chasing my daughter while Iím taking this. So both me and her are moving - now thatís really impressive especially when you consider weíre both indoors. I would have taken an even better picture but she had school later and I didn't want to tire her out.
Apple iPhone 5
Samsung Galaxy S 3
Samsung Galaxy Note II
When thereís sufficient light, the Note II takes really good pictures. Check it out. Everything is nicely exposed, itís sharp, there isnít much noise and thereís lots of details in the shadows. That said the iPhone 5 and GS3 do really well here too.
As I mentioned earlier, the Note II ships with Jellybean, Android 4.1. Besides the added smoothness, Jellybean also brings Google Now. Google Now is like an automated personal assistant. It looks at where you are plus scans your calendar and offers suggestions based on that. Here are some examples; If youíre at work, it will tell you how long it would take to drive home. It shows you the weather for wherever you are, plus travel information if you have a trip saved in your calendar.
Like the GS3, the Note II ships with Samsung Touchwiz software. It consists of a skin, some slightly customized programs, a few Samsung only programs plus a bunch of motion features.
Samsung includes some extra programs like Samsung Apps, S Voice, Game Hub and Learning Hub. Samsung Apps, Game Hub and Learning Hub are basically alternatives to the Google Play store. As I see it, the only point to them is that they sometimes allow you to download certain programs that would normally cost something for free.
S Voice allows you to control the Note II with your voice. Itís not that great.
Like the GS3, the Note II has motion features like double tap to refresh, turn over to silence, move to zoom, that sort of thing. It also includes the Smart stay feature, where the phone wonít shut the screen off if the front-facing camera sees a pair of eyes.
While these features are pretty cool, Iíll be honest, I donít use any of them. They sound like great ideas in person but most donít work well enough. Hopefully Samsung can improve them.
Also included is 50GB of free DropBox storage. Itís for 2 years worth of service.
Like the Galaxy S III, the Note II has a picture-in-picture option when youíre viewing a video. I hurt my back recently so Iíve been taking the train and I must say the picture-in-picture on my S III is one of my favourite features. Iím able to watch videos while surfing HoFo, texting, emailing, etc. The Note IIís implementation of this feature is a little smarter. On the S III, the video appears on top of everything except for when you pull the notification area down. It annoys me because it also blocks the keyboard. On the Note, the video is hidden (but not stopped) if you pull the keyboard up. Before, tapping on the it would take you to the video player. Now tapping on it will pause it while double tapping will take you to the video player. You can also close the it by tapping it to pause it and then tapping the top right corner of the video window. Like before you can tap, hold and drag the video to move it around.
Another thing I like about the Note II is that it has good codec support. Itís able to play the 720p MKV and 480p avi files that I didnít get from Google Play.
In addition to the video player, you can now do picture-in-picture with the browser. The name of the program is pop-up browser. You can open webpages in a new window which you can drag around your screen. It supports pinch zooming plus you can enter in new URLís. Unfortunately, I didnít find the pop-up browser that useful. Maybe Iím missing something but the big problem is that thereís no easy way to use the pop-up browser. When youíre using the regular browser thereís no option to open up pages in a pop-up browser window. The only way I could get it to work is to open up links from the email client.
You can always set the default web handler to the pop-up browser in the Noteís settings but then everything would open up with the pop-up browser and thatís not ideal. Still, thereís an option to open pages youíre viewing in the pop-up browser with the Ďregularí browser.
Like the GS3, the Note IIís AllShare (DLNA) allows you to share and view media via the internet. You just have to create a login. Both devices donít have to be on the same WiFi access point.
SunSpider (lower scores are better):
Apple iPhone 5: 911.7
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 1005.4
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 1550.9
Samsung Galaxy S III: 1781.5
Samsung Galaxy Note: 2714.3
The Note IIís scores a blistering 1005.4 in SunSpider using the stock browser. This makes it the fastest Android phone I have ever used. Itís score is second only to the iPhone 5. Very impressive.
Vellamo is a browser benchmark suite. It includes a bunch of browser tests including SunSpider.
Vellamo 2 HTML 5 (higher is better):
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 1841
Samsung Galaxy S III: 1630
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 1608
Samsung Galaxy Note: 1103
Vellamo 2 Metal (higher is better):
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 628
Samsung Galaxy S III: 580
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 492
Samsung Galaxy Note: 348
Again the Note II manages to score the fastest Vellamo scores I have ever recorded. The HTML score is over 60% higher than the original Note while the Metal score is over 80% higher.
GL Benchmark 2.5 Egypt on screen (frames per second):
GL Benchmark 2.5 is a OpenGL gaming benchmark. Itís the updated version of 2.1 and features more eye-candy than 2.1. Itís available on both Android and iOS so itís very useful for comparing performance across different platforms.
Samsung Galaxy Note: 12
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 15
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 17
Samsung Galaxy S III: 21
While the Note II doesnít do terribly here I was expecting a little more from it. Letís check out the off-screen
GL Benchmark 2.5 Egypt off screen (frames per second):
Samsung Galaxy Note: 7.8
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 9.7
Samsung Galaxy S III: 13
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 17
Apple iPhone 5: 29
The off-screen test runs the benchmark at 1920x1080. While I normally use the off-screen test to compare devices that normally have different resolution screens in this case Iím using it to see how the Note IIís performance scales. Oddly enough, the Note II score is identical to its on-screen score so clearly thereís something wrong here.
When you change the resolution and donít observe a change in the number of frames per second it usually means the processor (not the graphics processor) is the bottleneck. Maybe the Note IIís Cortex A9 processor isnít able to keep up.
Itís either that or there might be a bug in the software. If a newer version of GL Benchmark is released and I still have the Note II Iíll re-run this benchmark.
Since I wasnít satisfied with the results I got from 2.5 I decided to try the older 2.1 benchmark. Itís less demanding so it may provide some insight into whatís going on.
GL Benchmark 2.1 Egypt on screen (frames per second):
Samsung Galaxy Note: 28
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 58
Samsung Galaxy S III: 48
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 48
Here, the Note II score 58 frames per second. Thatís 10fps faster than the S II and One X. The thing to remember though is that the on-screen test is capped at 60fps. Letís see what happens when we try the off-screen test.
GL Benchmark 2.1 Egypt off screen (frames per second):
Samsung Galaxy Note: 34
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 64
Samsung Galaxy S III: 54
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 64
Apple iPhone 5: 147
The off-screen test is run at the same resolution as the on-screen tests for these 1280x720 devices (except for the original Note which is 1280x800). Now that the frame rate cap is gone, the Note II is able to stretch its legs. As far as Android phones goes it ties the HTC One X with a score of 64 frames per second.
Basemark is another Open GL gaming benchmark. Itís Android only.
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 43.27
Samsung Galaxy S III: 31.13
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 19.2
Samsung Galaxy Note: 16.7
Here, the Note II flexes itís muscles with a score thatís around 33% higher than the Galaxy S III and more than double the original Note.
GL Benchmark 2.5 Egypt on screen (minutes, more is better):
Samsung Galaxy Note II: 277
Samsung Galaxy S III: 165
Samsung Galaxy Note: 160
HTC One X (Tegra 3): 115
The Note II nails this test with a stunning 277mins. While the Noteís battery life is pretty good, itís not that much better. Looking at the actual GL Benchmark scores from earlier, I get the feeling that the Note II is underachieving. I suspect something is keeping the graphics processor from being fully utilized.
While GL Benchmarkís battery test was running, I noticed that the original Note got much hotter than the Note II which only got warm during the test. While the Note II may run cooler, I suspect this is more evidence that GL Benchmark isnít properly stressing the Note II. Then again, maybe Iím just pessimistic and the Note II really does run really cool.
I still have to run my custom benchmark where I playback a video until the Note II shuts off. Iíll update this review when Iíve had a chance to run it a few times.
Thereís actually a power saving mode. I disabled it for my benchmarks. It appears that the power-saving mode rolls back the processorís maximum speed from 1.6Ghz to around 1.1Ghz.
Iím not sure charger Samsung is going to bundle with the Note II (probably the 1.5amp/7.5 watt charger they bundle with their tablets) I plugged the Note into my Blackberry Playbookís 2amp microUSB charger and itís able to charge at a full 10 watts. This is fantastic because the Note IIís 3100mAh battery can take a long time to fill if you donít have a powerful charger.
As a phone:
Sound quality is slightly rough and fuzzy sounding but it's still decent. While the earpiece's maximum volume isn't as loud as the iPhone 5's it's not bad.
I wish the speaker on the back was a little louder. While itís not quiet, itís not as loud as the iPhone 5ís. Given the size of the Note, Iím puzzled as to why Samsung doesnít use something louder.
I tested the RF against the Motorola RAZR HD LTE and the Apple iPhone 5. First I went downstairs. While the RAZR was the last to lose LTE signal, the Note II wasnít far behind. The iPhone switched to HSPA a few steps before the RAZR and Note II.
Both the Note II and RAZR switched back from HSPA to LTE at roughly the same time.
Iím a little surprised, the original Note defined a new market segment when came out around a year ago and even now, itís not a crowded space. That said, while it doesnít have much direct competition, it hasnít stopped making the Note II a compelling device.
Compared to the original Note, the Note II doesnít make any compromises. You get a large screen, powerful processor, big battery, LTE, expandable storage. The S-Pen also feels useful now.
Itís large screen really sets it apart from regular phones. The big screen is great for looking at pictures, browsing webpages, playing games. The only really downside is that itís large size makes it a slightly clumsy device to use.
If you can carry the Note around donít mind having to use two hands, you canít go wrong with the Note.
If you have the S3/One X/RAZR HD LTE or other regular sized Android phone and can handle the size of the Note you should give it a try. For many people, the trade-off in size will be worth it.
Compared to the iPhone 5, I hate to say it but theyíre 2 very different devices. As a person who uses both Android and iOS equally, the iPhone is a great single-handed device. Itís the Ďif I could carry just one device it would be thisí sort of device. It fits easily in your pocket and it leaves your other hand free. Software wise, theyíre very different though I generally prefer apps on the iPhone over Android - of course thatís a gross generalization. Iím sure you can create a list of Android apps that are better than their iOS versions but for the programs I use, I find the iOS one is usually better.
The Note II has a few tricks that you donít get on the iPhone like a much bigger screen which lets you do things like picture-in-picture. Getting your own media onto the Note is slightly easier because it has a memory card slot plus you can access more of the file system from your computer. Then again, if you already have all your media on iTunes youíll find the iPhone pretty seamless.
Another feature the Note II has is NFC. While itís not quite a Ďmust haveí feature yet, in a few years, iPhone 5 users may wish Apple had included it.
Who knew? Bigger really is better. The Note is definitely better the second time around.
- nice screen
- big battery
- fast LTE performance
- clumsy to use
- screen not so good outdoors