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Thread: Our Galaxy Note II review: When is bigger better?

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    Our Galaxy Note II review: When is bigger better?

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    One of last year’s 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 ‘my phone is better than your phone because it’s bigger’. 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, you’ll notice a lot of girls with Notes. Turns out a Note fits just fine in a purse. Maybe size really doesn’t matter.

    Anyways, it’s been about a year now and a lot has changed. Samsung is now the de-facto power in the Android smartphone space, so there’s a lot of anticipation for the Galaxy Note’s 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. It’s one of the first phones that ships with Android 4.1 Jellybean as standard. While on paper, 4.1 isn’t a huge upgrade from 4.0, in person it actually makes a big difference because it’s much smoother. Smoothness won’t really help you surf the web or email any faster but it certainly makes things much nicer. It’s the same reason why the iPhone and Windows Phones are also ‘nice’. There’s also Google Now which I’ll talk about later.

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    The Note II now has a 5.5” display vs the old one’s 5.3”. It’s surface area is actually not that much bigger because the screen’s 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.

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    Galaxy Note II screen close up

    original Galaxy Note screen close up

    Unlike the S III’s PenTile array Super AMOLED display, the Note II’s is arranged in a different pattern. I find RGBG stripe arrays look cleaner, especially when you’re viewing white text against dark backgrounds.

    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. It’s a minor thing.

    Like the S III’s screen, outdoors in direct sunlight the Note can get over powered. This causes the screen to turn black.

    When viewing videos, there is an ‘outdoor’ setting. Basically, the device takes everything on the screen and cranks it up to 11. It’s kind of interesting that the colours don’t all get turned up the same amount. Look how red everything is. That said, when outdoors, it’s less noticeable - the point is to try to beat the sun by trying to be brighter than it. While it does help, it doesn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 that’s clocked at 1.6Ghz which offers a substantial improvement in performance. We’ll explore what effect it has on the Note II’s performance later.

    2GB of RAM is double what you get from the old one. It’s 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 II’s battery weighs in at an impressive 3100mAh. To put in in perspective, it’s almost twice the size as the Galaxy S II’s battery.

    The new Note is also a little narrower. It doesn’t feel all that different than the original in this regard. It’s 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. It’s a nice try but I don’t 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 that’s missing from the S III.

    The Note II’s battery cover fits much more securely because the plastic tabs on it are much bigger plus there is more of them.


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    headphone jack

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    power button

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    volume button

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    microUSB, S-Pen silo

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    camera, flash, speaker.

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    I couldn’t help noticing that the power and volume buttons have moved down a little. They’re lower on the side. When I hold the note with my right hand, my thumb naturally falls on the power button. While the button’s action is kind of cheap feeling the positioning is fantastic.

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    It’s kind of ironic but I think text entry is a weak point on a device named the ‘Note’. The default Samsung keyboard is laid out nicely with a useful row for numbers. The problem is that I can’t seem to get it to auto-correct what I’m typing. I have to type it out and then choose the correct spelling. It’s not a good work flow.

    There’s SWYPE where you can enter text by sliding your finger or stylus from letter to letter. A lot of people like this but I’m not fond of it.

    Also built-in is handwriting recognition. It actually works okay but I can’t 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 you’re looking at on the screen onto a HDMI equipped TV. It works better than you’d think though I’m not sure if it works well enough for gaming. If nothing else it could make a good practical joke. When a Note II owner isn’t looking, project their screen onto a TV.

    There’s a new AllShare Cast feature which streams what you see on the Note wirelessly via WiFi. Apparently, this feature is already built into Samsung’s newest high-end TVs. If you don’t have a fancy TV, there’s 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. I’m not sure if this is a limitation of the device or perhaps there was ‘dirty’ 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 it’s silo. I’ve also noticed you can preview more of a message when you get it.


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    Like the original Note, the Note II includes a stylus called the S-Pen. The Note II’s S-Pen is both thicker and longer than the original. I’m sure it gives the original Note serious case of S-Pen envy.

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    The II’s S-Pen tip now has a bit of give to it. It actually makes a huge difference. You don’t feel like you’re 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.

    There’s also a new hover feature. The Note II can sense the S-Pen when it’s at least an inch and a half away from the screen. This is a good distance. It’s far enough away that you should be able to use it when you’re moving around.

    Anyways, there are 2 cases where hovering is really useful. First off, when you’re viewing your pictures you can hover over an image to see a bigger version of. If you’re 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 someone’s 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. It’s 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, doesn’t always mean you should.


    Like the original Note, the Note II has a 8MP camera. While they have the same resolution they don’t 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.

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    Samsung Galaxy S III

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    Apple iPhone 5

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    Samsung Galaxy Note II

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    Samsung Galaxy Note

    The Note II’s sensor is slightly more sensitive than the GS3 and original Note though it’s far behind the iPhone 5. Still, it’s 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. I’m not sure if that’s 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. There’s 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. It’s not that impressive right?

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    I’m actually chasing my daughter while I’m taking this. So both me and her are moving - now that’s really impressive especially when you consider we’re both indoors. I would have taken an even better picture but she had school later and I didn't want to tire her out.

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    Apple iPhone 5

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    Samsung Galaxy S 3

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    Samsung Galaxy Note II

    When there’s sufficient light, the Note II takes really good pictures. Check it out. Everything is nicely exposed, it’s sharp, there isn’t much noise and there’s 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 you’re 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. It’s 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 won’t shut the screen off if the front-facing camera sees a pair of eyes.

    While these features are pretty cool, I’ll be honest, I don’t use any of them. They sound like great ideas in person but most don’t work well enough. Hopefully Samsung can improve them.

    Also included is 50GB of free DropBox storage. It’s for 2 years worth of service.

    Like the Galaxy S III, the Note II has a picture-in-picture option when you’re viewing a video. I hurt my back recently so I’ve been taking the train and I must say the picture-in-picture on my S III is one of my favourite features. I’m able to watch videos while surfing HoFo, texting, emailing, etc. The Note II’s 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. It’s able to play the 720p MKV and 480p avi files that I didn’t 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 URL’s. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the pop-up browser that useful. Maybe I’m missing something but the big problem is that there’s no easy way to use the pop-up browser. When you’re using the regular browser there’s 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 Note’s settings but then everything would open up with the pop-up browser and that’s not ideal. Still, there’s an option to open pages you’re viewing in the pop-up browser with the ‘regular’ browser.

    Like the GS3, the Note II’s AllShare (DLNA) allows you to share and view media via the internet. You just have to create a login. Both devices don’t have to be on the same WiFi access point.


    SunSpider is a javascript benchmark that runs on most browsers. Since it runs within a browser it's useful for comparing performance across different platforms.

    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 II’s scores a blistering 1005.4 in SunSpider using the stock browser. This makes it the fastest Android phone I have ever used. It’s score is second only to the iPhone 5. Very impressive.

    Vellamo 2:

    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. It’s the updated version of 2.1 and features more eye-candy than 2.1. It’s available on both Android and iOS so it’s 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 doesn’t do terribly here I was expecting a little more from it. Let’s 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 I’m using it to see how the Note II’s performance scales. Oddly enough, the Note II score is identical to its on-screen score so clearly there’s something wrong here.

    When you change the resolution and don’t 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 II’s Cortex A9 processor isn’t able to keep up.

    It’s 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 I’ll re-run this benchmark.

    Since I wasn’t satisfied with the results I got from 2.5 I decided to try the older 2.1 benchmark. It’s less demanding so it may provide some insight into what’s 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. That’s 10fps faster than the S II and One X. The thing to remember though is that the on-screen test is capped at 60fps. Let’s 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. It’s 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 it’s muscles with a score that’s around 33% higher than the Galaxy S III and more than double the original Note.

    Battery life:

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    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):

    The Note II nails this test with a stunning 277mins. While the Note’s battery life is pretty good, it’s 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 Benchmark’s 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 isn’t properly stressing the Note II. Then again, maybe I’m 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. I’ll update this review when I’ve had a chance to run it a few times.

    There’s actually a power saving mode. I disabled it for my benchmarks. It appears that the power-saving mode rolls back the processor’s maximum speed from 1.6Ghz to around 1.1Ghz.

    I’m 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 Playbook’s 2amp microUSB charger and it’s able to charge at a full 10 watts. This is fantastic because the Note II’s 3100mAh battery can take a long time to fill if you don’t 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 it’s not quiet, it’s not as loud as the iPhone 5’s. Given the size of the Note, I’m puzzled as to why Samsung doesn’t 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 wasn’t 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.


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    I’m a little surprised, the original Note defined a new market segment when came out around a year ago and even now, it’s not a crowded space. That said, while it doesn’t have much direct competition, it hasn’t stopped making the Note II a compelling device.

    Compared to the original Note, the Note II doesn’t make any compromises. You get a large screen, powerful processor, big battery, LTE, expandable storage. The S-Pen also feels useful now.

    It’s 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 it’s large size makes it a slightly clumsy device to use.

    If you can carry the Note around don’t mind having to use two hands, you can’t 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 they’re 2 very different devices. As a person who uses both Android and iOS equally, the iPhone is a great single-handed device. It’s the ‘if I could carry just one device it would be this’ sort of device. It fits easily in your pocket and it leaves your other hand free. Software wise, they’re very different though I generally prefer apps on the iPhone over Android - of course that’s a gross generalization. I’m 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 don’t 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 you’ll find the iPhone pretty seamless.

    Another feature the Note II has is NFC. While it’s not quite a ‘must have’ 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
    • fast
    • big battery
    • fast LTE performance
    • camera


    • clumsy to use
    • screen not so good outdoors
    Last edited by howard; 10-22-2012 at 09:52 PM.

  2. #2
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    Jun 2009
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    Very nice review Howard. Thanks !

    ps. Check out my post about the HTC J Butterfly (AKA One X5??) (although its not a review).

  3. #3
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    Oct 2002
    Samsung Galaxy Note 3
    Rogers Wireless™
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    Great review, Thx. I'm tempted to pick one up

  4. #4
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    Jan 2003
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    Just a tad surprised at the comment re audio quality when used as a phone. I would like others to comment on this.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ian View Post
    Just a tad surprised at the comment re audio quality when used as a phone. I would like others to comment on this.
    How are you surprised?

  6. #6
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    Sep 2002
    Beside Wal-mart!
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    My S3 desktop charger works fully on my Note 2!

  7. #7
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    Sep 2002
    Beside Wal-mart!
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    Btw here is what the titanium grey looks like

  8. #8
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    Jan 2004
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    Thanks for the review Howard, I didn't need any help deciding but nice to see how it performs locally. ^ Derek is that an International Note 2 or do you have some connections?

  9. #9
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    I think the autocorrect on the Samsung keyboard is disabled because of the floating keyboard when using multiwindow for 2 apps at once Howard. Would take up needed space.

  10. #10
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    Nov 2012
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    Great review, thanks.
    I am torn between the Note2 and the iPhone5. Wife uses an ipad3 & daughter iphone 4, so they are pressuring me to stay with Apple. Apple has a neat texting feature which don't cost anything, but only works between Apple to Apple hardware. There may be a technical solution, but I have yet to find it?
    The Note 2 LTE version has dropped the FM function, which is disappointing, whereas, Apple's dedicated use of itunes to download & transfer content is frustrating....So what to do?

  11. #11
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    Sep 2012
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    Itunes for doing evrything makes things very irritating . If u take my word go for the note 2..

    Btw very awesome review ..

    Derek : sir that charger looks small for s3 but looks like doing the purpose !!

  12. #12
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    Sep 2012
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    I was wondering , HOW DO U GET ALL THESE PHONES!!!

  13. #13
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    Nexus One, Droid Incredible, HTC Desire, Samsung Galaxy S
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    Re: Our Galaxy Note II review: When is bigger better?

    I can get 1199 of Sun spider with my Galaxy S3 on Jellybean using the default browser and 1134 using Dolphin Jet pack. I guess Dolphin can break under the 1000 mark on the Galaxy Note.

    Sent from my GT-I9300 using Tapatalk 2
    I am @guamguy on Twitter.

  14. #14
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    Oct 2012
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    In my opinion it has very good features but the size still uncomfortable and its kinda hard to hold it when you answering the calls, but still for those who want to have multifunction device its a good choice.

  15. #15
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    Nexus One, Droid Incredible, HTC Desire, Samsung Galaxy S
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    This video shows you the true power of the Note 2.

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