The Samsung Galaxy Note II has a 1.6GHz quad-core processor, and at the time of review, it is undoubtedly the most powerful smartphone I’ve tested. Looking to the Quadrant benchmark, which measures overall performance, the Note II easily bests the competition, and though it’s not listed, it beats the Samsung Galaxy S III, which measured 5046 on the same test.
In real world usage, the Galaxy Note is very smooth, and apps open and close swiftly. Web browsing is also zippy, and it presented no issues.
Samsung really shows off the Galaxy Note II’s processing chops with the pop-up video player that debuted with the Galaxy S III, which is now resizable with a finger pinch, as well the new pop-up browser, which enables true multitasking in the form of a mini and movable web browser.
Unfortunately, the pop-up browser and other multitasking features are limited at launch, though the international Galaxy Note II recently received an update that enables split screen multitasking between popular apps like Gmail, Maps, Google Talk, and others (Update December 2012: see information below.)
This is an innovative and valuable feature as it offers a more useful and PC-like experience, and is ideal for both pen input and a large-screen device. Samsung has confirmed that it will not be present on the US Galaxy Note II at launch, and won’t confirm any plans to bring it to US devices down the line. I have to believe Samsung will bring this excellent feature to the US Galaxy Note II as it adds so much, and hopefully sooner rather than later. (Update: Sprint has since updated its Note II to include the feature, as have most other US carriers. It’s a killer feature that enables users to “stack” two congruently running apps on top of one another. It’s limited to email, gallery, Android internet browser, Polaris Office, S Note, video player, and text messaging at the time of this update, but should be expanded soon to include Google services like YouTube and G Chat. It’s extremely useful for dictating notes in S Note from a video, or copying notes from a snapshot of a page. This is one of Samsung’s killer features.)
Large smartphones have plenty of room for large batteries, and the Samsung Galaxy Note II has a 3,100mAh unit, which is 20% larger than the previous Note’s battery. Smartphone makers typically like to claim “all-day battery life” or measure talk time and web surfing time by the hour, but I can’t find Samsung making any similar claims in promotional materials. That said, I barely managed to secure a full day of use under moderate testing conditions, always with the screen brightness maxed, so users should be good for at least 24 hours between charges with typical use. So despite the large battery, this is no Droid RAZR Maxx HD, but thankfully the Android Jelly Bean operating system has excellent power management features to boot.
I should note that I tested the T-Mobile Galaxy Note II on the carrier’s HSPA+ network, and not on the notorious battery drain that is LTE. The Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T Galaxy Note II will support their respective 4G LTE networks, and may experience worse battery performance.
OS & Apps
The Samsung Galaxy Note II ships with Android Jelly Bean 4.1. That’s a good thing, as Jelly Bean is a phenomenal update. It’s smooth, stable, and has the excellent Google Now feature and cards. Jelly Bean also gives users much more control in regards to power and memory management, and Samsung’s added navigation and input features allow users a good deal of customization.
Samsung’s own sharing and streaming apps are present, including AllShare Play (media streaming), S Beam (file sharing via NFC and Wi-Fi direct), Group Cast (group file sharing, great for presentations), and Share Shot (photos taken with connected Galaxy devices automatically also go to the other connected handsets). I did not test these features on the Galaxy Note II, but have used them in both test and controlled environments on other Galaxy devices. They have worked as advertised and have great potential, though are currently not supported by enough devices to be killer features just yet.
S Voice, which made a spectacularly underwhelming debut with the Galaxy S III, returns, and is actually useful, if not redundant with the superior Google Now on board. Google Now excels with general information (anything that can be culled from Google, really) and some Google services (navigation with Google Maps for instance), but has trouble opening apps. S Voice is a little more utilitarian in that regard. They are easily accessible through the menu softkey in the case of Google Now, and the home button in the case of S Voice. Both have plenty room for improvement, and really, users only need one voice-activated assistant.
The last Samsung app worth mentioning is Kies air, which is a remote-access program that lets users view and snag the Note II’s files, photos, messages, etc, via laptop or desktop web browser while both devices on the same network. It’s simple and effective.
Finally, as with too many phones released on major carriers, there is just too much bloatware on the Note II. Some of it is Samsung’s, including S Suggest and the Samsung Media Hub, which is completely redundant with the Google Play Store, Play Music, and Play Movies. The rest comes from T-Mobile, at least on this review unit, including T-Mobile TV and Zynga games.
More than any other feature, the Galaxy Note II is defined by the S Pen accessory and S Note application. The S Pen is small enough to slot inside the Galaxy Note II, but is big enough that it is comfortable to hold and use.
The S Pen can be used to navigate the Note II and open apps, but doesn’t work on the menu and back softkeys. Thanks to its Wacom technology, the Note II senses the S Pen as it hovers a few millimeters over the screen, and it displays a small cursor that can be used to navigate webpages (think dropdown menus), scrub along a video timeline, and preview email messages. The S Pen has a multiuse button that enables quick navigation and app shortcuts when combined with certain swipe gestures.
Bottom line, I love using the S Pen and would default to it for all my smartphone usage. After sticking with it for a week, old-fashioned finger swiping just feels clumsy. The S Pen allows for much better precision, and I find it preferable. Also, for those afraid of losing the S Pen, the Galaxy Note II has an alarm that will sound off should you take too many steps away from the S Pen with the handset.
The S Note is Samsung’s feature-rich note taking application, and while user can do a lot with it, there is a steep learning curve, and its performance varies. It supports handwriting-to-text, but it’s not nearly as accurate as it needs to be, both in cursive and block text; and while I didn’t experience any lag while scribbling notes, switching between various features caused the application to bog down.
It’s great that it allows users to lasso, copy, and paste content from just about anywhere into S Note (and other applications), but it all feels very claustrophobic, even on the large screen. My notes quickly filled up with scribbles, and too often accidentally launched an options dropdown or lassoed some odd bit of content when all I really wanted to do was erase a section.
Maybe with time I could better master S Note, but I don’t see that fixing the inconsistent handwriting to text, nor do I see that changing my habit of writing a bit too large for a 5.5-inch display.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II has an 8-megapixel rear facing camera, and it’s actually pretty spectacular. Image quality rivals the output on some point-and-shoots, and there are fun and useful shooting modes and filters.
I already covered Share Shot, but the HDR (high dynamic range) option makes for spectacular photos by combining photos taken at different exposure levels, resulting in greater range between the lightest and darkest areas. There are photo filters as well that eliminate all but one particular color.
The Best Face option for group shots is also especially useful, as it detects faces in a group pose and takes a few seconds worth of photos for each. Users can then go back once the group shot is taken and swap out any particular face for another from the same person, from just before the pic was taken. The faces are seamlessly integrated in the pic, and it helps ensure against blinking and awkward looks that can otherwise compromise group photos.
The Galaxy Note II also has a 1.9 megapixel front-facing shooter, which is primarily used for video chat.