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Samsung's Galaxy Note II Is a Phabulous Phablet

Samsung's Galaxy Note II Is a Phabulous Phablet

The stylus is perhaps the main distinguishing factor from other high-end smartphones. The S Pen is more refined in generation two of the Galaxy Note family. The credit for that goes to the new sensor technology built into the screen and software improvements. You do not have to actually use the S Pen, but the enhancements it brings add to the experience.

By Jack M. Germain
11/27/12 5:00 AM PT

The Samsung Galaxy Note II could very well be the best high-end smartphone/phablet on the market today. It brings the best features of Android Jelly Bean to this combination of high-powered tablet and state-of-the-art phone.

Galaxy Note II
The Galaxy Note II

The Note II has so many things to like, but if you have a phobia for really big form factors, beware. Its 5.5-inch super sharp Amoled HD display wrapped within a 6-inch-by-3 1/4 inch frame is a handful!

I passed up buying both the first generation Galaxy Note and the Samsung Galaxy S3 in the hopes that soon to follow would be the next bigger and better thing. That strategy bore really tasty fruit. The Note II leaves little to desire in both features and computing power.

I have not been able to keep my hands off this marvelous gadget. I have hardly touched my Asus Android 10.1-inch tablet since upgrading my two-year-old HTC phone for the Note II. This newest release is pricey -- US$699, or $299 with a two-year contract -- but it is very much worth the expense.

Perhaps the only drawback is its size. It may be too big for some people to take seriously. However, the feature-loaded performance, high-end processor and enhanced functionality from the stylus bring the mobile experience to new heights.

Inner Workings

The Note II is powered with an awesome 1.6GHz quad core Exynos CPU with Mali 400 graphics.

I initially thought the display would be disappointing. Samsung fudged the pixel-per-inch ratio a bit from the ratings in the first-gen Galaxy Note. The Note II has a pixel density of 267 ppi from its 1280 x 720-pixel resolution. That compares to 285 ppi on the Galaxy Note with its 1280 x 800-pixel resolution. The results are indistinguishable, however.

This second-generation Note phone is packed with 2GB RAM and 16GB internal storage as a base model. You can ante up more cash to boost the on-phone storage to 32GB or 64GB. But save your dough.

The microSD slot is a cheaper way to expand the storage. And this phone is so fast with its 4G LTE connection, that rat-packing photos, videos and music in the cloud -- such as Dropbox or Google Drive -- makes buying heftier storage unnecessary. The Note II also supports microSDXC cards up to 64GB in size.

Power Up

The 2,500 mAh battery in the original Note is replaced with a 3,100 mAh battery in the Note II. The larger-capacity battery easily drives the hardware for two full days or more, even with heavy use.

My previous Android and Blackberry phones required frequent recharging cycles while I sat at my desk or ran car errands. This new, larger battery gets me through the day and much of the evening on a single overnight charge.

It is not uncommon for the battery to still have half its capacity remaining by the time it hits the nightstand after day one. The staying power is even better if I turn off WiFi and Bluetooth when not needed.

Photo Phantasia

Samsung has a solid reputation for high-quality lens capabilities. The Note II uses the same gear as the Samsung Galaxy S3.

The 8 megapixel rear camera turns out seriously stunning photos and has a very responsive burst shot mode. The 1.9 megapixel front-side camera is less stunning but clearly adequate for Skype calls and such.

It is unfair to discuss the camera hardware without mentioning the companion software in the Note II. The software makes the camera much more functional. The combination lets me leave my point-and-shoot camera in the drawer when I travel.

Share shot automatically uploads images and shares them with designated folks. The Panorama mode stitches wide shots seamlessly. Smile shot waits to click the shutter until the subject smiles.

Buddy photo share creates Wi-Fi direct connections with other nearby Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S III users. This instant photo network automatically shares the pictures you take as you take them.

Outer Design

The Note II's exterior is a pretty picture in its own right. Droid phones leave little room for diversity in the placement of buttons and other controls, but Samsung tweaked its design for a better user experience.

Consider the oblong home button that sits below the display panel and has a capacitive menu and back button on either side. These buttons are invisible after the backlighting turns off after a few seconds. The spacing and shape of the bottom edge makes it easy to press just the same.

The phone's ear speaker at the top of the screen sits between an LED indicator light and a camera lens. The power/lock/unlock button waits on the right side of the phone. The home button doubles as another lock/unlock button.

A rocker-style volume control is on the top left side. The top edge of the phone holds a standard 1/8-inch audio jack and a secondary microphone for noise cancellation. The primary microphone rests on the bottom edge near a microUSB port and the phone's stylus silo.

The bottom of the back cover holds a rear speaker. The camera lens and LED flash are located near the top.

Software Savvy

The Note II runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. This alone is a good reason to buy this device. The first-generation Note and the Galaxy S3 still lack this update. These earlier models do have Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, though.

I'm not usually a fan of manufacturer-created interface shells. But Samsung's revamped TouchWiz user interface so far has kept me from switching to a favorite third-party replacement launcher. TouchWiz comes with a Basic home screen mode and an Easy mode. You select one at the initial setup but can change at any time.

You can also use TouchWiz refinements to adjust a few settings to better handle the phone with one hand. These include shrinking the dialer and calculator and scrunching their locations a bit closer.

The only big disappointment, which hopefully is only temporary, is the missing upgrade that the international version already has. That latest OS update brings split-screen multitasking.

Keyboard Keystrokes

Samsung incorporated some of the functionality of other keyboard apps in its redesigned Note II keyboard. It relies on SwiftKey's SDK to bring accurate text prediction and the new gesture-based swiping for data entry. Being able to use swipe gestures without having to change settings is a nice touch. The rest of the keyboard is the same old Samsung stye,

The Samsung keyboard has marked improvement over the standard Android keyboards. But it still falls short by missing features such as arrow keys and ready access to some specialized key characters.

I tried adjusting to the Samsung keyboard for a few days but sorely missed the more useful features. Although I liked having Swipe functionality, I opted to install the fully functional Swiftkey 3 Pro keyboard I previously used. I may rethink that decision, though, if I yearn to have better one-hand typing comfort on this massive device.

Home Button Duality

The home button doubles as the multifunction button. You have the option to press it rather than the power button to activate the display.

Long press the Home button to bring up the recently used apps list. The bottom of the screen shows three icons. The trash can removes a running app from memory rather than swiping a running app to remove it from the list. The center icon opens the memory readout with an option to free up memory. This method eliminates the need for restarting the phone once or twice per day to speed up its operation like I had to do with previous devices.

Double-press the Home button quickly to launch S Voice. This is handy as it makes room for another app in the limited favorites bar at the bottom or the screen. This bar is present on every home screen. The TouchWiz interface makes adding and removing home screens and reordering them very simple and convenient.

S Pen Panache

The stylus is perhaps the main distinguishing factor from other high-end smartphones. The S Pen is more refined in generation two of the Galaxy Note family. The credit for that goes to the new sensor technology built into the screen and software improvements.

You do not have to actually use the S Pen, but the enhancements it brings add to the experience of combining the functionality of an old-fashioned PDA with the modern capabilities of a phone and tablet all into one device.

Use the S Pen to navigate the TouchWiz user interface. But you still have to finger tap the capacitive controls. The S Pen does not work there. Use the stylus to hand-write calendar events and email signatures. You can also use it to annotate and edit screen content.

My favorite use for the stylus is the Airview feature. Holding the tip within 10 millimeters of the Galaxy Note II display causes a cursor to appear and follow the tip of the stylus. Now the fun really begins.

When you hover over an email in a list or a drop-down menu on a website, Airview shows a preview of the content, be it a file, photo or video. When you hover near the top or bottom of a page, the screen scrolls up or down. An open circle glows whenever the S Pen cursor passes over an Airview-enabled object.

S Voice Quite Vocal

Samsung's voice control component really intrigued me. S Voice does Voice dialing. It also gives you almost complete voice command access to all functions on the Note II. Once active, wake it up by saying "Hi Galaxy." Or you can double-tap the Home button, or configure your own phrase.

S Voice is ideal for hands-free operation. Use it to text, search contacts, navigate the display screen or make calendar and To-Do List entries. You can also start a music playlist and update social media accounts with your voice.

I have used various voice apps on other phones and tablets. Reliability varies with the tasks and the products. S Voice is the best voice application yet.

Bottom Line

This phone's call quality is very pleasant. Both the ear speaker and the speakerphone are loud and clear. You might start using a Bluetooth earbud to avoid hoisting the massive device to the side of your face. This phablet in several ways resembles the Galaxy S III more than the first-generation Note.

The long-lasting battery, the Jelly bean Android OS version, the super-fast quad-core processor and the handwriting stylus apps make the Galaxy Note II a must-have phone and tablet combo -- unless you have tiny hands.


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


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