Friday, 2 November 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note II US review: The Beast Unleashed

Following closely the footsteps of its international sibling, the US Samsung Galaxy Note II takes on our review course. Just like its smaller brother, the Galaxy S III, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is launching across all major carriers.
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Samsung Galaxy Note II US version official photos
The US launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note II represents a major shift in the company's product lineup across the Atlantic. Unlike the first generation Galaxy Note and, more recently the Galaxy S III, the second generation of the popular phablet didn't need a chipset transplant to swim across the pond. This means that users in the United States will have the pleasure of using the same hardware as the rest of the world. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy Note II we are talking an Exynos 4412 Quad chipset with four Cortex-A9 CPU cores.
Here goes the Samsung Galaxy Note II's full list of talents.

Key features

  • Quad-band GSM and quad-band 3G with 21 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA support
  • LTE connectivity (carrier dependent)
  • 5.5" 16M-color Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen of HD (720 x 1280 pixel) resolution; Corning Gorilla Glass 2
  • Android OS v4.1 with TouchWiz launcher
  • 1.6 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU, Mali-400MP GPU, 2GB of RAM, Exynos 4412 Quad chipset
  • S Pen active stylus with deep system integration
  • 8 MP wide-angle lens autofocus camera with LED flash, face, smile and blink detection
  • 1080p HD video recording at 30fps
  • 16/32GB internal storage, microSD slot
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n support
  • GPS with A-GPS connectivity; GLONASS support, Digital compass
  • NFC support
  • Stereo Bluetooth v4.0
  • microUSB port with USB host and TV-out (1080p) support, MHL, charging
  • Accelerometer, gyroscope and proximity sensor
  • Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
  • Great audio quality
  • Slim at only 9.4mm
  • 1.9MP secondary video-call camera
  • Document editor and file manager comes preinstalled
  • Extremely rich video and audio codec support
  • Huge 3100 mAh battery

Main disadvantages

  • Large size makes single-hand operation problematic
  • No dedicated camera key
  • All plastic construction (would have probably weighed a ton otherwise, though)
  • No FM radio (the N7100 has one)
The Samsung Galaxy Note II is easily among the most powerful handsets in the US market at the moment. The presence of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on board makes the device part of a really privileged club of gadgets, booting the latest version of the Google mobile OS. The S Pen has also made quantum leaps compared to its predecessor.
All in all, the US Samsung Galaxy Note II ticks many of the right boxes and promises to deliver as great an experience as its international version. Normally, we'd say that's an offer you shouldn't miss, but given that the Galaxy Note II is also among the most expensive devices on the American market, we'll need some more convincing.
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Samsung Galaxy Note II for T-Mobile live photos
As per tradition, we are going to kick the US Samsung Galaxy Note II review off with an unboxing, followed by a thorough hardware inspection.

A great display just got better

Plenty of people were keen for Samsung to put a non-PenTile screen on the Galaxy Note II and the Koreans delivered. They changed other properties of the display too, like the top coating, which is now Gorilla Glass 2. In fact this is probably part of the explanation, why the Note II is slimmer than its predecessor, despite rocking a larger battery.
Back to the display, we note that the diagonal grew to 5.5" (up from 5.3") and the aspect ratio changed to 16:9 from 16:10. What this amounts to is a taller, narrower screen (and consequently taller, narrower device) and a slightly increased surface area - the Galaxy Note II screen has just about 2% more surface area than the original.
Of course the resolution also had to be altered to accommodate the change - the Note II has a 720p (1280x720 pixels) screen, whereas its predecessor used WXGA (1280x800 pixels).
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The Samsung Galaxy Note II display
Getting rid of that 80-pixel-wide strip resulted in a slightly lower pixel density - 267ppi vs. 285ppi. The new matrix, however, more than makes up and the perceivable sharpness of the screen is actually higher.
As we mentioned, the PenTile matrix is now gone and the slight crosshatch pattern went with it. Perhaps these photos snapped with a digital microscope will help clear up the differences in pixel arrangements.

Samsung Galaxy Note II screen • Samsung Galaxy Note screen
The pixels of the Note II have one tall Blue sub-pixel on the left and smaller Green and Red pixels stacked one on top of the other. It's an odd arrangement, but it has three subpixels per pixel. The reason for the different Blue pixel size is that Blue AMOLEDs typically have a shorter life and making them bigger balances things out. Being bigger, the Blue pixel doesn't need to emit as much light to match the other two, which helps it last longer without affecting color balance.
To illustrate how the different arrangement improves sharpness we used our microscope to snap a picture of very small font - the line width here is 1px, the letters are white.

Samsung Galaxy Note II screen • Samsung Galaxy Note screen
As you can see, the Galaxy Note II screen lights up individual pixels to display the 1px-wide lines. The old Galaxy Note, however, can't use a single pixel to make white, as it only has two of the three needed colors.
To fix that, the screen uses sub-pixel rendering, which "borrows" a subpixel from a neighboring pixel to make white. But now the line has become 1 2/3px wide, which means that it uses more resolution than it should. In all instances when the original Galaxy Note had to revert to this trick, it was basically having 2/3 of its effective resolution, which explains why the Note II looks way sharper, despite having fewer pixels.
Another thing we noticed was that the new matrix makes better use of the space allotted to each pixel and there's less left to waste. Notice how the distance between individual pixels is far less here, compared to the original Note and that also improves the image quality.
This new arrangement seems to result in some very slight color aberrations around sharp edges, but it takes a great deal of eye-strain to see it.
One cool addition to the display settings is that even with Automatic brightness turned on, the brightness slider remains active. This allows you to fine-tune the brightness, but still have it automatically adapt to the ambient light.
And now for our usual display tests. The Galaxy Note II fared decently in the first one, showing good brightness levels (for an AMOLED screen, anyway). Our review unit did fall short of both its predecessor and the pre-release sample we had for the preview, though.

Bigger, more comfortable S Pen

The Samsung Galaxy Note II grew in size over the original and so did the new S Pen. The old one is about 10.4cm tall and 5mm thick, while the new one measures 11.3cm in length and 7mm in thickness.
While nowhere near as comfortable as the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 10.1, the one that comes with the Note II feels more like a pen and less than a stylus, compared to what the original Note had.
The button on the S Pen now has a ribbed pattern, making it easier to locate by touch (the old one is flat and flush against the surface.
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The redesigned S Pen
The Galaxy Note II can detect when you pull the S Pen out and brings you to a contextual page, which offers shortcuts (with preview thumbnails) of your recent S Notes. It also changes the icons docked at the bottom of your homescreen, and gives you another set of shortcuts in the notification area.
Overall, Samsung has done a really good job of the S Pen integration even deeper in the interface. We'll come back to the subject later on in this review, when we look at the software in more detail.
Since there's no lanyard linking the S Pen and the Galaxy Note II, the phablet uses its accelerometer to detect you walking away and will alert you if the stylus isn't in its slot. The feature is finely balanced and it won't trigger unless you're several steps away - so you won't be getting false positives when walking and writing, but if you really misplaced it and walked away it will start beeping.
The new Samsung Galaxy Note II screen can detect the S Pen from a distance, similar to how the Galaxy Note 10.1 worked. The hover feature, called Air View, is not part of the stylus though, we tested the S Pen from the original Note and it worked just fine.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II also features a more sensitive digitizer compared to the original. It can distinguish between 1024 different levels of pressure (quadruple what the original managed) and you can really feel the difference in the drawing apps - you get fine-grained control between thin and thick lines.

S pen features

The S Pen truly is pivotal to the Samsung Galaxy Note II experience. It has a vast array of new features that are a great usability boost over what can be done with just finger tips.
We already covered the contextual page, which comes up automatically when you pull out the S Pen. It's only visible when the stylus is out and its icon is a little pencil, while regular homescreens are still indicated by dots.
Anyway, there's another way to launch apps - with gestures. You press the S Pen button and swipe up to access Quick command. Here you can draw a "@" sign to launch email, "?" to do a quick search, "#" to dial a number or "~" to send a text. Besides the symbol you can add a keyword - what to search for with the "?" or define search range for the "@": recipient, message body or both.
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The Quick command lets you do gestures with the S Pen
You can add new commands too - just pick a function (e.g. enable Bluetooth, there's a long list to choose from) and write on the symbol you want to associate with it.
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Addnig a new Quick command
You can also hover the S Pen over various things to get a better look at - expand S Planner events, preview emails and text, preview videos and even a position in the video timeline.
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Hover over something with the S Pen to launch a preview
The S Pen also lets you quickly snap a portion of the screen and use it in an app - email, S Note, etc. Speaking of S Note, you can launch it by double tapping with the S Pen while holding down its button.
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The floating window version of the S Note app

Gallery loaded with features

The Samsung Galaxy Note II comes with a brand new, eye-candy rich Gallery app. It opens up in Albums view, but photos can also be sorted by Location, Time, Person (photos with tagged faces), Group and Favorites.
You can also switch between three view modes - rectangular grid, a grid that's spread out in 3D space and a 3D spiral (which is the least useful of all). In each of the three view modes, you can pinch zoom to make the thumbnails bigger. Unlike Sony's gallery, you only get two zoom levels here.
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The new Gallery app
Getting inside an album, the app switches into a split screen mode. The left side shows the folders, while the right displays all the photos in a rectangular grid. You can also use Air View to take a peek at what's inside a folder without opening it.
When viewing a single photo, you'll find Star, Share and Delete buttons above the photo, while below is a line of small thumbnails of all other photos in the album. You can tap those small thumbnails to move to other images or you can just swipe to the side.
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Split-screen interface in the gallery • viewing a single photo
We also found that unlike other droids, the Galaxy Note II lets you select folders from several different folders for batch operations.
The list of features goes on. There are a couple of photo editing options and a crop tool. You can add an image note by scribbling over it with the S Pen (or your finger) and this is not damaging the image. Contextual tags display labels with the location, who's in the photo and the date (if there's a GPS tag and you've taught the Note II about what your friends look like). Then there's the print option, so you can print out photos without going through a computer first (but you'll need a Samsung printer).
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Contextual tag • a hand-written note for the image
When viewing a photo with people's faces in it, the Galaxy Note II will try to detect them automatically (and you can manually highlight faces where it fails). Buddy photo share will use your contacts' profiles to try and recognize who is who automatically.
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Putting a name to the face • Manually marking a face
Social tag makes sure that whenever a face is recognized in the photo, their status message appears and you can easily call or message that contact.
Another option allows you to OCR a photo and copy the text. This is very handy if you often work with documents but don't have a scanner and a computer handy.
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Printing requires a Samsung printer • The OCR app needs to be downloaded before the first use
And if you thought that Samsung didn't include the kitchen sink, the option to add weather tags to a photo (a feature courtesy of AccuWeather) should change your mind. We still can't figure out what the use for that may be.
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Adding a weather tag

TouchWiz music player goes after Walkman

The Samsung Galaxy Note II uses an updated version of the TouchWiz music player. Samsung has enabled equalizer presets (including a custom one) along with the sound-enhancing SoundAlive technology, which features 7.1 channel virtualization. Samsung uses SoundAlive in some of their MP3 and Android-powered media players.
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SoundAlive options • custom equalizer with extended settings
Music is sorted into various categories, but the most interesting one is called Music square - it's quite similar to the SensMe feature of Sony Ericsson phones. It automatically rates a song as exciting or calm, passionate or joyful and plots those songs on a square (hence the name).
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Music square creates automatic playlists based on your mood
From here, you can highlight an area of the square and the phone will automatically build a playlist of songs that matches your selection.
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The music player has benefited greatly from the TouchWiz UI
You can swipe the album art left and right to move between songs. You can also put the phone face down to mute the sound or place your palm over the screen to pause playback.
The Galaxy Note II player is DLNA-enabled, so you're not limited to tracks on your handset - songs on devices connected to your Wi-Fi network are as easy to get to as locally stored songs.
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On-device music library and DLNA

Impressive video player

Samsung have put what is easily the best default video player on the Samsung Galaxy Note II. It offers several view modes - grid, list, folders and nearby devices (which accesses DLNA devices).
The grid view is our favorite as it is a true quad-core tour de force - the visible video thumbnails (all eight of them) are actually playing the videos instead of being static images. They play at a reduced framerate and generating those previews takes a couple of minutes the first time around, but it's an awesome preview and it shows what can be done when you have processing power to spare.
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Two of the view modes available for browsing your videos
The video player lets you choose between three crop modes for how the video fits the screen. The same SoundAlive audio-enhancing technology is available here too.
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The video player has a simple interface but is quite capable
The video player lets you squeeze the best viewing experience out of the large, high-res screen. You can adjust video brightness, color tone and enable outdoor visibility too.
Another cool feature that showcases the power of the Exynos chipset is the chapter preview - it detects chapters in the video and shows a rectangular grid, with live thumbnails (just like the grid view above).
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Plenty of settings available • the chapter preview
The video player had absolutely no trouble with any of the files we threw at it - starting with .WMV, through .AVI (DivX and XviD) and .MP4 to .MKV (H.264). Resolution wasn't a problem either - the Samsung Galaxy Note II played FullHD files. Large files worked seamlessly.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II also made a good impression when it offered a list of subtitles and let us pick. It scans for all subtitles, so the file doesn't have to have the same name as the video file.
Samsung Galaxy Note II
Picking the right subtitle file, the easy way
The video player on the Note II has a feature called Pop up play - it moves the video in a small floating window and you can use other apps on the phone while still watching the video. You can use pinch zoom to adjust the size of the video.
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The pop up play can be resized

Audio output is perfectly clean, but on the quiet side

The Samsung Galaxy Note II obviously shares many of its music playback-related internals with the Galaxy S III as it managed to aced our audio quality test in a similar manner to its more compact sibling.
The only average volume levels aside, the Galaxy Note II results came out perfect in the first part of our test. When connected to an active external amplifier, the phablet produces excellently clean output with no weak points whatsoever.
Even more impressively, stereo crosstalk is the only thing to get damaged when we plugged in a pair of headphones. On that occasion the Note II produced one of the cleanest outputs we have seen from a mobile device and that includes the recently tested Apple iPhone 5. The higher volume levels of iOS flagship would probably still make it a slightly better option for audiophiles, though.

Great 8MP camera

The Samsung Note II's main camera can capture stills of up to 3264 x 2448 pixels and 1080p videos, while the one on the front takes 1.9MP pictures and 720p video.
The interface is typical for a Samsung droid - a right column with the essential controls (virtual shutter key surrounded by a still/video mode toggle and a gallery shortcut) and a left column with four customizable shortcuts.
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Samsung Galaxy Note II camera UI
The camera app offers a bounty of features including geotagging, touch focus, HDR mode, Panorama, burst shot (with Best photo), Share shot, face and smile detection with Best faces, low-light mode, digital image stabilization, scenes, effects and several more.
Thanks to the fast quad-core processor, it can also simultaneously record HD (1080p or 720p) video and take near full-resolution pictures (those are cropped to an aspect ratio of 16:9 to match that of the videos and what's seen in the viewfinder).
The Best faces feature snaps a burst of 5 photos, keeping track of people's faces. Later, you can pick any of the 5 photos for each person's face individually.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II camera quality is better than that of the original Note and nearly identical to that of the Galaxy S III camera though processing seems a bit different. The noise levels are kept down and the level of fine detail is high. Colors look good though they are slightly oversaturated across the board (the S III mostly pushes the green channel).
The dynamic range is good and the Note II manages the exposure of photos pretty well - it manages to preserve most highlights at the expense of some underexposed shadows.
Here are some camera samples:

Video camera

The video camera user interface is identical to that of the still camera. During recording, you can snap 6MP stills and use the pause button to do a multi-part video in the same file.
The camera can apply various effects to the video and there are slow-motion (1/2x) and fast motion (2x) modes. Touch focus during recording is available, with an AF button to switch back to regular continuous autofocus.
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Camcorder UI
FullHD videos are recorded in MP4 files with bitrate ranging from 17Mbps to 19Mbps. The framerate is a smooth 30fps and the audio is captured in stereo at 48kHz sampling rate and a bitrate of around 130Kbps.
The quality of the video rivals that of the Samsung Galaxy S III. Even small details and movements are captured (like the blades of grass swaying in the wind) with very little noise. Colors are a bit oversaturated too.

Final words

A year ago, the Samsung Galaxy Note was barely taken seriously as a contender in the smartphone race. Several million units sold later, it is a wide spread consensus that Samsung has created and claimed for itself a brand new niche in the smartphone market.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II is every bit what a sequel should be. It is better looking and more powerful than its predecessor, it's easier to handle and has learned some cool new tricks. The display has been upgraded in a couple of important ways, too - it's now larger and has got rid of the PenTile matrix.
Software has been notably improved as well. TouchWiz-ed Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is arguably the most functional combos around and on the Note II it's perfectly smooth, too. The beefed up S Pen usability and integration adds a whole new dimension to the user experience.
That said - you are still not obliged to use the S Pen if you don't feel like it. The Galaxy Note II is a proper smartphone powerhouse even without it and you can think of the stylus as one of the many extras the phablet offers, rather than a vital part of the UI.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II will hit all major US carriers in the coming weeks priced at $299.99 ($369.99 on T-Mobile). This makes it the most expensive smartphone offering in their arsenal, but given the kind of power you are getting, the premium is probably worth it.
With a budget like the above, you can afford every top shelf offering currently on the US market. In case you are willing to shop around, here are some options.
The LG Intuition for Verizon Wireless is the closest thing to a Note II direct rival the competition has to offer. The device's 4:3 screen however simply doesn't work in the phablet class and its stylus is mile away from the Wacom honed S Pen of the Note II. The Intuition is also powered by a more modest dual-core chipset and has a lower resolution display so even at $149.99 with a two-year commitment, it's impossible to recommend over its Samsung competitor.
LG Intuition VS950
LG Intuition VS950
The LG Optimus G on the other hand, outdoes the Samsung Galaxy Note II in terms of processing power, but runs Android Ice Cream Sandwich rather than Jelly Bean. It also lacks the S Pen functionality and sheer amount of screen real estate the Note II has and packs an inferior (in terms of performance, not specs) camera. At $199.99 though, the LG flagship is well worth a look, particularly if you are not planning on using the S Pen. You can grab one for either Sprint or AT&T.
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LG Optimus G E970 • LG Optimus G LS970
HTC's upcoming One X+ for AT&T is another quad-core offering right around the corner. The Taiwanese handset boosts Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but its Tegra 3 chipset is unable to match the processing prowess of the Samsung Note II Exynos. Once again though, you are getting a chance to save $100 if you don't need the extra creativity features of the Samsung phablet.
HTC One X+
HTC One X+
Of course, if you were looking for a $200 smartphone alternative that comes as close as possible to the Galaxy Note II in terms of user experience, you have probably considered the Galaxy S III. Unfortunately, in the US this means settling for a dual-core Krait CPU and the previous-gen Adreno 225 graphics, so we'd suggest you either pay the premium for the Note or just get the Optimus G.
Samsung Galaxy S III I747
Samsung Galaxy S III I747
All in all, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is easily one of the most complete packages in the smartphone realm. If its size doesn't make you or your pockets uncomfortable, then you will certainly love it.

Our Rating- 9.2/10

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