Big phone, small tablet or in-between ‘phablet’? It’s a question that gets less and less important the more you get to grips with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. With its whopping 5.5in display it gives you more screen real estate than even Samsung’s own Galaxy S3 or the HTC One X and the kind of Web-browsing, game-playing, video-watching usability you’d expect from a 7in tablet. Yet it’s still (just about) small enough to wedge in a jacket pocket. Throw in Samsung’s S-Pen technology, and you have a device that won’t suit some users, but will prove indispensable to others. Most of all, it’s still a device unlike any other.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Galaxy Note 2 is big. Measuring 151 x 80.5 x 9.4mm, it’s slightly wider and taller (though a little thinner) than the original Note, and over a centimetre wider and taller than the Galaxy S3 – hardly the least obtrusive phone itself. You do feel a bit silly holding the thing up to your ear while making or taking calls, and even if you could cram it into your jeans pocket, you wouldn’t look or feel comfortable walking around with it in there.
Get over the size, however, and it’s surprising how light and comfortable the Galaxy Note 2 feels. Despite the flexible, strip-away plastic back it never feels lightweight or plasticky, it’s all nicely curved for the hand, and the metallic edge gives it extra weight and substance. It’s a good-looking, robust-feeling device.
Controls and connections are all in place, but discrete. There’s a volume rocker on the left-hand-edge, a power button on the right and a standard micro USB port at the bottom. The only control button on the front is a single pill-shaped home button, with touch-sensitive menu and back buttons to the left and right that only light up when activated. To find the micro SIM card slot and micro SD card slot, you have to peel away the back, also allowing you to get at and replace the battery. The Note 2 ships in 16, 32 and 64GB variations, but it’s always good to be able to upgrade it with a micro SDXC card, and you don’t need to remove the battery to get at it either.
While it won’t be challenging the iPhone 5 in the pixel density stakes, the 5.5in AMOLED screen is a beauty. The 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution is actually lower than the 1,280 x 800 resolution of the original Note, but there’s compensation in the fact that there’s no pentile sub-pixel arrangement here, making everything look that little bit sharper. It’s a fantastically bright, fantastically clear screen, and if the colours sometimes look a little too vibrant, at least they’re consistently punchy and always hold up well, no matter what the lighting. If you’re playing games, browsing photo albums or watching movies, then this is a brilliant device to do so on, offering a bigger screen experience than any normal smartphone, but without the added size and weight of a tablet.
Of course, there are a few more questions when it comes to apps or browsing the Web; with the same resolution as the Galaxy S3, does the bigger screen of the Note 2 actually bring any benefits? On balance, we’d say so. It’s just that bit easier to read text without zooming in to the same degree, or to navigate around a page without prodding the wrong bit. The Note 2 also works better as an eBook reader, because you can see more text without decreasing the font size to the point of being illegible.
Overall, that larger screen helps make the Note 2 an incredibly versatile device.
Sound is another strength. While we’ve heard some 7in tablets deliver more powerful and better-rounded sound, the Note 2 fares better than most smartphones while watching films or playing games. Call quality is good, and the Note 2 works well to record voices or double up as a speakerphone. Samsung also gets kudos for shipping a half-decent pair of in-ear headphones in the box. They won’t stand up to a set of budget IEMs from Shure or Klipsch, but when combined with Samsung’s music player app and its SoundAlive EQ technology, you can get some very listenable results.
The reason the original Note caught the public imagination was its S-Pen stylus, which transformed the device from an oddball smartphone/tablet into something people wanted to work and play with. It all comes down to a combination of software and hardware, with Wacom providing digitiser technology to recognise the proximity of the stylus and sense the pressure with which it’s being applied (with support for up to 1,024 levels), while Samsung has provided software to harness these features to useful effect.
The stylus now resides in a slot at the bottom of the device, and it’s a slim but very manageable effort with a nice, rounded profile. The Note 2 actively recognises when you’ve pulled the stylus from its sheath and takes you to a gallery of templates for the S Note note-taking app, where you can doodle, list or annotate to your heart’s content.
The app has some very smart handwriting recognition technology built in, which did an impressive job of converting the scrawl that once appalled my teachers into normal text (albeit with the assistance of some heavy autocorrect), and while you couldn’t mistake S Note for an art package, there are enough line and colour options to keep most doodlers busy in their next endless meeting. There’s also a neat screen recorder function, so that you can watch your notes and annotations appearing later in the order that you added them.
But the functionality doesn’t end there. Open up the S-Planner calendar app and you can hover the pen over an event to see more detailed information, and there’s a similar preview feature in the email application. Hold the button on the pen down while you have another app open, and you get a screenshot you can annotate using S-Note’s tools before saving it to use or email later.
Beyond this, Samsung also includes an entertaining little app called Paper Artist, which enables you to take a photo or open up a new one then add a range of artistic filters locally using finger or stylus, with the effects happening as you watch in real time. I’d be hard pressed to say that it did anything useful or even that artistic, but it’s fun – and the Note 2 isn’t all about hard work by any means.
The Note 2 combines Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with Samsung’s own email, contacts and browser apps, plus the usual TouchWiz UI enhancements. These don’t radically alter the Android UI, mainly adding a different lock screen, a slick clock and weather widget and widgets for Samsung’s Music Player and Video Hub apps, the S Suggest App recommendation service and the Flipboard news and social update app.
How useful you’ll find Samsung’s own apps will depend on how willing you are to get immersed in Samsung’s own high-tech ecosystem. Meanwhile, the S Voice feature – effectively Samsung’s take on Apple’s Siri – still isn’t quite ready for prime-time. In rough tests it managed basic queries on weather, public figures and history, but still diverted a lot of questions to a straight Web search. Names also seem to be a major problem, with S Voice struggling to parse many common English monikers.
Thanks to Google’s Project Butter initiative, Jelly Bean consistently delivers a smooth, responsive experience, and it’s no different on the Note 2. There are no long pauses or awkward waits, and everything happens as fast as you might want it to. And when you try it with demanding apps, the Note 2 doesn’t falter. Its quad-core Exynos 4412 runs 200MHz faster than the same CPU on the Galaxy S3 or Note 10.1, and with 2GB of RAM it’s an extremely fast performer. High-end games like Dead Trigger and Real Racing 2 run smooth as silk, and the Geekbench score of 1,968 puts the Note 2 ahead of the S3 and the iPhone 5. The Mali-400MP GPU means it’s not as fast in 3D as the iPhone 5, but it gives Tegra 3 handsets a good run for their money, and a 17fps result in the Egypt HD benchmark is nothing to be sniffed at.
The Note 2 combines an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with a 1.9-megapixel front-facing effort. The lens has a fixed f/2.6 aperture – which isn’t the fast on a phone – but there’s an LED flash for low light situations. Image quality isn’t bad at all. The camera struggles inside in poor lighting, but it’s fine outside in reasonable conditions, and it did a surprisingly good job of capturing sunsets. The camera app has the obligatory built-in effect modes, plus a surprisingly useful HDR setting which comes in handy if you’re trying to get properly exposed skies and landscapes at the same time – though you need to make sure you hold this hefty smartphone still while you take them.
It’s always good to see a straight micro USB connection for easy transfer of files to and from PC, and with an MHL cable it can also transfer HD video and surround sound to a compatible TV. However, the Note 2’s more exciting connection options are all wireless. The Note 2 has NFC, and also S-Beam – a Samsung technology that uses NFC to make the initial connection between two Samsung devices before transferring data over WiFi. Without a device to test with we can’t confirm how well this works, so we’ll have to take Samsung’s word for it. Meanwhile, Samsung’s AllShare technology works as a wrapper for DLNA streaming, making it easier to stream music and video to and from a Samsung TV or other media playback device.
Just as you can’t expect a Range Rover to have the fuel efficiency of a Mini, so you can’t expect the Galaxy Note 2 to run for days from a single charge. It will, however, manage more than you might expect. I ran it for a weekend of reasonably light use and didn’t have to charge it up between Friday evening and Sunday night, and it managed a more intensive day of video playback, games, email-checking and Web browsing with nine per cent in the tank at 1am. This beats some tablets, not to mention a few big-screen smartphones we could mention.
The original Note almost nailed the whole “phablet” concept, but the Note 2 finishes the job. It’s undeniably too big to be many people’s smartphone, while being too small – and too expensive – to be a credible rival to the Google Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HD. However, it does an exceptionally good job of finding a middle ground between the two, becoming a device that can handle both smartphone and tablet duties without too many compromises either way. It’s lighter than a tablet, but better for browsing, gaming, reading and media playback than a smartphone, and for many people that will be enough.
And that’s without considering the S Pen technology. For some users it’s just going to be a gimmick, but if you’re in a job where you need to make notes or sketch out ideas, the combination of Wacom’s hardware and Samsung’s software is extremely compelling. It’s a slick and very versatile system, where every little detail appears to have been thought of. The Note 2 remains a niche product, but a desirable one in an extremely handy niche
Manufacturer and Product
Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Quad-Core Samsung Exynos 4412 at 1.6GHz
5.5in 1280 x 720 AMOLED
Micro USB with MHL, 3.5mm headphone
Size and weight
151 x 80.5 x 9.4mm, 182.5g