Samsung Galaxy Note II review: Is bigger really better?

Samsung's stylus-packing Galaxy Note II is like a smartphone on steroids. Here's an in-depth look at where it excels -- and where it falls short.

Samsung took a big risk with its first Galaxy Note device. At 5.3-in., the device's screen was almost comically large for a smartphone. That, combined with the Note's retro-sounding stylus, led to plenty of skepticism and outright ridicule.

Galaxy Note II

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In the end, of course, Samsung had the last laugh by selling 10 million units by August, 2012 -- and now, the manufacturer's back with an even bigger model. The Galaxy Note II launches in the U.S. this week, with Sprint kicking things off on Thursday. The carrier will sell the Note II for $300 with a new two-year contract. AT&T, meanwhile, will offer the phone starting November 9 for the same price. T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular are all expected to follow suit in the coming weeks, though none has announced specific launch dates or prices as of this writing.

Samsung's Galaxy Note II keeps the same basic concept as the original Note but adds higher-quality components and new software twists. So how does it all stack up? I spent several days using the Note II to find out.

Body and display

When you hold the Galaxy Note II, one thing is immediately clear: This is a Samsung-made phone. The new Note follows Samsung's design aesthetic and in many ways looks like a supersized Galaxy S III. The device is very plasticky; it has a removable silver-colored rear panel that feels thin and flimsy when pulled off. That said, the Note II certainly doesn't look cheap; it has a sleek and contemporary appearance with shiny, reflective surfaces and visually pleasing curves.

Of course, the size is the real eye-catching thing about the Note II: The phone is a whopping 3.2 x 5.9 x 0.4 in., longer but slightly narrower than the first-gen Note's 3.3 x 5.8 x 0.4 in. frame.

At 6.3 oz., it isn't unbearably heavy -- but for better or for worse, it's definitely a bulky device. Personally, I found the Note II a bit awkward and unnatural to hold; it's too big to use with a single hand, like a typical smartphone, and too small to use like a traditional tablet (even a relatively small one like the Nexus 7).

I also found the Note II rather uncomfortable to carry around. While it did fit into the pocket of my jeans, it was always either in my way or on the verge of falling out. Sitting down was particularly challenging.

If you can get used to the size, though, the Note II's 5.5-in. HD Super AMOLED screen is a beaut. The 1280 x 720 display gives you ample room for Web browsing, video-watching or whatever your tech-loving heart desires. It's crisp, clear and bright (although you may have to deactivate Samsung's often-wonky auto-brightness setting to get the best results). Smartphone enthusiasts will be happy to know it doesn't utilize Pentile technology, which is frequently criticized for causing jagged edges and lower-quality views.

Samsung's Galaxy Note II has a volume rocker on its left side, a headphone jack on its top, and a power button about a third of the way down its right edge. On the bottom of the phone sits a standard micro-USB port that -- with the use of a special adapter, priced at $40 on Samsung's website -- can double as an HDMI out port to let you hook the phone up to your TV and watch your videos on a large display. The bottom of the device also houses a slot where the S Pen stylus resides (more on that in a bit).

Following the example of its Galaxy S III smartphone, Samsung has opted to use an odd mix of physical and capacitive navigation buttons in place of the virtual on-screen buttonsGoogle recommends for modern Android devices. The Note II has a physical home button flanked by capacitive menu and back buttons, the latter two of which light up for just a couple of seconds when you touch the screen and remain invisible otherwise. This setup results in several unfortunate issues that I outlined in great detail in the "Buttons" section of my Galaxy S III review.

The Note II has a single small speaker on its back. The speaker is surprisingly good: Audio is loud, clear and relatively full-sounding. There is one design-related disappointment: The grill covering the speaker protrudes awkwardly from the phone's back plate, creating a rough and rather sharp spot in an otherwise smooth and consistent surface. (As a result, when you set the phone down on its back, it actually rocks back and forth very slightly.

Under the hood

Samsung's Galaxy Note II runs on a 1.6GHz quad-core processor along with a full 2GB of RAM. The result is a blazingly fast smartphone experience with no noticeable slowdowns or stutters; from app loading to Web browsing and even multitasking, the Note II's performance is consistently impressive.

Also impressive is the device's stamina: While it's no Droid Razr Maxx HD, the Galaxy Note II packs a removable 3100mAh battery that provides more than enough juice to get you from morning to night. Even with the massive power-sucking screen, I found myself making it through full days of moderate usage with room to spare.

(It's worth noting that the Note II model I tested was connected to T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network. Models utilizing 4G LTE networks will likely utilize more power and may have different results.)

The Note II comes with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. (The U.S. carriers have not yet specified which version or versions they'll offer.) The Note II has a slot for a microSD card, too, located under the phone's rear panel; it allows you to add up to 64GB of additional storage.

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