Name: Samsung Galaxy Note II
Price: $300 (w/two-year contract)
The Back Story: Earlier this year, Samsung introduced the world to what it billed as the “Next Big Thing” with the Galaxy Note. While we acknowledge the phone for its attempt to bridge the gap between smartphone and tablet, even referring to it as a “notable prelude" for the tabletphone market, other tech experts quickly dismissed the handset for its lack of optimized software and colossal size. Despite the reviews, the phone sold well. Really well. Well enough to warrant a follow-up.
Quad-core processing, Google’s latest OS, all-new stylus functionality, and the largest panel featured on any smartphone—there’s no denying the Galaxy Note II’s prowess. But does the second-gen handset bear the problems as its predecessor?
• Android Jelly Bean and TouchWiz Nature UX: With Andrid 4.1, you’ll experience the latest Google upgrades such as the new notifications menu, offline voice typing, and Google Now: a virtual assistant that provides info from travel directions to sports scores. As usualy, Samsung made sure to attach its skin onto Google's software, bringing over popular multitasking features and motion-sensitive gestures from the Galaxy S III. The Popup Video option lets you watch clips and re-size windows for access to other apps. Holding down the home button opens up a multitasking tray, revealing app shortcuts that can be transferred over to the main screen. We found the coolest new software feature to be Quick Glance, which displays alerts such as missed called/emails and battery life when a hand is waved over the front-facing camera while the phone is in sleep mode. TouchWiz bears many neat tricks.
• Monstrous CPU and memory options: Samsung spared no expense on specs this time around, upping the ante by blessing the handset with 2GB of RAM and a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor that produces exceptional benchmarks. We have yet to test a phone that can match the Note II’s performance and speed when it comes to UI navigation, media playback, web browsing, and games. In addition to offering 16GB on internal storage, the device houses a microSD card slot behind the back cover expanding memory up to an additional 64GB. More than enough to hold your photo albums, videos, and iTunes library.
• The New S-Pen: The high-tech stylus takes advantage of the same Wacom technology featured on the Note Tab 10.1 to deliver near-accurate precision. Handwriting recognition has been improved, along with palm rejection to accommodate better note taking. The “Air View” function works great as a secondary navigational tool, allowing users to open files and scroll through web pages by pointing the accessory millimeters away from the screen. Drawing the S-Pen away from its silo automatically brings up the S Pen homescreen, where you can browse through a series of creative templates to build memos, b-day cards, and more on the go. The S-Pen is growing on us.
• Huge and gorgeous display: For whatever reason, Samsung decided to expand the screen size to 5.5". It may seem crazy to some, but the extra real estate works for the Note II. Even with a lower resolution (1280 x 720) and pixel density (267 ppi) than the original Galaxy Note (1280 x 800 and 286 ppi), the display still shines with great contrast and brightness levels. The extra-wide viewing angles make it easier for a couple to enjoy hi-res content on the go. Netflix videos, YouTube clips, and games all look great.
• Great battery life: Aside from the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD, the Note II lasts longer than any smartphone out there. All praise goes to the 3100mAh cell found under the cover. Expect a full day of power on moderate use and anywhere between 8-12 hours during heavy engagement (gaming, video conferencing, video playing).
• Still too big and aped design: No matter how comfortable LeBron James makes the Galaxy Note II look to hold in those Samsung TV spots, the phone is still a huge device to carry in your pocket, let alone text or take calls on. The extra screen space is great, but it's come at the expense of making the device less portable and usable as a phone. Also, it looks exactly like a Galaxy S III, but bigger. A little difference in design would have been welcomed.
• No Multi-Window option: It’s quite shocking to see Samsung leave out its most popular TouchWiz feature, especially after having it on the Note Tab 10.1 and the global version of the Note II. So unless you own the Sprint model, don’t expect to run and view two apps simultaneously onscreen.
• High price: Three Benjamins doesn’t make it an affordable smartphone, nor a cost-efficient tablet alternative. Shed $50 from the MSRP and there could a strong argument made for both cases.
Final Say: Samsung’s managed to silence its critics (for the most part) by achieving a number of feats with the Galaxy Note II. It’s programmed the handset with both the multitasking facets and enhanced S-Pen technology found on the Note Tab 10.1. Samsung has also loaded the phone with some serious specs highlighted by its mammoth display, powerful processor, and Android 4.1. Is it a phone? Yes. An incredibly powerful one. Is it a tablet? Not really, no. There are still some minor technicalities (optimized app selection and larger screen) that keep it out of that category. It exists in an odd space between smartphones and small tablets like the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini. One that forces it to make painful compromises. The Galaxy Note series is getting better, though, and judging by Samsung's track record with the Galaxy imprint, third time just might be a charm. Until then it's a great, albeit huge, smartphone with some tablet-like features.