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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 IntroductionThink the iPhone 5 is a weakling of a mobile, and that even the Samsung Galaxy S3 could do with gaining a few curves? The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 may be what you're after. Thanks to its 5.5in screen, it's a _phone_ so large that some people can't decide whether it's a _phone_ or a tablet.
It does demand man-sized hands or a handbag to slot into your life easily. But the large screen and its great stylus make it one of the most desirable mobile devices around. At around £549.99, it's £50 more expensive than the Samsung Galaxy S3, but you can't complain too much given the extra features and screen inches you get here.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Video Review
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 DesignThe Samsung Galaxy Note 2 looks and feels a lot like a larger Samsung Galaxy S3, with aesthetic trimmings closer to the smartphone flagship than the first Galaxy Note. A host of little design tweaks have been made to bring the Note series to bring in-line with Samsung's 2012 devices.
Its soft key is a little sleeker, and while it its body is still palm-worryingly big, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a little longer and less wide than its predecessor. The result is a phone that looks a bit leaner and less stubby, and is a little comfier to hold.
There's no sugar-coating the truth, though. If you have small hands or wear femur-hugging skinny jeans the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 will pose a logistical problem or two, and may have to be consigned to the handbag for transportation.
However, Samsung has made some seriously handy design improvements that minimise the size issues for most people. The buttons along its sides, which control volume and power, have been lowered a little. Those bearing at least mid-sized man-hands will be able to operate the basics without shifting grip. And we couldn't say that about the original Note.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is also a little slimmer and lighter than its forebear. It's 177g in weight and 9.4mm thick. That's a smidge thicker than the 8.6mm of the Samsung Galaxy S3, but this is presumably to enable the phone to pack-in a seriously impressive 3100mAh battery. Excuses for a tiny bit of back fat don't get much better than that.
The basic construction of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is typical Samsung. Its rear is covered with a thin plastic battery cover, and while the sides are metallic in finish, they are made of plastic.
Just like the look, the feel in-hand is much like a Samsung Galaxy S3. It doesn't have the hard, cool touch of a metal-backed phone like the iPhone 5, and the back is made of familiar, ultra-thin plastic. The free flexing of the thing as it's removed doesn't exactly fill you with confidence about the phone's strength, but technically its physical credentials aren't too bad.
The Note 2 battery cover - keeping it bendy
For one, you can replace the back cover should it get scuffed or scratched to matt oblivion, and the front is covered by a sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass 2. Corning's toughened glass has become the smartphone industry standard, and the second generation makes it thinner, and even stronger.
Other benefits of using a removable battery cover include being able to remove the battery, and east-to-design custom covers-cum-cases. Samsung includes a second rear with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, one that apes the Pebble Blue finish of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and has an integrated front flap screen protector.
The cover also hides a microSD slot, letting you upgrade the 16/32/64GB of internal memory both easily and cheaply. You don't have to remove the battery to get access to the memory card slot, either.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a phone that looks less geeky than its predecessor, while keeping the design nods that techies will love. However, these days it doesn't need that many connectors to keep up its tech cred.
There are just two here, a microUSB port on the bottom and a 3.5mm headphone jack up top. The bottom socket is used for charging, transferring files and to pipe video out using Samsung's MHL-compliant cable. Samsung does not include one in the box, though. What you do get are the USB cable, power adapter and a pair of basic IEM-style earphones with an integrated handsfree kit/remote.
The most important accessory of all, though, is one that slots perfectly into the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - the re-designed S Pen stylus. Unlike the original S Pen, it features a triangular stem design for improved ergonomics, has a select button on one of its sides and has a rubber tip. Its tech specs have been significantly improved too.
It lives in a little cubby hole at the bottom of the device, and the Note 2 even notifies you with a bleat if you leave without it. This is done using a clever combo of the Wacom digitiser that makes the stylus so clever, and the phone's accelerometer judging when you've walked away with the device. We'll cover the positive effects of the other S Pen changes later.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Screen
The leading feature for any phone this size has to be the screen. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 display is a giant 5.5in across, up from the 5.3in of its predecessor.
Some aspects of the screen are a little surprising. Although larger, it's actually lower in resolution than the first Galaxy Note - 720 x 1,280 pixels rather than 800 x 1,280 pixels. That's the very same resolution as the Samsung Galaxy S3.
The subpixel structure has been changed, though, with some positive effects on image quality. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 uses a Super AMOLED Plus screen. Almost all earlier OLED-type smartphone screens used a Pentile subpixel arrangement, a red-green-blue-green array, but not here. This made screens look significantly less sharp and well-defined than an RGB screen of the same resolution.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 hasn't gone full RGB in its subpixel array, but there is a radical difference. Now, a thin blue subpixel and red/green subpixels form a little box. With no subpixel syncopation - so to speak - there are no real clarity problems. With 267dpi, you can just about discern pixel structure if you get your eyeball right up close to the Gorilla Glass, but in anything approaching normal use it's no problem.
Maximum brightness of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 isn't quite dazzling in normal lighting conditions, but compares well with the Galaxy S3. And, of course, it comes with all the benefits of the OLED tech running the show.
AMOLED screens do not use universal backlights, giving the tablet effectively infinity contrast as black areas stay completely black. Colours are slightly oversaturated, but take into a darkened room, the benefits of an OLED screen are obvious. With LCD-based screens like the iPhone 5's, black parts of an image always look a little grey in a darkened room, but not so here.
It may lose out on resolution to some of the top-end smartphones of today, but in uses where top-quality screens come into their own, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a complete star. A 5.5in screen offers a much more satisfying movie-watching experience than an iPhone 5's 4-incher, and the rich contrast of Super AMOLED Plus makes dark movie scenes in particular look fantastic.
Colours are a little less natural than those of something like the IPS screened HTC One X in the phone's standard setting, but delve through the Settings menu and you'll find some indispensable colour temperature/saturation settings. There are four, including two far less saturated than you'll see fresh out of the box.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Interface and Usability
With Android 4.1 Jelly Bean working at the heart of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, this giant smartphone is impressively up-to-date. It's also very quick.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 uses a powerful quad-core 1.6GHz Exynos 4412 processor that's a mite faster than the 1.4GHz CPU of the Samsung Galaxy S3, and has 2GB of RAM while the other big players made do with 1GB.
When this spec teams-up with the Project Butter initiative of Android Jelly Bean, what results is one seriously smooth phone. Project Butter's aim is to maker more intensive use of processor power during moments of strain, to make Android run at 60fps.
Aside from the occasional very, very slight slowdown, performance here is perfect. Without seeing a quad-core "vanilla" Google phone to compare the Galaxy Note 2 with, we can't confirm whether the TouchWiz UI laid on top of Jelly Bean has slowed things down, but there's honestly barely any lag here. In our opinion, 95 percent of momentary gaps between operations, such as skipping between the apps menu and the home screen, is deliberate.
Those who have owned a Samsung smartphone in the last few years will be familiar with the basic parts of TouchWiz here. The Samsung UI does not change the basic parts of Android Jelly Bean 4.1 - you have seven home screens and a largely vanilla apps 'n' widgets menu.
TouchWiz brings its own set of app icons, a few handy widgets including a nice-looking clock and weather combo, and a custom lock screen. These are all minor changes compared to the additional apps and stylus functionality Samsung has packed-in.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 S Pen
Samsung has completely redesigned the S-Pen for the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. The term S-Pen was introduced with the first Note, shorthand for the digitser styluses that make phone-tablets in this range so special.
The S-Pen is capable of so much more than a standard stylus because of the Wacom digitser built into the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. This lets the phone sense differing levels of pressure from the pointer, and pinpoint the stylus's position when it is some way away from the screen surface.
Both these aspects have improved significantly in the second-generation Note. The first Note can sense up to 256 levels of pressure, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 can discern 1,024 – the same number as the Wacom Bamboo dedicated graphics tablets.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 stylus can also be identified around a centimetre from the screen, letting it double as a mouse cursor. In use the new stylus is fantastically responsive.
Arguably more important than these pure specs are the more experiential tweaks Samsung has made. The S-Pen is now an ergonomically-carved, triangular-stemmed design rather than a smooth cylinder, there's a button on one of its sides and – here's the real game-changer – the end is a rubberised nib with a little give to it. This softens its handwriting action, offering a much more smooth and natural feel than the original Note was ever capable of.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 S-Pen stylus is a joy to use, simple as.
Samsung has done a great job of integrating its skills into the interface too. What's most impressive is the sense of immediacy the S-Pen manages. Whip it out of its rabbit hole and you're automatically taken to a bespoke S-Pen home screen. As standard this includes a quick to the S-Note app, but like any home screen you can dress it as you please.
The S Pen home screen
The S-Pen is at its best when used with the Samsung apps built into the phone. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2's ability to identify the pen away from the screen is only presently useful in a fistful of apps. Samsung calls this functionality Air View.
In the S-Planner calendar, it brings up info about calendar events. In the email app it pops-up the first few lines of an email. It brings up similar previews in the Gallery and video player too.
The partnership of the powerful hardware of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the decent software and the honed, optimised Wacom digitiser makes these little feature nuggets feel like a natural additions to the UI, rather than superfluous, frivolous add-ons.
The excellent S-Pen does serve to highlight that a few parts of the Samsung TouchWiz UI are a a bit flimsy and unnecessary, though. For example, you have the option to use accelerometer motion controls to control things such as the movements of home screens and pages within the Gallery.
Thanks to the Samsung keyboard OCR, the stylus can be used throughout Android
These things have tip-toed along the thin border between pure gimmickery and neat extra features at the best of times, but in the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 they fall right into tech trash can as over-the-top bits of fluff to switch off within the Settings menu as soon as possible.
The S-Pen, though, is an almost unadulterated success. Even in apps without full implemetation of its abilities, it can be used as an alternative to a finger – including casual games like Angry Birds Space. The one issue is that only a very small number of apps can fully appreciate what it's capable of.
Samsung says that the only apps fully certified for the new S-Pen stylus are some of those of the Samsung Apps portal, the secondary app store that sits alongside the Google Play app store within the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. However, we did find a number of Google Play apps that support pressure sensitivity, including relatively high-profile drawing tools like Sketchbook Mobile.
S-Note is the S-Pen's "flagship" app though. Its lightweight name is also a bit misleading as it's now quite a fully-featured suite - although one with an eye on lighter uses. Other than making notes using the Samsung keyboard's optical character recognition, it's intended to let you make mind maps, presentations and little works of art.
You can insert videos, pictures, text boxes and shapes into your notes, veering the app close to something like Microsoft PowerPoint. Samsung supplies a bunch of templates for quick-but-organised notes for things such as meeting minutes and recipes. S-Note also lets you record the creation of a sketch as it's made, in Draw Something-like fashion.
It's also kid-friendly in parts. As well as adding photos and clip art to notes, you can use something called Idea Sketch. This lets you write the name of an object, and then pick a pre-drawn representation of it. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 offers three different cartoon cats, for example.
Which is faster? Cat bus or whale train?
That's not the end of the "S-flavour" features, either. We can't forget about S Voice, the Apple Siri equivalent that was partly responsible for getting Samsung dropped in $1billion's worth of hot water in a recent court case.
A double tap on the central Home button makes the S Voice app pop up. Ask it a question and it'll do its best to work out what you're saying, as long as you have a network connection. All the calculations grunt work is done by Samsung's servers.
A typical S Voice result - not that great
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2's S Voice isn't quite up to the latest version of Siri seen in iOS 6, though. Anything vaguely taxing will send you straight to a web search, making it of limited use.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Contacts, Calling and Browser
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 features what is by 2012 measures a fairly standard address book. Once the phone is hooked-up with Facebook and Twitter apps, you can harvest your contacts from those social networks, and any profile pics are automatically linked to those people.
It's easy enough to merge duplicated contacts from different networks too, making setup a doddle. If you're already an Android user, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 will also grab contacts linked to your Google account. Extra ways to organise your contacts include groups and favourites.
The call quality of the phone is great. It uses active noise cancellation with a pinhole microphone on the top of the handset to remove some ambient noise to make you sound clearer to whoever you're talking too, and the earpiece speaker is remarkably loud. It's much louder than the smartphone average.
Earpiece sound focuses on the low and mid-range frequencies, making people's voices sound nice and beefy. However, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 could arguably do with a slight treble bump to make its call experience shine even brighter.
Also, holding such a giant phone against your head does feel odd for the first few times. It's just something you'll have to embrace, or forever live in mild embarrassment.
One part of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 that only benefits from the phone's size is web browsing. Whether using the stylus or a finger, the browsing experience here is universally excellent.
Its screen is large enough to do justice to just about any full desktop website - as opposed to a cut-down mobile browser version - it's quick and although the screen isn't quite as tightly pixel-packed as an iPhone 5, small text is legible.
Unlike most Android Jelly Bean 4.1 devices, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 doesn't use Google Chrome as its inbuilt browser. Instead, it uses a Samsung alternative, with some visual bits consistent with the rest of the UI. Chrome is readily available to download from Google Play if you'd prefer, but according to the Sunspider benchmark, both a similar level of performance. And both have "advanced" features including saving pages for offline reading and forced desktop mode.
Neither offers Adobe Flash support, though, which was officially crossed off the Android checklist when Jelly Bean was introduced. Adobe announced that it was stopped development for the Android platform, and now you can't even download the version of the Adobe Flash player that used to be available on Google Play. The result - Flash-heavy websites won't work.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Camera
Using exactly the same camera sensor hardware as the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Galaxy Note 2 has an 8-megapixel main camera, and a 1.9-megapixel user-facing one. The main sensor is also has an LED flash to lean on when it's not too sunny. For the real camera geeks, it uses a fixed f/2.6 aperture with a focal length of 3.6mm.
Notably, this isn't quite as good as the f/2.4 aperture of the iPhone 5. A wider aperture sensor will give better low-light performance, as it can harvest more light in the same exposure window. However, camera performance is excellent given good lighting conditions.
Macro performance is decent, although minimum focusing length is around 15cm, which is far from the best among smartphones. Give the sensor enough room, though, and the level of detail it can render is respectable.
This pixel crop shows the level of detail to expect from the Galaxy Note 2
Autofocus speed is very good, although the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 occasionally appeared to fail to save shots when the phone was not held steady enough, suggesting the camera may be a little slower than the near-instant shutter sound effect may suggest.
Another pixel crop, for good measure
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 offers standard features such as touch focusing, and control over ISO, metering and scene modes. Other modes you don't get everywhere include a decent HDR mode, which merges together multiple exposure types to reveal more detail in very dark or light areas, a so-so panorama mode, burst mode and face detection.
The HDR mode works well, exposing extra detail in shadow areas
Panorama isn't a patch on the full-res mode of the iPhone 5
The flash is fairly standard
There are a couple of new bits that didn't feature in the recent Samsung Galaxy S3, too. There's a burst group mode that uses multi-face facial recognition to pick the photo where the most number of people are looking directly at the camera.
Using a simple LED flash, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2's low light performance isn't too remarkable, but it'll suffice for the obligatory late-night BBQ and party shots.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Multimedia
The large screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 makes this giant phone an obvious choice as a personal video player, and it excels at the task. It can play most video types, with support for Xvid, Divx and MKV. The only files it failed to play were our high bit-rate 1080p MKVs, which it spat out before even hitting the first frame.
Files like these can be played-back using a third-party media player like MX Player, although performance will depend on which one you use and whether it offers hardware support for the Note 2's chipset. Even the quad-core 1.6GHz Exynos 4412 struggles with 42Mbps 1080p MKVs using software rendering.
Get your video library in order, though, and both movies and TV episodes look fantastic. In the normal colour saturation mode, skin tones and bright clothing look thoroughly over-egged, but switch to the Natural or Movie mode within the main Settings menu and it's hard to beat as a movie buddy that fits in your pocket.
Like the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Galaxy Note 2 also features video multitasking. From within the video player app, you simply need to press a button within the transport bar to make the video pop-up as a resizeable overlay on top of your home screen. It'll stay there no matter what you're doing, and can be zapped with just a couple of taps, much like an app window in Windows.
Music support is much better than average too. If you're a bit of a music fiend and have OGG and FLAC files in your library rather than just standard AAC and MP3 jobbies, you'll have no problems with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.
The music player app is clean, clear and effective, avoiding any 3D nonsense to slow navigation down. You do get a fairly comprehensive selection of equalisation and sound tweaking options, though.
The Music Player app offers a simple 7-band EQ, and extra controls for more involved bass and clarity modulators, plus reverb and 3D options (which we wouldn't recommend touching with any brand of pole.) Samsung calls this the SoundAlive engine, and it comes with a dozen presets as well as a custom mode.
There's also a strange secondary function in the app, called Music Squares. This analyses your tracks, rating them on whether they sound passionate, calm, exciting, joyful or something a bit in-between - based on things like tempo and changes in volume. Controlling a bit like a Korg Kaosspad, you can track a "mood trajectory" for a playlist to take by dragging your finger along these Music Squares. It's a bit silly, but it normally works reasonably well. Ish.
Much more importantly, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 outputs clear, clean audio at a decent volume, so you won't have to max out the volume as soon as you start listening anywhere other than a quiet room.
The bundled headphones aren't much to write about, but we rarely expect much of such things. They use an IEM-style design with not-all-that comfortable silicone tips, and have a fibrous-sounding treble that's prone to tripping over into harshness. However, bass response isn't too bad, and we imagine that if you're willing to spend £500 on a phone there's a good chance you'll already have your own pair of earphones or headphones anyway.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Battery Life and Connectivity
One of the most impressive specs of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is its 3100mAh battery. That's a full 600mAh more than the original Galaxy Note, and it supplies this new model with impressive stamina.
Set to playing a video file at full screen, with Wi-Fi and 3G switched off (this is out standard test for tablet battery life) and screen brightness set to 50 per cent, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 lasted for just under 12 hours. That's enough to keep you entertained over the period of most long-haul flights, and is hugely impressive given how small and light the phone is.
In normal use, as ever, the stamina will depend on approximately 376,000 thousand factors. Make judicious use of 3G and you can expect to get a minimum of two solid days out of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Only switch on connections when they're needed and you can stretch that out even longer.
There are a great many connection types on offer here, raring to zap that power. It's LTE-compatible, but that's not of much use yet in the UK until the first networks get their 4G offerings of the ground. EE will be the first, due to kick off its 4G offering towards the end of the year.
Advanced connections we can use right now include high-speed 21 Mbps HSUPA, Wi-Fi Direct and NFC. Wi-Fi Direct lets you connect directly to other Wi-Fi Direct devices and trade data without actually having an internet connection.
NFC stands for Near-Field Communication, and was one of the most notable absences from the iPhone 5 - hence making it a thing for the Note 2 and Galaxy S3 to bear proudly. It can be used in various food outlets on the high street to buy small items like cups of coffee, and Samsung has made sure it's of some use even if you have no interest in such transactions - enter S Beam.
S Beam is Samsung's marrying of the NFC and Wi-Fi Direct technologies. Put two S Beam compatible devices back to back and they'll be able to pair over NFC, before transferring files over the much faster Wi-Fi Direct standard. If that all sounds a bit too much like the tech version of a saucy nature documentary, Wi-Fi Direct also stands alone within the file transfer sections of apps like the Gallery.
The Wi-Fi connection can also be used to transfer video, over another Samsung standard called AllShare. This has been around for years, and connects all sorts of Samsung products including TVs, Blu-ray player, tablets and phones. It's actually little more than a branded version of the DLNA streaming standard, there to make the tech a bit simpler for non tech-heads to use. With it you can share, videos, pictures and music.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 will also be able to output video directly to a TV using a Samsung MHL cable. That microUSB-sized port on the bottom may look like a standard tiddly USB slot, but it's actually cleverer than that. MHL can transfer HD video and surround sound up to 7.1.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Verdict
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 improves the series formula in several important respects. It looks better, the stylus feels better and the tech has been bumped-up in almost every respect. The only slight downer is that as the original Note proved a commercial success rather than an entirely niche device limited to geeks/freaks/giants, this second edition is a bit pricier.