Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Review
Poch Pimentel | On 07, Jan 2013
To say that the original Galaxy Note was a game-changer is a bit of an understatement. It is said that the best marketing move is not by catering to an existing need, it is creating a need that wasn’t there before. The original Galaxy Note is among the best examples of.
Contrary to mainstream knowledge, the Samsung Galaxy Note wasn’t the first phablet. That distinction belongs to Dell’s Streak 5, which unfortunately showed how stupid the concept of phablets were. I should know, I was among those who lambasted it. At the time when a 4.3” screen is considered gargantuan, it’s unthinkable to use a 5-incher. That phone was unbelievably bulky and awkward to use.
When Samsung announced their own, with an even larger screen to boot, I laughed my donkey off. And wait, say that again? It comes with a frigging stylus? That’s so 2003! Samsung must’ve been smoking some strong stuff! It didn’t help that I hate Samsung like the plague (I got burned 3x with different products). The world laughed, and I laughed with them. Then, it became an instant hit, and it’s undeniable: over 10 million sales prove that. The laughing stopped. So did I. Even if I still didn’t see the need. It’s not the size, but in how you use your smartphone that counts. That’s what I always say.
When I got a Galaxy Note as a birthday present this year, I was none the happier at first. But once I got to used it, I actually got hooked. Samsung somehow magically made a gargantuan 5.3” screener pleasurable to use. Yes, you look awkward having a scientific calculator in your face when making calls, but you actually won’t feel awkward using it (I don’t care if I look like a tool using it). And yes, I never thought I’d see the need of having a larger screen. Relatively speaking, I don’t get to use my smartphone to make calls and text messages. I find myself using it more like a computer: reading RSS feeds galore, games a-plenty, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram-fests are what keep my phone busy and indispensable. And yes, the larger screen helps a lot in all of these. For one thing, eye fatigue has been considerably reduced. I have now been born again in the Church of the Holy Phablets! Never again will I ever go back to anything smaller than a 5-incher. Once you go phablet, you won’t go back.
However, as much as I love my Galaxy Note, I do admit that it is lacking in some areas. Samsung is aware of it, and addressed many of those weaknesses in its successor: The Galaxy Note 2. I was actually torn. I only had my Note for six months. Is it practical to upgrade early? Well, yeah, I would make the jump, but I’m as much a practical person as Madonna is a bona-fide virgin, so I’m really not a good example in that aspect. But I can tell you this way ahead: If you haven’t had a phablet yet, I highly recommend it. You can thank me later.
Now, that’s a very short review, wasn’t it? Well, I’m not yet finished. So sit back, relax, and let me tell you why I’m gaga over the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Now, let’s start off with something that’s important to a lot of people: the looks.
DISPLAY: Ooh Grandma, what big screen you have!
The biggest point of owning a phablet is having a large screen, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 currently holds the distinction of giving you the biggest, baddest (in a good way), screen on the planet (as of this writing, at least; 2013 is sure to break that barrier) that’s 5.5” of pixel-filled real estate you can feast your eyes on. It’s a full 0.2” larger than its daddy, and if you’re wondering how that affects overall dimension, the Note 2 is taller but leaner. Thus, it’s much better to hold. Anyway, back to the screen, it’s no longer using PenTile technology like its predecessor. But at 1280×720 at 267ppi, it’s smaller than the first Note which sports a resolution of 1280×800 at 285ppi. So, what does this mean? For a regular Joe, absolutely nothing! well, at least if you watch 720p movies, you won’t see black bars at the top and bottom of the screen (which is also I’m guessing why the resolution was made that way). Frankly, I don’t think you’ll miss those 80 pixels, especially when you look at how gorgeous the screen is.
I’ve mentioned a while back that it’s taller and narrower than the Note, but surprise of all surprises, it’s also thinner, making it much more pleasurable to hold and use. On a purely aesthetic standpoint, it looks much more elegant. And yes, it looks like a blown-up Galaxy SIII and that’s not a bad thing. It’s made up of polycarbonate plastic and glass with generous amounts of chrome at the side, and in the case of the Titanium Grey version, it’s made to look it’s made of brushed aluminum, which is a nice touch. I would’ve personally preferred it be made of real aluminum, the same way HTC makes their phones, but I do have to admit the Samsung’s construction doesn’t feel cheap. But I wouldn’t trust it without at least a soft jacket or bumper, but that’s just me.
“It looks like a blown-up Galaxy SIII and that’s not a bad thing.”
I Can Do This All Day, Baby!
It’s not only the screen that got bigger, though. In fact, everything else has been super-sized. If you think about it, a 0.2” upsize to the screen isn’t too much of a big deal. But what’s a big deal is the considerably upgraded battery. At 3100mAh, it trumps the old Note’s seemingly paltry 2500mAh. And boy, it does give your usage a boost! I use my phone heavily, and in fact, I keep my WiFi antenna on all the time and it hasn’t brought me down to a level that I’d be desperately scrambling for a charger. Samsung has managed to make the phone thinner even with a higher-capacity user-replaceable battery is a marvel unto itself.
“At 3100mAh, it trumps the old Note’s seemingly paltry 2500mAh. And boy, it does give your usage a boost!”
PERFORMANCE: I’m Faster, Stronger, More Powerful!
This is where the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 murders the Note, and it’s a combination of three things: The quad-core 1.65GHz Exynos processor, 2GB of RAM, and Android 4.1 a.k.a. “Jelly Bean” (4.1.1, to be exact, with 4.1.2 on the way as of this writing). All three assure you that there’s absolutely no lag. I can’t stress this enough. One of my main caveats with the original Note is that it becomes laggy the more I use it because I keep an insane amount of apps open (I have over 185 apps installed, several of them running some background processes). The quad-core processor assures that complex processes are done quickly, the generous amount of RAM assures that not only more apps can be multi-tasked, but that it won’t run out of RAM anytime soon. And Jelly Bean makes the most use of these resources ensuring the smoothest operation possible, not in small part to its “Project Butter” which certainly lives up to its name. If you’re coming from the Note, this may well be the single, most important deal-sealer. It’s absolutely going to make an early upgrade all worthwhile.
STORAGE: So Many Apps, So Little ROM
The International Version of the Galaxy Note 2 comes in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB flavors. Unfortunately, the latter two seem to be available only in South Korea, the same way as the 32GB version of the original Note was. It’s a crying shame, really, as you’ll quickly find that 16GB may not be enough. Then again, it’s how you use the phone. Like I said before, I’m an app junkie, and in the world where games now clock at 2GB each, you’ll quickly fill up that 10.5GB of space that’s available to you. Thankfully, Samsung still has the sense to add in microSD support (of which you can use cards up to 64GB) when all their other competitors are designing phones with fixed memory capacity (boo!). That has always been a deal-breaker for me (and one of the primary reasons why I have the iPhone).
Samsung’s TouchWiz: Gee Wiz!
One of the most controversial aspects of the Android platform is the different “skins” or“UI (User Interface)” that each manufacturer lays over Google’s stock Android ROM. Some love it, some hate it. Some add great functionality, while others burden it with so much bloatware that it has to be labeled a sin somewhere.
It’s always been a love-hate relationship when it comes to these OEM skins. In the case of Samsung’s skin, TouchWiz, it actually goes either way. There are things I love about it, and there are thing I hate in equal measure. I love the fact that it adds a lot of pizzas to the otherwise vanilla Jelly Bean. Power controls are embedded in the notification panel, and has actually been improved from the previous TW version. There’s automatic face-tagging in photos. There’s the whole S-Pen framework that we’ll get to in a moment. Still, there are other more settings beyond applications. A couple of welcome additions are the following: you can silent a ringing phone either by turning it upside-down, or putting your palm over the screen. another setting (Smart Stay) checks to see if you’re still looking at the phone, and if you aren’t, the screen shuts off. There’s even Smart Rotation that disables auto screen rotation by checking the orientation of your face to the screen. The plethora of features (yes, there are more) are quite overwhelming but very fun to explore. There’s so much personalization you can do.
One of the BEST aspects of the TouchWiz framework has got to be the new MultiWindow. As the name implies, it lets you open two apps at the same time (running simultaneously). It truly brings mutitasking to mobile devices! Ok, not all apps support this, though (unless you root – there’s a reason for this, though). That’s the sad part. So, don’t expect playing Shadowgun in one window while browsing through Game FAQs in the other. But if it works, it works like a charm. It’s also easy to activate. It’s not all roses, however. I don’t like the fact that some apps that I won’t ever use are taking up precious space in the system. To be fair, though, some of those apps are actually good and are widely used. Take, for example, Flipboard. It’s an app that lets you read your online subscriptions in a style reminiscent to a magazine. Unfortunately, I like Google Currents and Pulse much more, so I don’t get to use it. But being a system app, it just sits there doing nothing. In the original Note, I felt the same way about Swype (I’m a SwiftKey person) and Crayon Physics. Other contenders to this bloatware blasphemy are the different “hubs” that Samsung shoves down our throats (Game Hub, Readers Hub, Learning Hub, Hub Hub, I’mSickOf Hub). Short of rooting your device, you can’t remove these and they just take up precious space.
“One of the BEST aspects of the TouchWiz framework has got to be the new MultiWindow feature.”
S-PEN: The Pen Is Mightier
I have to admit, though, I haven’t had much use with the S-Pen than I should have, even with the original Galaxy Note. From time to time, I’ve used the S-Note app when I need to scribble down quick notes (though SwiftKey’s excellent prediction makes it a non-issue most of the time). I also take screenshots exclusively with the S-Pen. Physically, the pen itself feels much better in the hand than the one provided in the original Note. It could be one of the reasons why I didn’t like using it. The new pen is much more comfortable. The whole framework also has some new tricks up its sleeve. When hovering over the screen, you would see an indicator of where the tip of the pen is in relation to the screen. This is really useful when using the pen to take down notes, but it’s a Godsend to those who choose to actually DRAW art in their phablet. Yes, it’s amazing, but someone can actually do that. I have a friend who did, and his artwork was stunning (but I wasn’t able to save it). You can also compose SMS messages via the S-Pen when using the stock messaging app (I don’t). I did try it for this review, and was amazed by the accuracy of the pen. Have you seen my handwriting?
I can’t even read my own handwriting sometimes. Ok, yes, there are times that the word is one of the prediction selections, but more often than not, I find it hard to believe that the first choice is spot-on. If only third-party keyboards can have S-Pen plug-ins, then I’ll be using the pen more often. But I doubt that’ll ever come to pass. The pen can also be used to navigate, much like the stylii (or is that styluses) of old. But you can actually get by not using the pen at all.
I’m a hobbyist photographer, and as such, I’m always underwhelmed by any pictures not taken off a DSLR or a mirrorless camera (MILC). However, I do believe that the best camera for the job is whatever camera you have at that moment. It’s stupid to bring a DSLR everywhere (that’s impossible), even the mirrorless ones, regardless how small they are. But you can bring your phone almost anywhere. And while you can’t make anywhere near a professional-quality photograph with the Galaxy Note 2, I can definitely say that the photos are acceptable. It’s not the best one out there, but it’s definitely one of the better ones.
It’s able to handle low-light photography much better than I thought (then again, my expectations were low, but still…) even without using the LED flash. The 8-megapixel snapper did its job the way it’s intended to.
You are also able to capture high-res videos at 1080p resolution. Quality’s not going to win you any cinematography awards, but would be enough to wow your friends, family, loved ones, second loved ones, Facebook buddies, etc. One neat trick is that you can capture stills while filming, and even capture stills during playback. Nice! A couple of other good tricks for those indie director wannabies in you are the ability to record videos in slow motion (1/8) or the comical fast motion (8x). I don’t personally see the need for these, but they’re admittedly nice to have when a situation calls for it. I mean, who knows, I might get to pick up a lady whose selection of men centers around capturing her on video in very slow motion.
MULTIMEDIA: Sing, sing a song
If you plan to use the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 as a music player, then I can safely say that you won’t be disappointed. I wouldn’t go too much with the stock music player, though I can say it’s a very capable app with a few nice surprises uncommon to stock players. However, I doubt that you’ll stay with stock for long. This is Android, after all. I personally use Double Twist as my default audio player and it’s worked well for me.
One of the best improvements, however, is from the Galaxy Note 2′s loudspeaker. For one, it truly deserves the “loud” part. I use the speaker every morning, using TuneIn Radio to listen to The Morning Rush while taking a shower. Too much information, you say? This is important – because even with the shower running, I can still hear the audio well. Same is true when watching YouTube or playing games without a headset. Of course, it won’t hold a candle to having a connected speaker or headset. But as it is, the built-in speaker is able to deliver and exceeds my expectation. Make no mistakes, though, it doesn’t mean that it’ll trump any dedicated external speakers other than those sold in bangketas. The only thing worse than listening to Justin Bieber sing is hearing his songs in those God-awful, ear-splitting speakers. Thankfully, the Note 2′s speaker isn’t any of that. But it will never make me appreciate Bieber.
One thing I didn’t like about the speakers, though, is its placement. It’s found at the back, so if you don’t have a stand, placing it face up will affect sound quality considerably.
GPS: Now with GLONASS
The now-mandatory navigation has been revamped as well. In addition to the requisite GPS, the Note 2 also now supports GLONASS (for those uninitiated, it’s Russia’s answer to the US-based GPS), and I have to say that this is the second reason why you’d want to upgrade from your old phone. It took a fraction of the time needed for the phone to home in on my location more often than not. I can’t stress that enough. One of the biggest frustration I had in every phone I used before (including my current second service phone) is that it sometimes take an insanely long time for the GPS to kick in. There were even times when my turn-by-turn navigation kicked in immediately afterI arrived to my intended destination (I’d just resort to the tried-and-tested “Manong, saan po ito” method). Needless to say, the additional satellites help this time around.
CONNECTIVITY: The Rainbow Connection
The phone’s also backed with all the latest connectivity tools available. For the International version, you have GPRS, EDGE, 3G, HSDPA and HSUPA for mobile data browsing. There’s also a version with 4G LTE, though that’s more for the US and SK markets as far as I know. You also get WiFi support for 802.11 a/b/g/n. Would’ve been nice to finally see 802.11ac but I’m sure that’s like wishing for the moon at this point.
It also has Bluetooth 4.0 and using it is such a breeze! I love the fact that when I toggle it in the notification page, I’m immediately greeted with a pop-up that lets me toggle visibility, a list of paired devices, and an option to scan for devices without me having to go to the settings just to do that! Connecting to other devices has also been stable. Audio quality when streaming through it is top notch. I haven’t gotten around to playing with NFC yet, but it’s a technology that I’m extremely interested in. I’ll just need to buy some NFC stickers. From what I know, Samsung’s offering them, though I’m not sure if they’re available locally. Once I get my hands on some, I’ll update this review.
“I love the fact that when I toggle it in the notification page, I’m immediately greeted with a pop-up “
Now, we wouldn’t be salivating over this phone’s specs if we won’t delve into one of the most important aspects of having a smartphone: unbridled gaming! I mean, c’mon, unless you need your head examined, what other application will test your phone’s specs to the limit? Productivity apps?
Well, I’m glad to say that with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, you’ll be gaming in spades! I never once encountered any lag, even with all those resource-intensive games. They all ran smoothly. It’s a stark contrast to my Galaxy Note 1, where I’d encounter hiccups from time to time. Outside of a tablet, the Note 2′s relatively gargantuan screen really makes gaming worthwhile. Before I went phablet, I’d usually get headaches from gaming because I do find playing on the smaller screen stressful to the eyes after a while. Now, not so much. Graphics also render so beautifully that it brings tears of joy to my eyes.
Of course, there’s much to be said playing games using touchscreen controls (especially for gaming connoisseurs), but that really isn’t the fault of the phone. As it is, touchscreen controls on the Note 2 are very responsive. You can be rest assured that when you die in the game, it’s mostly because of you and not the phone.
In other words, gaming on the Galaxy Note 2 won’t get you laid, but you’ll be thoroughly entertained until the crows come home, or your battery runs out, whichever comes first.
Oh Wait! I Forgot, It’s Also a Phone!
Yeah, I almost forgot this bit. I don’t often get to use this for calls, instead opting to conserve battery for more important tasks, like RSS reading, gaming, and browsing. However, I do get to make calls from time to time and call quality is absolutely amazing. Audio is clear, as evidenced by the fact that I get to blurt out “Ano? Ano? Choppy!” far less often than my other service phone. Sending SMSes are also a breeze and I’ve never had to worry about unsent messages (again, unlike my other service phone).
The Caveats: Ah, If Only Everything Was Roses and Peaches
As great a phone as it is, I do find a couple caveats. For one, while the notification toggle ribbon has been vastly improved since last time (enough for me to actually ditch the Power Toggles widget that I used), I still find it odd that there’s no option to modify it. Many custom ROMs have had this feature since forever, and I can’t fathom why Samsung can’t. Even rearranging the toggles would’ve been nice. There are some toggles that I use often and I’d be extremely happy if they’re already there when I bring down the notification pane instead of having to swipe through the ribbon.
Lastly, I really can’t understand why there’s still a need for those pesky hardware buttons (especially given the fact that Google has been espousing against them since Android Ice Cream Sandwich came out). Yes, there are only three buttons (Menu, Home, and Back – in that order), with the left and right buttons being soft-press ones. But there are so many instances when I’d accidentally click on either one (usually the back button), especially when playing a game in landscape. Android has had an alternative (the much coveted Action Bar – and it’s a great alternative, at that) to those hardware buttons since ICS (actually, it first came out in Android 3.0 Honeycomb, but that version was only for tablets). I can understand why there was a need for it in the original Galaxy Note since it came loaded with Android 2.3 “GingerBread” and then upgraded to ICS afterwards. But this Note 2 comes loaded with Jelly Bean from the get-go. They should’ve killed off the hardware buttons. The less components that are prone to wear and tear, the better. But no, Samsung had to make us use those buttons.
VERDICT: And So It Ends
So, is it practical to upgrade from the original Galaxy Note? For me, it absolutely is, though your mileage may vary. I still can’t get enough of how unbelievably smooth operating this handset is. Like I said a while ago, that in itself makes it a worthy purchase, with the other bells and whistles being relatively an icing on the cake. You could make the argument that much of the smoothness comes from Jelly Bean’s Project Butter feature, and that it’s more practical to just wait for the update on the Note (or to install Custom ROMs that are based on Jelly Bean). But the contribution of the new processor and (more importantly) the generous amount of RAM can’t be overlooked, especially if you factor in the Multi Window feature. The hefty RAM will help a lot.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Specs
- Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
- 5.5-inch Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors
- Quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A9
- 2GB RAM
- 16GB / 32GB / 64GB storage
- 8MP auto focus camera with LED flash, 3264×2448 pixels
- 1.9MP front camera
- 1080p HD video recording at 30fps
- Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi hotspot, DLNA, NFC
- HSUPA 5.76 Mbps, HSDPA 21 Mbps, 4G LTE
- Bluetooth v4.0, microUSBv2.0
- GPS, A-GPS support and GLONASS
- Li-Ion 3100 mAh battery
- Dimensions: 151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4 mm
- Weight: 180g
- Colors: Titanium Gray, Marble White
If you use the S-Pen often, then the upgrade is almost a no-brainer as well. It’s smoother and much more ergonomic to use. And for those looking to upgrade from other phones, your choice is much, much simpler: Upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. You won’t regret it.