Tech reviewers, yours truly included, don’t always get things right. At times (though a rarity) we fail to understand what the consumers desire and dismiss products that eventually become immensely successful. Samsung launched such a product last year, which was panned for its humongous size by reviewers but it sold by the millions globally (over 10 million units, to be precise). I could never even think of anyone using a “phone” with a 5.3-inch display, a device that does not fit comfortably in the hand, as their primary phone. Remember, that was a time when smartphones with 4.3-inch displays ruled the roost and the iPhone was still sitting pretty at 3.5-inches. Yet, it sold really well, even in India.
The Galaxy Note was a first-of-its-kind device, a phablet if I may, to be widely accepted and appreciated. Yes, there was the Dell Streak but it was barely anything more than a press release. I still have my reservations about the first-generation Galaxy Note as I find the pen input functionality to be limited and the device feels a little thick and massive when held in the hand. However, Samsung has refined the concept in the last one year and claims it has worked upon both the hardware and software, and incorporated those changes in the Galaxy Note II. Can the Galaxy Note II change how I feel about phablets? Let’s find out!
At a glance, the Galaxy Note II looks like a blown up Galaxy S III. Samsung has decided it will follow one design language for its products this year and it has implemented the same design in the Galaxy S III Mini as well, which was announced earlier this month. This ensures that the Galaxy Note II looks familiar with its rounded edges, a curved rectangle home button and the same white and pebble blue (with “hyperglazed” finish) for the back. The only thing that looks jarring in all the curves are the sharp corners of the display, which truth be told cannot be avoided. Yet, it looks odd, especially in the white variant, where it is more pronounced than the pebble blue version.
What’s impressive about the Galaxy Note II is how the designers have managed to decrease the thickness and width of the device, while increasing the display size and battery at the same time! Compared to the Galaxy Note, it is 2.5 mm narrower and 0.3 mm slimmer. While it might not sound like much it makes it comparatively more comfortable to hold in one hand than the Galaxy Note. To compensate for the reduced thickness and width, the designers had to increase the height of the device by almost 4.2 mm, which pinches as there is no way one can reach all parts of the display without shifting one’s grip on the device. But Samsung has thought about that too and has somewhat mitigated the effect by some cool software tweaks. But more on that later.
The Galaxy Note II provides everything that the Galaxy S III has and then some more. Needless to say it is a vast improvement over the original Galaxy Note and is the best-in-class hardware specifications one can find on a smartphone, till we get devices running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset. The Galaxy Note II runs on an Exynos 1.6GHz quad-core processor, which is slightly faster than the 1.4GHz processor found on the Galaxy S III. The biggest improvement is the presence of 2GB of RAM against 1GB on the Galaxy S III and we suspect this has been done for the ‘S Pen’ user interface. It comes with 16GB of internal storage along with a microSD card slot.
The display size has been increased to 5.5-inches (from 5.3-inches on the Galaxy Note) but the resolution has been trimmed a little to 720×1280 pixels from 800×1280 pixels. Yes, having a bigger display with slightly lesser pixels decreases the pixel density (267 pixels per inch versus pixels per inch) but it now offers a true 16:9 aspect ratio, which is appreciated while watching video content. Anyway, I’m not finicky about a few missing pixels or display technology used till the time it is sharp, shows close to true colors and is visible under sunlight. The Galaxy Note II scores high on all those counts.
The Galaxy Note II has the same 8-megapixel camera as the Galaxy S III and needless to say, it performs wonderfully. Photos come out sharp, there is no noticeable lag of any sorts and even the videos come out pretty good. No complaints whatsoever. Overall, if you are a specification junkie, the Galaxy Note offers the cutting edge hardware that money can buy at the moment. Of course, with the pace at which things are moving, there will certainly be something better a couple of months later but that is the case with any product.
Samsung is not really known for its software capabilities but my impressions about that has changed drastically since the last couple of weeks that I have been using the Galaxy Note II. The thought process that has gone behind customizing TouchWiz UI is worth commending and I have nothing but praise for what Samsung has managed to pull off here. For the record, the Galaxy Note II is the first Android smartphone to come with Jelly Bean out of the box.
My favorite software feature on the Galaxy Note II is what Samsung calls one-handed operation. With this setting, the keyboard, dialer, calculator and unlock pattern all move to either the right or left side of the screen just enough so that the user’s thumb can cover the entire area. There is a simple arrow toggle that enables the user to shift the keyboard depending on whether they are holding the device in their right or left hand.
During my extensive usage, I found that I preferred keeping the one-handed keyboard as the default even for the times I was using both hands to type. Even while typing with just my thumb while holding the device in the same hand, I didn’t feel uncomfortable that I was stretching my thumb more than what it was built for while using the keypad.
Having said that, one of the problems with having a taller display is I had to keep changing my grip and adjusting the positioning of the device in my hand in order to reach the top part of the display where most of the controls are while adding recipients while sending a message. In order to reach the keypad, I had to shift the phone back and start typing.
This is essentially the biggest compromise one will make with the Galaxy Note II. But in my experience, even the likes of the Galaxy S III and the HTC One X are not that comfortable in one-handed usage and if one is willing to make that compromise, one might rather go with the Galaxy Note II as it offers much more functionality than other big-screen smartphones. One of them is the multi-screen mode that allows users to snap two different apps on the display and work on both simultaneously. This can be activated by pressing the back button for a longer duration that will reveal a drawer from where select apps can be pulled out. The only limitation here is that not all apps support this mode.
The biggest add-on that one gets on the Galaxy Note II is the stylus or S Pen as Samsung prefers to call it. The first-generation Galaxy Note also had stylus input but it had limited functionality. Finally, with hardware and software improvements the stylus input is effective and can also get addictive as it was in my case. Samsung has changed the design of the stylus and its is no longer cylindrical and has sort of triangular edges. This makes it more natural to hold and feels like holding a pencil. The device detects when the stylus is removed from its silo and opens a S Pen specific menu from where one can select from various options for taking notes. I found the options a bit gimmicky but not the performance of the S Pen.
Unlike the Galaxy Note that had a noticeable lag between moving the stylus across the display and when it really appears, there is no lag whatsoever on the Galaxy Note II. In fact, it is the closest I have ever come to getting a traditional writing experience with a stylus. Yes, it still feels like you are scribbling on glass rather than paper and it can get a little slippery but the implementation is almost perfect. The software detects handwriting flawlessly and even I got great accuracy when at times I have difficulty understanding my own scribbles! I could write multiple words in one go and it even understood that. I’m now addicted to the stylus input that I prefer using it to write text messages if the situation allows me to use the device with both hands.
Another feature of the S Pen that I ended up using frequently is Air View, which is activated by pressing a button on the stylus that shows different options when the stylus is hovered over menu items or over folders. In menu items it simply shows what it stands for but it comes in really handy when there are folders, where it gives a preview of items inside the folder. I found it very useful in the calendar, where it shows all meetings lined up on the day so I didn’t have to click on the date and scroll through my day’s agenda. (Check out our gallery to see more scenarios for Air View.) In my opinion, Samsung has finally nailed the need of stylus input by not replicating the functions that could be performed with one’s fingers but by adding new capabilities and features.
There are certain products that look very strong on paper with their specifications but fizzle out when it comes to real-world usage. Thankfully, the Galaxy Note II is not one of them. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised with its performance and have not used any other smartphone in the last two weeks since I have been using it and that rarely happens. The 3,100 mAh battery was more than enough for me to last through an entire day and still have about 10 percent left in it at the end. This has never happened with me while using an Android phone, which usually starts getting thirsty with 12-14 hours of usage. I had two email accounts, one Twitter account and one Facebook account set on push. I had 3G always turned on and used navigation as well. Add to it over two hours of calls and three hours of browsing the web/tweeting and the Galaxy Note II still had battery left in it! It essentially did the job of both my iPad and smartphone.
The camera is at par with expectations, essentially using the same module as the Galaxy S III. With all the processing muscle crammed inside, the Galaxy Note II did not gasp for breath ever during my usage and performed brilliantly. The only thing I don’t like is the auto-correction, which is too passive for my liking.
The Galaxy Note II is available in India for approximately Rs 39,000. LG is expected to launch its interpretation of a phablet, called Vu, but I have my apprehensions whether anyone can do a better job than what Samsung has done with the Galaxy Note II. If you are considering phones with 4.8-inch displays like the HTC One X or the Galaxy S III, I would recommend you also consider the Galaxy Note II. Even those devices are not easy to use with one hand and if you have made up your mind to compromise on one-handed use, you might as well get a slightly bigger device that offers more relevant features that take advantage of the extra real estate.
In my opinion, Samsung has done enough to justify the need for a bigger 5.5-inch display on the Galaxy Note II with all the software additions. The hardware is top-notch and it has no real competition at the moment.
Photographs: Eshan Shetty