Believe it or not, it wasn’t that long ago that we lived in the shadow of our noisy, hulking desktop PC overlords, before our lifestyles demanded incrementally more mobile devices. But if 2011 marked the reluctant acceptance of 10-inch tablets as commonplace, then 2012 heralded the exploration of the diminutive 7 to 8 inch form factor as yet an even more portable alternative. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the humble smartphone has seen an irrefutable growth in screen sizes from the 3.5-inch standard of 2009, to the 4.3-4.7-inch norm at the end of 2012.
How time flies.
The package includes solid Samsung earphones, a pack of interchangeable tips, paperwork and most notably, a 5V 2A charger, which allows for a full charge of the immense battery in just over 2 hours. Click to enlarge.
Logic dictates that these opposing classes of devices will intersect – a category, dare I say it, known as ‘phablets’, or somewhere in the twilight zone between phones and tablets. It’s mostly unexplored territory, but in the distant rumbling dust cloud comes an unlikely riff-raff of mutants eager to please. Proudly championing this [rabble] of [monstrosities] has been Samsung’s original [Galaxy Note], originally released in late 2011, nearly universally [mocked] by reviewers at the time as being simply ‘too big’. The overgrown brute was cruelly shed by the wayside and left for dead in a pool of AMOLED waste, at least initially. But now, with more than 10 million units sold, and it’s successor, [the Note 2], well on it’s way to an endearing [20 million sales] less than 3 months after it’s release, the [message is crystal clear].
Jumbo sized phones are here to stay. Hell, even [Lebron] digs it.
But do you need huge NBA orang-utan baseball glove hands to use these super sized devices, and how exactly does one decide an ideal form anyway? Our houses, like our cars, our clothes and our devices, are shaped around human dimensions and functions. As our use of these very personal devices stray towards [absorbing visual content], away from raising them to our heads and [actually talking on them], the ballooning form follows function. Witness the rapid growth of standalone tablets, the majority of which are sold without cellular connectivity, to see the signs that consumption is king.
The question then is, what is the MORE ideal size?
What if, instead of dual wielding both a phone and tablet while on the go, there was an all-in-one device? The first-world freedom afforded from no longer having to choose between devices, sync two sets of applications / data, fiddle with tethering or juggle battery life, but still having the relaxed enjoyment of a tablet? After a week with the Note 2, previously having come from a Galaxy Nexus / iPhone 5 / [Nexus 7] combination, and half a dozen odd tablets of various flavours before that, I’m a firm believer.
First off, let’s clear some common misconceptions. The Note 2 is big, but it’s not THAT big. You don’t need an assistant to carry it for you, nor does it accept an antenna input, nor will it write your car off if you left it on the roof, nor does it come with a shoulder strap, nor can you do reps with it. To somebody who has only known iPhones, it looks like like it could cause a solar eclipse (the iPhone 5, even with it’s elongated form, fits it’s ENTIRE body into the ‘screen only’ area of the Note 2). But placed next to the ever popular 4.7-inch Galaxy S3, it’s a far more like a logical evolution – it’s an S3 with 20% growth hormones. You should have no issue with the width of the Note 2 … unless you religiously wear skinny jeans, have elf hands or a shrunken toy head.
The S3’s smooth profile carries over in nearly every way to the Note 2: gunmetal chrome edges, thin plastic back and button positioning. The Note 2, initially at least, feels somewhat unwieldy, requiring a delicate finger chord ballet to avoid dribbling it on the ground. Keep it’s 183g weight held like a reporter’s notepad, not an ice cream, and it works much better. There’s precious little space on the front bezel to pinch the phone – it’s been noticeably thinned down (but it’s 0.8mm thicker than the S3) since the first revision, resulting in a device that’s physically smaller, but yet squeezes in a larger screen. Undeniably, the outer tactile feel is leagues behind Apple’s mastery of anodised materials in recent iPhones, but it’s hardly a revolting experience.
A logically placed volume rocker and power button adorn the sides, and the home button is flanked by capacitive ‘menu’ and ‘back’ buttons – presumably this will be one of the last phones which still adhere to this standard. The Nexus range, and Google’s ultimate vision, have long adopted more flexible on-screen buttons. The unfortunate placement of the headphone jack at the top of the device is an annoyance, but the stylus on the bottom right is convenient – more on that shortly.
The Note 2 is likely the absolute largest physical size for a smartphone I would be comfortable with, and that’s after becoming familiar with it. There have been odd occasions where it’s bulk has led to awkward fumbling, but the stone cold truth is, it’s a sign of things to come – with some rumours pointing to the [Galaxy S4] at 5-inches and the Note 3 at 6.3-inches, the plus-size train is powering along at full speed.
All is soon forgiven when the Note 2 is powered up – it’s Samsung-manufactured, quad-core [Exynos 4412] humming along (a [32nm ARM Cortex-A9] unit running at @ 1.6 Ghz paired with a Mali-400MP GPU). It’s a refreshing increase in horsepower from the S3, and adds a serious value proposition for the power users. With the in-depth multitasking nature of Android, I often see memory usage regularly creep over the 1.5GB mark. With RAM prices hitting rock bottom, there should be no excuse for not making at least 2GB of DDR2 RAM mandatory for all current phones.
Task switching and interactions were constantly silky smooth, running Android 4.1.2 Jellybean, and everything is amazingly responsive and very slick. There was nothing I ran which caused the Note 2 to miss a beat, even for a moment. The Tegra 3 powered [Nexus 7] is no slouch, but it’s positively pedestrian next to the Note 2, which at the time of writing, is the second fastest Android phone (after the Atom-based [Lenovo K900]). If you’re coming from a Galaxy S2 or Galaxy Nexus, the difference is night and day.
The crown jewel, of course, is the ever intimidating 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display, weighing in with a 1280 x 720 display (267 ppi), dutifully wrapped in Corning’s [Gorilla Glass 2]. It’s technically not ‘Retina’, though Samsung has taken steps to improve sub-pixel density and sharpness ([known in some circles as S-Stripe] – which provides 50% more sub-pixels than the Note / Galaxy S3 / other pentile displays, even at a lower resolutions) to provide the best display on any Samsung phone. All said, it’s plenty sharp, and it can’t be understated how much of a luxury doing the same tasks on a 5.5-inch screen is – it’s like plugging your 13-inch laptop into a 23-inch monitor, even if it does feel like clown shoes at first.
Suddenly, as if by magic, you no longer need to hold the phone closer to read text, or double tap to zoom in webpages, or even resort to bookmarking later for viewing on your PC. As with previous S-AMOLED screens, colours are intensely saturated (think Demo Mode at the TV store), but mercifully it can be toned down through the Settings, and the blacks are infinitely deep. Where the screen does fall short is in direct sunlight – without having a particularly high maximum brightness, the screen can sometimes be difficult to see in outdoor reflections.
One of my aims when I set out with the Note 2 was to subjectively test if a 5.5-inch screen was enough to easily consume a large number of articles, e-books, webpages and media, without getting a headache from the strain – a task next to impossible on the Galaxy Nexus, let alone iPhone 5. I’m happy to report that it’s not only doable, it’s actually joyous. Not enough to stand on a roof and sing about it, but even spreadsheets did not cause eye-bleeds when modifying on the run. Being able to hold the phone at a full arm’s length, or do some heavy reading sessions, is a very welcome change.
The 1/3.2″-sensored 8MP camera is shared with the Galaxy S3, along with a 1.9MP front-facing camera. Picture quality is quite decent with an F/2.4 aperture, comparable to the class-leading iPhone 5 camera, so your selfies are assuredly safe. Shutter lag time is non-existent, the burst mode is fast and furious and the continuous auto-focus works well, though the camera app does take a few seconds to launch. Built-in Instagram-style filters, an HDR mode, manual exposure controls, various scene / capture modes and image stabilisation provide a solid smattering of options, but annoyingly lacking an AE lock. A nice touch is being able to apply artistic filters on-the-fly in 1080p video recording mode.
NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, dual-band Wifi, HDMI output (via [MHL]), a 4G variant (in the form of the [N7105]), noise suppression (look for the tiny microphone at the top) and an impressively loud speaker round out the novelty list, but all would be wasted if it had minuscule battery life. Here, the Note 2 delivers it’s trump card, a cavernous internal emptiness to house it’s formidable 3100 mAh battery. Nearing 7-inch tablet capacity, as physically wide as an iPhone 5 itself and over twice the capacity, it’s rated at 35 hours of talk time (vs. the iPhone 5’s 8 hours). For comparison, the [Galaxy S3], with it’s 2100 mAh battery, ranks at 21 hours of talk time. Imagine a petrol tanker with an interchangeable tank.
In addition, Samsung has done a fairly admirable job of optimising battery life with it’s CPU governors and core usage – I’ve been averaging an easy 40% left by sleep time with moderate/heavy usage and plenty of background activity, where the iPhone 5 and Galaxy Nexus would be all but dead already by mid-afternoon. Battery life has been the bane of many smartphone owners, especially early Android adopters, but I’m glad to say, the Note 2 has this problem well and truly taken care of. Some [XDA forum] owners are reportedly making it through two days without a problem, often trouncing the previous smartphone battery-king, the [Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX]. Nokia feature-phone owners with week-long battery life will be dismissive, but for the rest of us who like more than 16 shades of grey and tire of Snake, there’s the Note 2.
You could probably fit some small phones into the space where the battery sits. The MicroSD card slots is located underneath the camera. Note two sets of contacts on the right – one for the NFC antenna in the rear cover, the other for wireless charging. No, it’s not enabled out of the box.
It’s now beginning to make sense why the Note 2 has substantially more powerful internal hardware than the S3 – it can actually physically carry enough juice to avoid disappointment. Forget to turn off Bluetooth or Wifi? Whatever. Want to push e-mail all your accounts with maximum brightness? Yawn.
The icing on the case is that the internal circuity for wireless battery charging is present, though incomplete. Only the induction coil is missing from the rear cover, although there are already clever types who have it working with Palm touchstones and other charging systems with [minor work]. Chances are there may be an official replacement back / pad combination available later, but this demand is already being filled by eBay sellers.
The early versions of Samsung’s Touchwiz UI on the Galaxy S I9000 left a bitter taste for many, myself included. I’m still spitting the taste out, and the scars may never quite heal, but I’m glad to say that Touchwiz has toned down and improved by leaps and bounds since then. When combined with the Note 2’s hardware, it is a boon, not a burden, especially for beginners. The streamlined out-of-box experience is class-leading, including the free 50GB of Dropbox space, and there’s even a ‘simplified’ version of the launcher for the less savvy. The augmented settings panel provides plenty of guidance for Samsung-specific applications and features.
Let’s run through some:
- Multi-window – A stroke of genius: two apps at the same time, in an adjustable split screen format. Youtube and forums? Movies while news reading? You got it. Floating apps are also possible, such as a popup browser which can open links without leaving the app. [Here’s a list] of currently supported apps.
- [S-Voice] – A voice-controlled assistant – it’s not great, even Siri is better. Use the superior [Google Voice Search] (as in [Google Now]) instead.
- [Smart Stay] – Recognises you’re actively gawking at the screen and will delay screen standby. It did work a few times.
- Smart Rotate – Recognises the angle of your face, like when you’re reading sideways in bed, and rotates to suit. Didn’t work for me.
- Allshare Cast / Nearby Devices – Detects [DLNA] devices (an open-standard version of Airplay streaming) and streams your media over or vice-versa. Haven’t tested it.
- Blocking Mode – Phone goes silent at a certain time, but can be done easily with third-party apps.
- Power Saving Mode – Throttles CPU down to 1.1ghz, reduces brightness and other tweaks to extend battery life. Break only in case of emergencies.
- Notification LED – Like the Nexus, the Note 2 includes a multi-coloured notification LED above the screen for indicating missed calls, messages and other alerts. More granular tuning can be achieved by third-party apps like [Light Manager].
- Motion Controls – Some useful, such as triggering the camera from the lock screen when you pick up your phone in a certain way, or waving your hand over the sleeping phone to check notifications. Some not so useful, like tilt-zooming or lifting the phone to your ear while viewing contact information to call them. Some of the more absurd gestures are swiping the entire oil-soaked side of your hand on the screen surface to take a screenshot, or Sumo chopping the phone face to mute it during media playback.
- One-Handed Operation – Jokes aside, some built-in applications like the keypad, in-call buttons, keyboard and calculator can be offset to either side. It’s a shame that the capacitive buttons are still in a fixed position though. On the topic of keyboards, I found the Samsung provided keyboard fairly poor in responsiveness and accuracy, as have other Galaxy owners – I’d highly recommend a far more intelligent keyboard like [SwiftKey 3].
- Samsung Cloud Sync – Backup your data and apps, track your phone, and more. Never used it.
- Customisable Quick-Toggles in the Notification Bar – Really, why isn’t this standard across the board by now?
The stylus as an accessory is polarising, to say the least. I still have recurring nightmares about styli from the Windows Mobile 6 days on tiny resistive screens, frantically trying to find the microscopic Close button on dialogs like whack-a-mole, alternating between smashing holes in nearby walls and throwing the phones at them. Some things [never change]. But this is a whole different ball game.
Forget everything you know about styli, even eBay ‘capacitive optimised’ ones for iOS devices.
Some will choose to disavow the existence of the stylus, but will still be able to enjoy the Note 2 to a great extent. From extended use of the stylus in built-in and third-party apps, I’m leaning towards favouring it’s inclusion. Samsung does encourage it’s usage, including a substantial tutorial on the S-Note app – it’s ability to sketch notes and drawings, recognise formulas, straighten vector shapes and sync the whole lot to [Evernote] or [Google Drive] has it’s place. The handwriting recognition is astoundingly accurate, even successfully decoding my borderline hieroglyphic writing style.
The stylus can also be used through normal applications if one prefers, with the ability to hover over elements (at a distance of about 3-5mm from the screen) for pop-up information, or capture a screenshot / section of the screen, and immediately doodle all over it. Laughs aplenty.
Where the stylus really shines is during drawing, whether for artistic or other purposes. The precision and familiarity of holding a pen simply allows for accuracy that simply can’t be achieved with a finger or mouse. With a mind-boggling 1,024 individual levels of pressure sensitivity (which required the implemention of a separate [Wacom] digitizer in the display), it munches third-party capacitive styluses on other devices and exposes them as junk. For sketchers, notepad converts and designers who swear by Wacom digitizer tablets since the 80’s, it’s a Pandora’s box of opportunities.
Taken in the greater context of the Note 2 as a creation and productivity tool, the stylus makes more sense. There are a variety of powerful artistic apps appearing which support the S-Pen, such as [Infinite Painter] and [Sketchbook], click through to see some impressive results. If you forget your stylus and walk away with your phone, it warns you. It makes a customisable noise as you unsheath it. Neat touches everywhere.
The standard lockscreen has customisable shortcuts, location-aware weather, dual time-zone support, a news ticker, Call/SMS/Email notifications, water-ripple effects and the S-Pen even makes an ink fluid effect. The ink colour can be customised, naturally.
Should you get one?
Rephrased, the question is whether you are willing to carry a substantially larger device than what you might be used to, in exchange for the performance, screen estate, battery life and S-Pen? For some, the trade off is too great to endure, and for them I’d recommend eventually picking up a tablet or resorting to the laptop for the more arduous tasks.
For everybody else, including productivity junkies, students, light-packing travellers, creative types and power tweakers, the Note 2 is a rock solid companion that isn’t afraid to expand the horizon and does not disappoint. Large purely for large’s sake is a losing proposition, but Samsung has thrown it’s entire engineering talent into thoughtful improvements, both hardware and software, resulting in a superbly well-rounded device which should be, at the very least, seriously considered, but not because of it’s looks.
In essence, the Galaxy Note 2 is really all about simplification. Simplifying the mental burden of handling multiple devices, the constant inconvenience of short battery life, the delaying of tasks till a computer is handy. Simplifying the obstacles which put a stumbling block in front of productivity and creativity. Simplifying the immensely confusing choice for the ‘best’ Android phone. And we all know what simple is. Simple is good.