Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Around about this time last year, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Note. Most reviewers found the device to be big on specs, performance, and literally, physically big.

Many were also skeptical about whether customers would really want something so big as their main phone – and Samsung will be only too happy to tell them that they’ve sold upwards of 10 million Notes.

Clearly, there is a market for this class of device – a demand Samsung plans to meet with its successor, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Is this follow-up a worthy one – or will the update be one of the few small things about it?

Design and build quality

The Note 2 is, for a modern smartphone, massive.

At 151.1mm x 80.5mm x 9.4mm and weighing a hefty 183g, it catches people’s attention. In the hand, it easily dwarfs just about any other smartphone. Switching back to the Galaxy Nexus after I was done with the Note 2 was as much of an adjustment as switching to the Note 2 for the review. All because the Nexus feels so tiny in comparison.

For better or worse, Samsung is sticking to its metaphorical design guns. You might mistake the Note 2 for a super-sized Galaxy S3 at first glance – and few could fault you for that as the two do share the same design language, broadly speaking.

On the top left of the Note 2 you will find the 3.5mm jack, while the bottom holds the microUSB jack with the S Pen nestled next to it.

On the left side is the volume rocker, while the power/wake button is on the right, within easy reach of your thumb when held in your right hand.

The back is made from a glossy plastic similar to what you’ll find on the Galaxy S3. It’s not particularly grippy and it did exhibit some odd creaks and squeaks – which is not at all comforting in a device of this supposed calibre.

One good thing of the gloss is that, although it was rather fingerprint-attracting, it also hides them quite well.

Along the top-centre of the back sits the chrome-rimmed 8MP camera, with its LED flash to the right of it and a Samsung logo below. In the bottom left corner, close to the S Pen housing, is the external speaker.

The front is made up of a single piece of almost edge-to-edge glass, broken up only by the earpiece at the top and the home button at the bottom – with the latter also having a slight chrome rim.

When powered on, the menu and back buttons show up to the left and right of the home button respectively.

Samsung seems intent on keeping the menu button, though other manufactures have largely followed Google’s lead in killing this feature. While there are many arguments for or against it, I personally don’t think there’s a place for it anymore.

There’s no easy way to say it; simply put, the Note 2 doesn’t come across as a particularly well-crafted phone.

If you were to put it in a lineup, the only reason it would stand out is because of its sheer size.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Samsung Galaxy Note 2

Internals and performance

Inside the Galaxy Note 2 you’ll find an Exynos 4412 quad SoC with a quad-core Cortex A9 CPU clocked at 1.6GHz, as well as a Mali-400MP GPU. Backing that up is an even 2GB of RAM, and 16/32/64GB of storage (we had the 32GB variant) with the option of expanding the latter via microSD.

Keeping you connected is HSPA+ (up to 42Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up), WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and there’s also NFC.

How does it bench, you ask? Well, the Note 2 blows past everything else we’ve ever benched, including the Note 10.1, with a whopping AnTuTu score of 13611.2.

In real use, the Note 2 brushed off almost everything we threw at it. Swipes, scrolls, browsing, and gaming are all silky smooth. We thought things would get interesting when using Samsung’s split screen (more on this later), but the Note 2 just laughed in our faces. The only time we saw noticeable consistent slowdowns, was when we were doing a slew of things at the same time with the only intention being to bring the Note 2 to its knees.

Screen and responsiveness

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 side
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 side

The Note 2 features a massive 5.5”, 1280 x 720, Super AMOLED screen. The original Note, in comparison, had a 5.3” 1280×800 screen, giving the successor slightly less pixel density, though odds are you won’t notice that.

Images are clear, while text is crisp, making the Note 2 a pleasure to read on. As we’ve come to expect from Super AMOLED displays, colours are a little oversaturated – it is particularly prominent with reds (the Google+ icon practically jumped out at us).

It’s worth mentioning that whites on the display are actually a little grey. While you might not see it at first, when we compared it to some of the other devices we had around, it was difficult to miss.

Viewing angles are excellent, with serious colour distortion only becoming a problem at extreme angles. The Note 2 also offers ample brightness, and thanks to its size, we never needed to use the rear flash as a torch – just turn the screen on.

However, direct sunlight renders the Note 2 mostly unusable – though you could still navigate around to place a quick call if the situation needs it.

We had little to complain about response-wise while using the device. The Note 2 reacts quickly and correctly, even to light brushes.

Currently, there’s serious competition in the market when it comes to mobile displays. The Note 2 doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t quite claim the crown, either.

Sound and call quality

Call quality on the Note 2 was acceptable with few complaints. Unfortunately, we can’t necessarily say the same of the rest of the audio.

The rear speaker, though it doesn’t lack in volume, produces thin, ailing, tinny sound. Cranking up the volume doesn’t make anything better, so it’s best to avoid it.

The bundled earphones make a slight improvement, but they are uncomfortable and can’t be trusted to stay where they’re supposed to without constant fiddling.

The best solution to this problem is simply to invest some cash in a decent set of ear- or headphones, as the quality of the audio from the Note 2 improves noticeably when doing so.

Cameras

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 back
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 back

On the back of the Note 2 is an 8MP camera which Galaxy S3 owners may find more than a little familiar.

Shots taken with the Note 2 come out clear and detailed with generally well-represented colours. Casual users will most likely be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the camera on the Note 2, and even more serious users should be more than pleased. Low-light performance isn’t nearly as great – though we can’t say we’re surprised.

Video capture is of a similar quality – with smooth frame rates to boot – making the Note 2 an overall excellent shooter if you’re on the move.

The front-facing 1.9MP camera is more than enough for the odd video chat or self-portrait (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Battery life

The Note 2 contains a massive 3100mAh battery. It’s a slight nightmare to measure for review because it takes so long to run down.

In our usual video looping test (WiFi on and syncing, 65% brightness, 720p video) the Note 2 lasted between 10 and 11 hours.

In normal daily use – with some music, loads of browsing and reading and generally lots of screen-on online activity – the Note 2 could easily manage two days.

Lighter use will see it get three or four days, making us believe that the dream of a smartphone that could last a work week is within reach.

S Pen

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 S Pen
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 S Pen

As with other Note products, the Note 2 comes with an S Pen stylus.

In general, the S Pen works well for Note taking, which is obviously its primary intended use. If you have some kind of skill at drawing (which I do not) then it also works quite well for that sort of thing.

One thing that’s really handy is that the Note 2 can detect the S Pen from a centimetre or two away, and it displays a little dot to indicate its position. This means that you can use it to bring up button tooltips or popup pictures or videos by hovering the pen over them.

Unfortunately, the pen can’t activate the capacitive buttons at all and it’s extremely difficult to activate the home button with it, so this means that you’ll probably be juggling the pen a bit when navigating around.

Software

The Note 2 runs Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean) and, as always, Samsung’s very own TouchWiz UI on top.

While we could once have said that TouchWiz is a light sprinkling on top of Android – the fact is that it’s simply not true anymore.

The lockscreen, homescreen, launcher, apps, settings – just about every part – has seen some sort of change.

While there are some useful additions to be had, for the most part, the skinning exists for the sake of it.

In some cases, Samsung have taken a large step backward. The Music Player app, for instance, is easily the worst music player app I’ve ever had the misfortune of using. The UI is confusing – it follows some of the Android guidelines some of the time, and where it breaks from it there’s little to no indication that its doing so or why.

The player retains a notification icon even when it’s not playing anything, and even while exiting the app via the back button. It also has an “Exit” menu option, which is completely useless.

Apps, like S Note and the calendar app (sorry, S Planner app), try to look as leathery as possible. Besides the look, S Planner has some truly wacky navigation.

Add to this that just about everything new comes with its own popup tutorial (sometimes it’s a series of popups) that may or may not require you to check a checkbox to ensure that you don’t see it again (and also the fact that some of the stock apps have menus that go on for days) – things just start getting ugly.

However, it’s not all bad. If you spend some time in the settings, there are some gems that Samsung has added.

Smart stay, a setting that keeps your screen on if you’re still looking at it, is a feature that’s really enjoyable.

Page buddy, which brings up a specific home screen when a certain condition is met (like bringing up an audio page when you plug in headphones), is also very handy (though the cheesy headings are a bit much).

The Note 2, in particular, has one or two great features: split screen, for instance (which we saw in the Note 10.1) is back. The difference, this time, is that Samsung has ironed out the performance issues and made it compatible with some more apps.

Holding down the back button will bring up a little handle on the left edge of the screen that opens up a tray of apps that can be used. This now includes Chrome, Email, Gallery, GMail, Maps, Messaging, S Note, Google Talk, Video Player, YouTube, ChatOn, and the stock browser.

The problem that Samsung faces with TouchWiz now, is that the manufacturer needs to start culling the garbage and perfecting the good stuff. So far it’s just kept on adding more and more things, which has the nett effect of maximising confusion and frustration.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 stock shot
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 stock shot

Conclusion

In the end, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a great big salad of good and bad things.

On the one hand, it has solid internals which translates to excellent performance in most aspects – on the other hand, there’s the poor choice of external design and mediocre-feeling materials, along with the bloated and too often abysmal software.

The Note 2, like its predecessor, isn’t for everyone – the size alone will dissuade a fair amount of people.

With that said, however, people who want this big phone, and/or have a burning desire for a stylus, will probably enjoy the Note 2.

Current original Note owners will also most likely enjoy the Note 2, if they find themselves yearning for something new.

Related articles

Windows Phone 8X by HTC review

Nokia vs HTC vs Samsung: Windows Phone 8 spec sheet showdown

HTC Desire X review

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 review

Latest news

Partner Content

Show comments

Recommended

Share this article
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review