Samsung Galaxy Note II: Review
A few weeks ago, I was challenged to partake in a week-long transition to Android. To see how I’d get on, to find out what the differences were with iOS and to see if it might make me think differently when I come to make my next upgrade.
Accompanied with the test was a brand new Samsung Galaxy Note 2 which would replace my iPhone; it would also be the first time I’d used a non-Apple branded phone since 2007 as my sole device. I felt reviewing the device would be a no brainer, helped by the fact that I’ve used nothing but my iPhone for nearly six years – minus the odd hands-on with various other handsets. Alas, I hope to provide you all with a fresh review and some bold opinions on both the Note 2 and Samsung themselves, with some comparisons thrown in for good measure.
The first thing that struck me was the size. This device is seriously big and my initial impression was: “Is this really a phone?”. Mobile Phones have changed dramatically over the years – they started out as big, heavy, cumbersome devices and soon got smaller and lighter before becoming thinner and lighter still. Then technology advanced and in 2007, smartphones became the norm. Everyone owned an iPhone until other companies entered the fray and with that, devices got bigger again and customers started demanding larger displays, bigger batteries and more storage. Some continue to make devices as thin and light as they can, but others, like Samsung have gone somewhat the other way.
With all that said, the Note 2 isn’t a tremendously heavy device – it weighs in at 183 grams in comparison to the iPhone 5 at 112 grams. But the screen size lends itself to be quite close to that of a 7″ tablet. Closer than I, personally would like. It didn’t feel right in my pocket, it felt…cumbersome. A bit of a burden, just like the phones of the 90’s would feel if you carried them today. It sat better in terms of not sticking out like a wallet full of coins, but in terms of sheer size, I felt like I was carrying a photo-frame around with me. I knew pretty much immediately that the Note 2 was just too big for me to have as my phone. But it wouldn’t function as a tablet either, and that’s the problem. It’s in a dead-space, a void that only Samsung have decided to fill while others smartly choose to avoid it. A device this big simply doesn’t work as a phone.
Sales figures reflect what I believe; Samsung sold only 11m units of the first model from launch until the release of the Note 2 and the the second version had just more than a quarter the sales of the iPhone 5 in their first five months on sale. Samsung’s sale rate of the Galaxy S3 shows this too – they sold roughly 30m in the first five months. The S3, a very similarly specced device, that weighs a third less, is 15mm shorter, 10mm narrower and 8mm thinner. Of course, to Samsung this is irrelevant – they can sell both models side by side and make lots of money, but my point remains and I imagine most people feel the same way. In-fact, Samsung’s clout, even with a lower selling device is clear when you compare the device to an LG Optimus 4X – which sold only around 3.5-4m units in its first five months.
So, with the size issue out of the way, what were my other findings?
The device is expensive in cost terms and yet cheap in look and feel. The back cover is a brushed aluminium style plastic in the ‘Titanium Gray’ version which is easily removable with the flick of a fingernail. The front, which is very reminiscent of the S3, includes a plastic, not very clicky home button and two touch buttons that facilitate both ‘menu’ and ‘back’. I never looked at it as a premium device and yet, the sim-free price would suggest that it is.
I took an array of photographs with the Note 2 and while the camera isn’t the best I’ve seen, I was pleasantly surprised. I suppose this is what you’d expect from an 8mp shooter but I’d have expected the Nexus 4 camera to be decent and that simply isn’t the case. Both the rear and front facing camera, which has a 1.9mp sensor, performed well in good light and I even found that in a dimly lit night shot, the main camera did a pretty good job. The images didn’t look over-saturated or out-of-focus and mostly felt crisp and clear. 1080p video recording was equally impressive, but my only gripe was a seemingly constant need to re-focus and sometimes even on the wrong thing.
I found the 5.5 inch display to be somewhat disappointing. Of course, the huge area is a bonus if you’re at home but the overall clarity and depth seemed lacking and interestingly, it’s only a 720p display. Samsung decided to drop the resolution to 1280 x 720 from the previous 800, subsequently changing the aspect ratio to 16:9. The screen appeared very over-saturated in some cases – no bad thing in Instagram where there are filters galore, but what was more of an issue was the very apparent blue hue of the display which was even more noticeable with the battery saving setting enabled.
My favourite part of the Note 2 was the battery, which was outstanding. The first charge seemed to empty quite quickly but after the battery was fully drained and re-juiced, the thing seemed to stay on forever. The most I managed to get was just over two days ‘on battery’ with around nine hours of usage. That’s very impressive, though with a battery over twice the size of the iPhone 5, at 3100mAh, I’d expect it to be.
I remembered a couple of days into my test about the S Pen – a throwback to when I used to have a Palm LifeDrive all those years ago. The S Pen, a stylus, is housed on the right side at the back of the device. It’s held firmly in place and only fits one way – so don’t force it in! Over the course of seven days, I used the S Pen for a total of around 8 minutes. I found it totally useless for how I use a phone – it never even entered into my head.
Sure, I can hand-write notes with it, but in this day and age, what use is that? I can type on the keyboard quicker than I can have the device accept my handwriting with no mistakes and I can fit hundreds of characters onto the screen instead of a few scrawled letters which are un-readable to me at a later date. I copied the Samsung advert where they cut out friends’ heads, Photoshop style, and put them onto other objects and found myself quickly getting bored. It’s a gimmick and that’s it – it serves absolutely no purpose other than to crop out a portion of the display as a screenshot. And even that takes too long.
I found the speed of the device to be very slick, it blasted through menus, changed settings quickly and scrolled down heavy webpages with ease. Even with a high number of apps running in the background and performing processor intensive tasks, the Note 2 flew along. The only thing that caused any hint of lag was Multi-Window, which I’ll talk more about below.
But what about all the features Samsung throw in? All the features that Samsung fans always tell me ‘your phone doesn’t have this’. The features like ‘Smart Stay’, ‘Multi-Window’, ‘Quick Glance’ or ‘Face down to mute’.
I can say, without doubt, that Samsung do love to throw in a boat-load of features – lots more than you’ll find on an iPhone or a Nexus 4. My issue with this is that they’re mostly complete gimmicks that have no real World use. Smart Stay is a feature that keeps the display on as long as you’re looking at it. To do this, it uses the front-facing camera to detect your face at an interval you set for the screen to time out. But it doesn’t work in the dark and it inconsistently fails to detect that actually you’re looking away from the device – sometimes it picks up that you’re not looking at it, while other times it shuts off when you are. It’s also a battery drain, an un-necessary one. What is wrong with just tapping the screen every now and then? Set the interval a bit longer, if you must and even if you fall asleep, it’s only going to remain on for a very short period of time. Samsung also market Smart Stay with this line: “It waits till you’re asleep”. Which seems frankly ridiculous, given that it doesn’t work in the dark.
Multi-Window does exactly what it says on the tin. It gives you the option to have two apps side by side, with an adjuster in the middle allowing you to have one slightly larger than the other. This means you can play a video on the left while replying to a text message on the right. It’s great in principal but the way it’s presented doesn’t match up. It’s a bit slow, a little laggy and in the time it takes you to activate, select the two apps you want and reply to the message, you could have been out of the app, into messaging, replied and watched another 20 seconds of the film. Again, no real World purpose.
Quick Glance isn’t the worst of the bunch, but it’s close. This feature allows you to glide your hand anywhere near the screen for a brief moment which in turn lights up the display and gives you a brief overview of your phone – time, date, missed calls, messages and battery status. Before the display fades to off once more after a few seconds. There’s no actual function within Quick Glance and so, what is the point? It’s just another thing that needlessly drains your battery and looks pretty for all of five seconds. Why not just wake the device to see all this information?
Face down to mute is the final feature to talk about, and this again seems to fix a problem that never existed. How do we silence our phones? On an iPhone, you flip the switch on the side. On an Android device, you tap the volume key down a few clicks or select mute from quick settings. At most, a three click process. But Samsung have given us ‘face down to mute’ which allows you to put your phone, face down, to silence it. The only time I can see this being of any use is if it’s imperative you silence your phone within half a second. Otherwise, the additional two seconds it takes to mute it via quick settings don’t matter. I don’t think I’d want to put my phone face down on a dirty train table to mute an incoming call either. Again, I ask – what is the point?
Hence, the entire set of motion features were disabled very quickly and my battery life improved as a result. Some people might find a use for one or maybe two of these features, but for me, there weren’t any. Maybe it’s better to include them, than not to. After all, it gives Samsung something else to market, something else people can talk about. The fact is, you can always turn them off.
Despite a pretty negative final few paragraphs, I didn’t dislike the Note 2 as much as I might have made it sound. The phone is quick, the battery incredible and the camera impressive. It’s only let down by being too big, for feeling too cheap and for including a whole host of disappointing, well marketed but under-performing features. I could cure the size factor by having a Galaxy S3 or S4 but I’d still have a whole category of features turned off and I’d have a much smaller battery.
If you’re after a phone with a huge screen and impressive battery life then this phone is most definitely for you. But if you’re after a well built, easy to hold Android device with no gimmicks then I suggest you wait for the next flagship release from Google.