Review: Samsung Galaxy Note II

If you like the idea of a smartphone so large it’d make Zack Morris nostalgic, then you’ll want to consider the new Samsung Galaxy Note II. If you prefer a smartphone you can operate comfortably with one hand, as I do, you’ll want to avoid the Note II at all costs.

Like the first-generation Galaxy Note, Samsung’s Galaxy Note II is too large to be a great phone, and it’s too small to realistically replace a tablet. The S-Pen — the stylus Samsung bundles with its various Note phones and tablets — is fun for scribbling out a memo or a drawing. But it doesn’t add enough value to the experience to qualify as a truly useful productivity tool. And while the Note II is more refined and polished than its predecessor in nearly every single way — it’s thinner, lighter, faster and more attractive — it’s still not a phone I’d want to wake up next to every day over the life of a 2-year carrier contract. Particularly at an on-contract price of $300.

There are likely a few million people out there who’d disagree with me. The first-generation Note was written off by many critics (get-gadget among them) and it went on to be a huge sales success. So there does seem to be an appetite for these really big phones, particularly in Asia, where the ability to write more complex characters on the screen using a stylus is warmly welcomed.

The new Note measures 5.94 inches tall, 3.16 inches wide and 0.37 inches thick — just a tad taller, yet slimmer and thinner than the first Note. The screen is bigger, too — 5.5 inches, up from the first Note’s 5.3-inch display. Next to a Note II, the iPhone 5, Nexus 4, Galaxy S III and almost every other smartphone looks comically small. But they’re not small by any means, the Note II is just enormous. Despite a relatively thin bezel, the Note II is so large, it requires two hands to operate comfortably. Often, when I tried to stretch my thumb across the Note II’s display, I mistakenly touched it as I was adjusting the phone in my hand, triggering responses from apps that I didn’t intend. Almost everything requires two hands: selecting and launching apps, looking up a website, taking a photo, shooting a video, placing a phone call, rattling off a text message or an e-mail. The experience is frustrating. My colleague, get-gadget writer Christina Bonnington, held the Note II up to her head and I couldn’t see her face behind the handset.

Samsung is pitching this as a “phablet,” a hybrid device that’s a cross between a tablet and smartphone. But it’s not a double-duty wondergadget, nor is it something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s just a phone. A massive, massive phone.

Though it lacks the sensitivity of pro-level setups such as Wacom‘s input tablets and pens, the S Pen is plenty responsive and accurate. A plastic tip adds a nice bit of resistance, making writing on a slick surface a little less awkward. The S Pen can be used in place of a finger to navigate around every aspect of the phone’s user interface, and can also be used (by manipulating a button under the fingertip) to take screenshots or save images from the web, and then scribble on them. You can also write out notes, lists or calendar entries by hand and watch as your cursive is translated to text, thanks to the built-in handwriting recognition capabilities.

Still, I never once felt like writing with the S Pen was faster or easier than just typing something out, especially since Samsung has included SwiftKey’s fantastic Flow keyboard for gesture typing. After enabling SwiftKey Flow (it’ll prompt you the first time you use the keyboard), just swipe your fingers from key to key to spell out a word. As you’re sliding around, SwiftKey deftly guesses which word you’re spelling, and presents you with suggestions as you swipe. This form of gesture typing is one place where the Note’s huge display is an advantage — you’ll have no trouble staying on the screen.

While the TouchWiz UI is cumbersome, at least everything else runs very quickly on the Note II. And it should, after all — the Note II is one of the most powerful smartphones Samsung has ever built, with a 1.6GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM packed inside. The Note II has enough speed to make John Force feel proud. There’s also an enormous 3,100 mAh battery sitting behind the massive display. I was regularly charging up the Note II every other day during my two weeks with it. That’s some astounding battery performance, and one of the few features I can honestly say I love about the Note II.

If you must have a gigantic smartphone, the Note II is a solid performer. But the problems of the first-generation Note — unwieldy size, messy software, gimmicky stylus — still haunt the sequel.

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