Whenever I test a new gadget, I like handing it over to my non-tech friends to see what they think. That's what I did the night I got the Galaxy Note II, Samsung's update to its polarizing phone/tablet hybrid that will go on sale through T-Mobile and AT&T for around $299.99 with a two-year contract.
My friends had no idea what they were holding. Most were surprised when I told them it was actually a phone. That's because the Note II is massive compared to other smartphones thanks to its 5.5-inch display, which is big enough to fit an entire iPhone 5 with plenty of glass still peeking out from either side. Add in the bezel and most humans won't be able to operate this thing with one hand. It's that huge.
Then there's the stylus, which Samsung calls the S Pen, a relic of the Palm Pilot era that has been modified with nifty tricks beyond just writing and doodling. For example, the S Pen can detect how hard you press on the screen and act as a mouse cursor for hovering over drop-down menus on websites.
So the Note II is big. But is it worth buying? Here's a look at how it performs.
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Using it: The Galaxy Note II runs the latest version of Android called Jelly Bean. That means you'll get some new features from Google that haven't made it to the Galaxy S III yet. My favorite is Google Now, Android's incredible voice-controlled assistant/search engine.
Like the Galaxy S III, Samsung has heavily modified the Note II's software with a ton of features. You can automatically share photos with other Samsung devices over a special kind of Wi-Fi connection, tap your phone next to another to swap content like photos or websites, and play video in a separate pop-up window while texting or surfing the web. (Yes, just like the Galaxy S III commercials.)
All that sounds great, but Samsung doesn't make it easy to activate. The average person is going to have trouble digging through the phone's settings to figure out how everything switches on.
There are also a number of Samsung-branded apps and apps from the carrier that bog down your home screen when you first activate the phone. You'll end up removing most of them. Most importantly, there's an app called S Note, which you can easily activate by removing the S Pen from the bottom of the phone. S Note is a pretty standard note-taking app, but uses handwriting recognition to convert your S Pen scribbles into regular text. It works most of the time, but you're probably better off typing your notes out using the on-screen keyboard just to be safe.
Other than that, the software is pretty much a clone of what you'll find on the Galaxy S III, except on a much larger screen.
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Hardware: Under the hood, the Note II is a beast. Between the quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM, it's one of the most powerful phones available today. And it shows. I had no problem bouncing between apps, playing games, or watching video.
For battery life, the Note II usually lasted over a day with normal use. Depending on your carrier, you'll get some fast data speeds, too. I tested the T-Mobile version of the Note II, and was happy with the results. You'll likely get faster speeds on LTE networks like AT&T's.
The S Pen isn't helpful. Writing in S Note feels unnatural -- there's an annoying lag from the time the tip of the stylus touches the screen and your marking appears. It's almost as bad as signing one of those credit card machines at the supermarket.
The screen isn't the only part of the Note II that's big. Overall, the phone is thick and heavy, which is a pain to keep in your pocket. After carrying the svelte iPhone 5 around for the last month or so, I felt like I had a brick in my jeans with the Note II. It was demoted to my computer bag within the first day.
And that's the problem with the Note II. It's a great phone in most respects, but ironically its most distinguishing feature hurts the device in the end. The Note II is just too big.
Should You Buy It? Well, maybe. That is, if you don't mind lugging it around.
If you really like Samsung's gadgets, I think your best bet is still the Galaxy S III, which has all of the benefits and features without the drawbacks and hefty price tag and size of the Note II.
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