Samsung Galaxy Note 2

5th Apr 2013 | 09:23

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

The Note is back, bigger and better

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

Still a little too large for some, it's still a great device to help users enter the phablet market at a reduced cost.

Like:

Enormous battery; Expandable memory; Amazing screen; LTE capable; Blazingly fast;

Dislike:

Expensive; S-Pen is still complicated; Slow camera shutter; Size may be a barrier;

Introduction

Update: The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 may be a few months old now, but it's been given some tweaks to make sure it can compete with the class of 2013, including an update to Android 4.1.2. We've updated our review accordingly.

It hasn't even been a year since the original Samsung Galaxy Note launched. It was a work of genius for old Samsung. Many (including us, we admit) were not convinced. Who on earth would want something so big to make their calls and surf the internet, even with a glorified stylus?

Cue awkward silence.

Millions of you, it would appear. The Samsung Galaxy Note has sold by the bucketload. And while it is most definitely a niche device, it's done wonders for Samsung's balance sheet. How do you follow that up? With something better, of course - the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

If you've ever fondled or caressed the original Samsung Galaxy Note and found its larger size too much to handle, we'll break this to you with a sledgehammer - the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is bigger.

It's now 151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4mm (5.9 x 3.2 x 0.4 inches), so slightly up from 146.9 x 83 x 9.7mm (5.8 x 3.3 x 0.4 inches). That said, we didn't find it cumbersome at all.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

In the way the original Samsung Galaxy Note followed the Samsung Galaxy S2's square design, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 follows the Samsung Galaxy S3's more rounded rectangular look.

And what a beauty it is. It actually felt slightly smaller to us in day-to-day use - but that may be down to the fact that we have gravedigger hands.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The Samsung Galaxy Note had a frankly amazing screen as it was, so would have taken some beating. But Samsung clearly likes a challenge. The size has gone up slightly from 5.3 inches to 5.5. And although pixel density is reduced, we didn't notice it.

This is the bright, vivid Samsung Super AMOLED panel that we all know and love - and what a beauty it is, replicating colours amazingly and immaculately. Side by side with the Samsung Galaxy S4, it may look a little less glam. But so will most phone screens.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

As expected, that screen takes up most of the front. You get a home button and two hidden soft keys beneath it as before, plus a front-facing camera and sensors up top.

The handset itself has little to note (geddit?) around the edges. A headphone jack up top, power button on the right, volume on the left and charger port below, right alongside the S-Pen slot - more of which will follow later.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Around the back, you'll find the 8MP camera with flash.

The additional sorcery is carried out away from view. The microSD expansion slot is beneath the rear cover - as is the microSIM slot, hidden behind the enormous 3,100 mAh battery.

And there's a whole lot of goodness even further inwards than that: HSDPA (LTE if you're extra lucky), NFC, GPS, Wi-Fi and so forth. It's a veritable treasure trove of geekdom.

One other thing we'd say is that this does feel like a quality Android smartphone/tablet. We're aware of the protestations by some readers (particularly iPhone users) that phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 feel like toys because they're so light and plasticky.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

At 183g (0.4lbs), you couldn't describe the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 as a feather - and the weight gives it a real notion of substance.

If you want to pick a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 up, you'll need to be willing to part with some serious cash. Although it has come down in price. From around £530/AU$999/US$700 SIM-free late last year, just a few months on, you can pick one of these up for as relatively little as £430/AU$700/US$615.

It is also available on contract, but be willing to shovel £40+ per month in the network's direction for two years if you'd like the handset gratis in the UK.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Buying GuideBest Android phone - which should you buy?Best Android phone

Normally, this is where we'd talk about the alternatives on offer. But we admit, we're stumped here. Why? Well, in our mind, there is no clear rival. The Samsung Galaxy Note created its own category, in that there were no real phablets about before.

And while you'll get the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system and similar benefits from the Samsung Galaxy S3 or Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (depending on whether you want a phone or tablet), the form factor is pretty unique. You can bring other larger handsets into the fold - like the Sony Xperia Z, for example - but they don't have an S-Pen or equivalent.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

In fact, the only real rival is the original Note - a worthy contender for that title because it's now available for a much reduced sum. Just £345/AU$500/US$450 SIM-free will get you one of those babies - and that makes it a very serious and credible alternative to its replacement, the Note 2. Though bear in mind, we are likely to see the Note 3 towards the end of the year, so the original will be way out of date by then.

Interface

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Let's lay this out from the start. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a seriously fast Android device.

It launched on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, just as the original original Samsung Galaxy Note was being bumped up to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

In February 2013, Samsung started pushing out Android 4.1.2 on the Galaxy Note 2 - so while it's still behind the trailblazer of Android that is the Google Nexus 4, it's only marginal.

Of course, Jelly Bean has Project Butter, which really ramps up the speed of the operating system - and that sits on top of 2GB RAM and a quad-core 1.6GHz processor.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

It's almost enough to make our brains melt.

Android 4.1.2 is mainly a bug fix update - but there are some nice little quirks that go hand in hand with that.

The first thing you'll see once you're signed in and set up is TouchWiz.

That's Samsung's proprietary skin, which sits atop Android and has done for many iterations.

Some love it, some hate it, but it has come on in leaps and bounds over the last year or so.

Yes, it's a little colourful and cartoony in some places, but it's pretty functional.

And although you can replace it with third-party launchers, if you want to use the S-Pen for the majority of functions, you'll have to stick to it.

TouchWiz gives you seven home screens to whiz between (which you can do with no delay) but that's your lot.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Seven seems to be the magic number on most OEM launchers, and provides you with enough space for the most part.

They can be populated with widgets, as can all Android handsets.

Samsung provides several out of the box, and you'll delete some straight away.

Things such as S-Suggest, for example, didn't float our boat.

But it's all subjective, and you can remove, replace and add to your heart's content.

Some of those that ship with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 are Samsung's and some are Google's.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

And some, such as Gmail preview and the music control, really do make life easier.

The Google Play Store is your friend here, and delving through it is always part of the fun.

Apps are accessed via the app drawer, which you find at the bottom-right of each screen, alongside four other customisable shortcuts.

They're displayed in a 5x5 grid format, due to the increased screen real estate, with a live image of your wallpaper beneath that looks great.

You can also preview widgets from a tab within this, rather than having to install each widget in order to see exactly what it looks like, which is how things used to be done.

If you've ever used a Samsung Galaxy S3, you'll feel right at home here.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

As far as the S-Pen goes, it's quite smart.

As soon as you pull it out of its slot, it semi-launches a special suite of apps for you to pick from. We saw something similar on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.

The notification bar has been jazzed up a little too, and it's now more functional.

The software update has brought some new minor improvements to it - including an extra toggle for multi-window, which we'll go into in a moment.

Being able to pinch to view new emails is one addition we got with Android Jelly Bean, and something we never tire of using.

Plus, Google recently updated the Gmail app, which means you can archive and reply to messages from the notification bar. We likey a lotty.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Android Jelly Bean also gives you the fantastic Google Now. It's a great assistant app that learns from you as you use it.

The idea is that it accesses all parts of your life (let's say Shami Chakrabarti won't be a fan) but then helps you out.

So, for example, it tells you what the traffic is like when you're about to head to work, home or somewhere else.

It displays the information as 'cards' and even pops bits of important info (such as the weather) in your notification bar. We also get a Google Now widget.

There are some flaws with Google Now, though.

For example, Google Search is excellent. Ask it who the PM of Japan is and it will immediately answer you with a photo and his name and details about him spoken back to you.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Results come back within a millisecond, and really put Siri to shame.

Then again, Siri trumps Google Now when it comes to voice actions.

Sending a text or an email via Google Now is possible, but it's not as intuitive, fun or easy as it is with Siri.

Nor is the banter and humour you get back anywhere near as good.

They both have their strengths and weakness here - but we'd say Google Now complements, rather than rules the platform, and falls below Siri in a lot of ways.

Which is the comparison many will instantly be making. It has improved since it first launched, we'll give Google that. But there is still some way to go.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Our new favourite addition is multi-window, Samsung's tweak that enables you to run two apps on a screen at the same time.

This was a feature we saw in the Galaxy Note 10.1 last year and loved and hankered after on handsets. Samsung, thanks for answering our prayers!

On the face of it, you wonder if it'll be any use or if it's one of those things that you read about and think sounds ace, but is then forgotten about because it gets annoying or doesn't work (smart stay, anyone?) Well, trust us. You'll be using it all the time.

A simple hold on the back button invokes a little on-screen tab on the left of the screen. When you touch it, it brings up a list of all the apps you can then open simultaneously.

Unfortunately, you're limited to a handful of Google and Samsung Apps, and not the ones you probably use all the time.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

They have to be adapted by their authors to be compatible, and even though Samsung has made the API available, we're not overwhelmed with the dev response. So while you can read an email while browsing a map, or surf the web while watching a YouTube video, options are limited.

However, one thing we were really quite impressed with was being able to surf the web and use the S-Pen at the same time. Copying has never been so much fun.

Running apps together is as simple as dragging them onto the screen. You can even adjust the size if you want one to be more prominent.

The lock screen has also been given a cool little tweak. One of the signature quirks of the Samsung Galaxy Note or Samsung Galaxy S3 was that when you tapped it with your finger in lock screen mode, there'd be a water ripple effect and sound.

With the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, if you touch the lock screen with the S-Pen you also get an ink-leak (the colour can be selected in the menus.) It's pointless, but also very fun. You'll play with it a lot, until you realise how sad it is.

Contacts and calling

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Contacts

You can access contacts on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 either through the phone or the contacts section - both of which have shortcuts at the foot of the screen.

Considering they both ultimately lead to the same app, you may as well delete one of these shortcuts and give yourself some more space for another app.

And once you're in there, you're treated to the standard Samsung-Android contacts display with tabs for favourites, groups and so forth.

It's really no different to what we've seen before, and does the management bit very well indeed.

Samsung throws in a few nuggets too - such as swiping left on a contact to message them and right to call them or just having you lift the phone to your ear when in a contact to call them automatically.

Though, in practice, we'd be interested to see how many people remember that feature is there and actively use it.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Contacts are brought across with pictures and then you get a huge thumbnail when you call them or they call you.

Yes, we know that's a small thing and it's something that's been around for years, but there's just something nice about seeing a nice big shot of Mum when she calls.

It's amazing how many OEMs tinker with this most basic of functions, unfortunately.

And we hanker still for some kind of HTC emulation so that contacts are linked automatically.

We have some people with six or seven entries in our phonebook and frankly, Samsung, life is far too short to have to do this manually for 2,000+ people.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

There are also loads of things you can play about with in the menu - such as a block list for callers you don't like (those who clearly aren't clever enough to use 141 before they dial you) and the ability to add shortcuts to individuals to your home screen.

It all makes for a nice, easy, fluid experience.

Social networking fiends won't feel much love on unboxing the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, because there isn't really any kind of functionality built in there apart from Samsung's own ChatON app, which is a bit of a poor man's WhatsApp in terms of how many people are aware of its existence.

This is both a plus and a minus - a plus because you can always go hunting around and install relevant apps yourself without being forced to sign into endless screens automatically.

But also a minus, because most users will, by default, install the standard Facebook and Twitter apps, unaware that there are some far superior third-party solutions.

For example the amazing Twicca frankly wipes the floor with the abomination that is the official Twitter app.

Calling

Samsung very helpfully provides you with the facility to scale down items such as the phone keypad (and other bits of the UI) to lean towards your right or left hand so that you can use the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with one paw.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

This is a great idea if you're a bit of a Hagrid, though we admit, although possible, we clutched the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 firmly with both hands because we were terrified we'd drop it if we showed off too much.

And that leads us nicely to the big elephant in the room. The size of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Yes, this is a phone (Samsung has itself admitted the Samsung Galaxy Note is a smartphone, rather than a tablet) and yes, you can make calls on it.

But seriously, would you want to hold this up to your head? We did - and got laughed out of the room.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 has some fantastic abilities, but to hold something the size of a breeze block up to your ear in public all feels a bit 80s.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

That said, it's obvious when you buy this that it is a big handset, and we are sure that the target market will not be averse to using a Bluetooth device or car kit the majority of the time.

And anyway, how much time do we spend actually making calls these days? That's soooooo 2003.

If you do feel that crazy urge to call someone, we'll say this: you'll enjoy it.

It is a very pleasant experience to make calls on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 as, indeed, it is with the Samsung Galaxy S3.

Calls connected easily and signal appeared to be well represented.

Calls were very clear at our end and the recipients said it sounded great to them - although the conversation could have been more titillating, which we can't blame on Samsung.

And once in a call, you can even take a note. It's a really simple idea that helps enormously in those moments when you need a pen. Because don't forget - you also have a pen of the 'S' variety included in the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Messaging

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

This being an Android handset, you cannot fault the amount of messaging options in the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Firstly, there's Mail, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 comes with two flavours built in.

One is the standard, excellent Gmail app found on all Android handsets.

The second is Samsung's own Mail app, which accommodates Gmail as well as virtually every other POP3/IMAP and Exchange option you care to chuck in its direction.

The Gmail app is brilliant.

It was overhauled for Android Ice Cream Sandwich, so if you have the original Samsung Galaxy Note (and you haven't updated from Gingerbread), you'll very quickly notice the difference.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

It looks better, it acts better and it gives you a widget too.

The search facility on this app is great as well, and could pick out the smallest detail from more than 10,000 emails in our inbox.

The only thing it lets us down on is the reformatting of HTML emails to fit the screen.

You can now zoom out to get a whole page view - which was an Achilles' heel on the app since the very beginning - but it's hidden away in the Settings menu by default, so many won't know it is there.

The Samsung Mail app is excellent, and gives you the option to tweak various aspects, from the font size to the colour of the inbox display.

Turn the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 on its side and you'll get a split view, which is a nice touch. A Mail widget gives you one-touch access to all the messages in there.

And you can - sort of - achieve a full page view of HTML emails in this app, although sometimes it wasn't quite 100% and more 75%.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

On top of that, you can always add your own messaging solutions too. There are the obvious ones such as Facebook and Twitter (plus third-party versions) and then the other excellent additions such as Viber, Tango, WhatsApp, Windows Live Messenger and Skype.

The beauty of Android is that once these apps are installed, they all show up as options within the contact card when you call up a person's name.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

We can't say we're distraught to see the back of Samsung's Social Hub app - this was an aggregator first seen back in the Samsung Galaxy S2 that brought all of your emails, tweets, Facebook messages and so on together.

On the face of it, it sounds helpful. But frankly, when you're as popular (and modest) as we are, it just all gets a bit too much.

For tapping out messages, you're really spoiled for choice. Samsung's included keyboard is OK, but not the best.

Keys are just a little too small for us, though it does include some functionality similar to Swype, which makes for a faster experience.

Google's voice dictation is also brilliant, and you can use that in place of a keyboard.

Don't confuse what we said before about parts of Google Now being a faff, because that still stands. But when dictating messages on Google Voice Typing, it's really quite good.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The beauty is that the words appear as you speak, which gives you a little more confidence to dictate longer messages.

There is a problem in that punctuation can be a bit of a headbanger. Saying 'period' (US English) instead of 'full stop' (British English) is fine - we got used to that easily enough.

But saying 'comma' can lead to anything from 'mama', 'kama' or 'korma' appearing when you're just trying to punctuate a damn sentence.

And if you hit delete, the entire message goes and you have to start from scratch, whereas if you tap the screen to make a manual correction, nine times out of 10, the standard keyboard appears and you have to faff about going back to the voice one.

It's enough to make you want to head out of this world sooner rather than later.

So, again, it's horse for courses. Those looking for a direct comparison to Siri will find the quality of the service (ie the actual voice recognition) much more accurate on Apple's product. But by no means unbearable on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

And don't forget the S-Pen, which enables you to tap out words by just scribbling them on a virtual pad at the bottom of the screen.

This is scarily accurate, and relies on actual handwriting rather than weird shortcuts like the older days of Palm graffiti.

It even manages to decipher cursive writing. Really.

In fact, our only criticism of the experience is that you have to have the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 flat on a desk. That's because when you're holding it in your left hand, and the pen in your right, there's a tendency to tilt the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 a bit.

And as your hand goes across the screen, there's nowhere to rest it at the end of a line, which means you end up clutching the S-Pen in a weird way.

Remember, you're typing in a small area at the bottom. Still, it's easy enough to get used to.

Internet

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

This is the exciting bit - this is the part of the review we've looked forward to writing the most. Because, if you're looking for a portable internet device, then you have come to the right place.

For browsing, we think the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is an almost unbeatable handset.

Where the size may be an Achilles' heel in the calling section, here it's perfect. That screen is big enough to display web pages beautifully without being too cumbersome to hold.

And the colours and sharpness of the display make pages pop out. It's brilliant.

Speeds are lightning fast. Don't forget, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is LTE compatible (if you get the right version - because many providers are offering the standard HSDPA+ flavour by default), but just browsing over Wi-Fi or good old HSDPA is quick as a flash too.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The Daily Mail website (which we used to test because it's data-heavy, not because we're desperate to learn the health benefits of a square of chocolate a day) loaded almost instantly over Wi-Fi.

It was under two seconds after we hit 'go' before we could actually pan around.

And using 3G only added a second onto this, if that.

The grunt from that processor makes such a huge difference.

In fact, one of the updates as part of Android 4.1.2 was to increase the browsing speeds.

We can't imagine how or why they needed updating, but it's still lightning fast.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Pages zoomed out look amazing. And when you zoom in, you can see text right up to a gnat's level without having to view individual pixels.

You can have the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 reformat pages when you zoom in but it doesn't do this by default, which is slightly annoying.

In fact, you have to go into the advanced section of the settings menu to dig this little gem out, which we weren't overly impressed with having to do.

Lots of people won't be aware of this - and that could lead to a second rate experience for no reason at all.

Something else that makes the experience second rate is its lack of Flash support.

Yes, we know that the world is moving on from Flash and even Adobe has stopped supporting it (hence why it's not in the Google Play store).

We knew it was going to happen once Jelly Bean landed. But hear us out.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The fact of the matter is that even if the world is moving to HTML5, and even if Flash is buggy as hell, there are an awful lot of websites out there that aren't/haven't changed.

Updating billions of pages will take a long time, and so it would have been nice to have it rather than not.

Yes, there's an argument that by removing it, it forces web developers to change their sites, but that's a whole different debate.

For us, it's about the fact that one in, say, six sites we look at no longer work properly, which can't be a good thing.

Flash can still be added if you know how to 'side load' - but it's not official, alas. RIP.

On another note, don't forget you can always change the browser if you don't like it.

Samsung's effort is a valiant take on the standard Android browser - but we're also massive fans of Chrome, which Google is actually bundling now as its default internet app.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The experience with Chrome is just that little more fluid - but it's all down to personal choice.

As for the bookmarking system, it's very similar to what we've seen before on the Samsung Galaxy S3.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 signs into Google, and syncs across your web favourites, so they're always there in your pocket.

You can also save pages for offline reading, which is handy for those of us who travel on the underground or in areas of poor reception.

However, it appears to save the page as an image, which means that links don't work.

So if you want to then follow a link once you get back into civilisation, alas, you can't do so without digging around menus to enable Online Mode again.

Camera

There are two snappers bundled with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - an 8MP one around the back and a 1.9MP camera facing the front. Eight megapixels may not rock your world if size matters, but if quality does, you've come to the right place.

The camera is extremely capable, comprehensive and intuitive. Firing it up is super quick - even quicker if you put a shortcut on your lock screen, so you can swipe into it from a standing start.

The camera is constantly seeking a lock to focus automatically - but you can alter that point with your finger by tapping anywhere on the screen.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The flash is extremely strong, just like on our Samsung Galaxy S3. We found ourselves in the rather hilarious situation of being in a dark bar with friends who were all snapping with their iPhones.

When we fired the flash up on this, the comments were unprintable. It actually is blinding if you're not expecting it - but the beauty is that it is also very good at what it does, and can match some point and shoots in that respect.

Lots of headline features from the S3 have been brought across. They're really quite intuitive and include elements such as Best Photo (which identifies the best out of several taken in quick bursts), Face Detection, a very good Panorama (contrary to iOS 6 fans' belief, Apple did not invent panorama), Smile Detection and Buddy Share (which identifies commonly viewed friends and will even send pictures featuring them on to them).

If you're a tinkerer, you can also change a plethora of detailed settings, such as ISO and exposure. Most people won't bother - but for the more discerning snapper, it's nice to be able to do it.

On top of that, you have several scene modes, which enable you to tailor the look of your photos. Included are things such as Negative mode, which we seem to see on phone after phone yet can't understand - do people actually take photos in Negative mode? And if so, why are they not in some kind of special jail?

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Although it's nice to have these customisation options, we're not that fussed, considering apps such as Instagram give us even more anyway.

Taking photos itself is an easy affair - you can take two per second if you're in a hurry, but there is the issue that the shutter speed can't keep up. So if you're trying to get an image of your dog running around or your child on the trampoline, you're more likely than not to end up with a bit of a blurry mess.

That won't be fun when you're digging out childhood pics to embarrass them with, come their 18th birthday party.

The golden rule here is to take photos of inanimate objects. Stick to trees and lampposts and you'll be fine.

One other gimmick we liked - if only for boasting reasons - is the fact that you can take photos by simply talking to the camera. We never tire of saying "cheese" and seeing the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 do the leg work. But it only worked 90% of the time, and usually failed when we were trying to put iPhone-toting friends back in their iBoxes by showing them how cool we were (read: uncool when it doesn't work.)

The quality of photos yielded was brilliant. We were really happy with the results. In daylight and perfect lighting conditions, they looked amazing.

Even in darker conditions, the flash gave them that extra bang that was needed. And with that huge display for a viewfinder, it made the whole experience so much more enjoyable.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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You can use the inbuilt effects to enhance the warmth of your pictures, make them look cooler in temperature or simply play with them to make them look a little more cartoony or funky.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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HDR mode works - but we found that a lot of pictures didn't need it, because they look so good anyway.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

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Video

It's funny to think how a couple of years ago, people were using those flip cameras to capture HD video, yet now you can do it so perfectly with phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Again, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 excels in the video aspect of the camera app. It's accessed simply enough by going into the camera and toggling it on from there.

Once in, you can shoot videos straight away. Not only that, but as we saw with the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X before that, simply snap the camera button that appears and you'll be able to take photos during your video without having to stop recording. This is a great feature we could have done with years ago.

Again, you'll find some tweaks that enable you to change how your video looks in terms of colour saturation. These are welcome, because it's a lot harder to apply an effect to a large video after you've filmed it than it is to a photo, due to the rendering process.

There's also the ability to speed up your videos and slow them down, but this has to be applied before you start shooting. We couldn't quite see the point in it ourselves, but we can confirm it does exactly what it should.

Resolutions go from the dizzying heights of 1920 x 1080 to the rather more basic 320 x 240. Obviously, there is a massive difference in size, with a 26 second video coming in at a whopping 53MB in HD. But that's to be expected.

Filming moving objects causes no issues at all, and the sound quality reproduction is fantastic. We had the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with the Anti-Shake mode enabled as we filmed out of a car window, and found it held its own well.

All in all, smartphone HD video cameras don't come much better than this.

See how the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 fares when put up against the new iPhone 5 in a side-by-side video comparison.

Media

As a portable media player, what can we say? The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 excels once again. The love-it-or-hate-it larger screen is perfect for viewing media, as one would expect.

And media is certainly a priority for Samsung. Not only do you get 16/32/64GB storage built in, but you can also bump that up by another 64GB.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

This deserves a special mention, because even though it's not an innovative idea, Samsung is clearly bucking a trend here by still allowing users the option to expand their storage.

We're seeing so many new handsets with non-expandable storage to encourage (force) us to go to the cloud - but for those who want to store lots of high quality content locally, it's good to have the option.

Video

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Watching videos is a pleasure.

That HD display looks stunning, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 isn't so heavy that you'll need to lie down after holding it for half an hour.

We love how you can stream the audio to a Bluetooth headset too, so you can enjoy movies completely wirelessly.

And there's even an outdoor setting to make it easier to see in bright sunlight, though it cranks the display up, so don't expect your battery to thank you.

The range of file types supported is impressive too: MP4, M4V, Xvid, DivX, AVI and 3GP - in fact, not once did we get the dreaded 'file type not supported' error message.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

You also get the Pop-up Play function that we saw on the S3, which means you can have your video play on top of whatever app you're using. Multitasking ahoy.

Our only criticism is that it works only with the stock video player.

So for example, we wanted to watch live TV via TV Catchup at the same time as browsing but couldn't.

Still, that's an annoyance that can't really be blamed on Samsung.

You can get videos on the phone in one of two ways - you can sync from your computer or buy/rent films from Google Play.

Google Play is getting better and better every day. In terms of what it offers, the main blockbusters are there, but it doesn't have the back catalogue of iTunes.

Still, there's bound to be something there to keep you occupied until you can get to a computer to put your own stuff on.

Music

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

In terms of music, Samsung has clearly learned lessons from the original Samsung Galaxy Note.

We had no complaints back then - it was all nice and safe and stock Android.

But it's clear that for the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Samsung has really decided to go for it.

Firstly, the music player is no longer stock Android, but a much beefed-up version, with support for playlists and an equaliser that really does make an enormous difference when listening with headphones.

Externalisation, or Virtual 7.1ch in particular, make your music come alive.

Album art is displayed beautifully, and there is even something wacky called Music Square, where you touch a part of the square to choose what genre of music you want to listen to.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Left is Passionate, top is Exciting, right is Joyful and bottom is Calm. Depending on how near to each corner your finger drops, you'll get anything from 2 Unlimited to Tupac.

We're big fans. It's fun and the audio quality is top notch. Plus, you never know what you're going to get.

On top of this, Samsung has been busy updating its Music Hub, which scans your phone for tunes and matches them to other music that you might like.

It's kinda like Apple's Genius, and is really good.

We tried it with something random - 'Turn It Into Love' by Hazell Dean - and were pleasantly shocked when it threw back a load of Bananarama and Martika.

The real emphasis here is on getting you to sign up for an account, and then you can enjoy access to millions of songs for streaming.

The service is powered by 7digital, but it'll set you back £9.99 a month for a subscription.

And when you can get Spotify for the same price, you have to sit and weigh up which one is actually better.

Radio

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Luckily, if you don't want to pay and have not got a single MP3 to your name, you can still get in on the action with the FM radio that is included.

We love it when these are bundled, since it's nice sometimes to just listen to the radio with no complications.

You can launch the FM radio from the home screen using a handily supplied widget, and even control it with your voice if you want to change the station.

Sometimes, we did find ourselves going to the TuneIn Radio app because it was clearer, but then that can rinse the battery as it streams, so it's a case of flipping between the two.

Sharing

If you're a streamer, you'll have no issues here.

We enjoyed sending media across using the All Share Cast receiver (purchased separately) but without that, if you have a DLNA-capable TV or Apple TV, you can send stuff across - such as videos from YouTube.

We used an app called iMedia Share and were able to send our media straight across to an Apple TV - but even without that, playing to a PS3 or Wi-Fi TV is easy as pie.

Battery life and connectivity

Battery

Of course, there has to be a low point for a gadget that does so much. And here's where you expect us to tell you that the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 fails dismally, right?

Well, actually, we're not going to, because this device manages to put a good effort in.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

We're not going to tell you that battery life on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is thoroughly amazing, because it's not.

But on the table of expectations, it certainly sits at the end of 'better than average'.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Powering it is a 3,100mAh battery, which Samsung reckons will provide standby time of some 890 hours on 3G.

We're not going to dispute that, but just point out that such estimates are pointless, because nobody will use their Samsung Galaxy Note 2 the way these experiments are carried out.

Remember, these are results obtained in optimum lab conditions. Life's too short to try to replicate those.

In fact, it's not even worth mentioning the quoted talk time, because if you're buying the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 just to use as a phone, then something is not quite right.

Here's where we found our usage left us: we took the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 off charge at 8am.

It was all set up with Facebook and Twicca updating, one Gmail account (email plus calendar) and one Exchange Mail account.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Dropbox was also set up to automatically sync all photos taken to our account over Wi-Fi.

Over the course of the day, we surfed the internet for around two hours in total.

We tweeted a dozen or so times, sent one email, made about 30 mins worth of phone calls, shot 36 photographs and 11 videos and had Wi-Fi and GPS enabled constantly.

By 8pm, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 was gasping for juice, down to 4%.

Our conclusion with this is that the battery is actually the same as that on the Samsung Galaxy S3, in terms of what it delivers for average usage.

Yes, it is bigger. But don't forget that the screen is also larger. And that's where you'll find most of the juice being guzzled.

Plus, we were really testing the battery here, and as is always the way, once you've had the device for a few weeks and stopped playing around with your new toy, you are more likely to see your usage levels drop a little.

Connectivity

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Connectivity runs through the Samsung Galaxy Note 2's blood, so you won't struggle anywhere here. We've mentioned how well DLNA works, and you've got full internet capabilities - especially LTE if you're lucky enough to have access to that.

Remember though, LTE will be even more taxing on that battery.

NFC is also included, and while we're happy to see this, we won't get out the party balloons yet. This technology really needs less of a tap against a reader and more of a kick up its backside to get it working well.

Apple didn't buy in with the iPhone 5, which would have brought it mainstream, and only now is Orange offering the NFC payment scheme to some new British Samsung owners.

This could be a great selling point, but the sad thing is that it's currently just a bit of an also-ran that few will know even exists on their Samsung Galaxy Note 2, until operators invest in the technology properly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Speaking of this though, the S-Beam functionality enables you to tap your phone against other enabled devices to transfer files quickly. We had limited success, but when it works, this is a great feature.

If you're connecting to your computer to get media across and you're a Windows user, you'll have few issues.

Connecting to a Mac is slightly trickier, since you have to use the Android File Transfer app to make it compatible, which can be flaky.

There are various other apps that can do the work for you in a much easier way. For example, AirDroid enables you to send media across and control your Samsung Galaxy Note 2 using a browser-based interface.

We're big fans of this, though you can only transfer to the internal memory this way, and not to an external SD card.

Then there's the iSyncr app, which is available for both Mac and PC. Or you can use Samsung's own Kies app, but frankly, we'd rather microwave our own heads. Painful doesn't come close.

Maps, apps and the S-Pen

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Apps

When it comes to adding a few extras out of the box, Samsung's one of the good guys.

When we reviewed the Motorola Razr i, we noted that Motorola had made a good phone but been a little tight with the bundled non-standard Google apps.

Luckily, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 doesn't suffer from this unfortunate affliction, although it doesn't go overboard either.

First on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, there's the Google apps.

Within these you get your standard Google suite, which also includes Google Books and Google Play.

These two services deserve a special mention, if only for the fact that Google has pulled its proverbial socks up here.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The offerings are now interwoven with the Google Play store where we once used to go just for apps and games, and it feels like a complete offering.

The book store, in particular, is trying to wrestle some custom away from Amazon's Kindle app.

And based on how it works, it may well succeed.

We really liked the fact that we were able to download a sample of JK Rowling's first non-Harry Potter book and try it out.

Add to that the little page turning animations reminiscent of Apple's iBooks, and you've got a winner on your hands.

Maps

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

And then we have Google Maps. We mention this because it is such a powerful piece of software, and this was highlighted more because of the famous Apple Maps fiasco.

The irony here, sadly, is that the Google Maps offering on iOS is now (arguably) better than the Android version.

The fact is that Google has been offering turn by turn navigation for a few years now (though technically it is still in Beta) and it is frankly fantastic.

Free, simple to use and interlinked with transit directions, this is how you make an almost perfect mapping app.

Anybody who buys the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is not just getting a top smartphone, but also a fully comprehensive, fully up to date, turn-by-turn sat nav solution.

And with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2's speed at locking on to GPS, you'll really do well with it if travelling is your bag.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

In a bit of a doubling up example, Samsung has also included S-Voice. Its main plus is that you can fire it up simply by saying 'Hi Galaxy' to your Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

But this in itself really drains the battery, because the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is constantly listening out for your dulcet tones unless you turn the function off.

We also took issue with her voice - the lady who Samsung has hired to record the responses (who may work for Vlingo, since that powers the whole shebang) couldn't sound more cold and disinterested if she tried. And that's being kind.

If you're lonely and just want to hear a friendly voice, she'll probably tip you over the edge.

Having said that, we were quite impressed. S-Voice has obviously been tinkered with since we first used it on the Samsung Galaxy S3, and it now has a bit of the humour we saw in Siri when she first arrived. Answers come from Wolfram Alpha.

It's all very useful, albeit a bit of a novelty.

Yet this is where the Android fragmentation issue really rears its head - albeit elegantly. Why do we need two apps that do the same thing? We already have Google Now, don't forget.

S-Pen

So when Steve Jobs said the stylus was dead, was he wrong?

Apparently so, if Samsung is to be believed, though we have to point out that the S-Pen is 'so much more than a stylus' if the hype is to be swallowed.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Now here's the thing - when we reviewed the original Samsung Galaxy Note, we didn't buy the S-Pen idea. We thought it was a gimmick.

Clearly, millions of people didn't agree, because the Samsung Galaxy Note sold by the truckload.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Was that because people were buying it for the bigger screen or the S-Pen? That's a whole different kettle of fish, but either way, the S-Pen is back and it's better than before.

As it did with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, Samsung has now also worked on the pressure sensitivity.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

So just like a pen, the harder you press down on the screen, the thicker the imprint you make.

We're told there are 1000+ levels of sensitivity. We haven't checked every single one, but we take that as gospel from Samsung.

When you first pull the S-Pen out of its little holder at the bottom right, the phone vibrates quickly - almost as though you've given it a bit of a shock.

That then instantly fires up a splash screen full of S-Pen-capable apps that are pre-installed, enabling you to create anything from a simple note to a magazine or diary entry.

Though in all fairness, lovely as it is, we can't see Family Circle taking its entire desktop publishing operation to a Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

For drawing, it's simple enough, and will provide you with hours of fun.

But it's also really handy for more complex tasks, and we like the fact that you can add elements from videos and images to maps and voice memos to make your notes really interactive.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Not only that, but you can scrawl mathematical formulae and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 will decipher it for you. Boffins rejoice.

But here's where it falls down for us: it's complicated. Very.

Like most of you, we're higher up the geek scale than your average Joe Bloggs, and are able to tinker about with various bits of tech without becoming too flummoxed.

But even we felt slightly overwhelmed by it all.

This is not a piece of technology that you will use straight out of the box - at least not to its full potential.

It needs some serious sitting down and exploring and a good investment of time to get the best out of it all.

If you're a student buying this for your studies or a professor obtaining it to help with some academic work, you may be willing to do this.

If you're just John Smith who's wandered into the local phone store, will you be happy to do the same?

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

There is an official Samsung Note 2 app available that runs you through how to use the S-Pen, but after half an hour of using it, we just thought 'You know what? Life is too short'.

Some of the comments posted in response to our original Samsung Galaxy Note review said we'd missed the point - that this would indeed be the device used to annotate during lectures and so forth.

But aside from a few diehard users, we're still not hugely convinced.

And here's why - if that's your goal, something such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which is a tablet and has all of the above included with a thicker, easier to hold S-Pen, may end up feeling like a better option.

From a practical level, it's also a little bit fiddly to get the S-Pen back in its slot.

Since it's not a perfect cylindrical form, it has to be fiddled with to drive it home. Not so much that it's going to make you scream, but enough to make you have to waste valuable seconds.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

And as our friend Sylvia pointed out, if you're a lady with perfectly painted nails, having to hook a talon around the S-Pen to pull it out could result in catastrophe. It nearly did for her.

On top of that, when writing using the S-Pen, with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 flat on the table, it's natural for right handers, when reaching the bottom of the screen, to brush the back button. Obviously, that's touch-sensitive, so you find yourself exiting and saving your work when you haven't even finished. It's like the phone is trying to give you a hint.

It's not that we dislike the S-Pen - or are hammering Samsung for bringing something new to the table - but we just found the whole thing a little too convoluted for anything more than just a little play.

And considering the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is being marketed fairly heavily, we think a lot of people may feel the same about their new purchase.

Indeed, one thing we did like about the S-Pen very much was the Air View facility. It's one of those simple ideas that we never realised we missed until we were shown it on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Air View is, essentially, a preview of things using the S-Pen. So, say you want to preview a folder in your gallery, you hover over it without even having to touch the screen and the phone can easily tell that's what you want to do. Throughout the interface, holding the S-Pen just over the screen gives a little blue dot to show that you're hovering.

Air View is present in loads of different areas - for example, we loved the fact that you can hover over the timeline in a video and it will continue playing, but give you a preview of the spot you're hovering over. It does take a bit of effort to move the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in your hands and take the S-Pen out if you're watching a movie, but it works far better than the old fat thumbs.

It works great in email too - although we noticed that while the Samsung email supported it, the Google Gmail app doesn't. So we could preview our work emails, but not our private ones. Just another example of a great piece of tech being delivered by the OEM, but showing that the Android experience very much belongs to another company: Google.

And we have to point out here that you're restricted to just the S-Pen for this. We say this because the Samsung Galaxy S4 allows AirView with just the finger. We wait to see if that functionality will be gifted to Samsung Galaxy Note 2 owners as well.

Hands on gallery

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Official gallery

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

Verdict

Samsung has taken a product many people - including us - expected to sink. It's built on that and given us something even better.

Faster, stronger, better looking, and more functional. It's better connected than ever, and thanks to that increased screen size, now takes the crown in our eyes as the perfect media player.

We liked

Samsung has achieved something special here, because it has made the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 bigger than the original, but pulls it off so that you don't notice it too much.

The fact that it launched running Android Jelly Bean - now upgraded to version 4.1.2 - and has such grunt with that processor makes this a class-leading phone. And with a camera that churns out fantastic snaps, it's the perfect device in many ways.

We disliked

But we just can't get over the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is biiiiiiiiig and feels a bit odd in the hand at times. The S-Pen is a welcome addition, but it's so complicated.

And sometimes, the whole experience can be too technical - for example having to dig about in the menu for web reformatting options or download extra bits just to get it to sync with a Mac.

Final verdict

Buying GuideBest Android phone - which should you buy?Best Android phone

It's tricky to pull all of this together in a final summary. Do we mark the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 as a phone with a trillion bells and whistles? Or as a personal media player that makes phone calls?

As a phone, it's big, but once you get over that, if you can, it's great. As a PMP, it really does excel, and as a web communicator, it is almost second to none (though we can't fully get the taste of Flash absence out of our mouth).

But it's also expensive, and the kind of handset that we think will struggle to find mass appeal. We already hear lots of people complain that the Samsung Galaxy S3 is far too big. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 takes that to another level. But we are seeing more and more of them on the tube, which is a good barometer. And months after release, with the Samsung Galaxy S4 release imminent, there is a massive marketing push still underway.

Ultimately, there's no getting away from the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is a niche device. But it does almost everything it sets out to do perfectly, with grace, class and maximum functionality. And if you're in the market for a larger smartphone or a small tablet, there really is no better device.

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