Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

The Galaxy Note 2 is the successor to the, erm, Galaxy Note, which is predictable. What wasn't predictable was how we would feel about this new handset. The Note, you see, is a bit of an enigma. A massive phone, or really small 3G tablet. It sits in a space that doesn't exist, with an unknown audience.

People who haven't used a Galaxy Note - the original, or this new model - won't get it. This is a phone you have to live with to truly understand. Most people will take one look at the size - it dwarfs the already massive Galaxy S III - and rule it out as being impractical. In our view, that's a mistake, because this phone has a lot to offer besides its size. And the size isn't much of an issue, as we discovered.

Not too big

We've travelled around a fair bit with the Note. We've been asked a lot about the size, and honestly, it's not a problem. It will fit in your jeans pocket, assuming your jeans aren't too tight, and you won't really notice its extra weight.

Strangely, it's not really any harder to use with one hand than a phone such as the Samsung Galaxy S III. As Apple points out, there is a ratio that allows for single-handed use, and most modern Android phones ignore it. So while the Note is hard to use single-handed, it's not any more difficult than any other Android phone.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S III review

It's a bit heavier though, which might bother some, but it has a nice weight, and a great overall balance.

In terms of style, there's a power button on the right-hand side, with volume controls on the left. The top has the headphone jack, while the bottom holds the USB socket for charging and data transfer.

Under the battery cover you'll find the, erm, battery, along with the micro-SIM card slot, and the microSD card. Here you can add capacities of up to 64GB - which is quite a lot of storage for a phone.

There is a camera on the back, with an LED flash, and on the front is another, video-conference-type camera.

The pen is mightier than your sausage fingers

The pen on the note is interesting. We have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. The most exciting idea is to use it for handwriting recognition, but there are a few little bugs that prevent it being entirely practical. We've done a lot of tweeting and text messaging using the system, and while it can work brilliantly, there are times when it just gets things wrong.

We noticed that getting the software to detect spaces was difficult at times. The problem was that there was a lack of consistency. If it never got spacing right, you could work around it, but it did get it right about 50 per cent of the time, meaning you'd assume it had done its job, then look over your message and discover it hadn't.

Capital letters were also a problem. The phone doesn't seem to apply any logic to this, so sometimes words would have a random initial cap. This is obviously because of how we wrote the letters on the screen, but it's fairly easy to remove caps through autocorrect, so we're amazed the Samsung doesn't seem to.

Other than that, the recognition itself is pretty brilliant. Its accuracy is very good, as long as you don't write like an idiot and the screen/pen combination works really well. It's arguably a little too small for much writing, but it works for short notes.

Of course, the pen does other things. You can use it as a finger, if you wish, meaning you don't need to get grease all over your phone screen. It can be used to draw too, as you'd expect, and there are some note-taking apps that allow you to record your writing as either

We'll be candid about the camera

The 8-megapixel shooter is a bit weak in reduced light. So indoor snaps are little more than average. Outdoors, in strong light, and things get a lot better. There is enough detail in the images for most use. They won't disgrace themselves when printed out on sensibly sized paper and they'll be fine for sharing via Facebook and the like.

There are also some nice features such as a burst shooting mode, that fires off lots of shots in rapid succession. These are stored in the phone memory, which might lead to some confusion about where to find them later.

You also get a lot of control, and there are plenty of modes which allow you to grab the "best photo" from eight shots, which the phone snaps - as with the burst mode - in rapid succession. In addition to all this, there are the usual settings to tweak, to get the best possible photo. And, to give the Instagram lovers a treat, there are some basic photo filters too.

The camera app is pretty easy to use. The usual touch-to-focus is here, and we didn't have any problems with it failing to focus properly - something that seems to plague cheaper phones. It's also nice and quick to get a lock. We also found face detection worked well, and although we've never made much use of it, it's good to see it included.

Motion and gesture control

Things get very cool when you look at what Samsung has added, both in terms of motion detection and gestures. Like many phones, you can turn the Note over to silence it when it's ringing. Also, rather brilliantly, if you have a contact on-screen, then simply lifting the phone to your ear will call that contact. There's a little buzz of vibration to confirm this is happening.

Our favourite feature though, has to be the gesture to pick up the phone. When you do this, by reaching toward the handset, the screen illuminates telling you if you have missed calls, new text messages and the level of your battery. It's fab, although it uses the camera to pull this trick off, so expect it to destroy the battery life of your Note.

All of these features can be enabled or disabled individually too, so you can pick and choose the ones that suit your needs. We found most of them to be slightly pointless, and we never once managed to get the screen grab gesture to work.

Powerful and fast

With LTE in the UK being a bit of a mess, the whole situation has the potential to confuse. The Note 2 will be available on EE in a 4G variety. There are also other versions of the phone that support 4G on 700MHz and 1200MHz for regions where those frequencies are being used. If you want the Note 2 in a 4G flavour, you should seek help from your mobile network. 

READ: Galaxy S III vs. Note 2

Based on the theoretical maximum, the Note 2 can download at 100mbps and upload at 50mbps. That's some serious speed, and while we doubt most people will see anywhere near that, it's a cool thought that your phone could download faster than your home broadband. 

The rest of the phone is super-fast though. A quad-core processor means that there's almost no lag at any time. There's 2GB of RAM too, which should help to keep the phone feeling light, powerful and responsive. There are 16 32 and 64GB capacities too, although the one you're likely to be buying is the 16GB.

Entertainment goliath

Perhaps the best thing about the Note is that screen. At over 5-inches, it's a formidable size for all things video, and the Note has some pretty cool tricks up its sleeve for this. But best of all, its 720p (720 x 1280) resolution is ideal for lots of media, and you'll get a lot out of video that uses this format, as it's brilliantly matched to one of the most common HD formats. Being an AMOLED panel, there's no shortage of colour here, with bright tones bursting out of the screen. Samsung, perhaps aware of the criticism OLED gets for being quite unrealistic, has also provided modes to tone down the colour, should you want more natural tones.

As usual for Samsung's high-end handsets, there is plenty of video playback support. MKV files - which have MP4 video within them - playback perfectly, and with sound too, which isn't the case on a lot of other phones.

If you use the stock video player, you also get the option to watch video in a pop-up window. This means you can browse the web, send text messages or do any other phone task, while watching your video in a small window. It's a nice feature, that makes use of the Note's impressive processing power.

And then, of course, you've got Netflix, YouTube and countless other video players that will give you access to stacks of content, all on that big, bright, beautiful screen. Video is a real treat on the Note, so if you're looking for a media device with a bigger screen than a phone, this is quite likely to be the device of your dreams.

Picture and sound quality are both brilliant though. We really liked the Note as an entertainment device. Music sounds great, and the music player Samsung includes is pretty good. You get access to Samsung's Hub too, which allows you to store music online, but you will need an account with Sammy to use this - and that won't be for everyone.

Jelly Bean

After much dilly-dallying about getting Jelly Bean on the SGS III - it STILL hasn't arrived, officially - we were very pleased to see the Note 2 ship with Google's flagship OS already installed.

Jelly Bean is crucial, because it brings some of the most exciting features yet to Android. Google Now, for example, is fantastic, and the "cards" which the system uses to keep you updated on weather, traffic and public transport is utterly brilliant.

Voice control is also much improved, and Google's system works as well or better than Siri in most of the tests we've tried. It's not got a sense of humour though, so don't try making jokes or asking random questions to befuddle it.

You also get the new notifications area. This is a huge improvement, with much larger previews. We've found that this has increased how much time we spend in the notifications tray, because it has suddenly become incredibly useful, both for toggles for the likes of Wi-Fi and GPS, but also for getting to the menus and seeing long previews of our email.

On top of Android, there's Samsung's TouchWiz interface. We aren't crazy about it, visually speaking, but in the Note it adds a lot of pretty crucial features. For example, the handwriting recognition, and apps that use the pen in general all make use of the Samsung modifications. So if you hate TouchWiz, this isn't the phone for you, as you're stuck with it if you want to use the phone's features to the fullest.

Usually, we complain about the stock keyboard on phones too. But here, we found ourselves quite liking the system. For one, the extra screen space allows for a dedicated row of numbers above the top row of letters. You'd be surprised how much of a difference this makes to using the device. But also, the Samsung keyboard allows you to switch easily to handwriting recognition, which is another decent feature.

Samsung also includes its "blocking mode", which is like Apple's "do not disturb" function. You can block calls, text messages and so on for set times with this feature. There's also the option to allow through calls from certain people - say, your child's nursery, or your other-half. 

 

Call and text

The only problem with making phone calls on the Note is that it can sometimes be hard to locate the earpiece properly. This means you will sometimes not hear people on the other end all that well. Move the phone around, and you'll eventually hit the sweet spot, but with no distinguishing "feel", it's harder than you might think.

Once you're sorted, the audio quality of calls is brilliant. And while the Note is massive, and you look ridiculous using it, it's a really comfortable phone to use and even though it's both big, and heavy, we never struggled.

Text messaging on the Note is terrific. You can hand-write messages if you want, although it's a bit arduous. But the extra screen size means that the keys, and the gaps between the keys, are larger than on a normal phone. This means typing is easier, and we discovered that we were able to type much more accurately.

Battery

A big phone needs a big battery. The screen alone will drink power in the Note 2, so if you're using it for, say, satellite navigation, where the screen is on constantly, then it's going to run out of juice very quickly indeed. We tested this, and reckon you'll lose power at more than 10 per cent per hour for navigation - and likely video too.

Things look up when you use the phone more "normally". Once you're out of the constant use phase that affects everyone when they first buy a handset, then you start to use it less and overall get more impressive battery life. The Note can easily last the day under normal use, and if you were conservative with it, you'd get one-and-a-half to two days' use. Switch off a few things like push notifications and you'll have no worries.

The battery itself is a 3100mAh cell, so there's a lot of juice in here. To give you an idea, most phone sit about 2000mAh these days - older, or smaller phones from 1600mAh up - and tablets rest around 6000mAh or more (the iPad 3 is nearly 12,000mAh). The life you see though, can be curtailed by some of Samsung's own functionality, like motion detection and some of the gesture-based coolness.

Verdict

When you get the Note 2 out of its box, your first reaction will be to its enormous size. Some will find it absurd, but those who want a big screen with loads of beautiful detail, a much better battery and some cool pen features will "get" it within 10 minutes of holding it for the first time.

The Note is a device that shouldn't work. A device that the Koreans dreamt up after too little sleep, and too many energy drinks. But somehow, it's the most captivating phone we've used for a long time. It manages to invalidate the tablet to some extent, because it's big enough to be a powerful media device, but small enough to carry everywhere.

It isn't a phone for everyone, but those who love gadgets will take to it, and it will change their lives.