The first Samsung Galaxy Note quickly split opinion among phone fans, with many -- including us -- arguing that its 5.3-inch screen was just ridiculous. Others, however, were delighted at the extra screen space for movies, photos and web browsing and the gigantophone was a surprise hit.
Samsung is back to stretch our pockets again with the Galaxy Note 2. It's an even bigger 5.5-inch monster that offers the handy S Pen stylus, a wealth of built-in software and the latest Android Jelly Bean operating system.
With a blisteringly powerful quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM under the hood, is the Note 2 the ultimate mobile device or is it still just too big?
A quick note before I go on -- the Galaxy Note 2 I tested did not have 4G. EE, the UK's only 4G network right now, is selling a 4G version of the Note 2, so if you want super-fast data with your maximobile, you'll have to wait a month or so.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Note 2?
Before I answer that question, ask yourself one thing: is the Samsung Galaxy S3 too big? If your answer is yes, this really isn't the phone for you. It's barely even a phone at all. At 5.5 inches the Note is significantly bigger than the S3's 4.8 inches and blurs the line between phone and tablet even more than its gargantuan predecessor did.
The reason for its huge size is to provide a massive high-definition screen for watching video, looking at websites and -- obviously -- writing notes. Samsung's S Pen stylus might seem a tad old-fashioned, but it quickly won me over, thanks to the way it's integrated into most things you do on the phone in a really fun (and totally optional) way.
Bespoke software such as S Note lets you create magazine-style note pages on which you can pop down your photos, videos or map locations to annotate to your hearts content. Using the pen you can also activate commands with on-screen gestures, saving you having to jump into individual applications each time you want to do something.
Samsung has also thrown in some helpful extras like the ability to watch video in a movable window while continuing to navigate around the interface -- helpful for quickly Googling something when you can't bear to miss a second of your film.
It's running on the cutting-edge version of Android known as Jelly Bean, which brings much smoother interface transitions as well as Google Now, the live information service that tailors info specifically for you, based on your location and search habits.
That's all powered by a monstrous quad-core processor that provided the best benchmark scores we've seen on a mobile phone. Rest assured this thing will tackle even the most demanding 3D games without breaking a sweat.
If your phone requirements start and end with text messaging and social networking, the Galaxy Note 2 clearly isn't for you -- check out a great value budget Android phone. If you want something just as powerful but a more manageable, pocket-friendly size, the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the smaller iPhone 5 are the clear leaders right now. In a sense, the Note 2 is a completely different kind of product.
If your phone is your constant companion and you use it all the time for work, as well as browsing the Web and watching video, I think you'll find the Note 2 very fine indeed. It's a beefy beast, yes, but it more than justifies that girth.
Design and build quality
The Galaxy Note 2 is, in a word, huge. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given the size of its predecessor, but it still caused me to do a double-take when I saw it in the flesh.
It measures 80mm wide and 151mm tall, making it slightly narrower and longer than the original Note. That extra length allows it to pack in the 16:9 aspect ratio screen and also makes it marginally easier to sit in one hand. It's also 0.3mm thinner than the first Note, a microscopic difference you'll never notice.
It might be slightly narrower than the Note, but make no mistake that this is still a monstrous phone. Holding it in one hand is fine for simply reading, but you would need enormous Hulk hands to stretch your thumb across for one-handed typing.
Sending a quick text telling your mate you're going to be late while trying to steady yourself on the bus is an awkward task. I found one-handed typing quickly became uncomfortable. I strongly recommend simply waiting until you can properly hold it in two hands before typing anything longer than, "I'm going to be late."
It'll slide fairly easily into most trouser pockets, but its whopping proportions mean it's likely to cause something of a bulge and doesn't sit as comfortably as a normal smart phone would. If skin-tight jeans are your thing, you might need to invest in a new satchel for it -- or at least consider switching to those cargo trousers with the pockets in the knees.
If it's just unmanageable for you, take a look at the Galaxy S3 instead. The S3's 70mm width and 136mm length is still a stretch for small hands, but it's much more practical than the Note. Among 4-inch phones, the new iPhone 5 is the clear leader, but there are many less expensive Android phones of that size too.
The Note 2, then, is best seen as a small tablet. If you do most of your serious business on massive touchscreens but need something easier to carry around than a 7-inch slate, the Note 2 will certainly come in useful. Holding it in one hand and the S Pen in another, like an old-fashioned notebook and Biro, is really comfortable and allows you to scrawl long handwritten notes -- very difficult on phones under the 4.3-inch mark.
Apart from its size, the Note 2 looks similar to the Galaxy S3. It shares the rounded back and silver edges, together with the plain white colouring (or a lined-pattern grey that's similar to the S3's Pebble blue option). I found my white review model to easily pick up muck and grease, and I fancy the grey model will hide everyday scrunge much better.
Around the edges you'll find a volume rocker and a power button, both of which have been moved down from their positions on the first Note to make them easier to reach with one hand. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top as well as a micro-USB port on the bottom.
The Note 2 comes with 16, 32 or 64GB of internal storage. 16GB isn't a massive amount, and if you're a serial app downloader and enjoy glossy games from the Google Play store such as Six Guns or Nova 3 you'll find you quickly run out of room to accommodate their enormous installation files.
You can pop in a microSD card, expanding the internal storage with an extra 64GB. That at least allows you to store all your photos, videos and music to the card, leaving the internal space for apps -- I found I couldn't easily install apps to external cards, a problem I also encountered on the S3.
The Note 2's enormous frame supports a truly vast 5.5-inch screen. That's marginally bigger than the previous model's 5.3-inch display, although that boost comes just from the extra length.
Its 16:9 aspect ratio -- meaning it's much longer than it is wide -- is designed to let you watch widescreen videos without any annoying black bars. It certainly did the trick with my two test videos, which were displayed full-screen, taking up every available pixel on offer.
So how does it actually look? In a word: stunning. Thanks to the Super AMOLED technology Samsung uses, the screen is not only searingly bright, but also provides incredibly rich colours and deep blacks for a strong contrast ratio. It made the blue skies in my favourite snowboarding film Art of Flight look intensely vivid against the snow-capped mountains.
The extremely bold colours on Samsung's previous AMOLED displays have sometimes bordered on the oversaturated. The Galaxy S2's screen was particularly bold and looked a little unrealistic when put next to the iPhone 4's more natural colour tones. While the Note 2 is certainly vivid, I wouldn't say it's overly so, and there are colour balance options in the menu if you want to go for a more subdued look.
It offers a resolution of 720x1,280 pixels, making it perfectly suited for tackling 720p high-definition content. It's roughly the same resolution as the original Note, which was already incredibly sharp, so I can't complain that it hasn't been increased this time around. It's the same resolution as the smaller Galaxy S3, which means that in terms of sharpness, the S3 has the edge.
Although it has the same number of pixels, due to the Note 2's bigger size, those pixels are stretched over a larger canvas and fewer pixels per inch results in a blunter screen. If you put the two phones side by side and look really closely you might just be able to tell a difference, but they're practically the same.
S Pen stylus
The Note 2 wouldn't be complete without a stylus for writing the eponymous old-school reminders. Samsung calls it the S Pen, and you'll find it tucked into a little slot on the bottom right of the phone, the same place as it was before.
Its location may not have changed, but the pen itself has. The rounded barrel shape has gone, replaced with a flat edge and a fatter design, which makes holding it steady while writing much more comfortable. It's slightly longer too, so there's a little more of it to get hold of.
Samsung's styluses use very narrow, hard nibs that offer a much more precise contact with the screen than the various fat, spongey tips you find on third-party styluses. Imagine the difference between writing with a ballpoint pen and a felt-tip marker pen.
It means you can prod with much greater accuracy at small icons, which makes hitting those tiny links in your web browser much easier than using your own chocolate-covered fingers. Making hand-written notes is easy-peasy, and there's enough room on the screen to let you show off your arty side with drawing apps like Sketchbook Mobile Express (or cheat at Draw Something).
Helpfully, the screen is able to ignore the palm of your hand when the stylus is in contact. That means you can write as you normally would with the skin of your hand touching the screen without it drawing random smudges as you move your mitt about.
Bear in mind though that there's only one stylus included, and if you're anything like me, you'll lose that within the week. The Note does have a sensor that can detect if you're walking off and the stylus isn't in the slot, but if you're travelling home on a noisy bus, I have no doubt it would be very easy to ignore.
I'd recommend making absolutely sure you properly replace it every time you use it. Hopefully Samsung will offer replacement pens so you can stock up and stop worrying.
S Pen software
Samsung has also crammed the Note 2 with dollops of nifty software that makes the most of the pen. S Note is the main event: it lets you write notes, paste in photos, videos and map locations so you can turn a boring list into a magazine-style page or a colourful mind-map.
When you've finished, you can save the note as either a JPEG image or as a PDF document for you to share with anyone -- Samsung users or otherwise. It's a useful little tool that makes it easy to jot down an idea alongside accompanying images. I found it to be very handy in at least a couple of situations -- adding directions to an attached image of a map was particularly helpful for my visiting mum, for example.
Samsung includes example notes showing you how best to make use of it, from creating financial spreadsheets and scrawling notes on them to sketching out ideas of how to redesign a garden. Your own results will naturally depend on your own artistic flair, but it's mostly straightforward to use.
Another helpful extra is the ability to hold the button on the pen and then circle an item on screen. This will take a screenshot of the circled area, letting you paste it into whatever app you please. It's a very handy way of communicating what's on your screen with others without pasting in an entire screenshot.
The Note 2 also brings a feature called Air View. When you hover the stylus over the screen, but don't actually touch it, it brings up a cursor. With Air View, when you hover this cursor over certain items, it can bring up more information without you needing to click it. With the video player, for example, if you hover over the seek bar it shows a thumbnail of that part of the video, letting you easily skip ahead to a specific scene.
Over in Samsung's S Planner calendar app, if hovering will show you a list of all events taking place on a day, or more details about a specific event. The same goes for Samsung's email app, where you can hover over the subject line or email body preview to show more information. Sadly, this functionality isn't built into the Gmail app.
Air View might not be a revolutionary feature, but I found I didn't need to keep jumping in and out of calendar entries or emails to see what was going on. Sure, you're only saving a couple of seconds each time, but those seconds add up.
Another neat little feature is called Quick Command. When on a home screen, press the small button on the S Pen and swipe upwards on the screen. That brings up the Quick Command box, a list of commands you can activate with the pen. If you draw the '@' symbol followed by a contact's name, for example, then assuming your handwriting is legible then phone will bring up a new email to that contact.
There's a bunch of other commands too, such as writing '!' followed by a location to do a maps search or '#' followed by a contact to call someone. It worked pretty well in my time with the phone and it rarely struggled to read my words, so long as I made sure they were relatively neat.
These extra bits of software individually don't make the phone a whole lot better, but together they do their best to save you several screen-taps and therefore time. It takes time to learn them, but once I did I found them surprisingly helpful.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
The Note 2 uses the latest version of Android known as 4.1 Jelly Bean. It might seem logical to assume that a new device would ship with the latest software, but even though Jelly Bean has been around for a while now, many new devices don't come with it on board. Brand-new phones such as the Razr i and Xperia T offer the older 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and promise an update to Jelly Bean at some unspecified point in the future. Its presence on the Note 2 is definitely a point in its favour.
Why? Jelly Bean isn't immediately much different from ICS, but it has a few neat tricks up its sleeve. For one, it increases the frame rate of the interface, resulting in very smooth page transitions and menu scrolling. It also allows you to block notifications from the drop-down bar when you're heading out on a date and don't want to be disturbed.
One of the key additions is Google Now -- a new service that tailors info based specifically on your location and your search habits.
Google Now can be accessed when you tap the Google search bar on the homescreen, rather than the swiping gesture seen on the Nexus 7 tablet. You'll see a Google search bar, your local weather information and a set of cards showing nearby restaurants. The idea is Google Now will eventually learn your movements and habits and offer advice based on them.
If Thursday afternoons usually see you trotting off to a meeting, for example, Google Now will be able to bring up a handy reminder beforehand, complete with directions and traffic information to your location. It will inform you of the best time to leave in order to get there promptly, taking into account the traffic situation.
This works on the Note 2 in the same way as it does on the Nexus 7. I was cheerily informed of the London Underground line status between my house in West London and the CNET UK office in central London and how long it would take me to get there, including the time it takes to walk to the stations.
It also works particularly well with voice searches when you're in a hurry. When I asked, "How do I get to St Paul's?" It immediately asked if I meant St Paul's Cathedral and then brought up driving directions from my location. It would have taken considerably longer to load Google Maps and type the search in by hand.
Other than that, the Jelly Bean interface is fairly straightforward. You get the usual multiple screens to fill up with app icons and widgets displaying live information. Any apps you don't want on your main homescreen are stored in pages of apps similar to the grid-style screens of the iPhone.
You have full access to the Google Play store to download your choice of hundreds of thousands of apps, as well as Play Books and Play Movies for your reading and movie needs.
As well as all the S Pen software discussed earlier, Samsung's also chucked in a few helpful little extras.
On the homescreens you'll spy a couple of dedicated widgets for playing videos and music as well as a big S Suggest widget. S Suggest is Samsung's own app store and it attempts to recommend apps tailored for you. I mostly found it useless -- it showed me mainly apps I already had, or games such as SongPop Free that it would have no reason to think I would like. Still, it's a simple task to get rid of that widget.
You also get access to Samsung's various shops. The Music Hub lets you stream and download music from 7 Digital's catalogue for £9.99 per month or buy individual tracks for 99p. I'd suggest the Spotify app with a premium subscription gives you more for the same price, although it doesn't let you buy music.
There's also the Games Hub for fun stuff and the Readers Hub for books, for which you'll need to sign up for a Samsung account. None of these services offer anything over using the Google Play store, so really they're just cluttering up your phone.
Much more useful is Pop-up Play. This is a feature we first saw on the Galaxy S3 and the Note 10.1 tablet -- it lets your video pop out of the player to float above the interface as you go about your other business. You can move it around so it doesn't get in the way and is a very handy way of quickly googling something without missing a second of your film.
You can also add notes onto the back of your photos. Head into your gallery and flip over any image saved there and you can scrawl some info about it using the S Pen.
A key use that sprung to my mind for this is to be able to write the name of someone you've met on a blurry night out and taken a photo of -- it could save the embarrassment of admitting the next day that you don't remember a thing about them. (Just be careful with that S Pen.) All your photos with notes attached display a little fold in the top corner, so it's easy to see which ones you've doodled on.
Just like on the Galaxy Note 10.1, the Note 2 is able to show two apps side-by-side on the screen. For example, it allows you to have the Chrome browser open -- perhaps looking for restaurants -- while you're simultaneously searching for their locations in Maps.
Pressing and holding the touch-sensitive back button next to the physical home button brings up a list of apps for you to choose from. You can then pop them down next to each other on the screen. It's a little fiddly to do but if you regularly have to flick back and forth between apps to check information as you type you'll probably find it extremely useful.
At the moment there aren't many apps that can take advantage of it -- the essentials such as Facebook, Chrome, Twitter, Maps and YouTube are there though -- but it's likely that more apps will support it if it becomes a standard feature on all Samsung phones.
If you've bought a Note 2 really early then this feature won't be included as standard, but it is available immediately in a software update. It will however be preinstalled on all Note 2s sold from now on.
Other features you'll find on board include Smart Stay, which stops the screen from dimming while you're looking at it, Direct Call, which lets you hold the phone to your face when a contact is on screen to phone them, and Flip to Mute, which is pretty self-explanatory. Those are all present on the Galaxy S3 and work in exactly the same way.
Under the hood of the Note 2 is a 1.6GHz quad-core processor backed up by a meaty 2GB of RAM. That's a spicy lineup of specs and slightly outstrips the recent Galaxy Note 10.1, which offers a 1.4GHz clock speed. I found that to be extremely potent so I had very high hopes for the Note 2.
To see how it compared, I fired up the Geekbench benchmark test and hit a score of 1,998 -- the best score on this test I've seen from a phone. By comparison, our rooted Galaxy S3 only managed to achieve 1,116 on the same test and nobody would call that phone underpowered.
A similarly impressive performance was forthcoming on the Quadrant benchmark test, where it clocked up a whopping 5,987. The S3 gave a lesser 5,289 on this test while HTC's One X only managed 4,904. Clearly, the Note 2 is packing some ferocious power inside its enormous frame and it's immediately evident that power is put to good use.
Swiping through the home screens is responsive and free of any kind of lag, nor is there any visible delay when opening the multi-tasking bar to swipe through currently running apps.
For most tasks, like social networking or reading your emails, you really don't need that much power. It definitely makes photo editing a far snappier affair, however, and helps it tackle high-definition video without breaking a sweat -- even when it's popped out and you're scooting around your homescreens at the same time.
It's also well poised to handle demanding 3D games from the Google Play store. I booted up Antutu's 3D benchmark and the Note 2 gave a score of 4,044, almost doubling the 2,304 achieved by the Galaxy S3. In my own use, I found it was able to easily handle the games I threw at it, maintaining smooth frame rates even in the more graphically demanding sections of 3D shooter ShadowGun.
With such a humongous screen and a super-charged engine under the hood, you'd be right to expect the battery to be stretched to its limits. Thoughtfully, Samsung has included a particularly capacious 3,100mAh battery.
I found the battery to be easily capable of surviving a full 12 hours of use, even when I was playing numerous videos and downloading apps over our office Wi-Fi. I haven't been able to run our usual battery benchmark tests so I'll have to update this review with a more scientific verdict soon, but it's certainly looking promising.
If you're particularly worried about battery life, Android makes it simple to conserve juice. In the drop-down notifications bar you'll find a power-saving button that can limit the power of the processor, use a lower power level for the screen and turn off haptic feedback -- all of which should help squeeze out a little more life.
Turning down the screen brightness and turning off Wi-Fi and GPS services also greatly improve battery life, and are also easily switched off in the notifications bar. Plus you can carry around a spare battery, something you can never say of the iPhone.
On the back of the Note 2 you'll find an 8-megapixel camera with an LED flash. That's the same camera spec offered by the S3, so I was expecting similar results, but I was a little let down by its efforts. It's a big old unit too, so you may feel a little self-conscious taking it out for a quick snap with your friends, although it's not quite as bad as those weirdos who take photos with their tablet.
When shooting the famous CNET UK pool table, the Note 2 was able to accurately expose for the scene, keeping the bright building outside the window under control while still keeping the darker shadows in the foreground in plain view. The scene lacks definition overall, however, particularly when you look closely at the vending machines and the blue wall behind.
I took the phone to a grimy Southwark pub to test its low-light performance and, like my subject, I wasn't exactly thrilled. While the overall exposure was fine, the image wasn't particularly clear and suffered from noise in the more shadowy corners. It also struggled to accurately focus on several occasions and has resulted in the normally devilishly handsome Nick Hide looking uncharacteristically out of focus.
The Galaxy Note 2 will divide opinion in the same way as its predecessor. While one person might loudly argue that it's too big and "looks ludicrous", another will appreciate the extra screen space for video and work tasks.
Whether or not the Note is right for you depends on which of the above camps you fall in. If you currently struggle with the 4.3 inches of the Galaxy S2, for example, it's not the phone for you. But if you basically want a more portable tablet, it's top of a list of two: this and the original Note. I was really won over by how useful the stylus turned out to be, and while some of Samsung's apps are pointless, much of its included software features are genuinely useful.
If you do plump for the Note 2, rest assured you're getting a searingly powerful piece of kit, ready and willing to tackle all sorts of creative and admin tasks on the go. Just make sure you've reinforced those suit pockets before you cram it in.