Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review: The ultimate anti-iPhone

Multiview mode
One of my favorite S Pen features splits the screen to open another app. First seen on the Note 10.1, the multiview mode gets much greater support for third-party apps in the Note 2. Unfortunately, it isn't coming to the U.S. versions of the phone, at least not yet. This is a major let-down at launch, but I'll describe what you'll miss out on stateside, and what you get if you acquire the global model.

You can, for instance, view Gmail or the Web while also surfing Maps, or simultaneously scan Facebook while also keeping tabs on a YouTube video. Multimode worked well in both portrait and landscape modes on a little more than a dozen apps.

Multimode on the unlocked Samsung Galaxy Note 2
I really liked the split-screen option on the unlocked Galaxy Note 2. Screenshots by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Even more features and apps
Samsung has loaded up the Note 2 with even more features. Truly, when you add up the S Pen apps and features with Samsung's gestures and the extras laid out here, the Note 2 isn't a phone for people who crave intuitive simplicity.

There's S Beam, for example, which is Samsung's riff on the NFC-sharing feature called Android Beam. Blocking mode keeps you from seeing incoming calls and alerts between the hours that you set. Smart Stay keeps the screen from timing out as long as it detects your gaze.

Pop-Up Play and Pop-Up Browser are independent movable, resizable windows that either play back video or open a Web page independently of the main browser or video player. Pop-Up Browser can be useful for quickly opening a window before diving back into whatever you're doing.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
You can pinch and zoom to resize the Pop-Up Play video window. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There are also settings for one-handed operation, a mode that shrinks a handful of apps (like the keyboard) and moves them to the left or right gutter where your fingers can reach. You can program the Note 2 to flash notifications if you wave your hand in the right spot and with the right speed over the proximity sensor; add a Facebook or news ticker to the lock screen; and take a screenshot of an irregular shape by using the S Pen as a lasso tool. The phone also serves a portable hot spot for up to 10 devices.

Samsung's AllShare and Kies apps transfer content from the Note 2 to other devices through the DLNA protocol or over Wi-Fi, respectively. Samsung has also released version 3.0 of its TecTiles app , companion software that lets you program NFC stickers to instantly carry out any number of tasks.

Don't forget about the Android smartphone essentials: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, a calendar, a music player, a calculator, and all the usual Google apps and services.

Camera and video
The Galaxy Note 2 carries on Samsung's legacy for high-performing 8-megapixel cameras. Photos look just as crisp and colorful on the Galaxy Note 2 as they do on the GS3, especially those taken outdoors.

Not all pictures will turn out ready for a frame, but that's true with any camera. Some indoor photos looked less crisp and colorful than I expected, but on the whole, I'd be happy using the Note's camera for those impromptu shots, and leaving the better camera at home.

Samsung likes to add a lot of special features to the usual bevy of lighting adjustments and effects presets. Burst mode is one that integrates into the onscreen shutter button to take up to 20 shots in quick succession. Related to that is Best Photo, a mode that lets you choose the best single image of eight.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 camera test
This outdoor photo catches the light flare, but overall defines edges well. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Best Faces mode also snaps 20 shots so you can choose the one that makes mugs look their most flattering. Share Shot and Buddy Photo Share are two ways to fast-track photos to friends. Share Shot now connects with compatible phones through NFC and Wi-Fi Direct -- in other words, just tap the phones together to share photos while you're within radio range.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 camera test
CNET editor Antuan Goodwin, taken indoors with mixed lighting. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

HDR, panorama, and low-light settings are other shooting modes. The phone also has geotagging, antishake, and the option to take photos triggered by a voice command, like "Smile" or "Cheese."

In addition to the rear-facing camera is the front-facing lens, which takes decent 1.9-megapixel front-facing photo and video, also with shooting effects and several shooting and sharing modes.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 camera test
Full-resolution sample of a flower, taken outdoors in full sunlight. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Video quality was also good. The Note 2 captures and plays back 1080p HD video. Video was detailed and clear in outdoor lighting; colors were vivid, and the microphone captured my subjects' voices well.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 camera test
The Galaxy Note 2 misbehaved a bit in this standard indoor studio shot, taken with flash. The edges appear browner than expected. Josh Miller/CNET

On top of limiting the video's length for MMS, you're able to capture in slow motion or fast motion, add effects, geotag, correct the white balance, and turn on antishake. The "outdoor visibility" setting boosts screen brightness so you can see what's happening on the display.

Check out comparison shots in this gallery.

Performance
Samsung's first quad-core smartphone, the Note 2 contains the company's own 1.6 GHz quad-core Exynos 4 processor. Most importantly, it's also LTE-optimized, even in the U.S.

Speeds will vary by carrier, but the Note 2 does support LTE and HSPA+. I tested for diagnostics on the AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint versions of the phone. Here are somes results using the diagnostic Speedtest.net app in San Francisco:

Speedtest.net results for Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Speedtest.net results for Samsung Galaxy Note 2 on three models. Click for a larger view. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Processing power was much more impressive. The phone excelled in diagnostic benchmarking tests like Quadrant, but in real life, gameplay and video looked about the same on the Note 2 and on the GS3, which runs on Qualcomm's fastest dual-core chipsets. Both dished up smooth, rich, and immersive experiences without delay. CNET will run more-detailed benchmarks of our own and publish our performance findings.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 boot times
Boot time to lock screen 18.8 seconds
Camera boot time 1 second
Camera, shot-to-shot time 0.2 second
Load up app (Quadrant) 1 second

Like the Galaxy S3, the Galaxy Note 2 comes in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB storage variants with up to 64GB of external storage. It also has 2GB RAM like the GS3. We're not in the least surprised, since the two handsets are so similar.

Samsung is particularly proud of the Note 2's 3,100mAh battery (up from 2,500mAh on the original Note), which Samsung hopes will chug along for 10 to 12 hours of life. Battery life was fantastic on the unlocked model, though it certainly wasn't as long-lived as Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx series. However, this test device wasn't using LTE, I had set the screen time-out to 30 seconds, and I mostly avoided battery-sucking apps like S Voice and Smart Stay.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Benchmarking results for the Quadrant app on the Galaxy Note 2 (left) and the Galaxy S3. Screenshots by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The brighter your screen, the longer it's on, and the more features you use, the faster your battery will drain before the projected 10-hour mark. I tested the Sprint version of the Galaxy Note 2 using a battery test that CNET developed in-house for Android phones. The test results show 12.5 hours of video playback.

Call quality
I tested call quality on both AT&T's Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in San Francisco, and on the unlocked phone using an AT&T SIM card. What was interesting to me was that the phones sounded slightly different despite riding the same network. In both cases, the callers' vocal warmth and richness came through, and there was no background noise.

However, voices were a little thick and muddied around the edges on both phones, and a sharp twang of distortion sometimes accompanied the audio on the unlocked version. On the AT&T-optimized handset, my caller sounded a little robotic around the edges. Volume was strong when I slide the dial to maximum, especially when I tested in a room with some ambient noise. Medium volume would be too quiet, but the Note 2 comes with Samsung's audio-boosting software, which amplifies the volume. Boosting immediately changes the audio character. The AT&T version sounded less warm and more hollow. This boost mode wasn't necessary during a normal call with the TV on.

On his end, my chief testing partner said I sounded mostly natural and loud on both phones, but with some vocal muffling and a little distortion. I was slightly tinnier on the AT&T-optimized version, and not quite natural. He thought it was a pretty good phone overall, clear of any background noise.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (AT&T) call quality sample Listen now:

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (Sprint) call quality sample Listen now:

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (Unlocked) call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was also satisfactory at maximum volume without the volume boost. Most of the time, it sounded great for a speakerphone, but the naturally louder volume did cause the entire hunk of hardware to buzz in my hand. However, it didn't rattle or vibrate when I set the phone on a hard surface.

On my tester's end, the Note 2 also sounded good, and fairly clear, with normal levels of echo, and no added distortion. The global version of the phone offered strong volume, but the AT&T-optimized version dropped several decibels in volume, he said, making me quieter and harder to hear.

Where it stands and who should buy
So can the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 take on the iPhone 5? How about a tablet? It certainly has the chops to attract potential iPhone 5 customers, but with its sheer size, its out-of-the-box stylus, and a mountain of customization options, the Note 2 is about as far from the much simpler, smaller iPhone as a premium smartphone can get.

As for the tablet argument, my personal position is that the Note 2 is no slate replacement, even if you solely locate a tablet's purpose in its more expansive screen. Large for a phone, but small for a slate, the Note 2 absolutely showcases content like movies and text, but it lacks a tablet's purposeful book-size screen and dedicated HDMI-out port.

What I really see in Samsung's second Note is an attempt to make phones more active tools than ever before, with help from the S Pen stylus, multimode, and a few new software extras. The S Pen and apps are ambitious, and mostly useful, but as I said before, usability sometimes stutters in small but constant and frustrating ways.

Regardless, I think the Note 2 could appeal to students, to artists, to business professionals, and, yes, even to those who aren't invested in tablets, but would like a larger screen. I would definitely consider carrying a Note 2 as a personal phone. However, many people won't feel drawn to use the S Pen, and the Note 2's extra-large size and expense will turn others off -- quad-core Jelly Bean or no.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
The Galaxy Note 2 isn't for everyone. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Those who do choose the Note 2 will be rewarded with top-notch features and plenty to show off at parties and in the workplace. Ultimately, the handset stands on its own even without the S Pen, but its size, higher price, and stylus keep it from being a universally appealing device in the same category as the Galaxy S3, the iPhone 5, the LG Optimus G , and the HTC One X.

If you like the idea of an S Pen and a larger screen, and aren't put off by the high price, by all means buy the Note 2. It's different, and with its internally stored stylus, faster processor, and more mature software, it beats the pants off its closest competitor, the LG Intuition . However, if you're not convinced you'd use the S Pen and you find the screen size ridiculously large, then back away. There are plenty of other premium phones vying for your attention.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2

Part Number: GALAXYNOTE2TITGRYULK Released: Oct 24, 2012
MSRP: $699.99 Low Price: $289.75 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Oct 24, 2012
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider Unlocked
  • Weight 6.35 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5.55 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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