Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review: Samsung Galaxy Note 2

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CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 175 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Massive, bold screen is great for video; stylus makes writing notes a breeze; Superbly powerful processor; Loads of helpful software.

The Bad Stylus is very easy to lose; camera is rather disappointing; hard to use one-handed.

The Bottom Line With an even bigger screen than the gigantic Galaxy Note and a superbly powerful quad-core processor, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is the ideal smart phone for anyone who values a spacious screen above all else.

CNET Editors' Choice Oct '12

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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?

It's available now for free on two-year contracts starting at £31 per month, or £530 SIM-free.

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 Galaxy Note 2 hands on
Tiny-handed typists need not apply.

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 thickness
For such a huge device, it's surprisingly thin.

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 stylus port
The stylus -- sorry, S Pen -- slots in down here.

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.

Screen

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 screen
That monolithic screen in all its Super AMOLED glory.

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with stylus
It's time to get down to business.

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.

Sketchbook Mobile Express, a pre-loaded app, helps you get creative with the S Pen.

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.

The S Note app is a flexible, useful tool for making richly detailed memos.

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.

Evidently Samsung's team has rather more artistic talent than us.

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 S Pen makes it easy to select an area of the screen to copy and paste.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 2

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