Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review: Samsung Galaxy Note 2

Hovering the S Pen over the seek bar helps you quickly find the section you want to watch.

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 also lets you quickly see details about a calendar event without having to open it up.

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.

It's just as helpful in the Samsung email app too, but it doesn't work with Gmail.

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.

Quick Command lets you perform certain tasks just by drawing icons.

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.

The Jelly Bean interface isn't a radical overhaul from Ice Cream Sandwich.

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 shows information like the weather, nearby bars and your travel times without you even needing to search.

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.

Google Now was easily able to understand my question and give me directions to St Paul's Cathedral.

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.

Samsung software

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.

Samsung pops some of its own widgets on the homescreens, but you don't have to keep them there.

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.

Samsung's Music and Games Hubs don't offer much over the Google Play store or Spotify.

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.

Pop up Play lets you view your video in a window over the top of the Android interface.

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.

Photo Note lets you write on the back of all your photos -- a genuinely useful little touch.

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.

If you frequently flick back and forth between apps, you'll enjoy being able to use them side-by-side.

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.

Performance

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.

The Note 2 gave the best performance I've seen from an Android device on the Geekbench benchmark test.

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.

It also gave a stonking performance on the Quadrant test.

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.

Battery life

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.

Camera

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.

Image description
This scene was exposed fairly well, but it lacked the clarity I'd hope to see on a high-end smartphone camera (click image to enlarge).

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.

Image description
This disreputable looking fellow had the gall to make fun of me for "taking a photo with a tablet" (click image to enlarge).

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.

Conclusion

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.

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

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