Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review: The ultimate anti-iPhone

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The Good Oodles of screen real estate make the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 terrific for videos, games, and reading; and its improved stylus aids productivity. A blazing quad-core processor, a great camera, and strong battery life round out the advantages of this Android 4.1 phone.

The Bad The huge display makes the Galaxy Note 2 unwieldy to carry, and hiccups in the S Pen stylus and apps can slow you down. The pricey Note 2 isn't a suitable tablet replacement across all categories.

The Bottom Line Samsung delivers a powerful, boundary-pushing device that gets a lot right. Yet its complicated features and high price raise questions about its purpose.

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8.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

You're probably wondering how good the massive, tabletlike Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is, and if the smartphone can fulfill important tablet functions.

You may also wonder if the Note 2's 5.5-inch screen makes it too unwieldy to hold and carry as an everyday device, and if its battery quickly drains in service to the monster screen. Can the quad-core processor keep up, and will it defeat the purpose if you never slide out the Note's digital pen?

My answers are mostly positive. Yes, the second Note is huge in the hand and awkward at times to hold, but I quickly grew used to it. In specs, it's Samsung's highest-end phone, with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS, a speedy quad-core processor, an extra-large battery, and an 8-megapixel camera.

The Note 2's more comfortable, natural, and sensitive S Pen stylus and smarter software reveal a more evolved device than before, but it still can't shake some of the complaints that hounded the original Galaxy Note.

And while better-equipped for creating and consuming media than other smartphones, the Note 2 is still small compared with a 7-inch tablet. Really, only those who could truly take a tablet or leave it will consider the Note 2 a replacement. Those who really want a tablet will likely still want one.

Editors' note: I won't delve into every feature in this review, but I will cover the most important aspects. Portions of the review are taken from my earlier First Take.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2
The S Pen defines the Samsung Galaxy Note, and acts as its major differentiating feature. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Pricing and availability
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 supports 4G LTE and HSPA+, and will be available on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon. Sprint will begin selling the "phablet" on October 25 for $299.99. AT&T will ship theirs on November 9, also for $300. U.S. Cellular's will go on sale October 26 for the same price. T-Mobile, however, is selling the phone for $369.99 with a two-year service agreement; it's available now.

Design and build
If you've seen the Samsung Galaxy S3, then the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 holds few surprises. Start with the Galaxy S3's round corners, high-gloss surfaces, scant bezels, and bubbled-out screen, then blow it up a size and add a stylus slot.

Samsung unabashedly carries on its plastic tradition in the face of rivals that have much more premium-looking, and possibly heartier, build materials. Though attractive, the Note 2 wins no awards for construction, and the highly reflective surfaces sometimes bounce back light in distracting ways.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Oh yeah, it's big. Josh Miller/CNET

This is a large phone: 5.9 inches tall by 3.2 inches wide by 0.37 inch thick and weighing 6.4 ounces. That's a handful to be sure, but the weight feels proportional to the phone's dimensions, and any lighter could mean a smaller battery, which is one trade-off I don't want. Like the Galaxy S3, the Note 2 manages to look relatively sleek and slim despite its girth. Side by side, the Note 2 isn't a whole lot larger than the original Samsung Galaxy Note, and is much more palmable than a 7-inch tablet.

Still, I won't blame anyone for feeling anxiety over the Note 2's in-hand feel or portability. As with all phones, your ultimate judgment of what feels right depends on your hands. Over the course of testing, the Note 2 moved through a range of hands and pockets. Mine are fairly small, and I wanted to see what people had to say about its size and comfort. Most of the women I spoke with had no trouble fitting the Note 2 into a bag or purse, but questioned the phone's usability and their ability to reach the corners of the screen one-handed.

Of the men who tried out the phone, responses were 50/50. Some felt fine slipping the Note 2 into a front pants pocket, others didn't. Some enjoyed holding the larger phone once they got used to its size; others found it too expansive, even with their bigger hands.

I myself was able to slide the Note 2 into my back jeans pocket and go about my day. It stuck out and looked terrible, but it didn't impede my walking around and most of the time I didn't really notice it. I even sat on the phone a few times; it wasn't especially uncomfortable, and the phone didn't break.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (center) dwarfs the already-large Galaxy S3 (L) and Apple's iPhone 5 (R). Josh Miller/CNET

I also became quickly accustomed to the phone's size. After a day or two staring at its screen, the Galaxy S3's looked small in comparison. The iPhone 5's 4-inch screen looked shockingly tiny, which just proves that device size is all relative.

If you don't have one already, you'll want to invest in a Bluetooth headset for answering calls. The Note 2 looks comically large at the ear.

Beyond the phone's physical properties, you'll find helpful hardware buttons and ports. There's a front-facing camera above the screen, along with a light and proximity sensor. There's a physical hardware Home button below the display, sandwiched between touch-sensitive buttons for Menu and Back. The power button is on the right spine, the volume rocker is on the left, and the Micro-USB port is on the bottom. The top houses the 3.5mm headset jack.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
The slim profile keeps this shingle of a phone light 'n' lean. Stephen Shankland/CNET

On the back, you'll find the camera lens and LED flash. At the bottom of the back panel is the stylus slot with S Pen. Behind the back cover rests the microSD card slot, which can hold up to 64GB in external memory.

Screen and OS
The Note 2's 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED screen (1,280x720-pixel resolution) is bigger than the original Note's 5.3-inch display. That translates into a wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the 16:10 aspect ratio of the first Note. That helps it fit right in with more standard graphics and video playback.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Colors look vibrant on the Galaxy Note 2's humongous screen, though not as sharp as on HD phones with smaller displays. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Note 2's vast HD AMOLED screen is as lovely as ever, with deep blacks and vibrant colors. However, the resolution isn't as tight as on the Samsung Galaxy S3, which puts more pixels on a comparatively smaller screen. The naked eye would be hard-pressed to detect the looser resolution while watching videos and reading text, but when you hold the phones side by side, the fine details don't look as sharp on the Note 2. This is especially noticeable compared with an even smaller HD screen, like the iPhone 5's 4-inch Retina Display.

Galaxy Note 2 Galaxy S3 iPhone 5 Nokia Lumia 920
Display 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED 4-inch IPS LCD 4.5-inch PureMotion+ (IPS LCD)
Resolution 1,280x720 pixels 1,280x720 pixels 1,136x640 pixels 1,280x768 pixels
Pixel density 267ppi 306ppi 326ppi 332ppi

The S Pen stylus is an integral part of the complete Note 2 experience, but to control the phone, fingers are all you really need. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean runs the Note 2, with Samsung's TouchWiz interface on top. I've said it before: TouchWiz mostly adds terrific functionality that extends Google's Android vision, but it's getting a little outdated and lacks the elegance or edginess of competitors' overlays.

There's a great deal of customization, from lock screen shortcuts to a wide variety of motion controls -- some which I love, and others that I completely ignore. You'll be able to access system settings from the notifications menu, which, by the way, offer Jelly Bean's deeper interactions.

Seven home screens are fully customizable, and Samsung even gives you the option of booting up "easy" mode, which drops in widgets of most-used apps, settings, and contacts on the home screen. It's all editable, of course.

You can also enable Page Buddy, a context-relevant home screen that temporarily pops up when you do things like remove the stylus, plug in headphones, and dock the phone. Pull out the stylus, for instance, and you'll see a page with shortcuts to S Note files and templates.

Page Buddy and easy mode on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Easy mode (left) loads home screen widgets for you. Page Buddy offers context-sensitive apps when you pull out the Note 2's S Pen. Screenshots by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Samsung's default virtual keyboard lets you touch-type or trace words. I love that numbers get their own row, and I appreciate predictive text. Unfortunately, there's no spell-checker, and mistakes require manual correction. This oversight bothers me on all Samsung phones, but with the Note 2 being so focused on writing, the lack of a default spell checker is really inexcusable. I'm also put out that there's no one-touch way to insert commas and question marks.

On the plus side, each navigation button also doubles up on functionality. Hold down Menu to get the revised Google Search App with the newly designed Google Voice Actions and Google Now. A long press on the home button pulls up your list of most recent apps; a double-press activates Samsung's own take on a voice assistant, S Voice, which I still don't think is very good. Pressing the back button on this global version pops up the menu for split-screen multitasking (more on this below.)

S Pen stylus
If you never unholster the the phone's signature stylus, you can still enjoy full use of the Note 2 and all its Android-given glory. However, if you do wield the S Pen, drawing and productivity tools await.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
Square S Pen edges and a grooved button add stability and control over the original. Josh Miller/CNET

The S Pen itself is redesigned from the original Note's. Like the Galaxy Note 10.1's, the Note 2's stylus has four distinct surfaces and squared-off sides. Its button is ridged so you can click by feel. Compared with the Note's round, thin twig of a wand, this stylus is more comfortable, less likely to roll away, and less prone to accidental button presses. Of course, I mistakenly pressed it anyway, which led to its own set of issues while using the device.

Samsung licenses Wacom's technology to brings its S Pen 1,024 levels of pen-pressure sensitivity, which means you can press lightly or hard for different results. Like the Note tablet, the Note 2 smartphone merges pen-and-paper sensibilities with a healthy dose of cursor-and-mouse functionality.

Take air view, a cursor/mouse combo that reveals tool tips and drop-down menus when you hover, and also pops up thumbnail previews for photo and video. You can also scroll up and down, and from side to side.

Manipulating the S Pen Zoom also zooms in and out, takes a screen shot, and opens a new, blank memo on any screen. You can also highlight text and lasso objects to capture them.

Writing with S Pen
The S Pen is a natural, comfortable extension of your own hand, and using it gives your fingers a break. Dig a little, and you'll find quick commands and gestures of all sorts. Gestures can be faster and more efficient; other times not. You can also create some of your own.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
The S Pen sequel is more comfortable to hold and use. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Any time a keyboard pops up, you'll be able to use the S Pen to hunt-and-peck, swipe words, or handwrite them. After tinkering with some settings, you'll also be able to handwrite directly into apps like Gmail, and virtually flip over photos to jot on the back.

No matter which app I'm in, the S Pen renders my already questionable penmanship even more scrawling, which can throw off the mostly impressive handwriting recognition software. The Note 2 even recognizes cursive script for some languages.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 keyboards
Numbers get their own row in the Galaxy Note 2's virtual keyboard (left) You can also write directly on the keyboard in your own hand. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Still, to rely on the handwriting software day in and out, recognition must be consistently accurate, reliable, and fast. The Note's isn't quite there yet, which leads to frustrating moments defined by pauses, corrections, and rewrites.

S Note
Samsung's S Note app is both one of the best arguments for the S Pen, and also one of the phone's weak points. I'm a natural note-taker, so I scribbled lists aplenty during my testing period. I also sketched pictures to entertain some bored kids.

I liked the flexibility and naturalness of using my own note-taking style and work flow with arrows and underlines and all the rest. I found that my penmanship improved when I used the fine-point pen tip on the smallest setting, but erasing and rewriting scrawls took time. My style is simple, but you can also use the S Pen to enter typed text, and adjust the size and colors of each digital pen stroke.

Child's art, drawn with the S Pen on the Samsung Galaxy Note 2
A 4-year-old girl had fun changing pen colors and types on the Galaxy Note 2. CNET

S Note also supports voice dictation and photo and video inserts, and can record your actions. It'll transform your sketches into math formulas or shapes, insert clip art, and pull up extra art images based on your keyword search.

One of my favorite settings makes S Note sensitive to the S Pen only. In other words, if you hit the screen with your finger or the heel of your hand, you won't leave unwanted marks. However, pen strokes sometimes spontaneously halt, and accidentally hitting the S Pen button can toggle on the eraser or switch pen types as you write. Handwriting-to-text is rife with usability snags.

S Note in Samsung Galaxy Note 2
S Note is great for jotting and doodling, but hiccups can make strokes unintelligible. On the right, the word before 'symbol'; is actually 'this.' Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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