X

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review: The ultimate anti-iPhone

Its enormous screen, innovative stylus, and emphasis on NFC make Samsung's stepped-up Galaxy Note 2 "phablet" the philosophical opposite of Apple's iPhone 5.

jessicadolcourt.jpg
Jessica Dolcourt
jessicadolcourt.jpg

Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

See full bio
16 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

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

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
8.7

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

The Good

Oodles of screen real estate make the <b>Samsung Galaxy Note 2</b> 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.

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 hands on (photos)

See all photos

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.

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

In addition, S Note has problems clearly organizing your notes, you can't intuitively create templates, and you can't open a blank document by default.

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 camera test (pictures)

See all photos

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.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2
8.7

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9