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Samsung Galaxy Note II review

Samsung’s first crack at a smartphone larger than five inches came last year in the form of the Galaxy Note. It was wildly different than most phones we’d seen before: it was massive, for one, and involved the use of a stylus pen, a sorely outdated concept at the time. Who would be willing to buy this thing? Yet, despite its enormous size, this tablet / phone (forgive us: phablet) captured more hearts and wallets than even Sammy had probably expected. The S Pen showed that it was more than just a simple stylus, artists and tech enthusiasts alike loved it and a successful marketing campaign helped push millions of units. The Note was an undeniable hit.

Did Samsung realize at the time that it was sitting on a gold mine? It’s hard to know for sure, but its success meant only one thing: an inevitable sequel. The Galaxy Note II, introduced a year after its parent, has some big shoes to fill. We believe it’s up to the task, though: it boasts a quad-core Exynos processor, twice the RAM, an even larger display and a whole new bag of S Pen tricks. It sounds compelling, but does the new version truly trump the old? Is it worth another sound investment (pricing varies, but it starts around £530 for a SIM-free version) just a year down the road? We’ll satisfy your curiosity after the break.

Update:We’ve got the big ol’ Note 2 in our special labs now – so to whet your appetite, we’ve taken a whole load of extra photos while we write thousands of words about it.

Now Samsung has given in and called the Note 2 a smartphone, we can dub it the most powerful around.

With a wonderfully vivid 5.5-inch Super AMOLED HD screen and meaty innards, there’s no doubt that the Note 2 is the top dog when it comes to raw grunt and function.

Add to that the S Pen functionality, which has been given a bunch of new fancy tricks, and you can see why there’s a lot to coo over with the new device.

Before we dig in, take a look at the Galaxy Note 2 in action in our hands-on demo video:

The design is still very ‘Samsung’… meaning that the power key is well within reach on the right-hand side of the phone, and is well crafted to allow a decent travel.

The headphone jack and the home button are all within reach too, although don’t forget the size means a LOT of jiggling in the hand if you’re going to attempt to use the Note in only one palm.

Let’s get onto the internals, shall we? The quad core Exynos processor has been cranked up to 1.6GHz, and is joined by a distinctly un-shabby 2GB of RAM to power things along.

And it’s fast. Really fast. We’ve tested a number of devices like this on the stands of various companies, and we’ve rarely seen anything whiz under the finger in the same fashion. It almost ruins the Galaxy S3, simply because there’s a noticeable difference between the two.

However, before we start sounding too evangelical, let’s highlight the major problem here: the size. For all Samsung’s posturing that this is a product category that’s been dying to be exploited, we’re still not convinced that this isn’t too large.

It’s an impressive feat to keep the same Note footprint while improving the size of the screen to 5.5-inches, especially as it’s only 9.4mm thin.

It fits in the pocket just fine, providing you’re not sporting those tight trousers all the kids seem to be wearing these days, although it was pretty hairy trying to test that theory out around the thousands of watchful Samsung stand bunnies.

The design is very similar to most of the Samsung Galaxy range, in that it’s sturdy, yet slightly lightweight, plastic.

The lock and power button, located on the right hand side, is well placed for easy use, as is the slick S Pen slot. This slot has been imbued with greater powers, such as automatically opening the S Memo application when you’re on the phone and remove the stylus.

It’s a neat trick, and now has an extra level of functionality through Air View. This slightly convoluted aspect means you can hover the S Pen over the display of the phone and see everything from messages to pictures to scrolling through video without actually touching the display.

Is it anything more than a gimmick? Unless you’re scrolling through messages, probably not. The gallery functionality was pointless, and if you’re already scrolling through a video to get to another point there’s no harm in actually interacting with the movie, seeing as you’re not watching it anyway.

While we’re talking about movies, we should mention that the large 5.5-inch screen is simply amazing for a movie marathon. Really good, clear and vivid, which we’ve come to expect from the Super AMOLED HD range.

Sure there are some that say it’s oversaturated, not realistic etc, but to them we say: just pull this out in a pub, pop on an HD film and see what other think.

The screen is excellent in other areas too, like when messing about with Google Maps – it’s clear, vivid and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 will be great as a sat nav.

And it feels really weird hovering the pen over the display in such a way – here’s hoping that’s something you get used to, or it’s going to end up being as useful as S Voice on the Galaxy S3.

The implementation of Android 4.1 Jellybean is certainly a nice touch, although it’s different to the vanilla offering on the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus. There’s not card-based notification menu on offer here, although when long-pressing the home key to call up the task manager you’ve got instant access to Google Now, as well as the ability to check running apps.

There are a number of extra features to play with here as well. For instance, Facebook updates will scroll across the bottom of the screen when in lock mode, which will probably suck both power and data, even with that massive power pack and LTE connectivity included.

There’s also another feature in the shape of Blocking Mode, which gives you greater powers over the ability to stop people talking to you when you don’t want.

Early Verdict

But let’s go back to the speed of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 – it’s phenomenal. This is, hands down, the best media and internet browsing portable machine we’ve seen in ages.

It’s too big still to be used as a normal phone – people will still think you’re more than slightly odd holding it to your face – but for texting, browsing, emailing, watching movies and more, we haven’t seen much better than this.

We’ll reserve proper judgement obviously until the price emerges – if it’s anything like the first Note, we’re in for a high-priced shock.

However, get this to the £30 mark on contract (or around $399) and, coupled with some serious marketing again from Samsung, we should have a winner on our hands.

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