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Samsung Galaxy Note II (AT&T) Review
With a fast quad-core processor, a big, gorgeous display, and features galore, the Samsung Galaxy Note II delivers everything a huge-screen smartphone should. If you want a phone that doubles as a small tablet, it’s the best you’ll find.
(4.5 out of 5) Editor’s Choice
- Fast LTE
- Massive high-definition screen
- Fast quad-core processor
- Includes a pressure-sensitive stylus and well-designed note-taking and drawing software
- Runs Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” out of the box
- Stellar call quality
- Very large
- A few minor hiccups in gaming performance
The Galaxy Note II for AT&T ($299.99 direct) is many things, but above all, it’s the most phone there is. It gives you more screen, more processor, and more OS than just about any other phone out there. It’s also a significant improvement over the first Galaxy Note , thanks to a faster quad-core processor and Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” OS, not to mention a host of Samsung-developed note-taking software improvements. If you think all other phones are too small, and prefer something big enough to double as a miniature tablet that (barely) fits in your pocket, the Galaxy Note II reigns supreme. It’s the first recipient of our new Editors’ Choice award for phablets (phones with screen sizes ranging from 5.0 to 6.9 inches).
Editors’ Note: The AT&T and T-Mobile versions of the Samsung Galaxy Note II are very similar, so we’re sharing a lot of material between our reviews. That said, we’re testing each device separately, so read the review for your carrier of choice. The slideshow below is for the T-Mobile version, which is visually identical aside from the carrier name in the notification bar, and the logo on the plastic back panel.
Design and Screen
Let’s go over the design first. Visually, there’s almost no difference between the AT&T and T-Mobile versions, aside from an AT&T logo on the back panel instead of the T-Mobile name. The Galaxy Note II measures 5.95 by 3.17 by 0.37 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.34 ounces. That’s roughly an inch taller and half an inch wider than even big smartphones with 4.5-inch and greater screens. It’s just as thin as those, though, which helps a lot. It’s made entirely of plastic with the exception of the glass screen. But unlike some other Samsung handsets, the Galaxy Note II looks and feels refined, thanks to the classy, faux-anodized silver finish and a smoked chrome accent ring around the sides. You can get one in either gray or white.
The star of the show is the 5.5-inch, 1280-by-720-pixel, Super AMOLED capacitive touch screen. The aspect ratio is 16:9 this time, instead of 16:10 like the first Galaxy Note, which had a slightly higher 1280-by-800-pixel resolution. Either way, the new display is stunning. It’s super-bright, with vivid colors and deep blacks, and viewing angles are uniformly excellent. I suppose you could argue that at 267ppi, pixel depth isn’t quite as impressive as it is on smaller phones with the same 720p resolution. But rest assured: This screen looks fantastic.
As you can imagine, the screen is large enough for easy typing in both portrait and landscape modes. You even get an extra row of number keys, so you don’t have to switch the keyboard mode to enter in digits. There’s a hardware Home button below the screen, flanked by Menu and Back capacitive touch buttons. A Wacom-designed stylus is tucked into a slot under the bottom right edge. The stylus supports 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity—four times what the stylus in the Galaxy Note supports.
Given its gargantuan size, the Galaxy Note II is difficult to use one-handed—except that, fortunately, Samsung has already thought of this. To that end, it provides a series of toggles in Settings > One-Handed Operation. You can move the dial buttons to the left or right, for example, and position the keyboard and unlock pattern for easier access.
Connectivity and Voice Calls
The Galaxy Note II on AT&T is a quad-band EDGE (850,1900,1800,1900 MHz), dual-band HSPA+ 42 (850/1900 MHz), and 4G LTE device with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi support on both 2.4 and 5GHz bands. I had no problem connecting to a 5GHz, WPA2-encrypted hotspot in the PCMag Labs. You don’t get Wi-Fi calling with AT&T, the way you do with the T-Mobile version, but AT&T’s significantly larger coverage map in the U.S. compensates for this. The Galaxy Note II has strong reception; with LTE download speeds averaging 14Mbps and upload speeds around 12 to 13Mbps, the Galaxy Note II scored roughly in the middle of the pack.
Voice calls sounded as good as I’ve ever heard on a cell phone, and essentially matched what I heard with the T-Mobile version. The earpiece speaker sounded full, warm, and loud, with no background hiss. I could move my ear quite a bit against the handset and still hear the other party easily, which wasn’t possible with the LG Intuition. Transmissions through the microphone were clear and punchy; I tested the phone on an extremely noisy midtown Manhattan street, which the noise cancelling algorithms reduced to a low, steady drone (which was entirely absent in quieter environments).
Calls also sounded clear through a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset. Pairing was easy; tap the Bluetooth icon in the notification bar and the phone immediately looks for new Bluetooth devices. The rear-mounted mono speakerphone sounded clear and loud, and should be fine for use outdoors. We expect good things out of the oversize 3100mAh battery; we’re still testing battery life and will update this review as soon as we have a result.
Voice dialing deserves special mention. Samsung’s S Voice lets you control the Note by voice. You can wake it up by saying Hi Galaxy, double-tapping the Home button, or by choosing your own phrase. You can also enable or disable handwriting mode, which activates when you pull the pen from the device. In addition to voice dialing—which worked fine over Bluetooth in my tests—you can also text, search contacts, navigate, schedule something on your calendar, add a task, start a music playlist, and update Twitter, all with your voice.
Hardware, OS, and Apps
Under the hood is a 1.6GHz quad-core A9 Samsung Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM. Android fans can rejoice, as the Galaxy Note II is the first AT&T handset to ship with Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” out of the box. Benchmark results were at the top of the class almost entirely across the board; combine Jelly Bean with a quad-core processor and you get one fast phone. The exception was some gaming frame rate tests, the results of which lagged next to the Qualcomm-powered LG Optimus G, the only other quad-core phone available in America right now. But three separate Optimus Gs overheated repeatedly in our tests, and automatically dialed back the screen brightness to cool down, whereas the Galaxy Note II stayed cool to the touch no matter how hard I made it work.
Let’s get back to the Wacom pen. The Galaxy Note II includes S Note, the company’s suite of note-taking and drawing apps that work in tandem with the stylus. Pop the pen out and the phone automatically enters a note-taking mode. Writing and drawing on virtual notepaper is quite satisfying, thanks to the pen’s 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity; it lays ink down somewhat like a fountain pen. You can also record voice memos while writing. Shape Match will help perfect lines and circles you draw, while Wolfram Alpha will automatically process any formulas you write out.
Other fun stuff: You can sign or draw on any email you’re writing just by tapping the S Pen button. You can also mark up a PowerPoint file someone sends you, and then send it back with revision requests. At any point, you can cut out a partial screenshot of a webpage or photo with a lasso tool. Hovering also works well; position the pen over a photo, video, or email and you’ll see a preview. I couldn’t find a split-screen mode like the one on the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, which would let you write notes while browsing Web pages, although it’s not as big a deal on a smaller phone screen (however big the phone may be).
Even if you don’t care about the stylus, the Note is a solid Android device otherwise. The notifications bar, already an Android strongpoint, is improved in Jelly Bean, and a Samsung enhancement lets you put a scrolling news, stock quote, or Facebook status update ticker on the lock screen. You also get Google Now, which delivers customized info cards and search results based on your current location. I saw a bunch of cards showing nearby restaurants, the local weather, and weekend events; it’s still fairly Spartan, but give Google time. There’s a fair amount of bloatware, just as there was on the T-Mobile version.
New galleries and document sharing features—both Samsung enhancements—help you organize media and send it to colleagues. And you should have no problem running any of the 600,000+ apps in Google Play. Asphalt 7: Heat runs beautifully and looks stunning on the oversized display, and the rear-mounted speaker pumps out plenty of volume for gaming.
Multimedia, Camera, and Conclusions
A standard-size 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top edge of the phone. There’s 16GB of internal storage, plus a microSD card slot underneath the battery cover that accepts up to 64GB cards; my 32GB SanDisk card worked fine. You’re not going to run out of space any time soon.
Music tracks sounded fine through Plantronics BackBeat Go Bluetooth earphones. The Galaxy Note II hooked into my Play Music account, displayed the correct album covers, and let me stream tracks. Standalone videos looked stunning in full screen mode—you’re not going to get a better movie experience on a phone than this—and you can even pop the movie into a picture-in-picture style window that you can reposition while you do other tasks.
The 8-megapixel autofocus camera has an LED flash and geotagging. There’s also a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chats. It’s a solid camera; test photos looked sharp, vibrant, and detailed outdoors, but a little soft and grainy inside. Shutter speeds were essentially instantaneous. Recorded 1080p videos played smoothly at 29 frames per second, while stepping down to 720p pegged the frame rate at an even 30. Recorded videos looked just as good as photos; again, sharp and vibrant outside, and a little grainy and soft inside. The image stabilization works well; it doesn’t completely eliminate stutters while walking, but it does a nice job when standing still, and it doesn’t affect the frame rate. Image stabilization does remove the ability to snap photos while recording video, but given that most of the ones I shot without it ended up a little blurry, it’s worth the tradeoff.
Aside from image quality itself, Samsung beefed up the camera software considerably. There are several burst modes. One lets you snap eight photos and choose the best one while tossing the rest; another takes multiple shots of a group of people and lets you choose “Best Faces” individually for each person. Still another burst mode lets you shoot up to 20 shots at just over six frames per second.
You probably already know if you want this phone or not. It’s really polarizing because of its size. People look at this phone and either lust after it or think it’s absolutely ridiculous. Either way, the Galaxy Note II is an easy recommendation as the most powerful phone in AT&T’s current lineup. If you think you may not want something quite so large, the Editors’ Choice-winning Samsung Galaxy S III costs less and still packs a 4.8-inch screen with the same resolution as the Galaxy Note II, although it steps down to a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor and lacks the Note II’s various note-taking abilities. And our other Editors’ Choice for smartphones on AT&T is the Apple iPhone 5, which also costs less and is much smaller, but still has the best camera and third-party app selection in the industry.
By Jamie Lendino, PCMag
- Service Provider: AT&T
- Operating System: Android OS
- CPU: Samsung Exynos
- Processor Speed: 1.6 GHz
- Form Factor: Candy Bar
- Physical Keyboard: No
- Screen Size: 5.5 inches
- Screen Details: 1280-by-720-pixel, Super AMOLED glass capacitive touch screen
- Camera: Yes
- Megapixels: 8.1 MP
- Camera Flash: Yes
- 802.11x: Yes
- Bluetooth: Yes
- GPS: Yes
- Storage Capacity (as Tested): 10.53 GB
- microSD Slot: Yes
- Network>: GSM, UMTS
- Bands: 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 700
- High-Speed Data: EDGE, LTE, HSPA+ 42