Monday, October 8, 2012

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Review: The Kitchen Sink is in There Somewhere

Hello all

So I have bitten the bullet and bought a Galaxy Note 2. I know, I know. I lived with the original Galaxy Note for a few months and after struggling to fall in love with it, went back to my beloved Galaxy Nexus. So what's different this time round? Let's compare:

SPEC                GALAXY NOTE             GALAXY NOTE II
Processor           1.4 GHz dual core            1.6 GHz quad core
RAM                  1 GB                                2 GB
Screen diagonal   5.3 inches                        5.5 inches
Resolution           1280x800                        1280x720
Launch OS          Android 2.3                     Android 4.1.1
Battery                2500 mAh                       3100 mAh


Soon after Samsung was riding the waves of unprecedented success following the launch of Galaxy S2 (still one of the best and most beloved sets on the market), Samsung decided to dabble in some experimentation. It launched the original Galaxy Note, which was, by all respects, an enlarged Galaxy S2 with a stylus. Samsung bet on two trends : desire among some users for a larger screen and re-introduction of the stylus. In typical fashion, they threw in a few surprises: the processor had been upgraded to 1.4 Ghz from GS2's 1.2, and the screen had graduated to a proper HD effort compared to the paltry (but excellent) 800x480 resolution of the GS2 screen.

The devices would have been same otherwise, but for the software. Samsung did not just include a stylus in the package, they built a whole suite of apps (S Pen apps) around it, designed to take advantage of it. That attracted the attention of not only geeks like me, but also painters, artists, and others who liked to be productive on the go.

Despite its size, the original Note was a raging success. It sold in excess of 10 million worldwide, and after an upgrade to Android 4.0, remains a high-demand and well loved device one year after its launch. Even today it can cost upto Rs50k in the local market. Whatever reservations the tech blog posed about its size, have been blown away by the stellar success.


I already gave the specs at the start of the post, but the differences go much deeper than specs. First and foremost, the Note 2 is the first major phone in the world to launch with Android 4.1 Jelly bean. That, when its flagship Galaxy S3 remains on 4.0, although update is rolling out gradually. From the superior fit and finish to the huge battery, to the superior screen, it is plain to conclude that the Note 2 is Samsung's new flagship.

That change of loyalties brings an unprecedented focus from Samsung's software engineers. First of all, launching a major device, with so many custom apps, on Jelly Bean is a major feat in itself; the OS came out 3 months ago. Secondly, the Note 2 represents the epitome of all software mods Samsung have done so far to Android; it comes loaded to the brim with features that will take months for users to find out. S Voice, Smart Stay, Smart Rotation, Wi Fi Direct, plus a new host of functions related to the S Pen such as touchless scrolling etc., all are there.


There's no question about it: The Note 2 looks stunning, especially in the 'Titanium Grey' variant. I thought S3 was a mixed bag (looks wise as well as overall), but the Note 2's proportions work so much better.

The screen is undoubtedly the star of the show. At first glance it is virtually undistinguishable from that of Galaxy S3, but during text-heavy work such as internet browsing, the non-Pentile nature of the screen comes to the forefront. Everything is super-sharp with no jagged edges whatsoever. In theory iPhone 5 and HTC One X might have better screen, but none of them can match the 5.5 inch expanse of the Note 2 Super AMOLED.

The rest of the hardware is understated. All the ports and slots are in their usual places. Thankfully, this time Samsung have remembered to include a notification LED. That alone removes the biggest problem I had with the original Note.


So here is gets interesting. Let me get it plain: I HATE TouchWiz, Samsung's custom UI (TW). Yes, they have improved it somewhat during the past years. But even today, what TouchWiz is doing is taking away the best visual bits of Jelly Bean and replacing it with 3 year old stylings which are perhaps more functional but horrible looking.

Take the launcher. It smacks you in the face with 4x4 grid of icons/widgets and expects you to live with it. Beside limiting you to 7 homescreens, and allowing for some too-large Samsung widgets, the launcher does nothing to enhance the functionality of the default Android Jelly Bean launcher. In fact, here is a list of the features TW launcher is missing compared to default Android:

1) Folder creation is way more difficult. You cannot drag an icon on top of another to create a folder
2) No dynamic resizing of widgets
3) No dynamic placement of icons (where other icons jump out of the way if you wish to place something on the screen)
4) No Google search bar on top
5) It is slower compared to default launcher

So, the first thing I did was to install Nova Launcher from the market. Boy, was my world changed. Nova gives you all the features you could want, with ultimate speed and flexibility, and I was stunned to learn that 99% of the features worked without requiring Root. What does it offer in addition to the default Android options? here:

1) Ability to create upto 9 homescreens
2) Ability to customize grid size (I am running 5x4)
3) Ability to specify whether the application and widgets grid scrolls vertically or horizontally
4) Ability to re-size any widget
5) Folder creation in line with default Android - just drop one icon on top of another and the folder is there

In short, installing another launcher takes away almost 50% of the pain from TW. The remaining 50% comes from Samsung's apps, specifically contacts and dialer. Dialer itself is OK, but the incoming-call screen is the UGLIEST I have ever had the misfortune of laying eyes upon. Mere words cannot describe how horrific those two giant circles look, denoting call/reject options, how close together they are. Picking a call on the Note 2 can cause physical pain. It is an abomination; there is absolutely no justification for Samsung to omit the default Android call/contact apps with their own. The former are a paragon of understated beauty.

Galaxy Nexus on the left, Note 2 on the right

The TW apps also have another serious drawback: they bypass the swipe-to-switch convention adopted by Android 4.x where you simply swipe left and right to get to another tab in an app. In Note 2, where such a provision would have been welcome given the sheer size of the screen, you have to flick your thumb up and down to switch tabs.

By now it must have been clear that I absolutely hate TW, and already feeling homesick for the AOSP Android UI of my beloved Galaxy Nexus. That said, I appreciate some of the enhancements Samsung have brought to the table which are not present in default Android:

1) Seamless integration of contacts with social networking services. Auto-detection of common contacts and matching
2) Seamless integration of cloud services into Gallery. In fact Gallery is the best part of the TW UI
3) Various S Pen touchless browsing features

Which brings us to one of the most-touted features of the Note line: the S-Pen. Let me make it clear from the outset: please don't base your buying decision on it, since its utility varies greatly from case to case.

For me, the S-Pen represents a productivity enhancement that is best used when the user is not using the Note 2 as a phone. In Pakistani conditions, bringing out your Note 2 while outdoors, and then using the S Pen means you might as well hang a sign on you saying "Come and mug me". Yet, while browsing, or while in a meeting, S Pen can become a great productivity tool. You can take notes, cut and paste pictures, or hover the pen on the screen and browse the web or gallery etc. For artists, painters and graphic artists, S Pen, combined with apps like Photoshop mobile, can become an invaluable tool. It suddenly comes together when you try to enhance your Gallery photos for web uploading. On the Note 2, you can actually do it with ease.

Lastly, I would have loved to see Android's default navigation bar rather than the hardware keys for home, back and menu. For some reason, Samsung continues to defy Google and insists on providing a three-year-old solution to its users. Yes, I know the bar would have taken valuable screen estate, but it would have allowed to phone to become smaller, and given significant usability advantages.

You can't have it all, I guess.


Hands down the Note 2 camera is one of the best i have seen. It is almost (but not quite) as instantaneous to take a photo as that of the Galaxy Nexus. Quality is OK too if the lighting is right.


The phone comes with every connectivity feature you can imagine. It also has NFC, which is useful for touching your phone with another having NFC and...sharing web pages. Unless NFC starts supporting file sharing, I don't see much use for it, but it is nice to have (like a lot of things on the Note 2).


What about speed, you say? On Note 2, you will soon stop noticing the speed of operation. That's because it will cease to matter: this thing flies through everything with ease. Most apps open and close as soon as you push the button or touch the icon. That said, the speed increase is not as pronounced as I was expecting. For one thing, that irritating power button lag is still there; I don't know what Samsung have been doing past three years, but I am sure nobody worked on this. However, in real world usage, nothing, not even the Galaxy S3, approaches the Note 2 in terms of raw speed.

To conclude, yes, the Note 2 might well be the most full-featured phone on the market. It is also one of the best looking ones. The S Pen works just as well as advertised. However, the whole experience is slightly let down by the software. As an overall package, though, this might well be the best portable gadget in the world right now.

1 comment:

  1. Keenly observed!

    I face problem while turning the screen button on/off. I almost every time end up pressing the volume button exactly adjacent to the on/off button specially with single handed operation. Maybe that is what you meant while referring to the power button.
    The Notification LED you mentioned needs more explanation