Many of you know I was (im)patiently waiting for the successor to the original Samsung Galaxy Note. After some internal debate and seeing hundreds of Samsung PR agents toting the phablet around at CES in January, I just had to get my hands on a Galaxy Note.
Long story short, I hacked an AT&T Galaxy Note to work on T-Mobile's 3G and 4G bands. The end result wasn't all that great. The speeds were slow and unreliable. The phone itself, however, was fantastic. It was one of my favorite phones to date for many reasons. But it was a first-generation phone-tablet hybrid, and it was clear that it needed some work.
Personally, I have always felt like the original Note was more of a probing device, not a full-fledged effort from the Korean handset maker. Samsung threw an idea at a wall to see if it would stick … and it did.
But it didn't strive to make the Galaxy Note the absolute best phone on the market. The U.S. version was fitted with Qualcomm's Snapdragon S3 chip versus the much more powerful and efficient Snapdragon S4 chipset. The international variant used Samsung's in-house dual-core Exynos chip. And devices started shipping with the S4 just months after the original Note was released here in the States. Just four months after that, Samsung announced the Galaxy S III, which featured 2GB of RAM, double that of the Note.
Don't get me wrong, the original Note was a great device. However, aside from the larger display, everything felt dated as soon as I powered it on the very first time. It reeked of 2011 and started to grow old just weeks after owning it.
I switched to another device and decided to wait for the next-gen Galaxy Note.
The original Galaxy Note was surprisingly very popular. And since the original Note launch, a couple of other entries into the phablet realm have surfaced. The LG Optimus Vu, or the LG Intuition on Verizon, and the HTC J Butterfly, also known as the DNA or DLX on Big Red.
Point blank, I will tell you nothing about the LG Intuition even remotely interests me. Phablets are awesome, so long as the manufacturer remembers on key detail: it's still a phone. The Intuition has an aspect ratio of 4:3, a tablet aspect ratio, the same display aspect found in the iPad. It's an aspect ratio I hope will never again be used in a phone. Also, I never want to claim to have used a Rubberdium … ever.
Aesthetically, the J Butterfly looks gorgeous. And its spec sheet is nothing to scoff at. With a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, 2GB RAM, 16GB storage and a 2,020mAh battery, it has some of the best specifications in a smartphone to date. That's not even considering the 5-inch S-LCD3 1080p display, which blows any other mobile panel out of the water in terms of clarity and density. What has me concerned, though, is the comparatively small battery, even if it's rumored to hit the States with a 2,500mAh battery as the HTC DNA.
And Samsung came back for another helping. Since its first attempt was prosperous, it didn't pull any punches for round two. It refined literally every aspect of the original Galaxy Note – from the S Pen and display to the software – to create the Galaxy Note II.
On the outside, the Galaxy Note II doesn't look all that different from the original. It's taller, narrower and barely thinner. Its display is larger with a lower resolution and a custom RGB stripe versus the PenTile Matrix subpixel layout of the HD Super AMOLED of old. Inside, both the international and U.S. versions hold a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos chip, 2GB RAM, at least 16GB of built-in storage and a giant 3,100mAh battery. On paper, its easily one of the highest caliber devices currently available. And save for the display, it's on par with HTC's J Butterfly.
But once you begin to dig deeper than just the surface and forget the spec sheet, the Galaxy Note II truly begins to separate itself from the competition.
To clarify, I have never been a fan of TouchWiz in any form – not the early versions or TouchWiz Nature UX on the Galaxy S III. I still am not a fan of how the interface looks or the way Samsung implemented its own features over the native Android ones. But it's clear Samsung understands how to differentiate using software and to create tons of value proposition with just a few, seemingly small features.
The S Pen, for example, appears to most as nothing more than a stylus with a button. The more you use it, however, the more it feels more like a controller that unlocks additional features, such as Quick Command, instantaneous S Note access from anywhere and content previews via Air View.
What good is a notably larger display if the software doesn't properly accommodate it? Popup Browser and Multi-window do just that. It may seem excessive, but last night I was carrying a conversation with Evan through Google Talk, browsing the Web via Chrome, watching a YouTube video that had opened through Popup Browser when in Facebook and doodling in S Note. All of this was going on simultaneously … on a single page (see the above picture).
Like I said, excessive. But the fact of the matter is that I can if I ever need or want to. And last night, it just happened on it's own – 100 percent naturally.
None of this is to say the Galaxy Note II is unmatched or that HTC couldn't offer similar features with the J Butterfly or DNA. But Samsung has done a bang up job of adding tons of value to what could have been a lackluster or modest experience. This time around, I have found that I don't mind TouchWiz all that much. Unlike in the past, where Samsung felt the need to replace Google's native features with its own for no apparent reason, Samsung has added valuable features alongside many of Google's own.
Kudos to Samsung for creating a truly unique experience, not just another run-of-the-mill smartphone with its cookie cutter software.