The Samsung Galaxy Note II is the biggest device on the current smartphone market, in more ways than one, and it's one of the most powerful phones we here at PhoneDog have had a chance to get our hands on. We've reviewed the device more than once now, and we've taken several looks at the various differences that have trickled down to carrier-specific models. We've looked at the outside from every angle imaginable and looked high and low throughout the software for any neat, hidden features.
But what we haven't done is take a deeper look at its performance and the internal components that make this phone – or phablet, if you will – tick. Towards the end of October, I put the Galaxy Note II under a metaphorical microscope. However, Samsung Exynos reached out to me and asked me to participate in their Hack Pack. They provided me with another Galaxy Note II for further probing and testing, to take a closer look at what powers the gargantuan phone.
Inside, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is equipped with 2GB RAM, 16GB built-in storage (32GB and 64GB are also available), a massive 3,100mAh battery and HSPA+ and/or LTE connectivity, depending on the model. But the CPU that gives the Galaxy Note II life – in all models, regardless of region or carrier – is Samsung's in-house chip, a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412 SoC. In a bit more detail, that's a quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A9 processor with a Mali-400MP GPU.
If you're a power user seeking only the best in smartphone performance, is the Samsung Galaxy Note II the device for you? Or is there something more powerful and more worthy of your hard-earned coin? I have spent roughly six weeks with the Galaxy Note II and have compiled my final thoughts in the paragraphs below.
From top to bottom, the Galaxy Note II is solid. At a glance, it looks like the bigger brother of the Galaxy S III, only it has more squared corners and slightly altered button placement to accommodate for the extended frame. It comes in a few different colors, such as Titanium Gray or Marble White, in Samsung's new favorite hypergloss finish.
Like its Samsung counterparts, the Galaxy Note II chassis is heavily laden in plastic, though it certainly feels much higher quality than previous Samsung devices. There is very little creaking in the hardware when gripped hard, and the frame can take a blow. I dropped one Galaxy Note II on a hard tile floor from just about waist height. The only noticeable damage was a small, barely discernible scuff on the battery plate. And I dropped my international Galaxy Note II on a wooden floor from the same height in a coffee shop in NYC to find no notable damage.
Design-wise, there is nothing terribly spectacular or memorable about the Galaxy Note II, size aside. The face of the device has a speaker grill at the top, a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera, a notification LED, Samsung branding below, a 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED (non-PenTile) display, and three navigational buttons at the bottom – the middle button is a physical Home button while the left Menu button and right Back button are capacitive. Along the upper left edge is a volume rocker, and at the same spot on the right edge is a power button. The top edge is home to a microphone and 3.5mm headphone jack. The bottom edge houses another microphone hole and a micro USB port for charging and data transfer. The back is mostly bare, holding only the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash at the top, Samsung branding (carrier branding, depending on the model), a speaker grill at the bottom and a cutout for the S Pen at the bottom left corner.
While we would definitely like to see less plastic and more substantial materials used in some Samsung devices, the durability of Samsung's choice plastics are undeniably sturdy. Build quality and durability are not concerns. Overall, I've been very impressed with the hardware, though I opt to use the aftermarket Samsung Flip Cover as it gives the device a bit more grip at the expense of extreme thinness.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II comes with Jelly Bean 4.1.1 running beneath Samsung's latest software customization, TouchWiz Nature UX. This version of software comes packed with countless features, many of which are specific to the Galaxy Note series. From its core, the software takes design cues from nature, playing scenic sounds when you unlock the device and offering natural sounds for the alarm. The software itself is a huge improvement over previous versions of TouchWiz, though it's still overbearing at times, throwing many unnecessary customizations in your face where the stock software performs just as well, if not better.
Where TouchWiz Nature UX excels, though, especially for the Galaxy Note II, is in multitasking. On the international version, and slowly making its way to various iterations, a feature called Multi-Window allows users to run two applications simultaneously, dividing the display into upper and lower halves. Long-pressing the back button from anywhere within the system unveils a tab on the left edge of the display. Drag the tab out and you are met with a dock holding a handful of applications compatible with Multi-Window. Long-press and drag one of said apps to the middle of the screen and the application will launch. Drag a second to either the upper or lower half and the two applications will share the display.
Other multitasking features come in the form of Popup Browser, Popup Video (which is also present on the Galaxy S III) and S Note. Opening a link, you are met with the option to choose between browsers. Popup Browser will open a window with the Web page atop whatever application is currently open, meaning you can browse or view the content without leaving the current app. Popup Video is the same idea, but requires you open a locally saved video, which you can watch while performing other tasks. And S Note can be opened virtually anywhere in the OS by pressing the button the S Pen and double-tapping on the display.
Thankfully, the Exynos chip inside is beefy enough to handle the task. Through even some of the most excessive, unrealistic multitasking imaginable, the quad-core chip powered through without as much as flinching. At one point, I was chatting with my colleague Evan via Google Talk, browsing the Web, watching (or listening to, rather) a YouTube video in Popup Browser and scribbling down notes all at once. This was more of a proof of concept where I wanted to push the device to its limits. Surprisingly, it passed with flying colors.
I don't normally do too many benchmarks; I prefer judging by real world performance. But since this is an in-depth look at the Exynos 4 Quad chip that powers the Galaxy Note II, I ran a score of various benchmarks to see how it stacks up. In short, it's a beast. It blew through most of the benchmarks like a hot knife like butter.
What do all these numbers mean for you, the consumer? The Galaxy Note II with a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos SoC is one of the most powerful pocket-sized devices money can currently buy. The only device I have seen that flat-out bests it in some categories is the HTC DROID DNA for Verizon, which features the competitor 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chip. Engadget reports the DROID DNA scored a 14,474 in the AnTuTu test, and 8,028 in Quadrant Advanced, versus their score for the Galaxy Note II of 6,819.
Being an avid mobile game lover, I have loaded the Galaxy Note II down with some of my favorite games, such as Shadowgun, Asphalt 7 and Riptide GP. Graphics and gameplay were buttery smooth and showed no signs of lag. In fact, I haven't experienced any lag on the international model, whereas I have experienced force closing apps on the AT&T model.
Pressing the home button did show a bit of what I initially thought was lag. But thanks to a reader, it was brought to my attention that this "lag" was actually a pause. Double-pressing the Home button will open S Voice. I opt to use Google Now over S Voice, so the double-press feature never gets used, save by accident. By disabling this feature in S Voice Settings, the pause in anticipation of a double-press is gone and a quick, single press will exit back the the home screen noticeably faster.
What sets this device apart from your average smartphone, though, are two things: the display and battery.
At 267ppi, the 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED isn't the most dense of displays around. And that's understandable – it's around the same resolution as much smaller devices, like the HTC One X, yet nearly an inch larger diagonally. But the contrast and brightness are fantastic, though it does have a noticeable blue hue when displaying whites. That said, there is one unmistakable advantage to the display. It's extremely spacious, making Web browsing more tablet-like than smartphone.
And with a giant 3,100mAh battery inside, the battery life is fantastic. In my typical usage, lasting a full day has been no struggle. In fact, by the end of the day, I am consistently measuring in at about 35 percent battery left after a full day of tweeting, Web browsing, watching YouTube videos, sending emails, text messaging and uploading oodles of pictures to Dropbox. Pushing the device to its limits, I measured in between 30 and 36 hours of varying usage and standby before the device powered down on its own.
The camera is also great. The Galaxy Note II shares the same image sensor as its smaller brethren, the Galaxy S III, meaning it's one of the better Android smartphone cameras available. The software features are quite robust (for more detail, you can check my general review), and the pictures it can produce in decent lighting are great. It does have the tendency to blow out whites, especially in brighter scenarios, but the HDR mode should help reduce the whites and brighten darks to create a more balanced photo. Also worth noting is that due to the over-saturation of the HD Super AMOLED display, pictures will generally look more saturated when viewing on the device. Loading the pictures onto a computer will show colors that pop less. To fix this, you can adjust the saturation level of the display in Settings when shooting or reviewing photos.
Make no mistake, the Samsung Galaxy Note II is a large device. And that means it's not for everyone, namely those with smaller hands and pockets. But when it comes down to performance, stamina, usability and functionality, the Galaxy Note II leaves much of the competition in the dust. It features some of the most adept mobile multitasking available and functions more like you would expect a high-end tablet to function, yet it still (barely) fits in the pocket.
If what you're looking for is sheer performance and you have $300 or so to spend on your next upgrade (or about $650 if you're looking for a no-contract device like the international version in this review), the Galaxy Note II may be the phone for you – that is, if you can handle the size.
What's Good: Giant, vibrant display; enormous, long-lasting battery; S Pen adds a multitude of features; excellent performance thanks to the quad-core Exynos SoC; second to none multitasking.
What's Bad: May be too large for some; the display is a lower density than your average, high-end smartphone; more expensive than most contracted smartphones.
The Verdict: The Galaxy Note II by Samsung is one of the most powerful and unique smartphones to date. The quad-core Exynos supplies enough oomph to power the device through excessive multitasking and even graphically-intensive mobile games, and the rest of the features are topnotch, too. The downside is price, but if you're willing to carry a phablet and pay $299 with a contract for it, the Galaxy Note II is likely the phone for you.