There appears to be an ongoing trend in the world of Android superphones that is pushing toward increasingly larger screens. My original Galaxy S is considered quite miniscule with its 4-inch display, especially when you put it next to a newer device like the Samsung Galaxy Note II. The most “notable” feature of this super-phablet has to be the 5.5-inch AMOLED display, but there’s a lot more here worth noting too. Let’s dive in and have a look.

A Noteworthy Introduction

As you might remember, we met up with Ken Price and Samsung Canada a short while ago to discuss some of the new features in our Galaxy Note II preview video. Here it is again in case you missed it the first time around.

We weren’t sure how the world was going to react to the original Galaxy Note, since the “phablet” category hadn’t really been explored all that much before. It seemed that the response was positive and that’s what gave birth to the Galaxy Note II.

It takes everything that the original Note had and built upon that foundation, improving the specs and the user experience as much as possible. Yes, it’s still much larger than most of the other smartphones on the market, but that–along with the S Pen stylus–is one of its biggest differentiating factors.

Spec’d Up from the OG Note

The new Galaxy Note II will feel somewhat similar to the original Galaxy Note, but there are several changes. The display has been enlarged from 5.3-inches to 5.5-inches, but the resolution has actually decreased from 800×1280 pixels to 720×1280 pixels. This is mostly because the aspect ratio has changed. Interestingly, despite having a 0.2-inch larger display, the Note II is still narrower and thinner than its predecessor. And it’s just a hair longer.

On the software side, you get some interesting features like the pop-up browser shown here. This way, you can open up a link while still keeping your main window open in the background. We’ve seen this in tablets with bigger screens and I’m not sure it makes as much sense here, but it is nice to have.

Under the hood, the dual core processor has been upgraded to an incredible quad-core 1.6GHz chip (Exynos 4412 Quad) to go along with 2GB of RAM. The 8MP main camera is similar, while the HSDPA radio has been upgraded for up to 42Mbps. Of course, there’s LTE in there for even faster speeds too. Other highlights include the positively massive 3100mAh battery (up from 2500mAh in the first Note), Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, S Voice, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, microSD expansion (up to 64GB), TouchWiz UI, and DLNA.

Borrowing from the Galaxy S3

Given the astronomical success of the Galaxy S III smartphone, it’s not at all surprising that Samsung has decided to borrow some of the features of that device and implement them in the Galaxy Note II. For example, you’ll notice that the overall design is closer in scope to the S3 than it is to the original Note. The glossy plastic back is meant to mimic the smooth surface of a river rock, for instance. This is quite different from the textured back on the original Note, which was more like what we saw on the Galaxy Nexus.

The software similarly mirrors what we saw in the S3. One of my favorite features is called Smart Stay, for example. This temporarily turns on the front-facing camera briefly every 30 seconds or so. If it detects a face, the screen stays on. This is infinitely helpful when you’re reading a long document or playing a game of Words with Friends.

Daily Use and Abuse

So, how does the Samsung Galaxy Note II stand up against a more or less conventional daily routine? It really depends on how you use it. As a phone, while voice quality is fine on both ends, I did find it a little awkward to hold a device this size up to the side of my face. It’s also difficult to use one-handed, though there are some one-handed optimizations that assist in this. The numeric keypad for the phone app, for example, can be shrunken down and pushed to either the left or the right, making it easier to dial with one hand. Depending on the size of your pocket, you may have some trouble fitting this phablet in there, but that point is moot when you consider larger jacket pockets, purses, and so on.

We have to realize that most of us don’t use our phones as phones all that much anymore. It’s far more important to have a device that’s fast enough to keep up with our application needs (including game). It’s far more important to have a device that is great at watching video, taking pictures, surfing the web, and updating our social media accounts. In this respect, the Galaxy Note II knocks it out of the park. Performance is staggering and that brilliant display makes games, movies, and other visual activities an absolutely joy.

The same can also be said about using many of the apps in general. When you log into Facebook, you can see more of the status updates than you would on a smaller screen and the text is larger and easier to read too. Typing on a larger keyboard with two hands is quite a bit faster too, though doing it one-handed is still quite awkward.

Camera and Video Quality

Taking pictures with your smartphone is supposed to be a secondary feature, but many people have replaced their point-and-shoots with their cell phones. Image quality is important and, for the most part, I’m quite pleased with the pictures I was able to take with the Galaxy Note II. This is true of shots taken under more ideal conditions, as well as under dimmer lighting. That indoor shot was taken in a relatively dim eatery without the aid of the on-board flash and I think it came out very good. Details are crisp and colors are reasonably saturated. With some toying around, you can even achieve a little bit of bokeh.

Videos aren’t too shabby either. Fast motion can get a little blurry or choppy, but this is really no worse than what you’d be able to accomplish with a cheaper consumer point-and-shoot camera. I have brief video sample on YouTube if you want to have a look. Again, the colors are quite saturated and you can record in high-def.

Improvements to the S Pen

Aside from the extra large display, the other “noteworthy” feature on the Note is the S Pen. Samsung doesn’t really want you to call it a stylus, because it’s supposed to be more than that. It operates using the same technology that you’d find with a Wacom tablet, so you do gain some fun “hovering” features. If you’re in the notetaking application, you can hover the S Pen over an icon and it’ll tell you what that does, not unlike the experience you have on a PC program.

They’ve also implemented several enhancements and additions to take advantage of the S Pen, like more note templates to give you an idea of what you can accomplish. There’s also the ability to “fix” your roughly drawn diagrams so that your not-so-square square will render itself as a perfect square. This is useful for presentations, mind-mapping, and so on. In my day-to-day use, the S Pen didn’t come out all that often, but it’s nice to have it as an added feature. You can still just use the Note II as a regular touchscreen smartphone.

Quadrant Standard Benchmark

Throw just about anything at this phablet and it’ll take it like a champ. There’s a quad core 1.6GHz Exynos chip under there with 2GB of RAM, so it’s not all that surprising that its performance numbers are formidable. Running it through Quadrant Standard, I typically got scores in the 4200-4300 kind of range. This is bested by the HTC One X and new devices moving forward may be able to compare, but a score in this range means that you really shouldn’t have any trouble running nearly anything on this device.

4G LTE Speedtest

Even though this has LTE under the hood, I was a little disappointed by the speeds I was able to achieve in certain areas. I ran tests in Burnaby, Richmond, and Coquitlam, as well as the actual city of Vancouver itself. To be fair, it’s unclear whether the speeds are the result of Samsung or because of Bell, which was the test SIM used in the device.

In Burnaby, even though it said it was connecting to 4G LTE, I was barely able to get down speeds in the 5Mbps range. That’s what I’d expect with HSDPA or maybe HSPA+, not 4G LTE. I was able to get some better speeds elsewhere though, ranging from 14Mbps to 32Mbps, so your mileage will vary considerably, even within the same major metropolitan area.

Battery Rundowns

You would think that battery life would be a major concern on a device with a quad core processor, LTE, and a incredibly large and bright display. Thankfully, it’s not, because they shoehorned a 3000mAh battery in there. In my experience, I was easily able to get a full 24 hour day out of a single charge, which is more than adequate for the average user who will go home to recharge their phone overnight. With some lighter usage, I can foreseeably see someone getting as much as 36 hours or maybe even two full days on a single charge.

This will vary based on usage, to be sure, but it means that you don’t have to sacrifice battery life to power that larger display.

MEGATechie Galactic Success or MEGATechie Reaching Too Far?

It’s clear enough that Samsung is going after a certain kind of consumer with the Galaxy Note II. They clearly recognize that most of us don’t use our phones as phones all that much. Apps, web content and productivity are far more important. While I’m not completely convinced that the S Pen is all that necessary, I can see it being useful to people who do want to use it. I just wish there were more developers, both first and third party, who took advantage of the S Pen in some more creative ways.

Performance is admirable and the design–if you already like the S3–makes the Note II quite the looker too. I certainly think it’s more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor and it’ll get you more than a few random glances when you whip it out in public. For my part, though, the difficulty of really using this device one handed makes it a bit of a tough sell, but based on the sales figures of the first Note, people are willing to overlook that. And I completely understand why. Watching YouTube videos and playing games on this couldn’t be better.

Samsung is developing a whole ecosystem of products–this can link up with your Samsung Smart TV in some interesting ways–and I appreciate that they are given consumers a great deal of choice. If you want to have a bigger phone that’s more than just a phone, the Note II is well worth your consideration.

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