Samsung Galaxy Note II Review

Having upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy Note II in December, I noticed a few things right away. Any upgrade is going to be felt through the changes from your old system, and these are the differences from my drowned-and-rescued hand-me-down Samsung Galaxy S Captivate:
-This is a lot faster at basically everything, and fixes all the performance issues.
-No Fingerprints! The screen is treated with an oleophobic coating, which may or may not have existed on the Captivate (it could have worn off over time).
-Using the S-Pen, I can draw whenever I like. I’ve taken up playing Draw Something with my family.
-The screen area is much-improved. I can fit more icons or text on-screen, and the screen has more detail. It’s a big upgrade.
-This is running Android 4.1.1, which adds quite a few things Gingerbread didn’t have. Going back for a while was difficult, because I couldn’t do some of the things I’ve come to rely on.
-The phone itself is new and unbroken. My Captivate was given to me as garbage after it fell in calcium-rich well water, and I spent days with vinegar, Q-Tips, distilled water, and a syringe to get it booting properly. The charging port still only works with certain micro-USB cables, and until I found one that worked I was actually strapping the battery to a dismantled Samsung Hype feature phone to charge.
-The battery life is great. I don’t know what it was about the Captivate, but turning it on at all would drain the battery. I had to be careful to make sure all apps and wi-fi were off, or it would only last a few hours instead of all day. The Note II lasts up to five days, and can even get a full day with heavy usage.
-The size difference is interesting. It’s wider and taller than the Captivate (and the pouch I kept it in), and because I got the flip cover I don’t need to keep it in anything, so it’s pretty thin. It actually ends up fitting better, because there isn’t as much thickness.

The flip cover is really neat. Just closing it lets me hold the phone by putting my fingers all over where the screen would be, which completely changed the feel compared to delicately grasping the edges. Given most designers’ penchant for rounded edges, I’m thankful I don’t have to struggle too much with holding the edges of mine.
The flip cover is pretty expensive, from $30-$40, considering it’s just a few layers of stuff. I guess it’s also the back and an NFC circuit, so that kind of justifies things.
The build quality is actually really good. I expected something that would bend or fall apart within a month, and when my fingers mushed off the thin part between the earpiece cutout and the edge, I wasn’t surprised. But then that piece re-adhered itself, and you can’t tell there’s any sort of damage.
The rubber edging came off pretty quickly, so the edges of the outer textured plastic and the inner soft material open to show the yellowish material that forms the main structural sheet between those two layers. That glue shows no signs of letting go, though.
There’s no such strip in the part that makes up the spine in the cover, so all that’s holding the cover onto the device’s plastic backing is the dual layer of outer plastic and inner felt. Despite that, there’s been no warping and the cover still sits perfectly atop the screen. Despite being used outdoors in winter, there’s no cracking in the spine. In general, this is a relatively-cheap item that is made to absorb the brunt of wear, and it’s holding up really well.

The camera is really terrible. After five years of ever-improving cell-phone cameras, I expected something on par with the pictures my seven-year-old point-and-shoot camera would take. As it stands, I think we’re a little ways away from that. Maybe the more advanced systems, like the sensor in the HTC One, or the optics in the iPhone 5.
I’m seriously sad about this camera, though, because I had high hopes and I’m just kind of embarrassed to take photos with this one. At the very least, I’d like to take out all the post-processing, like the sharpening filters and such. If I wanted to do that, I’d do it myself in an editing program.

The Note II looks really nice. It doesn’t have quite the character of the Galaxy S III, but it uses the same design language. The tapering at the edges of the glass face on the white face make it look like glossy candy. I love the single button with the soft-buttons beside it. I got the white one, and I looked at the blue one, but that slate background just doesn’t work with the glossy glassy feel. It makes it look like it’s wrapped in a layer of plastic. Funny how design works.

The battery is really big, and so it lasts for quite a while if you’re not using it. When you’re using it, though, the screen and processor take up enough extra power that you don’t get any boost in active use compared to other phones.

The Note II comes with a stylus (the S-Pen), which is a Wacom passive pen that works with any Penabled device (at least, so far that I’ve tested). This allows synergy with other Wacom devices: Microsoft’s Surface Pro doesn’t have a place to keep its pen, so I actually just use the one from my Note II.
Android is a fairly wide OS, with support for extra features being added by OEMs and not being supported by most developers, so something like pen input is only really useful in certain apps. Even a keyboard and mouse only get you so far in Android, it seems. I’d like to see more apps integrating Air View (like, say, the browser? I’d like to be able to hover over links). Sketchbook Mobile works really well, though. I can disable fingers and just use the pen, then use my fingers to move the canvas.

Since we’re getting into software, I should mention the power button. The button itself isn’t really bad (though they still insist on putting it directly opposite of the volume buttons, so it’s hard to press one without pressing the other). When you hold the button for a second or two, a menu pops up with some options for sound, airplane mode or turning off the device. If that’s all it did, that would be fine, but holding the button longer will reset the device. Because of the button’s position and prominence, it’ll constantly be pressed while in your pocket. Every once in a while, I’ll hear the familiar start-up sound. Obviously, I can’t take calls during this. I’ve had thoughts of gouging out the button or using some kind of resin to build up a solid dam around it so that it can’t be pressed accidentally.
This could be fixed by firmware, though. There’s no need for a hard reset, because the battery is removable.

Android itself
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Past the phone, we get Android itself. It’s a pretty decent operating system, these days, but there are a couple annoyances:
-The battery level indicator isn’t very accurate. When it shows 60% battery I’ll have between 40% and 50%.
-There’s one main marketplace you search for all your apps, and each app is pretty crappy. I’d like more opportunity to try the good apps, and to pay for them if I like them.
-It crashes quite a bit, really.
-It doesn’t seem to have a high-level API that supports basic things like text selection or keyboard shortcuts. This means that people are implementing their own conflicting styles, and apps won’t have keyboard shortcuts unless the developers program them in. Even things like text selection (Ctrl+A) or copy and paste (Ctrl+ X or C or V) or undo (Ctrl+Z) are missing from many apps. We need properly-designed Google apps for things like filesystem browsing or managing services. It seems like the basic OS apps just don’t cut it right now.

I’m not sure if this is Android or my provider, but the mobile internet seems dodgy. Things will fail to load when I have full bars, or switching wi-fi off will cause my connections to close without even trying to connect. When my computer is connected via wi-fi hotspot, the internet connectivity on my phone sometimes stops working entirely until I sit in airplane mode for a bit.
I’d like to be able to rely on it if I need access to a scrap of information quickly.

All that said, there are a couple things I would have wished for:
-Better speakers. Something on the front or the side would be best, I think, because there’s no reason to have something on the back where you can’t hear it.
-Squarer edging. The sides of the device are curved toward the back, so it’s hard to grip. If you’re trying to grip the sides a bit lower to let the flip cover flip open, it’ll slip from your grasp. I’d like something that flares out just a bit before curving to the back.
-MicroHDMI port. I can buy a dongle that attaches through the micro-USB port at the bottom, but that requires me to buy something extra (on a device that’s already $700).
-Text reminders. I can set an option that pretends I get a new text message every ten minutes, but then I think I’m getting a new text message every ten minutes. There’s also an option that causes the device to emit a tiny buzz if you have a text when you pick it up, but that’s not quite enough. I’d like an option to just give a small vibration every minute or two, so that I’ll feel it when I sit still for a moment.
-Detachable flip cover? The flip cover is great except for the edge-case where I’m trying to use the camera. If I fold it back, it blocks the camera. I have to let it dangle as I’m shooting, but if I lean forward for a macro shot it might get in the way. This is one of those problems where it’ll probably be easier for me to just deal with it.
-Screen brightness? I’d like it if it could go darker, especially in automatic. These are OLEDs, so they’d be more efficient driven at lower powers. I’ve never understood why we can’t lower the brightness further than we can (unless they’re scared some users would do that in bright sunlight and be unable to see well enough to increase their brightness).

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