“What the hell is a phablet?” There’s a good chance you’ve either heard this phrase or uttered it yourself. And for good reason: “phablet” may be one of the silliest words in the English language. But it appears this portmanteau of the words phone and tablet is here to stay. Scratch that: Samsung’s hot-selling Galaxy Note – the only significant product in the category – is here to stay. Is it the real deal, or just a flash in the pan? Read on, as we review the Samsung Galaxy Note II.
Bigger ... and better?
The Galaxy Note 2 is enormous. Just look at it next to the iPhone 5 (above). To some customers, it's going to be too damn big. At first, I thought for sure that I would be one of those people.
But here’s the thing: I got used to this hulking monstrosity really quickly. In fact, after enjoying the Note’s enormous 5.5-inch display, I have a hard time going back to smaller phones. It’s that good. It makes their screens (especially iPhone screens) look cramped and puny.
There are more comfortable phones to hold. But – after using the Note 2 for several days – my hands adjusted to its size much faster than my eyes could readjust to smaller screens. In fact, my eyes don’t particularly want to bother going back.
Phablets aren’t for everyone. But you might be surprised how quickly you forget their supposed drawbacks – and get lost in their numerous benefits.
The PDA strikes back
In the early to mid-2000s, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were the go-to gizmos for mobile productivity. Then the iPhone came along, and destroyed everything in its wake. When HP bought what was left of Palm (maker of the prototypical PDA, the Palm Pilot) in 2010, you’d may as well have held a funeral for the PDA.
Yet phablets like the O.G. Galaxy Note and Galaxy Note 2 aren’t all that different from PDAs. You could even say that they borrow from the best of the multitouch smartphone and the PDA.
When Steve Jobs mocked styluses (or is it styli?) at the original iPhone unveiling, it’s as if the tech world took his pitch as gospel. After all, we saw that the iPhone was infinitely better than any mobile device before it. If it didn’t need a stylus, then surely any other device worth its salt wouldn’t need one either.
But the Galaxy Note 2 reminds us that the best way for one company doesn’t have to be the best way for everyone. On a 5.5-inch display, a stylus is right at home. And Samsung has added some innovative software features that transform the Note’s plastic pointy-thing into a vaunted S Pen.
Want to scroll through a long article without incessant swiping? Hover the S Pen near the bottom of the screen, and the page will advance. No touch required.
Need to jot a quick note while you’re in the middle of an intense level of Plants vs. Zombies? Double-tap to activate S Notes, quickly scribble, erase, type, and save. Back to the game.
But those are just the most obvious “features” of the S Pen. More important is the overall sense of precision that it gives you. Hitting tiny buttons on webpages is easier. Creating selections in Photoshop Touch finally works. Trace keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey fit with the S Pen like hand in glove.
I felt more productive and in control with the stylus. And – much like how the phablet’s huge screen makes other smartphone screens look piddly – the S Pen made my fingers feel like crude pointing devices.
After years of finger painting, we’ve rediscovered the paintbrush. Somewhere an out-of-work Palm employee is weeping.
On a technical level, the Note 2’s display packs far fewer pixels than 1080p phones like the Galaxy S 4, HTC One, and Xperia Z. Hell, it even has 18 percent fewer pixels-per-inch than the (almost) three-year-old iPhone 4.
And you know what? Your eyeballs won’t give a hoot about those numbers. Because the Galaxy Note 2’s display is outstanding.
It’s a 720p (1280 x 720) Super AMOLED screen that, as we’ve already established, is spread over 5.5 inches. It houses 267 pixels per inch: around the same as the iPad with Retina Display.
You’d may as well call this a Retina Display too, because it’s razor sharp. Good luck differentiating any individual pixels.
Like all AMOLED displays, the Note’s screen has hyper-saturated colors. Think remastered Wizard of Oz saturated. It’s a matter of personal preference, but this saturation doesn’t bother me. It's high contrast, with the blackest blacks you’ll find (black pixels in AMOLED displays don’t emit any light).
But the real draw of this screen is, again, its size. It will quickly make you forget how huge and gaudy the thing looked at first glance.
There’s nothing wrong with benchmarks. They’re the closest we have to a scientific measurement of a device’s raw performance.
But all of the geeky one-upmanship over them gets a little silly. Why? Because we’re at the point where every recent high-end smartphone is going to blaze through most apps you throw at it.
So unless you’re worrying about future-proofing for software that will be made two years from now, benchmark wars boil down to an obsession over minor differences between Beastly Phone A and Kick-Ass Phone B.
That applies to the Note 2. Despite having been on the market for six months, it’s still one of the faster phones you can buy. It didn’t remotely struggle with anything I threw at it.
It’s quick, smooth, and responsive. Its 1.6 GHz quad core Exynos processor is a powerhouse. Jelly Bean’s Project Butter performance improvements help too.
Will newer devices beat its benchmarks? Yep.
What will this mean for 99 percent of us? Not a damn thing.
My advice is to enjoy your ridiculously fast phone (or phablet), and take minor performance differences with grains of salt. Unless you’re still using it three years from now, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many apps that will push it to its limits.
The Galaxy Note II takes outstanding pictures. The shot above wasn’t processed at all. In daylight, it will capture vivid colors and lots of detail.
It also performs surprisingly well in medium-lit indoor shots. For low lighting situations, it does as adequately as you could ask it to.
I won’t blabber on about the camera. Most recent high-end smartphones have terrific cameras, and can easily replace a point-and-shoot for most users. The Note II is a card-carrying member of that club.
The Note II runs Android. My review unit (on Verizon) ran Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, but other models are on 4.1.2.
Either way, this is a full version behind Google’s latest (4.2.2). I didn’t find this to be a problem (4.2 Jelly Bean is a minor update over 4.1 Jelly Bean), but if you’re worried about that sort of thing, you might want to look into the Galaxy S 4 or a Nexus device.
You get the full suite of Google apps. Say hello to the excellent Gmail, Google Maps (navigation looks great on the huge display), and YouTube.
If you haven’t yet discovered Google Now, you’re in for a treat. It kicks the virtual ass of Apple’s Siri, with faster voice recognition and handy predictive capabilities (as long as you don’t mind uploading your life to Google’s servers). It’s quicker access to the information you’re looking for, without Siri’s tiresome spunkiness.
And then there’s TouchWiz. The Note 2’s version of Samsung’s custom skin is more than just an aesthetic facelift. Some of its cool details:
- Press a finger on the lockscreen while rotating your phone into landscape mode, and the camera will launch.
- Forget to replace the stylus, and the Note will make a noise to alert you.
- Drag two apps over from the sidebar, and use them simultaneously, in multi-window mode.
- While you’re using the Note, its display will stay lit. But if you put it on a table and walk away, it will dim. Yep, facial recognition. Cool.
These are just a few of the nice touches Samsung threw in. The star of the show, though, is the already-covered S Pen integration. Samsung’s software achieved the impossible: it makes a stylus fun to use again.
Did I mention the battery on this thing? It’s flipping outstanding.
While testing the Note II, I used it as my primary mobile device: replacing both smartphone and tablet. On workdays, I was on it for a good portion of the day. Lots of web browsing, messaging, and reading. I shifted between Wi-Fi and LTE. Brightness stayed at 75 percent or higher.
The result? Its battery never dipped below 40 percent before the day was over.
If you can drain this bad boy in a day, then I tip my hat to you. You either spent your entire day playing Modern Combat 4 with the screen’s brightness cranked up, or you’re the world’s most hardcore power user.
The bottom line: 99 percent of us have nothing to worry about here. This battery is a beast. Expect iPad-like uptime.
LTENot every version of the Galaxy Note II has 4G LTE radios. And your local carrier might not support LTE anyway.
If you can get LTE, though, you’re in for a treat. Upload speeds, download speeds, latency (the absence of lag), and indoor penetration are all terrific. Verizon has great coverage in my area, and its LTE is like having a great Wi-Fi network everywhere you go.
If you don’t have LTE, though, you might still enjoy HSPA+ (“4G”) speeds. In some areas, its performance might not be too far off from LTE.
Check with your local carrier for the scoop.
The entire time I used the Note II, I used it with Samsung’s Flip Cover. It’s a battery cover attached to a piece of plastic with felt lining. Remove the Note’s original battery cover, replace it with the Flip Cover, and you're good to go.
It covers the Note’s huge screen when you aren’t using it. You can use it as a kickstand when watching videos. It also makes the Note more comfortable to hold, folding back and acting as a sort of hand-cushion.
Maybe it was related to the whole patent litigation mess, but the Flip Cover lacks the capabilities of the iPad Smart Cover. You know: turn the screen on when you open it, turn it off when you close it. That would have worked well here.
A bigger issue is that the Flip Cover isn’t great for photography. You can't leave it folded back, because it blocks the lens. So when you're framing a shot, there’s a giant flap hanging down below the screen. It makes it trickier to grip the device and reach across to change settings or manually focus.
If you can live with those two issues, though, the Flip Cover is a great addition to the Note II. Isn't it appropriate that a pen-operated device opens and closes like a book?
Wrap-upI can’t tell you whether you’ll want to buy the Galaxy Note II or not. A huge phone like this definitely isn’t for everyone.
But if you’ve avoided phablets like the plague because of their absurd size, you might want to at least give it a chance. Go to a store, and play with one. Borrow a friend's. Whatever it takes.
Because that absurd size also has some absurd advantages. Get used to that spacious, gorgeous screen – and the retro-innovative S Pen input – and you might start to rethink your phablet prejudice.