If there's one thing that I have learned from the evaluation of different Android devices, like the Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus, it's that the Android 4.x OS is a technical, pleasantly geeky, often beautiful OS that will appeal to many different people. On the 5.5-inch display of the Samsung Galaxy Note II (GN2), it looks great.
Of course, we've read a lot of things about the Android and iOS competition. There is a difference in philosophies between Apple and Google when it comes to the relationship to the customer. There are nuances of system security and fragmentation and the policies of the companies when it comes to relationship to the developer. There are legal issues related to IP, infringement and patents. These will be settled in the courts. There is the overall politics of which company you like and respect. There is a lot of fuss about the right-sizing of a smartphone display. And finally, there are deep technical issues of OS design that one can point to if one wants to jump on a particular technical band wagon. I'm not going to discuss any of that.
I've had a Samsung Galaxy Note II for about a month now, and what I want to tell you up front is that when you hold one in your hand and use it, most of the preconceptions, hype, attitude and politics tend to fade away into a shimmering nothingness, as if they'd been transported into deep space by the Enterprise transporter system.
In fact, one of things I like to do when I'm reviewing a product like this is to pretend that it's 1980. I've just been visited by a time traveler, and I've been handed a cool toy from 2013 to play with. In that context, what is my overall reaction? In a neutral, technical evaluation, unblemished by attitude, what is it like to explore, handle and use a device like this?
Forget for a moment that some analyst has made an arbitrary decision that any smartphone with a display larger than 5 inches (127 cm) is labeled a "phablet" and that you may hate that name.
The basic size story. The GN2 is big. But that can pay off. (iPhone 5 on right.)
My personal reaction is that this is a cool, fun device to use. When it comes to browsing the Internet, a 5.5-inch display beats a 3.5 or 4-inch display handily. When it comes to pressing a smartphone into the kinds of things we often see promoted, like the mobile viewing of sports, a 5.5-in. display is a delight. If you're on an airplane and want to watch a movie, the difference is substantive.
Okay, as they say, bigger is better. And now you're thinking, How do I carry this damn thing around? It's huge! And the answer, of course, is, lose the attitude, and ask yourself what concessions you want to make in order to exploit this advantage of a larger screen? After all, it's tiny compared to an iPad mini, and lots of people figure out how to carry one of those around.
I have read that Steve Jobs insisted that the first iPhone must fit in his shirt pocket. That placed constraints on the design. However, in time, we have found that the modern smartphone, an Internet device, not just a telephone, has matured. More and more Internet services, like maps, are integrated into our lives. An Internet device, in principle, benefits from a larger display. Yes, I know Phil Schiller has said something about this. Your thumb doesn't easily reach all the way across the display. I can verify that he's right on a 5.5-inch display.
But that's also market speak. It's like saying that the VW Polo gets better gas mileage and has more headroom than a BMW 3-series. You know what's going on there, so why do we get all thumb mesmerized on an iPhone? In almost turn around logic, Steve Jobs once said, obliquely, during the Antennagate affair: Hold it different.
One more thing. When you contemplate a 5.5-inch device, you may have a mental image of a device that's big as a percentage of a 7-inch tablet or a 7.9-inch iPad mini. Here. Take a look. It's probably not what you had been visualizing in your mind for this phablet.
Sanity check: L-R: 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, 5.5-inch GN2, 7.9-inch iPad mini
Finally, I note that these are all a very subjective things, but there is a science to it. Every time I take the iPhone 5 out of its protective case, I marvel at the gem-like character of it. It feels good in my hand. On the other hand, the GN2's home button, embossed with the Verizon name and the plastic case are just plain ugly.
There are some other special things that Apple is very good at. In the latest Apple earnings report, Tim Cook talked about the science of user perceptions. How the "resolution, color quality, white balance, brightness, reflectivity, screen longevity" all combine to create a subjective feeling of quality and satisfaction. That kind of understanding of the user can have a dramatic, subliminal effect on how the customer feels about a smartphone. But not every one is affected.
On the other hand, the Galaxy Note II has more obvious physical virtues: expandable SD-card memory and a (removable) plastic back so that you can replace the SD-card, SIM and the battery. For some, its a geekgasm.
Getting under the hood, if you know what I mean.
The GN2's plastic case doesn't have that subliminal, technical, physical feel in your hand that the iPhone 5 has. If this matters to you, if this negates your personal preference for the larger display on the other side, then you'll be at home with hundreds of millions of iPhone users.
This review is all about exploring all these technical issues, separate from the politics. It's really hard to hold onto preconceived ideas once one holds the device in one's hand and uses it for any length of time.
Android and Detail
I've spent a lot of time now with Android devices, The Barnes & Noble Nook, The Kindle Fire HD and a Nexus 10. The thing that stands out for me is that Android 4.x or later has no problem with divulging a lot of information about the device. For example, on the GN2, if you want to see which apps are burning up your battery or your data usage, that's available to you as a list.
The overall technical approach of Android is something that many people appreciate. It is perhaps why some people like to bash iOS. It's an age-old battle: the tinkerer versus the doer. The world has room for both those kinds of people.
Android loves the details.
In iOS, when you go into Settings, you're confronted with a lot of information. Some of it gets buried. I know that because writers make money telling us how to find some hidden function we didn't know about but want to use. The iOS UX designer has to struggle with control versus simplicity. Android solves this problem by providing a "Favorite settings" widget. (Actually, Samsung told me that this "favorites" widget isn't really editable. Even so, it's handy.)
Samsung's favorites, not yours. Nice anyway.
This version of Android also provides a set of handy "quick settings" by pulling down from the top of the display. (Like iOS does with Notifications.) This set is editable in Settings ->Display ->Notification panel.
These slide down from the top of the display. The list is editable.
Some users will see this as too many things to remember, and some users will revel in the options. Personally, I like it, and I say that not to be provincial or opinionated. I say that because I want this review to reflect the idea that one can appreciate aspects of a rather nerdy OS like Android while simultaneously appreciating the simplicity and elegance of iOS. One of my favorite quotes is from F. Scott Fitzgerald. "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." We all need to do that from time to time.
If you are a dyed-in-the-wool iOS user, as you explore Android on a device like this, what you will find is an amazing amount of detail and control that you may or may not have ever missed in iOS. At first you might think, "Wow, that's cool." Later, the reaction may be, "I don't need all that information!" For others, it's part of the appeal of the device.
The GN2 uses a super AMOLED display with a resolution of 720 x 1280. (Pure 720p.) The corresponding pixel density is 267 ppi. The iPhone 5 display is 640 x 1136 at 326 ppi. Held side by side, what jumped out at me was not the pixel density but how the larger display can make one feel that it's a more natural device to touch, especially if you have big hands or clumsy fingers. The iPhone feels miniature, and it is. YMMV.
There's a reason people like the feel of real calculators. The iPhone's small keys
can lead to data entry errors.
Big Screen Benefits
If you've figured out how you want to carry the GN2 around, the big screen can have distinct benefits. And, as an aside, I should mention that the GN2 does indeed fit into a standard men's dress shirt pocket.
I'm not in there; the shirt was hung on a chair.
For example, I was fascinated to see the difference between the iOS and Android calendar. Here they are side-by-side. Personally, I like the larger calendar. Plus, when you tap an entry, it pops up in a small window, right there, instead of taking you to a new page that makes you then return to the main calendar view. I liked Android's approach. The larger display enables a different kind of thinking by the developer.
Shown close to relative size.
The 5.5-inch display really comes into its own with Web browsing. Here's a side-by-side comparison. Again, roughly to scale.
Roughly to scale. If you're into mobile web, the GN2 shines.
(You pinch to show all the webpages visited. Use the menu button at the bottom to bring up sharing options.)
Interesting sharing options for URLs.
I have read about some complaints related to the crispness of the scrolling with Android on the S4. I tested for myself, and on this GN2, the text was always sharp as it scrolled in Google Play Books and the Jelly Bean Web browser.
As mentioned above, if your smartphone (or phablet) is the only device you're carrying with you on travel, the bigger screen can be a big plus when watching a video. Below is Netflix, ("The Glades") running side by side on the iPhone 5 and GN2.
I also noticed in those videos that the default color of the GN2 was considerably warmer than the iPhone 5. I don't think it's something to worry about until you place them side by side. Only then, you may have a preference. Again, my focus is the viewing experience, not color balance.
Netflix viewing, iPhone 5 on left, GN2 on right.
That's enough. I think you probably have a feel for what a 5.5 inch display can do -- if you want one.
I am only an amateur photographer, and I don't want to put too much emphasis on this. However, out of curiosity, I took a photo with the GN2 and iPhone 5 of my back yard area, and while both (rear) cameras are 8 megapixels (MP) with images 3264 x 2448, I liked what I saw with the GN2. The rocks, blades of grass and distant bush both looked crisper and more detailed on the GN2. As I said, this wasn't a scientific test, but it was enough to show me that one can expect quality photos from the GN2 in casual use.
iPhone 5 on left, GN2 on right.
One of the things I have noticed about the Android keyboards over the months since Christmas is that the next key I need is, magically, always right there when I need it. There's something about the inner logic of the Android keyboard that shines this way. On the other hand, I'm consistently frustrated by the iOS keyboard. I'm always hunting for the next key I need when it comes to special characters. Andy Ihnatko has also noticed this, and he mentioned it as one of the things that drew him to Android. Here's a side by side of the email composers.
I like the Android keyboard. A lot. Note the number keys available by default.
Note how the extra room invites the obvious: a paper clip to trigger attachments, room for the number keys and predictive words. And, as I've mentioned before, when you hit the shift key, the keys on the keyboard change case. That's so natural. I hope Apple fixes that in iOS 7.
One of the features touted by Samsung is the ability to split the display and work with two apps at the same time. Again, a 5.5-inch screen is an enabler here. Barely.
In the screen shot below, I am running a YouTube video on the top (the already legendary Audi TV ad with Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto) and composing an email at the bottom. I must say, it isn't an easy thing to do because there are still compromises in the utilization of the space. You may need to shift things around, depending on what you're doing. On one hand, there's probably less here than meets the eye for the everyday smartphone user. But if you need do it, and you work at it, I can see how it could pay off.
You can drag the border up and down to change the relative size of each app.
Yes, it has a phone: 2G/3G/4G/LTE. I live in a very rural area with poor cell phone coverage. As a result, I use an AT&T iPhone with an AT&T Microcell on my desk. However, last year, I did replace my Century Link land line with the Verizon Wireless Home Phone Connect. It shows two bars out of three, and we get acceptable service here, but the device does have an external antenna and is in a window of a second floor bedroom.
When I received the GN2, I was doubtful I'd be able to make a good call in my office on the ground floor, but even though I've never seen more than two bars out of five, I've been able to make crystal clear calls to my wife at work.
Of course when you put that giant display next to your face, it doesn't go dark like the iPhone. That's an Apple patent. However, to compensate the GN2's keypad for dialing is a very mutted blue tone. You may never notice this loss until some night when, at a star party, you call your spouse and the whole group starts yelling at you.
Like some other Android devices, the B&N Nook, there is a removable SD-Card. Samsung described it this way to me. "The Galaxy Note II comes with 16 GB of internal memory. The great thing about Samsung devices is you can expand your total memory using up to a 64 GB microSD card to store music, movies, documents, pictures, etc. With your phone you can access and play all the files on the external microSD card without any problems."
While that sounds good in some respects, my guess is that a removable SD card has more utility for certain specific technical users than for the everyday average user. Those users will just insert and forget. Apple's philosophy of giving what you need up front with no fuss has its merits.
Included with the GN2 is a small stylus. It's not a capacitive stylus, and you can't use it with other iDevices. l. It's specifically designed to work with the GN2, the S Note app and other apps that are designed to recognize it. I personally have my doubts about the utility of drawing on a device like this, and that's an area where a feature that's touted gets a mixed reviews and brings out the phablet skeptics.
For example, you can hover the pen over your gallery and a blue dot appears on the display. Without touching the photo, it sizes up for a better view. You can clip something on the screen. For example, I lassoed a piece of my photo gallery. When you close the loop, the clip is dropped into the clipboard.
Is lassoing part of the screen something really that useful?
This is nice if you want to do things like that, and there are plenty of S Pen apps available. The downside is that the button on the side of the stylus is small and hard to press easily and consistently. You might lose the stylus, even though it slides into the GN2 for safekeeping. But if you need this functionality, it's there.
A pen/stylus like this is kind of like that "touch phones together to share" that Samsung promotes in its TV ads. Technically, it's called "S Beam" and it uses NFC technology. It's cool if you like it and a needless gadget if you don't.
I used the micro-USB to USB cable that came with the GN2 and connected it to my iMac. You'll see a default CD image with, in my case, some Verizon utilities, but if you launch Google's Android File Transfer.app, (or just wait, it'll auto-launch if installed) you'll be able to drag files back and forth. That's how I transferred the screen shots in bunches instead of emailing them.
So many people would love to do this in iOS. But then, we know why Apple
hides the file system.
After a notification, I upgraded the OS myself from Jelly Bean 4.1.1 to 4.1.2 a few days ago. It was 247 MB and took a total of about 5 minutes to complete. It was painless, just like iOS.
I asked Samsung if the GN2 would be upgradable to all future versions of Android. The answer was oblique, indicative of a waffle. "Samsung devices get periodic Premium Suite upgrades that bring new features and fixes to the software. Android 4.1.2 is the most current version of Android JellyBean and Samsung continues bringing these updates throughout the lifecycle of our devices."
I'll have to take that as a "no."
All Those Features
The 17 page Reviewer's Guide sent with this device goes into a lot of detail about some cool features. For example, Blocking Mode works like iOS's "Do Not Disturb." Page Buddy detects when certain events happen, such as removing the S Pen, inserting earphones, or docking it. And I haven't even begun to explore a host of other features. I'm not going to go into great detail about all that because you may not need them and because I'm not trying to report, for the record, every feature this device has. Instead, my goal has been to review the GN2, overall, from a technical, dispassionate perspective for our Apple-centric readers and provide a feel for this device.
I liked this Samsung Galaxy Note II.
I could live with it.
It's not as big as I thought it would be. But it dwarfs the iPhone 4S and 5.
It's a geek toy with lots of features and functions, and that will appeal to some, not others. I personally enjoyed it. It's something we might have envisioned 30 years ago, lying around on a starship captain's desk. The size of the display both enables some better UI ideas but also invites activities that are probably better done on a real tablet. In that sense, it has a blurred identity -- and the (perhaps) artifical demarcation that casts it as a "phablet" actually means something. It tries to lead a double life.
I didn't care for the plastic shell. Hands down, the iPhone 5 is a work of art, a delight to hold in your hand. The GN2 is merely a nice looking device with a plastic shell that doesn't elicit much emotion.
So, you may be asking, after all this, am I ready to defect? Not really. I explained previously why I'm still solidly in the Apple camp. However, I can also see how users and writers, invested in Android, might take a poke at Apple now and then. Apple needs that. The need in some cases to work around Apple patents has actually led to some original thinking here and there, like the blue fire edge that tells you that you can't scroll any farther.
What I can tell you is that 5 million customers bought one in the two months after release, according to Android Authority. That's not in the iPhone class of sales, but it's a notable achievement. This is a fine device, full of technology and features, and it can't be easily dismissed.
The Galaxy Note II is available from all major U.S. carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon.
Finally, if you really want to look at detailed specs, here they are for the iPhone 5 and GN2. A few of the more interesting specs are summarized below.