Software, Camera, Conclusion
Google has strived to improve the standard text messaging and email clients that ship with licensed Android phones, but manufacturers tend to favor their own messaging clients on their devices. Samsung's take on messaging has mixed results. For starters, there's the ChatON service that allows Android, Bada, BlackBerry, and iOS users to send free messages and media to each other. The app performs well enough, but it lacks the standard footprint of iMessage or BBM, or even the cross-platform notoriety of GroupMe.
The SMS client uses the TouchWiz UI. It isn't the prettiest around but users can make small theme changes. It also excels by having the ability to schedule messages and begin calling someone after placing the phone to an ear while a texting thread is open. When held in landscape, the messaging app switches to a two-pane view that shows a list of messages on the left side and one actual conversation on the right.
The Email app has a better color scheme that could benefit from some small visual improvements, but it makes the grade in other ways. The app also supports a multi window view in landscape that makes reading email similar to what users would expect on a tablet. The split-screen view makes responding to emails incredibly fast, and the app benefits from having pinch-to-zoom and multiple accounts that can be loaded separately or in a unified inbox. The email client supports POP3, IMAP, and Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync.
Apps / App Store
Samsung relies on the S Pen to boost the usability of its software, including the aforementioned S Note application, but there's plenty to appreciate without the S Pen. The Gallery app features three different browsing modes that include standard thumbnails, stacked rows, or a winding carousel.
Media capabilities are further extended with AllShare Play, which broadcasts photos, music, or video from the phone to a larger screen. On-device media management includes music and video player apps, a Media Hub store, and the standard Google Play store and suite of apps.
Along with the standard Google Mobile apps, T-Mobile includes a number of carrier-branded apps on the Galaxy Note II. These apps add more tools for account management, caller ID, streaming TV, visual voicemail, and launching a mobile hotspots Google Play also supplies more than 700,000 Android apps if users wish to have more apps, most of which do not take advantage of the S Pen.
Samsung has held multiple developer contests to encourage stylus-friendly apps, but those efforts have so far produced only a few drawing apps. The Galaxy Note II ships with the necessary basics, but a few inventive third-party apps would add the finishing touches to unlock the S Pen's full potential.
Just as it did with the Calendar and Contacts apps, Samsung makes the Internet app more about TouchWiz than Android. The browser greatly differs from the standard Android browser app, and there doesn't appear to be any perceivable benefit to that change. It provides tabbed browsing, a tracking-free Incognito mode, a button save pages for offline reading, a desktop view switch, and settings to control navigation with gestures. Otherwise, if you want something else Chrome for Android and other alternatives are available in Google Play.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II has an 8 megapixel camera with LED flash and a 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera, both of which can succinctly be described as fantastic. The front-facing camera records fluid video and impressive self-portraits, making it one of the better front shooters available in a mobile device. The rear camera has auto focus that instantly adjusts to conditions, including low-light situations, and does a good job of applying the right settings to quickly capture a photo. The camera software has pre-defined shooting modes for low-light conditions and panorama, but it's most intriguing trick is the Best Face feature. The latter takes multiple group photos and then looks at faces to determine when someone is out of focus or looking away, and then creates a better photo by combining the best faces from multiple snapshots into one.
There are occasions when the Galaxy Note II's auto-settings detects too much light in a certain area, like an open window or the sun shining at a certain angle, and then mistakenly applies the wrong focus or lighting settings. A bevy of manual adjustments can fix that problem, and the BSI lens and auto focus software typically manage to produce high-quality photos. The camera software works best when using HDR mode to blend highs and lows to find the right light and contrast balance, but HDR is most effective with completely still subjects and may not always be necessary.
Samsung did an equally impressive job with the video camera settings. The Galaxy Note II can record 1080p HD videos that are mostly free of the jitteriness that plagues so many smartphone cameras. The rear camera quickly refocuses on moving subjects or changes in orientation, and the 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera records stable video that enables excellent video calling.
Music lovers should have no trouble finding ways to enjoy music on the Galaxy Note II, which ships with three different apps geared towards playing a user's favorite songs. Samsung includes its default music player that includes SoundAlive equalizer effects and a Music square feature that can chart songs based on four key traits: passionate, exciting, joyful, calm. Google Play Music also plays tracks stored on the phone, but it has the added ability to stream up to 20,000 songs stored in the cloud. Samsung's Music Hub has: a cloud locker for personal streaming; a radio app that provides recommendations, favorites, and personal stations; and an on-demand streaming option with access to more than 19 million songs. Three apps may be two more than most buyers need for music, but the Galaxy Note II benefits by offering choices that speak to the needs of individual users.
While companies have advanced display technology and accelerated the processing power of their phones, they have also accelerated the rate at which those phones deplete their batteries. No on one has mastered the balance between all areas, but Samsung has done a commendable job of showcasing a powerful processor working in a tandem with a reasonable battery. The massive screen eats up plenty of juice, and the 3,100 mAh battery manages to keep up for a solid day. Despite streaming high-quality songs on Pandora, watching YouTube, browsing the web, and remaining on HSPA+ for most of the day, the phone still managed to turn in more than 14 hours of heavy use before powering down.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II's above average size is both a gift and a hindrance. The fact that a phone could be so large to be considered a tablet means that it has added benefits that most handsets lack, but it also has challenges unique to this phone. The size of the phone makes one-handed use impractical, which severely limits the pool of potential fans. There's also a chance that a user may look and feel ridiculous when holding the large phone up to their ear to place a call. As strange as it may feel initially, buyers who are willing to use two hands will find a phone ready to help meet many other challenges thrown at them.
In my time with the Galaxy Note, I've found the phone to be perfectly capable of running my favorite games and apps, and I've loved the tablet-like experience of reading Pulse or Flipboard on a much larger screen. I also discovered that the S Pen is incredibly useful for annotating photos, and marginally beneficial when navigating in media apps. While the original Galaxy Note may have had issues with system-wide lag, the Galaxy Note II is a smooth and dynamic experience from top to bottom. It's probably too big as a phone or too small as a tablet for most, but many will find it's a comfortable compromise between the two form factors.
Pros: Excellent camera and unique software capabilities because of S Pen and 5.5-inch screen.
Cons: Large size may be too much for many users to overcome.