The HD Super AMOLED screen has been upped in size from 5.3" to 5.5" but keeps its 1280 x 720-pixel definition. The phone runs on a home-grown processor—a growing trend in Samsung handsets. The 1.6 GHz quad-core Exynos CPU is accompanied by 2 GB of RAM, a 16 GB internal memory and a powerful 3,100 mAh battery. Connections include a micro-USB port (which is MHL-compatible for connecting to a TV via USB/HDMI) and a microSD memory card slot for boosting storage with up to 32 GB extra. There's an 8-Megapixel main camera with LED flash for photos and video plus a 2-Megapixel front-facing webcam.
This being a Galaxy Note, the smartphone has an onboard storage slot for its S Pen stylus, developed with a helping hand from stylus-specialists Wacom. The S Pen has been updated for the Note 2, both in form and in substance. The OS is Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with Samsung's TouchWiz interface.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is available in white or titanium grey with plans to out both 32 GB and 64 GB models. The 32 GB version is currently selling for about £550 SIM-free.
DESIGN & HANDLING
The Galaxy Note 2 doesn't look a whole lot different from the previous model. The 5.5" screen makes it a little longer—in fact, proportionally, the elongation is a bit like an iPhone 5 compared with a 4S. The screen aspect ratio therefore changes from 16:10 to 16:9. Otherwise, the Note 2 has a distinct whiff of the Galaxy S3 about it. All in all, Samsung is racking up a good-looking range of smartphones.
To handle, the Note 2 still feels like it's neither here nor there, trapped as it is between the world of tablets and smartphones. You can hold the Note 2 firmly in one hand, but as soon as you start navigating around in the mobile, a one-handed grip becomes considerably less sturdy. Plus, with the phone resting in the palm of your hand and with no fingers gripping it, the Note 2 is easy prey for smartphone thieves!
While some may regret the heavy use of plastic in this mobile's build, the casing's density and high-level finish do make up for things a little.
The S Pen is both easier to access and easier to grip onto. Plus, the smartphone now automatically senses when you remove the stylus from its casing and gets ready for you to start using the S Pen on the screen.
On the whole, there has been a genuine and positive physical improvement in this updated Note.
AMOLED technology used in this mobile screen promises infinite contrast, vivid colours and breezy responsiveness. In total, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 has four display modes: Dynamic, Standard, Video and Natural.
In practice, things get off to a good start in our lab tests, as with an absolute black, Samsung keeps its promise on contrast. The maximum 253 cd/m² brightness is, however, 140 cd/m² less than with the original Note. This level of brightness is reached in light areas of an image comprising several colours—an all-white image would see its maximum brightness reduced (by around 100 cd/m²) to save battery life and your retinas!
Samsung has improved colour fidelity in Standard mode (the mode used in this test) with an average Delta E of 6 compared with 7.9 in the original Note (Delta E measures the difference between perfect colours and those displayed onscreen and should be under 3 for onscreen colours to be considered accurate). Standard mode is therefore perfectly suitable for all kinds of uses. The Video mode is best kept for watching films as it makes the interface look quite dull. In the end, though, it's a matter of taste.
Seeing as this is an AMOLED screen, the ghosting time is so low it's practically non-existent. Plus, Samsung still uses a motion compensation system, by which the image is actually displayed progressively to help keep videos looking smooth.
In the end, this screen certainly brings progress, especially with colour fidelity. While the maximum brightness has been cut a little, the display generally gives good enough performances for comfortable use indoors and outdoors—although probably not in direct sunlight.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
While the Galaxy Note 2 runs on the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS, there's not a whole lot of difference between navigation in this handset and the Galaxy S3 when it came out, as Samsung's TouchWiz interface totally covers up the Google OS. We therefore recommend you head over to our Galaxy S3 review for more information on the ins and outs of TouchWiz.
The main changes in the Note 2 interface come in applications linked to the S Pen. There's obviously S Note (for taking notes with text, drawings, graphs, etc.), plus S Calendar and S Suggest (a kind of application store for apps compatible with the stylus).
In terms of pure processing power, all our tests showed that the Exynos sensor used in the Note 2 is the most powerful mobile processor in the market right now. The graphics chip (Mali 400 MP) has been lifted straight out of the Galaxy S3, but this is still more than sufficient for getting the best out of content in the Google Play Store.
This power makes for constantly smooth, fluid operation—much more so than with the Galaxy S3, which sometimes falters with a slight hang when closing a web page or app. Here, everything is fast—very fast. As with the Galaxy S3, this power manifests itself most notably when handling active content simultaneously—a video can be kept running in a window alongside whatever else you're doing, for example. That clearly makes a little more sense on a 5.5" screen, so you can effectively keep an eye on whatever you're watching while typing out a text message.
However, the S Pen has got a whole lot sleeker and more comfrotable to use. While the stylus was certainly practical in the Note, it's a dream to use in the Note 2. In fact, this is where the power of the new Exynos processor really comes into its own. Screenshots are now speedy and don't hang, you can edit photos with a rare fluidity, and there's no lag with written notes onscreen. Where the first Galaxy Note has to stop and think between each sequence of text entered with the stylus, the Note 2 digests and interprets what you write almost instantly. And if you're firing off word after word at top speed, the system can even automatically calculate where to put spaces (otherwise you can use a kind of onscreen space bar).
You can use the stylus to enter text in either portrait or landscape mode, with landscape proving particularly handy for writing out longer messages. It's just a shame there's no real full-screen mode, as the top bar never goes away (the bar for signal strength, clock and notifications).
There are still a few slight inaccuracies in recognising some kinds of handwriting or specific formulations, but, on the whole, whether with text messages, notes or drawings (with automatic shape correction to sharpen up lines), there's been a huge jump forwards in the handwriting-to-type conversion function compared with the original Note.
Another great new feature of the S Pen is a clever tracking system that allows the screen to detect the stylus when 5 mm from the screen surface, displaying a little dot-shaped cursor onscreen to show you the position. You therefore know exactly what you're pointing at. You can also use the cursor's hover-over function to see information about the various options available in the notes, drawing and photo editing apps. That should help you find your way around them more easily.
Finally, we couldn't end this section without a word about the touchscreen keyboard. Its responsiveness and the row of number keys (!) above the letters make it a real treat to use.
Web browsing is fast and pleasant with the Galaxy Note 2. The screen isn't eye-poppingly precise, as it uses the same definition as the first Note, but it's still perfectly readable and comfortable enough for all kinds of content. That goes for portrait and landscape modes.
Multimedia (photos, videos, music) has always been a strong feature for Samsung smartphones. Basically, you can chuck pretty much any content you like at the Note 2 and leave the appropriate media player app to take care of the rest. That includes 1080p videos too, which is just as well with a screen like this!
All the games in the Google Play Store start up quickly and run like clockwork. There aren't as many mobile games available for this phone as for handsets running on Nvidia's Tegra chips (which benefit from the TegraZone gaming platform), but some games in the store can still provide a pretty impressive experience.
The headphones out has been lifted straight out of the original Note. Audio output is accurate with a good dynamic range. Output power is within average and there's no distortion. This mobile is a very good-quality product that's been built with care and attention—and it shows.
Another good thing is that the external speaker is powerful enough to blast out music without you having to put your ear right up to the phone. However, the hands-free kit is as bad as ever, and should only be used as headphones when you really, really have to.
The camera does a better job than the first Galaxy Note but it's still no match for the 8-Megapixel camera in the iPhone 5, particularly on the level of detail in shots. That said, the Note 2 camera does handle low-light conditions better than the Apple mobile. Flesh tones are rendered well and the flash is every bit as good as the one in the Galaxy S3—it doesn't overexpose subjects like the flash in the iPhone or the first Note.
You can see sample shots from the Galaxy Note 2 camera and compare them with other cameraphones in our Face-Off.
Samsung's original Galaxy Note could hold out for a good day or so of use, while still managing to power its giant 5.3" Super AMOLED HD screen. But that clearly wasn't enough for Samsung, as the follow-up phone, which has a 5.5" Super AMOLED HD display, has been treated to a 3,100 mAh battery, replacing the 2,500 mAh battery that equipped the firm's first tablet-turned-phone launched in 2011.
We test smartphone battery life with Battery BenchMark, which uses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, web activity, multimedia, screen brightness adjustments and more to simulate user activity. This benchmark is a real smartphone "stress test" that's well-balanced and which gives results in line with our general impressions when actually using a phone. The raw test data from this benchmark shows that the Galaxy Note 2 runs circles around all the other Android smartphones we've reviewed over the last few months.
Among Samsung handsets alone, the Note 2 pulverises its predecessor by practically doubling battery life! It's the same story compared with the Galaxy S3 too. In fact, the benchmark test showed 15 hrs 10 mins of feasible use time, which basically means the Note 2 can power on for two days of regular, reasonable use. Heavy users can knock about a third off that, however.
When looking back over the seemingly endless columns in our mobile device battery life spreadsheet, the only equivalently long-lasting products we found were Android tablets like the Google Nexus 7 by Asus, Acer Iconia Tab A510 and the Asus Transformer Pad TF300.