From the initial launch the Galaxy Note provoked very strong views from blogs vehemently against the Note to a passionate user base that love their Notes and bought them in larger quantities at over 1 million units per month.
When the Galaxy Note was initially launched my first response was that the Note would either be a great success, or a heroic failure, there could be no middle ground. The reason for this was that the Galaxy Note defied two fundamental tenants of the modern smartphone:
- Thou shalt not make your phone significantly larger. Since the launch of mobile phones, size has always mattered, and large phones that were significantly larger than that typical of the time were a source of humor
- Thou shalt not have a stylus. The stylus has been a subject of fun & derision in the mobile world since the launch of the Newton with the classic Doonesbury comic strip, to the final death of the stylus brought on by the iPhone.
So the Galaxy Note has always intrigued me, but to be honest I always thought it was not the phone for me due to its size.
Trying Something New
As part of Samsung Semiconductors Exynos Hack Pack Program, Samsung Semiconductor offered to provide me with a Galaxy Note II. I leapt at the opportunity to try out the Galaxy Note II, as the form factor had intrigued me so much. I came into this review with the perspective that it would be great to try out this new Smartphone form factor but it would not replace my international edition Galaxy S III that I use as my present day to day phone.
What’s Different About the Galaxy Note II Versus the Galaxy S III?
Let’s state the obvious here: the Note II has a 5.5inch Super AMOLED screen, making the Note II considerably larger than the S III. I was assuming that it would be just a bigger version of the screen on my Galaxy S III, but in fact it seems to be a Super Super AMOLED screen as it does look better, for example text looks appreciably better than on the S III (which already had a very good screen).
The other big change for us in the US is that it’s the first phone to ship with the Samsung Exynos 4 Quad. The Exynos 4 Quad is one of the leading application processors shipping today and in depth details can be found here. As you would expect from a leading-edge ARM application processor it has all the great multimedia “bells & whistles”.
- 1080p video encode & decode support and it can handle any video content that you can throw at it.
- Image processing pipeline to handle the latest large Mpixel sensors and photography features such as HDR, panoramic photographs, and of course high frame rate.
- Quad core ARM Mali-400 graphics to deliver stunning graphics. Combined with the 5.5 inch screen, games on the Note II just look great. (And have a look at this blog by ARM's Jakub Lakmik about ARM Mali, the "new graphics king" in SoCs.)
The Exynos 4 Quad also has quad core ARM Cortex-A9 running up to 1.6GHz with 2Gbyte of memory. I normally avoid talking about benchmarks but I would like to make a couple of comments:
- Cross platform benchmarks are notoriously difficult, but I do use Geekbench to compare platforms. It was interesting to see that the Galaxy Note II had a score of 2000, while my 2010 13” Macbook Pro has a score of 3300. You can see that soon we will be at the point where you will have laptop performance in your pocket as demonstrated by this Gigaom article and video on using the Galaxy Note II as a desktop computer
- Certain companies focus on a single threaded benchmark, as they only have one core. A device such as the Note II is multicore, as we don’t do just one thing on our smartphones. Quad core gives you headroom to deliver a great user experience, and cores are turned off when you don’t need them. Also with the inherent size efficiency of the ARM architecture you get 4 cores for the one legacy core. In case you care the Note II has a Sun Spider score of 1035ms and still has 3 cores left to do more interesting things.
The other benefits of the larger form factor is that it gives more room for other “stuff”, in the case of the Note II this includes:
- Bigger battery
- Bigger speaker
I will talk about the stylus and battery life later, but I would just like to say that the audio quality of the speaker is the best I have heard from a smartphone. I’m using the Note II as my radio around the house.
Is it a better smartphone or just a smaller tablet?
So how did the Galaxy Note II compare to typical high-end Android phone today?
User Experience: Quite simply this is the most responsive smartphone that I have used, everything I do just happens quickly and smoothly. What is interesting is that it feels more responsive than the Galaxy S III, I think this is due to the 2Gbyte memory (versus 1GByte on the S III), perhaps there are more software optimizations, and of course the increased clock speed.
Battery Life: The battery life of the Note II passed my “east to west” test. This is when I start the day on the East coast of the US and fly to the West, resulting in a 15 hour work day. All other smartphones have failed this test, and I assumed that the Note II would fail as well. In fact it passed it with flying colors, allowing me to do one hour of turn by navigation (screen off), one hour of phone calls, 4+ hours of video, web browsing, 2+ hours reading the news (it was the day after the presidential election), and casual gaming.
S Pen: The S Pen brings two unique features compared to the styluses of old: it actually works and is useful. It can actually read my handwriting, rather than having to learn some runic script that looks like it comes from the Lord of Rings. The S Pen also allows you to easy annotate things on your smartphone, and the killer use case for me is to scribble notes while on a phone call.
The Screen: Quite simply the screen size makes this device, no matter what you are doing -- be it browsing the web, reading a book, watching videos, or anything -- the larger screen significantly improves the user experience. In fact when I’m travelling I can see myself leaving my 7 inch tablet at home. The other nice feature of the large screen is the support for 2 apps on one screen. This is really useful when you need to transfer or compare information between 2 applications.
The Size: Was the Note II too large to use as a day to day phone? For me I carry my phones in the front pocket of my jeans, and the Note II fitted perfectly. The only time that size was an issue, was when trying to capture a feral rooster in my back yard and I had to remove the phone from my pocket.
The Galaxy Note II Is Not Like Marmite For Me!
I hate Marmite, you could slap axel grease on a piece of toast, and it would be just as enjoyable as Marmite on toast for me. When I started this review I thought the Note II would be a nice toy to play with, but it would not replace my day to day to “work” phone. I came out of this review with the view that Galaxy Note II is the form factor for me. If you are a heavy smartphone user, and do not have to chase wildlife on a day to day basis, then the Galaxy Note II is the perfect smartphone for you. It seems that are a large number of Note II converts as Samsung has just announced that they have already sold 5 million Note II’s in 2 months.
Galaxy Note II Great SoC, Great Innovation
The great user experience of the Note II is enabled by the Samsung Exynos 4 Quad SoC. If ARM silicon partners such as Samsung were not innovating at such a rate then we would not have these great new Smartphones every year.
Also whoever defined the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy Note II at Samsung deserves a prize for defying convention, and producing a smartphone that I did not know that I wanted.
James Bruce, Lead Mobile Strategist, ARM, is based in Silicon Valley. James is without doubt a gadget guy who is continuously looking at the latest devices and services on them. Working for ARM allows James to see what technology will be on your mobile device in 3 to 5 years time. This view of the future combined with being based in Silicon Valley and having worked on mobile for the last 12 years allows James to have a unique view of mobile technology. At the moment James is enjoying the latest quad core CortexTM-A9, quad core MaliTM-400 smartphone, but is waiting impatiently for next years Cortex-A15 phone.
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