I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy Note II for about three weeks now. There are lots of reviews talking through the entire pros/cons list for the phone so I’ll focus on my specific observations rather than attempting to review the phone. As with most Android devices, XDA-Developers is an awesome forum and should be your go-to source for information if you want to dig into the guts of the system.
The questions that come up over and over:
- Does it fit in a pocket? Unless you wear skinny jeans, absolutely.
- Is it too big? With my small mitts, I need to use it two-handed most of the time, although this has not been an issue other than while trying to dial the phone while participating in another activity like carrying bags or driving. Now that I’ve said this, I love the larger screen.
- Has it replaced anything? The Short answer is Yes, it has replaced my 7” tablet + phone combination. For general use, I now only carry the Note II exclusively. If I’m going to read for an amount of time or am idle at home I’ll often pickup the Nexus 7 for a bigger screen. If you told me today I either had the choice to ditch the tablet or had to move back to a <5” phone to keep the tablet I would ditch the tablet and call it good. The screen is a perfectly usable size and I would have no fear reading entire books on it, which has never been something I would commit to with a phone in the past.
- Is Android ready for my parents? The Nexus 7 and Note II have proven to me that Android can be a reliable, daily-driver operating system. With these newest devices I would trust giving an Android phone to my (stereotypical, not real – the real one is more tech-savvy) mother, which is something I never would have endorsed in the past.
- Is the Stylus actually useful? Absolutely, especially when taking quick notes. For the first week it was a toy but I was still reaching for real paper when jotting down an address or other information. Not anymore, now I auto-pilot to my stylus and take the note, then go on my way. The only time this is a problem is if I’m creating a reminder, which you would typically stick in a place where it was apparent – it would be nice on the Note II to have small thumbnails of say, your last three notes so that you see that reminder each time you turn-on the phone.
- Is there a feature most people don’t know exist but is super cool? There are a TON of cool features hiding in the phone, shake the phone to do this, turn over to do that, eye detection (don’t turn off the screen if I’m looking at it) but the one feature I haven’t seen highlighted is the wireless charging capability, which I’ll talk about in the mods section below. The one other item that kicks ass is multi-window mode, which I’ll talk about in the mods section.
Apps built for phones running on the Note II:
I think it was on one of The Verge Podcasts where I heard them talk about the difference between Android Apps and Apple Apps. With Android apps, the apps are primarily built for phones and then scaled to tablets. With Apple, there is an entire ecosystem just for iPad apps.
Android needs this focus on two different types of apps and the Note II should have an option to use the tablet category (it might not fit all apps but will fit the majority.) Some of the fonts in apps are comically huge, which is great for people who have a hard time reading small fonts but it is pretty humorous. With this said, I’ll talk below about one of the mods I’ve performed to provide a little more screen real-estate. I should also note that Samsung has done a good job of adapting some apps, such as the phone dialer and default keyboard for single-hand use but those changes are largely a college try rather than a real solution in my book.
Now that I’ve thrown stones at Android Apps, I should mention that on my prior phones if I was going to read for any amount of time I moved to a tablet, whereas on the Note II I often forget that I have another tablet handy – it is that easy to read and view text.
Artificially Black Areas or Black Crush:
There is a forum post on XDA-Developers focused to issues with “black crush” or black issues on the Note II, which also haunted the original Note. I have one spot on my screen – a bit like a marker mark half-an-inch long, which is a little up from the middle of the screen. You can only see it when the screen is a dark grey; in those circumstances the spot is black when the rest of the screen is grey. I only see it once every few days, usually while in an app with a pretty dark, but not black background. It is a minor irritant, nothing to get worked-up about. It sounds like most of the owners have some sort of issue with their AMOLED screen whether or not they ever see it so I’m not worried about it. It is part of the risk associated with using a young technology in a production device.
Is the stock firmware good?
If you are new to the phone but do not want to dink with it, the stock firmware works great; no need to jump down the custom/modified firmware rabbit hole. There is a TON of useful functionality in the stock firmware. With this said, once you’ve decided to root, or do anything else, it is worth upgrading to the latest software before you start modding since many mods require newer firmware. When I acquired my phone it did not upgrade over the air but once I plugged it into the Kies software it had an update so for those who want to remain stock loading Kies is useful.
My Current Mod Status:
So far I’ve spent a significant amount of time dinking with the phone, although I’m still on Stock firmware to this day, which has proven solid and reliable. My phone originally shipped with an early version of the firmware, which I attempted to upgrade but Samsung detected that I had rooted the phone (primarily to get a solid backup using Titanium backup.) After reading about whether it was worth upgrading I decided to take the leap and rather than mess with going with the same country (Germany is where my phone was originally spec’ed for) I went straight to the newest Hong Kong firmware. I’ve noticed at least half a dozen refinements throughout the OS so it was worthwhile to make the leap before investing a ton of time into customizing the phone.
Below are the mods I have implemented and find useful:
- Inductive/Wireless Charging – Taking off the back of the International version of the Note II you will notice two pin connections on the right side of the phone, which are unused. Those are the inductive charging pins. With a couple of ebay orders you can be wireless charging easily with no soldering or other hardware hacking. XDA has a few good posts discussing your options.
- Root – At first I rooted to get Titanium Backup working, which is great if you upgrade/customize your phone. Now I’m using a few apps, which require root with the most important being the multi-window hacks and changing the LCD Density, which I’ll talk about below. It would be poor of me to not mention CWM Rom Manager/Recovery, which is important for any phone where you start hacking the firmware – sometimes when your phone isn’t booting, the easiest way to get it back is to restore your latest Nandroid backup.
- Multiwindow Modification/Unlimited Apps – One of the coolest features of the Note II is multiwindow, it is also one of the most frustratingly limited since out of the box it is limited to <20 apps. With a fairly easy mod (assuming you are running the right firmware version and rooted) you can enable Multi-window for any app. I use this feature every day to bring up my password manager while browsing to websites or other applications.
- DPI/LCD Density Change – By default the Note II doesn’t effectively use all of its resolution. If you prefer smaller fonts, notification bars and the like you can dink with the LCD Density setting, which will change how fonts and other graphics are handled on the screen for any DPI-aware apps, including the core OS. At this point it causes a bit of graphics oddness in apps such as the camera but that compromise has been completely worthwhile for me. At this moment I’m running a DPI/Density of 280 (about 13% more usable resolution), although I’ve been experimenting with 240 (25% more space) on and off also. Making the change is pretty simple, right now I’m using a tool called ROM Toolbox to make the change.
- Launcher – Touchwiz, the default Samsung launcher, although lovely and tying beautifully to the stylus, is limited. Not being able to change the number of rows/columns on the screen means that there is an excessive amount of unused area on the screen. My go-to launcher for phones is ADW, which has been a good go-to for my device.
Overall, I would say the Note II is my favorite phone since the days when the iPhone 3Gs was cool. I’ve had three Android phones and three Android tablets so far and up until the Nexus 7 and Note II none of the devices felt put-together, there were always quirks, crashes, and other issues that caused what should be a reliable experience to occasionally become frustrating, even on stock devices.
The Note II and Nexus 7 have proven to me that Android software development is maturing and has the capability to do everything you need, every day. What is even better, is that Samsung’s add-on software to the Note II, although in a few places feels like bloat, is overall a huge value and completely worth the additional load. With this generation of Android devices I’m finally feeling good about trying to convince my wife that Android is her next-step (unlikely but I can try.)