The original Samsung Galaxy Note, unveiled a year ago, caught the industry off guard. For many it seemed like a parody of the trend for ever increasing screen sizes, while the inclusion of a stylus a curious throwback to the early days of mobile computing.

But Samsung had done its research, and the Note sold ten million units. And now the range has been extended with both a 10-inch tablet and a new five-inch device that still nobody knows what to call. Is it a phone, is it tablet? Please, not a ‘phablet’. And if you buy it, which of those two devices does it replace?

Hardware and design

Despite being the third Note device the range has yet to develop its own design language.

The Note 10.1 stands completely apart from the five-inch versions, and they borrow the look of the year’s flagship ‘S’ device – last year’s Note was an oversized Galaxy S II; the Note II is a big Galaxy S III. The presence of the S Pen is the only consistent feature, the only thing that makes a Note a Note.

As a result the Note II, like the S III before it, is not the prettiest device we’ve ever seen but neither is it particularly offensive on the eyes. The build is plasticy and can feel a touch cheaper than you might like for a high end device, but it has proven itself to be sturdy enough on the S III and so should be here too.

However you choose to look at the Note II there’s no escaping the fact that it is a big device. It still slides into a trouser pocket easily enough but you know that it is there. It is big to hold in one hand and you might find your fingers have to stretch even to grip the other side.

It is never a one handed device – Samsung has introduced a One-handed operation mode to the software, which reduces the size of things like the keyboard and lockscreen pattern so they are within reach of your thumb, but for the most part even normal tasks requires two hands.

Not that this should be seen as a negative. It is simply a fact of this particular phone.

A quick tour around the Note II reveals a power button well located two thirds of the way up the right hand side with volume rocker opposite, headphone jack on the top and microUSB port and S Pen silo on the bottom. On the back is the camera, LED flash and speaker.

To get to the SIM card and microSD slots you must remove the back cover. Beneath the screen are the omni-present home button and two capacitive buttons for the Menu and Back functions. This is in line with other Samsung devices, but in this instance it would have been nice to have seen the company adopt the buttonless approach that Google is advocating for Android.

The 5.5” is larger by 0.2 inches than its predecessor and has been upgraded over the S III as well. The 720 x 1280 pixel Super AMOLED screen has a lower pixel density but is not a pentile display, resulting in sharper and crisper text and images.

Admittedly we’ve never had any issues with this on the S III but putting the two side by side does show a noticeable difference in favour of the Note II. The HTC One X still gets our vote for best screen on an Android phone, but this is not far behind.

Software

The Note II runs Jelly Bean with Samsung’s own TouchWiz skin. The most recent iteration of TouchWiz is one of the better manufacturer skins, making a fair few cosmetic changes and adding a number of consumer friendly touches, but is otherwise quite light and well put together.

Existing Android users won’t be lost finding their way around this device, while new users have the option of an Easy Mode which puts all the basic phone functions of the device on the home screen, effectively turning the Note II into a gigantic feature phone.

The best parts of TouchWiz include a highly customisable lockscreen, onto which you can place shortcuts to your favourite apps, a healthy selection of widgets, support for a series of motion controls first seen on the S III, and built in support for Dropbox.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 reviewAn update we installed after first turning on the device also added a split screen function that enables you to view two apps on screen at the same time. A long press of the back button displays a list of apps down the side of the screen, and you drag one to the top half and one to the bottom.

It only works with the core Samsung and Google apps at present but is a very useful feature in several use cases, and this kind of basic multitasking seems like a logical next step for these big screen devices.

TouchWiz is not all perfect, however. Samsung has made some bizarre choices on the default setup of the software, such as how every screen press is met with a dropping sound.It fits with TouchWiz’s ‘nature’ theme, but we can guarantee 99% of users will switch it off within the first five minutes.

The amount of extra software Samsung has added to the phone is also a cause of frustration. Some apps, like Samsung’s messaging service ChatOn, add little value. Others like the Readers Hub and Video Hub double up on core Android functionality, something that reaches its nadir in the promotion of the S Voice app ahead of Jelly Bean’s far superior Google Now.

It’s also a tad puzzling as to why Samsung insists on building its own apps like S Planner – the replacement for the perfectly good Calendar – when the device’s real innovation could use a little help in the software department.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

S Pen

The S Pen is a good size and is very usable, if a little on the light side. Removing it from the Note II launches the S Pen Page Buddy. The Page Buddy is a screen of shortcuts that appears when you perform certain based tasks such as connecting headphones. In the case of the S Pen you get access to a list of note-taking templates (virtually all of which will go unused) and the dock changes its apps to those more suited to pen use.

The S Pen has been incredibly well implemented. Hover it over the screen and you will see the Air View, a virtual pen nib on screen that enables you to work with great accuracy in drawing apps.

It is responsive enough to use as an old school stylus, if you wish, and we found that to be a perfectly natural thing to do while holding the pen, although disappointingly it doesn’t activate the capacitive menu and back buttons when you tap them so you do need to switch back to finger use from time to time.

Holding the button on the side of the pen enables you to cut out a section of any screen on the device, which is great for scrapbooking, while the general responsiveness and absence of lag while writing or drawing makes it a real cut above any third party capacitive stylus you might have used on other phones or tablets.

Best of all is its support for handwriting recognition. Unlike the rarely-works systems we’ve seen in the past this one is a truly viable method of text entry. The text entry panel appears in place of the onscreen keyboard. Write carefully and you’ll achieve a 100% success rate; use your regular joined up scribble and the software somehow manages to convert large chunks of it into meaningful – and accurate – text.

We very quickly found a balance between speed and accuracy that meant we were comfortable writing text messages and jotting notes with the S Pen. The concept extends further in the S Note app to converting hand-drawn shapes and even mathematical formulae.

The sole downside to the S Pen is that its functionality is pretty much limited to what you get when you first turn the device on. This is S Note and a pretty mediocre art app called Paper Artist, as well as the general usability in other apps. But though third party apps can be downloaded it’s slim pickings at the moment – the platform is crying out for a great drawing app at the very least.

Performance, camera and battery

It will come as no surprise to say that the Galaxy Note II is fast and smooth. Running essentially the same tried and tested software as the Galaxy S III, only this time underpinned by Jelly Bean with its Project Butter performance benefits as well as a faster processor and more RAM there is a complete absence of lag as you scroll around the system.

It is powered by an Exynos quad-core processor clocked at 1.6GHz with a very ample 2GB of RAM that rarely threatened to be filled even when running multiple apps simultaneously.

Our review unit came with 16GB of internal storage, of which about 10.5GB was available for our content, and it also supports micro SD cards up to 64GB so storage is unlikely to ever be a problem, especially when you also factor in the 50GB of free Dropbox storage as well.

Call quality and reception were good, as was the wi-fi performance. Video playback was very smooth with all types of file, and the built in video player supports a wide range of common video formats. Even the speakers were louder and clearer than we would normally expect to encounter on most Android devices.

The Note II comes with an 8MP camera around the back and a secondary 1.9MP camera on the front. The main camera is the same as on the S III and is among the best on any Android phone. It has zero shutter lag and takes a fantastic snap in good light, but the quality inevitably tails off in darker conditions.

There are a few clever tricks on board, including a fast burst mode and the ability to take stills while shooting video. The impressive HDR mode helps overcome the dynamic range weaknesses of the sensor and although the anti-shake mode doesn’t match the kind of innovation we’re seeing from Nokia’s Lumia 920 it does help you just about grab an important snap in low light without resorting to the feeble flash.

Battery life was uniformly excellent. The 3100mAh battery in the Note II is second only to Motorola’s specialist RAZR Maxx phone and it delivered without fail two days between charges. With lighter use, and by turning off some of the motion and pen detecting features you could extend that even further.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is a success in virtually every respect, and one of the best Android devices we’ve seen.

It is as fast and responsive as anything on the market, has a terrific screen, well considered software (for the most part) and a stylus that has moved way beyond gimmickry to become a genuinely useful tool. The only question that remains is our original one: is it a large phone, or a small tablet?

Even after an extended period of testing we’re still unsure of the answer. The size of the Note II makes it a niche device, but the popularity of the original shows that it is a pretty big niche and those that want a larger screened, but still pocketable device, fo whatever reason, will lap it up.