When the original Galaxy Note was unveiled back in August of 2011, I’ll admit: I was one of the naysayers. Nay, I was more than a naysayer – I was a hater. The idea of the “phablet,” I thought, was absurd. Who would possibly need – or want – such a ridiculous piece of form-factor experimentation? Like much of the tech media world, I looked on and fully expected Samsung’s newest Galaxy product to be a total failure. It was the kind of device that people just wouldn’t be willing to take a risk on. Memories of 2010’s Dell Streak (a phablomination, if you will) only reinforced such thinking.
I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. To date, Samsung has sold well over 10 million Galaxy Notes and Note II’s. That’s a lot for any phone, let alone one whose premise is upsetting the form factor paradigm in a market that is still quite young.
There are two things Samsung had going for it when it unleashed the Note, though. First, an ample marketing budget. Second, a legion of increasingly loyal followers who came in riding the Galaxy brand bandwagon. I’m not saying Samsung didn’t earn this fanfare, but that it was definitely leveraged in pitching the Note to potential buyers. Samsung took that smartphone street cred, and put those eggs in the Note basket. And it worked – the Note has become a smash hit.
It’s not as though Samsung always has a magic touch when it comes to all things Galaxy, either. The original Galaxy Tabs sold poorly, and I strongly suspect that the latest hardware experiment to be given the galaxy namesake – the Galaxy Camera – will be a near-total flop. But that’s the thing about Samsung. Say what you want about superfluous features or cheap materials, they persevere under even the strongest of criticism. And the Note brand has flourished for it.
So, when I was offered a chance by retailer Basatne Electronics to try out a Galaxy Note II for a while, I thought “why not?” (You can find the Note II at Basatne here.)
This isn’t a review, it’s just sort of my attempt to describe the experience using something I was so against for so long. And - mostly - loving it.
The First Days
When I popped open the box I wasn’t particularly intimidated by the Note II’s size. Not at first. I slapped in the beefy 3100mAh battery, and it wasn’t until I saw the display illuminated in all of its giant-blue-subpixel glory that I came to the realization of just how big this thing is.
Every time I set it down on my desk, or it’s anywhere but my hand, I don’t particularly notice the size. It looks like a big-ish Galaxy S III. Until I pick it up and tap the well-placed side-mounted power button. My eyes are then totally engrossed by that 5.5 inches of backlit beauty once again.
If you haven’t used a Note II, I suggest heading down to your friendly neighborhood carrier store or big box electronics retailer and doing so – even a few minutes with it is quite an experience. Opening a desktop-formatted webpage in Chrome, for example, is just worlds apart from doing so on my One X+. As Steve Jobs would say, there is something a little magical about viewing content in the palm of your hand on such a large display.
In fact, it’s so different in terms of visual experience from a normally sized smartphone, even a relatively large one like the Galaxy S III, that part of me seriously doubts Samsung even fully understood what it was they’d done with the first Note. I think they envisioned some stylus-packing productivity tool, but that’s probably the worst reason to buy into the Note II. It’s difficult to describe the idea I’m relaying here, and I understand that, so let me see if I can illustrate by example.
Yeah, But Have You Ever Written Your Email… On Note II?
On a typical smartphone, it’s pretty rare that I look at webpages for any extended period of time. Unless I’m away from my computer. Even then, reading those webpages is unpleasant. There’s a lot of squinting, scrolling, pinching, and interaction I don’t want to have while I’m trying to read. It’s annoying. On the Note II, I can pop open an entire article on, say, the Economist, and read it a reasonable distance away from my face after a single pinch adjustment, occasionally flicking my thumb. It’s so much more pleasant.
Another example – writing email. Typing an email on my smartphone is certainly doable, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. I will go out of my way to wake up my laptop to type up more than a sentence or two. On the Note II, I’ve written paragraphs. The large display makes touch typing so much easier, so much more natural. I fly along at speeds I’d only dream of my pitiful 4.7” One X+.
One night last week, when I wasn’t able to sleep, I grabbed the Note II and started watching some TV on Hulu+. I wouldn’t dream of doing this on my One X+. Unless I was on a transcontinental flight. And my laptop battery was dead. And the person next to me was snoring - loudly. I can’t stand watching videos on a tiny screen. Yet, the Note II’s display is just big enough to make doing so reasonably enjoyable without having to hold it uncomfortably close to my eyes. But it’s also nowhere near as heavy as a tablet.
I don’t have it anymore. The Note II’s battery easily lasts me all day, no matter how much I use and abuse it. More often than not, it lasts until the early evening of a second day. On Wi-Fi, I can stretch it to an entire weekend – off the charger from 8AM Saturday until Monday morning.
Need to tether for 30 minutes? Not a big deal. Want to watch something on YouTube? That’s fine. Kill 15 minutes playing whatever game’s struck my fancy lately? Go for it.
It’s an experience I’ve never had with a smartphone. It is going to be incredibly difficult to go back to thinking about my battery more than once every 24 hours regardless of how much I’ve been using my phone. It’s the experience I think all of us want, but so few of us have achieved.
There is no denying that while in many respects the Note II is brilliant, in others it is a decided failure. I readily admit that while I very much like the Note II, there are things about it that sometimes make me want to throw it against a wall. Of course, every – read: every – smartphone has its major drawbacks.
Number one? The size is definitely a double-edged blade. While the Note II fits comfortably in my jeans, operating it with one hand can go from zero to “GOD DAMNIT! REACH YOU STUPID FINGER!” in the blink of an eye. I can pretty easily manipulate my X+ with one hand 99% of the time. The Note II’s physical manageability depends heavily on what exactly it is you’re trying to do. One-handed typing, for example, sucks. And the one-handed keyboard mode is activated via pinch. Good luck doing that with one hand. The Note II’s large 720p display also doesn’t get very bright, so sunlight viewing is kind of terrible.
Next: Samsung build quality. It sucks. While the Note II felt solid when I took it out of the box, I was quickly reminded that Samsung plastic and “physical interaction of any kind” are the bitterest of enemies. It snaps. It creaks. It groans. It makes more unpleasant noises than an old man with indigestion after dinner at Chipotle. Samsung, I know your loyal fanboys would foam at the mouth (I can already hear the Change.org petitions being typed up), but ditch the stupid removable rear cover. Someone’s not going to own this thing long enough to need a replacement battery, and it lasts long enough that providing the option is totally redundant. I would honestly consider buying this phone if it didn’t feel so ludicrously cheap. Case in point, if I twist it just the right way, the screen turns on. Lovely.
A Note On S-Pen And Split-Screen Apps
It’s not really a drawback, per se, but I’ve found the S-Pen worthless. Smartphones are touch devices, and your fingers are the input method of choice by design. I have zero inclination to “write” myself a note on my phone or go all John Madden on a screenshot when I have voice typing or a fantastic software keyboard experience. I guess there’s no reason not to include it, but seriously, anyone claiming the S-Pen is anywhere near the best thing about the Note II is delusional. Like the back seat in a small, 2-door sports coupe, the S-Pen is that thing you convince yourself is a practical consideration the first day you have it, and then promptly proceed to forget it even exists. It is, to me, the physical manifestation of Samsung’s unrelenting obsession with gimmicks.
I wanted to like Samsung’s multitasking split-app window thing. I really, really did. For the first few days I had the Note II, I made a conscious effort to utilize it. Because hey, if Ron thinks it’s cool, how can it not be?
It’s not. If you’re attempting to make your phone some kind of copy-paste kung-fu ADHD-satiating slab maybe, maybe, you could get into the actual habit of using split-screen apps. Be it Samsung’s particular implementation or the concept at large, I couldn’t bring myself to care about it after a few days. In fact, more than anything, I find myself wishing I could get rid of that annoying little tab that comes up on the side of the screen. It pops up for no apparent reason at times (yes, even after long-pressing the back button to get rid of it). I have not, though, found it to be enough of a nuisance to actually go looking for a way to disable it in Samsung’s multitude and labyrinthine settings menus.
Like all of Samsung’s software gimmicks, split-screen apps do little harm (see: annoying tab thing), but only amplify my suspicion that Samsung’s mobile software division is run by engineers that do not ask, once conceptualized, if a new feature is useful, but merely if it can be done.
The penultimate expression of my distaste for these little “extras” is probably best distilled into a sentiment I think many of you will appreciate: I only wish there were a Note II that ran stock Android.
The Public Embarrassment Factor
Has been wildly exaggerated, where it is even mentioned. If you’re actually concerned your friends will make fun of your ginormous phone, you probably need some new friends. If you’re concerned people in public will stare or gawk, news flash: no one really cares about your phone, or the size of it. Unless they want to mug you and steal it. Then they might. And you should run away.
No one has so much as taken a second glance at the Note II the entire time I’ve had it, as far as I’m aware. I’ve read enough reviews that talk about this phenomena that I have to wonder: are people just lying? Or is everyone in New York City actually a pretentious asshole? And to be clear, I live in LA, where everyone and their hipster brother has an iPhone. The only way you’re going to get someone to comment on the dimensions is by holding it up to their face and saying “HEY, LOOK AT THIS GIANT PHONE.” The commonness of 4.5”+ smartphones today has desensitized everyone to the size issue, much in the way the creeping growth of small sedans has allowed BMW to make this year’s 3-Series larger than the 5-Series was in 1987. Feel free to look it up.
I don’t want to keep you here too long, as this piece isn’t meant to be review so much as op-ed, so I’ll wrap things up. The Note II has opened my eyes to something: the fact that we haven’t necessarily set the smartphone form factor mold just yet. The things a larger display allow you to do are notable enough (pun very much intended) that I don’t think it will be long before we see competitors copying Samsung’s brilliant little discovery. And I mean good copies, which is to say, not the Optimus Vu. Ew.
I admit, I often come off as a bit pessimistic in my writing. OK, really pessimistic at times. Today’s different, though. The Note II is one of those products that genuinely makes me curious about the future, about all the new things we’re going to see, next year and beyond.
Thanks again to Basatne Electronics, who made this article possible by sending me a Note II (which you can buy here) to try out for a few weeks. Because they're awesome like that.