When the Galaxy Note came out earlier this year, well, it was a giant, laggy jumble with a bum stylus. But the Note II might just have what it takes to win over our cold, size-ist hearts.

Note: Testing was done on the T-Mobile and AT&T versions of this phone. It is also coming to Sprint, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular.

What Is It?

Same deal as its predecessor: half-phone, half-tablet. The Note II's got a 5.5-inch screen, a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos, and 2GB of RAM powering Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with Samsung's TouchWiz UI.

Who's It For?

People who want a lot of screen on their phones for reading or gaming. George Muresan.

Design

The gigantic HD Super AMOLED screen dominates the front of the phone; the side bezel is barely there. The back is the removable plastic plate that has become a Samsung hallmark. Under that, though, is a huge (swappable) 3,100 mAh battery and Micro SD and SIM card slots. The Note II is only 0.37 thick; basically like someone stretched out a Galaxy S III with a rolling pin. There's a built-in pressure-sensitive stylus in the bottom right corner.

Using It

I hope your hand is flexible, because even long-fingered folks will be stretching to cover the full display. The much-improved stylus pops out of its little corner nook and has, Samsung claims, thousands of 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, which you can use for anything from note-taking to basic artistic endeavors. The phone can also tell when the tip of the S Pen is within 10 millimeters. The TouchWiz UI adds a lot of features to stock Jelly Bean, but it also makes everything more complicated and cluttered.

The Best Part

Speed. Compared to the original Note (and even to the Note 10.1 tablet), this thing hauls. Even though TouchWiz is the heaviest skin out there, the phone performs very smoothly, thanks to Jelly Bean's Project Butter smoothinator and to the horsepower under the hood.

Tragic Flaw

Ergonomics. I have decently large mitts, and this device is not easy to use one-handed. I have to shift the phone down in my palm to slide the notification panel down. When I want to slide it back up again, I have to shift the phone back up. It leaves you in perpetual fear of dropping it.

This Is Weird...

The Note II is actually slightly lower res than the first Note, despite them both being "HD." The screen jumped up to 5.5-inches from 5.3, and while the vertical resolution stayed the same at 1280 pixels, the horizontal resolution went from 800 pixels down to 720, changing the display ratio from 16:10 to 16:9, and dropping the pixels per inch from 285ppi to 267ppi. You won't notice it (they're both basically retina) it's just an interesting choice.

Galaxy Note II Review: Bigger Got a Lot BetterS

Test Notes

  • The S Pen is so much better. For starters, it's thicker, making it feel like a real pen in your fingers, not a high-tech toothpick. Second, Samsung's softened the tip, adding familiar friction as it slides over the glass—that tactile feedback is very important.
  • Air View—which lets you negotiate tabbed menus in webpages, see the contents of a photo album before clicking, or scrub through a video to get a preview of where you're going before jumping there—is a really neat trick.
  • While the Note II is extremely fast, it can't keep up with the LG Optimus G. Opening apps and flipping through menus is noticeably faster on the Optimus, and games play just a bit smoother. The Note II hesitates occasionally, and then jumps forward to try to catch up.
  • To get all benchmarky: In the Geekbench 2 test, the Note II scores an impressive 1969.6, but the Optimus G scored a crazypants 2145. In the Quadrant Standard, the Note II came in at 6,018. Damn fast. But not as fast as Optimus G's 7,644. The Optimus G also stomped the Note II in almost all of the GL Benchmark 2.5.1 tests (which tests graphics processing capabilities), often by huge margins, though the Note II did win the two Egypt Classic. Take from that what you will, geeks.
  • The battery life is better than you'd expect for a phone with this many pixels. It lasted from 7:30am until past midnight with moderate-to-heavy usage. This is, however, no where near approaching the close to two full days we got with the Droid RAZR MAXX HD.
  • Photo quality is excellent. The Note II has the same camera as the Galaxy S III, which means that its photos are very sharp, colors are nicely balanced, and that it performs well in low-light conditions. It also shoots better video than any other smartphone. You want features? It's got tweakable HDRs, panoramas, and even weird color-isolating features in video. And you can shoot stills as your record, too. [Click here for photo/video samples.]
  • If you listen closely to the sample videos you'll notice that one of the channels cut out sometimes. This problem was isolated to the AT&T version, so we think it was a defective unit rather than a prevalent problem. Or maybe I was covering one of the mics with my hand. Speaking of which: the phone is so big it's actually pretty awkward to use as a camera.
  • TouchWiz remains overbearing. It adds many layers of complexity to Jelly Bean and it often isn't worth the added functionality. Stock Android is infinitely more intuitive to navigate.
  • Likewise, there are millions of popups throughout the phone that tell you what everything does. It may be nice for beginners, but it becomes a tremendous pain in the ass to dismiss them all the time.
  • If you use the S Note app, the handwriting-to-text function is still absolute garbage. Really, don't even waste your time.
  • This is a really fun size for gaming.
  • The screen is very nice, though it certainly doesn't compare to the HTC One X.
  • Jelly Bean's speak-to-text engine, however, is absolutely incredible. It's a hell of a lot better than Siri, and it works offline. Very accurate and very fast.
  • Surprisingly enough, the Note II is slightly easier to use one-handed than the Note because it's a bit narrower.
  • There are a lot of accessories available. Car docks, desk docks, HDMI docks (the Note II just has one port to stream via MHL), flip-cover cases, and portable chargers.
  • Both the AT&T and T-Mobile phones averaged download speeds in the upper teens. Impressive for T-Mobile, considering it isn't on LTE yet.

Should You Buy It?

Only if you really, really want something this size. The Galaxy Note II is still too big to be a phone and too small to be a tablet, but it's a very solid device for what it is (whatever that might be). Just don't blame us for your palm-cramps. Starts between $250 and $300 depending on carrier.

Galaxy Note II Specs

• Network: AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, U.S. Cellular
• OS: Android 4.1
• CPU: 1.6-GHz quad-core Exynos processor
• Screen: 5.5-inch 720x1280 HD Super AMOLED
• RAM: 2GB
• Storage: 16GB, 32GB or 64GB + up to 64GB microSD
• Camera: 8MP rear / 1.9MP front
• Battery: 3100 mAh Li-Ion
• Price: $250-$300
Giz Rank: 3.5 stars