We’re running out of things to argue about. Seems like every high-end smartphone released this year has 26 processors, high-definition this, 800-gigapixel that, and a price tag that only looks reasonable because its chained up to a three-year contract.
The sad fact is, until Microsoft’s Windows phones gain some traction or Research in Motion climbs back out of the abyss with BlackBerry 10, there are basically two contestants in this race – Apple’s iPhone and the gaggle of phones running on Google’s Android operating system. And as far as hardware design goes, so many of these phones are simply flat panes of glass.
That’s why Samsung’s Galaxy Note II smartphone is so refreshing. Sure, it’s also just another flat pane of glass, but it differs from its cohort in one key respect – it is a very large pane of glass.
The Note II, which landed on our desk this week, hits Canadian stores on October 30, going for about $200 on a three-year contract. As the name implies, it is a successor to the original Note, released about a year ago. The Note II is essentially a touchscreen phone running on almost-but-not-quite the latest version of Android. It would be largely unmemorable, were it not for its size. With a 5.5-inch screen, the Note II lives in the somewhat uncharted waters between 4-inch smartphones and 7-inch tablets.
The Note II also comes out at a time when Samsung is hedging its bets. Hammered by multiple intellectual property lawsuits from chief rival Apple, the South Korean manufacturer is starting to explore phones that run on something other than Android (specifically, Windows Phone 8, of which you should start to see new Samsung offerings later this year). The Note II is another type of hedge – an attempt to build something that might lure one customer away from an iPhone, and another away from an iPad.
Of course, a lot of people are going to look at this thing and just see a giant, giant phone.
Let’s make this clear: the Note II is just way too big to use as a phone in the traditional, hold-it-up-to-your-ear-and-talk sense. You might as well be holding a loaf of bread against the side of your face. It also doesn’t help that the top of the phone, near the front-facing camera and one of the speakers, gets kind of hot after a while. And it really doesn’t help that the phone’s smooth, ridge-free design and rounded corners make it difficult to get a firm grip, meaning you’ll be in constant fear that your refrigerator door of a phone will fall out of your hands and end up crushing a small dog.
As you might guess, it’s also difficult to hold for long periods of time with one hand – eventually, the muscles between your thumb and index finger start to get sore. If you want to use the phone to watch a movie on a plane or some similar situation, you’ll probably want to splurge on a docking port. Even worse, one-hand typing is a cruel joke. Samsung has tried to address complaints about this from the previous version of the Note by equipping this new one with a one-handed typing mode, which basically just scoots all the letters to the left or right. This allows you to type with one thumb, and improves the experience from unbearable to only mildly annoying.
Were this any kind of product review, the previous two paragraphs would pretty much torpedo the Note’s chances of a recommendation – after all, I’m telling you that the Samsung’s phone does a pretty bad job of being a hand-held phone.
But in fact the Note II is actually a pretty good ... something. Not a phone, not a tablet, but something.
There’s a pretty calculated gamble on Samsung’s part here. Over the past few years, smartphone manufacturers have focused a lot more on the smart and a lot less on the phone. In fact, it’s fair to say a lot of smartphone users barely use the phone function at all, preferring instead to communicate by text message, e-mail or social networking. Even in these reviews, we often spend very little time talking about call quality because (at least on high-end Android devices) that particular feature has pretty much plateaued. On the Note II, Samsung has done almost nothing to customize the call screen – it’s almost exactly what you’d expect on an Android phone.