How Samsung Galaxy Note II Won Me Over

Android has come a long way in just a couple years. The Galaxy Note II stretches the limits of smartphone proportions, but does so quite elegantly.
Samsung Galaxy Note II: Visual Tour
Samsung Galaxy Note II: Visual Tour
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Android seemed so promising when the first serious phones, that is those designed for actual users, not software developers, burst on the scene in late 2009. While not a bleeding edge adopter -- I still had some months left on my old phone contract -- I eagerly embraced the Droid X upon its release the following summer.

Yet, like so many infatuations, it ended badly. What at first seemed like a quantum improvement from my old Windows phone soon turned to disillusionment as the Droid's capacity for frustration seemed boundless. My breaking point came while covering Interop, where you're on the go for 16 hours a day and roaming in a cavernous convention center where cell coverage and Wi-Fi signals often aren't the best, a situation that seemed to put the Droid's circuitry in overdrive. The phone was my lifeline, yet by lunch the thing's battery was bone dry, forcing me to schlep a charging wall wart and huddle like a pauper next to the first available wall socket hoping to squeeze enough juice to carry me through another couple hours.

Oh, and did I mention that the thing was slow? Android, circa 2010 was afflicted with the infamous bit rot every Windows user has grown to fear and loath; the more you use it, the slower it gets. In sum, I couldn't wait to ditch the thing and finally face up to the reality that Apple had smartphones nailed and resistance was futile, particularly now that Verizon, who still offers the best coverage in my area, was on board.

Fast forward through a year of iPhone bliss, and amidst a veritable blitz of new smartphone releases primed for the annual holiday buying frenzy, AT&T graciously offered the opportunity to review the latest and greatest Android and Windows phones for an upcoming InformationWeek report. On the Android side, I wanted something running Google's new 4.1 release, affectionately known as Jelly Bean. Although the Galaxy S III is by far Android's best seller, due to quirks (or less charitably, negligence) in the way carriers choose to update devices, it wasn't first in line for the new OS; that fell to the S III's newly updated big brother, the Galaxy Note II.

The Note is nominally a phone in that you can make voice calls, but size-wise it occupies an uncomfortable space between the svelte, thin iPhone and mini-tablet Kindle Fire. While holding it to your ear (for those still not using Bluetooth headsets) doesn't look as absurd as say taking a picture with your iPad, with its 6-inch length it's dangerously close to ridicule territory. Samsung showed great wisdom in making LeBron the Note's pitchman; its size definitely seems more reasonable in his hands than, say, Scarlett Johansson's.

But if the Note stretches the limits of smartphone proportions, it does so quite elegantly. The device's soft curves, smooth surface and thin stature (it's about the same thickness as the previous generation iPhone 4S) make for a very pleasing package. And what a package indeed. The first thing you notice is the gorgeous 5.5-inch, full 720p (1280x720; 25% more pixels than the iPhone 5) Super AMOLED screen framed by a vanishingly thin bezel; it's like holding an HDTV in your hands. But the Note II has plenty of brains behind its beauty.

The Note II is one of the first smartphones with a quad-core CPU, a Samsung-designed ARM A9 variant that clocked at 1.6 GHz versus the 1.3-GHz dual-core Apple chip powering the iPhone 5. The upshot is a device that in my testing actually bests the iPhone 5 in several benchmarks, including the comprehensive Geekbench 2 system test where it's almost 13% faster.

The rest of the device is rather par for the high-end smartphone course -- 8 MP camera, LTE cellular data, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4, NFC -- with a few notable exceptions. Samsung is one of the last phone manufacturers to offer a removable battery and memory expansion via a microSD slot. Kudos. Capitalizing on its tablet-like girth, the Note also has a built-in stylus, the S Pen, that although kind of gimmicky, works well with the bundled apps for handwritten notes and simple drawings.

But hardware is only half of the story. In classic Google fashion, i.e. methodical yet rapid release cycles that gradually grind away at bugs and performance problems while adding features and more native apps, Android has transmogrified from a serviceable OS only a developer could love to a potent iOS alternative, equaling it in many respects. Most noticeable is Android's newfound responsiveness, the tangible result of Google's Project Butter, that's on par with what iOS has always delivered.

Yet Android one-ups the iPhone in several areas, notably its voice search, which I find faster and more accurate than Siri, and flexible, customizable interface complete with home-screen widgets, sophisticated notification bar and a file system you can actually access via excellent third-party utilities like Astro. Enterprise users will also like the fact that Android now has a workable VPN stack, fixing problems that particularly plagued PPTP users.

Another area where Android has made enormous progress is app selection and distribution, highlighted by a Google's nicely implemented Play Store. The latest figures indicate that the Play Store has roughly the same number of apps as Apple's older and more established App Store, but numbers don't tell the whole story. A couple years ago, much of the Android fare was amateurish hacks that that were a complete waste of drive space. But with increasing Android sales numbers (now accounting for more 70% of worldwide sales and just over half of those in the U.S.), professionals are taking over to serve a growing market hungry for quality software. Aside from a full selection of Google apps (including Maps), which, not surprisingly are better integrated into the underlying OS than their iOS counterparts, most of the iPhone's greatest hits, like Dropbox, Evernote, Flipboard, IMO, Instapaper, LastPass, Pinterest, Skype and Zite have also made the transition. For those that haven't, and never will, say iPhoto, there's invariably an equally polished alternative like PicSay.

Android may have established a beachhead with smartphone newbies by being the less expensive iPhone alternative, but Samsung for one (now joined by Google's smash hit Nexus 4) is proving that Apple can't just assume its domination of the high end is immutable. This is one iPhone user who's going to rue the day he has to return his Note II loaner.