It's the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. On T-Mobile.
You're Samsung. You've survived the early years of Android. You've made it through the awkward teenage years, and the cries of #neveragain, and learned to (or at least learned to spend the money to) keep the updates flowing and the users happy. In the past year, the original Galaxy Note, and the newer Galaxy S3, have sold millions of units.
What do you do?
As we found out at the IFA conference in Berlin a little more than a month ago, you take the design of the Galaxy S3, marry it to the might of the Galaxy Note, and start counting the next few million in the Galaxy Note 2.
Every major U.S. carrier is getting the Note 2. We've already done the heavy lifting on the Note 2 with our global review, so we're not going to rehash every in and out in this piece. (Be sure to read our full Galaxy Note 2 review.) But we've spent a few quality days with the T-Mobile (U.S.) version, and what follows are our thoughts on it. And especially on the price.
Here we go.
If you've spent any time with a Galaxy S3, you're going to be plenty familiar with the Note 2. On the outside, they're close cousins. The Note 2 is obviously bigger, with its 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED display, and while it shares the same rounded corners, they have more of a 90-degree feel. Less oval, more rectangle. No biggie. The display, at 720x1280 resolution, is as gorgeous as you'd expect. Outdoors can get a little washed out, and nobody's been able to touch the Super LCD2 that HTC is using. But otherwise, this is a big, bright display.
The bottom half is in the same vein as well -- home button flanked by a menu button on the left, and the back button on the right. The capacitive buttons are invisible in bright light, but it's not like you shouldn't be able to remember which is which. And maybe it's time to call the home button a multi-function button. More on that in the software section.
Both power button and volume rocker are in the usual places. Same for the 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB port. Flip things over -- remember to use both hands and lift from the legs -- and you'll find a camera and flash and speaker. And a removable battery cover. Pop it off, and there's the 3100 mAh juice box, and slots for microSD and SIM cards. Moving on.
Oh, right. There's a stylus tucked into this thing. Not just any stylus, mind you. This is the S Pen. It's not just a means for pressing on the screen with a fine point. It's much more sophisticated than that, and Samsung's continued to add some great bells and whistles in that department.
On the other hand, if you're not so much looking for a bad-ass pen-input device and instead want a super-sized phone, you can do so. the S Pen is so well hidden in the body of the phone, it's easy to forget it's there. And the S Pen isn't required for normal daily operation.
Under the hood, the Note 2 is a beast. It's got a quad-core Exynos processor running at 1.6 GHz, and 2 gigabytes of RAM. The 16GB of on-board storage pretty much is our minimally acceptable standard these days (and you've only got about 10 GB of usable storage there), but the addition of a microSD card at least tempers that a bit. Toss in that monstrous 3100 mAh battery (and remember it's removable, so you can swap in a new one if need be), and on paper, it sounds like it'd be tough to beat.
Battery life was excellent, of course it's easy to say that because battery capacity is huge at 3100 mAh. If you don't get through a whole day on a single charge, kudos, my friend. You are the ultimate power user. The real plus side here is that if you forget to charge overnight (and there's really no reason you shouldn't, right?), you'll still have plenty of juice left in the morning.
My general take on the hardware side is this: You won't be doing a lot of one-handing on the Note 2. Of course you weren't doing a lot on the original Note, either, and many of us have had to adjust to larger 4.3-, 4.5- and 4.7-inch displays as well. By now, nobody should be as hung-up on size as they used to be. Want a bad-ass pen-input device? Get the Note 2. Want something similar, but a little smaller? Get the Galaxy S3. Want something ridiculously big and don't care about pen input? The Note 2 is great.
No real changes on T-Mobile's end here compared to everyone else, except to say that it'll rock on the carrier's "4G" 1700 MHz network. But here's where it gets a little interesting: According to the FCC listing for the T-Mobile Galaxy Note 2, this guy's got LTE radios tucked in there. That's not something mentioned in T-Mobile's specs, though at the moment its a moot point because T-Mobile doesn't actually have any LTE service. That's set to change, though -- especially since it was acquired by MetroPCS, which does have LTE -- and there's a decent chance we'll see a software update enable LTE in the future. But for now, no LTE data.
Ah, hey! The Note 2's launching in the states with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean! That's great to see. It's also running Samsung's TouchWiz user interface. I'm on record as not being a huge fan of it, visually speaking, but there's no denying that Samsung's packed some really good features into the latest version of TouchWiz.
The "Basic" homescreen setup
As for the homescreens, T-Mobile's left its mark, but only on a single pane. There's a 4x2 Zynga Games widget (how much longer will we continue to see those, I wonder?), a 4x1 widget for T-Mobile TV, and then app icons for visual voicemail, mobile hotspot, Need for Speed Most Wanted, and Amazon. It's worth noting that the Need for Speed game isn't even released yet. So you've got a stub app for a game you can't even download until Oct. 30 taking up a spot on a homescreen. Sure, you can remove it. And you should. But remember that you're smarter than the vast majority of "normal" Android smartphone users, who never actually customize their homescreens.
The "Easy" homescreen setup
Wait a minute, though! What you see above is just one set of preloaded home screens. TouchWiz comes with two homescreen modes -- "Basic" (which is what you see above), and "Easy." You're asked which one you want to use in setup, and you can change your mind later in the settings if need be. (Or you can always just install a third-party launcher.)
TouchWiz keeps the notification area pretty busy, what with the scrollable quick settings, brightness slider and the like. Again, I think it's in need of a redesign -- there's just too much going on. And T-Mobile's clunked it up even more thanks to its Wifi Calling and bill cycle notifications. It's not either one of those are evil in and of themselves. Quite the contrary. Wifi Calling is a great T-Mobile feature (especially if you travel abroad), and you'd be hard-pressed to find another U.S. carrier that's as transparent about usage. That said, you can turn off Wifi Calling, and the notification disappears. Same goes for the account info. (That one's an option in the My Account app settings.)
But here's how bad the notification area can look. And this isn't a rare occurrence -- and it's. It's painful to look out, and difficult to find what you need to see at a glance. TouchWiz has a few font size options, but none of them affects notifications. This in and of itself would lead me to hit up a custom ROM. A bit of good news here is that T-Mobile's widgets, when they're active, push the "Clear notifications" button more toward the middle of the screen, so you've got a better chance at one-handing them away. Again, we're not knocking the existence of these notifications. They're good, and you can get rid of them. But it's all a bit much on the eyes when in one place. And note that this one example here was before I'd loaded my usual suite of apps. It can get worse. Much worse.
As for the apps preloaded on the phone, it's a mix of mostly Samsung-esque with a bit of T-Mobile thrown in. Kies air still lives (which is good for some, bad for others), as does AllShare Play, ChatON, Media Hub, Music Hub, Music Player, Paper Artist, S Note, S Suggest, S Voice, Samsung Apps, Voice Recorder and Voice Search. Good luck not confusing one for the other. T-Mobile has added its Mobile HotSpot app, along with My Account, Name ID, T-Mobile TV, Visual Voicemail and the aforementioned Zynga Games. Plus you've got the usual Google suite of applications.
A word of warning: There are going to be a dozen or so apps that need to be updated when you first get going. Hook up to Wifi and just get it over with.
This feature popped up earlier, but it's worth revisiting here, especially now that the cat's out of the bag. Samsung's taken advantage of SwiftKey's SDK and incorporated text prediction and the new gesture-based input. (AKA swiping.) So you get prediction from one of our favorite keyboards, and its new swiping gesture as well. The rest of the keyboard is Samsung's, and they layout isn't horrible. Secondary functions could trigger a hair faster for my taste, but it's still really good.
Google Now and the home button
We mentioned earlier that maybe it's time to call the home button the multifunction button. That's due, in part, to all the other things going on down there. In fact, the menu button's got added functionality now as well. Here's the breakdown:
- Home button: Long-press to bring up the recently used apps list. Double-press (quickly) to launch S Voice.
- Menu button: Press once to open the on-screen menu. (You know, the ones Google can't seem to get manufacturers to kill off.) Long-press to open Google now.
These don't need a lot of preamble. There's an 8-megapixel shooter in the back, and 2MP up front. Samsung's had excellent cameras for the past couple years -- same for its camera app -- and this trend continues with T-Mobile's Note 2. Basically, with the Note 2, you can leave your point-and-shoot at home.
The front-facing camera
The rear-facing camera
Warning: Images open in full resolution in a new window
Take some time exploring all the camera options. (Or at the very least read our TouchWiz walkthrough.) There are a lot of 'em. Some my favorites: Best Shot (especially if you have kids), panorama and HDR.
The bottom line
For the most part, T-Mobile's customizations are minor. An app here, a widget there, the possibility of LTE on down the road somewhere. (Though certainly don't buy the phone for that.) We experienced a wee bit of software lag -- particularly in the Gallery app -- otherwise it's smooth sailing.
What we've got here is the Galaxy Note 2. On T-Mobile. It's really about as simple as that. What you'll have to decide on is whether this sort of monstrous size is right for you. Go try it at the store. Double-check the return window. Be sure to experiment with the note-taking and drawing apps using the S Pen. They're excellent. But if you don't need a phone with a stylus and the apps that come with it, perhaps something a little smaller is in order. Or not. Your call.
Let's talk price, though. The Note 2 runs $369 on contract, or $649 outright. Either way, that's a chunk of change. Or, T-Mobile has that Equipment Installment Plan, which'll let you pay $249 up front, and an extra $20 a month on your bill, so you end up paying the whole $649 after the required 20 months. Chances are it'll get pushed pretty hard in the stores. Point is, this thing's not cheap, and it's a whole $70 more on contract than what the other U.S. carriers are selling it for. Hell, it's more expensive than an iPad mini, and damn near the same size. (Not really, but still.)
Ignoring size, this much is true: Samsung's likely got another winner here in the states with the Galaxy Note 2, and it (along with the smaller Galaxy S3) should be top-sellers on T-Mobile, even with that hefty price tag.