Samsung Galaxy Note II N7100 review: Writing home
Feature-rich user interface
TouchWiz has received support for yet another Android release. The Samsung Galaxy Note II runs on Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean with a laundry list of enhancements by Samsung.
You can see the interface in action here:
The interface is very much like what the Galaxy S III uses, though there are a handful of new tricks enabled by the S Pen.
This is the third time we're writing a Galaxy Note II article and we keep digging up new features - this phablet is hands-down the most feature-rich, most customizable mobile gadget we've handled yet. Custom features and options literally spring from every nook and cranny - we have a long road ahead of us, so you better sit down.
The lockscreen is a standard "tap and drag in any direction to unlock" deal and there're ripples accompanied by water-drop sound as you drag your finger. Five customizable shortcuts are available at the bottom of the screen - drag one up to launch the app without going through the homescreen.
There are several options for the unlock screen. You can enable a news ticker at the bottom of the lockscreen, which is a great way to stay up to date on current events. The ticker can be expanded to view all news items.
There are alternative unlock routines as well - Face unlock, Face and voice unlock, unlock by touching the screen and tilting the phone and starting the camera from the lockscreen by touching the screen and rotating the phone horizontally.
There are voice-based wakeup commands that can just start S Voice or launch a preselected app. You can also enable a second clock on the lockscreen, which shows up when you're roaming or switch most of these features off.
Quick glance is a new feature that presents at-a-glance info on the basics - while the phone is locked, you can cover the top of the Galaxy Note II (just trigger the proximity sensor, really) and the screen will light up and display the status bar, counters for missed calls and new messages, a battery percentage, music track info and upcoming alarms. In our unit, this would trigger even if the phablet is face down, so it might prove to be a battery draining feature.
Once you make it past the lockscreen, you'll notice that the dock at the bottom of the screen fits five shortcuts or folders. The rightmost one opens the app drawer as usual, but you can change the other four to any shortcut you like or even folders if you want.
The notification area looks familiar, but there are a few new things that make good use of the big screen. On top is a clock with the date and a Settings shortcut. Below that are the usual toggles - Wi-Fi, GPS, Silent mode, Screen rotation and Power saving. There are five more toggles just off screen - Blocking mode (we'll get to that later) Mobile data, Bluetooth, AllShare Cast and Sync.
Further down we get the Brightness slider with an Auto checkbox. It allows you to adjust the brightness even in auto mode - the backlight strength is still adjusted according to ambient lighting conditions, but you can tweak it to your liking.
The notifications are one of the big changes in Jelly Bean. Notifications can now take more than a single row to display more information and they can also have more advanced controls on them (e.g. a reply button). The top notification is expanded by default and you can expand/collapse notifications with a two finger swipe up or down (not all notifications can be expanded though, only those that support it).
Finally, at the very bottom of the screen you get a line for the carrier ID, which turns into "No service" if there's no mobile network available and "No internet connection" when there isn't even Wi-Fi.
Even though the dock at the bottom now fits five icons and the Note II has a bigger screen than the Galaxy S III, the homescreen fits only four on a row. However, the app drawer is a 5 x 5 grid, so you still get more shortcuts per page.
Following convention from stock Android, the app drawer has a tab that lets you easily pull out widgets to the homescreen. Unlike the stock app drawer, you cannot move between tabs by swiping through the pages - you have to explicitly hit the tab. There's a download shortcut on the right, which brings you to a screen with only the downloaded apps.
The app drawer has three view modes - Customizable grid (where you can freely rearrange icons), Alphabetical grid (if you think you can find apps quicker if they're alphabetized) and Alphabetical list (this one makes shortcuts easy to hit, but isn't very space efficient).
The app drawer has a zoomed-out overview too that lets you rearrange pages, but you can't create blanks. Hitting the menu key reveals some more options, including hiding apps or enabling tap to uninstall mode.
Once you get several apps running, you can use the task switcher to go back and forth between them. It's a vertical list with a screenshot and a name for each app. Swiping an app sideways removes it from the list.
There are a few Samsung-made tweaks here - a button at the bottom of the list to bring out the home-brewed task manager, a button to end all apps at once and a shortcut to Google Now. By the way, you can also bring up Now by pressing and holding the Menu key.
Let's go back to the homescreen and widgets. Jelly Bean comes with plenty of them and Samsung has added more still. With Android 4.1, the widgets will move out of the way if you try and put something over them, which makes reorganizing the homescreen so much easier. Some widgets are resizable too.
As usual, you can pinch to zoom out and easily manage homescreen panes - add, delete (but you can't have more than seven) or just reorder them. You can have 7 panes at most, which are enough to fit plenty of content even if you use full-screen widgets. One of these panes is marked "default" and that will be the one you're taken to when you press the Home button.
Besides the regular homescreen panes, there are also dedicated panes, which Samsung calls Page Buddy - for the S Pen, for earphones, for a dock etc. You can enable and disable these pages individually and each page gets launched automatically triggered by its corresponding accessory (e.g. pulling out the S Pen or plugging in a headset).
Regular homescreen panes are indicated with dots but these dedicated pages get a custom icon (e.g. a pen for the S Pen, headphones for the Earphone page and so on). You can put whatever widgets you like here (and they are resizable as usual). For example, the S Pen page has the S Note widget by default, while the Earphone page has music and video player control widgets.
And that's not all either. While one of these pages is active (e.g. the S Pen is out) you get a row of recommended shortcuts in the notification area and the dock at the bottom of the screen mirrors those shortcuts (our only complaint here is that the shortcuts cannot be customized).
Live wallpapers are a great way to prettify your homescreen, but also make it useful too. The News wall creates an attractive slideshow of headlines, while Stock wall does the same for quotes. Photo wall creates a collage of photos from your Gallery.
There is a setting called Mode change - basically, it gives you two separate homescreen setups, Standard and Easy. Samsung's idea is to give you big, easy to use widgets that cover most of the functionality with Easy mode.
There's nothing stopping you from adding back the regular widgets in Easy mode, so you can use Mode change to toggle between personal and work widget setups. You can't rename the modes or have more than two, but it's a potentially useful feature if your precious few homescreens are usually cluttered with a widget for your work email, work calendar and so on, and you want your personal email and photo widget instead.
Samsung knows the screen on the Galaxy Note II is big and you might not find it comfortable for one handed use, so they added a few settings to make it easier. You can have the QWERTY keyboard, phone keypad and in-call buttons, calculator and unlock pattern moved to one side of the screen (left or right, whichever you prefer), to make them easier to use with one hand.
One of the features that debuted on the Galaxy S III is Smart Stay - it uses the front-facing camera to detect the user looking at the screen, so that it never dims or locks while you're reading. This makes reading web pages and ebooks very comfortable, even if you've set the screen timeout low to preserve the battery.
With the latest TouchWiz comes another clever camera trick - Smart rotation. When enabled, the Galaxy Note II will try to orient its screen in relation to your eyes, not the accelerometer. So, if you're lying on your side and holding the phone vertically (in relation to the ground), Smart rotation will keep the screen in landscape mode. Note that for these last two features to work, the front-facing camera needs to see your face, so too dark environments might turn out to be a problem.