The Samsung Galaxy Note II is coming to America, and unlike its predecessor, it's not being as quiet about the move. In a completely unprecedented feat, the mammoth smartphone not only won over the hearts of four national American carriers and one regional network, it did so without having to make sacrifices in its design, specs or even its name. This is a considerable amount of progress when taking into account the fact that only two mobile operators adopted the original Galaxy Note -- the inaugural phablet, if you will -- and they did so months after its global launch. Heck, T-Mobile released its variant of the Note just three months ago, which likely will be a sour point to early adopters for a long time to come.
As you may have seen in our review of the global Note II, there's a reason for all of the buzz circulating around this new flagship device; it's good. It's very good. Once you get used to the idea of a 5.5-inch smartphone with an included
stylus S Pen, you'll take heed of the incredibly fast quad-core processor, the latest version of Android, the high-end camera and the litany of other top-notch features that have helped the device become worthy of our praise.
This review, as you see it today, discusses our impressions of T-Mobile's version of the Note II and how it sizes up against the global model (the N7100), but we're changing things up this time around. Since there will be very few differences across the five different versions offered on US carriers, we're simply going to add our reviews of each carrier-specific unit to this space as we go along. The idea is that this review will encompass every Galaxy Note II sold stateside. Enjoy the galleries below, and continue past the break as we dig into Samsung's latest flagship... again.
Samsung Galaxy Note II (T-Mobile) overviewSee all photos
Take a quick look at any of the five Galaxy Note II models destined for the US, and then sneak a peek at the N7100 we had the opportunity to review a few weeks ago. Looking at the two from the front or the sides, you won't be able to tell a difference. Flip the phone over, and there's only one telltale sign: the branding. Indeed, Samsung has continually increased its influence over US carriers with each successive flagship device. If you were impressed by the fact that the American editions of the Galaxy S III remained so close in design to its global counterpart, you'll be blown away by what Samsung was able to accomplish with the Galaxy Note II.
What do we mean? Traditionally, the US smartphone market is one of the toughest in the world for an OEM to enter. The four national carriers have held all of the bargaining chips and have a storied history of telling companies it's their way or the highway -- and phone makers would typically bow to their requests. Exclusivity contracts are commonplace here, as mobile operators continually look for ways to gain an edge over their competition. This means Americans rarely get to enjoy the same handsets sold in Europe and Asia -- unless they're willing to switch to a GSM carrier and purchase the phone at full retail price from an importer. (Even then, there was no guarantee it would be fully compatible with your preferred network.)
The Galaxy S III was the first Android smartphone to be sold on all four major networks, under the same name and with a design nearly identical to its international counterpart. It took several years to get to this point, but Samsung had finally established a powerful enough brand to exert leverage over the desires of the carrier. Essentially, the US powerhouses would be at a competitive disadvantage if they chose not to offer the flagship -- and Sammy was dictating the terms. The only upsetting circumstance left was the fact that the global GS3's quad-core Exynos chip wasn't included; it was switched out for a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 wafer.
Fast-forward several months to the US debut of the Galaxy Note II. Surely it will have been tweaked to the whimsy of the carriers, right? Wrong. With the exception of a few carrier-specific limitations (T-Mobile's AWS or Sprint's embedded SIM are prime examples) and the usual smattering of bloatware, what you see on the N7100 is what you get on every single American iteration -- all the way down to the 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos chipset and other silicon parts.
While this may sound like a lengthy lecture on background, it's important to understand because this is a triumph that has never been accomplished on such a large scale. HTC and LG are trying to do the same thing, with the One series and Optimus G respectively, but they haven't quite matched Samsung's prowess yet -- and consumers are the beneficiaries. Instead of being forced to switch carriers just to get a specific phone, you can now stay with your favorite mobile operator and use your dream device. We also hope that it will prompt carriers to focus on creating the best possible network in an effort to entice potential customers.
In case you didn't have the chance to venture over to our in-depth review of the global Samsung Galaxy Note II, it's definitely worth a look -- but we'll be happy to go over some of the smartphone's hardware here regardless. We'll cover minor differences between the N7100 and T-Mobile's units later in the review, but for now we're content in stating that the two phones are almost completely identical with only a few carrier-specific modifications.
If you thought the size of the original Note was polarizing enough for the average smartphone user, the Note II will reinforce that idea. You either love the 5.5-inch frame or hate it; there's very little room for middle ground here. However, it at least offers a slightly more comfortable fit when cradled in your hand, thanks to the fact that the phone is narrower than its predecessor (80.5mm vs. 83mm). It has also adopted the same pebble-like design that's found on the Galaxy S III, which makes the Note II slightly thinner (9.4mm vs. 9.7mm) and helps it feel a little less awkward in-hand than the original version, which used the square and slightly blockier GS2 design language.
As a result of its thinner and narrower frame, one-handed use isn't quite as difficult on the Note II since our medium-sized digits were able to reach across the entire width of the screen. It's still a bit of a stretch, which means your hands will thank you for the extra exercise, but Samsung also manages to alleviate the concern a bit by introducing features that recognize you're not going to be able to use both of your palms at the same time. The onscreen keyboard and dialpad, for example, can scrunch over to either side for easier use when only one hand is available.
The size issue also naturally leads to another potential concern: drops. Large phones are a little more difficult to maintain a solid grip on, after all, so it's natural to worry about what might happen if it slips out of your hand. While tragedies can occur with nearly every handset when it falls onto a hard surface at just the right angle, early drop tests seem to indicate that this won't be as hefty an issue as some of Samsung's past phones. With faux-metal chrome sides and a polycarbonate back cover, the Note II offers a solid construction that's more durable than your typical device.
When looking at the T-Mobile Note II, you aren't going to notice any change in how the display looks from the global edition. Just like its overseas counterpart, the phone sports a 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED screen with a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels and density of 267ppi. On paper, this is a slight downturn from the original Note, which crammed more pixels (1,280 x 800) into less space, but the sequel is actually a smidge better. We go into a little more detail in our N7100 review, but here's the CliffsNotes version: the old HD Super AMOLED display used a PenTile matrix, while Samsung's latest attempt offers a moderate upgrade to a non-striped BGR layout. This is an interesting compromise between RGBG and RGB, and it fortunately results in a better viewing experience. Granted, we doubt casual observers will notice the difference, but when closely viewing the two side by side, we could see more pixels on the older device. Darks are a little darker on the second-gen model, and colors are just a bit more saturated, too. The viewing angles on the new Note are also great for watching movies, but they're not that much different from the original. With the brightness cranked up above 75 percent, daylight reading was perfectly feasible without straining our eyes.
Above the display sits an RGB LED notification light, proximity sensor and 1.9MP front-facing camera. Below it, you'll see a physical home button flanked by a menu key on the left and back arrow on the right. Moving to the sides, there's a volume rocker on the left, power / standby button on the right and headphone jack and secondary mic on the top. The bottom is reserved for the micro-USB / MHL port, primary mic and a holster for your S Pen.
The back of the phone is essentially the only place that offers mention of carrier branding; T-Mobile's logo sits prominently below the 8MP camera and LED flash, with the external speaker and the words "Galaxy Note II" in big print near the bottom (this is different from the N7100, which only featured a Samsung logo at the top). Prying open the back cover reveals the 3,100mAh removable battery hanging out with microSDXC and micro-SIM slots, as well as contacts for NFC and wireless charging.
T-Mobile's version of the Note II, also known as the T889, is the only one of the US bunch to exclude support for LTE (for obvious reasons) and add the standard AWS radio and DC-HSPA+ 42 Mbps to the mix. WiFi calling, the feature that keeps you from having to worry about reception in your house or office, is also readily included here. Despite rumors (and even T-Mobile's official website) claiming that this particular Note II is equipped with a Qualcomm CPU, we've confirmed on our end that it is indeed the same Exynos 4412 quad-core processor clocked at 1.6GHz as seen on the other devices.
Also, according to the T889's FCC application, the device includes support for LTE bands 4 (AWS) and 17, though this particular set of radios is currently locked on T-Mobile. We're hoping the AWS LTE band will be enabled for us as soon as the network is ready to push ahead with its next-gen technology, but we haven't heard any official word from Magenta about this. Regardless of what happens, we wouldn't put it past
hackers Android programming aficionados to come up with a way of taking advantage of this.
We've put together a spec sheet below that details what you can expect to find -- and enjoy -- on T-Mobile's flavor of the Note II.
|Galaxy Note II SGH-T889||Galaxy Note II N7100|
|Dimensions||5.95 x 3.16 x 0.37 inches (151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4 mm)||5.95 x 3.16 x 0.37 inches (151.1 x 80.5 x 9.4 mm)|
|Weight||6.35 oz. (180g)||6.35 oz. (180g)|
|Screen size||5.5 inches||5.5 inches|
|Screen resolution||1,280 x 720 pixels (267ppi)||1,280 x 720 pixels (267ppi)|
|Screen type||HD Super AMOLED (BGR)||HD Super AMOLED (BGR)|
|Internal storage||16GB (at time of launch)||16 / 32 / 64GB|
|External storage||microSDXC (up to 64GB)||microSDXC (up to 64GB)|
|WiFi||Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4 / 5GHz)||Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4 / 5GHz)|
|Radios||DC-HSPA+ (42Mbps) / UMTS: 850/AWS/1900/2100; GSM / EDGE; LTE disabled||HSPA+ (21.6Mbps) / UMTS: 850/900/1900/2100; GSM / EDGE; LTE (in the N7105)|
|Bluetooth||version 4.0 LE (with Apt-X)||version 4.0 LE (with Apt-X support)|
|SoC||1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412||1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412|
|MHL||Yes, requires Samsung adapter||Yes, but requires Samsung adapter|
|Operating system||Android 4.1 Jelly Bean||Android 4.1 Jelly Bean|
As we mentioned already, the hardware is largely the same aside from a scant few carrier-specific tweaks. But what about the firmware, which is typically subject to various heaps of bloatware and other network-favored changes? We'd ask you to wipe that surprised look off of your face, but let's be real: you don't have one right now. No shocker exists here; while we can expect the same TouchWiz UI running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean across the board, every carrier gets a little bit of say in which applications and features are added onto its firmware.
It's important for us to first discuss exactly what kind of general software can be found on the Note II. Regardless of which carrier you purchase the Note II on, this will be the first Samsung device that ships with Jelly Bean already running on it. (It's possibly the first US carrier-branded device period, unless the networks push out an update to the Galaxy S III in the very near future.) This means you can take advantage of features like Google Now (accessed by long-pressing the menu key), which is a card-based system in which the phone learns your interests, habits and other information as you use it. You'll also have access to expandable notifications; you can get plenty more details about your notifications just by glancing at it. Offline maps are also available for your perusal on the Note II.
Samsung loves to throw in a full litany of clever features and functionality in an effort to differentiate its UX over what the consumer will find on competing interfaces. Most of them come in quite handy, but even some tenured TouchWiz users may discover that, just like on the Galaxy S III, there's a bit of a learning curve. Loads of gesture controls, S Pen features and other proprietary enhancements are available, which make for a fun experience... once you figure them all out, anyway. Tutorials are available throughout the software, but it will take a while to become familiarized with what's offered, and to find out which ones are actually of real use to you. Be warned: if you purchase this phone, expect frustration for the first couple weeks as you slowly start to get the hang of it.
Samsung Galaxy Note II (T-Mobile) screenshotsSee all photos
One of the areas that will take some getting used to is gesture control. Samsung came up with some pretty clever stuff just by taking advantage of the various sensors used in the Note II. This isn't new territory for the company, as we've already seen most of them employed in the GS3. For instance, you can scroll to the top of a screen by double-tapping the top edge of the phone (one of our favorites); tilt to zoom in and out of the screen in the gallery or browser; pan the phone to move icons on the main screen; shake your phone to look for updates; turn over the phone to mute sounds; directly call whatever contact is displayed on the screen; and more. They're quite fancy and chances are you may only find a few of them to be actually useful, but the options are all there just in case you want them.
New to the Jelly Bean TouchWiz experience are a couple new modes. There's Blocking Mode, which is similar to "Do Not Disturb" in iOS 6. For a specific timeframe of your choosing -- 11 PM to 6 AM, as an example -- you can set up a whitelist of allowed contacts and disable certain notifications that come from anyone not on that list. This is a great idea for anyone that doesn't want to wake up several times a night to incoming emails and other non-essential notifications. Another new feature that comes along with Android 4.1 is the much less useful Easy Experience Mode. In a nutshell, this mode is Samsung's way of introducing first-time smartphone users to the confusing world of TouchWiz. When activated, you're taken into a new launcher that offers customizable pages and large easy-to-read widgets. Aside from that, there's not much to differentiate it from TouchWiz, and ultimately ends up feeling more gimmicky than beneficial.
Samsung has built in a few features that utilize the phone's front-facing camera in a very innovative fashion. Smart Stay, which we highlighted in our review of the GS3, prevents the screen from going dim while you read it. Meanwhile, Smart Rotation (new to the Note II and Jelly Bean) will keep the screen orientation the same so long as your face is vertically aligned with the camera -- even if your body is tilting at an angle. As an example, you can read something on your phone while lying in bed without worrying about the screen moving to landscape mode.
Quick Glance also debuts on the Note II. This particular feature shows you a few basic notifications when you wave your hand over the proximity sensor. In theory, this saves not only time, but battery life, activating only a small portion of the screen whenever you need to check to see if you've missed any calls or messages.
Popup Video makes an appearance here and it looks even better on the large screen than what we experienced on the Galaxy S III. Choose a video you want to watch, press the popup button on the bottom-right corner of the screen and the movie hovers over half of the display (and you can pinch-to-zoom to adjust the size however you'd like), leaving you free to take care of other tasks while you watch your favorite flick. Other apps take advantage of this multitasking capability, such as Popup Note (activated with your S Pen) and Popup Browser.
On a similar note, the Note II is the first device to feature Samsung's new Multi-Window mode. A long-press of the back button brings up a hideable side menu containing several apps, including YouTube, ChatOn, Gmail, Maps, Internet and so on. Drag and drop one of the apps onto the top half of the screen, and repeat the process to put a second app on the bottom half. As you likely figured, this gives you the opportunity to truly multitask with some of your most-used programs. Features like this do a great job of making use of the ample screen real estate, and in our review of the N7100 we found that the quad-core processor helped keep things amazingly smooth in this dual-monitor-type setup.
Here's the problem with Multi-Window: it's not going to ship on any of the US models at the time of release. Unfortunately, the N7100 underwent the exact same concern, as the initial shipments didn't come with the feature pre-installed and it wasn't readily available until a firmware update took care of the issue a week or so later. We're still waiting to hear back from Samsung on when we can expect to see Multi-Window domestically, but it's incredibly disappointing to see such a huge feature get completely left out.
T-Mobile did its fair share of decorating TouchWiz with its own stash of ornaments. The usual littering of carrier support apps (T-Mobile My Account, Name ID, TV, Visual Voicemail and so on) are present, as well as a few other programs and home page widgets, but -- to the company's credit -- they can all be disabled. You also get access to a complimentary 50GB of Dropbox storage space for the next two years. Now for a few pieces of bad news: Carrier IQ is enabled, FM radio isn't supported, and, as mentioned earlier, the Multi-Window feature we raved about in our N7100 review doesn't work... at least, not yet.
Pulling down the notification menu, you'll see an ongoing notice that conveniently shows your current usage status for the month. You can keep track of minutes, messages and data here, and it's very clever. However, it's not removable and not everyone will enjoy it hogging up a fair amount of space in the menu when it could easily be added onto the home page as a widget. (It can also be accessed through the T-Mobile My Account app, and data usage can be found in the settings menu, with the usual spread of Android customization alerts.) On a related note, you'll notice a similar notification plastered on your menu whenever WiFi calling is enabled.
This particular iteration of the Note II also includes the racing game Need for Speed Most Wanted. The game comes loaded with support for the MOGA gaming system (read: Bluetooth controller), which will be sold in T-Mobile stores in November -- as well as plenty of other retail locations -- for $50. We haven't yet had the opportunity to play with the MOGA, but we'll be getting our hands on one soon and will update our review after we collect some initial impressions of it.
On the original Galaxy Note, the pen was certainly mightier than the finger. While we can't say it with a surety, the first "phablet" likely wouldn't have been the breakout hit that it was without the assistance of the S Pen, the "don't call it a stylus" stylus that took advantage of the Note's Wacom digitizer. Samsung's taken things another step with its sequel, throwing in a new Wacom slab with greater pressure sensitivity and a pen with much more functionality.
The new S Pen is longer, wider (8mm) and it's flat on the button side, which makes it feel more like you're grasping an old-fashioned pencil -- a trait that a lot of traditional artists will prefer over the first pen. It also offers a slightly larger tip made of rubber, which also helps deliver a similar sensation to that of your run-of-the-mill writing utensil. The additional levels of pressure sensitivity (1,024, as compared to 256) offer up a more accurate drawing experience and even allows for greater variation in how light or dark your doodling turns out without the need to switch brushes every other second.
Let's dive into the thick of what the S Pen can do on the new Note. The most significant feature gifted to the latest phablet is the hovering functionality. This will be familiar to anyone who has used a Wacom tablet or Bamboo Pad in the last few years. The phone can sense when the pen is just above it, and it will indicate this by showing off a cursor over the exact spot where the stylus is floating. This opens up a whole bunch of possibilities, many of which encompass the Note II's Air View feature. You can scroll up and down through a list or website when you hover the pen over the top or bottom of the screen; you can point it at your inbox or calendar and a popup box provides more details about that particular email or a list of the appointments you have on that given date; hold it over an icon you've never seen and a little box (tooltip) peeks out to tell you what that button does; and you can point your pen at a thumbnail of a photo or video and a larger version of your selection will pop up. (By the way, the preview mode of the Note II's video player shows GIF-like thumbnails of your entire movie collection.)
You can also use the S Pen button when hovering to access various features. For instance, when you're drawing in the S Note app, a quick press of the button will toggle between different brushes, pencils and the eraser; while long-pressing it will pull up Idea Sketch. In this feature, you write down the name of a particular category (or just browse through the list) and a whole bunch of possible illustrations show up for you to choose from. Once you choose one that suits your fancy, it appears in S Note where you can adjust the size and outline style -- and then you can find inspiration from it, trace it for your own purposes or just put some color in between the lines.
Speaking of the button, there's plenty more you can do with it when the pen is touching the screen. Press and hold to produce an editable screenshot (handy for maps, websites and other things you want to add notes or drawings to before sending it along to a colleague). You can also press and tap the screen twice to bring up Popup Note, or you can clip a specific part of the screen by pressing and circling around the area you want. Diving into it even more, you can hold the button while drawing gestures: an up arrow brings up the menu, a left arrow mimics the phone's back key and zipping the pen straight up the screen will pull up Quick Command. As we mentioned earlier, the hardest part is mastering the lengthy list of various gestures and commands that your S Pen is capable of producing.
Quick Command, by the way, is another useful feature. A familiar-looking handwriting box shows up, prompting you to write a command symbol followed by a keyword. For instance, write "@ Jill" to send an email to Jill; "? [search term]" performs a web search; "# Robert" tells the phone to call Robert; and the list goes on. This is nice from an accessibility standpoint, but we had a difficult time finding a good reason to use this over S Voice, Google voice search or even our own shortcuts. That doesn't mean it's completely pointless; quite the contrary, in fact. The real benefit of this feature is the ability to add your own customized gestures, which turns Quick Command into Samsung's own version of SmartActions or Tasker. As an example, program the phone to turn Blocking Mode and WiFi on while turning off GPS and Bluetooth at the same time -- all by drawing a letter, number or symbol of your choosing.
In another unique addition to the S Pen experience, the Note II is capable of sensing when the stylus has been taken out of its cradle. It realizes you intend to use the pen, and automatically launches a special home page with several S Pen friendly options. You can also have the phone activate Popup Note once the pen departs the holster, if you desire. On top of this, you're able to tell the device to sound a notification whenever it senses that the pen has drifted too far away from its home.
Before we move on to the next section, we'll point out that the S Pen on T-Mobile's Note II is precisely the same as the global version, and you won't notice any difference in functionality or how it interacts with the digitizer. We assume it will be the same story for the other US models, but we'll update our review after those units arrive at our doorstep.
Samsung cameras need very little introduction, since the company's top-end modules typically do a great job of speaking for themselves. The company has opted to go with 8MP sensors ever since the days of the Galaxy S II and -- despite not moving forward in the megapixel war -- it continues to crank out some of the best cameras in the market. The module on the Galaxy Note II (global and T-Mobile) is identical to the one found on the GS3, which means you're up for just about the same experience.
Per TouchWiz protocol, the Note II's camera has legions of various settings to help modify your shots exactly the way you want. Shooting modes like HDR, low light, panorama, smile shot, face detection, buddy photo share and more are included, as well as a "best face" mode, which lets you take a burst shot of your friends or family, and then pick and choose the best face for each person. On top of these features you can enjoy a limited number of ISO options (up to 800 is supported), white balance, metering and exposure / contrast adjustment. Various scenes are available, such as candlelight, text, autumn colors, party, sunset and quite a few more.
Burst shot mode is also available, but there's one limitation that causes some frustration: you can't use the shutter button to lock exposure or focus when this mode turned on. It can be switched off in the settings, of course, but you can't use a toggle switch as one of the customizable shortcuts on the sidebar.
Samsung Galaxy Note II (T-Mobile) sample imagesSee all photos
We got exactly what we expected out of the T-Mobile Note II -- nearly identical results as the Galaxy S III and global Note II with very minor differences coming from firmware changes. The resulting images were very well detailed with little noise and weren't overly saturated, especially when compared to the previous Note. We were also satisfied with the dynamic range in our photos, as well as HDR performance. Lowlight shots, when using the Note II's new shooting mode dedicated to the cause, were also among the best we've seen on a phone. We couldn't pick out much noise in the pictures, it does an amazing job of collecting backlight and the LED flash is bright enough to produce natural colors.
The Note II captures 1080p video in MPEG-4 format, with AVC profile 4.0, a bitrate of 17 Mbps and frame rate of 30 fps. Additionally, it's capable of catching high-res still images while you're recording. If you wait until after the video has recorded, you can still grab shots of that footage at the same resolution it was filmed in (in other words, a 1080p video will award you with 1080p stills if you so desire). The specs are all the same in T-Mobile's iteration of the device as well, and we found that it delivers perfectly smooth footage and great audio capture without very much unwanted background noise such as gusts or loud vehicles. We also ran into the same problem with shaky results while panning from side to side, but again, a large part of that is likely happening because it can be difficult to keep perfectly steady.
Performance and battery life
It was pretty easy to see how we felt about the performance of the Note II in our review of the global edition, because there really wasn't anything negative to say about it. The device sports a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412 CPU that is supplemented by a Mali-400MP GPU and 2GB RAM. Its only true competitor at the moment is the Qualcomm APQ8064 Snapdragon S4 Pro, which also offers up ridiculously amazing performance (as seen in our review of the LG Optimus G). It's not too often that we feel the need to use Google's choice of words in describing our experience, but using the Note II is definitely buttery smooth, and was an absolute joy to use. Multitasking, Popup Video, the full S Pen experience and everything in between went without a hitch, delivering solid output without stuttering, lags, delays or bugs that are indicative of a subpar processor.
That said, our real-life usage of T-Mobile's Note II is almost exactly the same, which shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone. Essentially, the only differences you'll see in performance between the N7100 and the US-centric models are going to be software-based; the silicon is identical, so any visible differences would be a result of whatever tweaks were made. Benchmark junkies are going to love what's coming up next -- we've compiled a table of results for your nerdy enjoyment below.
|Samsung Galaxy Note II N7100||Samsung Galaxy Note II T889||Samsung Galaxy S III (T-Mobile)||LG Optimus G (AT&T)|
|SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)||1,023||1,059||1,764||1,283|
|GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt 1080p Offscreen (fps)||17||17||13||31|
|SunSpider: lower scores are better.|
Very few phones take full advantage of the processing power at their disposal, but Samsung's latest Note does its best to push the Exynos chipset to the max. While none of the US models will have Multi-Window upon launch, there are still plenty of other features on the phone that make as much use of all four cores as possible. The ability to have multiple popup apps running simultaneously and still allow you to run other tasks underneath is a true test of the Exynos -- and it passes with flying colors, producing virtually no slowing or lagging during this process. Graphics-intensive gaming is another way to see what the SoC is made of, and a walkthrough of several missions in Dead Trigger showed that it was perfectly capable of handling the load.
The battery life of T-Mobile's model undergoes the same treatment as the phone's performance. It utilizes the same 3,100mAh cell that we enjoyed on the N7100, and with most hardware factors staying the same, the only difference we would see here is in the firmware and how well the carrier has actually optimized it. (The jury's still out on whether or not the LTE-enabled variants will be able to retain the same battery life, but we'll update our review as we get those results.) Our video rundown test, which is our standard benchmark that consists of running a video on an endless loop with the screen at 50 percent brightness, with push email and regular social media notifications enabled, helped us get 11 hours and 30 minutes out of T-Mobile's version. Compared to the N7100's 10:45, it's a solid improvement. Real-life usage proved to be just as legendary as its international compadre, giving us almost two full days with moderate usage.
Call quality was also well above average, even when we found ourselves in areas with less-than-suitable reception. If you're deep in a building with virtually no signal at all, at least T-Mobile's version of the Note II offers WiFi Calling, which may give you a certain advantage over the other networks -- if you're actually in range of an open hotspot, of course. The speakerphone, as expected, was quite loud and perfectly capable for our needs.
Pricing and comparison
As we mentioned earlier, the benefit of having a flagship phone offered on all four major carriers (and one regional network as well) is that you don't have to worry about switching to a different company if you're a happy customer. Because of this, we get to focus on how the Galaxy Note II sizes up to its competition within each network, rather than judging whether or not it's worth making the jump to somewhere else.
T-Mobile's version of the Galaxy Note II goes on sale today, and you can choose a couple different options: either you can go for the Equipment Installment Plan, which involves an out-of-pocket down payment of $249 and 20 monthly payments of $20 thereafter (available in retail stores), or just go for the classic plan (online and retail) and shell out $369 in exchange for a full two-year commitment. If contracts or monthly installments really aren't your scene, you can grab it at full retail for $649. It's only available in a 16GB option, and T-Mobile hasn't announced any intentions to add a 32GB flavor.
This certainly puts the Note II on the absolute top pricing tier, but this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who just looked at the spec sheet. In T-Mobile's case, this will be the first (and so far, only) quad-core device offered by the company. Your only other choices in the company's premium smartphone lineup are the Samsung Galaxy S III ($229 for 16GB, $279 for 32GB) and -- to a lesser extent -- the HTC One S ($150) and Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G ($150). In other words, Sammy completely owns T-Mobile's upper tier of smartphones. This means that unless you are looking for a QWERTY device, these two devices are your only options; once you narrow it down to that pair, the only factors will be size, power and the amount of interest you have in the S Pen. (Windows Phones are certainly a competitive possibility as well, though we can't speak much on the selection or OS until we know the official details.)
For now, this review of the Galaxy Note II is a dynamically changing one. We've only had the opportunity to get a feel of how T-Mobile's version of the device holds up against not only the rest of the carrier's lineup but the N7100 as well, but we've been quite happy to see that very few things have actually been tweaked in the migration to the US. As we mentioned earlier, we'll continue to update this review as we receive the other variants in the mail. But we're confident that our assessment of the global Note II still stands valid with T-Mobile's edition -- and because of this, it currently sits smugly as our top choice in its lineup. That is, unless the size is just too intimidating for you.