Design

Any discussion of the Note II, photo-centric or not, really has to start with the sheer size of the thing. It’s big. To people new to the phablet concept, it may look absurd, like a joke prop. On the other hand, Samsung’s own flagship Galaxy S3 sports a 4.8-inch screen that, while smaller than the Note II’s 5.5-inch expanse of glass, isn’t that much smaller. HTC’s Droid DNA has a 5-inch screen, and the company isn’t shy about calling it a phone. More 5-inchers like Sony’s Xperia Z or the Samsung Galaxy S4 have been announced recently. In this fresh reality, it’s debatable whether the Note II really needs its own category. Maybe it’s just a really big phone. With a stylus.

The Galaxy Note II's design is very similar to its smaller sister model, the Galaxy S3, but with its 5.5-inch screen it is noticeably larger.

The Note II rides in a front jeans pocket comfortably, but getting it in or out while sitting down requires some squirming because of its length (if you like to pack in back, the phone will probably peek out of your pocket). In a purse its size is less of an issue, and it actually weighs less than the more conventionally-sized Nokia Lumia 920 we recently reviewed.

The Galaxy Note II's back features the camera module with a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor and F2.6 lens.
Like the S3 the Note II comes with a physical home button (vs the standard Android capacitive buttons).

Photographically speaking, the Note II’s stature is a plus and a minus. The good news is that you can really see that display (though it washes out quite a bit in bright sun). Composing a shot on it gives a little bit of the  “larger than life” feeling you get when shooting with a tablet, minus most of the physical and social awkwardness. However, the tendency with a screen this big is to hold the phone a bit farther from your eyes, which is that much less stable. We discovered that when trying to squeeze off a sharp photo in low light: it pays to bring the Note II in a little tighter than is really comfortable.

The Note II's large screen makes you hold it further from your body than smaller devices when taking pictures. However, keeping the Galaxy closer to your body allows for a much more stable shooting posture.

The big screen is also a plus when it comes to the oldest kind of digital social sharing: showing people pictures right on the device. Reviewing pictures, especially with a group of people, is very satisfying thanks to its size.

The bad news is that a smartphone’s general ergonomic failing as a camera - being a thin, slippery slab - is aggravated by the Note II’s size. You still want to hold it by the edges, but those edges are so thin in proportion to the overall size of the device (and rounded to boot) that it feels like a particularly precarious grip. We suspect that most users will want to add a case to provide a more secure handle on the Note II.

A final word on that big display: while larger than the original Note and the S3 screens, its pixel density is lower. Although at 267 pixel per inch pictures still look sharp, the arrival of full HD (1920 x 1080) displays on smaller (but still large) phones is quickly raising the resolution and sharpness bars.   

Camera app

The Note II’s camera specs are identical to the Samsung Galaxy S3’s, and though the company won’t confirm that they use the exact same hardware, the output is very similar. Most of the features of the camera app are also the same, so we’ll refer to our S3 review where appropriate.  

Samsung’s custom camera app is particularly feature-rich and, for the most part, well-designed. You can jump straight to the camera from the lock screen by touching the camera icon and sliding it. 

Samsung’s camera app provides a nice balance between simplicity and functionality.

Our review unit was the Note II sold by U.S. cellular provider Sprint, and the carrier seems to have jiggered a few aspects of the camera app. The first time we tried to press and hold the large software shutter button to lock focus and exposure (the typical behavior) the camera fired a machine-gun barrage of shots. We’d stumbled into the Note II’s impressive burst mode, which Sprint has enabled by default (more on that in the Camera performance section). Disabling it gets you the usual focus/exposure lock functionality, allowing you to focus and recompose.

There’s no dedicated hardware shutter release, but you can configure the volume-up button to take on that function. If you’re in a Knight Rider kind of mood you can also just ask the camera to take a picture by enabling “Take photos using voice” and saying “shoot,” “capture,” “smile,” or “cheese.” It works pretty well, though occasionally it misses its cue. Of course, you look crazy. Take a look at Samsung's voice control feature in action in our review of the Samsung Galaxy Camera

The left side of the camera app offers five commonly used controls (switch to front camera, flash, shooting mode, special effects and settings). One of the best things about this app is that you can customize four of those controls to perform a variety of functions, including ISO selection, scene mode, exposure compensation, white balance, self-timer, and metering and focus mode. Other options include “Auto contrast,” an effective smart contrast adjustment that brightens shadows when needed, and “Outdoor visibility,” which brightens the display but creates an over saturated, over exposed-looking preview image (it helps visibility a little, but probably not enough to be worth thinking about).

You can customize the controls on the left side of the camera app (or the right, if you flip the Note II over for left-handed use). This makes changing settings you use frequently much less fiddly.

From that list of controls you’ll gather that the camera app offers a fair amount of advanced configurability. Typically, and unfortunately, shutter speed is neither adjustable nor displayed, which mitigates the value of being able to manually set ISO, but it’s still good to have that option.

You can tap anywhere on the screen to select a focus point, but metering doesn’t prioritize the new focus point, behavior that’s photographically suspect but oddly common in native phone apps (we also saw it in the Nokia Lumia 920 and most Android phones). The Note II offers a choice of matrix, center-weighted or spot metering, but even the spot meter remains locked to the center of the screen when you choose a new focus point. Exposure is optimized for faces recognized in the face detection shooting mode.

The Sprint version of the Note II camera app makes an obnoxious “clack” when you take a picture, whether you like it or not. The sound can be disabled in some other versions of the phone, but Sprint removes the option in the name of protecting “privacy” (third-party camera apps aren’t subject to the restriction).

Other camera features

Most of the Note II’s imaging feature set is identical to the Galaxy S3 which we reviewed back in October 2012. So you can have a look at our S3 review to learn about the useful panorama and HDR modes, the less-useful beauty scene mode, Smile Shot (which waits for your subject to flash pearly whites before shooting), the photo sharing options and the list of filters. On the Note II the Cartoonify effect has moved from the scene mode list to the filter section, which makes more sense. You still have to download the basic image editor if you want it, and you’re irritatingly forced to create a Samsung account to do so.

But the Note II has learned a few new tricks (which have also been rolled into updates for the S3). The new Best Face shooting mode aims to solve the perennial group picture problem: there’s always someone blinking, someone looking away or talking. In Best Face mode, the camera takes a burst of shots, finds the faces, lets you choose the best pose from each person, and then merges these greatest hits into a single photo. It works surprisingly well, as long as you’re willing to take the time to “build” you picture right after you take it (the phone guesses at which face is best so you have a place to start, but it sometimes lacks judgment). 

The Best Face scene mode takes a burst of shots and lets you combine each subject’s best pose into a single photo.