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Sprint Galaxy Note 2: Android 4.3 Review

I wonder if Jelly beans are that happy when they're about to be eaten?
Just three years ago, Samsung popularized the "phablet" category with its "Note" series of extra large phones.  With the huge screens, large batteries, and S pen technology, the Note series have sold in the millions and are only rivaled in popularity by Samsung's other "S" flagships in the Android space and of course Apples iPhone.

Originally released with an earlier version of Android Jellybean in late 2012, the Note 2 has only received minor updates and was stuck at version 4.1.2 for almost a year since Samsung decided to skip Android 4.2 altogether in favor of Android 4.3.  The result has been a long wait for the Note 2 to finally get its first "major" update since it has been released.   Read on for the differences that I've found.

Transparency and new Samsung icons.

The first minor difference that you will notice is the transparent status bar on top with the icons now off white instead of green.  There are new graphics for the "3G" and "4G LTE" icons.  There are minor alterations to the radio buttons in the settings menu and icons throughout the OS, but nothing really earth shattering.  It still looks more like the Touchwiz GUI (love it or hate it) than it does stock Android.

The "new" tabbed settings.

Speaking of the settings menu, we now have a tabbed version that's very similar to the version on the Galaxy S4.  The new tabs include "Connections", "My Device",  "Accounts", and "More" with all of the old settings placed within these tabs. You will find very few new settings such as "magnification gestures" under the "Accessibility" menu sprinkled throughout if you dig a little deeper.

Dashclock widget on my lock screen.

One of the new features added to Jellybean and new to the Note 2 is the addition of  lock screen widgets.  Yes, actual lock screen widgets.  The former version of 4.1.2 had a feature that claimed lock screen widgets but all that it allowed you to set was the bottom dock icons as per this screenshot.  Now you're able to use awesome widgets such as "Dashclock" that offer you expanded customization without having to unlock your device.

Calculator gets a new theme.

The built in calculator has a new theme. As I am not a math whiz by any means, I am not qualified to tell you if there are any incredible new features in this calculator.  Any one who is a math whiz that knows of any functional differences in this update, please feel free to leave a comment about them.  Adding to this, the "Clock" app also received a minor face lift.

The camera app has been updated but looks mostly the same.

One of the main apps for most people received a minor face lift to match its GS4 and Note 3 cousins.  The updated gallery app does not change much other than the menu system being a little more user friendly and your most recent shot being displayed prominently.  Sadly, almost none of the new features (or gimmicks, depending on whose point of view you get) from the GS4 made it over to the updated camera app.  The only one that I could find is the"Sound and shot" in the familiar interface.  An icon or two were updated but sadly, Samsung opted to skip out of the Galaxy camera interface that is on their newer flagship phones.  Sadly this is a trend that I picked up on the more that I played with the phone.  There are very few actual interface updates.  The snazzy new S pen menu updates from the S4 and Note 3?  Nowhere to be found.  You will be using a near identical S Note app to what the Note 2 shipped with minor changes at best.  

Effective but ugly.

Using a two finger swipe down from the top of the screen will activate this expanded shortcut menu with 15 icons.  This menu certainly has its functions, but it sure is ugly to look at.  I will stick to the standard shortcut drop down since it scrolls right and allows enough shortcuts for the average person.  

App2SD.  I'm happy to see your return.

One great feature that Google has been trying to hide or eliminate but that Samsung has returned to android is the ability to move app data to your SD card.  Samsung has differentiated itself from almost every other phone manufacturer by keeping SD card slots and removable batteries on their phones.  With HD video, high megapixel cameras, and many games now easily topping 2 gigs,  even those with 32gig phones can easily fill up their storage partitions.  If you never need to use this option then that is great, but it is a lifesaver for those that do need it and Samsung has proven that one can make phones that are thin, with a huge battery, and can even shoot video underwater without having to sacrifice expandability.

Split window has slightly enhanced usability but is mostly the same.

The Galaxy Gear smart watch is now supported with this update which also adds Bluetooth LE support. Also included is the "Daydream" feature which for all intents and purposes is a screensaver that activates when you dock or charge your device.  You will find this new feature under the display options.  Under the hood, there is now support for OpenGL es 3.0 which should improve gaming in supported apps as well as TRIM support  for the device memory that will help keep your device speedy as time goes on. Samsung has also added its own security app called "Knox" that runs in the background.

Group Play audio between the Note 2 and S4.

Group Play picture sharing in action.

If you love bloatware features, then you may enjoy the updated "group play" app that lets you share media such as pictures, music, and documents with other supported Galaxy phones.  I tested it with the GS4 and it generally worked well as it synced the two phones perfectly.  One strange addition is the HP wireless print driver.  It doesn't need to be included and it takes up unnecessary space on the phone.  Ironically, for some reason Samsung removed the pop up browser.  Given a choice, I'd take the browser over the printer driver in this case.  The pop up video player is alive and well for those who enjoyed that feature.  To include all of these "features", the system memory now requires 4.95GB of space on Samsungs ROM.  That app 2 sd feature that I mentioned earlier?  You may want to take advantage of it.

In general, it seems that battery life has taken a hit but that may be because I spent the day travelling around in a low signal area with heavy use.  In this scenario I was down to 8% in just over 8 hours with a screen time of over 3 hours.  For Note 2 users, that is pretty low.  Again, it may have been to the low signal area but that will require further testing over the next few days.

Overall, the device does feel faster and smoother with the addition of 4.3 and its under the hood updates.  The issue is that this feels like a very lazy update with Samsung making very minor changes to the interface and functionality as they artificially limit this device in order to keep selling points for the GS4 and Note 3.  This is a quad core Exynos device that should easily chomp through nearly everything that is thrown at it.  

While this update has its good points and enhancements mostly taken from Google's code, overall for something that took a year to produce, it's pretty disappointing. If you are going to take your time updating your OS because of your interface overlay then by all means do the job correctly. Don't skimp on features that would work perfectly fine on hardware that is still very powerful and please, let the Android 2.3 Gingerbread interface die already. Spend some of those billions in profits on a designer and software team who can keep the Touchwiz features while keeping the Android gui simple and beautiful.  If Motorola can do it then so can you Samsung.  Hopefully the 4.4 Kit Kat update next year will get everything right.


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