It's that gadget-buying time of year again, and in case you haven't noticed, there's been something of a mobile-device convergence going on lately, with tablets shrinking and smartphones getting bigger and bigger. Under the hood, they're all very similar to begin with, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
But is there a compelling reason for S+V readers to pick up one of these barely-pocketable chunks of Gorilla Glass and plastic? To find out, we took a look at three of the current leaders in the competition for your inside jacket pocket: HTC's Windows Phone 8x and Droid DNA, as well as Samsung's boundary- (and pocket-) stretching Galaxy Note II.
I'll admit that I embarked on this adventure ready to dismiss the whole new wave of handsets as some sort of overcompensation epidemic, but wouldn't you know. . . I came away pleasantly surprised, for the most part.
In the Note II, the giant phone has reacged its apotheosis. The original Note so befuddled pundits that they couldn't figure out quite what to call it. So the 5.5 inch screen (yes, you read that right) Samsung device now inhabits its very own product category -- the "phablet."
Now, we'll admit that the stylus-sporting slab looks a little ridiculous held up to an ear. But who talks anymore these days anyway? The Note II's been surprisingly popular given it's size, so its communications and productivity aspects — including the love-it-or-hate-it stylus — have been explained pretty fully elsewhere.
What's important to us here at S+V is that the Note II proves to be a capable entertainment device, with several under-the-radar audiophile-friendly features in particular that we expect might endear it to on-the-go sonic obsessives.
Now, you have to figure that a device featuring stylus-input mathematical formula recognition checked against Wolfram Alpha would be nerd-friendly. . . But did you expect it to support USB DACs, without rooting? And if you need more storage in a pinch (and you have a USB OTG micro USB-to-microUSB cable handily), you can just hook up an external drive, since the Note II is a USB 2.0 host. Good stuff, in my opinion. But there's more.
Add to that the fact that the Note II is one of the few flagship phones (another is its slightly more svelte sibling, the Galaxy S3) these days that'll let you expand memory via a microSD card (Samsung, shockingly enough, hasn't followed Apple's lead on this one). That means you can install a high-rez player like Poweramp, load up a 64GB card with FLACs (no need to transcode or downrez) or video (or 320 kbps MP3, if that's the way you roll), or load up a few and swap 'em at will. Want to stream wirelessly? You get apt-X Bluetooth for sending audio to the speaker or headphones of your choice in relatively high fidelity. Samsung's AllShare Miracast/DLNA variant (and AirPlay alternative) is baked in as well for video and lossless audio streaming (so you can go ahead and send whatever content you have on your phone to your set-top box or other receivers, straight out of the box). It makes quite a complete package for the smartphone avphile.
The onboard audio is no slouch either, the Wolfson chipset does an effective job on both the DAC and amplification fronts. You might want to use an external DAC/headphone amp. . . but you don't necessarily need to. It'll drive most any headphone within reason (I used HiFiMan's HE-500 as the outer limit of what I might imagine using with a portable device; it drove those 'phones to a reasonably loud level, though they clearly demanded more current. Still, for anything designed to be portable, it'll do the job. And hey. . . you can expand if you need to; a serious bonus for audio nerds.
Basically, if you can deal with the bulky form factor and appreciate Samsung's sometimes quirky TouchWiz UI (which to my fingers and eyes, is a lot less intuitive than HTC's Sense), think you might enjoy the stylus, and want a device geared towards media power users, the Note II might be for you. It's packed full of geeky goodness, and I mean that in nicest possible way.
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