Tech Lab

Samsung, Nokia phones turn the tables on Apple

Samsung’s Galaxy Note II recognizes notes that are handwritten on its screen via a built-in stylus, and runs the latest version of Google’s Android operating system.
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News
Samsung’s Galaxy Note II recognizes notes that are handwritten on its screen via a built-in stylus, and runs the latest version of Google’s Android operating system.

Remember when buying stuff made by Apple Inc. seemed bold and unconventional?

Of course the iPhone­ is now the safe, sensible choice, and those looking to live on the edge must seek adventure elsewhere.

Apple’s archrival, Samsung Corp., is happy to oblige with its new Galaxy­ Note II, a massive marvel with a monster screen and all-day battery life. Nokia Corp., desperate to regain its standing in smartphones, is offering the Lumia 810, an attractive mid-priced handset that runs the underappreciated Windows Phone 8 operating system from ­Microsoft Corp.


The Samsung unit is a superphone. With its 5.5-inch screen, quad-core processor, and $300-plus price tag, the Galaxy Note II takes aim at the sort of consumer who might have chosen an iPhone 5.

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The Galaxy Note II, available from all the nation’s leading cellphone companies, runs Jelly Bean, the latest version of Google Inc.’s Android operating system. First seen on Google’s Nexus 7 tablet computer, Jelly Bean’s most striking new feature is Google Now, a sort of personal information agent that automatically displays stuff you need to know: weather, traffic, when the next train arrives on the Red Line. There’s no need to ask; Google Now uses your everyday behavior, including your Google searches, to figure out what you might want to know. Ask about the Boston Celtics, and from then on, up pops the score of the recent game.

The phone itself is thinner than a pencil and clad in gleaming plastic. The case feels more robust than that of its rather flimsy predecessor, the Galaxy S III. But as with other ­Samsung phones, it’s distressingly slippery; I dropped it more than once.

True to its name, the Note features software that records handwriting you can do on-screen using the built-in stylus. I can barely write legibly on paper, never mind on a slick slab of Gorilla Glass. Still, by taking it slow, I could produce decent enough results.

With its wide body, the Galaxy Note II has plenty of room for a big battery, capable of getting you through an entire day. The battery was still two-thirds full even after streaming a two-hour movie over a Wi-Fi network.


The movie looked superb, by the way; the phone’s huge screen delivers true 720p high-definition video.

On the other hand, the phone’s 8-megapixel rear-facing camera was a disappointment. While lighting and color balance are decent, the images were too fuzzy for my taste.

The Note II supports superfast 4G LTE cellular data service. But the one I tested came from T-Mobile USA, which won’t start building an LTE network until next year.

If this matters to you, consider buying the phone from AT&T Inc. or Verizon Wireless, which offer LTE in many parts of the United States.

Sprint Nextel Corp. lags behind, but has begun offering LTE in 32 US cities, though not in Boston for now.


T-Mobile also lent me a phone better suited to shoppers on a budget. The Lumia 810 from Nokia, priced at $149.99 after a $50 rebate, is a middle-of-the-road product, with a mere dual-core processor, a video screen of modest resolution, an 8-megapixel camera with uneven color balance, and battery life that’s merely adequate.

On the other hand, it has the latest version of the Windows Phone operating system. It is software that demands to be noticed, even if it has to wave at you.

Like the new Windows 8 software for desktop computers, Windows Phone 8 features a “live tile” interface that lets you keep up with vital information by pinning it to the screen. When my daughter sends me a Facebook message, her tile flips over to display it; when the weather changes, I’m instantly informed. Another tile provides easy access to all incoming e-mails, Facebook, and Twitter messages. Streamlined camera software makes photo-sharing nearly instantaneous.

Even with a relatively low-powered processor, the Lumia 810 runs apps with crisp efficiency. Too bad Windows Phone has far fewer apps to run than Android or iPhone. Then again, Nokia has come through with some excellent mapping apps. One of them lets you download the entire map of North America at no cost. Now even if your phone can’t get a signal, it can still give you GPS navigational aid.

Windows Phone 8 is like nothing else out there, and the differences are mostly marvelous.

And the Galaxy Note II sets a new standard for Android phone performance.

These products are certainly unconventional, but I remember when that was a good thing.

Hiawatha bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Watha.