Galaxy Note II vs Kogan Agora: How the phablet flagship stacks up against its budget rival

Galaxy Note II vs Kogan Agora: How the phablet flagship stacks up against its budget rival

Summary: Phablets look like they are here to stay - but is it really worth shelling out for a top-of-the-range device, or can a budget offering really run with the pack?

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If Mobile World Congress showed us one thing this year, it was that 2013 is destined to be the year of the 'phablet', the crossbreed of a phone and a tablet.

In theory, phablets provide the best of both the smartphone and the tablet world: you can make calls, but you also have a bit more screen real-estate to play with for browsing, games and other apps. And, while some people may consider them to be over-large or dislike the portmanteau moniker, they are proving popular.

But what exactly is the difference between a top of the range phablet like Samsung's Note or Note II, both of which launched priced around the £450-£500 mark, and a budget offering like the Kogan Agora 50, announced at CES 2013 at a much more wallet-friendly £120?

The Kogan Agora costs around 75 percent less than a Galaxy Note II. Add on the £25 import tax that I paid when it arrived and that's £150 for a phablet. It's a nice price, but how does it stack up against its higher-priced competition?

Agora_Note

The specs

The Samsung Galaxy Note II offers a quad-core 1.6GHz processor, 5.5-inch sAMOLED display and 16GB of internal storage, which can be expanded by using a microSD card. On the rear of the device there's an 8-megapixel camera, and on the front there is a 1.9-megapixel sensor for video calling or stills.

The Agora 50 comes with a 1GHz dual-core Cortex A9 processor, 5-inch 480 x 800 pixels display and 4GB of on internal storage. Like the Galaxy Note it will also accept microSD cards up to 32GB to expand the storage. Unlike the Galaxy Note, it also comes with dual-SIM card slots.

Kogan_SIM

Camera-wise it lags behind the Note II with a 5-megapixel camera on the rear and a 0.3-megapixel front facing snapper.

Confusingly, the Agora is listed as coming with 'Mini SIM' slots but the model I received had dual full-size SIM holders.

Design

The Samsung Note II comes in a hard white plastic shell, measures 80.5mm wide by 151.1mm long and is just 9.4mm thick. It weighs 182.5 grams.

By contrast, the Agora 50 is a little shorter and a little narrower at 142.8 x 80mm. It's also a tiny bit thicker at 9.8mm but slightly lighter at 180 grams — not that you'd notice if you held each phablet in hand.

Though it's purely down to personal preference, I've never been much of a fan of white handsets or tablets, so my design preference would lean towards the Agora. It's probably worth noting that choosing between these two based on their design is like choosing between two different types of tap water - they are so similar in appearance that it makes little difference. From the placement of the power button, volume keys or other keys, to the shape of the rear cover or the speaker placement, it's all practically identical.

I also quite like the textured material on the rear panel of the Agora handset, although it is a little loose feeling.

User experience

Specs are all well and good, but as you can see from above, there's not a world of difference between the two: what it really comes down to is what the two devices are like to use.

First off, there's one reasonably big difference between the Note and the Agora: the Note comes with an S Pen stylus and apps specifically designed to make use of it like S Memo, which has decent handwriting recognition.

The Agora, however, is more of an oversized traditional phone, which thanks to its modern-enough operating system provides all of the core functionality you'd expect to find in an Android-based device nowadays.

Agora_50_display
The screen quality of the Agora can't stand up to the Galaxy Note. While I wouldn't mind for occasional browsing, if it was my only device or I read a lot of e-books, I'd be looking elsewhere.

However, with such a big difference in original pricing, savings have had to be found somewhere, and the most striking difference between the two is the display quality.

Where the Samsung has a 267ppi (pixels per inch) 1280 x 720 pixels display the Agora has a 480 x 800 display with 186ppi, and you can really tell the difference.

When you first switch on the Samsung, it greets you with a bright screen in an easily readable resolution. Switching to the Agora feels quite a jump as it provides a far more muted experience in terms of colours, sharpness and resolution. The text is just too large, somewhat defeating the object of having a larger display.

There is also a pretty noticeable difference in the experience. Where Samsung has a stylus and apps to differentiate the Note II, it also has a neat multi-tasking option that allows you to do two things at once, such as watching a video while browsing or composing an email. Tweaks like this are often overlooked on budget devices but contribute to the overall experience.

The other biggest difference between the devices is in the quality of the cameras. While Samsung's might not be the best around, it does a decent job, though you perhaps wouldn't want to throw away your DSLR just yet. The Agora on the other hand, despite have an HDR setting, struggles to take a good photo in almost any situation.

That's not to say there are no redeeming features about the Agora phablet. It isn't overly laggy and even having only 512MB of RAM didn't seem to cause any problems, though I was left wondering if it would perform so well if it ever receives an update to the Jelly Bean version of Android.

And of course, there's the price. It's much cheaper than a brand new Samsung Galaxy Note II and it's still a bit cheaper than a second hand, year or so-old original Note.

Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Agora represents the budget option its price tag suggests — the screen and camera are both disappointments, for example — so perhaps a fairer comparison would be to consider it in the same breath as a regular-sized budget Android smartphone, but at 5-inches, its screen puts it right on the edge of the phablet category.

There is a market for budget Android smartphones, but I'm not convinced there is one for a budget phablet. A phablet is a compromise between a tablet and a smartphone, and the Agora is a compromise between specs and price.

The Note popularised the phablet category, at least in part because of its S Pen stylus and apps designed to be used with it. The Agora also lacks this advantage. And if price is your only concern, then it's worth considering a slightly different but more relevant comparison: between a new Agora 50 and a second-hand Galaxy Note, which can currently be bought on eBay for around £150-£170.

Update 20/03/2013: A Kogan representative got in touch to say that UK buyers will not be hit with the £25 import tax, as we were here, and that the total cost is £119 + shipping.

Images: Ben Woods

Topics: Smartphones, Samsung, Tablets

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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Talkback

8 comments
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  • Ugh...

    I didn't have to read past the screen resolution to know that I wouldn't want the Agora. What's the point of owning a Phablet if you're going to hobble it with a screen resolution that's more appropriate to a 4" screen.
    dsf3g
  • SIM Card

    What you consider (and most people as a matter if fact) consider to be a 'full sized' SIM is actually a mini SIM.
    jonathanlahdo
  • Why do this comparison at all?

    The Kogan has no stylus, no dual-task mode, and its 5" screen is no bigger than the Galaxy S4's. So why is it considered a phablet? It shouldn't be compared against the Note II.
    Rohan Jayasekera
    • Apples and Oranges

      Rohan, I feel like you that this is a strange comparison, more like apples to oranges than to similiar devices.

      I think I would buy a used item with better specs for equal or less money. Something like my very fine HTC One X or a Note.

      Dave in North Bend, OR
      dachba
      • The One X isn't a Note competitor though

        The One X isn't a Note competitor though :-|
        bradavon
    • Re: Why do this comparison at all?

      And yet you go on to do exactly that: a comparison between them.
      ldo17
  • SUV Of Mobile Phones

    I've thought these low-res, large-screen phones are just like pratmobiles: they take up a lot of space on the road, but don't actually do much with it.

    Probably appeals to similar sorts of buyers, too. For similar reasons...
    ldo17
  • Agora more like a Dell Streak 5

    Like the one I got from eBay for $100 (and had to finish a botched screen replacement - plug the cable in the right way it turned out after several days of tearing it down, scratching head, poking, prying, reassembling...). After rooting it, (Froyo update already done) I have been fairly happy with it on T-Mobile with their $30 pay/go plan: 100 minutes talk (never used except to answer wrong numbers - use my VZW phone for talk), unlimited text and data (slow down after 5GB in a month, but already in slowdown mode with AT&T 1900 Mhz band - hoping LTE/HSPA+ band "shift" will speed it up).

    It was meant as a cheap experiment in large screen Android over a year ago (nothing like that for VZW then), and I am glad I did it, but it is time to move up - Galaxy Note I/II would do that (or even the S3 now that the S4 should start driving the prices down), not the Agora - "been there, done that".
    aroc