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Samsung Galaxy Note II first impression: the S Pen plots a new course for Samsung's biggest phone

Review by Andrew Kameka on Tuesday September 11, 2012.

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Galaxy Note II
Galaxy Note II

"Raise your hand if you thought the first Galaxy Note was going to be a failure," Samsung asked a roomful of reporters who were recently briefed on the Galaxy Note II. I raised my hand without pause because the original Note seemed ridiculously oversized and meant for a product category that no one asked to see. But millions of sales later, the Galaxy Note was one of Samsung's biggest hits last year, and the company unsurprisingly decided to follow it up with a sequel. I recently attended a closed-door meeting with Samsung and had a short period to learn more about the intricacies of the upcoming Galaxy Note II. My thoughts on the device are below.

The Galaxy Note II is a big, little device. I call it big because the 5.5-inch screen makes this a large handset; however, the 9.4mm (0.37in) depth is actually thinner than the 9.7mm (0.38in) frame on the original Note. The 180g (6.35oz) phone with a glossy plastic back is a massive piece of hardware, which is not easy for someone with large hands to say. The size of a device that is both phone and tablet may turn off a large portion of the smartphone-buying population, but Samsung has already proven that a phone of this size can be successful. The company also helps its cause by adding a 1.6 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM to make the device even more appealing.

During the meeting, Samsung showed a number of upcoming features that caught my eye as interesting software advancements. The Android 4.1-based software was not finalized, however, so I ran into several errors. That's to be expected with pre-production models, so I tempered expectations and focused on the encouraging things that I saw:

- The Galaxy Note II automatically detects when the S Pen is removed from the phone. It then launches a designated home screen that users can customize with recent notes or S Pen-friendly applications.

- The S Pen can hover over certain apps and launch previews of content. For instance, hovering the Pen over a video thumbnail will begin playing a clip from that video, and hovering over the timeline shows a screen cap of that portion of the video. Previews are also available for photo thumbnails and emails, allowing users to cut down on time spent going back and forth to open the wrong file or media content.

- The S Pen can also hover webpages to implement MouseOver effects. One of the things I hate most about mobile browsers is that they sometimes don't provide a way to hover over navigation menu, but the Galaxy Note II fixes that. Hovering over a menu acted as if I were using a mouse on a computer, allowing me complete access to the menus on Amazon and other sites without having to click on a page.

Galaxy Note II Stylus
Galaxy Note II Stylus

- Screenshots can be focused and annotated. Rather than simply take a full screenshot to send someone, users can use the S Pen to highlight a specific area of the screen and create an image of just the highlighted area. Users can then write on it and share to other Android apps.
- The S Pen writing is remarkably accurate and responsive. I tend to think I have reasonable handwriting, but I've used a stylus on multiple occasions and been proven wrong. The Galaxy Note II picked up on all of my smooth cursive handwriting and converted to standard text. The original Galaxy Note also had solid recognition, as well as the ability to solve formulas and auto-create shapes, but the Galaxy Note II seemed to be slight faster and more intuitive. I won't be able to say for sure until I spend more time with the device.

You may notice that all of the features that I've highlighted so far have dealt with the S Pen. The reason for that is because that was the only area of the phone that both impressed me and performed consistently enough to judge. The S Pen is the biggest reason to purchase the Galaxy Note II, but there are more software enhancements to consider it. I particularly enjoyed a camera app trick that can snap a series of photos and select the best elements of each subject. So if Uncle Mike is closing his eyes in one photo and Aunt Mary is looking down in another, the user can swap sections of different photos to form the perfect moment. It's artificially perfect, but still better than choosing between three poor images. The gallery can display in rows of stacked thumbnails or a winding carousel, and it also can mass move files from one folder to the next. One software aspect I didn't like is that users can't swipe-up to access Google Now because the Galaxy Note uses a hardware home button. Users can hold down on home and then tap to get Now, so it's not a major inconvenience, but it's not the easiest solution.

I'm withholding my judgment of the Samsung Galaxy Note II until I'm able to get more time with the device. In the short hour that I witnessed, touched, and toyed with the phone, I'd bet that this is going to prove that the original Galaxy Note was no fluke. I've only seen half of what the Galaxy Note II is able to offer, but I look forward to jotting down a few more thoughts in the future.

Galaxy Note II
Galaxy Note II

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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