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Samsung Galaxy Note II review: Is bigger really better?

Samsung Galaxy Note II review: Is bigger really better?

Samsung's stylus-packing Galaxy Note II is like a smartphone on steroids

Samsung took a big risk with its first Galaxy Note device. At 5.3-in., the device's screen was almost comically large for a smartphone. That, combined with the Note's retro-sounding stylus, led to plenty of skepticism and outright ridicule.

Galaxy Note II

In the end, of course, Samsung had the last laugh by selling 10 million units by August, 2012 -- and now, the manufacturer's back with an even bigger model. The Galaxy Note II launches in the U.S. this week, with Sprint kicking things off on Thursday. The carrier will sell the Note II for $300 with a new two-year contract. AT&T, meanwhile, will offer the phone starting November 9 for the same price. T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular are all expected to follow suit in the coming weeks, though none has announced specific launch dates or prices as of this writing.

Samsung's Galaxy Note II keeps the same basic concept as the original Note but adds higher-quality components and new software twists. So how does it all stack up? I spent several days using the Note II to find out.

Body and display

When you hold the Galaxy Note II, one thing is immediately clear: This is a Samsung-made phone. The new Note follows Samsung's design aesthetic and in many ways looks like a supersized Galaxy S III. The device is very plasticky; it has a removable silver-colored rear panel that feels thin and flimsy when pulled off. That said, the Note II certainly doesn't look cheap; it has a sleek and contemporary appearance with shiny, reflective surfaces and visually pleasing curves.

Of course, the size is the real eye-catching thing about the Note II: The phone is a whopping 3.2 x 5.9 x 0.4 in., longer but slightly narrower than the first-gen Note's 3.3 x 5.8 x 0.4 in. frame.

At 6.3 oz., it isn't unbearably heavy -- but for better or for worse, it's definitely a bulky device. Personally, I found the Note II a bit awkward and unnatural to hold; it's too big to use with a single hand, like a typical smartphone, and too small to use like a traditional tablet (even a relatively small one like the Nexus 7).

I also found the Note II rather uncomfortable to carry around. While it did fit into the pocket of my jeans, it was always either in my way or on the verge of falling out. Sitting down was particularly challenging.

If you can get used to the size, though, the Note II's 5.5-in. HD Super AMOLED screen is a beaut. The 1280 x 720 display gives you ample room for Web browsing, video-watching or whatever your tech-loving heart desires. It's crisp, clear and bright (although you may have to deactivate Samsung's often-wonky auto-brightness setting to get the best results). Smartphone enthusiasts will be happy to know it doesn't utilize Pentile technology, which is frequently criticized for causing jagged edges and lower-quality views.

Samsung's Galaxy Note II has a volume rocker on its left side, a headphone jack on its top, and a power button about a third of the way down its right edge. On the bottom of the phone sits a standard micro-USB port that -- with the use of a special adapter, priced at $40 on Samsung's website -- can double as an HDMI out port to let you hook the phone up to your TV and watch your videos on a large display. The bottom of the device also houses a slot where the S Pen stylus resides (more on that in a bit).

Following the example of its Galaxy S III smartphone, Samsung has opted to use an odd mix of physical and capacitive navigation buttons in place of the virtual on-screen buttonsGoogle recommends for modern Android devices. The Note II has a physical home button flanked by capacitive menu and back buttons, the latter two of which light up for just a couple of seconds when you touch the screen and remain invisible otherwise. This setup results in several unfortunate issues that I outlined in great detail in the "Buttons" section of my Galaxy S III review.

The Note II has a single small speaker on its back. The speaker is surprisingly good: Audio is loud, clear and relatively full-sounding. There is one design-related disappointment: The grill covering the speaker protrudes awkwardly from the phone's back plate, creating a rough and rather sharp spot in an otherwise smooth and consistent surface. (As a result, when you set the phone down on its back, it actually rocks back and forth very slightly.

Under the hood

Samsung's Galaxy Note II runs on a 1.6GHz quad-core processor along with a full 2GB of RAM. The result is a blazingly fast smartphone experience with no noticeable slowdowns or stutters; from app loading to Web browsing and even multitasking, the Note II's performance is consistently impressive.

Also impressive is the device's stamina: While it's no Droid Razr Maxx HD, the Galaxy Note II packs a removable 3100mAh battery that provides more than enough juice to get you from morning to night. Even with the massive power-sucking screen, I found myself making it through full days of moderate usage with room to spare.

(It's worth noting that the Note II model I tested was connected to T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network. Models utilizing 4G LTE networks will likely utilize more power and may have different results.)

The Note II comes with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. (The U.S. carriers have not yet specified which version or versions they'll offer.) The Note II has a slot for a microSD card, too, located under the phone's rear panel; it allows you to add up to 64GB of additional storage.

The smartphone has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.9-megapixel front-facing lens. The main camera is quite good and on a par with the setup used in Samsung's Galaxy S III phone. While I might give the HTC One X and One S a slight edge in terms of both camera interface and image quality, Samsung's setup is certainly no slouch; photos taken on the Note II looked crisp and sharp with vibrant, true-to-life colors and superb detail.

Finally, there's the actual phone connectivity: While things will obviously vary from one carrier to the next, on the T-Mobile device I used, calls sounded loud and clear, and people on the other end reported being able to hear me fine. (I did, however, feel slightly ridiculous holding a giant slate up to my face to talk.) Data over T-Mobile's HSPA+ network was pleasantly zippy and consistent with typical T-Mobile 4G speeds.

One concern: On a few occasions, my Note II unit stopped connecting to T-Mobile's network, making it impossible for me to make calls or utilize data. Powering the phone off and back on fixed the problem. My own personal device, meanwhile -- which also utilizes T-Mobile's network -- continued to work fine during these occasions.

The Galaxy Note II supports near-field communications (NFC) for contact-free sharing and services.

The S Pen

Size aside, the Note II's distinguishing feature is without a doubt its Wacom-powered S Pen stylus.

Samsung has designed the Note in such a way that you could easily ignore the S Pen if it didn't interest you -- the stylus fits seamlessly into the holding slot on the bottom-right of the phone -- but for artists or people who simply want to draw and write on their devices, the pen adds a new level of usefulness.

The S Pen itself is fantastic. It's about 4.5-in. long and light as a feather. More important, the stylus is highly accurate and responsive, and its pressure sensitivity is outstanding. It is noticeably improved from the one included with the first-gen model and feels more like a pen than like a stylus.

Samsung has integrated what it calls an "Air View" feature with the apparatus; in short, the Note II senses the stylus when it's hovering about a quarter of an inch away from the screen and shows a moving icon as if it were actually touching the display. In some scenarios, like within the Gallery app, you can use this functionality to see pop-up previews of information -- thumbnails of photos inside a folder, for example -- without having to actually tap or navigate further.

When you slide the S Pen out of the Note, you're automatically taken to a special screen that features some of Samsung's stylus-optimized apps. The most prominent is an app called S Note, which allows you to make handwritten notes and drawings using a variety of templates and tools.

S Note has some interesting features. It can translate your handwriting into text and even perform math problems based on characters and symbols you draw. This is certainly novel, though I question how practical it'd be on a day-to-day basis, considering how much faster, easier, and more accurate it is to use a virtual keyboard for text input.

The S Pen's real potential, if you ask me, lies in its creative uses -- the sketching, drawing and image manipulation functions it enables. Samsung's S Pen app has a variety of pen and brush options and even a feature that can clean up your shapes and turn sloppily drawn squares into ones with precise lines and angles. The Note II also ships with an app called Paper Artist that lets you apply a variety of filters to images and then color over them with the pen.

For more robust features, you'll have to do a little digging -- and probably a little purchasing. Android has plenty of photo-manipulation and art-oriented utilities available, like the popular Adobe Photoshop Touch ($10) or Autodesk SketchBook Pro ($5). A free app called iAnnotate PDF, meanwhile, works well for marking up PDF files with the pen.

If you're worried about losing the S Pen, you don't have to: Samsung has smartly incorporated a "missing pen alert" feature that causes the phone to sound an alarm when the stylus becomes separated by more than several feet. I tested it out and it worked exactly as promised -- a very nice touch.

The software

Samsung's Galaxy Note II runs on custom Samsung software based on the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system. The interface is heavily modified from Google's core software and barely resembles the UI on stock Jelly Bean devices.

The Galaxy Note II's busy interface has replaced the subdued visuals of Android 4.x.

The changes, unfortunately, are largely made at the expense of the user experience: The subdued and consistent visuals of Android 4.x are replaced by an overwhelming mess of colors, clashing icons and excessive elements. Intuitive processes like creating a home screen folder have been complicated for no apparent reason. All around, Samsung's UI feels like something a design instructor would use as an example of practices one should avoid.

Interface notwithstanding, Samsung has added some interesting feature-oriented elements into the OS. One such example is Popup Note, which causes an on-screen notepad to appear when you remove the stylus during a phone call. You can then scribble notes on the pad while continuing to talk. Another is Popup Play, which allows you to play a video in a floating box on your screen while running other apps. (The feature works only with locally saved videos, though -- not YouTube clips or Google Play movies and TV shows -- which greatly limits its usefulness.)

Samsung is also advertising a feature for the Note II called Multi Window; this feature, like the similarly titled Multiview feature in the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, allows you to view multiple apps side-by-side on-screen. Unfortunately, the feature isn't actually present in U.S. versions of the Note II -- and while it will presumably be added in at some point via a software update, as has already happened with some international versions of the phone, representatives from Samsung were unable to provide me with any specific date or estimate for when that could occur.

At a Glance

Samsung Galaxy Note II

HTCPrice: $300 with a two-year contract from Sprint and AT&T; T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular prices not yet availablePros: Excellent display; accurate and responsive stylus; admirable performance; good cameraCons: Size makes device uncomfortable to hold and carry; uses awkward button configuration; inconsistent and visually overwhelming interface; lots of bloatware

Speaking of upgrades, it's important to note a potential downside of devices that ship with heavily modified versions of Android: They frequently experience longer delays and lower reliability in receiving future Android OS upgrades. Samsung in particular has a pretty troubling track record when it comes to providing timely upgrades for its devices. This is something you have to take into consideration when deciding whether a device is right for you.

Last but not least, it bears mentioning that the Note II is loaded down with bloatware, ranging from Samsung's usual range of content-purchasing "hubs" to a handful of random third-party apps that you probably won't want and can't easily uninstall. (You can, at least, disable them and hide them from view.)

Bottom line

With its Galaxy Note II, Samsung is striving to fill a need in between our current smartphone and tablet paradigms -- and you have to give the company credit for doing something different. In many ways, the Note II is a standout device: It has a great display, solid performance and one of the best cameras you'll find in a smartphone today. Its excellent stylus also presents the possibility for new types of smartphone interaction, particularly for users with creative interests.

At the same time, though, the Galaxy Note II's bulky form can make the device awkward both to use and to carry. The phone's dated and hybrid button setup further detracts from the user experience, as does Samsung's chaotic UI.

All considered, the Galaxy Note II could be a nice device for someone who values a stylus or wants a phone with an extra-large screen -- but I'd suggest spending some time at your local store holding it and exploring its interface before committing.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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