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Samsung Galaxy Note II Hands-on

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Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Note II
Samsung Galaxy Note II
Samsung Group

The only thing that truly breaks my heart about the new Samsung Galaxy Note II is that I have to return my review unit. Yes, it's that good. I'm not a fan of modified versions of Android, but I found I could easily overlook it on the Galaxy Note II, because the phone is still overall fabulous. Or should I say phabulous

Phablet Love

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is five and a half inches across, making it huge compared to the four inch screens we see on most large-screen smartphones these days. It's not a phone so much as it's a phablet -  a phone tablet. That may be a problem if you want something you can easily stash in your pocket. This isn't it. But if you're like me and prefer apps and texting over voice conversations, this is a fantastic size. The screen is big enough to really see what you're doing, and it fits easily in your hand.

The screen is at a 16:9 ratio, the same as HD TVs, and the resolution is a super AMOLED display, which is the same that is found in the Galaxy Nexus. In this case, it's still physically bigger, but the resolution is the same 1280x720. I tested the Galaxy Note II by watching Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. (I got it for free when I bought my Nexus 7. Don't judge.) The display was fantastic. The screen is big enough and light enough that you really can enjoy a movie during a plane ride or while waiting for the kids to finish with karate lessons. The 4G connection is fast enough to make it worthwhile if you're someplace where you can stream the movie, and the sound was loud enough without headphones that I was able to use Pandora as my substitute radio station on a long drive in the car. That would also make it work really well for getting GPS navigation directions.

S Notes

The whole point of the Galaxy Note series is that you can use them with a stylus, which is conveniently stored on the phone itself. The S Pen stylus is pressure sensitive and can be set so the phone automatically launches a note taking app when you pull the stylus out of the case. You can also hover slightly above the screen in some cases to activate the pen and click on the back to make selections. The stylus is nicely weighted and really feels fantastic in your hand. It's longer and thicker than the previous version, and it does make a difference.

The Galaxy Note II comes with S Notes for taking standard notes and Idea Visualizer for templated mind maps and graphic note taking. I felt more creative just launching the apps, and I could easily see myself using the Galaxy Note II for class or business notes.

Samsung has provided several stylus-friendly apps, but you can also use the stylus with drawing and photo editing apps from third-parties. You won't necessarily get the same pressure sensitivity in apps not written to take advantage of it, but you will have better control than you do with a finger alone.

The stylus is an example of a feature you will not find on an iPad or iPhone, because the capacitive screen on those devices only allows for thick, hot-dog like styluses that transfer the electrical signal from your fingers onto the screen. This is a different technology.

Keyboard

It's just nice to have more room for an on screen keyboard when trying to type something out, but the Galaxy Note II has done especially well with this. The Note's keyboard is easy to use and comes with Swype (and on screen instructions for how to use it) so it is faster and easier to use than many Android keyboards. I had no adjustment period whatsoever to start tapping and sliding out messages.

Sharing and Other Samsung to Samsung Tricks

If you know someone with another Samsung Galaxy phone, you can share items using S Beam. That comes courtesy NFC, a feature, Samsung is gleefully reminding potential customers, that is not found on the iPhone. The beaming feature is really cool, but expect to see NFC used in all sorts of other ways in the near future like printing and paying for things. And yes, the iPhone will eventually join the party.

Broken Android

Let's get a few quibbles out of the way. I'm not a fan of Touchwiz, Samsung's user interface tweaks to Android. I'm not a fan of all the tweaking and fracturing of Android that device manufacturers are doing in general. It delays upgrades, it's potentially confusing, and it breaks features you'd find in the standard Nexus line of products that run straight Android. For instance, if you long-touch on the Galaxy Note II and drag an app icon on top of another icon, you do not make an app folder. This may be fixed in future upgrades, but you're going to have to wait for every one of those upgrades to be custom written and pushed out to the Galaxy Note and other TouchWiz devices. 

Other important features did work, such as Google Now and the cards and natural voice recognition that come with it.

Stores, Stores, Stores

This is where making custom versions of Android gets annoying again. Samsung Galaxy devices come with the Google Play store, but they also come with the Samsung store for apps, music, and movies. Potentially your carrier could have a store app as well, and you could certainly install the Amazon App Store. I know people hate Apple's proprietary ecosystem, but it is at least easier for customers to use a single store instead of tracking multiple stores with multiple payment systems.

Hardware

The Galaxy Note II comes with a quad-core processor and 16, 32, or 64 gigabit storage options. You can also expand storage with a micro-SD slot, unlike the Galaxy Nexus or other newer Nexus line phones. 4G is provided through either faster LTE or slower HSPA+, depending on your carrier and their available network. It's enough phone computing power to make it zippy, and it would have to be at a price of $299 with a contract.

Cameras

The Galaxy Note II has an 8 megapixel camera with flash in the back and a 1.9 megapixel camera in the front. You can shoot still or video footage. It does fairly well in low light, and there are some extra features like special effects, face detection, and burst shots. Once you've captured a photo, you can, of course, edit it using the stylus, which makes this a fantastic device for quick shots you plan on sharing on the Internet.

Bottom Line

I liked the Galaxy Note, and the Galaxy Note II is even better. If you carry the phone in your pocket and want something super small, you'll hate it, but if you only want one device that does both your tablet and phone functions, this is a real winner. I'd advise you to play with one in person before deciding on it because of the size, but I suspect a lot of people will love it as much as I do.


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