Hands On with Samsung’s Galaxy Note II: Even Bigger Screen, Nicer Pen, More Refinement

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Harry McCracken /

If you find the very idea of Samsung’s Galaxy Note — the tablet-like phone with a humongous 5.3″ screen and a pen for note-taking and sketching — fundamentally absurd, I understand. And this article isn’t for you. So long for now; see you soon, I hope.

But if you were at least intrigued by the Note when it hit AT&T earlier this year, read on. Samsung introduced the superphone’s successor, the Galaxy Note II, at the end of August during the IFA tech show in Berlin. I got some hands-on time with one during a press briefing this week in San Francisco, and found that Samsung has done a thoughtful job of refining its original concept. It’s still a huge honkin’ phone, but now it’s a noticeably better huge honkin’ phone.

The cleverest thing Samsung did was to make the Note II’s Super AMOLED screen even bigger without making it more of a handful. The display is now 5.55″, but the aspect ratio is 16:9 rather than the original Note’s 16:10. That, and a skinnier bezel, let Samsung squeeze it into a case that’s a bit narrower and a bit taller than the original Note, which means that the Note II is comfier to hold.

Samsung made its S-Pen — based on Wacom’s pressure-sensitive technology — slightly longer and beefier, with an improved tip, making it easier to work with. And it gave the phone the ability to notice whether the pen is stored in its slot or not. When you remove the pen, the Note II automatically presents you with a desktop of pen-centric apps such as the S-Note notetaker; if you don’t stow the pen when you’re done, the phone reminds you to put it back.

Throughout the interface, the Note II lets you perform actions by hovering the S-Pen above the screen as well as tapping it. For instance, if you point the pen at a movie in the Video Player, you get an oversized playback preview.

Most of the many custom software features that Samsung has been adding to its Android devices at a dizzying rate are on the Note II. It’s got the AllShare features, which let you exchange photos and other items (including S-Note notes) with other NFC-equipped Samsung phones by tapping two handsets together. It has a video window which you can leave playing in a corner while you do something else in any other app. The camera app has facial recognition and adds a new group portrait mode that takes several shots of two or more people in rapid succession, then lets you select the most pleasing moment for each individual so it can stitch all the heads into one ideal photo.

When my colleague Jared Newman tried the original Galaxy Note, he found it frustratingly sluggish. It’s dangerous to form opinions of a phone’s performance based on the sort of cursory hands-on time I got today. But the version of the Galaxy Note II Samsung let me try, with a 1.6-GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, was zippy and fluid. Writing on the screen with the S-Pen felt at least as natural as it did with the 10.1″ Galaxy Note tablet.

That unit is the one which Samsung plans to roll out soon internationally. It’s not saying much yet about the U.S. version, whose specs could differ, except that it’ll arrive later this year.

When it does show up stateside, I suspect that some people will still make fun of it. Samsung says it’s sold 10 million Galaxy Notes to date, though, so there seems to be a critical mass of folks who like the concept. Chances are that they’ll like this new-and-improved take even more.

All of which leaves me with one burning question. If the Galaxy Note II is successful enough to spawn a Galaxy Note III, just how big will Samsung go? I can’t see it willingly declaring a moratorium on display expansionism, but at some point the dimensions of the typical shirt pocket may force its hand.