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Hands-on with Samsung's Galaxy Note II

updated 02:10 pm EDT, Tue September 11, 2012

New phablet shows improvement over original

Just under two weeks ago, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note II, the follow-up to last year's surprise hit phablet. Samsung is hoping to repeat the success of the original Galaxy Note, beefing up the internals of the newest version and giving it a bigger screen even as it sports improved battery life. Samsung invited Electronista up to New York for a sneak peek at the international version of the Note II, and we've got hands-on pics and impressions.

The Note II has a sturdy plastic chassis, one that inspires more confidence in its build quality than the one found on the Note 10.1. Measuring 3.16x5.94x0.37-inch, the new Note is slightly narrower and taller than its predecessor, while packing a screen that's 0.2-inch larger. The slight form factor changes may make the Note II a bit easier to handle, but if you had problems holding the original, you'll find only small relief with the successor. As you can see in the pictures below, it dwarfs Motorola's new RAZR M, though the Note II's size likely won't make too much of a difference if you've got large hands.

The phone's backing pops off easily and can be swapped out for a case with a flap that covers the device's 5.5-inch, 1280x720 HD display. Speaking of that display, it's excellent, with bright colors and smoothly playing video. With our limited hands-on time, we of course couldn't test out its battery life, but the 3100mAh battery on the Note II will offer a much longer life than the 2500mAh unit found in the original note.

The Note II will come in 16, 32, and 64GB variants, each with a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor. It will ship with Android 4.1, and Electronista's time with the device showed that Samsung's phablet runs the latest version of Android smoothly. This is especially so considering that the newest version of Samsung's TouchWiz UI sits atop the Android build. Screen transitions were buttery smooth, and we didn't notice any lag anywhere in our time with the device.

As with Samsung's newest tablet, the Galaxy Note 10.1, Samsung is positioning its smaller sibling as a productivity-oriented device, with the S Pen intended as the key to unlock users' creativity. The Note II features a redesigned S Pen that's larger and more ergonomically designed than the one found in its predecessor. The S Pen now sits comfortably in the between one's fingers, still smaller than a regular pen, of course, but much closer than was the original.

Samsung reps told us that the company had spend a good deal of time on the tactile aspect of the writing experience, and we can confirm that that time paid off. Writing on the touchscreen with the S Pen now yields a degree of resistance that makes it much more like the act of writing with a pen on paper. It's not an exact match, of course, but the only thing most users are likely to miss is the light scratching sound of pen point on pad.

Samsung has also added a number of tweaks to make the S Pen more useful. First, the stylus has a hover function, allowing users to essentially mouse-over items on the screen by holding the S Pen over them. Clicking the S Pen's button while hovering over an on-screen element allows a user to interact with that element much in the way one would with a mouse cursor. Hold it over a video clip, and the clip will start in a small pop-up. Hold it over a running video's progress bar and a still from that point in the timeline will display.

Samsung has also greatly simplified the way the S Pen is used for screen captures. Users now have only to hold down the button on the S Pen and draw a shape on the screen, and the Note II automatically recognizes that as a screen capture command, saving whatever falls within the shape to the clipboard.

Finally, the Note II has a nifty feature that tells a user when she's left the pen behind. The phablet recognizes when the S Pen is not in its slot and uses an accelerometer to determine if the device is in motion. After a certain amount of time moving, the Note II will pop up an alert reminding a user that the S Pen is not in its slot and may have been left behind. It's not going to help you if, say, you drop your stylus down a sewer grate, but should you happen to leave it on a cafe table, you'll barely be out the door before the Note II tells you to go back and get your S Pen. We saw the feature in action and can attest to its efficacy.

Samsung updated the the software powering the Note II as well. The S Suite of apps and mini apps appear to feature improved handwriting recognition. Most importantly, that handwriting function appears to be more integrated throughout the whole of the experience with the Note II, whereas there were some gaps with the original Note.

There are a multitude of other pleasant features. The 8MP camera on the new Note has a multi-shot mode that not only takes several pictures consecutively -- with a rather loud shutter sound, as well -- but allows users to merge parts of images in order to create the image they desire. Want to make sure you get everybody smiling in one picture? Take six and use the built-in software to pick out everyone's best smiling moment. The gallery software also features an optional spiral interface allowing for a visually pleasant -- if otherwise useless -- photo navigation experience. Aside from the spiral mode, there are a number of built-in photo organization features, allowing users to sort photos by date, place, or type.

The Galaxy Note II has many more features than we've detailed here, but we'll be exploring the device in full when the US version is released. The Note II will go on sale in Asia and Europe this October, but Samsung wasn't forthcoming on when North American users can expect to get their hands on it. Recent leaks have the Note II coming to at least AT&T for its United States launch, and observers expect that it will be coming to T-Mobile, Bell Canada, and Sprint as well, but Samsung's reps laughed politely and shrugged when we asked if they could confirm or deny those reports. Whatever the release details, Electronista will be here with an in-depth review of Samsung's new phablet when it hits America's shores.

by MacNN Staff



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