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Samsung Galaxy Note II review: Is bigger really better?

October 24, 2012 09:01 AM ET

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 "Air View" functionality into the apparatus. With Air View, 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 the stylus 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. There are plenty of photo-manipulation and art-oriented utilities available for use with Android, 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.

Galaxy Note II
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 interface feels like something a design instructor would use as an example of practices one should avoid.

The busy interface notwithstanding, Samsung has added some interesting feature-oriented elements into the operating system. 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
Samsung
Price: $300 with a two-year contract from Sprint and AT&T; $370 (after a $50 mail-in rebate) with a two-year contract from T-Mobile; Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular prices aren't available yet
Pros: Excellent display; accurate and responsive stylus; admirable performance; good camera
Cons: Size makes the device uncomfortable to hold and carry; 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. (Though 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, offers solid performance and boasts 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 interface.

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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