Samsung Galaxy Note II review: Is bigger really better?

Samsung's stylus-packing Galaxy Note II is like a smartphone on steroids. Here's an in-depth look at where it excels -- and where it falls short.

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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.

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