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 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 UI feels like something a design instructor would use as an example of practices one should avoid.

Interface notwithstanding, Samsung has added some interesting feature-oriented elements into the OS. 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

HTCPrice: $300 with a two-year contract from Sprint and AT&T; T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular prices not yet availablePros: Excellent display; accurate and responsive stylus; admirable performance; good cameraCons: Size makes device uncomfortable to hold and carry; uses 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. (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, solid performance and 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 UI.

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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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