No one knew what to make of the original Samsung Galaxy Note when it launched last year. Samsung confounded the tech press by releasing what seemed to be a very niche product. After all, active pen tablets had never caught on with the general public, and the pre-smartphone pen and PDA combos were (and still are) virtually extinct. On top of that, the Galaxy Note featured a 5.3-inch display, which crossed into the unofficial zone of five to seven inches that separated tablets from smartphones, which has since come to define the “phablet.”
Well, Samsung must have known something the tech press did not, because it has since sold more than 10 million Galaxy Notes worldwide, and extended the product line to include a 10.1-inch Android tablet, the Galaxy Note 10.1, and the new Samsung Galaxy Note II, which was first unveiled at IFA in Berlin in early September.
Bigger, Faster, Better?
As if taking a cue from Hollywood, Samsung made the sequel to its 2011 blockbuster faster, more powerful, and bigger -pushing the display out to 5.5-inches while attaining a 16.9-inch resolution. This results in a Galaxy Note that is ultimately taller, but not wider, nor thicker, than the original.
That means it will be one of the largest mainstream phones available when it launches; so large, it might be awkward as a phone. Its large screen is a great size for taking notes, but that combined with its thin profile, .37 inches, makes it not pants-pocket friendly. At least that’s the impression I received after some hands-on time with the Samsung Galaxy Note II following IFA.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II most closely resembles the Samsung Galaxy S III, complete with Super AMOLED Plus display and sheer plastic build. I’m no fan of glossy plastic as it can be tougher to grip than more textured materials, but the Note II seems well built, and plastic is decent at absorbing the occasional user drop.
According to Samsung reps, the display is “nicer” than the S III display, which is good news as the S III display had flaws. It wasn’t bright enough at max setting, and the whites had an annoying blue/greenish tint. The pre-production Note II I tested also wasn’t incredibly bright when maxed out, but it was more than readable, and it wasn’t a final product. I’m hopeful Samsung will remedy that when it comes time to ship the Note II as Samsung products typically have excellent displays.
The S Pen
Of course, the defining Note II feature is the S Pen. It’s an active stick that pairs with the display’s Wacom technology to provide a full-on inking experience. The S Pen has been upgraded to feature 1024 points of pressure sensitivity (up from 256 on the original Note), and has been slightly redesigned, with ridges on the sole button for easy touch identification. The plastic tip has also been tweaked to provide a bit more friction when in use, making it feel more like traditional pen on paper.
The S Pen and Galaxy Note II also feature an excellent “hover” function now, which is ideal for web navigation. The Note II senses the S Pen when it is a few millimeters away and presents a small navigation dot/cursor on the display. Hover the cursor over a Web page menu, and it engages the drop down. It would take a clumsy and often off-target tap with a finger to do the same sans S Pen, and it’s surprisingly useful for those that prefer desktop-style websites (which also look much better on the relatively large 5.5-inch display than on smaller smartphone screens). The hover feature can also be used to preview emails and navigate video time bars, complete with video thumbnails.
The active pen is also a smart accessory in that it communicates with the Note II. For example, the Galaxy Note II can be set to launch specific programs when the S Pen is undocked. In addition, the Galaxy Note II will alert the user with an alarm when the S Pen is undocked and left behind, say on a table or dropped on the ground.
New Software Features
The Galaxy Note II will include many of the fun sharing and NFC features we loved on the Samsung Galaxy S III, and Samsung tweaked a few to make them more appealing. The pop-up video feature I loved on the S III is back, and now the video can be altered to a handful of predetermined sizes with a two-finger pinch. The photo gallery has new display options, including a spiral arrangement that is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen on a device.
The Note II makes it easy to move photos from one folder to another on the device, a task that, while common with notebooks and desktops, has been absent from smartphones to date. And finally, the camera has a new group shot feature that (when enabled) takes a burst shot of the group, identifies the faces within the shot, and lets users swap out faces from any pic taken within the burst to piece together the best possible pic. For example, if four out of five subjects look great in one photo, but one person is blinking, users can select that user’s face and literally swap it out with one from one of the other group pictures. The Note II will seamlessly blend it in the pic, a task that was once only in the purview of an expert Photoshop user.
Coming to the U.S.
Given its predecessor’s success, we can be sure Samsung will bring the Note II to the US. Where and when remains a question, though rumors suggest it will include the major carriers. Samsung reps declined to comment on the Galaxy Note II’s internals and connective technology when it reaches the States, but did say that it will have a 1.6 GHz Samsung Exynos quad-core processor and support LTE for the overseas launch. It will also ship with Android Jelly Bean 4.1. We should find out more in the coming weeks.
See More! Watch our video walkthrough of the Samsung Galaxy Note II to learn more about the features and functions of this new smartphone.