Hands on with the Samsung Galaxy Note II

Recently revealed at the 2012 IFA trade show in Berlin, the Samsung Galaxy Note II looks to be an improvement over the original in nearly every way: The Note II has a larger screen, faster processor, and will ship running Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean”. While we’re still waiting to hear details for when the phone will make its way to the United States, I did manage to get some hands on time with the international version of the Note II to get a better idea of what to expect when the phone reaches our shores.

The Note II has a news ticker on the lock screen that can display recent headlines.

If you’ve ever looked at the Samsung Galaxy S III and wished (for some reason) that it was bigger, then you’ll probably enjoy the Note II: The phone looks like a much larger version of the S III. The Note II overall feels very well put together; its 5.55-inch Super AMOLED Plus display looked gorgeous when playing back video or browsing the Web, but colors did look a tad over-saturated. Much like the original Note, the Note II may not be for you if you have small hands. Even with my larger mitts, I found the Note II to be quite difficult to use one-handed, nearly dropping the phone a couple of times because I had to constantly readjust my grip.

The new S-Pen

As a fan of styluses, I was excited to try out the Note II’s new S-Pen and digitizer. Unlike the S-Pen that came with the original Note, the Note II’s S-Pen has been redesigned to make it easier to hold and write with. The tip of the S-Pen has also been changed to better mimic the feel of a pencil writing on a pad of paper. When you pop the S-Pen out of its slot at the bottom of the phone, it automatically jumps you to the S-Pen home screen on the Note II. From this screen, you can quickly compose an S Note (basically a note that you can type or draw on), or navigate back to whatever you were doing before you took out the stylus. The pen was more comfortable to hold than the original S-Pen on the Note, but every time I took it out of its slot, the phone would freeze for a few seconds and the S Note application would crash. Samsung told me that the phone was running pre-release software, and that it was still working on squashing some of the bigger bugs.

The S-Pen can also be used for gesture based controls.

One of the coolest things you can do with the pen, aside from drawing mustaches on pretty much everything, is that you can hover it over certain items and to get a quick preview of that item’s contents. For instance, you can hover the pen over an email to read the first few lines and quickly get an idea of what that email is all about. The feature worked well when I tried it out, but it can take a while for the preview to popup. It’s a neat idea, but I wish performance was a little speedier. If you forget to put away the S-Pen after a night of previewing emails and drawing facial hair, the phone will give off an alarm to remind you to put the pen back in its slot. Pretty snazzy.

An updated Gallery app shows off your pictures in a rather flashy manner.

Aside from the fancy new pen, the Note II also had a revamped camera that allows you to quickly take up to 20 photos by holding down the shutter button. This “burst photo” mode was a feature on the Galaxy S III, but that phone requires you to dig through several menus in order to activate it. Another new camera feature in the Note II is the “best group shot.” In this mode the phone rapidly takes a bunch of photos and allows you to swap out the faces of your subjects to obtain a better picture. So, if someone blinked or was making an unpleasant face, you could click on their face and swap it out to one where they were smiling or didn’t look like a troll. The edit isn’t perfect—there is some weird pixelation around a person’s head when you swap their face out—but I’m sure the feature could prove handy to parents trying to grab a good photo of their fidgety child.

The Note II runs Android Jelly Bean with a TouchWiz overlay.

As I was saying earlier, the Note II will ship running Google’s latest mobile OS, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. You’ll be able to access Jelly Bean specific features like Google Now and the improved voice search, though things like the smarter notifications don’t seem to work with the phone’s TouchWiz overlay. Because the Note II I handled was running on a 1.6Ghz quad-core Exynos processor, its difficult to tell if the improvements from Jelly Bean’s Project Butter came through in making the phone run silky smooth, or if the phone’s beefy chipset was responsible for the Note II’s excellent performance. We still have yet to hear if the U.S. version of the phone will be quad-core, but we’ll let you know as soon as we find out ourselves.

The Note II may have a few glitches that need to be worked out, but overall the phone is looking to be a distinguished addition to Samsung’s Android lineup. We’ll give you the full rundown of the Note II, as well as our final verdict on the device, when we get one in for review in the coming months.

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