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The most noteworthy thing about Samsung's Galaxy Note II is its size. It's huge for a phone. But it's tiny for a tablet. As a device that falls somewhere between these two product categories, it has been called a "phablet," perhaps the ugliest sounding portmanteau since "turducken" entered the vernacular.
"Phablet" is a rather unfortunate term for such an attractive, capable piece of technology. But anyone considering the purchase of the Galaxy Note II should make a point of trying the device out in-person. There's simply no way to grasp how the Note II's form feels, if you haven't used something similar in the past, until you actually grasp it.
For me, it's simply too big. It passes the pants and jacket pocket test, just barely, but as a phone it feels like I'm holding a paperback or shoe-phone out of Get Smart. It just doesn't feel right. But it may be right for you.
I also dislike styluses. Many years ago, I used a Palm Treo 600, which had a stylus, and I didn't have a positive experience with it. If I did a lot of on-device drawing, I might feel differently. But to me, a stylus is just an accessory that's likely to get lost.
Some people apparently love using a stylus. If you're one of those people, the Galaxy Note II deserves careful consideration. The Note II's S-Pen works nicely as a navigational tool, a photo editing tool and a drawing tool, particularly in conjunction with Samsung's S-Note app.
But a stylus requires real commitment. You have to care enough to get used to the conventions for interacting with your device through your stylus. For example, the stylus can send touch events to on-screen areas, but not to the Menu and Back buttons that reside just below the screen, in the phone chrome. Those only respond to finger-based touches.
Other factors: The Note II's 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED 1,280 by 720 pixel screen is a joy to use for taking pictures with the 8 megapixel camera. You also can do burst shooting via the "Single Shot" camera mode by holding the shutter button down to take images at 6 frames per second, for a maximum of 20 shots. It also allows you to share photos, videos, songs, maps, Web pages, apps and contacts with other NFC-capable Samsung devices using S-Beam. It also ships with Google's Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean), a mobile operating system that equals or exceeds Apple's iOS in all but a few areas. Jelly Bean includes new features like Android Beam and Google Now, a push data service.
If the size and the stylus are pluses rather than minuses, Samsung's Galaxy Note II has a lot going for it. Now take a closer look at what else the device has to offer.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II dwarfs the Apple iPhone 4S. Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on your needs and expectations. For taking pictures with the 8 megapixel camera, the Note II's 5.5-inch HD Super AMOLED 1,280 by 720 pixel screen is a joy to use.
The Samsung Galaxy Note II allows you to share photos, videos, songs, maps, Web pages, apps and contacts with other NFC-capable Samsung devices using S-Beam. Just enable NFC and S-Beam in Settings, navigate to the content to be shared, and tap your device against a suitable receiving device. You can also use the Group Cast app, or Share Shot in the Camera app.
The Galaxy Note II comes with something called Easy Mode, which adds several widgets to the device's home screen and generally simplifies UI navigation. This is not to be confused with Basic Mode, the default mode, despite the fact that "Basic" means pretty much the same thing.
Really, when you have two modes and one is "Easy," the other should be labeled with a term that is meaningfully different. "Difficult" or "Hard" would be shot down by Samsung's marketing department, but perhaps they'd consider "Expert," "Advanced" or even "Standard" instead of the perplexing pair "Easy" and "Basic." In any event, the fact that an Easy Mode was deemed to be necessary suggests that maybe more interface simplification should have been done. Phone functions should be intuitive.
There's a new Gallery app in the Galaxy Note II. It simplifies moving photos from album to album. It supports a traditional grid view and an attractive spiral view. And it adds the ability to write notes on the backs of photos.
The Galaxy Note II enables burst shooting via the "Single Shot" camera mode. Holding the shutter button down will take images at 6 frames per second, for a maximum of 20 shots. There's a new Low Light mode and a Best Face mode, which takes a rapid series of shots and allows a face in one image to be swapped with the face of the same person in a different image in that series. The one-handed operation mode is also quite useful. Make sure to use the "Movie" setting in the Screen Mode for better image quality.
The Galaxy Note II's 3100-mAh battery is 20% larger than the one in its predecessor, but you can still find yourself low on power if you're not paying attention. The power savings Settings menu lets you dial down the device's CPU -- a Samsung Exynos 1.6-GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU combined with a quad-core ARM Mali-400 MP4 GPU -- as well as limit screen power usage, select a more power-efficient background color, and turn off haptic feedback vibrations.
The Galaxy Note II is appealing as hardware goes, but its software is equally compelling. It ships with Google's Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean), a mobile operating system that equals or exceeds Apple's iOS in all but a few areas. Jelly Bean includes new features like Android Beam and Google Now, a push data service that notifies the user about current events like local traffic jams and stored appointments.
The Galaxy Note II can detect the stylus as much as a centimeter above its screen, enabling interaction based on stylus proximity and motion rather than touch. Samsung calls this feature Airview. You can use it, for example, to hover over an email and see the message contents displayed in a pop-up window or to preview a portion of a video based on the pen's position in the video timeline. If you're a germophobe and can't stand the idea of touching a touchscreen, then this technology will make perfect sense. If not, you might not see the point of Airview.
The Galaxy Note II has a lot going for it in terms of specs. It's a great Android phone, both in the sense of "large" and "impressive." It is available for $300 with a two-year contract from AT&T or Verizon, and for $370 from T-Mobile, with a contract. If a device that's bigger than a mobile phone and smaller than a tablet seems just right, then make a point of trying a Galaxy Note II at your favorite mobile carrier's retail store.