Samsung Galaxy Note 2 impressions: Smooth, improved, not as awkward

The behemoth is back: In the not-too-distant future, Samsung will release the second iteration of its peculiar giant, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. With an even larger screen than the first version, the Note 2 offers impressive hardware, an updated S-Pen stylus, new photo features, and Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). We recently had a chance to go hands-on with the global version of the Note 2. (The U.S. version is still being tweaked, we’re told). Here’s what we found.

Check out our full review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2

In the hands

We won’t lie — when the Note first debuted early this year, we couldn’t get over its cartoonish size. (See Galaxy Note review.) So when we heard that the Note 2 would have a larger screen than the original Note (5.5 inches compare to 5.3 inches), we expected to have the same reaction. But for some reason, the Note 2 just didn’t seem as ridiculous as we thought it would. Samsung’s reps told us that many people had the same first reaction to the original Note, but eventually “got it” after using the device for a short time. Surprising to us, we fell into this camp. Yes, the Note 2 looked hilariously gigantic when we first picked it up. By the end of our hour-long session with the device, however, it felt quite normal in the hand.

That said, it is still too big for a phone. We weren’t able to place any actual calls on our tester handset, but just holding it like a phone felt, well, dumb. Still, we doubt many people will buy the Note 2 primarily for its call-making functionality (as if anyone buys a smartphone to use just as a phone). But those who do plan on making many calls would do well to buy a headset — that’s the only respectable way to use this device as a phone.

Where the Note 2 shines is as a mini tablet. While the extra-thin bezels on the Note 2 mean your fingers will edge onto the screen when holding it in portrait mode, we found this orientation to be the most natural for general use.

Aside from its massive screen, the Note 2 otherwise feels like any other high-end Samsung smartphone. It’s fairly light and quite thin (9.4mm, just slightly thicker than an iPhone 4S).

samsung galaxy note 2 hands on 1

S-Pen updates

The Note 2 is all about the S-Pen, Samsung’s euphemistic name for its stylus. And Samsung has added some nifty updates to make the S-Pen even more integral to the Note 2 experience. First up, the device now automatically goes into ‘S-Pen mode’ after you’ve pulled the S-Pen from its holder slot at the bottom of the device. And, once you’re done using the S-Pen, the Note 2 will now sound an alarm anytime the S-Pen is out of range, signaling you to go back and put it back in its holder — a simple but extremely useful feature, if you’re the forgetful type. (You’ll also be able to buy replacement S-Pens, but Samsung wasn’t able to provide pricing details on that just yet.)

S-Pen: The S-Pen itself has been redesigned to be slightly longer and slightly thicker than the S-Pen that came with the Note 2. And we have to say, the changes are nice — it really does feel comfortable in the hand. The tip of the new S-Pen has a new rubbery feel to it that Samsung says is supposed to make using it feel more like “pen on paper.” We wouldn’t go quite that far, but it does feel surprisingly natural to write with the device — nothing like those useless signature pads on self-service credit card machines.

S-Note: The new S-Note app is the centerpiece of Samsung’s S-Pen offerings. S-Note allows you to perform a wide range of tasks, from making meeting reminders to drawing plans for a new house. You can import pictures, and output S Notes as PDFs. S-Notes can also be sent to other Note 2 devices (but only the Note 2) using Samsung’s S-Beam NFC functionality. We only had a few moments to fiddle around with S-Note, so we didn’t get to grasp its full functionality. But given that we see many business people using the Note 2 as a mobile office, the S-Note is sure to be a hit app.

Hover: Unlike the Note 1, the Note 2’s “hover” mode shows a dot on the screen that acts much like the cursor over the mouse. But it’s not just for looks. For example, in the Media Player, hovering over the thumbnail of a video will show a brief gif-like preview of the video, something Samsung calls “Air View.” Open the video, and you can over over the timeline of the video to see a thumbnail of that part of the vide (much like Web video players do). Simply tap the thumbnail with the S-Pen, and the video automatically jumps to that part of the video.

The Note 2 also features the pop-up video window that you can view on the home screen, a feature that made its debut in the Samsung Galaxy S 3.

Hover features also make their way into productivity apps, like email and calendar. With the S-Pen, you can scroll up and down an email just by hovering at the top or bottom of the screen, respectively. And some of the pop-up functionality found in the photo and video apps are also available here. (We were running out of time and couldn’t go to crazy with testing these out, so you’ll have to wait for our full review for us to get into the nitty gritty of this functionality).

Overall, the S-Pen worked better than expected. The first version was good. The new one is better, more responsive, and less awkward to use.

samsung galaxy note 2 hands on 9

Camera & photo

One of the most impressive new features of the Note 2 is its photo functionalities. The Burst Photo mode will now pick out the “best” photo after taking a bunch of photos in succession. That was neat. But the really flippin’ cool feature is the new Best Group Pose. This feature allows you to take a few group shots at a time, then go back and replace everyone’s face till you have the best-looking shot possible. No more having to re-take pictures because one guy keeps closing his eyes, yawning, or looking like someone just murdered his kitten. While we usually shy away from gimmicky features like this, Best Group Pose was genuinely impressive. Well done, Samsung.

Of course, the S-Pen makes its way into the photo functionality as well. Samsung has updated the photo album feature to allow you to select a number of photos at once, then tap on a single selected photo, and drag all the photos at once into a pre-made album folder. Also, in the gallery view, you can use the S-Pen to hover over a gallery and see a sampling of pictures inside.

We weren’t able to take our test unit outside, so the only photos we were able to snap were in a fairly dark room. Still, the 8-megapixel rear camera performed well enough, though the pictures were nothing to write home about. The Note 2 also includes a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat, which we tested out briefly. It works! Moving along…

Specs and use

As mentioned, the hardware specs for the Note 2 are about as solid as you can get. They are as follows:

  • 5.5-inch screen
  • 16:9 aspect ratio (which is much improved over the weird shape of the Note 1)
  • 720p Super AMOLED Plus screen
  • Samsung Exynos 1.6GHz CPU (which Samsung says is 20 percent faster than any other phones)
  • 3100mAh Battery (25 percent bigger than the original Note, and gives you a “day’s worth” of talk time, according to Samsung)
  • 16/32/64 GB storage
  • 2GB RAM
  • Two colors (marble white, titanium grey)

Samsung was quick to point out the units we tested were not 100 percent complete, and it showed. We tried out a number of different units, and each one experienced a glitch at some point in our use. However, when that wasn’t happening (and, to be fair, it wasn’t a huge problem), the phone ran fantastically well — as smooth as could be. Videos played well. Apps opened and closed with ease. And all the S-Pen functionalities were spot on.

samsung galaxy note 2 hands on 14

Apps

We didn’t get to see any third-party apps for the Note 2, but Samsung assures us that there are about 50 apps that are specifically made for use with the S-Pen. And the company is currently courting “select” developers to make apps for the device. (Photoshop Touch was the one they mentioned.) Still, we’d really like to more of the apps available before calling this one a homerun.

Odds & Ends

One of the new, random features added to the Note 2 is Samsung’s Web Everywhere functionality, which allows you to view a snapshot of a website just by click on a link (in an email, for instance). Samsung smartly made Web Everywhere a feature that you can decide to use each time you click a link, or set up so that it always (or never) happens. This was definitely interesting, and good for people who get sent random links on a regular basis, but we have a feeling we’d set this one to “off,” despite its potential usefulness.

Conclusion

The Note 2 is a clear improvement over the Note 1, both in feel and functionality — though it’s hard for us to say whether the Note 2 itself is that much better, or if we’ve just become used to the massive form factor. The S-Pen and photo apps are easily the stars of the show, as is the Note 2’s smooth running functionality. All said, we’re excited to get a bit more time with this device, so we can decide whether we were simply in an optimistic mood when we had our first go.

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