Barbara Krasnoff

Samsung's Galaxy Note II: A first look at a sleek new Note

September 11, 2012 12:01 PM EDT

When Samsung came out with its Galaxy Note smartphone last February, many wondered exactly how to classify the 5.3-in. device. It was smaller than any existing tablets and yet larger than any other smartphone. And it included a stylus (called the S Pen), an add-on that had become out of fashion with the advent of current touch screens.

Now, Samsung has introduced a follow-up to its initial offering: the Galaxy Note II. This tweaked version offers a sleeker and easier-to-hold design, an improved version of the S-Pen, and upgraded software.

I had a chance to spend a few minutes with the Galaxy Note II last week (somewhat later than the attendees at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, who were able to play with it at the end of August). The device I tried was still the European version; the U.S. version, which may differ slightly, was not ready yet.

Longer and slimmer

That being said, the Galaxy Note II that I was shown had a number of improvements. The original Note has a 5.3-in. display; the Note 2 has a 5.5-in. Super Amoled display with 1280 x 720p HD resolution. I didn't have an original Note with me to use as comparison, but on first glance I thought the display of the Note II was excellent: the color depth and detail were impressive, and videos played smoothly and without any pixilation.

The new Note II weighs 6.35 oz., somewhat heavier than its predecessor's 6.28 oz., and measures 3.16 x 5.94 x 0.37 in., slightly narrower and taller than the Note. Interestingly, that slight change made it much easier to hold in one hand. When I spent a few minutes with the original Note, I could tell that it might be a strain within a minute or so; when I was trying out the Note II, it was comfortable enough so that I soon forgot to even notice its size.

The processor has been upgraded to a Samsung 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor, and the standard battery is now 3100mAh (as opposed to the original Note's 2500mAh). The Note II will be offered with 16/32/64GB of storage, but will also be able to use up to a 64GB memory card. It will, according to Samsung, ship with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean).

The S Pen

I may be prejudiced, having spent several years with PDAs that used styli as tools for touch, but I don't feel that the S Pen is a disadvantage at all. This may be a generational thing; when questioned, a Samsung rep admitted that, on the whole, the S pen has been used largely to do precision work; Note owners tended to use their fingers to perform tasks when they weren't using pen-specific features. The company is trying to change that by extending the number of applications available for the S Pen and by improving the Pen itself.

Samsung Galaxy Note II

The new S Pen is slightly thicker and longer than the previous one -- to give a more "pen-like" feel, according to the Samsung rep. The tip depresses slightly when you press it, just like the tip of a ballpoint; it has also been rubberized so that it gives slightly more resistance when it moves across the screen.

The technology used with the S Pen allows it to be recognized even when it's a few millimeters away from the screen, and Samsung has done some interesting things with that. For example, you can hover the pen over an email, and you'll get a preview of the first few lines. If you hover over a video thumbnail on the S Pen's video app, you get a preview of the video with sound. You can create a cropped screenshot by holding down the S Pen's button and then circling the section of the screen you want to save. And if you need help with some of the gestures the S Pen uses -- to, say, pull up a menu -- just hover it over the screen and a small round help window will pop up to remind you.

One of the things that can go very wrong with using styli is that they are small, portable -- and very easy to lose. I was impressed with how Samsung has dealt with that.

Samsung Galaxy Note II

First, the Note II recognizes when you've removed the S Pen from its holder in the lower right-hand part of the device and immediately takes you to a page showing all the S Pen enabled apps. But even better, it has an alarm system that will let you know if you leave the S Pen behind. When I shut the Note II off and walked away with the smartphone (but not the stylus) in my hand, once I was a couple of yards away, the Note vibrated and a pop-up windows told me that "The S Pen has been detached."

Looking forward

The Note II offers other upgrades as well, including more features for its 8-megapixel camera, such as holding down the "shutter" to get a burst of 20 shots, offering time-lapse videos and an enhanced photo album that lets you easily move your photos into different albums and view them via a snazzy spiral view.

It will take a lot more time with the Galaxy Note II before we can really assess its capabilities, and whether its larger form-factor and S Pen capabilities will attract more users than the Galaxy Note has (according to Samsung, it's had over 10 million global sales). Unfortunately, U.S. users will have to wait a while; the Galaxy Note II will start selling in Asia and Europe this October; as of this writing, there was no set date for a U.S. appearance.

But I'm looking forward to it.