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Samsung Galaxy Note II Hands-On: Bigger Just Got Better

The original Galaxy Note was very not good, but seven months and 10 millions sales later, it’s hard to deny that it’s found a niche. But will its even beefier successor live up to the hype? We’ve been fondling the upcoming Galaxy Note II, and you know what? We’re pleasantly surprised.

The screen has gone from 5.3 inches on the Note to 5.5 inches on the Note II, yet, despite the size it’s more comfortable to hold. This is because it’s longer, but skinnier. The original Note was 16:10, this one is 16:9. Reaching the top of the screen with your thumb is still a serious struggle (and I have pretty long thumbs), but it’s definitely an improvement. Below you see it compared to the Galaxy S III on the left and the original Note on the right.

The S Pen (Samsung’s pressure-sensitive stylus) has undergone improvements as well. As you can see in the photo below, it’s gotten longer and thicker. The first iteration was round and hard to hold. The new version is a little more squared off and is definitely easier to grasp. They have also upgraded the tip. On the original Note it was just way too slippery, and the pen would slide around like crazy. The new tip is a bit more rubberised, and so there’s more resistance when you write. I would have liked to see them go further with this, but it’s certainly an improvement.

The S Pen has added a few cool new tricks, too. The phone is now aware of when the pen is in or out. Removing it will take you to a screen with some S Pen shortcuts. The phone can also tell when the tip of the S Pen is within 10 millimeters, which it uses to some advantage (it’s called Air View). For example, when you’re playing a video, you can hover over the timeline to get a thumbnail preview of what is happening at that point, then you tap to go there. In the email app (not Google’s Gmail app, unfortunately), you can hover over a subject line and get more information before you open it. Or you can use it to preview the contents of a gallery. Unfortunately, the handwriting to text is still basically unusable.

The biggest improvement, though, is the phone’s performance. It absolutely flies, and it’s incredibly smooth. Whether that’s due to the 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor or simply the addition of Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) we don’t know, but I tried hard to make it stutter and lag, and I couldn’t. Google Now opens by long-pressing the menu button (not the home button, which still opens Samsung’s S Voice, which, meh), and it was fast and smooth. Opening up a gallery, videos auto-play in thumbnail mode. Click them and they open and play instantly. The gallery has two new graphically intensive modes (Timeline and Spiral), and they both look great, and didn’t lag at all. Really impressive.

The camera has picked up some nice features, too, the most interesting of which is Best Face. You take a burst shot of a group, and the phone recognises indivdual faces and isolates them. You can then chose which face you want for which person. Sam Biddle was blinking in these three, but here he looks nice and respectable. Mario was sneezing over here, but here’s a good smile. It then splices those faces together to make one smooth, perfect group photo. It worked really well in the demo. Like the Galaxy S III it can fire off 20 shot bursts at six plus frames per second. The shutter was extremely quick and the photos looked good at first glance.

There are plenty of other upgrades. The processor, yes, but also 2GB of RAM (compared to one on the original Note) and a new GPU. The battery has also been bumped up from 2,500 mAh to 3,100 mAh. That’s still a bit shy of the upcoming Motorola RAZR MAXX HD’s 3,300 mAh battery, and the much larger screen on the Note II means the RAZR will probably beat it in battery life, but it should certainly outlast the original note.

Those were just our flash impressions. The size of the screen will be still be extremely divisive. You will either love it or you will think it’s the worst thing ever. That aside, it’s a serious improvement over the original, and we’re looking forward to spending some real time with it for a full review. Expect it to hit the US sometime in November. Hopefully Australia won’t have to wait much longer than that. In the meantime, check out this gallery of some of the features we mentioned.