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Samsung Galaxy Note II - Pleasantly Surprised (Part 1)

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The surprise hit of the last year gets a full update. The Note II comes with an even larger screen and a revamped stylus

Samsung Galaxy Note II

Samsung Galaxy Note II

Screen upgrade

The screen measures 5.5 inches and is a marked upgrade over both the original Note and the S III. It is a stunning display

Capacitive buttons

Like the Sill before it, the Note II has capacitive buttons, for Back and Menu, below the screen. We would have preferred on-screen buttons on a device of this size

Phone speaker

Yes, this is a phone. Despite its size Samsung expects you to hold it to your ear to make calls with. Might be time to invest in a Bluetooth headset!

Jelly Bean and TouchWiz

The Note II is the first Samsung device to launch with Jelly Bean. It is skinned with a newly updated and tweaked version of its popular TouchWiz Ul

It is skinned with a newly updated and tweaked version of its popular TouchWiz Ul

It is skinned with a newly updated and tweaked version of its popular TouchWiz Ul

Home button

The Home button stays in place: a quick press returns to the home screen, long press opens the task switcher and double-tap opens the S Voice app

S Pen

Try to walk off with the S Pen still sat on a table and the phone will sound an alarm to let you know

The original Samsung Galaxy Note, unveiled a year ago, caught the industry offguard. For many it seemed like a parody of the trend for ever-increasing screen sizes, while the inclusion of a stylus was a curious throwback to the early days of mobile computing. But Samsung had done its research, and the Note sold 10 million units. And now the range has been extended with both a ten-inch tablet and a new 5.5-inch device that still nobody knows what to call. Is it a phone, is it tablet? Please, not a ‘phablet’. And if you buy it, which of those two devices does it replace? Let’s find out.

Try to walk off with the S Pen still sat on a table and the phone will sound an alarm to let you know

Try to walk off with the S Pen still sat on a table and the phone will sound an alarm to let you know

Hardware and design

Despite being the third Note device, the range has yet to develop its own design identity. The Note 10.1 stands completely apart, and for the five-inch versions they borrow the look of the year’s flagship ‘S’ device - last year’s Note was an oversized Galaxy SII; the Note II is a big Galaxy S III. The presence of the S Pen is the only consistent feature, the only thing that makes a Note a Note.

As a result the Note II, like the S III before it, is not the prettiest device we’ve ever seen but neither is it particularly offensive on the eyes. The build is plastlcy and can feel a touch cheaper than you might like for a high-end device, but it has proven itself to be sturdy enough on the S III and so should be here too.

However you choose to look at the Note II there’s no escaping the fact that it is a big device. It still slides into a trouser pocket easily enough but you know that it is there. It is big to hold in one hand and you might find your fingers have to stretch even to grip the other side. It is never a one-handed device - Samsung has introduced a one-handed operation mode to the software, which reduces the size of things like the keyboard and lockscreen pattern so they are within reach of your thumb, but for the most part, even normal daily tasks require two hands to use. Not that this should be seen as a negative at all. It is simply a fact of this particular Android smartphone.

The S Pen is excellent for drawing and handwriting recognition

The S Pen is excellent for drawing and handwriting recognition

A quick tour around the Note II reveals a power button well located two-thirds of the way up the right-hand side with volume rocker opposite, headphone jack on the top and micro USB port and S Pen silo on the bottom. On the back is the camera, LED flash and speaker. To get to the SIM card and micro SD slots you must remove the back cover. Beneath the screen are the omnipresent Home button and two capacitive buttons for the Menu and Back functions. This is in line with other Samsung devices, but in this instance it would have been nice to have seen the company adopt the button-less approach that Google is currently advocating for Android.

The 5.5-inch screen is larger by 0.2 inches than its predecessor and has been upgraded over the S III as well. The 720 x 1,280 pixel Super AMOLED screen has a lower pixel density but is not a PenTile display, resulting in sharper and crisper text and images. Admittedly we've never had any issues with this on the S III but putting the two side-by-side does show a noticeable difference in favour of the Note II. The HTC One X still gets our vote for best screen on an Android smartphone, but this is not far behind.

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