While we expect a device like the Note II to appeal mainly to smartphone buffs, Samsung is at least making an attempt to make first-time users feel comfortable. You can opt to change from the standard home screen to what's called "easy mode," which is essentially just a different launcher complete with customized pages and large widgets. Aside from that, there are very few things that differ from your normal TouchWiz experience -- it's a rather half-baked attempt at wooing a new demographic.
Samsung's set of motion controls are much improved from the old Note to the new, with the sequel now matching (and exceeding, in a couple cases) the Galaxy S III's functionality in this department. To recap, you can scroll to the top of a screen by double-tapping the top edge of the phone; tilt to zoom in and out of the screen in the gallery or browser; pan the phone to move icons on the main screen; shake your phone to look for updates; turn over the phone to mute sounds; directly call whatever contact is displayed on the screen; and more. There are a few newcomers to the Samsung fold: quick glance shows you a few basic notifications when you wave your hand over the proximity sensor and there are a few new advanced settings to adjust the level of sensitivity required to trigger motion when panning or tilting your device. Finally, another slick new feature is Smart Rotation. If you're like us, there's a certain annoyance that comes with using the phone while in bed or on the couch because it switches screen orientation on a frequent basis. While you can typically find toggles that lock this, it's not always the best solution -- watching movies or looking at pictures are a couple of examples. Smart Rotation uses the front-facing camera to determine where your face is, and will prevent the screen from switching to landscape mode if you're still using your phone in a portrait position. One more thing: as with the Galaxy S III, Note II owners are entitled to 50GB of Dropbox storage.
The crown jewel of any Note device is its accompanying stylus (we know, we're not supposed to call it that), also known as the S Pen, and Samsung continues to improve on it with each new version. Indeed, the original Note, Note 10.1 and Note II all have somewhat unique pens, but they all have the same overarching design and can work interchangeably. That's handy information for anyone who loses their Wacom appendage, though there's one drawback: not all S Pens are shaped the same, so they don't all fit interchangeably in each other's cradles. The original Note pen fits loosely inside the Note II's cradle, and we wouldn't count on it staying in for very long before popping out. Ergonomics are a huge consideration when Samsung designs its pens and indeed, each iteration seems to have a better in-hand feel. The Note II's S Pen is slightly fatter on the button side, which -- when pressing your thumb against it -- contributes to more of a true pencil feel. Also adding to the nostalgia of using an old-fashioned number two is the larger rubber tip, slightly bigger diameter (8mm) and increased length of the pen itself. It also doesn't hurt that you can tell the phone if you're right or left-handed (sorry, ambidextrous users, you have to choose).
We suppose it shouldn't come as a revelation that the second Note's S Pen and Wacom digitizer have more in common with the Note 10.1 than the original Note. First, the device recognizes when you've removed the pen from its holster and, smartly assuming you'll imminently be using it, takes you to a special page with several pen-optimized apps. (It also lets you set an alarm that activates if your S Pen and Note get too far away from each other.) Also, much like the tablet, the Note II is capable of recognizing up to 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, a four-fold increase over the OG Note's 256. As a result, we noticed an improvement in accuracy and precision when using the pen for writing, sketching and other activities. What's more, the screen does a much better job of calculating how much pressure you're applying. This only scratches the surface of what the S Pen is capable of. The Note II not only ushers in enhancements to existing features; it also brings a suite of new features that make the phone even more tantalizing than last year's model. Even the button itself is refreshed: you can now hold down the button while drawing gestures on the screen to access features like the Quick Command tool (we'll cover this later) and a few other navigational abilities. Additionally, you can now copy specific parts of the screen with Easy Clip, which is activated by holding down the button and drawing around the area you want to clip. Once it's clipped, you can choose to save or discard what you've selected. You can also select text by holding the button, tapping the screen and dragging the pen across. And we're just getting started -- the button is capable of plenty more, and we'll discuss its many new talents later in the review. Before we dive into the first feature, it's important to note that the Wacom digitizer included in the phone is capable of sensing the S Pen as it hovers over the screen, in the same fashion that we've seen in Bamboo Pads for the last few years. As you hold the pen above the panel you'll notice a floating cursor on the screen. This opens up a lot of interesting possibilities, one of them being Air View. Using this feature, the Note II takes advantage of the hover functionality in several ways. For instance, you can hold the pen over emails in your inbox (in the general email app for now, at least) and a pop-up box displays the first few lines. Do the same in your calendar and those pesky appointments pop out at you in more detail as you scan through. Hold your pen over an unknown icon and its function will appear, the same way as when your mouse is held over something on your computer). Our favorite use of Air View is the ability to see GIF-like previews of movies just by holding the S Pen over a thumbnail. (Cool feature worth a mention: all of the video thumbnails in the player show these same types of previews without the pen, which makes the whole screen look alive, but the S Pen makes the pop-up screen larger.)
Next up on the list of hover-friendly additions, you can now use your S Pen to scroll up and down on a page or list. In other words, it's now just a matter of holding the pen directly above the top or bottom of the scrollable screen. Sure, it seems gimmicky and unnecessary, but we discovered that we used this feature more often than we thought we would. The scrolling action is a little slow, so it's doubtful you'd want to use this on a lengthy website, but it's handy when you just need to go down the screen a little bit at a time -- say, in a settings menu or Twitter feed. Another neat feature that takes advantage of the newfound hovering capability is the ability to toggle between brush, pencil and eraser simply by holding the pen above the screen and clicking the button. This makes for a quick and seamless experience when you're constantly making mistakes (or changing your mind) as you draw. When you're in S Note, you can also hold the pen above the screen and long-press its button to activate another new feature called Idea Sketch. A blank notepad appears, you write down the name of a particular category (or just browse through the list) and a whole bunch of possible illustrations show up for you to choose from. Once you choose one that suits your fancy, it appears in S Note where you can adjust the size and outline style -- and then you can either find inspiration from it, or just color between the lines like it's a coloring book.
Earlier we mentioned that Popup Video is available on the Note II, but that isn't the only thing that pops up -- you can do the same thing with Popup Note, which is activated by holding the S Pen button and double-tapping on the screen. This is basically a miniature version of the S Note app, which takes up less than half of the screen real estate. This means you can take notes and watch videos simultaneously. (Popup Browser is also available.) This is the best example of true multitasking that we've ever seen on a smartphone, and there were no lags, coughs, stutters or any sign whatsoever that the quad-core Exynos processor was buckling under the load. If this is only the beginning of what these phablets are capable of with the right engine under the hood, color us impressed.
We're not done quite yet, multitasking fans. Samsung advertises another feature called Multi-Window that parallels -- nay, exceeds -- the aforementioned Popup Note in awesomeness. We recently saw an implementation of this in the Galaxy Note 10.1, and it's back, here in the Note II as Multi-Window. The implementation is a little different this time around, with a long press on the back button brining up a side bar of apps to choose from. On its tablet incarnation, this consisted of a choice of six. This time we have much more to choose from, including YouTube, ChatOn, GMail, Maps, Internet and, well, you get the idea. This list is also customizable so you can cut the ones you don't want, and bring your faves to the top. In practice, it works well. We had videos running while we checked our email, and happily scoured Google maps whilst we kept some restaurant reviews open in the other pane. Likewise, it's nice to see that you can use this in both orientations, with the phone's buttons being applied to the window that is currently in focus (sounds obvious, but anything's possible). We'd be interested to see how this might scale down onto something with a little less display going on, but the Note II's ample square-inchage certainly makes this a feature worth using. If you've ever used a dual-monitor setup for your desktop, you'll understand the massive productivity boost such a feature could bring to your smartphone -- especially given the amount of screen space the Note II offers.
Quick Command is another new feature that takes advantage of the S Pen's gesture prowess. It's activated by pressing the button while dragging the pen up from the bottom. A familiar-looking handwriting box shows up, prompting you to write a command symbol followed by a keyword. For instance, write "@ Susie" to send an email to Susie; "? [search term]" performs a web search; "# Joseph" tells the phone to call Joseph, and so on. On the surface, this doesn't seem particularly useful when S Voice or Google voice search can do the same stuff, but here's the kicker: it's fully customizable, and you can add in whatever commands you want -- and these commands can open up applications or perform a set of automated tasks (think SmartActions or Tasker). You could program it to turn WiFi, GPS and Blocking Mode on just by drawing a "C," if that's what floats your boat.
S Voice makes a return appearance, despite the existence of similar functionality in Jelly Bean. Not a surprise. What did take us aback is that it now includes S Pen handwriting recognition. This is definitely an interesting addition; from our perspective, it doesn't make much sense to write down a phrase that we could easily speak in less time -- not to mention the fact that Quick Command already addresses this capability, albeit in a separate app. This seems like a feature that Samsung threw in just because it could. Yet it's there if you want it, and we suppose there are a few folks that are gushing at the idea. As you've no doubt come to understand, the Note II is fully loaded. The S Pen experience between the first- and second-generation devices is a night-and-day difference: the original Note seems like just a working concept in comparison. This is by far the best pen / stylus / whatchamacallit we've used on a smartphone. If you were a fan of the Note, you'll be pleasantly surprised with its successor.
Finally, Samsung has released version 2.2 of its S Pen SDK, which gives third-party developers the ability to beef up their apps with support for hovering, new brushes, special effects and context awareness. There's no guarantee your favorite app will magically have cool new S Pen features, but the option is there for devs to put in a little extra spice if they're interested.
Given what we already know of the Note II's similarities to the Galaxy S III, would it be much of a shocker to see the two sporting nearly identical cameras? Thanks to a little help from Supercurio, we did some digging and discovered that the two phones use the exact same rear camera modules (known in the code as the s5c73m3). Yes, both utilize maximum resolutions of eight megapixels (3,264 x 2,448 resolution), f/2.6 aperture and 3.7mm focal length in stills, while allowing for 1080p video capture. The front-facing cameras are the same as well: they max out at 1.9MP and are capable of 720p video recording. (Warning: they default to 1.3MP, which is 1,280 x 960. The 1.9MP setting offers 1,392 x 1,392 pixel resolution.) But while the two devices may be hardware bosom buddies, there are likely to be a few minor differences in firmware -- especially since the Note II has additional features not yet offered in the GS III. So before we dive into the performance, let's discuss what the device has to offer. First, it has a new "best face" mode, which is Samsung's version of Scalado Rewind: it takes five group photos and lets you choose the best faces. This is handy if Bob blinks in the first picture and Julie's making a weird face in the second -- just take the best of each person and put them together in one magical finished product. There's also a new "low light" mode, which as the name implies, is meant to deliver an improved performance in that arena. Aside from these newcomers, you'll find the same litany of settings present in the GS III, such as HDR (with strong and normal settings, a choice you're not given on the GS III), panorama, share shot, plenty of scene modes, burst shot, macro focus, white balance, ISO, metering and exposure adjustment.