One of the areas that will take some getting used to is gesture control. Samsung came up with some pretty clever stuff just by taking advantage of the various sensors used in the Note II. This isn't new territory for the company, as we've already seen most of them employed in the GS3. For instance, you can scroll to the top of a screen by double-tapping the top edge of the phone (one of our favorites); 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. They're quite fancy and chances are you may only find a few of them to be actually useful, but the options are all there just in case you want them.
New to the Jelly Bean TouchWiz experience are a couple new modes. There's Blocking Mode, which is similar to "Do Not Disturb
" in iOS 6. For a specific timeframe of your choosing -- 11 PM to 6 AM, as an example -- you can set up a whitelist of allowed contacts and disable certain notifications that come from anyone not on that list. This is a great idea for anyone that doesn't want to wake up several times a night to incoming emails and other non-essential notifications. Another new feature that comes along with Android 4.1 is the much less useful Easy Experience Mode. In a nutshell, this mode is Samsung's way of introducing first-time smartphone users to the confusing world of TouchWiz. When activated, you're taken into a new launcher that offers customizable pages and large easy-to-read widgets. Aside from that, there's not much to differentiate it from TouchWiz, and ultimately ends up feeling more gimmicky than beneficial.
Samsung has built in a few features that utilize the phone's front-facing camera in a very innovative fashion. Smart Stay, which we highlighted in our review of the GS3, prevents the screen from going dim while you read it. Meanwhile, Smart Rotation (new to the Note II and Jelly Bean) will keep the screen orientation the same so long as your face is vertically aligned with the camera -- even if your body is tilting at an angle. As an example, you can read something on your phone while lying in bed without worrying about the screen moving to landscape mode.
Quick Glance also debuts on the Note II. This particular feature shows you a few basic notifications when you wave your hand over the proximity sensor. In theory, this saves not only time, but battery life, activating only a small portion of the screen whenever you need to check to see if you've missed any calls or messages.
Popup Video makes an appearance here and it looks even better on the large screen than what we experienced on the Galaxy S III. Choose a video you want to watch, press the popup button on the bottom-right corner of the screen and the movie hovers over half of the display (and you can pinch-to-zoom to adjust the size however you'd like), leaving you free to take care of other tasks while you watch your favorite flick. Other apps take advantage of this multitasking capability, such as Popup Note (activated with your S Pen) and Popup Browser.
On a similar note, the Note II is the first device to feature Samsung's new Multi-Window mode. A long-press of the back button brings up a hideable side menu containing several apps, including YouTube, ChatOn, Gmail, Maps, Internet and so on. Drag and drop one of the apps onto the top half of the screen, and repeat the process to put a second app on the bottom half. As you likely figured, this gives you the opportunity to truly multitask with some of your most-used programs. Features like this do a great job of making use of the ample screen real estate, and in our review of the N7100 we found that the quad-core processor helped keep things amazingly smooth in this dual-monitor-type setup.
Here's the problem with Multi-Window: it's not going to ship on any of the US models at the time of release. Unfortunately, the N7100 underwent the exact same concern, as the initial shipments didn't come with the feature pre-installed and it wasn't readily available until a firmware update took care of the issue a week or so later. We're still waiting to hear back from Samsung on when we can expect to see Multi-Window domestically, but it's incredibly disappointing to see such a huge feature get completely left out.
T-Mobile did its fair share of decorating TouchWiz with its own stash of ornaments. The usual littering of carrier support apps (T-Mobile My Account, Name ID, TV, Visual Voicemail and so on) are present, as well as a few other programs and home page widgets, but -- to the company's credit -- they can all be disabled. You also get access to a complimentary 50GB of Dropbox storage space for the next two years. Now for a few pieces of bad news: Carrier IQ is enabled, FM radio isn't supported, and, as mentioned earlier, the Multi-Window feature we raved about in our N7100 review doesn't work... at least, not yet.
Pulling down the notification menu, you'll see an ongoing notice that conveniently shows your current usage status for the month. You can keep track of minutes, messages and data here, and it's very clever. However, it's not removable and not everyone will enjoy it hogging up a fair amount of space in the menu when it could easily be added onto the home page as a widget. (It can also be accessed through the T-Mobile My Account app, and data usage can be found in the settings menu, with the usual spread of Android customization alerts.) On a related note, you'll notice a similar notification plastered on your menu whenever WiFi calling is enabled.
This particular iteration of the Note II also includes the racing game Need for Speed Most Wanted. The game comes loaded with support for the MOGA gaming system (read: Bluetooth controller), which will be sold in T-Mobile stores in November -- as well as plenty of other retail locations -- for $50. We haven't yet had the opportunity to play with the MOGA, but we'll be getting our hands on one soon and will update our review after we collect some initial impressions of it.
On the original Galaxy Note, the pen was certainly mightier than the finger. While we can't say it with a surety, the first "phablet" likely wouldn't have been the breakout hit that it was without the assistance of the S Pen, the "don't call it a stylus" stylus that took advantage of the Note's Wacom digitizer. Samsung's taken things another step with its sequel, throwing in a new Wacom slab with greater pressure sensitivity and a pen with much more functionality.
The new S Pen is longer, wider (8mm) and it's flat on the button side, which makes it feel more like you're grasping an old-fashioned pencil -- a trait that a lot of traditional artists will prefer over the first pen. It also offers a slightly larger tip made of rubber, which also helps deliver a similar sensation to that of your run-of-the-mill writing utensil. The additional levels of pressure sensitivity (1,024, as compared to 256) offer up a more accurate drawing experience and even allows for greater variation in how light or dark your doodling turns out without the need to switch brushes every other second.
Let's dive into the thick of what the S Pen can do on the new Note. The most significant feature gifted to the latest phablet is the hovering functionality. This will be familiar to anyone who has used a Wacom tablet or Bamboo Pad in the last few years. The phone can sense when the pen is just above it, and it will indicate this by showing off a cursor over the exact spot where the stylus is floating. This opens up a whole bunch of possibilities, many of which encompass the Note II's Air View feature. You can scroll up and down through a list or website when you hover the pen over the top or bottom of the screen; you can point it at your inbox or calendar and a popup box provides more details about that particular email or a list of the appointments you have on that given date; hold it over an icon you've never seen and a little box (tooltip) peeks out to tell you what that button does; and you can point your pen at a thumbnail of a photo or video and a larger version of your selection will pop up. (By the way, the preview mode of the Note II's video player shows GIF-like thumbnails of your entire movie collection.)
You can also use the S Pen button when hovering to access various features. For instance, when you're drawing in the S Note app, a quick press of the button will toggle between different brushes, pencils and the eraser; while long-pressing it will pull up Idea Sketch. In this feature, 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 find inspiration from it, trace it for your own purposes or just put some color in between the lines.
Speaking of the button, there's plenty more you can do with it when the pen is touching the screen. Press and hold to produce an editable screenshot (handy for maps, websites and other things you want to add notes or drawings to before sending it along to a colleague). You can also press and tap the screen twice to bring up Popup Note, or you can clip a specific part of the screen by pressing and circling around the area you want. Diving into it even more, you can hold the button while drawing gestures: an up arrow brings up the menu, a left arrow mimics the phone's back key and zipping the pen straight up the screen will pull up Quick Command. As we mentioned earlier, the hardest part is mastering the lengthy list of various gestures and commands that your S Pen is capable of producing.
Quick Command, by the way, is another useful feature. A familiar-looking handwriting box shows up, prompting you to write a command symbol followed by a keyword. For instance, write "@ Jill" to send an email to Jill; "? [search term]" performs a web search; "# Robert" tells the phone to call Robert; and the list goes on. This is nice from an accessibility standpoint, but we had a difficult time finding a good reason to use this over S Voice, Google voice search or even our own shortcuts. That doesn't mean it's completely pointless; quite the contrary, in fact. The real benefit of this feature is the ability to add your own customized gestures, which turns Quick Command into Samsung's own version of SmartActions or Tasker. As an example, program the phone to turn Blocking Mode and WiFi on while turning off GPS and Bluetooth at the same time -- all by drawing a letter, number or symbol of your choosing.
In another unique addition to the S Pen experience, the Note II is capable of sensing when the stylus has been taken out of its cradle. It realizes you intend to use the pen, and automatically launches a special home page with several S Pen friendly options. You can also have the phone activate Popup Note once the pen departs the holster, if you desire. On top of this, you're able to tell the device to sound a notification whenever it senses that the pen has drifted too far away from its home.
Before we move on to the next section, we'll point out that the S Pen on T-Mobile's Note II is precisely the same as the global version, and you won't notice any difference in functionality or how it interacts with the digitizer. We assume it will be the same story for the other US models, but we'll update our review after those units arrive at our doorstep.
Samsung cameras need very little introduction, since the company's top-end modules typically do a great job of speaking for themselves. The company has opted to go with 8MP sensors ever since the days of the Galaxy S II and -- despite not moving forward in the megapixel war -- it continues to crank out some of the best cameras in the market. The module on the Galaxy Note II (global and T-Mobile) is identical to the one found on the GS3, which means you're up for just about the same experience.
Per TouchWiz protocol, the Note II's camera has legions of various settings to help modify your shots exactly the way you want. Shooting modes like HDR, low light, panorama, smile shot, face detection, buddy photo share and more are included, as well as a "best face" mode, which lets you take a burst shot of your friends or family, and then pick and choose the best face for each person. On top of these features you can enjoy a limited number of ISO options (up to 800 is supported), white balance, metering and exposure / contrast adjustment. Various scenes are available, such as candlelight, text, autumn colors, party, sunset and quite a few more.
Burst shot mode is also available, but there's one limitation that causes some frustration: you can't use the shutter button to lock exposure or focus when this mode turned on. It can be switched off in the settings, of course, but you can't use a toggle switch as one of the customizable shortcuts on the sidebar.