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The original Galaxy Note literally stretched the definition of a smartphone. In fact, Samsung's 5.3-inch device forged a whole new category that some (derisively) call phablets, a cross-between phone and tablets. Our review praised the Note's sharp camera and crisp HD display, but ultimately we gave Samsung's tweener 3 out of 5 stars. The versatility of having a built in pen for taking notes and drawing simply didn't justify the extra-large size. As it turns out, Samsung says it has sold over 20 million Galaxy Notes worldwide in 100 days, proving that there are plenty of folks that want big phones.
So what do you do for an encore if you're Samsung? You make the Galaxy Note II bigger--5.5 inches big. (That's 1.5 inches larger than the iPhone 5's rumored display.) I recently previewed the international version of the Note II and came away with five reasons why the device is too big too fail.
1. Bigger Screen, Less Bulk
The tagline of the Galaxy Note II is "The Next Big Thing"--yes that's the same one Samsung is using for the Galaxy S III--but it's actually not as imposing as the original Note. While taller (5.9 inches vs 5.8 inches), the Note II is both narrower and slimmer than the first Note while accommodating a larger 5.5-inch screen.
When I slipped the handset in my pocket I could definitely tell that it was there, but it didn't weigh me down. At 6.34 ounces, the Note II weighs just a hair more than the 6.31-ounce Motorola Droid 4. Yes, the latter device packs a physical slide-out keyboard, but I suspect a lot more shoppers would prefer a bigger screen to a QWERTY that bloats the profile to .5 inches.
So what good is having such a ginormous screen? Watching videos on the HD Super AMOLED display is a beautiful sight, with vivid colors and ultra-wide viewing angles. You'll definitely be able to pass this phone in the back seat to entertain the kids. There's another benefit to having a billboard-like screen; the Note II will stand out on store shelves, dwarfing even the 5-inch LG Intuition and rumored 5-incher from HTC.
2. A Pen with More Purpose
It's clear that Samsung has refined the S Pen experience, both in terms of hardware and software. For starters, the pen is more substantial and sports a rubber tip, which gives you the sensation that you're writing on paper instead of glass. The notes I scribbled looked just my chicken scratch, and using it felt more natural than the original Note. Plus, the pen now has a ridged button that's easier to find by feel.
My favorite feature of the S Pen is its gesture support. You can now use Air View to hover over items to preview them, whether it's a bunch of photos that fan out in the gallery or the first few words of an email. You can also perform nifty shortcuts using the pen, such as sending off an email by swiping up with the pen on the screen while holding the button, then drawing the app symbol along with someone's name.
It seems minor, but the fact that the Note II presents a special home screen optimized for S Pen when you unsheathe the stylus goes a long way towards hammering home its value.
3. Faster Quad-Core Performance and Jelly Bean
The more you layer on top of Android, the more you can slow your phone down, so the Note II will need all the horsepower it can get to power the S Pen interface along with lots of other features making its way over from S III, from burst shot photography to S Beam for sharing large files with a tap.
In fact, the Note II goes even further than the S III with its capabilities, including a new feature called Best Group Pose that lets you pick the best faces made in a given photo even with multiple people in the frame. During my hands-on time with the device it didn't always recognize all the mugs in a group shot; a Samsung rep says it helps if everyone is facing the camera.
The good news is that the 1.6-GHz quad-core Exynos processor inside the international version looks like it may be making its way stateside, if you believe the reports from sites like Android Police and Brief Mobile. Up until now all U.S. carriers have shunned handsets with quad-core CPUs. Just as important, Jelly Bean is on board, which means you'll be able to enjoy features like Google Now and offline voice typing.
4. All-Day Battery Life
It's about time someone other than Motorola start to take battery life seriously. The Galaxy Note II will ship with a 3,100 mAh battery, which is a lot more capacity than the 2,500 mAh pack inside the original Note. Samsung estimates you should have no problem getting through a full day of usage.
In our tests of the Galaxy Note for AT&T, the phone lasted 5 hours and 46 minutes web surfing over 4G LTE on 40 percent brightness. The Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx, with its 3,300 mAH battery, lasted 8 hours and 25 minutes. We don't expect the Samsung to last quite as long because of its larger screen, but we wouldn't be surprised if this phone lasted at least 1.5 hours longer than its predecessor.
5. More (Expected) Carriers Equals More Sales
Samsung hasn't said anything official about U.S. availability yet, but all the rumors point to the Note II making a big splash across multiple carriers. The original Note landed on AT&T in February and didn't come to T-Mobile until several months later. Then the Note disappeared from T-Mobile's site, fueling reports that the Note II is imminent. So what about Sprint and Verizon? BriefMobile says the Note II is confirmed for Verizon Wireless (model number SCH-I605) and XDA-Developers has reported that the Sprint version is also a lock (SPH-L900). Even U.S. Cellular is rumored to be getting this sequel.
Even though Apple could sell as many as 10 million iPhone 5 devices in its first week, consumers have voted again and again with their wallets that they're seeking viable Apple alternatives. And the Galaxy Note II is certainly differentiated enough to get shoppers' attention. Would I carry this device? I'll withhold judgement until we've conducted our full review, but based on my hands-on impressions of the Note II I'd say it's looking like the next bigger thing will find plenty of fans.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.