I’ve written about them, shot hands-on videos with them, and debated their ups and downs on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast … but I’ve never had the opportunity to actually use a “phablet,” a smartphone/tablet hybrid, outside of a showroom floor.
That is, until now.
Yesterday, a package arrived at my door containing Samsung’s newest offering for the phablet market. The South Korean company created the category last year with the original 5.3-inch Galaxy Note, and it’s following up that model’s surprising success with the even-more-beastly 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II. The new device bears upgraded specs in nearly every dimension, from its enhanced “S Pen” stylus to its new Exynos Quad CPU with LTE support.
We’re going to get into detail on all that in our full review coming a little later down the road. For now, as the clock approaches 24 hours post-delivery, I thought I’d share some first impressions from the perspective of a newcomer to the phablet space.
My roommate said it best when I handed the device over to him for a little heft-check: “Well, it’s good we’re coming up on the winter months so you’ll be dressed heavily. Gonna need some extra pockets for this thing.”
There’s no getting around it; this is a huge device. Samsung did a great job bumping up the sequel’s screen size compared to the original Galaxy Note while slightly slimming down the chassis, but as I mentioned in yesterday’s unboxing video, this is easily the largest non-tablet device I’ve ever laid hands on, and it certainly feels the part. It’s so large that it makes my current daily driver, the massive Galaxy S III, feel almost mid-sized by comparison. That’s after less than a day, mind you.
That’s not entirely bad; the added heft that size bump carries with it results in a device that feels more substantial in the hand. That additional weight gives the Note II a more premium feel than the Galaxy S III, but the slippery, plasticky hyperglaze coating has been retained in the phablet, and it doesn’t let that deluxe tactility extend too far.
The Galaxy Note II’s ample acreage is used to some advantage by the custom TouchWiz skin riding on top of Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. It’s not put to use too often; most of my early experience with the Note II has been spent in a somewhat conventionally scaled-up version of Android, but there are cool bits here and there, like the persistent number row across the top of the keyboard. That convenience, tough to deliver on a smaller screen, means less fiddling with the shift key down in the corner- always a good thing.
There are other software customizations here as well, of course, but Samsung has ported a lot of them wholesale from the Galaxy S III. On the flip side, some features the company announced earlier aren’t even available yet. One of the most notable bright points of the Note II’s software load, though, is one I haven’t seen before, and it’s one that makes excellent use of the device’s larger screen size. It’s called the pop-up browser, and it’s awesome.
This feature is analogous to the “Pop Up Play” video viewer Samsung introduced on the Galaxy S III, except it’s much more useful. Instead of confining the picture-in-picture experience to video (and on-device video, at that), the new feature allows you to open links from a news feed -Twitter, in the example pictured- in a separate, hovering window. You’re able to shift focus back to the news feed and peruse it while waiting for the page to load -the inactive window dims in the interim- then tap back into the browser window when the page is ready for viewing. It’s a much more fluid, desktop-like experience than jumping into and out of the full browser every time you click on a link, and it’s easily my favorite feature of the Galaxy Note II so far. It’s a great example of Samsung leveraging the added screen real estate together with smart software improvements to offer something truly useful.
Oh very well – the “S Pen.”
Besides its sheer bulk, the Galaxy Note II’s most significant differentiating feature would have to be the S Pen, the specialized stylus tucked away in its little alcove on the bottom edge of the device, to the right of the home button. Despite my initial reluctance to re-embrace the pen-based input methods of yore when the original Galaxy Note debuted, I’ve warmed up to the idea in recent months. Samsung’s use of a Wacom digitizer on the Note series, in concert with a specialized software suite, make the inclusion of the S Pen more than just a stunt. It’s a real added value.
At least, it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’m rusty from years spent sans-stylus, but I’ve had a tough first day making the S Pen work for me. The Galaxy Note II features an even-more-sensitive digitizer than its predecessor, and there’s supposed to be a new tip on this latest S Pen to increase friction and better approximate the feel of a pen on paper. Maybe it’s because I never used the first Note, but I’m not really getting the sense of either of those improvements. Input is a little on the finicky side, with different apps seeming to interpret the S Pen’s contact differently. It’s early yet, and this piece isn’t so much a review as a collection of early impressions; I sure haven’t made up my mind about anything regarding the stylus. But it must be said that at the outset, I’m a little less impressed than I thought I’d be.
S Pen growing pains aside, I’ve enjoyed my day-one experience with the Galaxy Note II. The soft glow of new-device love is merging with the gray haze of new-device fear into a dense layer of truth-obscuring clouds, but that’ll fade soon enough. At the moment, all I can say is that the Galaxy Note II is a truly different device with some very interesting features; I can see why it wouldn’t be for everyone, but I’m also beginning to understand why its predecessor sold so well.
For more impressions, in-depth feature coverage, and our full review of the headlining phablet of 2012, stay tuned to Pocketnow in the coming days.