Samsung “Thinks Different”

I’ve been trying out a new smartphone that has sold 10 million units since it went on sale one month ago. It’s the Samsung Galaxy Note II, a successor to the 1-year-old Note that created a stir with its huge 5.3-inch display. The Note II is slightly taller and narrower and a bit thinner (5.9 inches by 3.2 inches wide by 0.37 inch thick). It weighs a comfortable 6.4 ounces, and its 5.5-inch display is a bit larger.

The Note II is basically a large version of the Samsung Galaxy S III, currently the best selling of all Android phones, and the iPhone’s main competitor. The Note II is about as different from the iPhone as a product could be. Where the iPhone 5 is made out of aluminum and glass with a jewelry-like finish, the Note II is less stylish, with a glass front, a thin plastic back cover, and chrome-plated plastic trim around its perimeter. Where the iPhone’s switches are unlikely to be accidentally activated, pick up the Note II and there’s a good chance you’ll accidently touch one of the protruding buttons and turn the phone on. But there’s a good reason for Samsung’s minimalist case design: The back snaps off to reveal a huge removable battery and a memory expansion slot that bests Apple’s fixed battery and non-expandable memory.

The thinking behind such a large phone makes sense. With smartphones being used not only to make calls, but also for email, browsing, reading, entertainment and photography, a bigger screen is better. And if you use a Bluetooth headset, the extra large size is not an issue. It still is thin and light enough to easily fit into a pants, shirt or jacket pocket. As a phone it worked well, with voice quality using a new Plantronics Voyager Legend headphone loud, crisp and clear.

Once I began using it, the display seemed to diminish in size and seemed almost normal. When I returned to my iPhone 5, its screen almost looked small. This was a phone that made it easy to read everything, while still being pocketable.

The Note II is a fully equipped phone, including a front and rear camera (2 and 8 gigabytes), the latest Android Jelly Bean OS, a quad-core processor, and a speaker that played loud and clear, particularly as a speakerphone and listening to live radio.

Samsung positions the Note II to be not only your smartphone, but to also replace your pocket notebook for taking notes and checking your calendar. It’s one of the first smartphones to include a pen or stylus for writing on the display. When you remove the pen from the right bottom opening of the body, the phone turns on and opens to the note application.

Writing is much better than using pens designed for ordinary Android tablets or iPads. That’s because there’s a built-in Wacom digitizer behind the display that detects the pen’s position very accurately. You can write with a range of stroke thicknesses, from the very thin to very thick, and you can create precise and accurate sketches. While the writing is slick with no friction as on paper, skips are infrequent.

Because Google offers no support for a pen on Android, Samsung had to provide a number of applications tailored to the pen, including a Note application. There’s a special calendar app, called S-Planner, that’s a calendar similar to Google’s. When you place the pen over a particular date, a pop-up box appears with your appointments enlarged and expanded. The note app offers a variety of templates, but few are all that useful and there’s not a good storage system that allows you to find a specific note. Each page has a strip of menu items across the top to change from pen input to keyboard, or to a text recognition mode.

Recognition, however, worked poorly for me. But in some other apps such as Gmail, where you can enter text on a writing pad instead of a keyboard, the recognition was better.

What’s frustrating is that you can’t highlight text in a book or document you may be reading. While I liked the idea of the note-taking, it was often a struggle, so I’d probably not use it often.

I recommend the phone wholeheartedly. Just be aware that the pen and digitizer are a work in progress and not perfect. But its large display makes it a substitute for many other products, including a personal navigator, a small tablet, an e-book reader, photo album and video player. The Note II costs $299 with a new contract from most of the major carriers. It can also be purchased online ( for about $700 as unlocked 3G and 4G LTE versions.

(Note: The headline “think different” is the slogan Apple’s Steve Jobs created to describe how their products are unique compared to their competitors. Samsung is deserving of this attribute for the Note II.)