Samsung's Galaxy Note II.

Samsung's Galaxy Note II. Photo: Reuters

It was hard not to be sceptical when Samsung started selling the Galaxy Note early last year. Here was one mother of a device that was near impossible to compartmentalise - seemingly too large a screen for a smartphone, too small for a tablet. Pundits dubbed the thing a "phablet."

Galaxy Note relied a fair bunch on a stylus-like pointing device called the S Pen, which may have struck some observers as a throwback to an ancient Palm Pilot. But the S Pen was way more than a dumb pointer.

As it happens, the supersized Galaxy Note, um, grew on me the more I got to use it. And Samsung, which positioned the device mainly as a phone rather than a tablet, found an audience. The South Korean electronics giant says more than 10 million units were sold.

Now Samsung is bringing out Galaxy Note II. The phone will launch with the Jelly Bean version of the Android mobile operating system. 

I've had a chance to check it out for a little over a week. Notwithstanding a few networking snags, I am mostly positive.

Like its predecessor, the biggest thing you have to come to grips with when you first pick up the phone is, well, its very bigness. You can't help but feel like a dork holding the phone up to your ear. The phone weighs a relatively whopping 178.6 grams but you can still stash it in your pocket or purse. It measures 5.9 x 3.2 x .37 inches.

Such dimensions translate to a device that's about as thin as the original Note but slightly taller, presumably to account for a high definition (720p) Super Amoled display that is 5.5 inches, up from 5.3 inches before. And you thought the 4.8-inch screen on Samsung's popular Galaxy S III smartphone was ginormous? When it comes to sheer size, Galaxy Note II can eat the 4-inch display on the iPhone 5 for lunch.

The large screen payoff comes when you're viewing web pages or watching videos.

The S Pen in the new phone is also a bit taller than before, but it carries a bunch of new tricks. Samsung says the digitiser in the device can handle up to 1024 pressure points of sensitivity on the screen, four times the pressure points on the original Note.

Using S Pen, you can add your signature to emails, circle key dates in the calendar app, or draw in other programs. Samsung has improved a cropping feature that was introduced on the first Note. Hold down the button on the S Pen and circle an image or map to clip that image for use in another app.

Perhaps the most clever stunt is a so-called Airview feature that lets you hold the pen nib just above the screen without actually touching it, letting you preview emails, make drop-down menus fly out as you pore through websites, or actually play videos that pop up in a small screen window. You can scroll through web pages too, without actually getting your fingerprints all over the display.

In the S Note app you can jot down notes with the pen while simultaneously recording sound. So you can follow whatever you scribbled as you play back the audio.

Another S Pen goodie lets you draw on the back of a photo, maybe the names of the people in the image or the place in which you shot it, without doctoring the front of the picture.

The phone is packed with other new features. For example, you can choose a setting that lets you position the onscreen keyboard to the right or the left of the display to make it more accessible to folks who want to hold the device with just one hand.

The newly designed Gallery app has some cool new ways to show off pictures and videos. In addition to a standard grid view, you can make pictures cascade back and forth in a timeline view or spin through them in a spiral view.

Galaxy Note II is an excellent camera phone, and you have fancy new tools for taking pictures too, with some of the features borrowed from the Galaxy S III. For example, a Best Shot mode takes 8 pictures and lets you choose the best among them.

Parents will appreciate the Best Faces shooting mode, useful for snapping group pictures of uncooperative kids or grownups. The Note fires off the shutter a few times. When previewing the shot, you'll see a yellow box for each face in the photograph. You can tap the boxes to pick the best picture for each person; the phone will process all the best mugs in a single photo.

Samsung has also added a new low light mode for shooting in a dim setting.

As with other Samsung smartphones, you can take advantage of the S Beam feature that relies on NFC (Near Field Communication) technology to share photos, videos, music, maps, web pages, contacts and S Note files by tapping similarly-capable devices back to back.

A bigger device means a bigger battery. Though I didn't conduct a formal battery test, the Note II got me through a full day of mixed usage.

Galaxy II is obviously too large to be everybody's smartphone. It's on the pricey side too. But it's a fun, feature-rich device that delivers a lot of the "write"-stuff in a great big way.

USA Today