Review: Samsung's Galaxy Note II gets bigger and better
Samsung has paid close attention to usability, while also boosting the browser and VPNFollow @MobileGalen
There's also a new setting for one-handed operation, which reworks several UI components so that they're clustered in reach of a thumb. One of my critiques of the original Note was that its screen was too large for my thumb to reach all areas -- and my hands are fairly large. This new setting is meant to address that reach issue. You can now move the Phone app's buttons, the Calculator app, the onscreen keyboard, and even the unlock window to one of the lower corners, based on whether you are left- or right-handed. But there is still no split-keyboard option for two-handed thumb typing, which would be a helpful addition.
Samsung has copied an Apple innovation from OS X that comes in quite handy: the ability to block notifications and incoming calls completely -- so you can manually turn it on during a meeting -- or during specified hours, such as overnight. As with iOS's Do Not Disturb feature, you can set Samsung's Blocking Mode to allow calls and notifications from your favorite contacts or a group you create even during blocked-off times. It's a handy feature that Android itself should adopt. (Yes, Samsung's Android 4.1 update adds this to the Galaxy S III.)
The Note II also picks up a Samsung feature introduced in the Galaxy S III: Smart Stay. If enabled, the Note II uses its camera to detect when you're using the device. If you are, it disregards the sleep settings. This feature increases battery usage, but it also prevents the screen from locking while you're watching or reading something, rather than tapping or typing, for long periods.
Finally, the Page Buddy feature adds special-purpose home screens contextually, if you enable them. For example, when you plug in a headset or earphones, the Earphones page appears with volume controls and relevant audio apps. There are similar "buddy" home screens for when you're using the pen, when you're docked, and when you're roaming. It's a cool idea.
The Note II keeps the Motion UI capabilities introduced in the original Note, such as tilt to zoom and turn over to mute. It then adds a half-dozen more, such as displaying current status information when you move a sleeping Note II toward your face and double-tapping to jump to the top of a list. I like how Samsung keeps finding ways to use environmental factors as UI controls, so you're less confined to tapping and typing to get stuff done. (Once again, the Galaxy S III gains these in Samsung's Android 4.1 update.)
VPN security made easier, and more compatible
I was very happy to discover that the Note II could connect to InfoWorld's Cisco IPSec VPN. It's the first Android device I've tested that has been able to do so out of the box, without needing client software.
Plus, I like the Note II's new ability to save VPN credentials, so I don't need to keep reentering them. I know that will freak out many security managers, as that means anyone can connect to the VPN if they have the device. But (unlike in the Galaxy S III, which still doesn't support Cisco IPSec VPNs natively) VPN connections are saved in a password-protected list. Even if someone picks up the Note II while it's unlocked, he or she needs to know the user's VPN list password to access the VPN.
Refined pen capabilities
It's the pen capabilities that really distinguish the Note series from other smartphones. The Note II has amped up these capabilities, with more pen support than before. For example, you can now annotate your calendar, such as circling specific dates. You can add an actual signature to your emails. And in the included Polaris office-productivity app, you can draw on your presentations' slides.