Preview of Samsung's Galaxy Note 2

Yesterday I got a chance to see, touch and learn about Samsung’s new Galaxy Note II, an update to the company’s super-sized smartphone-cum-digital notepad.

I wasn’t a big fan of the original Galaxy Note. I found it unwieldy and its handwriting recognition — one of its key features — unreliable.

But Samsung has sold 10 million Galaxy Notes since it was released last fall, and the company sees it as one of the core devices in its lineup. So next month, it’s releasing an updated version.

As one might expect, the Galaxy Note has the usual spec upgrades, which I’ll detail below. Perhaps more interestingly, Samsung has also updated the software, adding new features and building off ones it pioneered either with the original Galaxy Note or with the Galaxy S phones.

Unlike the original, the new Galaxy Note recognizes when users remove its stylus. When you pull out the so-called S pen, the device will switch to a customized home screen that highlights stylus-focused applications. The device also recognizes if you shut it off without replacing the stylus; in such cases, it will remind you to do so.

The new device recognizes not just when the stylus touches its screen, but also when it hovers near it. This capability allows you to simulate “mouse overs,” triggering hidden menus on Web pages without clicking on them. In certain applications that recognize the hover capability, you can also use it to scroll through pages or pictures without having to touch or swipe the screen. You just hold the pen above an on-screen arrow.

Because of their small screens, smartphones rarely place applications or documents in windows like you would see on a desktop computer. Instead, pages and programs generally run full-screen. But the Galaxy Note 2 is trying to bring back windowed applications.

If you click on a link within an email, say, you have the option of bringing up a browser in a small window that overlays the email application, rather than switching completely over to a full-screen browser. Similarly, you can bring up the Galaxy Note’s note-taking application within a small window that overlays your email program or other applications. And you can watch videos in small windows on your home screen, rather than having them run full-screen.

Even with the Galaxy Note 2′s larger screen, I’m not convinced that this windowing feature is all that useful. The windows tend to be small and hard to see or view. And while they didn’t cover the original application, it wasn’t immediately clear if or how you could easily switch back and forth between them.

The new device has other features that take advantage of its stylus. From within the inbox of its email program, you can get a preview of a message by simply hovering over it with the S pen. While composing an email, you can handwrite a note, or actually sign your name at the end. You can also draw on its calendar application, circling a date, say.

Again, though, I have my doubts about the usefulness or appeal of these features. The message preview only appeared to work in the email application, not in the separate Gmail app. And does anyone really want to sign their name to an email sent on a phone?

The new device did have some cool photography features. It’s got a built-in burst mode that will take up to 20 shots at once. It also has a group-photo feature that will allow you to take a picture of a group of people, will instantly recognize the faces of people in the photo and allows you to choose from several different selections to find the best image of each person’s face. The facial recognition was spotty — it didn’t recognize people’s faces unless they were looking close to directly at the camera — and the feature took several seconds to take and process the photo. But it has potential, and the feature is akin to ones that Microsoft and RIM are touting in their new mobile operating systems.

Now on to the specs.

The new version has a 5.5-inch screen, which is slightly bigger than the original’s 5.3-inch display. Thanks to the extra pixels, tThe display has a 16:9 ratio, meaning that when you watch high-definition movies on it, you won’t see any black borders.

The new phone will be released first in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, where it will have a 1.6 GHz, quad-core processor and will support LTE  networks. That’s up from the original, which had a dual-core processor running at around 1.4 GHz to 1.5 GHz, depending on the model.

Galaxy devices released in the United States have tended to have different specifications than those released overseas. Samsung isn’t yet discussing the U.S. variant of the Galaxy Note 2, but representatives indicated that the company would like for the U.S. version of the device to have the same specs as the versions that are heading to other countries.

Along with the bigger screen and more powerful processor, the new Galaxy Note has a larger battery than its predecessor. With 3,100 milliamp hours, the new battery is 25 percent bigger than that in the original Galaxy Note. Samsung representatives said the new battery should give the device around 10 to 12 hours of useful life, compared with around 8 hours on the old.

Consumers will be able to choose among models having 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB of storage. The device will come in white and metallic grey colors and will ship with Jelly Bean, the latest version of Google’s Android software.

I’ll be interested to get my hands on the new Galaxy Note 2 when it’s available. It’s not my thing, but it could be yours.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (249 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.