Back when ~4.3 inches was considered a “large” phone, Samsung began on a new journey. Much like the megapixel race that point and shoot cameras went through several years back, Samsung kicked off a screen size race, with each new year bringing a few more tenths of an inch added to their mobile devices’ screens. The original Galaxy Note was the first “woah” device with a 5.3-inch display. The stylus was polarizing with some praising the added utility with others knocking the attachment as “doing it wrong”. The second generation Note pushed things slightly higher to 5.5 inches. In 2013, Samsung once again pushed things a tad further, giving the Note 3 a 5.7-inch 1080p display.
Besides the larger display still, Samsung also took the chance to begin employing their research in new build materials other than plastic, as the back of the device features a stitched leather(ish) design that is quite a bit removed from the Note 2 and Note 1’s plastic backs.
But are those two things (and other minor things here and there) enough to warrant a switch (or even an upgrade from the Note 2)?
Hardware & Specs
If you’ve used either of the first two generation Notes you’ll be right at home. The Note 3 is a giant screen with mostly small bezels and a stylus which Samsung calls the S Pen. Power is class leading with a Snapdragon 800 CPU running at 2.3 GHz and paired with 3 GB of RAM. There’s 32 GB of built-in storage with an additional microSD card slot that will swallow cards up to 64 GB in size. And the display is gorgeous – 5.7 inches @ 1080p. Regarding the display, if you didn’t care for Samsung’s over saturated AMOLED tech before, you still won’t like it on the Note 3. Colors do pop a lot and the screen is incredibly bright (an old weak point of OLEDs). But there are many times when the colors pop too much.
Any and just about every wireless spec you could want is here including a bevy of CDMA/LTE support, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi direct sharing and support for the latest 802.11ac super fast WiFi standard.
Finally, Samsung has increased the battery size from the Note 2 a bit, with the Note 3’s coming in at 3,200 mAh.
As touched on above, the faux stitched leather back won’t win awards for impeccable realism or quality. But considering the old plastic garb that Samsung has wrapped the Note series in before, it’s a massive upgrade that just feels more premium and high end. Now if only Samsung could get rid of that junky faux metal band and use something a bit more…um…metallic we’d be in business. Rumors say it’s coming. We say “we can’t wait”.
Like most larger phones, Samsung has smartly taken size issues and usability into consideration when it comes to placing buttons. The power button is located on the right side about 3/4 of the way up. It may not seem like a big deal but some manufacturers (very stupidly) place it on the top of the phone. When you’ve got a large phone such as the Note 3 and/or smaller hands, such a design choice is highly frustrating. While we’re on the topic of the power button, it’s worth pointing out how awful the one on our review unit felt; it was very stiff and incredibly difficult to trigger without looking at the button and rotating the phone to apply more than usual pressure on it. It could simply be a used and abused review unit. Add to that the fact that we haven’t really heard much chatter online about the power button. Quite simply, you should be fine. We just thought it was worth mentioning.
Moving over to the left side one will find the volume up/down buttons and a finally, a centered microUSB 3.0 plug on the bottom.
Besides the display and the new faux leather back casing, the microUSB 3.0 plug is the other big talking point. For starters, it’s a lot faster than the old microUSB 2.0 standard. For those of you who do any sort of data transferring between phone and computer, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the newfound speed. Often such changes in port/plug mean a new headache as all new charging cables and other accessories are needed. Samsung was clever, though, and made it so the Galaxy Note 3’s microUSB 3.0 plug is backwards compatible with all microUSB 2.0 hardware. You’ll notice when you look at the device you’ll see what looks like a normal microUSB 2.0 port on the right and then a nub of sorts to the left with additional pins. When using a microUSB 2.0 cable, simply plug it into the right side of the port – simple, easy and well engineered.
With the Note 3, Samsung bumped camera optics up in order to keep up with the seemingly never-ending spec/megapixel race that is now pulsing through the mobile world. That translates to a new 13-megapixel camera around back and a 2-megapixel sensor up front. Combined with Samsung’s robust and packed (maybe too much) camera software, there’s a shooting mode and tweak for just about any scenario you’d find yourself in. Really.
The usual assortment of shooting modes are present to make normal and not so normal pictures acceptable. Everything from HDR to picture + audio and eraser are here. Whether you want to create a very simple but good photo or try to edit out someone or something that shouldn’t be there, we’re pretty certain you’ll find the Note 3’s photo chops up to the task.
Features aside, how does the camera actually fair? Quite well, actually. In the mainstream race of smartphone cameras, the Note 3 is near the top. Granted, while you won’t be doing crazy zooming/cropping like one could on the Lumia 1020, the color reproduction, contrast and white balance are evened out enough to make this a fairly easy choice if camera performance is on your radar. Low light photos are the new battle ground in a way, and Samsung has come out swinging. While the lack of optical image stabilization will make it harder to get clearer and sharper images in both high and low light, what the Note 3 does with what it has is pretty awesome. Don’t get us wrong, you’ll still want a dedicated camera for any significant low light shooting. But for that quick picture where a phone is almost always the quick and easy choice, the Note 3 performs like a champ.
Software and S Pen
The S Pen on the Note 2 was much improved over the original Note, particularly in the number of things it could do. Some called it more feature creep and a jack of all trades kind of problem. Either way, the Note 3 is even better in this department. But Samsung took a slightly different approach. Instead of packing yet more features into the tiny pen, Samsung refined many of them making for a better experience.
When you pull the S Pen out of it’s home on the bottom right of the Note 3, the phone vibrates and an “Air Command” fan shaped menu pops up on screen, giving your a number of options including: Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window. Action Memo allows you to write info on the screen and then save it for later (to a number of apps if you wish) or share it to contacts within the phonebook. Scrap Booker allows you to select content onscreen and save it as text/image files for later viewing and/or sharing. S Finder is basically an S Pen launched, universal search of the phone’s file system. Pen Window is perhaps the most intriguing as it lets you draw a box on screen and then place any app of your choosing in said window for a sort of Picture-in-Picture mode. Finally, Samsung has perfected the multi-window feature that love it or hate it, works relatively well.
On the left side of the screen is a tray of compatible apps that you can swipe out and drop into place above and below. Once situated on screen, you can resize the two windows giving either app more or less screen space. In practice, not every app warrants a multi-window approach. But there are many scenarios that benefitted well such as copying a piece of text from one app to another or referencing a section of an article when sending a tweet. More scenarios are out there. It’s just a matter of finding what flow works best for you.
Two features we hoped would get some much needed reliability improvements, Air Gesture and Smart Screen, are sadly still the same as they are on the S4. That is, Air Gestures don’t register reliably to start and often run off track pretty quickly, as will the Smart Scroll feature that’s supposed to track your eyes and scroll onscreen content accordingly. Spoiler: just leave it off.
Samsung shipped the Note 3 with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, and has announced that the KitKat 4.4 upgrade is coming soon. That said, with all of the software enhancements Samsung has added (and the relatively low-key upgrade that KitKat was all things considered), there’s not really anything to miss. Functionality is higher than what KitKat offers in terms of features and utilities. And if you’re looking for a less cluttered UI, there’s always rooting/custom ROMs. Although, when you go the custom ROM route, while you do gain more update support and a cleaner UI, you lose a lot of stock system apps and performance (such as Camera quality). On the Note 3, the only thing that really bothers us now is the notification shade; it’s chock full of crap. Granted, it’s not quite as bad as the G2’s stock arrangement which has multiple sliders and multiple rows of toggles. Thankfully, there is a decent amount that can be deactivated should you choose to free up some space for actual notification content.
Battery Life & Network Performance
With a 3,200 mAh battery one would expect some pretty spectacular battery life. And after a week and a half with the Note 3 we’re pleased to report that it is indeed one of the longer running devices on the market. We’d average roughly 16-20 hours of runtime (with ~10% left) by the time we plugged in sometime during the dark hours of the night. Have we seen better? Yep. But considering the power underneath the hood and size of the display, we’re not disappointed.
For comparison’s sake, the G2 is longer running even with a smaller 3,000 mAh battery but only by a little bit (1-2 hours). Still, for those looking for the longest runtime between charges, it’s important to keep track of.
Connecting oneself to the world is made possible by a bevy of wireless technologies including CDMA, LTE, Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi including the bew , uber fast ac spec. In day-to-day usage we saw LTE speeds (Verizon) average between 6-40 Mbps. As Verizon’s network has become saturated with LTE devices, we watched our average speeds drop to what we’d consider slow speeds for HSPA (no plus). But recently Verizon has been working in upgrading towers and adding capacity to various markets which have started to show up around here, resulting in us seeing 10+ and 20+ Mbps rather routinely.
Phones these days don’t really vary a whole bunch in cellular/WiFi performance so it’s not usually worth spending too much time on unless there’s a specific issue that needs to be noted. That said, your Galaxy Note smartPHONE will work just fine.
The King of Phablets
Love them or hate them, phablets are here to stay. But you know what? They’re not inherently bad. The leather-ish texture on the back of the Note 3 makes it sit in the hand better and makes it more comfortable to hold. Yes, you’ll need to use two hands more often than you would on something smaller but that comes with the territory of having more glass to view content – pros and cons. But to say that the Note 3 is stupid or pointless is simply naive and just as stupid itself. It’s a great phone for those wanting a larger device and are ok with making some of sacrifices owning and using a larger screened device poses. Not to mention, the S Pen is easily the best of its kind on the market right now. No one else is really touching the stylus for better or worse.
In the end, it might not be quite the biggest, best looking or highest feeling in quality. But it is the king and the one that all other manufacturers of large screened devices are currently looking at as it’s the one to beat. An all around great phone, web browser and communication device in your pocket.