- Fast and powerful
- Great display
- Pleasant to hold
- S Pen Air commands useful
- Awkward for calling
- TouchWiz Android tweaks a bit heavy handed
If you want a big smartphone, get the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. There is nothing else in its class in terms of performance and productivity features.
If you want a big smartphone, get the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. That’s been TG‘s advice since first checking out the phablet at its official unveiling, and after spending significant time with the device, that advice still stands.
Just like its well-regarded predecessor, the Galaxy Note 2, the Note 3 offers an unrivaled combination of power and productivity, at least as of late 2013, and it actually looks good to boot, with a phony leather rear panel that is far superior to the glossy plastic that has dominated Samsung Galaxy devices to date.
Build and Design
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 measures 5.95 x 3.12 x 0.33 inches and weighs 5.93 ounces, making it the second biggest phone in Samsung’s lineup, behind the massive Galaxy Mega. It has a 5.7-inch full HD display (1080 x 1920), with a wonderfully thin screen bezel that houses a 2 megapixel front-facing shooter on the top, next to a few sensors and the Note 3 earpiece, and the trademark Samsung home button on the bottom, between two Android softkeys. The back has a slight protrusion for the flash and 13 megapixel rear camera and flash.
The sides have been flattened, and sport a ribbed, faux-metal material, that makes the Note 3 slightly easier to grip than more rounded devices. There is a sensor, microphone, and 3.5 audio jack on the top; volume and power buttons on opposite sides; and a microphone micro USB 3.0 input, speaker, and S Pen receptacle on the bottom.
About that micro USB 3.0 input, it’s odd because the Note 3 is one of the first smartphones to ship with it, and while it’s backwards compatible with the more common micro USB 2.0 cables, it does have an extra prong and is slightly larger than the “standard” micro USB. It does have its benefits, however, including faster charging and data transfers. Given that the Note 3 can shoot 4K video, it’s also probably a necessity for sufficiently streaming such large video files.
The back panel received special attention, as Samsung opted for a type of stiff pleather material in lieu of plastic. It’s a most welcomed change, and it is slightly textured, making it not only easier to grip, but pleasant as well. Users will also find it easy to pry off for battery, SIM, and microSD card access, thanks to its relative flexibility. The only minor gripe to be had is the phony stitching along the edges. Samsung isn’t fooling anyone, and it just looks silly.
As with any phablet, there are drawbacks to the its massive size. Those seeking to upgrade from a smaller smartphone may find the large Note 3 to be awkward for actual phone calls. The phone’s surface area covers so much of your face when held against the ear, it can become quite uncomfortable after a short while.
The Note 3 certainly has a large display, as it measures 5.7-inches corner to corner, which is just slightly larger than the 5.5-inch Note 2 screen. It features about 386 pixels per inch, which is not the densest display available, but excellent none the less.
Viewing angles are superb, and it at maximum setting, it’s almost bright enough to cut through glare from overhead lights or the sun. The super contrast that is a hallmark of OLED displays also helps mitigate against glare, but some might find the colors a bit oversaturated and jarring.
The Galaxy Note 3 is a powerful smartphone. It has a 2.3GHz Quad-Core processor, and 3GB of RAM. It easily handles Android and any apps thrown at it. Of course, the Note 3 also sports Samsung’s heavy TouchWiz Android tweaks, and they can bog things down a bit. Testers at TechnologyGuide also experienced some lag while trying to max out the multitasking features. To be fair, this test would have likely broken most other smartphones.
All that power seems to have little effect on the battery, which seemed to last forever on a charge during testing. Even though this is a big smartphone with a big display, it also has a big battery, and power users will easily get at least a day out of the Note 3, even with heavy use.
The Note 3 is an LTE smartphone on the carriers that support that network standard, and this is very cool, it also is one of the first smartphones to support 802.11ac Wi-Fi. That’s the latest and greatest consumer Wi-Fi standard, and it is blazingly fast.
Other than being an exceptionally large smartphone, the Note 3 is defined by its pressure-sensitive S Pen and the respective features that brings. As with previous Note devices, you can use the S Pen for navigating, scribbling notes, hovering over and previewing links and images, highlighting text, time scrubbing videos, snapping screenshots, and numerous other tricks. It all works well, especially on the big screen, and the S Pen is long enough that it’s comfortable to use for even long stretches.
With the Note 3, Samsung added what it calls Air commands, which bring a new level functionality to the S Pen. There are Air commands for snapping and scribbling on screenshots, searching old notes, and scrapbooking, but the two TG found most useful are Action Window and Pen Window
Action Window takes scribbled notes, and turns them into something more useful than chicken scratch. For example, jot down a name and number in the notes app, Action Window will automatically turn it into a contact. Jot down the name of a place, it can find it on Google maps. Action Window can be used for email, calls, texts, tasks, and with Google Chrome. Handwriting recognition is impressive, and TG never fooled it with legible handwriting.
Pen Windows is Note 3’s main multitasking feature, and with it, users “draw” a window of any size on the display, and then launch one of a half dozen or so mini apps within the space. The apps can then be moved, resized, or closed, and run congruently with whatever else the user already has open, including other mini apps.
Mini apps include a calculator, clock, YouTube, phone dialer/caller, contacts, ChatON IM client, Google Hangouts, and an Internet browser. Yes, it’s a bit gimmicky, and too many apps will task the system, but it’s also quite fun, and power users will likely come to rely on it. In fact, it’s probably the closest thing to true desktop-style multitasking on any smartphone to date.
Here’s hoping Samsung expands it with more mini apps in the near future.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 camera is as good, if not better, than the shooters found on other flagship devices. That means that in ideal to decent light conditions, it will perform admirably, and serve as a suitable point-and-shoot replacement. Low-light will challenge the camera, and really expose its limitations, but this is the case with just about all smartphone cameras.
There are plenty of modes and options, some useful, others not. The rich tone (HDR) option can produce some vivid images, and the panorama option is always fun. Surround shot, which produces 360-degree shots doesn’t work all that well at all, and golf shot, designed specifically for golf swing pics, is a way too specific for most users.
The video camera is worth noting, particularly because it can shoot 4K video. It also can shoot slow motion from half to 1/8 speed, and fast motion as well. Just be careful with that 4K footage, as it will fill up your Note 3 memory fast.
It’s worth repeating. If you want a big smartphone, get the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. There is nothing else in its class in terms of performance and productivity features. Yes, it’s awkward to use for actual voice calls, but that’s an inherent flaw, which TG also expressed in the Galaxy Note 2 review. And yes, the fake leather back panel is a bit cheesy, especially with its phony stitching, but it feels great when compared against the glossy plastic of other Galaxy devices.
But those are minor compromises in a handset that has otherwise raised the bar for the phablet form factor.