Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review

The world's top phone vendor finally focuses on fighting 'feature spam'

Review
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review

Samsung has a problem, but the first step on the road to recovery is admitting it. There are a few common themes that characterize all of Samsung’s recent flagship devices. They all feature positively gorgeous displays packed into plasticky hardware that typically feels cheap and flimsy. They all are met with tons of hype when they launch, and they all rack up huge sales numbers. And finally, they all have a problem that we here at BGR have taken to calling “feature spam,” where Samsung packs as many new features as it can into each new device. This troubling trend keeps Samsung from focusing on truly innovative and useful hero features, and from offering services that lock customers into its ecosystem. But things may soon change for the better. With the new Galaxy Note 3, Samsung has finally begun to pump the brakes and recognize that overstuffing its devices with gimmicky features might not be the best approach.

First things first. Before we get into the meat of this Galaxy Note 3 review, let’s get this over with: The Galaxy Note 3 is gigantic.

It’s massive. It’s monstrous. It’s huge. It’s humongous. Holding it up to your face to make voice calls phone feels positively ridiculous.

Even though Note-series devices are wildly popular around the world, having racked up global sales in excess of 40 million units, they’re still not the norm here in the U.S. and people will stare at you. The day I picked up my review unit from Samsung, I pulled it out in the elevator when I got back to my office in Times Square. The nice gentleman in his mid-sixties who got into the elevator with me did a double-take when he saw it — seriously, an actual double-take — and couldn’t stop himself from exclaiming “holy s**t!”

That is how giant this phone is.

Here’s a picture of the Galaxy Note 3 next to the HTC One, which is already on the larger side among popular smartphones:

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Here’s one of the Note 3 next to the iPhone 5s, which is dwarfed by the giant Samsung handset:

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And here’s an unaltered photo of the Note 3 near an airport runway next to a Boeing 747:

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If you’re looking for a phone that can be used comfortably with one hand, or even comfortably with two hands, the Note 3 is almost certainly not the phone for you. If you like supersized smartphones though, and you want one device that can serve as your smartphone and your tablet, there is simply no better option on the planet than Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 3.

With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

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Starting with the device’s exterior design, the Note 3 is very much a Samsung smartphone.

The styling takes cues from other Galaxy S and Note devices that have come before it, and the shape of the phone moves back to the original Galaxy Note phablet. Whereas the second-generation handset adopted a more rounded look similar to the Galaxy S4, the Galaxy Note 3 is less bubbly around the corners. The look is a bit harder than the design of the Note II.

The plastic on the back of the phone is just as thin and pliable as the Galaxy S4′s plastic battery cover, but it feels completely different. The glossy plastic Samsung used on the S4 and on the Note II is gone and a leather-pattern soft-touch plastic is found in its place. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the look — the fake stitching around the perimeter of the back is especially tacky up close — but the feel of the phone is improved dramatically by the new material.

Gripping the phone is far more comfortable now, and it doesn’t feel as cheap as other flagship Samsung phones. It still doesn’t compare to the premium feel of the HTC One or the iPhone 5s, of course, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Also of note, the battery covered by that new soft touch back is a 3,200 mAh unit that was able to carry me through a full day, but often just barely. My review unit is a T-Mobile device and most of my testing occurred in an area with fringe LTE coverage, so that certainly may have taken a toll on battery performance. If my experience is the norm though, plan to keep a charger at home, a charger in the office and a charger in the car. I will say that the Note 3 seems to hold a charge very well while sitting idle overnight, so I’m sure it will carry people through a full day with moderate use.

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A silver faux metal plastic is wrapped around the edges of the Note 3, with a lone power/lock button on the right side of the display and a volume rocker on the left. An audio jack, noise-cancelling mic and infrared blaster are found on the top of the handset while the main microphone, charger port, speaker and stylus slot are located on the bottom. The Galaxy Note 3 is the first Samsung phone to include a hybrid USB 3.0 port. Older microUSB connectors will still work, but so will the new 3.0 version that provides faster data transfer speeds. Samsung says the new cable will also charge the phone faster, though I did not perform any tests to validate the claim.

The front of the Note 3 is home to a gigantic 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display that is so bright it could light up an arena. The full HD 1080p resolution brings the panel’s pixel density to 386 ppi and images on the screen are crystal clear as a result. Samsung is known for its amazing mobile displays and the Note 3 certainly does not disappoint. An oblong home button sits beneath the screen flanked by capacitive menu and back keys, and the ear speaker, sensors and front-facing camera rest above the display along with Samsung’s logo.

Around back, the camera lens and flash are accompanied only by “Galaxy Note 3″ and carrier branding. The handset’s 13-megapixel camera takes very impressive shots in adequate lighting, though it can be a bit difficult to hold the humongous phone steady so I did have some issues with blur. And when you zoom all the way in on photos captured by the Note 3, you can see that the clarity isn’t quite on par with leading camera phones like the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5s. The Note 3′s camera is still quite impressive, however, and it could very well be the best camera I have ever tested on a Samsung phone.

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Moving to the inside of the phone, this is where the magic happens.

Samsung’s TouchWiz software layer sits atop Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and it will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever used a Samsung smartphone or tablet. Graphics are big and bold, features are plentiful and performance is silky smooth thanks in part to the 2.3Mhz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor and 3GB of RAM contained within the phone. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from a Samsung handset. It’s also everything the previous Note phablets have been, and more. But this time around, the “more” isn’t all just feature spam, as it has been in the past with many Samsung phones. Instead, Samsung is finally starting to focus on refinement.

The new and improved Note experience becomes apparent the instant you remove the S Pen stylus from the bottom of the Galaxy Note 3. When you do, a new “Air command” widget appears in the bottom corner of the screen. Air command can also be launched at any time by clicking the button on the stylus while hovering, and it gives you quick access to five key functions.

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The first is “Action Memo,” which really is a fantastic feature.

On the surface, Action Memo is a simple note-taking interface that looks a lot like the yellow Post-it notes we’re all familiar with. The beauty of these memos, however, is that the Note 3 includes very accurate handwriting recognition, which means anything you write can be read by the device.

So, for example, you can use Action Memo to quickly jot down someone’s name, phone number, email address and mailing address. In a few simple taps, the Note 3 will have all of that information saved as a new contact. You can also write down an address and pull it up later to navigate to with Google Maps, make a to-do list that the Note 3 will translate from handwriting into text, and plenty more.

Next up on the Air command menu is “Scrapbooker,” which lets you draw a circle around anything on the screen to save it as a memo that you can write notes on or tag for later reference. It also captures meta data if you clip something from the Web, so you’ll know what website you were on when you clipped it.

I find that it doesn’t work as well in some apps as others, though. For example, Scrapbooker will capture exactly what you circle in the stock Internet browser but it sometimes has trouble figuring out what you circle in Chrome.

Following Scrapbooker is a “Screen Write” option, which takes a screenshot of the current screen and allows the user to write or draw on it before saving, and after that comes “S Finder.” Samsung’s S Finder search function is similar to Spotlight on the iPhone, but better. Not only can it search things like contacts and calendars, but it also searches tags, message content and even the content of handwritten notes.

Last up on the Action Menu is “Pen Window,” which serves as an enhancement to Samsung’s Multi window feature.

Tapping the Pen Window button and then drawing a box anywhere on the screen opens a new window on top of whatever you’re currently viewing. You can then open a new app in that window and it stays on top of the current screen much like a window would on a desktop operating system. So if you’re reading something and you want to do some quick match, for example, you can open the calculator app in a Pen Window without leaving the screen you’re on.

Only a handful of native apps support Pen Window for the time being, and I have had a few issues with apps in smaller windows becoming distorted and unusable.

There are a few other great additions to the Galaxy Note 3′s stylus support, such as the ability to quickly pop open a handwriting box in any native app that has a text input field. But my personal favorite is likely the S Pen keeper feature, which causes the phone to vibrate and display a warning on the screen if you begin walking around with the phone and the S Pen isn’t attached. This way if you leave your stylus on a table and start to walk away, your phone lets you know before you get very far.

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Beyond Note-specific features, here are a few other things I enjoy on the Note 3:

  • Smart Stay is a nice little extra that uses facial recognition to keep the display from timing out as long as the user’s face is seen looking at the screen.
  • Air View, which is one of my favorite things about the Note line, supports the stylus and your fingers. This means you can hover over content without removing the device’s stylus to see message previews, enlarge images, magnify web pages and more.
  • The Note 3 includes some awesome motion gestures. Basic ones like flipping over your phone to mute the ringer or pause videos are there, but there are also some nifty new ones. My favorite is called “Smart alert,” and it makes the phone vibrate quickly when you pick it up off of a desk or table if there are pending alerts for messages or missed calls. This way you don’t even have to turn your screen on to know there are unread items.
  • There is also an option to increase touch sensitivity on the display, which will let you use the phone while wearing gloves in the winter. I tested it and it works very well.
  • Multi window is a feature common to many Samsung devices, but it gets a great little tweak on the Galaxy Note 3. If there are various combinations of apps that you use often, you can now save them. This way, a single tap can launch YouTube on the top half of the screen and Hangouts on the bottom half if, for example, you like to watch Miley Cyrus videos while you chat with friends.

On the other side of the fence, an interesting note: Google Now is without question one of my favorite things about Android. I would wager plenty of people feel the same way. Android phones typically provide a simple shortcut to access Google Now, either a long-tap on a button or a swipe up from the bottom of the display, but the Note 3 supports neither. Instead, you have to long-press the home button top open the app-switching interface and then tap the “g” icon at the bottom of the screen to open Google Now.

I get that Samsung wants to make its own content and services more accessible than other Android features, but Samsung doesn’t offer anything that even approaches Google Now in terms of utility or reliability. A long-tap on the menu button brings up S Finder, a long-tap on the back button toggles Multi window, and a swipe up from the bottom of the screen opens a new co-branded personalized “My Magazine” product that Samsung built with Flipboard.

A simple app shortcut on a home screen provides quick access to Google Now, of course, but the point is that Samsung is burying access to key Google features without building top-notch services of its own to replace them. Want to bury Google Now? Fine, but first fix the train wreck that is S Voice less and add some awesome predictive features. Then replace Google Now with that.

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Phablets are a curious phenomenon. In less than two years they’ve gone from being laughably large smartphones that seemed all but certain to be a short-lived fad to… laughably large smartphones that seem all but certain to be a fad that sticks around for at least a few more years.

There is now no question that supersized smartphones are popular. Samsung has sold 40 million Galaxy Note devices to date. But as the Galaxy Note 3 launch approaches, an obvious question must be asked: With “normal” smartphones now sporting screens as large as 5.2 inches, is there still a place in the market for phablets?

When Samsung introduced the first-generation Galaxy Note phablet, I was not shy in stating how ridiculous I believed the category to be. Now, nearly two years later, I still think vendors have gone overboard with these gigantic handsets, but clearly there is a market for them. A massive market.

People want phablets, and people who are buying phablets want Notes.

In some ways, Samsung hasn’t deviated from its current course in the mobile market with the Galaxy Note 3. This new phablet is an iterative update that provides users with a nice bump in performance and specs as well as a tweaked design that moves away from the Galaxy S4 by squaring off the corners.

But the Note 3 is also something much more than just an iterative update. It’s a sign that Samsung knows it has a feature spam problem and it’s working to address it. It’s also a sign that Samsung knows it has to focus on “better,” not just “more.” And the Note 3 is better. It’s better than its predecessors in every way.

During a meeting with Samsung representatives last week, the company shared a pretty surprising stat: According to an in-house study conducted by Samsung, 62% of Note device owners use the S Pen daily. That’s a pretty remarkable figure, and it shows you just how important it was for Samsung to focus on refining its S Pen experience this time around instead of just piling on dozens of new features.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 still suffers from a feature spam problem but the company is clearly on the road to recovery now. We’re starting small, with some important and much appreciated refinement. Soon, we may see the company start to offer exciting and well-built proprietary services that help to not only enhance the user experience, but also to lock customers in. As we saw with the recent iPhone 5s launch, jumping ship from a Samsung device to a rival smartphone is all too easy.

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The Galaxy Note 3 is the best smartphone Samsung has ever made. In fact, the Note 3 is one of the best Android phones ever, period. It’s fast, it’s very capable, and unlike most smartphones these days, the S Pen and Samsung’s related software suite give the Note 3 genuinely compelling differentiation. This phone does things your phone can’t. Important, useful things that make your life easier.

While the massive size and plasticky build would prevent me from ever carrying the Note 3 personally, the size is a big draw for millions of smartphone users across the globe. And when it comes to supersized smartphones with screens that measure more than 5 inches diagonally, there is simply nothing on the market right now that can hold a candle to the Galaxy Note 3.

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