Oct 30 AT 2:33 PM Dima Aryeh 31 Comments

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is the newest phone in the massive (and massively popular) Note lineup, a runaway hit that many doubted would gain any traction in the market. With the huge display comes the S Pen, an active and accurate stylus with some awesome software features. Looking at Samsung’s track record, we know this will be a solid device. But will it be good enough to warrant an upgrade from the Note II? Let’s find out!

Hardware

The Galaxy Note 3 follows the path of the Galaxy S 4, expanding the display while keeping the rest of the device the same size. The Note 3 is slightly taller than the Note II, but makes up for it by being narrower and much thinner. Even with a 5.7-inch display, the device is only 0.2 inches bigger than before. An impressive feat, it allows more screen real estate in a phone that’s actually easier to handle.

On the front, you’ll see the familiar gray brushed metal look under the glass, though it’s darker this time around. There are the classic earpiece, sensors and front facing camera up top, while the bottom houses the soft menu and back buttons and a new, extra clicky home button. These buttons can now be pressed with the S Pen!

At the top, you’ll find an earphone jack, a microphone, and an IR blaster. On the left, there is a volume rocker. On the right, a power button. A standard affair for all modern Samsung devices.

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The bottom houses the new micro USB 3.0 port, which is almost twice as wide as its older counterpart. There’s also a new downward-firing speaker, moved from the rear in the previous iteration. This speaker is not so great; I found it to be tinny and weak. The main microphone and S Pen also reside on the bottom.

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On the back, you’ll find the new leather-like panel. Gone is the slippery plastic, replaced by a faux leather textured, grippy back and fake stitching around the edge. It’s subject to opinion, but after a few weeks with it, I love it. It’s easy to grip, lacks the slimy texture of the previous devices and looks great.

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The S Pen has been completely redesigned, now sporting a more square look with a symmetrical end. This means it can be inserted into the body of the phone in two ways instead of one. Also, the tip has been changed. It is a little tougher to depress than previous S Pens, and while it took a while to get used to (I kept pressing it too lightly), it ended up being a far better and more accurate design.

Specs and performance

This device packs the latest processor, the 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 quad core. If you’ve never used a Snapdragon 800 powered device, you’re missing out. I never liked Snapdragon processors, including the Snapdragon 600, but the 800 managed to sway me. Everything you do is fast and buttery smooth, an experience the Snapdragon 600 can’t quite provide. It also features 3GB of RAM, something most other phones don’t have.

On top of that, you get a 5.7-inch full HD 1080p Super AMOLED display, and let me just say, it’s stunning. I have never seen a display this beautiful, and I’ve played with almost all modern high-end smartphones. It far outclasses the S 4 and Note II in my opinion. It just looks beautiful. Despite its large size and PenTile matrix, you can’t see a single pixel thanks to that 1080p resolution.

Other specs include a 13MP rear camera, 2MP front facing camera, 32GB of memory with a microD slot and a 3,200 mAh battery. It’s a high-end phone in every regard and won’t disappoint a spec fiend.

The Note 3 is the first in the Android world to feature a USB 3.0 port at the bottom. USB 3.0 offers many advantages over the older USB 2.0 standard. Your files will transfer between your computer and phone much faster, and charging from a USB port will be quicker, as USB 3.0 ports put out a lot more power. However, charging from the wall will be the same. Also, the port may be bigger, but older micro USB 2.0 cables will fit in there and work just fine.

In terms of benchmarks, you get none! I don’t believe in benchmarks, because they are very software oriented and never demonstrate real world experience. Plus, Samsung has some benchmark enhancing software in their phones, so benchmarks don’t even provide real numbers. What a shame, but benchmarks and specs don’t say anything about how fast a phone really is.

Saying that, I can assure you that this is the fastest phone I’ve ever used. The Note II is still crazy fast, but it’s not always perfectly smooth. The Note 3 is, almost never showing a single stutter. Everything from scrolling through the homescreens to browsing the web in Chome is as smooth as can be. Opening apps is speedy, and that 3GB of RAM lends itself to some amazing multitasking. The only thing hampering multitasking is the short wait from holding the home button to open the task switcher, which is a significant annoyance after Nexus-style on screen buttons.

Build quality

The Galaxy Note 3 departs from Samsung’s previous style of building phones. They have traditionally been all plastic, but have slowly improved in quality over the years. The Galaxy S III and Note II had some significant creaking over time, while the Galaxy S 4 is far more solid. The plastic construction hasn’t gone away on the Note 3, but it’s been disguised and improved significantly.

For the most part, the device feels incredibly solid. It doesn’t creak, the bezel doesn’t feel at all cheap or bendy, and the back cover is no longer slimy. The fake leather adds a lot to perceived build quality too, as the slimy plastic made even the S 4 feel a little cheap when it was a solidly built device.

However, the device is still made out of plastic. Those who love their all-metal devices like the HTC One may not be swayed, but most others will be pleasantly surprised by how good this device feels in the hand. And though the leather-like back might feel tacky to some, its added grip makes it a fantastic material for the back panel and looks pretty nice once you get used to it.

Build quality is not a problem with the Note 3, and even though it isn’t super premium, it definitely earns some points in my book.

Software

If you are expecting something other than TouchWiz, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This phone is running Android 4.3 with Samsung’s UI over it, and it is filled to the brim with features and options. As expected, it shows off its Super AMOLED panel with colorful icons and UI elements. It’s everything you expect from TouchWiz, but surprisingly smoother and faster.

Yes, TouchWiz on the Galaxy S 4 wasn’t the best of experiences. It was a bit laggy at all times, betraying the hardware inside. This was definitely an optimization issue, as those with the 4.3 update say it is much smoother. Well the Galaxy Note 3 is as smooth as can be; it seems Samsung optimized TouchWiz quite well.

There are so many features built in that it’s hard to get it all into a review. There is a Flipboard-like news section you can check out by swiping up from the bottom of the TouchWiz launcher, which is surprising useful (think BlinkFeed without the intrusion of taking up a homescreen). Samsung also included a new type of lockscreen, turning the photo into watercolor smudges when you touch it. Multi window is as great as ever, but you can now make actions that throw up two apps at once instead of manually selecting two apps. Motions, Air Gesture and Air View remain unchanged, but Air View now works with either the S Pen or your finger.

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An awesome new feature is Air Command. It is launched by holding the S Pen close to the display and pressing the button, which pops up a radial menu above your app. From there you can open Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder and Pen Window.

Air Command can also be used in other ways. Hovering over a photo in the gallery, pressing the button on the S Pen will pop up context sensitive options, like edit, share, and more. Pressing the button while hovering over the attach button in the Messaging app will show the last few photos you took and allow you to attach them without entering the gallery. It’s really useful, even if uses are currently limited to a few apps.

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Action Memo is a new memo app that allows you to free write addresses, names, numbers and emails. From there you can perform actions such as calling, adding to contacts and more. It’s a new way of quickly writing down info without having to manually transfer it to your contacts.

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Previously, if you wanted to handwrite text in apps like Messaging, you needed to use the Samsung keyboard. There was a nifty little root app for the Note II that would switch keyboards to Samsung’s when the S Pen was removed, so you would be able to write. This requirement is no more, as direct pen input now just requires you to hover the S Pen over a text box and press the icon that comes up. It’s an incredibly improved system and allows the use of any keyboard you like without sacrificing anything.

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Pen Window is an awesome little feature. It’s a take on floating apps, allowing you to draw the window size you want to make and open a select number of apps in that small window. It becomes a fully usable app in a moveable, resizable window. You can also minimize it into a small orb, like Chat Heads.

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One Handed Operation allows you to use the phone much more easily with one hand–not by optimizing specific apps to have controls closer to your finger, but by compressing the entire display into the corner. Swiping in from a bezel then back out will shrink the display and add menu, home, back and volume buttons to the bottom. This display is movable, resizable and customizable. For those times when you just need to use your phone easily with one hand, it’s an excellent feature. And it’s compatible with pretty much any app (except games).

There are a ton of other apps included. There is an improved S Note (with support for Wolfram Alpha and graph creation), Sketchbook comes pre-loaded, Samsung included a bunch of somewhat useless S-Apps, and of course there is a ton of AT&T bloat. Many of the features are familiar to those who know about the Galaxy S 4, but much has been improved in useability.

And of course, there are a few annoyances. First of all, plugging in headphones enables a notification that recommends apps to you for the use of headphones. I haven’t figured out a way to turn it off. Also, since this is the AT&T version, it always shows a “WiFi is connected” notification. Due to all this, the notification bar gets full fast.

Camera

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The camera has been awesome overall, but for me, it has had some setbacks. Most of the time, it’s an absolutely fantastic camera. But sometimes, it shoots photos lacking detail and sharpness. I don’t know what’s causing this, but I’ve made some comparisons to show you what I’m trying to say.

The Note 3 has the same 13MP camera sensor as the S 4, but they do not shoot similar photos at times. In daylight, occasional photos from the Note 3 look soft, lacking sharpness. And they also look a bit like a watercolor painting, something which the Galaxy S 4 never exhibited in bright conditions. I have yet to find the cause, as some photos come out great, but others do not. Luckily, this has been a pretty rare occurrence.

The rest of the time, the Note 3 shoots great photos. At 13MP, they’re nice and large, with the ability to crop and see more details. Most photos look great for a phone, but like all mobile cameras, it won’t be replacing your dedicated camera.

HDR photos from the Note 3 often come out fantastic, with a great exposure and sharp details. Panoramas are as flawless as ever, as Samsung has probably made the best panorama software in all of the mobile space. Surround Shot, Samsung’s version of Photosphere, is pretty terrible and makes for some really bad stitching.

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In somewhat low light, where light is ample for the human eye but low for a camera, is where older Samsung devices have always been hit or miss. Many other devices took far sharper photos, even if they were soft or full of noise. Samsung devices like the Note II and older just ended up blurring everything. But this is no more, as the Note 3 tends to produce surprisingly sharp and well lit photos even when light is lacking.

In low light, the Note 3 actually shoots better photos than the S 4. Yes, they look like watercolors, but it has a good amount of detail and brightness. This is where the watercolor look becomes acceptable, when it replaces blur and a lot of noise in low light. It also shoots better than the Note II and the iPhone 5, as you can see in this comparison.

Comparison

One of my favorite things about the Note 3′s camera is in the software. It completely lacks a night mode, and instead uses Smart Stabilization to integrate it into the Auto mode. Previous Samsung devices had night modes, which you had to select to get a photo better than pure blackness in low light. The Note 3 automatically shoots a normal or low light photo depending on the environment, which makes the camera far more user friendly. No more fiddling with modes; just open the camera app and shoot.

I also gave animated photos a try. After shooting 20 shots in burst mode, the Gallery allowed me to make them into a GIF, even selecting the area that should be animated. It works very well.

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You may have to click the image to animate it.

Strangely enough, camera performance has improved as time has gone on. The first few photos came out strange, but lately, photos have been coming out very well. I have no idea why, honestly. And if anything, Samsung can release a software update to fix some of that “watercolor” look in bright light situations, as it’s obviously not the sensor itself.

Video is great from this smartphone. It’s surprisingly stable for not having optical image stabilization (I guess Samsung did something right with Smart Stabilization), it’s clear, and audio is pretty good.

20131018_135049 Comparison 20131027_175805_Anim 20131014_153433 20131014_174058 20131014_214711 20131014_214737 20131014_214741 20131016_135636 20131017_160023_Richtone(HDR) 20131017_162206 20131017_183147_Richtone(HDR) 20131017_185140 20131017_185203 20131018_135013 20131018_135049 20131018_150741 20131018_205616 20131018_205624 20131021_131259 20131025_142301_Richtone(HDR) 20131026_185259 20131027_175354 20131027_175805_Anim 20131028_155513 20131007_151831 20131007_163147_Richtone(HDR) 20131007_171605 20131007_171619_Richtone(HDR) 20131009_191432 20131009_223605 20131011_162420 20131011_231135 DSC_8533 DSC_8531 DSC_8530 DSC_8534 DSC_8532 DSC_8538 DSC_8540 DSC_8545 DSC_8544 DSC_8543 DSC_8542

Battery

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At 3,200 mAh, the battery is by no means small. However, it’s only a 100 mAh bump from its predecessor. And with a 2.3GHz quad core and a massive, full HD display to run, I was a bit worried about its longevity. Rest assured, there is absolutely nothing to be worried about.

Ever since getting the device, I’ve been putting it through a lot of use. I have not had it die on me after a hard day’s work so far. Even after four hours of screen on time, nonstop Reddit browsing and hours of Google Maps navigation, the phone keeps going. With regular use, it could last you 1.5 days, maybe two. But for power users, it’ll still last a full day, which is all I could ever ask from a smartphone.

I do remember the Note II having slightly better battery life when it launched, but the difference is negligible. Also, with Google Maps pre-installed, the Note 3 dies a lot quicker than it should. From my experience, disabling Google Maps (a built-in app) on most devices could extend your battery life by over 50%, but I have not done so for review purposes. I’m sure, with Maps disabled, this phone could go three days without a charge.

Samsung Galaxy Note 39.5 / 10

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is an improvement over its predecessor in every single way. Not only that, but it’s quite a large improvement if you ask me. With top-of-the-line hardware that should last for ages, a redesigned S Pen, amazing software to go along with it and a blazing fast user experience, I have to say that this phone is as close to perfect as any phone has ever come before it. The faults of previous Samsung devices are diminished, while the strong points only get stronger.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 retails for $299.99 on-contract on AT&T and Verizon. The device is $249.99 on Sprint and $199.99 up front at T-Mobile with $21 a month payments. It’s not a cheap device, but it’ll drop in price soon and the experience easily makes up for the high price tag. Naturally you can find the Note 3 for quite a bit less in some cases on Amazon. A Verizon Note 3 goes for $169 with a new contract and a Sprint Note 3 for $219.

Of course, with such devices, size is always an issue. Can you handle a 5.7-inch device? Go to your local store and use one for a while. I was a big fan of small devices until I used a Galaxy Note II. I fell in love. Same goes for my father and a friend of mine, both of whom own iPhones and hate large phones. They used the Galaxy Note 3, and immediately started falling for it. Give it a try, you might be surprised.

Dima Aryeh is a Russian obsessed with all things tech. He does photography, is an avid phone modder (who uses an AT&T Galaxy Note II), a heavy gamer (both PC and 360), and an aspiring home mechanic. He is also an avid fan of music, especially power metal.

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