Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review: The Best Phablet Just Got A LOT Better
Is the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 the best phone to come out of Korea so far? Let's find out
When Samsung released the original Galaxy Note way back in 2011 it started something BIG. A lot of reviewers said it was “too big” to be a smartphone and claimed such a device would never catch on. Well – they were wrong. Not only did the Note usher in a new type of smartphone (the phablet) it also sold like Walter White’s Blue Meth the globe over.
Keen to build on this momentum and ensure it remained top dog in the phablet pile, Samsung released a sequel in 2012 – the Note 2 – and then followed that with the Galaxy Note 3 in 2013, adding in a better spec, improved hardware and plenty more S-Pen features and functions.
Next to the Galaxy S range, the Note Series is perhaps Samsung’s most visible and well-known brand. The third installment – on paper – appears to be the best yet, with best in class spec and hardware. So how does it measure up in practice? Lets find out.
Design and build
While I’ve often been someone who’s decried Samsung’s exterior design, that’s most often been on the grounds that the company has precisely and selectively chosen slippery and glossy plastics which, to me, don’t exactly scream premium. I actually have no beef with Samsung’s broader aesthetic and the Galaxy Note 3 shows the company does know how to make a good-looking phone.
The Galaxy Note 3 handset has evenly balanced proportions with the same amount of bodywork above and below the touch display on the front fascia, while the bezel on either side is so thin as to be almost non-existent, contributing further to this sleek appearance.
A chrome surround peeks just around the edges contrasting nicely with the rest of the bodyshell and this silver accent also extends to the physical Home key.
Either side of the Home key there are capacitive controls but these remain invisible until you touch them, at which point they light up. The power key is embedded in the surround on the top of the left-hand side while the volume rocker is in a similar position on the left. Along the top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and at the bottom is a combined microUSB and MHL port.
The whole phone is only 8.3mm thick and altogether it’s very neat, clean and tidy to look at from the front.
The removable back panel is a bit of an oddity though. It is still most assuredly plastic but now it has a slightly soft faux leather effect texture and feel.
I’m still not entirely sure about this, my initial enthusiasm when I saw the phone at IFA 2013 has faded a little. I still find it preferable to Samsung’s shiny plastic (you can still get optional shiny back covers if you wish) but with the fake stitching and skeumorphism it is a different kind of tacky in my view.
As with previous Galaxy devices, the build quality isn’t in question. It seems durable enough and the assembly is very solid – squeezing and prodding the handset doesn’t produce any clicks, creaks or flexing.
While the larger phablet form-factor certainly has its fans there are still those who are instinctively wary of the idea and more often than not this seems to be due to concerns about unwieldiness.
I’ve rarely encountered a phablet that’s as easy to handle as the Galaxy Note 3, it is surprisingly lightweight and well-balanced in the hand.
Despite this, the aforementioned concerns are not entirely unfounded, however, as due to the size of the display one-handed operation for things like texting with a thumb is still quite tricky and, like its predecessors, the Galaxy Note 3 has clearly been designed with two-handed use in mind (not surprising considering the emphasis on the stylus).
While I might not entirely be onboard with the skeumorphic design elements they certainly do help on a practical level with the faux leather back texture and the surround’s ridged ‘pages’ providing excellent grip and making it easier to cope with the phone's proportions.
Either way, punters like it. Samsung sold five million Galaxy Note 3 handsets inside the first month of its release. That was way back in October. Nowadays – Q4, December – that number is likely significantly higher. Anywhere between 10 and 15 million is an entirely plausible figure given the Note 3’s popularity and wide global availability.
Samsung had previously announced that it was adding three new colour variants of the Galaxy Note 3 to its product portfolio. Having already rolled out in China in late 2013, these colour options are now hitting the UK.
Unlike Samsung's coloured back panel accessories, these new variants continue their colouration to the S-Pen stylus and front fascia.
Merlot Red is perhaps the most obviously different of the new colour choices in its dark red colour scheme.
The other two options, Rose Gold Black and Rose Gold White, are the same black and white variants we've seen already, except that instead of silver trim for the outer bezel, key and port surrounds, speaker grilles and so forth, you now have a rose gold tone to keep things on trend.
The Merlot Red and Rose Gold White versions have arrived in the UK via Carphone Warehouse with contract deals available with all major UK carriers and starting from £32 per month.
Meanwhile, the Rose Gold Black model is now available with Phones4U, which again offers deals with all major networks, this time starting from £37 per month. No idea why the black model costs more, but there it is.
An area where Samsung seems to be going from strength to strength is its display technology and nowhere is this more evident than the expansive 5.7-inch touchscreen embedded in the front of the Galaxy Note 3. It’s nothing short of spectacular with incredibly robust colour, contrast and brightness.
Sharpness for a display of this size is impressive thanks to the full HD 1920x1080 pixel resolution giving a pixel density of 386 pixels-per-inch (ppi). As well as boasting good brightness for more satisfying use generally, the Galaxy Note 3 is particularly capable outside in bright light conditions, even in direct sunlight.
The whole setup makes an ideal portable multimedia viewer and it’s great for watching full feature length films on the go, viewing angles are also highly capable, meaning you can share whatever you’re watching.
Hardware, connectivity and web
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 comes with oodles of storage, Know Your Mobile’s review unit was the 32GB model which I didn’t even come close to filling with apps, games and content, but Samsung also makes a 64GB variant and either model comes with microSD support for cards up to 64GB. Samsung also throws in 50GB of DropBox cloud storage for free. It remains to be seen whether the 64GB internal storage model will arrive in the UK though.
But, long story short, there should be plenty of space for most use scenarios one way or the other.
As might be expected for a flagship, Samsung has gone all out on the connectivity options on the Galaxy Note 3. This includes full dual-band Wi-Fi capabilities with Wi-Fi Direct and Wi-Fi Hotspot, and connectivity to Wi-Fi networks is very reliable indeed. There’s also DLNA, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS, microUSB and MHL TV-Out.
Left to right: Android's multitasking carousel, Sunspider HTML benchmark and Vellamo HTML benchmark
Web speeds are extremely quick with a good connection, I found browsing and using services like Google Now fast and responsive over both Wi-Fi and 3G while benchmark testing via Vellamo and Sunspider reflected this.
Vellamo’s HTML test stuck the Galaxy Note 3 at the top of its chart with a score of 2512 while Sunspider chalked up 931.1 milliseconds in Chrome – that’s about as fast as I’ve seen on an Android device and in a similar ballpark to the impressive Internet Explorer 10 on high-end Nokia Lumia handsets.
Processor, software and performance
The UK-facing edition of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 with 3GB of RAM, an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU) and is clocked at 2.3GHz. Performance is just ridiculous, in a good way. I’ve come to expect at least the occasional hiccup even on high-end setups but for my entire time with the Galaxy Note 3 it didn’t skip a single beat, at all, not once.
The handset deftly handled everything I could throw at it – carelessly opening a multitude of apps and leaving them running in the background didn’t dent the smooth performance, nor did some demanding 3D games or streaming HD video.
The benchmarks are no less impressive, with the Galaxy Note 3 outgunning most of the competition. Vellamo clocks it with a score of 1180, Quadrant at 20903 and AnTuTu at 32837 – higher than the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.
Left to right: Quadrant, AnTuTu and Vellamo processor benchmarks
Another area where performance remains consistent is the added multitasking and stylus functionality Samsung has layered onto Android 4.3 Jelly Bean via the TouchWiz UI. There’s so much new or improved stuff crammed in here it’s difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with perhaps the most impressive stuff.
Multiscreen isn’t a new feature by any means as it debuted on the Galaxy Note 2, however, it’s now a much more refined beast than when it first appeared with more fluid operation and a wider choice of implemented apps, including Facebook, Google Play Movies, Youtube and Google Hangouts, amongst others. The feature allows you to share the screen between two apps. You can also adjust which app takes up more of the display.
The Multiscreen menu swipes in from a tab on the left, you can see the screen being shared by the Chrome browser and Youtube in the middle, while on the right is sharing between a browser and the phone's File Manager
Air Command: Pen Window, S Finder, Screen Write, Scrap Booker, Action Memo
Air Command is brand new for the Galaxy Note 3. By hovering the S-Pen over the display until the dot appears and pressing the stylus button, users can bring up a radial menu with quick access to five functions.
Pen Window is one of the more compelling components here, it’s an extension of the multitasking features as it allows additional layers of windowed apps on top of whatever else you’re doing. Activating Pen Window will let you draw a box on the screen at any size you wish and you’ll then be prompted to pick an app to run in that box. You can do this multiple times consecutively to get several windowed apps on screen at once.
Here you can see the radial Air Command menu being brought up and Pen Window being selected. After drawing a box you're then prompted to choose an app to run. On the right you can see the Calculator app run in windowed mode.
These windowed apps will run over your normal homescreen or other full-screen apps and will also work on top of the Multiscreen function, opening up a virtually desktop level of multitasking possibilities, particularly when you factor in Android’s native multitasking to boot.
At present the selection includes Calculator, Clock, Youtube, Google Hangouts, Samsung ChatOn, Contacts, Phone (Dialler) and the default internet browser. While the selection is small some of those apps are tremendously useful when used in this way and when Multiscreen first appeared its range was similarly limited but it has gradually expanded over time – it seems plausible Samsung could expand Pen Window in future patches and updates.
Action Memo is essentially the same Memo tool we saw on previous Galaxy Note devices, a quick-use and simplified version of the main S-Memo/S-Note application which lets you rapidly take down notes on the homescreen.
It’s still accessible by pressing the pen button and double tapping the display for speedier access.
Left to right: Action Memo being activated, the main interface and the Link To Action function with its options
Functionality remains more-or-less unchanged on the whole, however, there’s one particularly cool new feature called Link To Action, which lets you send whatever you’ve written to particular parts of the phone.
For example, you could write someone’s name and phone number, tap Link To Action and select ‘Contacts’ to save the information as a contact. Other actions available include Phone (Dialler), Email, Messaging (SMS/MMS), Browser, Map and Task (Calendar/Reminder).
The S-Note app interface
S Finder, Screen Write and Scrap Booker were the Air Command functions I used least in my time with the Galaxy Note 3 as I simply didn’t find them that useful. Of course for some people they may become indispensible, so I will go over them here.
S Finder is effectively a universal search function for the phone, letting you type in anything and it’ll go through your handwriting, notes, communication, images, music and video, as well as any associated tags you’ve added to content. You can limit the search to today, yesterday, the last seven days or the last 30 days.
The S Finder interface
Screen Write lets you capture a screenshot of whatever is currently on-screen and then you can use the S-Pen to doodle, annotate or generally mess around with whatever’s there.
Left to right: Screen Write, drawing on Richard's face and Samsung's handwriting recognition at work
Scrap Booker is quite a descriptive title, as the feature enables you to draw around things on-screen and add them to a scrapbook for viewing later. This can include things like web pages and images, while certain video formats are also supported for embedding into your scrapbooks.
The Scrapbooker interface
And the rest
Other UI elements are fairly typical of recent TouchWiz iterations and there’s a liberal sprinkling of green instead of the stock Android blue.
Left to right: The default Homescreen, Samsung's Homescreen page options and the App Drawer
In the drop-down notifications menu there’s a permanent brightness bar and Auto brightness toggle along with a shortcut to the main Settings page, a scrollable set of quick settings and a toggle which opens up an expanded quick settings screen.
Samsung's modified Settings screen, the drop-down Notifications menu with Quick Settings and the expanded Quick Settings screen
The main Settings page is sub-divided into General, Controls, Device and Connections with tabs at the top for each.
Another thing well worth talking about is Samsung’s handwriting recognition. This isn’t new either, but it is improved tremendously on previous iterations, which were already pretty good. Handwriting recognition is tied into the Samsung keyboard, so anytime you have a keyboard prompt you can tap the little icon with a pen to go into handwriting mode.
Tapping the keyboard icon again will bring you back to the keyboard. While in writing mode you’ll have a box in the lower half of the screen which you can write in, Samsung’s handwriting detection will convert what you write into neatly written text in this box, including predictive words, and if you’re writing for a search bar it’ll pop up in there too.
Accuracy is pretty good and it only occasionally misinterpreted what I wrote. An alternative setup allows you to hover the pen over a text box and a small icon will appear, tapping this will expand into a box you can then write into.
In general Samsung’s re-imagining of Android is an extensive overhaul and may not be to everyone’s taste but it is, nonetheless, extremely functional, particularly with the Galaxy Note 3’s added features and many of these are worthy, useful additions which offer a different way to use the phone and provide an experience you simply won’t find anywhere else.
To put it another way, this is a rare instance where I’d rather use the manufacturer UI than opt for a stock Android style launcher.
There are reports of the Galaxy Note 3's handwriting recognition having a few bugs. It seems it can cease to recognise handwriting input entirely with Pocket-lint encountering the problem on its review unit.
"When we reviewed the Note 3, we noticed that the handwriting recognition was broken. It had been working perfectly when we first started using the phone, but then it randomly refused to turn our handwriting into proper text."
I can confirm I also experienced this problem after publishing this review. However, fear not, for there is a fix which was discovered by XDA Developers.
For some reason it doesn't update automatically at time of writing, but Samsung has rolled out an update patch for its Galaxy Note 3 keyboard which fixes the handwriting recognition bug.
If you go to the Google Play Store and search for "Samsung Keyboard Note 3".
The top result should be "Samsung keyboard Note3/10.1" and there should be and selecting this should allow you to tap Update.
Once the update is installed you need to restart the Galaxy Note 3 in order for handwriting recognition to work again.
I've tested this on Know Your Mobile's review unit and it does indeed work.
Future Galaxy Note 3 interfaces: KitKat update and revamped TouchWiz
Something that's always worth considering ahead of a smartphone purchase is how the experience might change with software updates over time. A couple of snippets of info and some pictures have emerged recently showing what could be in store for the Galaxy Note 3's UI in the coming months.
First up, there's a batch of screenshots in circulation of the Android 4.4 KitKat and TouchWiz UI update on both the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S4. The images show how the new update will change the Galaxy Note 3's UI.
As you may have heard elsewhere regarding KitKat, it is not a massive overhaul and the main purpose is a slightly cleaner UI tweak, a few more optimisations and a big push for lower end device compatibility. That's pretty much it.
But in terms of how this has changed TouchWiz, we can see that the black notifications and control bars at each end of the interface have been replaced with Google's new transparent UI elements. These also use the white notification icons rather than either Android's old blue and grey or Samsung's old green colours.
The lock screen has also been modified with a new camera shortcut, while the music player has an enhanced UI with full-screen album art.
Performance is said to be improved "significantly", which is pretty imrpessive considering how fast the Note 3 was already.
However, that UI might not be sticking around for very long, as leaks believed to be linked to the soon-to-be-released Galaxy S5 suggest Samsung is working on a massive TouchWiz overhaul for this year. It's not a dead certainty it will appear on the Galaxy Note 3, but it's a recently launched handset and historically Samsung has been very good at keeping current and even older tech up-to-date.
Not a great deal is known about the new UI other than some screenshots which emerged via reliable Twitter source @evleaks. The images show a cleaner interface with larger re-styled app icons, just like the Nexus 5, a new font and what appears to be an HTC Blinkfeed style tiled interface.
The camera is a 13-megapixel back-illuminated sensor with a single LED flash plus both 1080p and 4k video capture, and it shares many features with the Samsung Galaxy S4 flagship, including that Samsung Galaxy Camera style UI and a few of its modes.
The camera UI is nice and minimalist with the main emphasis being on the full-screen viewfinder. There’s a selection of the usual controls in the top left for flash, digital stabilisation and sound recording for video while a Settings menu opens up for things like picture size, burst mode toggle and tap-to-capture.
The actual modes selection, like the Galaxy Camera, features a carousel of images depicting the feature of each mode, a description will pop up explaining it briefly before fading away. You’ll likely spend most of your time in Auto as it does most of the work for you and gets good results in the process.
Other noteworthy modes include Best Photo, Best Face, Animated Photo (GIFs essentially), HDR, Eraser (moving objects), Drama Shot and Panorama. It also has Sound and Shot and Dual Capture (both the primary and 2-megapixel secondary cameras capturing at once) from the Galaxy S4, but these seem gimmicky at best, though there’s certainly no harm in their inclusion.
In terms of actual picture and video quality it is excellent stuff, as with previous high-end Samsung Galaxy models the digital image stabilisation does a decent job while the sensor is capable enough to capture sharp, clear and detail-rich footage and stills. Colour saturation is robust and both contrast and dynamic range are very healthy indeed.
It might not be anywhere near the level of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, Samsung Galaxy Camera or Nokia Lumia 1020, but, just like the Samsung Galaxy S4 it’s highly usable as a quick and easy point-n-shoot option with fantastic results which most users will likely enjoy.
Since writing this reveiw I've also got to grips with a number of other major phone cameras released this year, including the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Sony Xperia Z1.
I have to say that despite the difference in imaging hardware the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 remains my favourite smartphone camera setup of the year.
Certainly, there is no doubt that the Lumia 1020 and Xperia Z1 can generate more impressive results, but it boils down to usability at the end of the day and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is still the easiest camera I have found to get good results on in a very simple "fire and forget" fashion.
Its rivals can produce better images, but require you to fiddle around with a myriad of settings and modes in order to get the best of them. The Galaxy Note 3 simply requires you to stick it on Auto mode, point at a subject and tap the shutter, which is a much more user-friendly approach.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 offers one of the best battery experiences to date, as the amount of time you can get from a single charge from the 3,200mAh removable unit is, quite simply, immense.
I put the handset through the ‘Django Test’ first, that is, to watch the entirety of the 2 hour 45 minute run-time of Django Unchained from 100 per cent charge with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and data off and brightness on maximum. After the film’s run there remained an impressive 64 per cent charge. The idea of being able to watch a 2 hour 45 film twice on a single charge might not sound great at first, but consider that your average flick is about half the runtime, that means you can expect to clock up just shy of four films, possibly a full four in fact, on a single charge. Not bad.
It's also worth factoring in what normal running performance is like for that remaining 64 per cent after you've watched a few films. After the Django Test the phone’s remaining charge then went on to see me through the rest of the day and well into the following morning under moderate usage conditions.
I then wanted to see how long the phone would last with my typical daily smartphone usage, which I’d describe as being fairly light-to-moderate. I generally do a lot of social networking via Facebook and Tumblr and web browsing in the morning between about 8am-9pm.
The rest of the day will typically see sporadic browsing, texts, calls and Facebook use and there may be the odd call, text or Facebook session in the evening. You can throw the odd Youtube video in at any point too. This test I ran with full brightness, Wi-Fi and mobile data switched on.
From 100 per cent charge and over a time period of about 8am to around midnight each day this usage saw the Galaxy Note 3 last two full days.
My third test involved doing the same usage scenario but with Samsung’s power saving mode switched on and brightness on Auto. As I type this at 18.00 GMT on October 1 2013 I’m now well into day three of use and looking at 16 per cent charge – though I should point out I’ve been using the phone a lot more than usual this afternoon double-checking on its features and capabilities.
I would think it’s quite possible that without that uncharacteristic usage the Galaxy Note 3 could’ve lasted somewhere near four days.
For me the really compelling thing about the Galaxy Note 3 is that it's a Samsung handset where the company does continue to truly innovate and make genuine improvements to the user experience.
The Galaxy Note 3 is offering something unique and it’s not just about the stylus input, although that certainly helps.
It’s mainly how Samsung uses that large display to its fullest with its excellent multitasking features – there are few other devices, whether phone, phablet or tablet, where multitasking is implemented as well as this.
The S-Pen has been refined extensively, however, and Samsung certainly intends to continue showing sometimes sceptical consumers why a stylus is a good thing to have. The Air Command radial menu is incredibly easy to use and makes stylus input much more natural while the handwriting recognition continues to improve with every iteration.
Performance is pretty much flawless, so the user experience is top notch, but add to that a gorgeous display and other excellent features such as the well-implemented camera, stacks of storage, plenty of connectivity options and ridiculously long battery life and you have an overall package which should satisfy the demands of large swathes of the smartphone consumer base.
Creativity and productivity capabilities are clearly a big part of the Galaxy Note 3, but it’s equally at home when used for either work or play – as a portable multimedia device it’s up there with the best of them and continues this legacy from its predecessors with gusto.
Are there areas for improvement? Sure. I suspect optical image stabilisation in the camera would make a noticeable difference to things and, despite the fact that the back panel is better than the old design it would still be great to see something else used here, such as carbon fibre or a Nokia/HTC-style polycarbonate.
The sting in the tail is most certainly the price. SIM-free from retailers such as Expansys and Amazon you're looking at between £620 and £680, which is pretty pricey to be sure.
Contracts will of course ease the pain of the initial outlay (though in the long run you'll likely end up paying more) - typical contracts run in the region of around £50 per month where you get the phone either free or for prices running up to about £30. You can always flip that round though and get the handset for about £99 up front with a pay monthly price of something like £38 per month.
Is it worth such a high cost? This is definitely a premium offering with its top-tier processor and fantastic display, make no mistake you're paying for some high-end kit here, so arguably yes. I still maintain, however, that if Samsung further improved its build materials it would make parting with such sums of cash much more easily justifiable.
Most of my quibbles are minor gripes though, and I think on the whole this is a great device which will be rewarding for most of those who try it, and I say that as someone who generally doesn’t favour what Samsung produces.
|Screen Colours||16 million|
|UK Launch||September 2013|
|Camera Resolution||13-megapixels, 4128 x 3096 pixels|
|Video Resolution||1080p, 2160p|