Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Samsung's Galaxy Note 2 was one of our favorite mobile devices from the last year, but it still had some room for improvement. What happens when Samsung takes that already great mobile device, and improves on it in all the right areas? Well, you get an absolute beast of a mobile device, the Galaxy Note 3. Join Gizmag, as we review Samsung's latest flagship phablet.
More pros, fewer cons
With every Galaxy Note, you face a tradeoff. On the plus side, you get a screen that's approaching the size of a small tablet, and software that ties in perfectly to the included S Pen stylus. But on the flip side, you have a monstrous mobile device that insists on making its presence felt in your pocket, bag, or purse.
So when it's time for Samsung to update the Galaxy Note, the company's goal should be to optimize those benefits, and minimize the drawbacks. You want to make the tradeoff as enticing as possible, to lure more smartphone owners your way. Less risk, more reward.
Samsung did exactly that. The Galaxy Note 3 is slightly smaller and lighter than its predecessor, yet it has a bigger and sharper screen, and more useful S Pen software than ever before.
The Note 3 is the same height as the Note 2, but it's 12 percent thinner and 2 percent narrower. It's also 7 percent lighter than its predecessor. The size alone isn't a huge difference – this thing still feels like a small notebook in your pocket – but any movement in that direction is welcome.
As before, Samsung uses physical and capacitive buttons (home, menu, back) below the screen, so your apps, pictures, and videos get to use the full display area. Another subtle but significant improvement this time around is that you can now use the device's stylus on those capacitive keys.
Samsung has taken some flak for the glossy plastic build it puts in nearly all of its mobile devices, but it looks like the Korean company is listening. In the Note 3, it did away with the flimsy-feeling build of the Note 2 in favor of a faux-leather backing, complete with simulated stitching.
Now of course the snarkier corners of the internet have been quick to scoff at Samsung's choice of pleather and fake stitching in the new Note. And trust us, we understand. But when it came down to actually using this as our primary smartphone? Well, we had nothing to scoff about.
In fact, the Note 3's faux leather felt like a welcome change not only from glossy plastic, but also from nearly every other smartphone. Yes, we realize many of those phones are made of more expensive, higher-quality metals; but after a while they also all start to feel the same, don't they? The Note 3 is different, and we think it's different in a good way.
The phone's backing is slightly soft to the touch, but also doesn't give much when you press against it. Imagine a very solid leather-bound notebook. Now replace that leather with pleather, and put it on a giant-sized smartphone. That's the back of the Galaxy Note 3.
We get the sense that Samsung would love to make a Galaxy Note that's made of actual leather and other premium materials, but since they can't do that and still make a generous profit, they settle for simulating those materials.
You may think using fake leather is a cheap, chintzy move by Samsung. And maybe it is. But in our experience, it didn't feel that way. All we ask is that, before you stick your nose up at the Note's faux leather, you actually spend some time with it. We did, and we aren't ashamed to say that we like it, fake stitching and all.
Bigger and better
The Galaxy Note 3 has one of the best displays we've used on a mobile device. Its 5.7-inch screen is seven percent bigger than the 5.5-incher on the Note 2. The extra real estate is very nice, and is one of the biggest perks the Note 3 provides.
But even nicer are the extra pixels. The Note 3 has 125 percent more than its predecessor did, and everything is very sharp, clear, and vivid. Being a Super AMOLED display, everything is a bit hyper-saturated by default. But we found that changing the screen mode (under display settings) to "Professional Photo" gave us much more accurate-looking, toned-down colors.
Text is extremely sharp, as it is on most recent high-end smartphones. When stretched out on a huge 5.7-in display, though, the effect is enhanced. Simply put, everything looks amazing. There are a lot of great smartphone displays out there, but we haven't seen one we liked as much as the one in the Note 3.
Mightier than the sword?
It wouldn't be a Galaxy Note without a stylus, or, erm, S Pen. Like in previous Notes, it slides into the bottom of your phablet when you aren't using it. When you whip it out, which unfortunately takes a bit more fingernail digging this time around, your Note will automatically open some of its stylus-based software.
The S Pen itself looks a little different in the Note 3, but the experience is mostly the same. Hover the pen above the screen, and a small circle shows on the screen underneath. Touch the stylus on the screen to do anything you'd do with your finger, only with a greater sense of precision (we found trace keyboards like Swype to be especially well-suited to the S Pen).
The stylus is, as before, made of plastic, though the end of it looks like it's trying to simulate a metal. Again, we think Samsung envisages a truly premium phablet, but needs to sell it for US$700 with tidy profit margins. The S Pen doesn't feel particularly "premium" or sturdy, though, for what it's worth, our unit hasn't started to wear down at all.
Air Command is our favorite new software feature in the Galaxy Note 3, and one of the best uses of the S Pen to date. Hover the pen over your screen, tap the single button on the side of the stylus, and a small pie-shaped menu pops up on your screen. That pie is your shortcut to the Note's Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window features.
Tap on Action Memo and you can write quick notes that the software will then send to other apps. So if you use Action Memo to jot down a phone number, you can tap a button and the Note will add it to your contacts, call it, or text it – handwriting recognition included. If you write the name of a place, you could search the web for it, or mark it on a map. Scribble the time for Thursday's meeting, and turn it into a task on your calendar.
The Galaxy Note line has always made jotting down notes a piece of cake. But new features like Action Memo remove some of those annoying middle steps, making it easier to jump from writing to destination with minimal fuss.
The second piece of the Air Command pie is Scrapbooker. It lets you grab items on your screen, and save them for later. So if you come across a webpage that you want to remember or share with someone, tap on Scrapbooker, circle it with your stylus, and a screenshot of that portion of the page will be added to your scrapbook, along with the page's URL. You can also add memos and tags to take the logging a step further.
At its heart, Scrapbooker is a quick and easy screenshot grabber. But it has some nice extras, like the way it takes your sloppily-drawn circle and turns it into a perfect circle, square, or rectangle surrounding your content. Taken as a whole, it's yet another way the Note 3 makes collecting, storing, and sharing info you come across a lot easier (not to mention more fun).
Screen Write is a new name, but it's been around before in the Note series. It takes a full screenshot, and lets you scribble notes, tags, or moustaches anywhere you want. It's easy saving and annotating for anything you see on your screen.
S Finder, meanwhile, is a nice system-wide search. Like iOS' Spotlight Search, S Finder lets you type in a word or two, and return results from things like apps, web history, emails, and messages. Nothing ground-breaking here, but another handy feature to have just an S Pen click away.
The last Air Command feature is one of our favorite things about the Galaxy Note 3. We're talking about Pen Window, a feature that lets you run apps without leaving the app you're already in.
When you tap the Pen Window pie entry in Air Command, you then draw a square or rectangle anywhere on the screen. After drawing the window, your Note 3 prompts you to choose an app to fill that window. The app window is movable, resizable, and you can even minimize it. It makes mobile computing a lot more like desktop computing (this time, we mean that as a compliment).
So you can browse Gizmag, and pop up a calculator window to do some quick number-crunching. You can be in the middle of a Skype chat, and pull up your contacts to double-check someone's number. In the middle of a Netflix movie, bring up a browser to search IMDB. Play a game, and pull up a YouTube video of a level walkthrough. There are a lot of really useful possibilities here.
The list of apps that are compatible with Pen Window is pretty limited at launch, but it's a terrific start nonetheless. If smartphone innovation is at a standstill, as it often seems to be (revolutionary back-facing buttons, anyone?), then why does a feature like Pen Window seem truly fresh and yet completely logical? It can change the way you interact with your mobile device. And it really only makes sense on a large-screened, stylus-based device like the Galaxy Note 3.
One thing that seems just as logical, but that isn't on board, is Air Command clipboard integration. Wouldn't it make sense to be able to send text from Action Memo or a screen grab from Scrapbooker straight to the clipboard? Wouldn't it also be nice to have a clipboard history that you can always access straight from Air Command? As much as we like the features that are here, that seems like it might be the most productive, yet it's nowhere to be found.
Galaxy Notes typically have great battery life. And why not? It's a huge device, so it's easier to squeeze a big honkin' battery inside its massive body. The Note 3 is no exception. In our fairly heavy use, its 3,200 mAh battery kept the phablet up and running all day long, without worries.
In our more formal testing, where we streamed video with brightness at 75 percent, the Note 3 lasted almost exactly five hours. That's off the pace that the iPhone 5s set (it lasted over six hours in the same test), but in our experience, battery life shouldn't be any cause for concern in the Note 3.
Phablets make for somewhat unwieldy cameras, but at least the latest Galaxy Note will take some high-quality photos. Feast your eyes on some sample shots.
Here are a couple of shots in direct sunlight:
Now we move to indirect daytime sunlight:
Here are a couple in much dimmer evening outdoor lighting (with the camera's night mode filter activated):
And here's a nighttime shot with the flash on:
It won't replace your DSLR, but the Galaxy Note 3's camera is a great point-and-shoot replacement that's on par with many other top-notch smartphone cameras. Few high-end phones will give you anything to worry about here, and the Note 3 is no exception.
You can check out this post's image gallery for a few more sample shots.
The Galaxy Note 3 delivers excellent performance. So does just about every other high-end smartphone, though, so this is becoming less of a factor in your purchase decision.
Our evaluation is that you won't likely find an app that will push the Note 3 to its limits anytime soon. Even with multiwindow multitasking, everything is fast and smooth. There's nothing to worry about with performance, and you don't need any benchmarks (manipulated or not) to prove that.
When the original Galaxy Note launched, Samsung was mocked for the device's gigantic screen and stylus integration. But apparently those critics forgot to check in with actual customers before delivering their sermons about the imminent death of the phablet.
Two years later, the phablet is a legitimate product category (even if that name is still pretty grating), and the Galaxy Note is the unquestioned leader in the field. In fact, that's the fundamental issue here. If you want a phablet, then the Galaxy Note 3 is head and shoulders above the others. The question is whether you want an enormous smartphone in the first place.
Our best advice is to get the Galaxy Note in your hands, whether it means swinging by a store with display models or borrowing your friend's. If you think your hands, pockets, and bags can live with its size, then there's little reason to hesitate. You get a huge, terrific display, a stylish build (yes, even with the pleather), and some truly innovative S Pen software. We think it's a much richer experience than what most smartphones deliver.
But at US$700 off-contract (or $300 on), it isn't cheap. Considering it's reported to cost Samsung about $238 to make, that's a massive donation you're making to the Samsung Academy of Mobile Profit. It's as if Samsung decided it can get away with charging more for the Galaxy Notes just because they have bigger screens (never mind that high-powered tablets like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX are sold for $230).
If you can get past the size and the price, though, the Galaxy Note 3 is the best phablet around. For many customers, it just might be the best smartphone of the year, period. We'd go so far as to call it one of the best mobile devices ever made, niche audience or not.
Eyeing the Note, and wondering about its companion smartwatch? Then be sure to check out our Galaxy Gear review.