There was a lot of buzz leading up to the Galaxy Note 3 launch. The device is the third in Samsung’s portfolio of Note-branded smartphones, and it packs the most powerful hardware of any of Samsung’s current smartphones. That said, it also has a massive display that can be cumbersome to hold with a single hand, though its software features promise to make the experience worth it.
We’ve been using two Galaxy Note 3 units for the past week and have put it through its paces long enough that we’re now prepared to deliver you our full review.
Is the Note 3 the best phablet on the market, and is it a worthwhile move over the Galaxy Note 2? Let’s take a closer look.
Galaxy Note 3 Video Review
The Galaxy Note 3 currently packs some of the most powerful hardware available on the market, that includes a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.3GHz in the U.S., 3GB of RAM, a 13-megapixel camera capable of recording UHD video, 32GB of expandable storage, and a stellar 5.7-inch screen with a full 1920 x 1080-pixel display. It’s slightly taller than the Galaxy Note 2, at 5.9-inches, through measures the same 3.1-inches wide and 0.3-inches thick.
That’s impressive, considering Samsung added an additional 0.2-inches of screen real-estate and a larger battery without making the device feel too much larger. You can thank the slim bezels around the screen for that feat.
Speaking of the screen, it’s perfect for media moguls and for watching movies, showing off vacation pictures and, of course, scrawling notes. Our only problem is that the Super AMOLED technology makes it hard to view under direct sunlight.
The volume buttons rest on the top left-side of the device, and they fall directly under our left thumb every time we pick it up, which means they’re always in easy reach. The power button, likewise, is always easy to hit. We found it can be a slight struggle to hold the phone and navigate around the entire display with one hand, though that should come as no surprise to anyone with experience holding a phablet. Samsung also added an easy one-hand mode that shrinks the content on the display, should you need it.
The back of the device is home to a 13-megapixel camera sensor and a single LED flash, which rise slightly above a faux leather back. There’s been a lot of dislike for that fake leather plastic material, though we like it a lot more than the slick surface on the Galaxy S4. It provides better grip and the fake leather stitching gives it a more premium design.
There’s a slot for Samsung’s new S Pen on the lower-right hand side of the phone, and removing it activates several new software features that Samsung added for the device that we’ll discuss in the software section.
Finally, there’s a chrome-colored strip that runs along the entire border of the device. We like that it adds to first-class look and feel of the Note 3, though have found that this strip chips and peels easily on Samsung’s other Galaxy devices, such as the S4. It hasn’t stripped away on our review unit yet, however, so it’s possible Samsung made it a bit stronger on the Note 3.
Take this away from the hardware: the device is huge, no doubt, but that’s the appeal of a Galaxy Note smartphone. Samsung also stocks the device with plenty of software features, so let’s discuss how those mix and mingle with the hardware.
The Galaxy Note 3 runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean out of the box, which is the most recent iteration of Google’s mobile operating system (until Android 4.4 KitKat makes its debut, at least). Samsung, as usual, layers its own TouchWiz user interface on top. It adds to the experience, though not without taking a bit as well.
We like that there are dozens of controls, similar to what is available on the Galaxy S4, such as support for turning on Smart Stay, Multi Window, Reading Mode and more, all from the task bar. Unfortunately, we’re still not fond of TouchWiz’s overly colorful user experience and prefer stock Jelly Bean.
Still, the 3GB of RAM and the Snapdragon 800 processor at least make the experience generally pleasurable to use. Everything is really fast, and TouchWiz doesn’t seem to be holding anything back. There’s also always the option to add a third-party launcher, so we can’t hate on TouchWiz too much. We do wish that Google Now took a more front and center role on the Note 3, since it’s incredibly powerful, but it seems like Samsung tried to hide it a bit.
S Voice is still pretty awful when compared to competitors such as Siri. Sure, it can tell you the weather and help you execute other commands, but when we had it read back a message it kept enunciating the periods in each sentence as “dot.” How did this go unnoticed?
The real shine of TouchWiz comes with Samsung’s S Pen software. A new “Air Command” feature automatically launches when you remove the S Pen, and you can use it to create an Action Memo, take pieces of a page and create a scrapbook, write on the screen, activate S Finder or open a Pen Window. Action Memo is neat in concept, though it didn’t always recognize the phone number I wrote and let me dial it correctly. Scrapbooking is neat in concept – you can save pieces of Web sites or other material and create a book of notes, though we never found ourselves wanting to use it. S Finder lets you search for content, including notes you’ve scribbled, and works fairly well. The Pen Window is the most useful feature, we think, and it lets you quickly draw an area on the screen to populate with a calculator, the phone dialer, a YouTube page, the Web browser or Hangouts, among other options.
Really, though, we found ourselves using the S Pen most with S Note, which is a great piece of software for jotting down ideas, adding pictures and more. We used it to create a quick sketch of what we hope the living room will look like in our new apartment, for example.
Samsung markets the Note 3 as a great note taking device and, while it is, we actually found ourselves loving it more for the big screen and less for actually jotting down ideas. But when you need the S Pen, it’s always there for you, so it’s nice to have at those moments.
Samsung hasn’t really talked about it a lot, but the 13-megapixel camera on the Note 3 actually shoots 4K UHD video. It properly defaults to a 1920 x 1080p setting, but if you visit the settings there’s an option for shooting in 3,840 x 2,160, the resolution that can be displayed on 4K screens.
Unfortunately, you can’t actually play that video back in 4K on the Note 3. We also didn’t have access to a 4K screen, so we weren’t able to test it. But that’s a nice future-proofing option for people who record a lot of video. Also take note: you can’t capture photos at the same time you record video in this mode.
The 13-megapixel sensor on the Galaxy Note 3 is largely the same as the one on the Galaxy S4, so far as we can tell, and pictures look about the same. We’ve noticed it has an issue with motion blur a lot of the time, and there’s a lot of noise in low-light shots, but we generally like the camera. We prefer the 8-megapixel shooter on the new iPhone 5s, and especially like the camera on the Lumia 1020, but the Note 3 takes satisfactory images overall.
Data and Call Quality
The Galaxy Note 3 performed admirably in New York City during our tests. We did notice that it reported a lower signal in the same areas where the iPhone 5s had a better signal, though we’re not entirely sure why.
Data speeds were just OK in our tests. We found it usually hovering around 5Mbps – 6Mbps for downloads and uploads usually in the area of 3Mbps. That’s not great, but your mileage may vary depending on where you are. In real world practice, everything was just fine and data speeds rarely held us back. We only ran into one issue where streaming back music was a problem in New York City, and that was while driving through a known dead spot in a taxi.
Our biggest gripe comes with the phone’s puny loudspeaker, which isn’t loud at all. It’s not great for playing music or watching videos, you’ll want to stick to headphones or an external speaker, and it was quiet during conference calls with the device on speakerphone. Samsung could learn a thing or two from HTC by adding stereo front-facing speakers to really bolster the performance in this arena.
We love that the Note 3 has a removable battery, which is great if you want to keep a fully charged one with you at all times during lengthy trips. You won’t have to worry about battery life too much, though.
We consider ourselves power users, and after taking the device off of the charger at 8:30 a.m. we usually had about 30 percent left at the end of the night, around 11:00 p.m. With lighter usage, we were able to get through a day and a half just fine. This is remarkable considering the powerful hardware and large display, but clearly all the power management in the processors and display is starting to pay off nice dividends.
Speaking of the charging, the device supports faster data transfers over USB 3.0 ports. It comes with its own cable, though you can also charge it with a standard USB 2.0 microUSB charger. We found that its battery charges really quickly with the included power cable, though, so you should stick to using that when possible.
Finally, wireless charging will be supported with a special cover accessory from Samsung, though it’s not included out of the box.
Easily the most powerful and capable Android smartphone on the market right now
We freakin’ love this phone. We really appreciate that Samsung answered complaints about the cheapo-plastic look and feel of its older devices and, while it’s not perfect yet, we prefer the faux leather design on the back. The South Korean phone maker also managed to squeeze in a boatload of today’s latest and greatest hardware, and combined with the company’s software it’s easily the most powerful and capable Android smartphone on the market right now.
The large size isn’t going to be loved by all, but that’s not the point. Anyone walking into a wireless store and playing with the phone is going to realize it’s a big phone – and we think consumers are really warming up to the idea of phablets. Now that streaming video has long been common place on smartphones, the Note 3 really is a fantastic 1080p portable entertainment device, in addition to being a first-class smartphone and excellent productivity gadget.
Our biggest gripe always comes back to TouchWiz, but we’re more than willing to overlook that for all of the added features, especially now that there’s enough powerful hardware to cruise through the UI.
We love almost every aspect of the Note 3, from its excellent battery life to its brilliant display, and we think you will, too.
Todd Haselton and Jonathan Rettinger began testing the Galaxy Note 3 on Oct. 2, giving us both five full days with the device as our primary smartphone before writing this review. The units were tested on AT&T in Irvine and New York City and were provided by Samsung. We plan to return the review units to Samsung following the completion of our tests and future comparisons.