Galaxy Note 3 review: Even more features packed into a (slightly) bigger body
At a Glance
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
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The Note 3 is one of Samsung's best phones to date, but it still doesn't fit into your pocket.
Another day, another device—that’s what Samsung makes us feel like with the exhausting lineup of phones and tablets it has debuted in the last year. Its latest release, however, the Galaxy Note 3, is at least worth paying attention to. It’s the third iteration of the company’s not-quite-a-phone, not-quite-a-tablet Note line, and its internal specifications make it one of the most powerful handsets out on the market right now. It also features 4K video recording and a new suite of applications for the S-Pen aimed at making it easier to jot down notes, leave yourself reminders, and multitask. This is one of the better phones Samsung currently offers, but it’s just as bloated as the rest Galaxy Note family of devices.
Bigger—but not by much
The Note 3 is stylish with its rounded corners and faux-leather backing, but the fake metal banding and plasticky chassis still make it feel like a cheap phone. At 0.33-inch thick, its 5.95-by-3.12-inch chassis is comfortable for composing long emails and tapping out witty Twitter responses. And as with the Note II, there is still a setting for one-handed operation if you need your other hand for holding on to something else.
Samsung kept the device relatively close in size to its predecessor, which hopefully means that it won’t dare to get any bigger in future versions. While the Note 3 may not be as massive as the 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega, it’s still too awkward to hold up to your ear for phone calls.
The Note 3 features a 5.7-inch, 1080p, 386-pixels-per-inch (ppi) Super AMOLED display. That’s a huge improvement over its predecessor, which featured a lower-resolution display than the original Note. The screen is certainly bright, but it uses up a significant amount of battery life when it’s at its fullest brightness, and you still can’t see it too well in direct sunlight. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate that large screen when you’re watching Netflix on the train ride to work, or even perusing emails.
The Note 3 did not pass my pocket test, nor did it pass my purse-pouch test. This isn’t the device to buy if you’re looking for something compact and minimalist. Bear in mind that the Note 3 also comes equipped with a Micro-USB 3.0 port. You can still use a Micro-USB 2.0 cable to charge it and transfer data, but you won’t be able to take advantage of its USB 3.0 speed capabilities.
Fast performance, long battery life
Samsung packed the Galaxy Note 3 with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and its own proprietary Touchwiz Nature UI 2.0 overlay. Inside, it’s fueled by a quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor and 3GB of RAM—in lay terms that means that, at the time of this writing, it’s one of the most powerful phones out there. You’ll see its performance pay off right now when you’re multitasking, and you’ll especially appreciate the future-proofing you get courtesy of the top-tier processor.
With its 3200mAh battery, the Note 3 petered out after about 11 hours of constant video streaming. That’s more than you get with most of the phones on the market, about on a par with the Note II’s 3100mAh battery pack, and about two hours less than with the Motorola Droid Maxx. You can flip on Samsung’s Power Saver feature and disengage features like Smart Screen to save a bit of battery life.
Like Samsung’s last major release, the Galaxy S4, the Note 3 features a perfectly capable 13-megapixel camera with a plethora of different shooting modes. Its most notable feature, however, is its 4K recording capabilities. It’s mostly a ploy to gain marketing points, however, because not many televisions or monitors can play back the video at full resolution just yet, and the phone itself certainly doesn’t have a 4K screen.
The phone is available with up to 64GB of storage, and you’ll be able to add an extra 64GB through the MicroSD expansion slot, which should come in handy if you plan on shooting 4K video.
The key to unleashing all that power
Following in the footsteps of its older siblings, the Note 3 features the venerable S-Pen nestled tightly in its own little dock-slot on the rear side of the phone. It’s still one of the best features of the Note devices, though it’s not without its little quirks.
The S-Pen leaves faint traces on the screen after you use it to take notes in a meeting. And if you have sloppy penmanship or a penchant for meticulousness, you’ll be aching for the tactile feel of a ballpoint pen on paper after just a minute with this thing. But if you can stand the stylus, you’ll be glad to know that Samsung tucked in a few new software features with the Note 3.
First up is the overhauled Settings menu, which dropped minor features available on the Note II, like the ability to choose a dominant-hand setting. Other minor features, like Popup Note, have been cut in favor of the new Air Command features. You can still multitask with Multi window, use Air view to hover for more information, and click the S-Pen’s side button while drawing on the screen to make a selection.
Samsung also includes its own Flipboard-style application dubbed My Magazine. You can launch it by swiping up from the bottom. To personalize it, you can choose from a preselected list of news sources you want aggregated, just as you would with Flipboard, and then add in notifications from your social networks including Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ (but oddly, not Facebook). The app feels like a response to HTC’s news-blaster app, BlinkFeed, and though Samsung partnered with Flipboard for the app, the stand-alone application is much more versatile than Samsung’s implementation.
Air Command is an entirely new set of five small apps that you can access by hovering over the screen with the S-Pen and clicking the side button. The menu gives you quick access to: Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window. All of these “mini apps” exist to serve a particular function, but they’re not all as useful as Samsung would have you believe.
Scrapbooker lets you clip videos, websites, text, links, and other little bits of the Web that you might want to save on your phone to access later. This handy feature will even let you clip YouTube videos to watch later.
Screen Write and S Finder both seem like natural extensions of the Samsung user experience. S Finder will thoroughly scour your system, your personal files, your handwritten notes, and the Web when running your query, while Screen Write will snap a screenshot and let you add a doodle-y addendum.
Action Memo lets you pen a memo to yourself and link part of it in order to, for instance, scope out directions in Maps, navigate to a specific link, or open up a photo library. The app is especially useful for its ability to save and archive sticky notes, but the added linking functionality can sometimes overcomplicate what should have been a perfectly simple-to-use application.
Lastly, there’s Pen Window, a gimmicky feature that asks you to draw out the size of the window you need and then select the app that you want to fit within those parameters. These small apps are featured on several manufacturer-customized versions of Android and they’re useful on a screen as a big as the Note 3’s, but Samsung’s implementation is flawed. Some apps end up skewed and misshapen, and I would rather have just had the option to choose what I need in a window that I could manually resize. You can also minimize a window into a “chat bubble” if you’re in multitasking mode.
Some might say that the S-Pen is a feature that you’ll forget to use after a while, but I felt more comfortable using the stylus with the Note 3’s larger screen. Granted, I wasn’t a big fan of the handwriting portion, but I liked navigating menus, bringing up applications, and swiping away emails with the pen better than with my finger. The S-Pen has its limitations, however, and you’ll want to carefully consider if you can live with permanently stowing away a pen you might not ever use.
S-Note has come a long way since its launch with the original Galaxy Note. On the Note 3, it gains an overhauled interface and newly polished templates. You can sync to Evernote, add charts and graphs, and set up your own pen presets.
Third time’s a charm
The Note 3 lets you easily switch from watching video on the train to work, to typing out emails while walking to the office, to mind-mapping for your next big project. And if you add in a few third-party office-style applications from the Google Play store, it’s becomes the all-encompassing device for work or school.
However, you’ll have to contend with the extra applications and features that the company bundled with the Note 3. You must manually turn off features like Smart scroll when they’re not in use if you want to preserve battery life (and, possibly, your sanity), and you must ignore the fact that Samsung’s less-superior S-Voice is the default personal digital assistant. In exchange, you’ll have a powerhouse phone designed for multitaskers, with a quad-core processor, forward-thinking video-recording abilities, and battery life sufficient to get you through long, ardous days. In essence, that’s really what we’ve come to expect from our phones in this day and age, even if they don’t quite fit in our back pocket.