Bigger, better, brighter: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 reviewed

Ever since Samsung launched the tablet-sized smartphone craze, we’ve seen more of these massive devices creep into people’s hands and hand luggage. Now Samsung is ready with its third phablet, and it’s better than ever, packing in a Full HD screen, redesigned pen tool, and support for 4K. Is this the best phone of the year?

Features

The latest in Samsung’s Galaxy Note series, the Note 3 is an evolution of the previous Note handsets, rather than a reinvention of those models.

As such, this evolution improves upon the hardware with new processors, new features, an improved design, and a better screen.

We’ll start with that last one, because it’s as good a place as any, and in this revision of the Note series, Samsung has jumped from a 5.5 inch to a 5.7 inch Super AMOLED display, while increasing the resolution from the 1280×720 HD (720p) display of the old to a 1920×1080 Full HD (1080p) in the new, a move that also increases the screen clarity to 386 pixels per inch.

Under this sits electronics and processors aimed at helping this be one of the fastest products out there, with technology that pushes it beyond even that of the Galaxy S4. This includes the use of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.3GHz, 3GB RAM (which takes it past the 2GB sweet spot of Android), Adreno 330 graphics chip, and 32GB of storage, with the option for more with a microSD slot.

One of the latest versions of Android is included, 4.3 “Jelly Bean,” with Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay still included.

Connectivity options are a little more diverse than normal, with Bluetooth 4, Near-Field Communication, infrared, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, DLNA, GPS, and a USB 3.0 port also here, a first for a product. Mobile communications when you’re out of range of a wireless hotspot are handled through Cat4 LTE, making it one of the faster products out there today, with Cat3 LTE and regular 3G connections also possible.

On the camera side of things, there’s a 13 megapixel rear camera with not just Full HD video capture, but also 4K Ultra HD support, while the front camera is a 2 megapixel module.

Samsung is also including its special pen, called the “S Pen stylus” which includes a button and activates extra functionality to replace your notepad and possibly a tablet.

As with most Samsung smartphones, there are very few physical buttons here, keeping consistent with configurations on prior Galaxy products, with the volume rocker on the left and power button on the right edges, while the front of the device features a physical home button, with menu and back flanking it on either side.

The infrared controller sits at the top of the device, as does the 3.5mm jack, while the bottom of the handset houses the S Pen and the microUSB port which is now built into the USB 3.0 port.

Continuing with the tradition of other Galaxy products, the back is removable and still made of plastic, though this time with a fake leather finish complete with fake stitching.

Underneath, though, there’s a 3200mAh battery, microSIM slot, and a bay to upgrade the storage capacity with microSD memory.

Performance

As one of Samsung’s biggest releases of the year, we’re going to look at this one in depth, as it’s a bigger phone than you might believe, even though the screen size practically gives that away.

Picking it up, it’s clear that the design is more of an evolution of the previous models. The frame around the front is looking smaller than ever, and everything is tightened up.

Our review model was a dark grey, but this was only for the front, and a shiny silver trim protected the edges, with a black fake leather back made of plastic.

In the Note 3, Samsung is continuing to choose plastic for its build material over a more premium material, such as the glass used in the LG Optimus G, or aluminium in HTC’s One. Neither of these handsets are as large as the Samsung big phone we’re checking out here, and few phablets seem to have premium materials, but that doesn’t mean customers (and reviewers) aren’t wishing.

We’re still hoping Samsung will come along, surprise everyone, and say “hey, we made a metal phone” or “we made a glass phone,” thereby creating something that feels properly substantial.

It hasn’t happened in the Note 3, but Samsung has made the plastic better with a back textured like leather.

It’s not leather, mind you, and will probably be regarded as the thickest form of pleather/vinyl you’ll ever encounter, but it still comes off feeling a little cheap. In fairness to Samsung, the Note 3’s fake leather back does elicit a better feeling than the greasy plastic it uses for the backing of its other 2012 and 2013 devices, but not by much.

There’s also a new pen in a recess at the bottom right, and now the pen has been reshaped to fit in that space in more than one way, which is great for anyone who has accidentally jammed the old pen incorrectly.

We’re still talking the same style of device here, with digitiser maker Wacom helping out on the engineering on the pen side of things, and a button on one side that you can use in apps on the phone.

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