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?
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.
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.
Getting to using the device, you’ll find the buttons are in the familiar places, and even though this is a larger device with a 5.7 inch screen, it still fits comfortably in the hands, likely due to the softer edges and slightly curved back.
The continued placement of the power button on the left and volume rocker on the right still makes it easy to hold, but thanks to the massive size, you’ll likely need that second hand to use the device.
No worries, though, because we expected that, and big phones generally are a two handed affair.
For this two handed device, you’ll find a big screen staring back at you, working with a Full HD 1920×1080 resolution that looks absolutely fantastic, and providing 386 pixels per inch for your eyes, making it 60 pixels per inch higher than what Apple provides on the 4 inch iPhone 5S screen.
Colours are excellent on this display, and regardless of the angle you take, this is a lovely screen to view.
Operating the phone is really no different to other Samsung devices making their way out, though you do get a few new features for your troubles, and of course an updated pen that knows when you’re using it.
Much of what made the S4 popular is here, including smart screen support, air command to pick up on your hovering finger, air view, and support for multi-window, which lets you run two apps on the main screen at once, setting the screen divider up as you please. Regular Android staples are also here, such as multiple homescreens, support for widgets, the drop down bar, and slide out multitasking.
The pen has been updated too, and now activates a special “air command” roll-out screen every time you pull that pen out, which provides you with shortcuts to using that accessory at your fingertips, or pen tip, as the case appears to be.
This mode, which can also be activated by hitting the pen’s button, offers you the ability to take memos, write on your screen, and even add extra windowed applications by drawing shapes for where you want these micro-apps to go.
We’re not sure if everyone will have a use for these pen-based apps, and we found “Action Memo” to be among the most useful, letting you take a note, and then either send it to someone or have it stay as a small icon on your desktop until you need it again.
Over on the performance side of things, there’s no doubt that this is a fast phone, a fact which is evident the more you use the handset and find very little to no lag in the operations.
Switching between apps yields pretty much no slowdowns, and the chip on offer doesn’t seem to struggle or get remarkably hot, which is a good thing.
That same strong performance is echoed in the mobile 4G performance, and we found speeds ranging from 30 to 85Mbps on the downloads.
It’s the second device we’ve seen to sport Cat4 LTE connectivity, though as of the time this was published, only Vodafone customers in Australia can play with the extra speeds this technology offers. Everyone else will see high Cat3 speeds, as we did testing on the Telstra network.
Battery life is also equally good, thanks to the 3200mAh battery inside the handset, which helps to provide a solid two days worth of life.
This isn’t like either the Note or Note 2 devices, which barely manage a day on their technology. Two days seemed consistent for us, and that was tested with both the Galaxy Gear smartwatch connected and without.
You’ll find a little more juice without Bluetooth always being used, a requirement of the Samsung Galaxy Gear, but it’s not much, and still leaves you with roughly the same lifespan.
Moving to the multimedia side of things, and the Note 3 appears to be a decent tablet replacement, which given its size, doesn’t surprise us in the slightest.
Samsung’s music sharing Group Play is on this device, as is the S Health and S Translator apps, but you’ll also find the TV friendly “WatchOn,” working in collaboration with the infrared controller at the top of the device, turning the smartphone into a TV remote.
Samsung’s choice of camera in this handset reminds us very much of what it threw into the Galaxy S4, and that can only be a good thing. Both have the same megapixel counts, but there are some differences here and there.
Like the S4, you’ll find the erasing mode which fires a few frames and lets you cut out parts of the background you may not want, as well as a “sound & shot” mode which records up to nine seconds of audio when an image is captured.
These are neat modes, but require you to be in the modes to use them, which is different from HTC’s decision on the matter which only requires you use HTC’s enhanced camera mode “Zoe” and then run whatever edits you prefer later.
There’s also a mode that makes use of an Android 4.2 feature that’s been missing on all but the Google devices, and that’s the photosphere mode, called “surround shot” on the Galaxy Note.
It won’t be a camera feature all will use, but it’s a fun little one that allows you to take multiple pictures of a room, mapping the entire space to a 3D object that you’re standing in. It’s essentially virtual reality for your phone, even if it also isn’t, and we had mixed opinions on the inclusion with this one, though it is neat.
The front-facing camera has also added a face smoothing feature, so you can iron out those wrinkles in selfies, while another distinction from the S4’s camera is the inclusion of 4K support over on the video camera side of things.
This feature is a new one for us in Australia, and even though Acer announced it at IFA earlier in the year, nothing has arrived locally showing it. Samsung’s Note 3 does have this technology, however, and after testing it, we found it allows you to capture videos in Ultra HD, also known as the 4K standard.
Unlike when you record in Full HD, you’ll find no optical image stabilisation or image taking while the video is being shot, but at least it’s something, and if you have invested in a 4K TV, this will provide you with a 4K camera in your pocket well before most camera manufacturers provide the capability in their own dedicated imaging devices.
Something else the Note 3 has that is quite cool is one that most people won’t see coming: USB 3.0 support.
At the bottom of the handset is what appears to be a new port, and it might have you banging your head against a wall yelling “not another bloody proprietary format.” We say it might because if you know your stuff, it won’t, as this port is actually the USB port used on USB 3.0 devices.
Hard drives supporting this format have been out for a few years now, and we’ve even seen an accessory here and there sporting the high-speed connection. Appearing in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, we can see the obvious use will be moving large files to and from the device, and since this smartphone supports the shooting on 4K videos, it makes this port even more logical.
It’s also worth noting that the USB 3.0 port is made up two distinct connectors, a big one that most people know as microUSB that appears on most smartphones (everything but the iPhone, in fact), and a smaller version of the microUSB that looks linked. On a hard drive, these two connections make up the data and power transfer side of things, but just because they appear on the Galaxy Note 3 doesn’t mean you’re forced to use a new cable. In fact, you can charge the Note 3 using your old microUSB power cables all the same, or switch to the new format.
One neat bonus is included in the box, though, and that’s an extra long USB 3.0 cable, which you can use with the smartphone, or as an extra long cable for your external USB 3.0 hard drives.
We’re sure you’ll appreciate it. We sure did.
What’s interesting about all these features is it seems like Samsung has paid more attention with this product than with any other smartphone before it. It’s the third Galaxy Note, and yet it feels more whole than the fourth version of the Galaxy S smartphone, and that wasn’t a bad phone either.
Despite this, however, Samsung doesn’t totally nail the formula, and still leaves a few bugs laying around.
We got over the continued use of plastics in the design of the Note 3, but the one thing that has us stumped in design is the is the fake stitching on the back, designed to make people think the phone has a proper leather back complete with stitching. The problem with this is that you know it’s fake, and it feels it too.
We can get over this design aspect, though, because it’s not nearly as irritating as some of the bugs still present in the Australian incarnation of the Note 3 version of Android.
Samsung has gone and brought this device up to the very recent version 4.3, which is nice of it, but Australia — and likely other regions of the world — sees a version of the operating system that comes with a few limitations and bugs that may, well, bug you, so to speak.
We’ve seen these in all the other Galaxy products this year, and the Note 3 is no different, including the gallery bug that causes the image gallery to have such a dramatic slow down that you’ll be lucky to see the gallery load rather than give off the appearance that it’s crashed, only to load just as soon as you’ve hit the back button.
It’s a frustrating bug that hasn’t been patched yet and is present on the S4, S4 Active, and Mega devices.
Also not patched is the shortcut dock at the bottom of the screen, and while other nations will likely get a Note 3 that let them change the icon dock to feature apps they use — maybe Twitter and Chrome replacing contacts and the stock internet browser — Australians aren’t so lucky, and like we said in the Mega review (which features the same bug), we hope you like phone, contacts, messages, and the basic internet browser, because you can’t change them here.
Finally, the camera can’t be silenced at all, and makes a very audible click every time you fire off a shot.
Some readers have told us this is probably a legal requirement, but given that other manufacturers aren’t requiring it — including Apple and LG — we’re not so sure. You can, if you want, replace the dedicated camera app with one that lets you silence it, but Samsung’s one features all the neat camera modes, and it will keep on telling everyone that you’re taking a picture.
Lots of people are using big phones out there, and they have Samsung to thank. The company practically invented the space known as “phablets” when it first launched the Galaxy Note, and now in its third iteration, we’re seeing what is close to a perfection of that concept.
There is so much about the Note 3 that is excellent, from the fast processor, excellent download speeds, solid battery life, lovely screen, top camera, improved pen support, and a smattering of bits and bobs here and there that make it feel like Samsung has crafted something that won’t just last to the end of the year, but also to the end of the next couple.
Not everyone will desire a big phone, that said, but if you do, and if you truly want a larger smartphone experience that has so much going for it, you need to put the Galaxy Note 3 in your hands.