ZDNet Editors' Choice

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review: Big, fast and feature-packed, but pricey

Summary: The Galaxy Note 3 is a clear step up from its predecessor, with a larger screen in a smaller, thinner, lighter chassis, plenty of usability enhancements, plus impressive performance and battery life. The price tag is the only serious drawback.

  • Editors' rating:
    8.8
  • User rating:
    8.2
  • RRP:
    USD $299.99
    GBP £495.00

Pros

  • Superb 5.7-inch sAMOLED screen
  • Good S Pen stylus functionality
  • LTE mobile broadband
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • 2.3GHz quad-core SoC
  • Good battery life

Cons

  • Large
  • Potentially confusing array of UI enhancements and software extras
  • Cheesy faux-leather backplate
  • Expensive

Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 is in some respects a difficult sell: it's priced well beyond many users at £594 (inc. VAT, £495 ex. VAT); it's large for a phone (although relatively small compared to a 7-inch tablet); and its S Pen stylus input — a key differentiator — isn't an obvious 'must have' feature.

Those who have used the Galaxy Note 2 and the original Galaxy Note may be attracted by the new features on offer here, but to reach beyond hardcore fans Samsung needs to keep delivering more stylus-based benefits and convince a wider audience of their utility.

Our SIM-free review sample of the Galaxy Note 3 came from Clove Technology.

galaxy-note3-thumb
The 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3's design is generally pleasing, but the faux-leather backplate strikes a cheesy note. Images: Samsung

Design

The 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 is not Samsung's biggest handset; that distinction goes to the new 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega , which itself is trumped by Sony's gargantuan 6.4-inch Xperia Z Ultra.

Still, very few handsets edge over the 6-inch mark, and the Galaxy Note 3's screen, while 'only' 5.7 inches across the diagonal, is among the largest available. It's a touch larger than the 5.5-inch screen on the Galaxy Note 2, and the additional viewing area has been built into a chassis that's almost identical in footprint, although thinner and lighter — 79.2mm by 151.2mm by 8.3mm and 168g for the Note 3 compared to 80.5mm by 151.1mm by 9.4mm and 183g for the Note 2.

When it comes to giant-screen handsets, what's acceptable to carry and hold evolves over time: for us, the Galaxy Note 3 feels fine to hold to the ear for voice calls, while the 6-inch-plus Galaxy Mega and Sony Xperia Z Ultra felt oversized and unwieldy when we reviewed them.

galaxy-note-3-keypad
To make one-handed operation easier, you can set some interface elements — including the keypad shown here — to appear on the left or right sides of the screen. images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Of course, pocketing the Galaxy Note 3 may prove difficult for some, and one-handed use is out of the question for most — at least with the standard UI. However, as on some of its other large-screen devices, Samsung allows you to set keypad, in-call buttons and calculator so that they sit on either the left or right side of the screen to make one-handed use easier.

The Galaxy Note 3 has Samsung's usual Home button beneath the screen, flanked by a pair of softkeys that illuminate when pressed.

The edges are finished in a shiny, chrome-like plastic with a raised ridge rather than a flat design. The right edge houses the power button, the volume rocker is on the left, the headset jack and an infrared transmitter are on the top, while the bottom edge carries the new Micro-USB 3.0 port for speedier-than-usual data transfer and charging. Samsung supplies a USB 3.0 cable, and the new port is backwards-compatible with existing Micro-USB 2.0 connectors. The Micro-USB 3.0 port is also MHL 2.0 compliant, but you'll have to provide your own adapter cable to take advantage of this.

galaxy-note3-bottom
The bottom of the Galaxy Note 3 carries a (new but backwards-compatible) Micro-USB 3.0 port and the S Pen stylus housing. Image: Samsung

The stylus, which Samsung calls the S Pen, sits in a slot on the bottom edge of the device. Thankfully, it anchors there pretty firmly as it's the stylus features that make the Galaxy Note 3 distinctive.

The backplate is a novelty, and not in a good way. It's thin and plasticky, in typical Samsung style, and feels very flimsy when you remove it to access the SIM and MicroSD slots. It also has a rubbery texture and leather-look finish, complete with faux stitching around its border. The look and feel is actually quite realistic, but the stitching effect is, frankly, comical.

The Galaxy Note 3's 5.7-inch screen uses Samsung's Super AMOLED technology and its full-HD resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels gives it a pixel density of 386 pixels per inch (ppi). This is a big step up from the Galaxy Note 2's 1,280-by-720 pixels and 267ppi. The number of pixels is matched by Samsung's flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone, whose smaller 5-inch screen gives it a bigger pixel density of 441ppi.

galaxy note3-display
Presets are available to optimise the Galaxy Note 3's sAMOLED screen for different applications. Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The Note 3's sAMOLED screen is simply stunning — clear, sharp and bright, with good viewing angles and super-rich colours that positively jump out at you. Samsung provides presets that allow you to refine the colour tone so you can move away from super-bright to something more subtle, or have the handset automatically adapt depending on what you're doing.

Features

As you'd expect from a handset that costs around £600 (inc. VAT), Samsung has thrown top-end specifications at the Galaxy Note 3. It's an LTE/HSPA+ handset, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC comprising a 2.3GHz quad-core processor and Adreno 330 GPU, supported by 3GB of RAM. These specifications put the Galaxy Note 3 at the current pinnacle of power for a smartphone/phablet.

To cement its high-end credentials, the Galaxy Note 3 has 32GB of internal storage. The operating system and Samsung extras mop up a chunk of that, leaving you around 25GB free. The MicroSD card slot under the backplate is stacked on top of the MicroSIM card slot, and you can hot-swap memory cards without removing the battery.

There are two cameras — 13-megapixel with LED flash at the rear and 2-megapixel at the front. The main camera will shoot UHD (2160p) video at 30 frames per second (fps), FHD (1080p) at 60fps and HD (720p) at 120fps for slow-motion viewing. The front camera will do HD at 30fps, and there are shooting modes that use both cameras simultaneously.

There's a full set of wireless connectivity and sensors: wi-fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac); Bluetooth 4.0; GPS (with A-GPS and GLONASS support); and NFC; plus accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, compass, barometer, temperature, humidity and gesture sensors. Connectivity standard support runs to Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA and MHL 2.0.

The operating system is Android 4.3, making the Galaxy Note 3, for the moment, among the most advanced Android handsets available. Samsung's own TouchWiz user interface sits on top, adding a wide range of features including gesture controls, the finger-hovering Air View and motion controls as well as other usability enhancements. One such feature, Multi Window, comes into its own on this large-screen device as it allows you to view two apps side by side. Our only complaint is that it's not implemented for all apps, but just a selection.

galaxy-note3-easy
Should you wish, you can set the Galaxy Note 3's user interface to Easy Mode for a gentler introduction to the handset's functionality. Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

If you like the Note 3's screen size but find the UI a bit too fiddly and over-featured, there's an optional Easy Mode that reduces the complexity — and number — of the home screens and cuts down on the range of features available. (Although why you'd want to spend £600 on a device and then hobble its functionality is a moot point.)

As well as UI enhancements, Samsung adds a plenty of apps of its own, many of which take advantage of the S-Pen stylus. To give a few examples: S Translator performs language translations; S Planner is a calendar app; S Voice is a voice controller that can perform tasks like making calls; S Health is a wellbeing app that promises much but is currently finding its feet; WatchON can be used to control home entertainment equipment via infrared; and ChatON is a messaging app.

Business users will be interested in Knox, Samsung's enterprise security solution that allows a device to be used for both personal and work activities without compromising corporate security.

S Pen features
The S Pen is what makes the Galaxy Note 3's stand out from other devices. The stylus itself feels disappointingly light in the hand, but its utility is impressive.

At a basic level, you can use the stylus for navigation, and to make handwritten notes and drawings. The handwriting recognition is fast and accurate; we found we could use a fairly untidy cursive scrawl and get good results.

galaxy-note3-aircommand
Undocking the S Pen stylus, or holding it close to the screen and pressing the stylus button, brings up the Air Command menu. Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

New to the Galaxy Note 3 is an Air Command menu that pops up when you extract the stylus from its housing or put the tip near the screen and press the on-stylus button. This brings up a menu of key services that are available.

One of these, Pen Window, lets you define an area and then open a secondary app into that from a small selection: calculator, clock, YouTube, phone dialler, contacts, ChatON, the Android web browser and Google Hangouts. Screen Write takes a screenshot and lets you write or draw onto it, and then save and share the product. S Finder is a device search tool. Action Memo lets you take short notes and then perform actions on them, such as call a phone number, visit a website or find a location in Google Maps. Scrap Booker lets you capture a screen area into an app called Scrapbook for annotation and later use.

This is only a selection of the available pen-based actions. There are pen-enabled apps such as S Planner and S Note, and Autodesk SketchBook for Galaxy — which you need to download (all 10.8MB of it), but which responds to the stylus's pressure-sensitive features.

And on any screen, you can draw round an area to copy it and then paste it into a selection of apps — as an email attachment, for example, or as a note. It's a simple, easy way to share a small piece of information.

Samsung claims 13 hours of wi-fi internet usage for the Galaxy Note 3, whose 3,200mAh battery should deliver all-day use to most people. Heavy workloads during the review period meant that we needed to give the device a power boost each afternoon, but a typical usage pattern should see you well into the evening before a recharge is needed.

Conclusion

Samsung has added some interesting usability features to the Galaxy Note 3 that make it a clear step up from its predecessor. Building a larger screen into a smaller, thinner and lighter chassis is an achievement, while the 5.7-inch full-HD sAMOLED screen is a joy to use. Whether what's on offer here is worth nearly £600 (inc. VAT) SIM-free is debatable, but price aside, the Galaxy Note 3 is extremely impressive.

Further reading

Specifications

General
Width 3.1 in
Depth 0.3 in
Height 5.9 in
Weight 5.9 oz
Cellular
Service Provider AT&T
Operating System Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean)
Processor
Clock Speed 2.3 GHz
Processor Core Qty Quad-core, Quad Core, Quad core, quad-core
Display
Diagonal Size 5.7 in

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Reviews, Samsung

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.