Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review: World's most capable Android smartphone gets even better

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review: World's most capable Android smartphone gets even better

Summary: With the highest specs on an Android phone, one of the largest displays with S Pen support, and enhanced Samsung software we see Samsung continue to improve on a fantastic device with the size staying about the same.

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  • Sprint Samsung Galaxy Note 3 in hand

    Last year I bought a Galaxy Note II and used if for about six months before moving to the HTC One. The Note II remains one of the best Android smartphones available, but the new Galaxy Note 3 is even better with advanced S Pen functionality, a slightly larger display, improved internals, and Android 4.3 with a back that looks and feels like it belongs in the enterprise.

    Hardware

    Samsung was able to squeeze in a larger display measuring 5.7 inches, was 5.5 inches, diagonally while actually reducing the width by 1.3 mm. While the removable back panel, available in black or white, is still made of rather thin plastic, the outside has an almost leather feel to it. It feels sticky to your hand and helps with the grip. There is fake stitching around the edges too, giving it a classy look.

    You can buy the Note 3 with 32GB or 64GB internal memory and both come with a microSD card slot for further memory expansion. You can also pop out the 3,200 mAh battery if you need the Note 3 on the road and when your capacity degrades over time. The Note 3 is a device that should last you for a couple of years.

    The Super AMOLED display is fantastic, as expected, with colors popping off of the display and blacks looking dark as night. You will still find the center physical button below the display with two backlit capacitive areas, one on either side of the button.

    The volume button is on the upper left side, embedded in the plastic grooved metal looking frame of the Note 3. The audio jack, a microphone, and the IR port are found on the top while the right side houses the traditional Samsung power button and a microphone opening down low.

    I was a bit confused by the port on the bottom since it was the first USB 3.0 port I have seen in person. The Note 3 comes with a USB 3.0 cable, but don't worry, you can still connect your existing microUSB cable to the right side of the new elongated port opening. The mono speaker is also found on the bottom of the Note 3.

    At the right edge of the bottom is the opening of the S Pen silo. The S Pen has been redesigned to fit in either way and is a bit longer than the one found on the Note II. I like the feel of the S Pen, but personally would like it to be a bit heftier with metal used in the body.

    The 13 megapixel camera is found centered near the top of the back with a LED flash positioned below it. The 2 megapixel front facing camera is located in the top right corner of the front.

    Most of the improvements to the Note 3 hardware are found internally with the fast Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM (this is awesome!), higher resolution camera, 3,200 mAh battery, and more. My HTC One made me a fan of the IR port and I am happy to report that one is available, along with the WatchON application, on the Note 3.

    Software

    In addition to the improved hardware specifications, Samsung significantly improved the S Pen functionality. I used the S Pen a bit on my Note II, but didn't really find it essential. Samsung's new Air Command controller that appears when you slide the S Pen out of the silo so far has helped me use the S Pen more on a daily basis.

    With Air Command you can choose to launch Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window with a single tap of the S Pen.

    Action Memo lets you use handwritten text on the display to then initiate actions. These actions include placing a phone call, opening a contact, sending a text message, sending an email, opening the web browser, mapping a location, and creating a task. It is a very handy feature that I think will be used quite often.

    With the Scrapbooker selector turned on you can capture content from your device (web pages, images, YouTube videos, music, videos, and more) and organize it into different collections. These can have tags and other meta data to help you use this information in the future.

    After selecting Screen Write from Air Command, the display you are on is captured as a screen shot. You then have a number of editing tools available along the top of the screen. These include pen types, line thickness, pen color, an eraser, cropping tool, and sharing tool.

    It was a bit tough to test out the S Finder functionality since I currently just have a review device and there is not much content yet created. I saw S Finder in action at a launch event and love how it can find handwritten notes in addition to text-based data. You can also easily filter your search results by date and type of data.

    LG has a function similar to Pen Windows where you can open up and use small utilities over the top of primary apps. As you can see in my screenshots, Pen Window utilities appear in the same size box after you draw a small square and select a tool. Available tools include calculator, clock, YouTube, phone dialer, contacts, Hangouts, and web browser. The app selection is limited, but you may find one or two useful.

    There are other S Pen functions, such as the ability to draw around areas on your display while pressing in on the S Pen button to capture this part of your display for future use, using the S Pen as an alternative to your finger for navigation, and using the S Pen with the improved S Note application that offers more templates, syncing with Evernote, and a slick Easy Chart function that may work out pretty well for engineers like me who want to show some visuals in the field.

    In addition to the S Pen improvements, the Note 3 is loaded with Android 4.3. Since the TouchWiz UI is installed too, you likely won't find many differences in the overall UI and experiences of Android.

    There are quite a few Samsung and Sprint apps loaded on this evaluation Note 3, but I found many useful. I would still like the ability to remove them when I wanted, but haven't found a lot of support for that on Android. Business users will appreciate Knox, S Translator, VPN client, and more.

    The Note 3 is currently the only device that works with the Galaxy Gear. I am really enjoying the Gear experience and can't wait for my own T-Mobile Note 3 and Gear to arrive.

    Usage and experiences

    I like the Note 3 as much as I did my Note II and appreciate the S Pen improvements. My Note II was sold because I found I wasn't using the S Pen as much as I had hoped. I think with the improvements, specifically with Air Command and S Note, I will be using the S Pen more often and will try to replace all of the paper notebooks I have around my office.

    The Note 3 is a large device, but you won't see me list that as a con since that is exactly what it is designed to be. As a data centric user, I feel it offers the perfect experience for my productivity, media, social networking, and browsing needs. I also have a large build with larger hands so do not find the size to be unreasonably large for me.

    Even with very heavy usage, I was able to go more than a day with the Note 3 and love having a smartphone in hand again where I don't have to search for a cable during the day or worry about topping it off. I wish it had Qi wireless charging and hope that Samsung launches a back cover that supports that capability soon.

    Pros and Cons

    To summarize my experiences with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, here are my pros and cons.

    Pros

    • Fantastic display with comfortable size
    • Useful S Pen enhancements
    • Good camera quality and excellent software
    • Super fast performance
    • Excellent battery life
    • Replaceable battery and microSD card expansion

    Cons

    • Exchange client folder access is limited
    • Bit overloaded with apps and utilities

    Pricing and availability

    The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 will be available from carriers in the US for a contract price between $300 and $350. The full price looks to be around $700. I bought a SIM-unlocked, no-contract T-Mobile USA version from Negri Electronics for $689.50.

    The competition

    These smartphones with displays larger than 5 inches have become known as phablets. Samsung really set the bar with the first Galaxy Note and showed there is a viable market for such a device. LG has the Optimus G Pro and some older clunky large smartphones, Sony has th Xperia Z Ultra, and HTC is rumored to be launching the HTC One Max.

    While the Optimus G Pro is a great device, Samsung still stands alone with the fantastic S Pen functionality and they are the leaders in the large smartphone market.

    Specifications

    • Android 4.3 Jelly Bean OS
    • 2.3 GHz Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor
    • 3GB RAM and 32GB flash storage memory (option for 64GB)
    • microSD expansion capability
    • 5.7 inch 1920x1080 HD SUPER AMOLED display
    • 13 megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization (OIS)
    • 2 megapixel front facing camera
    • S Pen and optimized pen features
    • 3,200 mAh removable battery
    • Sensors include proximity, barometer, temperature & humidity, accelerometer, gyroscope
    • Dimensions of 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3 mm and 168 grams

    Conclusion

    If you are a heavy data user and want a large smartphone, nothing beats the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The only reason I didn't give it a perfect 10, with the base assumption that size is not a factor since you are a buyer of a large smartphone, is that the Exchange client still needs work and Samsung should lighten up a bit more on the included apps and utilities.

    The Exchange client in Samsung Android phones has always disappointed me, especially when compared to what HTC offers in their email client. On the Note 3 I am unable to access my local folders that I can on every other smartphone I have. I hope Samsung releases an update that provides this local access and if that happens then I will become even more of a fan of this large, lovely device.

    Contributor's rating: 9.5 out of 10

    Further reading

  • Back of the Note 3 with updated back cover

  • Camera module and Samsung branding

Topics: Reviews, Android, Google, Mobility, Samsung

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52 comments
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  • Region lock

    Matthew,

    The most commented feature about the Note 3 on the net in recent days is the region lock. Yet not one mention of it in this review. Can you explain?
    derek h
    • I'm not going to reward Samsung...

      ...for a completely consumer hostile action like region lock. I was waiting for the Nexus 5 to be released before deciding between it and the Note 3. By region locking the Note 3, Samsung's made that decision easy.
      os2baba
      • Region lock?

        Can you explain what is this region lock? I live in Nigeria and Samsung phones get here very quickly, always SIM-free - SIM-locking GSM phones is illegal in Nigeria. But I recently bought the Samsung Galaxy Mega 5.8 DUOS (dual-SIM). Everywhere I read the specs of this phone, it says it has 1.5GB RAM. But mine has only 1GB RAM. Is this part of the regional discrimination?
        rsawoseyin
        • This link should help explain the region lock issue

          http://www.thestar.com.my/Tech/Tech-News/2013/10/01/Samsung-clarifies-handset-region-locking-in-face-of-consumers-fears.aspx
          tallbruva
          • Region lock is the elephant in the room

            If you want to travel to another country, the cheapest way to do it is get a local SIM from a store in that country, and then you get relatively cheap calls and data when you travel.

            Unless they block it.

            Some apologists say the Samsung region block is disabled when you first put your SIM in (which they claim means there's no block at all). I'm not convinced. There are many anecdotal reports from people across various web forums who say their Samsung phone does not work when they travel abroad.

            You don't want to buy a phone that is blocked or hobbled in any way. It doesn't matter what other features the phone may offer. The features mean nothing if the phone gets blocked. I don't want a half-block, or a semi-blocked phone. I want no blocking. None whatsoever.
            Vbitrate
    • Region lock not an issue

      This issue has died down as the region lock is automatically cleared when you first activate the phone with a SIM from the intended market. Once activated any SIM will work. If you do lock the phone by using a SIM from another market you can request an unlock from a service centre. I agree that this is not a sensible approach by Samsung but not really an issue when for most people the region lock will disappear on first activation.
      chriss30
      • British press...

        reported that a customer tried it in store in London, the assistant took out a Note 3, put in a Vodafone card and made a call, the customer then stuck his Hong Kong SIM in and the phone was locked...
        wright_is
        • that's not region lock...

          That's carrier locked. That's a different thing. It is ypur responsibility to call your telco if you are going overseas to confirm if your device is not locked.

          I can see why Samsung implemented this. Our country (Philippines) have a lot of grey market resellers, most of them are legitimate online businesses. They are also cheaper than the local models (even if ph is 3rd world and sources came from 1st world countries). It appears that Samsung would want to put a stop on this as it is affecting the profit margins of local Samsung dealers (a dealer can sell both local and grey market devices, the local with an advantage of warranty but the grey market phone has more variety and superior specs than the local).

          The problem here is that Samsung does not officially sell certain models of phones (notably the higher end 32 and 64gb models but at least sgn3 came with 32gb; pink will never be officially released here; they think the other models aside from the base model will have 'no demand'), thus, people here are resorting to grey markets to get what our local Samsung cannot provide.

          We lose on this one... :(
          triadwarfare
    • Shh

      Don't ruin the brainwashing.
      macrhino
  • The Hardware Shows

    One thing not mentioned is that this phone is handily topping benchmark software. Currently it's leading the PassMark charts in many categories and over-all performance. It's almost enough to make me waver from my pure Google devices.
    Snowsong
    • These benchmarks are not the whole story

      http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/10/galaxy-note-3s-benchmarking-adjustments-inflate-scores-by-up-to-20/
      Tangodine
      • It's not Samesungs first time either.

        ...
        Arm A. Geddon
    • Faking It

      Over at Arstechnica they've shown that the Note 3 is cheating the benchmarks:

      http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/10/review-the-galaxy-note-3-is-big-and-it-pulls-some-benchmark-shenanigans/
      rbgaynor
    • cheats

      You should never accept benchmarks from Samsung unless it was done by an expert who checks the artificial CPU doping. Samsung gives you inflated numbers that don't reflect real world usage.
      baozebub
      • Yup, Samesungs new motto...

        No need to copy when we can just cheat.
        Arm A. Geddon
        • Or...

          We lie, we cheat, we steal and we make some damn good money from it.
          Arm A. Geddon
  • great review

    Thanks for getting the review on one page instead of forcing folks to click through. This looks likes the perfect upgrade from my Galaxy Note.
    john-whorfin
  • Not convinced....

    As with all Samsung smartphones and tablets the application of Android is outstanding but as always I question build quality.
    5735guy
    • Build quality on Samsung

      A couple things about the Samsung build quality:

      I've been an HTC fan since I had the Sprint CDMA Hero. Since then I had the EVO, then the Bionic, then the RAZR.

      I have watched Samsung come up the last 2 years or so, and I was amazed to see so many people taking a liking to the plastic phones.

      I went to Hawaii on vacation a couple of weeks ago, and my RAZR battery is lasting about 2 hours on a good day, so I picked up an HTC One due to the phenomenal build quality and being a fan.

      I was there for 9 days, and I loved the battery life, build quality and camera features, but next to a Note 2, the blacks were terrible. I realized one day that while I loved the HTC build quality, Samsung puts their money into the screen because...well...we all stuff these things in cases anyway. Once it's in the case, we don't care.

      So I returned the HTC One and pre-ordered a Note 3. I'm very scared of the feature creep on the Samsung, but eventually I can root it and probably not deal with all that. Until then, I'm happy to have a large screen, terrific resolution on the camera, the S-Pen, and black blacks. I'll just put a case on it :-)
      chrisklop
    • Yep

      Yep. I've had a GS2 and GS3 and they've both had internal issues - charging, overheating etc. I still think the GS2 was the biggest leap forward in phones I've had but I ended up getting it replaced for free due to it's issues. Those issues were the sort that an OTA software upgrade should have been able to fix but Samsung weren't interested and the GS3 had some of the same issues. I agree that Samsung android implementation is good - it's superior to HTC I reckon.
      John in Brisbane