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

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.
1 of 50 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

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.


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.


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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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


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

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Back of the Note 3 with updated back cover

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Camera module and Samsung branding

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S Pen on the Note 3

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Front hardware button and capacitive backlit areas

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Top view with 3.5mm audio jack and IR port

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Battery and microSD are removable

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Back cover feels good, but is thin plastic

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Flipboard partnership brings you My Magazine app

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Terms of My Magazine

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Quick access to other functions while reading

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Apps on the Note 3

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Galaxy Plus folder contents

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Google folder contents

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Samsung folder contents

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Sprint folder contents

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Lumen toolbar option in the browser

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Intro to S Note

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Selecting a S Note template

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Choose where to sync content

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Select S Note entry options

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Data roaming guard appeared on my Sprint eval unit

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Plethora of Samsung utilities to choose from

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Motion control toggles

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Palm motion options

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S Pen options

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Air gesture options

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Speedtest on my Sprint eval unit with LTE

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Intro to Scrapbook

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Story Album application

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Air Command controlling on the home screen

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Launching Action Memo

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Jot down a phone number and take action

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Dialing from a handwritten note

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Air Command from the web browser

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Launch Scrapbooker capture tool

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Selected content appears in Scrapbook

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Initiating Screen Write from the home screen

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Editing with Screen Write

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Initiating S Finder from the home screen

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Search results for ZDNet

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Launching Pen Window with Air Command

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Choose an available Pen Window utility

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You can have multiple Pen Window apps up and running

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When minimized Pen Window apps appear like a Chat Head

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Three Pen Window apps are here while I browse the web

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Many camera options are available

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Camera settings appear along the top with a single tap

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Love the functional Note 3 calendar

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Samsung Galaxy trio with brilliant color wallpaper

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