Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung has been crowned the King of Android, as it seems that every other Android vendor is struggling to catch-up to Samsung’s titanic market share. Their Galaxy line of Android phones have become well known with consumers and the Galaxy brand has a loyal following, and an even larger marketing budget.

The Note 3 makes no attempt to hide its massive dimensions, and it is certainly playing to the market for those who want both a phone and a tablet, and are keen to embrace devices that claim to offer the best of both worlds. There is no crime in trying to target these users and considering that Samsung is on the third iteration of the Note series, the devices are clearly selling well enough that it justifies Samsung’s continued ventures into this category.

But with the Android market heating up - with HTC introducing premium and larger phones, and LG pushing out impressive new devices too - the Note 3 has to be at the top of its game or it could easily fall out of favor with consumers who are looking for something new to slot in their pockets. So, with the device on Verizon costing $299 on contract or $699 SIM-free, is the Note 3 impressive enough to guarantee its sale success, or is it the case that bigger really isn't better?

 

This giant phone really does pack a lot of goodness behind the 5.7in Super AMOLED screen, including a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM, 3200mAh battery, 13MP rear-facing camera, 2MP front-facing camera, support for microSD (up to 64GB), support for UHD video (that’s 4k) and more of the common features that you would expect in a modern smartphone.

The full list of the device's specifications is below but if you are upgrading from an earlier Galaxy Note, know that the idea of “bigger, faster, stronger” applies here too as all of the upgrades are evolutionary in nature.

And to that degree, that’s exactly what we would expect from Samsung, as the Note 3 does sit in a class where it’s all about the software, but that’s not to say that the physical device isn’t without fault.

 

Samsung made a few changes to the exterior of the device that helps to distinguish itself from the Note 2 and other Samsung devices. Most notably, the back is now covered in faux-leather which, while hardly the epitome of luxury, is certainly a marked improvement over nearly every other Galaxy line of phones. Seriously, Samsung’s use of cheap-feeling plastics on its flagship devices is a bit upsetting, and seeing that they are at least toying with other materials is at least a good sign.

The new backing material makes it much easier to hold the phone and will likely reduce the occurrence of accidental drops; the old plastic design was more slippery in the hands. Of course, Samsung, you are not fooling anyone with the fake stitching but we will let it slide, for now.

The Note 3 also has a slimmer bezel surrounding the screen which helps to reduce the footprint of the device but don’t be fooled, it’s still a large phone to hold in your hand.

Aside from the faux-leather back, the device still feels like a Samsung and that’s not a bad thing. The build quality still feels good and the plastic suffices, but a metal body on this phone would truly make it stand out. We would say that the HTC One or the iPhone 5s still feel like more premium devices, whereas this device is a notch below that in terms of how it feels in your hands.

But the Note 3 is taking steps in the right direction and we can hope that one day, Samsung will finally rely less on nasty plastic and more on premium materials that actually feel like they justify the significant price tags that many of its devices carry.

Samsung has done the Note 3 a favor and includes a storage silo for the S-Pen. This is a small stylus that neatly tucks into the back of the handset when not in use, and securely snaps into place. While it may be a bit hard to get the S-Pen out the first few times, once you get the hang of it, you overcome the fear of breaking it and can rest assured that it won't fall out while moving about.

One thing to point out is that the camera does protrude a bit from the back of the device which means that when you place the phone on a hard surface, it rests on the protruding camera module.

 

Samsung makes millions of displays a year for TVs, monitors, smartphones and probably a bunch of other devices that you look at every day. So when it comes to building a display for the Note 3, you would expect it to likely be the best-in-class product.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The screen on the Note 3 is good, but it’s not something that makes the device really stand out, as you might hope. The Super AMOLED screen is an average display at 1080P but does get the job done. It certainly won’t ‘wow’ you by any means but it will not disappoint either.

One of the nifty features that Samsung did include is that you can adjust the sensitivity of the display. This makes it easier to use the phone with gloves on, and it works quite well. Of course, Nokia was first to really push this on its devices but who cares - the more phones with this option, the better.

For nearly all users, the display will fill the needs adequately, and round outs the overall package of a solid smartphone. The off-angle viewing and touch response is quite good, sunlight viewing is average but as a display goes, it’s fairly middle-of-the-road.

 

Samsung still feels the need to force TouchWiz upon its users as they feel that it offers a superior experience to the native Android UI. While you can agree or disagree with Samsung on this point, the fact is, you're stuck with TouchWiz.

Out of the box, the Note 3 is running Android 4.3, and features additional support for the S-Pen.

The Note 3 has many of the same features as the S4, including the eye tracking capabilities. After we turned off all of the frivolous features and all of Touchwiz’s beeps and boops, the experience became much better.

Unlike other Verizon and Samsung devices we have reviewed, the Note 3 does not appear to be stuffed full of third-party apps that you will likely never use. There are a plethora of Verizon apps and Amazon items installed but you don’t see others like Blockbuster or a bunch of random trial games.

Samsung has included quite a few apps that do make use of the S-Pen which is quite helpful because if you purchase the Note 3, you will likely be using the S-Pen a lot.

One area that seems to have been improved over the Note 2 is that the handwriting recognition is much better, and often surprises at how good it is.

The S-Pen and Note 3 can also recognize touch sensitive inputs with apps like Sketchbook which could be a huge win for artists on the go. Sure, it’s not going to replace your digital design studio at home but if you like to take your drawings on the road, the Note 3 does offer a decent solution in a small package.

 

Seeing as the Note 3 is a large phone with a big display, you might expect that it would need a large battery to keep the device up and running, and you would be correct. The 3200mAh battery is actually quite good and rarely did we have issues when using the phone as our daily driver. The Note 3, in fact, has outperformed our expectations and can easily survive most days with standard use, and can even dabble in some heavy usage without needing to find an outlet.

Our test day usually starts at around 6am, and by 8pm that evening the phone was still going strong.

When running a series of hard tests to kill the battery that involved watching HD videos, syncing email, browsing the web and a range of other tests, the Note 3 lasted 8 hours and 4 minutes of runtime. This far exceeds the average user case scenarios, so the likelihood is that the majority of you will have very little trouble for the majority of the time with the battery life with the Note 3.

We still would not recommend ditching your daily habits of charging your phone overnight, but you should be aware that charging does take a bit of time with the Note 3 - thanks to its large capacity battery.

 

The Note 3 houses a 13MP sensor for snapping pics with its rear-facing camera, and while it lacks the optical image stabilization features found in some of its competitors, the camera can still hold its own.

The shutter speed is quick and accurate which results in photos that are on target and - for the most part - blur free. The sensor did have a bit of trouble in lower-light situations with fast moving objects, but compared to many phones of the last two years, the image quality is quite good. That said, this phone is intended to last you the next two years, so if mobile imaging is important to you, you might want to consider your options. 

The Note 3, like the Galaxy S4, comes with a plethora of camera modes and image filters, most of which you will likely never use. If you are trying to get artsy with your cellphone, then you may dabble with them but for the majority of users, the automatic mode is where you will likely reside, with apps like Instagram offering more usable and social filter options. 

If anything, the images tend to lean towards the cool side of the spectrum but the tint is hardly noticeable unless you compare it to photo taken by a superior camera. Overall, the camera works quite well and most users should be pleased by its performance.

Click to enlarge

The camera sensor on the phone supports Ultra High Definition (UHD), or as many of us know it as, 4k. While shooting in 4k, to no surprise, you chew through your memory rather quickly, which is likely why the default setting is 1080P. More so, very few individuals have a 4k display to watch the video on, so shooting in 1080P makes the most sense in most cases.

Short sample video clip

Video generally comes out clean and clear, although the audio tends to suffer a bit. For a cell phone, the video quality is not bad, but be warned that audio quality is... limited, especially when compared to higher end gear, but hey, it’s a cell phone at the of the day.

 

Under the hood of the Note 3 is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset with quad-core processor running at 2.3Ghz. Those specs alone still seem a bit crazy considering it's supposed to be a smartphone, but more power is a good thing and considering the battery can support the CPU sufficiently, we are all for it.

Running AnTuTu 3.2, the Note 3 racked up a score of 30,157 and on Quandrant 2.0, the register ran up to 21,364. All things considered, those are both great scores and for an added bonus, SunSpider ran at 1101ms and CF-Bench hit 24599.

But raw numbers can easily be gamed and there have already been whispers that Samsung (and other vendors too) purposely target these benchmarks so they are not always a valid comparison.

When using the device, Android runs fast and fluid with only a hint of stuttering when opening up large videos or quickly scrolling through photos. Beyond that, the Note 3 will appease all who come before it in terms of performance.

 

Seeing as the Note 3 is a phone, call quality is important too. Many (we hope most) who buy the Note 3 will opt for a Bluetooth headset - as holding the phone up to your head does look a bit ridiculous - but for those that don't, the call quality is on par with what you'd expect of a flagship device.

Likewise, listening to music using the audio jack is nearly identical to every other device that has an audio jack. It gets the job done with ease but nothing super exciting here other than the fact that it works exactly as expected.

The speakerphone works as one would expect too, but like many other phones, when you turn the volume up to max, the low end starts to flatten out and is not as clear. 

 

The Galaxy Note 3 is a phone that is targeted at a specific demographic, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Why? Because it is not the phone for every consumer due to its size, making it a two-handed device. If only for this reason, you should make sure that you get your hands on a Note 3 before making a purchase to see if the size will be an issue for you.

But, if you are willing to live with the size of the Note 3, it is a fantastic phone for those who need a ‘do everything’ device. The S-Pen is a great stylus with decent integration, and the phone runs nearly any operation you can ask of it without fault. The battery life will keep most users up and running through the day (although, as with any device, heavy usage will drain the battery more quickly), and the screen is good enough that it won’t inhibit your daily workflow.

While Samsung's latest giant Galaxy is certainly not a phone for everyone, for those who want a large screen Android phone, the Note 3 should be at the top of your shortlist.

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