Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review
Still the best big screen device
There are not many smartphone models that have made it to a third iteration. For those that have, and have succeeded – the Note, the Galaxy S, the iPhone – the common denominator is a strong brand, which itself is the result of a strong product. Two of the aforementioned are flagship handsets, whereas the Note range is rather more niche. The fact that it’s now on its third release is therefore a mark of quality in itself.
For its third rendition of the Note, Samsung had a solid starting point. The form factor has already proven to be popular and remains, to a large degree, unrivalled, so it was really a case of refinement rather than reinvention. Samsung is hardly the sort to rest on its laurels, though, and in the Note 3 it has produced a more than worthy heir to the crown that its predecessor held.
There are two pet hates that tend to arise when a Samsung device is discussed: TouchWiz and plastic. We’ll come to the former a bit later on, but first of all let’s have a look at the brilliant job that Samsung has done of disguising the Note 3’s plastic build.
The Note 2 did have a very much plastic design. Samsung has addressed this with the Note 3, creating a device that looks and feel slicker. The back cover is made up of faux leather, which creates a nice grippy texture and fits in nicely with the ‘notebook’ design approach. Even the stitches are plastic but look the part.
The back cover is easy to remove and replace – no problems snapping the pins in and out – which is one of the advantages of using plastic for the build.
The ridged metal that borders the outside of the Note 3 is also made of plastic, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise as it does have a shiny metallic appearance. This metal casing makes a big difference to the overall aesthetic of the Note 3 and makes it feel like more of a premium, business-like handset.
The front of the Note 3 is covered entirely by a glass sheet. Beneath this the plastic that surrounds the display has a brushed aluminium look to it, which is perhaps more noticeable on the black version than the white, especially in place next to the black display. Again, it goes relatively unnoticed as being made of plastic.
There have been reports of the Note 3 having a wonky power button, which is noticeable once you know it’s there. It occurs because the button itself is not a flush fit within the recess that houses it. This means that if you apply pressure to one end of the button but not the other (during one-handed use, for example), then the button sits in a wonky position until it’s moved again. It’s a small imperfection in what is otherwise a beautifully designed handset.
Read on for the complete review after the break
As advertised, USB 3.0 is blazingly fast.
Whilst using the Note 3, I took it on holiday for a week and wanted to stock up on videos before leaving. Typically, this is something that I think to do shortly before leaving and will only have time to transfer a select few videos. With the Note 3 this wasn’t a problem as I was able to transfer 10GB (around 15 movies) of files in five minutes.
Having fast transfer speeds also comes in handy if you’re shooting high res video. The Note 3 can shoot video at 4K (3840 x 2160), which creates rather large files. Using 4K recording, a 10 second video clip will create a file that’s around 60MB, so even a short recording would take a while to transfer without USB 3.0.
The other advantage of USB 3.0 is the charging speed. The Note 3 battery charges at a rate of roughly 1% per minute, depending on which services you have running. To give the handset a full charge will therefore take between 90 minutes and two hours. Given the size of the battery, and the fact that it can easily last for two days from a single charge, that is very good going.
The microUSB 3.0 connector is around double the size of microUSB 2.0, which means that it’s not backwards compatible. The Note 3 itself is backwards compatible, so you could use an older microUSB cable to charge/transfer, it just won’t be as fast. Fragmenting the charging standard is slightly frustrating, but is worthwhile in my opinion in order to take advantage of the faster speeds.
Battery life on the Note 3 is superb. It’s always been a strong point of the Note devices, but it’s been improved once again and is further bolstered by faster charging speeds.
Even on the heaviest of days I wasn’t getting close to depleting the battery. A heavy day would typically involve having 3G switched on for the duration, tethering the connection for several hours whilst browsing the web, and watching a two-hour movie. I would still have around 30-40% battery left after this and could then charge the handset for an hour before going to bed – no need to leave it charging all night.
I’m in the habit of charging devices through the night to ensure that they have full power in the morning, but with the Note 3 I can charge and unplug it before going to bed. Whilst on standby over night it will have only lost 1% battery; the standby efficiency is very good.
Having such a luxury with battery life really does change the way that you use your device as there’s not such a need to be conservative with activities. The Note 3 battery will get the heaviest of users through the day, but thanks to microUSB 3.0, should you find yourself running out of power a brief 30 minute charge will add at least 4-6 hours additional usage.
For the average user, the Note 3 battery could easily last for 48 hours from a single charge.
Size & Weight
Despite its larger display, the Note 3 is slightly smaller than its predecessor and Samsung has also done well to cut the weight down; the Note 3 weighs 168g compared to the 182.5g of the Note 2. Given its screen and battery size, this is a very impressive figure and the Note 3 does not feel nearly as heavy in the hand as one might expect when looking at it.
Generally, high-end phones have reached a size such that you always need to be aware of their presence in your pocket when sitting down lest you crack the screen. Having a slightly larger device, therefore, doesn’t change this situation an awful lot and so the Note 3 won’t hinder you in this sense. There are times, though, when the Galaxy Note 3 feels like it could tumble out of your pocket a bit easier than a smaller device. Its larger surface area does also mean more chance of it picking up a knock when in your pocket, but again you don’t need to have any more caution than you would with other expensive handsets.
The slim profile of the Note 3, which is only 8.3mm, and the dispersion of its weight over a large surface area stop it from feeling too heavy in the hand. This ensures that occasional one-handed usage is comfortable for short periods and is further supported by the new one-handed mode that Samsung has included.
One handed mode, accessed by going to settings > controls > one-handed mode, is useful for certain activities, but isn’t a feature that I used all that frequently. It scales down the screen into a smaller window, which can then be resized to your liking. This means that should you need to use the handset one-handed, it’s not such a strain as having to reach across the full width of the display.
In terms of pocketability, I didn’t have any trouble with the Note 3. Even whilst wearing shorts, it would sit comfortably in my back pocket. It wouldn’t be ideal in shallow pockets, but can be done if necessary.
Samsung has done a great job with the cameras on the Note 3, which are 13MP (rear facing) and 2.1MP (front facing). I did find the default capture settings a little too dark in some situations, but this can be easily addressed by adjusting the exposure. Overall I was very impressed with the photo quality that it produced. You can see some sample photos taken with the Note 3 here.
The interface for the camera now has a fair few settings for you to navigate. In practical day-to-day use you will only make use of one or two, but the others that are there can be convenient in the right situation. There’s a shortcut in the bottom left of the onscreen interface to change between various modes, such as eraser shot, best face and sports mode, and another shortcut in the bottom right to immediately switch to video recording.
There’s also another collapsible menu, located towards the top right of the screen, which is home to shortcuts for technical settings, such as auto stabilisation, exposure, etc. There are only three of these that can be specified by the user, which is a little frustrating at times. I prefer these controls to be more prominent than the mode settings and therefore used third-party apps from time to time.
A big improvement that Samsung has made is the ability to record in 4K video, which provides top quality footage. Using 4K to record does create very large file sizes, but with the ability to transfer files so quickly using microUSB 3.0 this isn’t too big a problem.
The Note 3 has all the bells and whistles when it comes to connectivity and there weren’t any areas that I felt were lacking. As mentioned, the speeds of charging and data transfer are superb thanks to microUSB 3.0 and the Note 3 also has wireless charging capability, although it’s not built-in.
To take advantage of wireless charging you’ll need to buy accessories separately. In terms of a case, the S View Cover is an accessory that has now been through several revisions and looks to be a good option. It’ll add a degree of protection alongside wireless charging and without creating too much extra bulk.
Storage options have been a hot topic with Samsung devices over the last couple of years. It advertises higher memory variants, but does not make them readily available. The goods news is that the lowest sized memory variant of the Note 3 is 32GB, which leaves around 26GB accessible to the user. There’s also microSD expansion up to 64GB, which takes the total storage available up to 90GB. This should really be the standard for high-end devices by now; with 4K video recording, high quality audio playback and advanced gaming, more space is needed to take advantage of such features.
With 3GB RAM and a 2.3GHz processor, there’s no doubting that the Note 3 is one of the fastest handsets on the market. I didn’t test it to its limits as I’m not a big gamer and really it’s these kind of resource-heavy activities that such a level of power is intended for. Nonetheless, I was able to runs as many apps as I liked and on occasions had several Pen Windows open without experiencing a slow down.
I was an owner of an original Galaxy Note and experienced some slow downs about 6 months into having the device. I’m not certain how much this was affected by system resources being used, but one would hope that with the extra power and storage space on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, the same problem won’t occur.
There are now a huge number of features included with Touchwiz. In fact, there are so many that Samsung had made it possible to locate them using search as well as navigation. I did find the search feature to be useful as some of the settings are in locations that aren’t immediately obvious.
If you’re a first time user of a Note device, it’s probably worth having a look into all the features that the Note 3 has to offer – some are tucked away in places that you may not think to look. There’s the option to display the remaining battery as a percentage, for example, and the setting for this is located by going to settings > general > battery and then scrolling to the bottom of the list of apps that have consumed battery. This list of apps will easily take up the whole screen, so the option to show percentage is hidden away.
This video from Phandroid does a good job of running through 31 of the Note 3’s best features and keeps it as brief as possible. You may need to watch it a few times over before you have remembered all the features that you want to give a try.
The only problem with having so many features that aren’t part of your normal usage pattern is that you will need to take the time to learn what they are and how they are activated. For users that have used both or even one of the previous note devices, there are probably not such a barrage of features to get used to, but the first time user of an Android device or someone switching from stock, there is a lot to learn. Regardless, having too many features on your phone is a nice problem to have and it’s better to have them and not need them than the alternative.
In the past many users have been discerning of TouchWiz, especially as its use of resources can lead to a slow down of the device. Personally I feel that Samsung’s custom skin has reached a point where it does add great value to the Note 3 experience, which would be inferior without it. The visual aspects (widgets, apps) I tend to remove, replace or rename, but the customisations that Samsung has made to Android functionality are, for me, worth having.
S Pen Stylus
The S Pen Stylus is the stand out feature of the Note 3’s form factor. It’s not necessarily for everyone – you don’t need to be using it everyday to warrant having a Note device – but it’s certainly handy for some situations.
One of the main advantages of a stylus, especially one that’s as accurate as the S Pen, is handwriting input. When switching to a text field on the Note 3, there’s a shortcut that appears to enable handwriting input (provided you are using Samsung’s built-in keyboard). The Note 3 was able to recognise handwriting very well and did so swiftly. It’s still not as quick as using the on-screen keyboard and is something that I would only make use of occasionally, perhaps for signing documents on-screen and annotating screenshots.
The stylus body itself is the only aspect of the Note 3 design that immediately shows as being plastic, but this is something that would be hard to avoid. Its top has the same metallic emulation as the sides of the handset, so it merges nicely with the design when stowed away. The S Pen is rotationally symmetrical, so it can be inserted into its housing from two different angles.
For the Note 3 Samsung has again added to the functionality of the S Pen Stylus with a new set of ‘Air Command’ features. The Air Command menu shows on-screen when you detach the S Pen from the Note 3, or is activated when using the stylus by clicking the button on its side.
During my time with the Note 3, I found some of the five Air Command features to be more useful than others:
- Scrapbook. The idea behind this is that you can quickly and easily save notes for a project to a ‘scrapbook’. This seems pointless without easy exporting to Evernote. Why not just save content straight to Evernote, rather than saving to Scrapbook and then having to export all the notes? I can export all the notes from one Scrapbook in one go, but they are then saved as image files within one Evernote note. The time saved by quickly clipping things using Scrapbook is then lost again should I need to save to Evernote
- Pen window enables you to draw a window on-screen within which to launch an app. This means that you can have several different sized screens all running at once, adjacent to or on top of each other. There are only certain apps that can be used, although YouTube, Internet, and WhatsApp are all included. If you minimise one of the Pen Windows that you have drawn, a shortcut bubble sits on the home screen so that you can easily enlarge it again, which is a nice touch. Personally I didn’t have much use for the Pen Window feature but I can see how it would be nice for certain projects.
- Action Memo is another feature that I didn’t use an awful lot. You can use it to create a quick memo and the text that you input can then be linked to different actions on the handset.
- Screen Write is a feature that I like. It captures the screen that you have showing and gives you the means to easily annotate it. This is useful if you want to make a quick note about a web article or if you need to highlight something on-screen.
- S finder is the most useful Air Command feature in my opinion. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the Air Command menu, though, as it can be accessed just as easily by a long press of the menu key. I’ll go into a bit more detail on S Finder below.
Overall I really like the concept of Air Command, but I feel as though it could have been much better executed. Being able to remove the Air Command shortcuts that you don’t use and add shortcuts to favourite apps would be a more powerful feature, for example. I also think that there’s a big opportunity for deeper Evernote integration throughout and more flexibility with the Air Command menu could play a big role in this.
S Finder is a nice feature to have included with the Note 3. It’s accessed via either the Air Command menu or by holding down the capacitive menu key. It searches through apps, files contacts, settings and Evernote and if none of these yield results, provides the option for you to search the web with Google, Bing or Yahoo.
Being able to search through Evernote content is a big plus. It saves having to perform the search within the Evernote app and returns results for both individual notes and notebooks. One of the advantages of Evernote premium, which comes free with the Note 3, is that it enables you to search attached office documents. This functionality is not extended to S finder, which would have been nice, but is perhaps a bit too much to ask at this stage.
The Note 3 comes with a free subscription to Evernote Premium. It’s advertised as a year’s worth and that’s what we received on our device, although some users have reported only receiving 3 months. Being able to easily search it with S Finder makes the Note 3 the perfect companion for the heavy user. If you use Evernote to save all of your notes, to do lists and web content, you have the means to easily find it again at the push of a button.
The Note 3 integration with Evernote is fairly basic, but hopefully this is a relationship that will progress with future Note iterations; there is certainly room for a whole lot more. S Memo notes can now be saved straight to an Evernote account as opposed to a Samsung account and as mentioned, S Finder can be used to search through Evernote content.
Strangely, S Note files from the Note 2 are not compatible with the Note 3, which encourages the use of Evernote over a Samsung account. One can hardly believe that Samsung would intentionally push people away from its own app in favour of another third-party offering, but it seems a huge oversight to not include compatibility for the older version while integrating a better third-party service at the same time.
Really Evernote is an app that you need to use wholeheartedly or not at all. Having a smartphone that integrates deeply with its functions bolsters this sentiment even further, so hopefully we will see this relationship continue with future Galaxy Note devices.
Knox is a nice feature added by Samsung. You can read about it in more detail in this post, but overall it’s pretty handy to have around should you need it. If you don’t need it, it’s simple to uninstall.
In a nutshell, Knox adds an extra dimension of security to the handset. Once the shortcut in the notification tray has been deactivated it’s completely unobtrusive and it sits in your app drawer like any other app.
If you require extra security settings in order to use your handset for work purposes it could save you from having to carry an extra device. It also makes it easy to separate your work and personal data or even if you just want to ‘hide’ sensitive files on your handset.
The combination of outstanding battery life and the large, full HD display make for a great experience on the Note 3. We’ve now reached a point with smartphone technology whereby faults are something that are still interesting to discuss, but really we need to remember just how far the technology has progressed. Excluding the price, of course, the biggest complaint about the Note 3 for many would be its largeness. When you consider, however, that its battery will easily get you through the day, it’s got a beautiful display, and offers a great range of software enhancements, its occasionally inconvenient size is a concession that’s worth making.
Despite other manufacturers releasing what could be regarded as ‘Note competitors’, there still isn’t a device that truly rivals the Galaxy Note 3. While the likes of the Z Ultra, which has a large display and stylus input, offer a similar form factor to the Note, it’s still in a class of its own. I think the Note 3 does push screen size to the limit in terms of practicality – it’s still portable, but any bigger (like the Z Ultra) and it would be too much.
If you’ve decided that Android is the device for you and if price is not an issue, the main factors that you need to consider in buying the Note 3 are its size and the SIM lock. If you are comfortable with a larger than normal device, the Note 3’s advantages are abundant. The SIM lock, unfortunately, could be a problem for some, so this is something that you need to give some consideration to before buying.