Samsung's Galaxy Note series has gone from zero to hero for the company since its introduction in August 2011. The original Galaxy Note was more of an experimental device, essentially a Galaxy S II with a stylus (called the S-Pen) that packed a powerful Wacom digitizer behind that glass face. This brought a whole new level of control to note taking on a phone, and brought about the trend of phablet sized phones. The Galaxy Note II upped the ante quite a bit by changing the styling to be similar to the Galaxy S III, shipping with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and including a more ergonomic S-Pen with a rubberized tip. Samsung's 2013 release of the Galaxy Note 3 takes the concept of a Stylus-packing phablet-sized phone to new heights of amazing, and delivers a more coherent, smoother experience than ever before. Samsung's design is maturing, and with that comes a new design for the phone, revamped software design, and new apps that take advantage of the Note 3's size and S-Pen functionality. Let's take a look at the specs of the phone before we get any further into the rest of the device:
5.7-inch display, Full HD Super AMOLED (1920—1080)
Processor: Snapdragon 800 quad-core clocked at 2.3GHz, or Exynos 5 Octa octa-core clocked at 1.9GHz
3GB of RAM
32GB or 64GB of internal storage
13 megapixel rear-facing camera with 4K video recording
2 megapixel front-facing camera
Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
The Galaxy Note 3 packs quite an impressive spec list, even comparing it to other top-tier Fall 2013 phones like the LG G2 and the Sony Xperia Z1. This makes the phone extremely fast and fluid, and with 3GB of RAM the Galaxy Note 3 launches apps instantly nearly every time.
One of the biggest gripes about the Galaxy S4 was that Samsung didn't do much to improve the design. Sure it was thinner and lighter, but it still had that nasty shiny, slippery back, and software wise didn't feel all that different from a Galaxy SIII to most people. Thankfully Samsung didn't follow this same path with the Galaxy Note 3, which only looks like a Samsung device from a distance. Once you pick the device up you'll find that Samsung has not only updated the bezel with a gorgeous industrial edged chrome design, but it has replaced the traditional slippery plastic back with a faux leather one.
This new faux leather back not only looks good, but it feels good too. It doesn't add any bulk or thickness to the overall package, and it really packs onto the premium look and feel the device already exhibits. It makes a lot of sense to use this kind of back too, as the Note series is supposed to replace your traditional notebook, so why not style it after such a thing? This thing looks downright sexy now. Don't pay attention to the naysayers out there that say this stuff still feels like plastic or whatever the latest complaint is. After all this is a phone and a device that you use all day long; do you really want real leather on the back that'll get ripped and torn up easily? This seems like a pretty good compromise to me.
As has been the trend in smartphones for some time now, the Galaxy Note 3 is thinner and lighter than the Note 2 was. It actually feels substantially thinner and lighter even though we're only talking 1.1 millimeters thinner, and 15 grams lighter. Still this sort of thing must work a lot like sound decibels in that it's not a linear progression but rather an exponential jump up or down, because the Galaxy Note 3 is almost so light you wouldn't know it was there. I honestly can't feel it in my pocket if I'm wearing loose fitting pants because it's so light; this wasn't the case with the Note 2.
For quite some time now Samsung has placed the external speaker for nearly all of its phones on the back of the device; a puzzling placement for nearly any acoustic situation. This has been mostly rectified by the speaker being moved to the bottom of the device on the Galaxy Note 3, and as such the sound produced from it is louder and seems more clear than other Samsung phones. Again this isn't the HTC One in terms of sound quality, but it's better than most. While I found myself covering the speaker when sending messages on the phone, it's probably not an issue for everyone. Other things to note are the inclusion of an IR blaster much like the Galaxy S4 has, so you can use the Note 3 as a TV remote. The Note 3 is also the first Android phone to ship with USB 3.0 support, and comes with a new type of cable. Don't worry, the standard microUSB cable still fits in the slot, but the addition of a new set of pins allows the Note 3 to charge blazingly fast.
Moving to the front of the phone you've got the traditional Samsung button layout of a physical home button in the middle, which is flanked on either side by two capacitive buttons for back and menu. Samsung has made these buttons pressable with the S-Pen, meaning you can now use the S-Pen for everything on the phone. The home button is even easier to click with the pen, as the pen no longer slides off it as soon as you press down. The Galaxy Note 2's home button was a real soft press, making almost no sound, while the Note 3's home button is much more clicky and satisfying.
There seems to be some quality control issues at work here though, as the home button slides a bit in place, and tends to look a little crooked on the face if moved. I've seen this mentioned elsewhere a number of times, so I know I don't have a defective unit. It doesn't hamper the device in any way, but it'll but you if you're OCD, and it takes away from the premium feel the rest of the phone exudes. If you look closely at the button in the shot you'll notice it's a bit crooked.
The display on the Galaxy Note 3 is fantastic, and rates among the best displays on any phone I've ever seen. Being a Super AMOLED display, you know that you're going to get rich colors and deep black levels when compared to an LCD screen. The Galaxy Note 3 uses a pentile RGBG display, and without getting into too many technicalities essentially displays 30% less pixels than a standard RGB display like you would find in the Galaxy Note 2, HTC One or LG G2, for instance. So even though the Galaxy Note 3 has a 1080p display, much like the Galaxy S4's display it's not quite as dense as some other 1080p phones. Even still this display is sharp and beautiful, and is a noticeable improvement over the Note 2's excellent display. Even better the minor ghosting found on the Galaxy S4's display isn't found here, which means you won't have that nasty trail behind objects when scrolling. It's also super bright, and the auto brightness setting works like a charm. This thing is easily viewable in direct sunlight.
Speaking of the S-Pen, the iconic stylus packed in with every Galaxy Note device has received yet another revamp, and is now as completely different from the Galaxy Note 2's S-Pen as a stylus can get. For one it's completely symmetrical, meaning you can hold it in either hand, upside down or any way comfortably. It also means the S-Pen slides into the body any way you put it, as long as it's pen side in of course. The button is a little higher up on the body than the Note 2's S-Pen, and has a more satisfying click to it. It's also lighter and feels a bit nicer in the hand, and writing with it is considerably better than even the Note 2's S-Pen was. If you've ever used a Galaxy Note 8.0 you'll know exactly what the new pen nub feels like, which is like writing on a piece of paper with a real pen. Samsung has also included 5 replaceable nubs in case you break them, I suppose. As has been the case with a number of things though, there's a new problem here: the S-Pen seems to not want to come out of its holster at times. This is a blessing and a curse, as it'll definitely keep the S-Pen from falling out of the device, but it also makes it less convenient to pull the pen out of the phone.
We've covered what the device looks like, so how does it perform? In one word: perfect. Samsung has either worked some magic here and finally rewritten all that old, laggy code found in previous TouchWiz powered phones, or the Snapdragon 800 Quad-core CPU that powers the Note 3 is finally enough to handle the traditionally bloated Samsung software. Regardless of how they did it, just know that they've finally gotten rid of all that "Samsung lag" that's been talked about seemingly forever now. Unfortunately battery life doesn't seem to be improved from the Galaxy Note 2's, and while that phone had amazing battery life for its time, it's no longer the bread winner in the Android family. I struggle to get even 3 hours of screen-on time with the Note 3 using LTE, and it's not a much better situation when turning LTE off or using WiFi most of the day. Still it's well more than enough for even the heaviest users, and I only had to plug it in once after getting home from work in the past week and a half.
At this point should we even be surprised that the biggest Android OEM's newest flagship device is among the fastest in the mobile world? It seems that only the LG G2 consistently beats it, and that's likely due to software optimizations on LG's part, which could always be fixed in a future software update from Samsung. The Note 3 beats the Galaxy S4 heartily in every test we ran, usually by at least 20%, and is often double or more of that on the Note 2. In the BaseMark test the Galaxy Note 3 even ran twice as fast as the Galaxy S4 does. The same goes for every game I tested, even on heavy hitters like Asphalt 8 or Riptide GP 2.
If you have seen or used a Galaxy S4 you pretty much know what to expect from the Galaxy Note 3. Samsung has used the Galaxy S4 as a base and built upon it, tightening things up, flattening things out, smoothing things over and generally tweaking the heck out of their infamous TouchWiz skin. They've also added tons of new software and features, making this the most feature-rich phone on the market. This is the first major non-Nexus device to ship with Android 4.3 out of the box, and as such features everything from Android 4.3's sizable feature update. This includes everything from back-end optimizations like garbage collection, enhanced security and Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, to things like enhanced notifications that the Note series hasn't has up until now. Samsung has also beefed up security for enterprise environments by introducing Samsung Knox. As has been found out since the Note 3 launched, this also includes voiding the warranty of anyone who even roots the phone, so while Knox seems to improve security it also has its downsides.
The Galaxy Note 3 ships with plenty of bloat for sure, but what's new? You'll find anywhere from 50-60 pre-installed apps on the Note 3, which sounds like a lot until you actually look at what's installed. Instead of having a bunch of useless NFL, TV, secondary app store, etc. types of apps, most of these are feature-filled apps that you might just use since you bought the Galaxy Note 3 in the first place. Things like Scrapbook, S-Note, S-Voice, S-Translate and more S-things are included, and are generally extremely useful. While these would generally bog down most phones, the Note 3 doesn't even bat an eye with these things installed. Plus if you don't like them you can always turn them off by going to application management, as has been the case since Android 4.1 introduced the feature last summer.
Yes I know, there will be many eyerolls at this section, but just hold on a second. I've been a huge critic of TouchWiz in the past; it's been bloated, ugly and slow for too long. It's been like an old diseased animal that just needs to be taken out to pasture, and generally has felt like it gets in the way of things more than helping. When the Galaxy S4 came out, my mind started changing, and while there was still plenty of lag and ugly, the feature set was beginning to come together, and the integration between apps and features felt more whole rather than piecemeal as it had in the past. Now with the Galaxy Note 3's updated TouchWiz, I feel like this is even more so the case, especially since Samsung seems to have completely removed all the jank and slowdown that was present in older versions of the UI.
What's more they've flattened the UI even further, taking some of the more leftover bits that were still shaded on the Galaxy S4 and getting rid of those nasty gradients. You will also find no "skeuomorphism" here, and things like fake brown leather on the top of S-Note are gone. Instead there are some sections of the UI that look straight out of Google's design playbook; S-Note and S-Finder are straight up Card UI, and quite a bit of the OS reflects this change too. Samsung is shifting toward much better UI design, and it feels like the light at the end of the ugly TouchWiz tunnel is finally in view. There's still no sliding between tabs at the top of the screen as most OEMs have moved to, including LG with the G2, in case you were wondering.
Speaking of weird design decisions, we've still got a ribbon of quick toggles that are horizontally scrollable, as well as the Android 4.2-esque quick-toggle tiles on the notification shade. Also while there are a whopping 20 quick toggles present by default, there isn't an option for torch. This means you still have to add the "Assistive Light" widget to your home screen to use the phone as a flashlight, and even then it's set at the lowest brightness level possible for the rear camera flash LED. There's also the oddity of every notification making the phone vibrate when in vibrate mode, even if the app specifies not to vibrate at all. This gets extremely annoying when the phone is supposed to be silent, and I find myself toggling between full sound and completely silent. There's also the stupid "feature" Samsung like to keep on its devices where notification sounds come through the external speaker even if you have something plugged into the headphone jack (or listening through a Bluetooth headset or speakers). This interrupts whatever is playing rather than dimming the sound like it does on every other Android handset on the market. Dumb.
What isn't dumb, however, is the brand new one-hand mode on the Note 3. This allows you to move the phone into a windowed mode, and gives you a smaller area to work with. This is great when one-handing the phone, as the name implies, since it's nearly impossible for most human beings to reach the opposite corner of the large 5.7-inch display with one hand. It's something that needs to be seen to truly understand, and it's already come in handy quite a few times for me. Check out our video presentation of this feature below:
I'm devoting a section to the keyboard because Samsung finally got it right. Once upon a time they partnered with the highly rated keyboard company Swiftkey in order to improve their stock keyboard by adding better word prediction, layout and swipe text input. While this improved the stock keyboard, it was consistently held back by one massive problem or another. I can finally say that Samsung has not only fixed all the massive problems, but it has gone on to create quite possibly the finest virtual keyboard I've ever used. This isn't to say it is without any issue whatsoever, but no virtual keyboard is no matter how much you like it. Prediction is near perfect on this thing, and even though I hit B and N all the time instead of space like I mean to, the keyboard fixes it every time. There have only been a few times where it gives me a weird word suggestion, but that's easily fixed by typing in the word you want and clicking the "tab" arrow on the top left. It even saves the word in the same punctuation you used.
The spacing of the buttons is nice, although aesthetically it might look nicer with a little less space in between. The keyboard looks a little flatter to me, although that could just be moving from the old Samsung keyboard to the new one. The keys make a really solid clicking noise, and an awesome erasing noise when pressing backspace. On the downside there seems to be no way to edit the long-press of the keys to get alternate characters, and there's no quick punctuations after pressing the spacebar. These things are minor though and really don't ruin my enjoyment.
What's really enjoyable though is the handwriting. This is something Samsung tried to get working on the Galaxy Note 2 and just didn't do a very good job of. That's definitely not the case with the Note 3's amazing handwriting "keyboard", and the handwriting interpolation is downright incredible. Almost no matter how messy I write (and you can see from my screenshots that I'm a messy writer) the keyboard figured out what I was writing, and with speed. It's easy to write sentences too as the keyboard auto spaces between words, and correcting a single letter is super easy since the S-Pen is ultra accurate. It's the ideal way to make you forget about even trying to use the regular keyboard in many situations.
Mutli-tasking has been taken to a whole new level of awesome on the Galaxy Note 3. Multi-view or Multi-window, which was introduced on the Galaxy Note 2, has made a comeback with a nice evolutionary look to it.
Samsung has also added a really amazing new type of multi-tasking called Pen Window, which is a windowed version of many of your favorite apps, all brought to life by drawing a box with the S-Pen.
Galaxy Note Exclusive Software
Since the Galaxy Note line is its own beast, Samsung has a specific set of software that ships with the Note series. Things like S-Note, Scrapbooker, Air Command and other features and software put the Note in a class of its own when it comes to replacing that old pen and paper notepad you've had forever now. Air Command is the most obvious new feature, as it pops up as soon as you remove the S-Pen from its holster.
S-Finder is a new search service that Samsung has added to the Note 3, and at first you might be scratching your head wondering why they would add a new search service to a phone powered by Google services. In the short it's mostly a local search tool, searching for things on your device rather than on the web.
Samsung has also added a new news feeder app based on the popular app Flipboard. This works a lot like HTC's Blinkfeed and can give you lots of information at the drop of a hat. My Magazine brings all your content together in one place and makes it easy to find new news you're looking for.
Heading over to the meat of what this device is about, Samsung has a total of 3 note-taking apps on the Galaxy Note 3 that all serve different purposes. First up is Action Memo, which is a replacement for pop-up note on the Note 2. This provides a sticky note style quick note taking method that, unlike the old pop-up note, gives you all the handwriting options of S-Note. Speaking of S-Note, it's a brand new app this time around. Gone are the skeuomorphism looks of the old one (that tried to make it look like a real notebook) and the holo-light card UI style is in. This reflects in the menu and overall tool design on the screen, giving a much more aesthetically pleasing look to S-Note.
Scrapbooker is the final piece of note-taking software, and it's trying to replace the S-Pen crop that Samsung introduced with the Note 2. S-Pen crop is still here, so don't freak out if you loved that on the Note 2, but Scrapbooker takes the concept and turns it into a collection tool, allowing you to save those crops to a scrapbook for safe keeping. You can even put notes and tags on the scrapbook to find it easier in the future.
Since this is an important subject in the world of Android, it's only fair to divulge all we know about hackability when it comes to the Galaxy Note 3. Personally I rooted my Note 3 within the first hour of getting the phone, because I see no purpose in owning an Android device without having root access to be able to change what you want. Many out there don't feel comfortable with this level of tweaking and changing things, and Samsung is giving them a new reason to be afraid of doing it this time around. Remember that Samsung Knox software that was introduced a while ago? Apparently it's not just software, but includes an actual hardware component that gets rewritten when you flash something. This automatically voids your warranty and ensures that Samsung won't be fixing whatever is wrong with your phone. This may not be enforced unless it's an obvious bricking problem where you broke the phone, but you can't ever trust these sorts of things when they happen. So far though this hasn't stopped the modding community, and there are already ROMs, themes and all sorts of modifications for the Galaxy Note 3 on XDA and other development websites.
This might be the most important part of the review for some people, and I know I'm one of them. I absolutely love the camera on my phone and use it every day, so it's incredibly important that it remain among the best any smartphone could offer. The software is just as important as the hardware here, and it's one of the many reasons why I never ditched the Samsung software on my Note 2. The Galaxy Note 3 takes the base software from the Galaxy S4 and adds more features like Surround Shot (Photosphere), 4K video recording, image stabilization and more. Unfortunately features don't make the photos better, and that's the biggest problem with the Note 3 overall.
While we're on the subject of software, let's talk about the Samsung Gallery app. You might have seen the video floating around the web where it takes something like 2 minutes to open up the gallery app. I've not experienced this one time in my week and a half with the Galaxy Note 3. I've even tried turning on Picasa Sync, which is a known problem with older Samsung Gallery apps, and that didn't slow the gallery down one bit. It launches immediately every time, and that's not something I could say about the gallery on the Galaxy Note 2 or S4. It's a major improvement for Samsung and I'm hoping that video was just some strange bug or bad interaction with an app that was installed. I've got over 300 apps installed on my Note 3 too, so I'm thinking if I were going to run into the issue I would have by now.
But you ask "where are the sample shots so I can judge for myself?" Don't worry, I've got plenty. In many ways this camera is better than the one found on the Note 2, but in other ways it falls short of other cameras on the market. Samsung's anti-noise filter is a huge problem, and it causes most photos to only look good when viewed on the phone's screen, so when you try to show your family your vacation pictures don't expect them to look stellar on a TV; things are often blurry and appear to have a water color filter placed over everything in order to cut as much noise out of the scene as possible. Clicking on any of the pictures here will give you a full screen view of the shot.
On the positive the colors are more accurate, there's less haze going on when you have extreme areas of light and dark.
One big gripe I have with it is that there's no way to force Macro mode in the camera software. This made taking macro shots a little more difficult, and it seems like the Note 3's camera, much like the Galaxy S4's, can't get as close to subjects and still focus on them like the Note 2's could. The auto focus seems much more intelligent now though, and unlike the Note 2 where I had to force macro mode, this could take macro shots much more quickly for the most part.
It's also not great at low light shots, which is nothing new to any Galaxy series phone. The shot below illustrates a rare example of a low light photo coming out well, but is certainly not the norm. This is especially disappointing given just how good the HTC One's low light shots are.
Smart Stabilization is a new stabilization mode that actually works really well. Using auto mode with stabilization off indoors during the day wasn't quite good enough to get a steady shot no matter how many I took. As soon as I turned stabilization on the first shot was perfect. The only downside to this option is that it's software, so while the Note 3 is quick and gets the shot in about 2 seconds, it's an extra wait time when trying to get the right shot. The shot on the left has stabilization off, while the shot on the right has it turned on. The difference is readily apparent.
Samsung has more accessories for the Galaxy Note 3 than it has had for any other device in the company's history. We've got a few articles on just how many there are, and it's quite dizzying when you consider those are only the official Samsung accessories. Then there's also that little smartwatch thing you might have heard about called the Galaxy Gear. The Gear only works with the Note 3 for now because the Note 3 is the only Samsung Android phone that supports Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy. This will change once the rest of their lineup gets the Android 4.3 update in the coming months, but for now it's a Galaxy Note 3 exclusive accessory.
Most things about the Galaxy Note 3 are not just good, they are fantastic. The build quality and design of the phone is top notch, and it seems that Samsung is finally learning how to make a truly premium feeling device. It's super light in the hand, super thin, and has a gorgeous faux leather back that just feels so good to hold. The S-Pen has been redesigned and has more software features than ever before. The Note 3 launches with Android 4.3, and has received a facelift in many areas of the TouchWiz overlay skin. Samsung has completely redone the integral S-Note software, and it now works as beautifully as it looks. Samsung has also added new gestures, new software and more features than the Galaxy S4, and they all pretty much feel coherent and integral to the Galaxy Note experience. The camera is improved from the Note 2, and finally features a Photosphere option in the software. It's also got 4K recording, which you can't take advantage of for a while unless you've got some serious cash on hand.
This also marks the first time I haven't felt that Samsung jank on the phone, which deserves its own paragraph in its own right. That weird stuttering and pausing you've seen on so many Samsung phones seems to be almost completely gone on the Note 3, and the device feels smoother than ever. While the G2 is probably still the smoothest phone around, the Note 3 gives it a run for its money.
Some will still hate TouchWiz no matter what Samsung does to it. There are still some stupid design decisions, like not being able to swipe between tabs at the top of any given page, which makes no sense given the size of the device. Even with a user interface overhaul of sorts, there's still some little bugs here and there, and many of them I've mentioned during the course of the article (and all the overview articles).
Overall the camera is a mixed bag, but generally trends on the side of bad with the vast majority of shots. It's really unfortunate given Samsung's past pedigree with good smartphone cameras, and it's something I hope they change moving forward. You'll know what I mean if you try to view the photo on any screen larger than the phone, but if you're the Instagram and social networking type only then this might not be so bad for you. You're definitely going to print these pictures and be happy with the quality though, and don't try using this thing in low light; everything will be a glorious blur.
The size of the device will still be daunting to some. The sheer volume of features found on this phone will be overwhelming to some, and it's entirely possible that many people will never use even half of them. Is this bad? You'll have to decide for yourself, but Samsung has done a pretty darn good job of organizing all these features into the settings menu to make them easier to find. Tabbed settings helps enormously, and makes scrolling through that giant list of settings much easier on the eye. The feel and speed of the phone are nearly unmatched, and the software features are second to none. The note-taking features of the Galaxy Note series have been taken to new heights of awesome on the Note 3, and the new Air Command gestures with the S-Pen bring new levels of control that weren't possible before. If you want the best of the big phones this year, the Galaxy Note 3 is for your. If it's just a little too big the HTC One or LG G2 is likely the phone for you.