Galaxy Note 3 review: the new king of superphones
Watching the Galaxy Note line evolve over the past two years has been very, very interesting. Samsung kicked off a new category with the original Note back in 2011, packing the specs and performance of a small tablet into the body of a large smartphone, and throwing a modern-day stylus into the mix to sweeten the pot.
The device beat all expectations to become a hit – but it did so at a fairly modest scale. So for its next trick, Samsung endeavored to “consumerize” the Note line, slimming its hardware and aligning its feature set more closely with the flagship Galaxy S series – something it accomplished with staggering success in the Galaxy Note II, a blockbuster hit for the company and one of our most-highly-reviewed phones ever.
This being the flagship-smartphone space, it’s now time for the inevitable second sequel. The new Galaxy Note 3 continues the pioneering spirit of the phablet family with an outrageous spec sheet married to a gargantuan form factor that’s just shy of ridiculous. Truly, the device is mammoth, and it’s not afraid to show it.
It’s a phone that’ll make onlookers at the restaurant drop their spoons in surprise, and it may very well stop traffic as passing drivers take stock of its sheer scale. But with other manufacturers bringing their own supersized smartphones to market, and Samsung itself dabbling in even larger form factors, does the newest Note offer enough to set itself apart from the pack? And is it something you should consider buying?
Don’t be one of those cretins who just looks at the score; get the full story on Samsung’s latest phablet in our Galaxy Note 3 review, hovering just below this intro. (Spoiler alert: you might wanna lock up your credit cards beforehand.)
Videos · Specs/Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance
Video Review & Comparisons
Specs & Hardware
As with many Samsung devices, the Note 3 comes in a variety of distinct flavors for different global markets. We’ve elected not to wait for US carrier variants to arrive at our doorstep in order to deliver timely coverage; as a result, the device used for this review is the unlocked SM-N900 model for the Americas. Where its build or performance differs from other units, it will be noted. Also, our demo unit comes to us by way of Negri Electronics, where devices are still available if you’d like a Note 3 of your own.
At IFA 2013 in Berlin, Samsung promised that its latest phablet would come in “slimmer, faster, lighter, longer, and larger” than the Note II. Some of that seems a bit contradictory, yes, but here it’s intentional: much as it did with the Galaxy S 4, Samsung has managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat with the Note 3. At 151mm x 79 x 8.3 mm, it’s smaller in almost every dimension than its predecessor, and at 168g it’s lightweight without crossing the line into too light.
But despite these slimmed dimensions, the device also packs a larger display than any Note before. The new panel is a 5.7-inch, 1080p Super AMOLED behemoth with a pixel density of ~386 ppi. It makes use of the new PenTile “diamond” pixel arrangement and it’s capable of kicking out up to 660 nits of brightness outdoors, making it usable in almost any lighting condition. The screen is sharp, crisp, and reproduces colors much more accurately than the previous-generation Note, especially in terms of whites – and Samsung’s dynamic Screen Mode settings allow it to adapt to different roles depending on whether the user is reading a Kindle e-book or watching a film on Netflix. Overall, it’s quite possibly the finest smartphone display we’ve come across.
The back of the Note 3 is a slightly more polarizing affair. Depending on your tastes, you’ll either love or hate the new faux-leather battery door with its border stitching, the material meant to evoke the look and feel of a Moleskin notebook. In our view, the Note 3 gets it mostly right: the look is perfect on our white unit here, but the feel is a little slippery for our taste (the black version is a bit more grip-tastic). The new look may be a little “on-the-nose” in terms of its motif, but we like it: it sets the Note apart from the Galaxy S line, and it means we don’t have to deal with the tacky, glossy feel of Samsung’s hyperglaze anymore, which is a big win. And yes, the S Pen has been given a slight visual overhaul as well – but its biggest upgrade is definitely its rotation-agnostic docking ability, which echoes Apple’s Lightning connector in its “plug in any way you like” attitude.
Though it recalls the days of the venerable Galaxy S II with its narrow-radius corners and right-angle-happy layout, the new Note’s design is a solid step forward for the line. The end result is a device that looks like no other on the market, feels more high-end than any other Samsung device, and remains (barely) usable with one hand.
Samsung has always used the Note family as an opportunity to bring the highest-end specs possible, and the Note 3 is no exception. Our unit -again, the SM-N900- packs Samsung’s so-called Exynos OCTA chipset (a quad 1.9 GHz Cortex A15 mated to a quad 1.3 GHz Cortex A7), but other versions run Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 at 2.3GHz.
Either way, these are top-of-the-line systems backed up by 3GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of storage (our 32GB unit featured 25GB available to the user at first power-up). It’s all powered by a big battery rated at 12.16 Wh (3.8V, 3200mAh). As usual for Samsung, that battery is removable and user-replaceable, as is the optional MicroSD card, which can accommodate up to 64GB of additional storage.
Rounding out the class-leading feature set is support for WiFi a/b/g/n/ and ac, MHL connectivity, an IR port for controlling your home media system, and a sensor suite that includes thermometer, hygrometer, and barometer. The Note 3 also packs USB 3.0, including its new, wider dual-plug port for faster charging and data transfers (but don’t worry; your old MicroUSB cables will still work fine). Some models of the Note 3 also support Miracast and a wide array of LTE bands, depending on market. Finally, the Wacom digitizer returns on the Note 3, giving the display its thousand-plus levels of pressure sensitivity, the capability that makes the S Pen work.
And Samsung’s special stylus works better than ever before here. Last year’s S Pen was already a pretty impressive instrument, but the 2013 edition benefits from a new, higher-friction tip that makes writing on the Note 3’s smooth Gorilla Glass slightly less awkward. Also, in a long-overdue move, the S Pen is now capable of triggering the capacitive back and menu keys flanking the Note 3’s home button. This has obviated the need for the boomerang back and forward gestures found on the Note II, and Samsung, in a rare display of discretion, has also removed another feature: the pointless Quick Command gesture window finds no home on the Note 3. In its place, the company has provided a new interface element called Air Command, which we explored in a deep-dive hands-on at IFA.
Air Command, whose circular jump menu is summoned by a quick press of the S Pen’s side button, is straightforward, clean, and perfectly suited to use with the stylus. Some of its features, like the system-wide search in S Finder and the Scrapbook crop collector are quite handy, especially given the Note 3’s new ability to recognize and catalog text as a searchable medium. For example, you can capture a portion of a website by drawing a box around it and then save it to your Scrapbook, which automatically parses the image for text and drops it alongside the image. That text is then searchable via the S Finder app, for quick lookup later on.
Other functions seem better suited to showroom stunt than daily time-saver. Action Memo, for example, is a neat parlor trick: it allows you to write down a name, address, phone number, or combination thereof, after which it launches the appropriate app to take you to the address on a map, or save a new contact to your phone book. It’s fun to experiment with, but it doesn’t work all that well, and it’s much more cumbersome than simply entering data “the old-fashioned way.” The Pen Window action is another feature in this vein: it allows you to define a specific window size and shapes with the S Pen, then open any one of a small subset of apps within that window. Would we occasionally find a hovering calculator useful? Sure – but as we said in our LG G2 review, the windowed multitasking approach isn’t terribly useful in the phablet space, no matter how big the screen is.
Fortunately, Samsung’s other multitasking powerhouse is still here, and it’s been even further enhanced. Just as with earlier Note products, Multi-Window allows apps to be run side-by-side on the screen – but information can now be swapped between the apps in real time. That means you can copy text from one screen and paste it into the other using the more streamlined interface, which comes in handy if you want to copy text from one Hangout chat into another. Sadly, some use cases are not (yet) supported – we couldn’t paste an address from a Hangout chat directly into Google Maps, for instance, which seems like a no-brainer. Fortunately, the “traditional” clipboard approach is in good working order for this situation. Back on the bright side, Multi-Window also now supports custom presets – so if you always find yourself opening Twitter and YouTube at the same time, you can now set a shortcut to open them both at once – a big time saver.
The rest of Samsung’s heavy UI layer is still here, and it’s loaded with more features than ever: whiz-bang stuff like Air Gesture, Smart Scroll, and Smart Pause have been ported from the Galaxy S 4, but more interesting is the addition of Samsung’s FlipBoard-powered “My Magazine,” which lives under the home screen and provides a BlinkFeed-like news and social viewing experience. It’s not perfect; it takes more than a second to launch and several seconds to update, and out of the box it appears every time you hit the home button more than once, which is pretty annoying. But it’s essentially an omnipresent FlipBoard app, and as such, it’s a pretty cool addition.
Elsewhere on the Note 3: more of the same. Samsung goes out of its way to provide some value adds here, and some are quite useful: the Samsung KNOX security suite will be a welcome sight to those who need to keep their work and personal lives separate, without the inconvenience of carrying a second smartphone. We’re also quite happy to see the fitness monitor S Health make the cut, and SketchBook for Galaxy is an incredibly powerful and fun app for use with the S Pen. The company has also launched a new Instagram-like social network specifically for Galaxy Note owners called PEN.UP, where users can share their stylus doodles with the world – a perfect companion to a device so obviously appealing to creative folks.
Other areas could use some refinement. We understand that Samsung Hub is key to the company’s long-term strategy, but as of now the content catalog’s selection and curation process is laughable (the “bestsellers” section of Samsung Books is littered with generic self-help titles and more than a few dubious-looking examples of erotica, while books from actual best-selling authors are few and far between). And coming straight from the iPhone 5c review into Note 3 territory, it’s impossible to overlook how cheap Samsung’s TouchWiz UI feels. System widgets and icons still don’t take advantage of the Note 3’s added screen size, despite its increased resolution. There’s an almost-criminal waste of space on every screen. And certain corners, like the messaging app, look straight out of 2006. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: TouchWiz is in serious need of a visual revamp. And it’d be nice if Samsung upped its app game while it was at it: we’d love to see the company focus on making a smaller cadre of titles outstanding, rather than dumping tens of mediocre variations into the mix with every new smartphone.
But familiar complaints aside, the good ultimately overrides the bad here. The sheer versatility of the Note 3’s software suite manages to overcome its somewhat schizophrenic nature. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is the best phablet software the world has yet seen.
In the world of smartphone photography, “low light performance” is all anyone’s talking about these days, thanks to devices like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and HTC One – and in this regard, we ran into some trouble with the Note 3’s camera during our first few days of use.
With the latest build of its otherwise-excellent viewfinder software, Samsung has made the dubious decision to replace its dedicated “Night Shot” shooting mode with the far-less-versatile “Golf” mode. That setting does exactly what you’d expect: it captures a complete golf swing in a series of photos and stitches them into one final shot. Fun as that may be for the golfers out there, it leaves the rest of us in a sticky spot when we try to take a low-light photo, only to end up with a mess like this:
Fortunately, there’s a solution. Actually, there are two: you can opt for one of the US variants of the Note 3, some of which restore Night Mode to its rightful place in the viewfinder. Or, you can enable Smart Stabilization, a feature buried in the camera’s settings menu, which produces a massive improvement in low-light photography (thanks to all the commenters who pointed this out to us).
Once that hurdle is cleared, you’ll probably be pretty satisfied with photos coming from the Note 3. The 13MP, f/2.2 sensor looks to be the same unit Samsung used for its Galaxy S 4, and we were pretty impressed by that shooter. We kept the phone at the out-of-box resolution of 9.6MP most of the time, to retain our preferred 16:9 aspect ratio, but even with those settings photos came out clean and clear, provided sufficient lighting.
Some of the Note 3’s features are just stupid fun, like the Dual Shot feature and the Cinemagraph-like Animated Photo. Others offer very handy functionality: Sports Mode provides faster shutter speeds to capture quick action, and HDR mode is pretty excellent at balancing photos with varying exposure levels, and bringing midtones to the forefront. For still photos, about the only thing this camera is missing is optical image stabilization – a shame, since the Note 3’s big frame is pretty awkward to hold while taking photos, and camera jiggle is sometimes tough to avoid as a result.
On the video front, the camera is similarly impressive. While the SM-N900 doesn’t have the 4K capture ability that some of its siblings do, 1080p video is nice and smooth thanks to software stabilization, with balanced colors and quick exposure and white balance correction. The typical rolling-shutter distortion common to all smartphone cameras is here, but it’s no more pronounced than usual. Indoor video exhibits a bit of visual noise, but there’s very little noise to complain of on the audio side; even with Audio Zoom turned off, sound capture is fairly sensitive.
Our only real complaint in terms of video is that the already-narrow field of view is further restricted during camcorder shooting, meaning you’ll need to stay well away from your subject if you want to keep the entire thing in the frame.
To no one’s great surprise, Samsung’s been caught cheating in the synthetic benchmark arena again, souping up the US Snapdragon editions of the Note 3 much as it did with the Galaxy S 4 several months back. While we don’t yet have confirmation that the company’s done the same with Exynos-powered models like our test unit, we think there’s a strong likelihood that that’s the case. So we’re going to go ahead and skip right past the benchmark section of this review (a section of dwindling importance anyway) and just tell you how the device handles on a day to day basis.
In short: the SM-N900 is staggeringly powerful. And it’s also occasionally inconsistent.
On the powerful side: when those “eight cores” are greased up and spinning hot, there’s no stopping our Note 3. High-demand games like Asphalt 8 and Modern Combat 4 run without a hitch, and even the most complicated webpages in a browser running more than fifteen tabs don’t make the phone break a sweat. And the casing doesn’t even get all that warm while it’s juggling those tasks. Meanwhile, the device feels incredible in the hand as you take in the lush scenery of Rise of Glory or the vibrant colors of Sparkle 2 on that massive screen. Truly, it’s incredible.
But the inconsistency common to many TouchWiz phones is still there: lag and stutter aren’t common by any means, but when they do appear, once in a long while, they remind us just how big and bloated Samsung’s UI really is – and how smooth the phone would consistently be if only the company would lighten up. More ominous is the fact that our demo unit has frozen up tight three times in the seven days we’ve been using it, requiring a restart each time. Because this problem isn’t widely reported, we’re inclined to believe it’s a defect in our demo unit, but we’re keeping our eye on the issue: if it recurs in the US version of the Note 3 landing in our offices this week, we’ll let you know, and we’ll update our score accordingly.
Otherwise, testing the Note 3 in the Greater Boston area has been a pleasure. Phone call quality is solid on both ends on AT&T’s 3G network, a big improvement over recent Samsung phones like the Galaxy S 4 Active. The Note 3’s earpiece produces crisp sound and the Volume Boost feature comes in handy for speakerphone calls, which are otherwise too quiet. Even with maxed-out volume, the Note 3’s small speakerphone isn’t as loud or as bassy as we’d prefer for media listening; fortunately sound through the earbuds is considerably better, and Samsung has built in its special Adapt Sound feature here to dynamically alter levels based on the ambient environment.
Also far from the worst: battery life. The Note 3 shouldn’t disappoint many in the endurance department. Even with hardcore high-end gaming and heavy internet browsing, with two Gmail and four social-media accounts constantly syncing and heavy use of streaming audio via Spotify, we were able to get more than a day’s use out of the Note 3 – and thats saying a lot for a phone with a 1080p display this large. And if that excellent performance still isn’t enough for you, the 3200 mAh battery is replaceable, so you can swap power packs and keep right on tweeting and streaming.
+ Most powerful hardware available
+ Best display we’ve seen on a smartphone this size
+ Removable battery, expandable storage
+ Outstanding battery life
+ S Pen offers unmatched utility
+ Unparalleled multitasking ability
– TouchWiz is still overwrought
– UI doesn’t make maximum use of screen resolution
– Performance hiccups in Exynos version give us pause
Pricing and Availability
As noted above, the Note 3 is available unlocked via Negri Electronics for a full retail price of $689 to $829, depending on model. The Note 3 is currently rolling out to over 140 countries worldwide; depending on your region, it may be available unlocked or from a local carrier.
In the US, widespread availability is projected to begin on October 4, with AT&T and Sprint offering both the Note 3 and its accompanying Galaxy Gear smartwatch on that date (the Note 3 will sell on-contract for $299.99 and $349.99, respectively). T-Mobile USA will begin offering the device on October 2 at $199.99 on its special contract pricing plan, and Verizon Wireless will begin shipping Galaxy Note 3 orders on or around October 10, at $299.99 on contract.
We know: it’s a lot to take in. That’s almost always the case with a flagship-class smartphone, and even more so with a device like a Galaxy Note. It’s not just physically larger; it’s larger-than-life, with a spec sheet and a feature set that seem almost specifically designed to overwhelm.
Fortunately for Samsung, the Note 3 lives up to its legacy in a big way. It improves on the Note II in almost every meaningful sense, and it even manages to stand apart from its fellow devices functionally and aesthetically – something not easily done in Samsung’s watered-down world where nearly every smartphone bears the Galaxy moniker. While we’d like to have seen a stronger focus on quality over quantity in the feature set and a streamlining of the S Pen functionality, those are minor quibbles. If you’re buying a large-screened Android device, you don’t just want the added acreage of a big-screen TV in your pocket; you want utility to go along with the added scale. And right now, the Galaxy Note 3 is absolutely the most capable, most powerful smartphone/tablet hybrid on the market.