AT&T Galaxy Note 3 review: a supercharged superphone for power users
In fall 2011, When Samsung announced its next smartphone would bear a display that measured 5.3 inches, corner to corner, I laughed. A lot of us did. At the time, 4.3-inch phones were commonplace, 4.7-inch phones were just beginning to roll out and seemed ridiculous, and 5.3 inches was just absurd.
At the time, we never would have imagined the Note series would have taken off like it did. It has become an unlikely success story and is now one of Samsung’s most popular smartphone and tablet brands. Oh, and 5.3 inches is a thing of the past. Each generation has grown 0.2 inches, diagonally. The Galaxy Note II display measured 5.5 inches. And now the Galaxy Note 3 bears a 5.7-inch panel.
The even more bizarre part we never would have guessed? The Note series isn’t even the biggest anymore. Samsung launched an even larger smartphone line, Galaxy Mega, and competitors like Sony have it beat with the mind-numbingly large Xperia Z Ultra.
There’s much more to the Note series than size, however, and the Note 3 is a testament to that. It turns heads, inspires questions from passersby, and still manages to fit inside (most) pant pockets. The question remains: is this the Note II successor we’ve been dreaming of? And is it worth your hard earned cash?
We’ve spent 13 days with the Galaxy Note 3 for AT&T. Keep reading for our full take on the AT&T model. For more thoughts on the global model, be sure to check out that full review here.
Video Review · Specs & Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance Pros · Cons · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Specs & Hardware
Word of Samsung finally abandoning its use of love-or-hate hyperglaze plastic for the Galaxy Note 3 can be traced back to April of this year and gave us high hopes for a Samsung smartphone made of quality materials.
Sadly, the Note 3 doesn’t deviate too far from the beaten path. It’s composed of the same lightweight plastic Samsung has been lambasted for using for the better part of four years. But there’s a silver lining: the plastic battery door is covered in a faux-leather texture.
While some find Samsung’s choice of pleather unpalatable, it’s a definite improvement over the hyperglaze finish for no less than one reason – grip. The finish on the Note II and S III (as well as other ‘glazed models) were sometimes difficult to keep a firm grip on, thanks to the low friction coating. Granted, the global Galaxy Note 3 unit Michael received was the white model – notably more slick than the black model. Our black AT&T unit, on the other hand, is very tacky and much more leather-like. In fact, we commend Samsung for its efforts in accurately simulating a leather feel on the black cover.
You can easily tell it isn’t actually leather. But we did a blind test on some friends and passersby. Without letting them see what they were touching, we asked them to rub or touch the Note 3’s battery door and tell us what they we touching. Common responses were rubber or a fake leather.
Not bad, Samsung. Not bad at all (though ASUS better imitated perforated leather on the backside of the original Nexus 7). The fake stitching, however, could have been left out.
The trim has also been given a slight face-lift. The silver plastic is notched, as noted by Michael, to imitate the pages in a notebook.
The Galaxy Note 3, with better specifications on every front and a larger display, is actually smaller than the Galaxy Note II. At 168g, it’s 15g lighter, and it’s 1.3mm narrower, 1.1mm thinner, and only 0.1mm taller than its predecessor.
The Note 3 may not be made of metal of drool-worthy in the design element. But it’s a marvel in clever engineering. That alone is worth a lot of praise. (Still not sure why? Check out comparable-sized smartphones from other manufacturers.)
Samsung pulled no punches when picking the internals for the Note 3, either. It is quite literally packed with the cream of the crop in every category. The 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display, which bears a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels for a total density of 386ppi, is gorgeous. It’s noticeably more accurate and crisp than the Note II’s panel, and it’s extremely bright. Viewing angles, contrast, color reproduction, black levels, and touch responsiveness are fantastic.
The chipset powering the Note 3 is the Snapdragon 800, composed of a 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and a Adreno 330 GPU. It comes with a world first for smartphones: 3GB of RAM. Storage capacity options are 32 and 64GB, with the ability to expand up to an additional 64GB via microSDXC. It has a 13-megapixel camera around back, which is capable of 4K UHD video capture, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. In typical Note fashion, it also has a generous 3,200mAh (12.16Wh) battery.
Connectivity options and sensors packaged within are NFC, Bluetooth LE, WiFi ac, LTE connectivity, infrared, barometer, thermometer, and USB 3.0 – another market first. It also comes with a Wacom digitizer for S Pen support.
Speaking of S Pen support, the S Pen has been slightly redesigned since last year’s Note II. It’s less rounded than before, allowing for the S Pen to be inserted into its integrated slot face-up or face-down.
In terms of quality, we’re confident in saying this is the best Samsung smartphone built to date. Its finesse is still shy of the HTC One or iPhone, but Samsung is definitely on the right track. It’s slowly improving the quality of its products while drastically increasing the utility and power per cubic centimeter. The specs are second to none, the size is manageable (for most), and its value proposition is something imitators continually fail to capture.
The second half of that value proposition equation stems from one of the least popular aspects of Samsung’s Galaxy devices: TouchWiz. At its very core, it’s a necessary evil, particularly on the the Note series.
TouchWiz was created during a time when the Android interface was heavily engineered and was not user-friendly. Partner OEMs created custom interfaces both to differentiate and help consumerize the growing platform.
In the last three years, however, the tables have turned. TouchWiz is now bursting at the seams with an endless supply of apps and services with very specific and limited use cases. Its appearance has only slightly changed, and not necessarily for the better. For instance, the tabbed pages of the Settings application are meant to simplify navigation, but only make the application more cumbersome – and at times overwhelming. Samsung replaces virtually all of the native Android UI elements with its own, for one simple reason: it can.
Four years of Samsung endlessly adding new features and visual elements to its custom strain of Android has resulted in an over-encumbered system. The TouchWiz system image is pushing 2GB (compared to the 355MB of the factory Nexus 4 image for Android 4.3). Post-install, the system takes up a staggering 6GB of storage space.
As a device that is an obvious exercise in excessiveness, the Galaxy Note 3, to no surprise at all, comes with a full dose of TouchWiz atop Android 4.3. The enhancements to this version of software over the Galaxy S 4’s Android 4.2 flavor of TouchWiz are few and far between; the Note 3 comes with all the same features … and then some. Air Gesture, Air View, Smart Stay, Smart Pause, Smart Rotate, Multi-Window, and S Voice are just some of the many, many unique software features that differentiate and embellish Samsung smartphones from the rest.
Samsung’s typical, proprietary sub-ecosystem mumbo jumbo is there, as well. Samsung Hub and Samsung Apps are present alongside Google Play, though their selection of content is noticeably less broad.
Not all the so-called “bloat” is bad. The quick settings toggles with brightness slider are a marked high point in the Note 3’s software experience. SketchBook for Galaxy (from Autodesk) – a welcomed pre-installed app – is brilliantly married with the S Pen. And S Health is one of the most compelling pieces of software from Samsung in recent years.
Above all, the S Pen integration and Multi-Window are what make the Note 3 such an impressive smartphone.
The S Pen, the sole piece of hardware that differentiates the Note series from the rest, has always come with a certain amount of integration. But with the Note 3, Samsung greatly built on that, making it more user-friendly and enticing us to actually reach for the S Pen more often. When pulling the S Pen out of its holster, Air Command is automatically opened. Air Command is a radial pallet consisting of five shortcuts: Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window.
By and large, the most intriguing of these features is Pen Window. By selecting the shortcut from Air Command and tracing a rectangle on the display, you are greeted with a small selection of applications which can be opened atop the current application, floating window style. Minimizing a Pen Window shrinks the window to a tiny circle (a la Chat Heads). The utility of these floating applications is limited, as is the selection of compatible apps. But if Samsung opens an API for third-party applications, it would be a welcomed change.
And Multi-Window is a feature we’re all pretty familiar with. Available on almost all recent Samsung devices, Multi-Window allows two applications to be open at once, splitting the display at the middle by default. Samsung has added some new features to Multi-Window this time around, though, such as the ability to add saved pairs of applications and the ability to drag and drop content between the two open windows. This was especially useful when copying and pasting text between texts and chats.
Best of all, you can use Pen Window and Multi-Window in conjunction with one another, meaning, if you so wish, you can have four, five, or even more applications open at once. It’s excessive and more than three or four applications gets to be quite cumbersome. But the fact of the matter is: Samsung has set this overpowered smartphone up for users to use it however they wish, lifting the restrictions and common limitations associated with smartphones.
As ludicrous as it may sound, we actually found ourself making use of up to four applications at once. We were watching a YouTube video looking through our Twitter timeline in Plume. At the same time, we had a floating Browser window open, as well as a Hangouts chat open (minimized) through Pen Window. What’s even more interesting? The experience wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was pretty enjoyable, and we found ourselves using this setup more than once during the review period.
One major difference in software from the global unit we already reviewed is that this model, the AT&T model, does not come with KNOX security software pre-installed. AT&T does not support the KNOX feature.
Finally, there’s My Magazine. It’s a Flipboard-powered social reader, not unlike BlinkFeed on HTC Sense. It can be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the display or tapping the Home button once more from the home screen. There is little to complain about in regards to the way it’s implemented and the hardware integration. It would be a great value add … if it weren’t for how poorly the software actually operates. It takes a moment to open and even longer to refresh, regardless of data speeds. An interesting takeaway: we typically opened the application by accident, rather than intentionally calling upon it.
In all, the software on the Galaxy Note 3 is everything we’ve come to expect from Samsung, an overbearing, heavily laden interface that caters to some of the most specific and limited use cases. At the same time, it offers an immense amount of value to the phone, making it a truly unique and superior experience. Fortunately, due to the great software, the good far outweighs the bad. And without the full experience, the Note 3 wouldn’t be anything more than a large smartphone with a non-integrated inductive stylus.
On the software front, the Galaxy Note 3’s camera is also everything the Galaxy S 4’s was. It’s packed to the brim with features – 13 shooting modes, 12 built-in filters (with more available for download via Samsung Apps), and a horde of settings to toggle.
The image quality is comparable, as well. The 13-megapixel sensor, which is set to capture at 9.6 megapixels by default, manages to snap some impressive pictures in the proper lighting situations. Indoors, outdoors, and sometimes even at night. Images typically err on the warm side, and with smartphone cameras out there with 41 megapixel sensors, the Note 3’s cameras doesn’t offer a staggering amount of detail. But for a device that is phone first and camera second, we really couldn’t ask for more.
Okay, that’s a half-truth. We could ask for one thing, something several competitors have been doing for going on a year now: optical image stabilization. The Galaxy Note 3 does not use a shock-absorbing harness for the camera housing. Instead, it uses software stabilization to help with night captures. This Smart Stabilization feature, as Samsung calls it, doesn’t offer the most impressing low light shots, but it certainly makes do. Night imagery is often noisy, full of artifacts, and blurry. But we’ve positively seen worse.
Smart Stabilization is somewhat obscure, though. And we recommend toggling it off when possible, as it often causes the capture process to stabilize in lighting conditions that could go either way. This resulted in a handful of pictures to become indiscernible, blurry messes as we would innately hit the capture button and bring the phone back down for use as the Smart Stabilization processing status bar would appear.
Overall, though, the resulting stills were often great and on par with some of the best smartphone camera available.
The most notable point to make about the 4K capture mode is its lack of software stabilization. The 1080p capture mode allows stabilization, 4K does not. This results in jittery pans and jumpy moving objects. This mode is mainly for future-proofing and most people will step down to the 1080p capture mode.
Oh, and the front-facing camera. We nearly forgot. It’s, well … a front-facing camera. It suffices quite well for self-shots and video calling. The 2 megapixel sensor will neither impress or disappoint in comparison to the competition.
By now, most of you are probably up to speed on the benchmarking situation surrounding the Galaxy Note 3. If you aren’t, long story short, Samsung has tweaked the way the Note 3 reacts to benchmarking applications by maxing out all four CPU cores upon opening the apps.
The result is obvious. Benchmark scores are higher than they would be otherwise. So rather than spending our time with the Note 3 benchmarking left and right, we focused more on what really matters anyway – real world performance. And believe us, the Note 3 does not disappoint. The 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU is a monster, and the Adreno 330 GPU is, as well. The combination is a force to be reckoned with. And unlike it’s Exynos Octa counterpart, the Snapdragon-powered is a smooth, polished ride with very few hiccups.
In fact, we can only recall a single time that the phone even froze or lagged … period. That single instance was followed by a force close popup from Plume, so it’s safe to say that specific occurrence was at the fault of the app, not the phone itself.
Everything from everyday use to heavy, graphic-intensive gaming, such as with Modern Combat 4 or Asphalt 8, was buttery smooth. We can’t help but imagine how much smoother or quicker it would feel with fewer or quicker stock animations. But the performance on this smartphone is incredible.
Battery life is exceptional, as well. No surprise there. The Galaxy Note handsets have been renowned for their long-lasting batteries. The Note 3 is no exception, despite the drastic increase in horsepower and rather modest capacity bump (from 3,100 in the Note II to 3,200mAh).
Through even the heaviest usage we could throw at the Note 3 – including some heavy spurts of gaming and intense multitasking with up to six applications running at once – we were unable to kill the battery in a single day of use. Like its predecessors, it’s a one-day-plus sort of device, and we ended up charging it after about a day and a half. That’s without the Power saving mode enabled. You can expect even more endurance with the battery saving feature switched on.
The network performance is also worth writing home about. We weren’t able to score record data speeds with the AT&T Note 3 in the Charlotte metro area. But those speeds weren’t anything to scoff at either. The average downlink was 11.34Mbps, while the average uplink 9.16Mbps. The fastest recorded data speeds for the downlink and uplink, respectively, were 24.33 and 18.43Mbps.
Call quality was par for the course, too. The earpiece speaker delivered ample volume. And for those noisy situations, the additional sound settings, available directly from the in-call screen, were quite useful. Speakerphone performance, on the other hand, was fairly dismal. The speaker on the Note 3 is tinny, not quite as loud as we’d like, and entirely too easy to cover up by accident, leading to a mediocre speakerphone call experience. Other than that, we had no issues hearing callers or trouble with callers hearing us, and only one complaint of a background noise problem (which was due to a nearby ambulance siren).
– May be too large for some
– TouchWiz could stand a refresh
– The display dpi setting could be lower
Pricing and Availability
The AT&T Galaxy Note 3 went on sale on the 4th of October for a hefty $299.99 with a two-year agreement. It’s available in either white or black and can be had on the AT&T Next program for $0 down and $35 per month for 20 months.
In the US, the Galaxy Note 3 is also available on Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. And a global rollout of the device is underway.
The Galaxy Note 3, as its size clearly indicates, is not a phone of modesty. From its stacked spec list to its design and even the S Pen, the Galaxy Note 3 is obviously targeting power users, people who want or need a phone that simply … does more.
But none of that comes at the expense of marketability to average consumers either. It comes with the exact same feature set the Galaxy S 4 does. It’s simply bigger and better in every way (unless you’re in search of something more pocket- or wallet-friendly).
It isn’t perfect. Although it doesn’t suffer from the same performance hiccups its brethren does, it comes with the typical truckload of bloat. And the TouchWiz interface is in dire need of a diet and face-lift. However, the value proposition of the Note 3 – the heavily utilized extra display real estate and S Pen with software integration – more than makes up for the intermittent bad.
The chipset paired with 4.3 and Project Butter can handle the bloated TouchWiz interface with ease. And this is the best and most progressive hardware we’ve seen from Samsung, possibly ever. As such, we’ve scored the Galaxy Note 3 very highly – the highest score we’ve ever given a device: 9.3 out of 10.