Galaxy Note 3 review: Still the king of phablets

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It was two years ago when Samsung unveiled the very first Galaxy Note, which ended up starting the phablet craze. However, it wasn’t just about the “size” of the Note, it was the functionality with the S Pen, something many manufacturers fail to offer with their own phablets. The world thought the stylus was gone forever, but Samsung brought it back from the dead. Of course, the S Pen is no traditional stylus, it’s a lot more polished with wacom technology.With each edition of the Galaxy Note, Samsung has not only increased the screen size, but also improved the S Pen along with its functionality and features. Is the Note 3 the must have phone of the year or just another phablet? Hit the break to find out.

Design

The Galaxy Note 3 continues the design of the Galaxy S 4, but the back cover differs very much. Samsung went with a “leather” look with faux stitching, but it’ not even faux leather. It’s still plastic. Now it’s not as glossy as past offerings, but the look doesn’t match with how it feels. When I first saw the Note 3 at the launch event, I was excited since I thought it was soft touch, but that soon turned to disappointment when I realized it was just plain old plastic. Other than the back cover, the rest of the phone looks just like a GS4, only bigger. You even get the faux metal trim around the edges.

What is most remarkable with the Note 3 is the size. It measures 5.95-inches tall by 3.1-inches wide and it’s 8.3mm thick. Considering the screen is larger than last year’s Note II (5.7-inches vs 5.5-inches), you would think the Note 3 would be much larger. Not the case here as the Note 3 is actually narrower by .06-inches and is 1.4mm thinner. On top of all this, the Note 3 weighs less, 168 grams as opposed to 180 grams for the Note II. Kudos to Samsung for giving their customers a little more screen real estate without adding any bulk.

At the top of the phone is the microphone jack to the left along with an IR blaster to the right. Along the right side, you will find the power button towards the top and the left side has the volume rocker, also towards the top. The bottom gets a micro-USB 3.0 port at the middle, followed by a speaker to the right along with the S Pen holder. The USB 3.0 port is something we haven’t seen in other smartphones. Don’t fear, you won’t have to travel with another cable if you don’t want to. You can still use a USB 2.0 cable, but if you utilize the USB 3.0, you will get faster charging when connected to your computer (assuming your computer has a 3.0 port) as well as faster data transfers (4 Gbps vs 280 Mbps).

Last but not least, that plasticy faux leather back is removable giving you access to your SIM card, microSD slot, and the removable battery.

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The S Pen also continues to improve. It’s a little more sleeker and the button isn’t as easy to press by mistake like past editions.

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If you’re already a user of previous Galaxy Note phones, the feel of the Note 3 will be familiar to you. If you’re thinking of getting into the phablet game for the first time, you definitely want to hold the phone at the store for a few minutes. It really depends on the size of your hands. Having the largest screen possible makes a lot of sense, but it has to be comfortable to hold and use. Other than the plasticy feel, the Note 3 gives you the best possible combination of screen size without the overall size of the device being too big.

Hardware

The Galaxy Note 3 has a 5.7-inch (1920 x 1080) Super AMOLED display (386 ppi), a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor (in this review) or 1.9GHz octa-core Exynos processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, microSD slot for up to 64GB of expanded storage, 13MP rear camera, 2MP front-facing camera, 3,200mAh battery, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, MHL, HSPA+, and LTE-Advanced.

Performance

It’s starting to get really old saying that a phone runs really smooth and fast, at least when you’re talking about flagship phones with the latest and greatest hardware. The Galaxy Note 3 sports a quad-core Snapdragon 800, and just like the LG G2, things are fast and smooth. Anyone who is familiar with my past reviews knows I have no interest in benchmarks, but I always run an AnTuTu just for the heck of it. However, with all the controversy regarding Samsung and supposedly “fixing” benchmarks, I have even less interest. Still, I decided to run it with the normal AnTuTu app as well as the AnTuTu Benchmark X Editor to get a more realistic number. The normal AnTuTu came in at an inflated 36,257, while the X Editor came in at a more realistic 32,435. The bottomline is nobody is going to be able to tell the difference.

The display on the Note 3 is probably the best display I have seen on a Samsung phone. I have definitely favored LCD screens from HTC, and now LG, but this Super AMOLED full HD display with 386 ppi is right up there with deep blacks and fantastic colors. At this point in the game, you’re going to have to be a real display aficionado to tell the difference between all these flagship phones.

Battery

The Note 3 sports a 3,300mAh battery, which is huge, but also necessary when you consider the size of the display and quality. I ran my usual battery rundown test which entails looping a video from full charge to 0% while connected to LTE. I also leave WiFi (not connected), Bluetooth (not connected), and GPS turned on. Last but not least, I set the display at about 67% brightness. I was able to get 12 hours and 18 minutes, which is incredibly good. Now I know that you aren’t going to watch videos all day, so how does this translate to the real world? You can expect to get about 20 to 24 hours out of this bad boy, which is more than enough for the majority of people. The good news is that if you are a frequent traveler, you can still grab an extra battery since the Note 3 is one of the few phones available today that allows you to swap batteries.

Software

The Note 3 includes Android 4.3 as well as an updated version of TouchWiz. As much as Samsung likes to give us the best specs, it’s really about the software features for them. It’s what separates them from other Android manufacturers as well as Windows phone and the iPhone. As one would expect, most of the changes with this edition of TouchWiz revolve around the S Pen.

Air Command

By far the biggest change is the Air Command fan that gives you easy access to Action Memo, Scrapbook, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window. It appears automatically when you pull out the S Pen or you can hover the S Pen close to the display (without touching) until you see a little dot appear. Then just press the button on the S Pen and it will appear.

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Action Memo

This is another version of S Memo, but it’s meant for quick notes that you might want to take action on. For example, you can write a phone number down. You would then tap the “Link to Action” button and highlight the number. You then select the type of action to take such as a phone call. You can also use Action Memo to add a contact, send a text, email, search the Web, open Maps, or add to a todo list. So you could write, “milk, eggs, and bacon” and choose todo list and it will take you to Samsung’s built-in Tasks within the calendar. It’s not a bad feature, but if it’s handwriting you want (rather than typing), you have the ability to use your S Pen in each standalone actional app, so I’m not sure how useful it really is. Here’s a video showing you how it works.

Scrapbook

This is actually a cool feature. From any screen, you can select this option that lets you draw an outline around whatever you want to save. You can then save the information in your personal Scrapbook. What’s really cool is that you can use it in any app, and if you do it on a Web page (either Chrome or Samsung’s browser), it will save the URL link as well. This makes it perfect for recipes or anything you might want to save for future use. You can also categorize your scrapbook with different folders and add tags and/or Notes to each item you have clipped. Scrapbook also works with YouTube videos although I wasn’t able to get it to work on my review unit. There is also an option to add an item to your scrapbook while bypassing Air Command. Just hold the S Pen button down and draw a circle on the screen and select Scrapbook. For whatever reason, it doesn’t grab as much information, but it will still capture the URL link. Lastly, you can sync Scrapbook to your Samsung account so it’s accessible on other devices. Get a better look from this video.

Screen Write

Screen Write captures a screenshot and allows you to write a quick note on it. It will be saved as a basic jpg image in your gallery under screenshots so you can access it easily for emailing it to someone else. Here’s a quick video demonstration.

S Finder

S Finder is the ultimate tool for searching for items on your device. It will not only look for music, videos, your contacts, and appointments, but it will also search for both text and handwriting in your scrapbook and Notes. You can also search by tags as well as timeframes. It’s pretty slick and just might be the coolest new feature. Check out my video showing you how it works.

Pen Window

Pen Window is just another way to float apps, but in a much cooler way. Just draw a rectangle on any screen, and the app of your choosing appears inside. App choices are the Calculator, Clock, YouTube, Phone, Contacts, ChatON, Hangouts, and Internet (sorry no Chrome). You can move the app on the screen or maximize it. You can even minimize it, which transforms it to a floating chathead-like icon that is movable. When you’re ready to reopen it, just tap on the chathead-like icon. Want to float multiple apps? No problem, plus you can have multiple chathead-like icons for faster access. It’s pretty slick, but I’m not sure how many people really need to float apps all that often. If you’re someone that uses the calculator a lot, it can be quite useful. Check out my video below showing you how it works.

My Magazine

This is Samsung’s take on HTC’s BlinkFeed, but it also appears to be a Flipboard fork. It’s accessed by swiping up from one of your homescreens or by pressing the home button while you are on your main homescreen. What’s confusing is that Samsung also offers Flipboard pre-installed, but it’s completely different. My Magazine offers a more simplified approach to adding content to your stream as in you can’t fine tune sites to follow.

It has 4 categories: News, Personal, Here and Now, and Social. “News” consists of everything from politics, sports, technology, food, etc. “Personal” consists of your calendar, gallery, emails, scrapbook, etc. “Here and Now” is all about local events and “Social” allows you to add your social accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and so on. If you’re a Flipboard user, you probably won’t want to use My Magazine since it isn’t as versatile. However, the ability to access it easily is really nice. I put together a video showing you below.

Reading Mode

We saw Reading Mode on the Galaxy Note 8.0. It will change the background color on your chosen apps so that it’s more soothing on your eyes. You need to turn it on via the quick toggles in the notification panel and then add the apps you want Reading Mode to be active in.

Other features

Of course there are many other small S Pen enhancements such as the ability to write instead of type in just about any app. All you have to do is hover the S Pen over the text field and a small box will appear in the corner. Just tap on the box and you will be allowed to write your words instead of using the keyboard.

The Galaxy Note 3 also includes many of the previous software features such as Air View, Smart Stay, Smart Pause, and WatchOn. You can see how all of these work in our Galaxy S 4 guides.

Samsung offers more features than any smartphone manufacturer for sure. It obviously can be quite confusing for most mainstream consumers, but there are some useful things for those that take the time to learn about them.

Camera

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Samsung has always done a decent job with the camera in terms of quality, and the Galaxy Note 3 is no exception. If there is one downfall, it would be the lack of Optical Image Stabilization. However, the Note 3 sports what is called Smart Stabilization that aims to eliminate flash in certain lower light situations. Depending on the conditions, it will take a decent photo without the flash, but if it’s extra dark, it will still need the flash.

The camera interface is essentially the same as the Galaxy S 4, which includes Dual Camera, Beauty Face, Best Photo, Best Face, Sound & Shot, Drama Shot, Animated Photo, HDR, Eraser, Panorama, and Sports. Samsung did include two new modes: Surround Shot and Golf Shot. Surround Shot is Samsung’s version of Photo Sphere and works very similarly. Golf Shot allows you to take pictures of a golf swing and play it forward or backward. You can even display all images within one image so you can see the full swing. For a better look at all the camera features, see our Galaxy S 4 guides.

Overall, the Note 3 does a pretty good job with the quality of photos, but it does lack when there is motion even when the “Sports” mode is selected. Here are some example photos…

Outdoors

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Motion

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Low Light

Smart Stabilization On                                          Smart Stabilization Off

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Also to note (no pun intended) is the Galaxy Note 3’s ability to shoot video in 4K (3,840 x 2,160), but unfortunately I wasn’t able to test it.

Closing

If you’re looking for a phablet, the Note 3 is probably your best bet. It’s not too big when you consider the size of the display. Speaking of the display, it’s fantastic. Throw in the S Pen and all the apps that come with it, and you won’t find a better phablet. Yes, it’s filled with TouchWiz and all the crap that comes with it, but the overall experience has continued to be consistent, which is great for mainstream consumers.

The big question is if you own a previous Note device, should you upgrade now? I would say yes, if you own the original Note, but not if you own a Note II. The display is a big upgrade over the Note II, but the newer apps will come to the Note II by the end of the year. Those of you who own the original Note won’t get any of this newer functionality and the spec upgrades are more noticeable. Your contract is probably ending anyway.

If you’re knew to the phablet game, then this is the phone to buy. However, I would recommend that you hold the phone at the store and see how comfortable you are with the size. You also need to ask yourself if you will really get a lot of use out of the S Pen and all it’s functionality. There is a lot of cool stuff here, but if you aren’t going to use it, save yourself a $100 and buy a phone with a 5-inch display such as the Galaxy S 4. It’s still plenty large enough for most people.


About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.


  • Favio Maldonado

    I got this phone thinking on keeping it till the s5 comes out but it turn out I’m really enjoying it (coming from a apple user) yeah im done with the iphone due to a lack of innovation and I could download movies on my note 3 and no complaints here. So proud I did the move.

  • Oli72

    If nexus 6 is a note 4 built like I’m n like flynn

  • Rich

    Best Cell Phone ever! Ever!

  • DC_Guy

    Agreed. The Note 3 is an absolute beast of a phone!

  • 561levon

    I’m not letting go my nexus for it

  • jangoo

    i like it ..

  • blaze

    Best phone to date, you won’t regret it.

  • jay

    I have had 3 note 3 from att and all 3 where bad, the screen would freeze up, black screen, sorry signal on the highway, OK in town. My note 2 is great. I wish I had better luck with the note 3 :( lol