Monday, December 16, 2013

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review

The third iteration of an established brand is usually the one that signifies its position as leader in its given product segment. We saw it happen with the world-beating Galaxy S III and we are seeing it again with Samsung's co-flagship Galaxy Note 3. We find out if a slightly larger screen, higher octane hardware and improved S Pen functionality are enough to keep Samsung at the top of the "phablet" heap in our review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Overall Construction
While the Galaxy Note II took design cues from the Galaxy S III released just a few months before it, the Galaxy Note 3 does take some design cues from the Galaxy S4 but does diverge significantly. The differences are enough that one would not mistake a Galaxy Note 3 with a Galaxy S4 unlike their respective predecessors. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that the Note 3 channels a bit of the past and bears more resemblance to the Original Galaxy Note or Galaxy S II.

The first real noticeable difference between the Note 3 and the other Galaxy devices is that the device's back cover drops the "Hyperglaze" coating. We couldn't be any happier to see that glossy finish be put to rest and we still aren't sure why Samsung stuck with it for so long. Instead, they opted for a faux leather finish on the plastic back. While it isn't real leather or even pleather the back feels much improved over previous Samsung devices. The back also features fake stitching which, to be honest, is really tacky.

At 8.3 mm thick, the Note 3 sheds more than 1mm and with a slightly larger screen than last generation's Note II, it was going to need every mm it could spare. With the "boxier" lines to the Note 3, it didn't feel much slimmer in hand than last year's model but it did feel nicer to hold. The thinner profile also makes the questionably pocketable phablet more slightly more tolerable in your favorite pair of skinny jeans.

At 168g the Note 3 sheds a significant amount of heft but still feels nicely balanced. For people with larger hands this will come as a nice bonus for one handed usability. But for people with average sized hands, the Note 3 will undoubtedly stay a two handed affair. That being said the Note 3 still feels as solid as one would expect a plastic phone this light to be.

The Note 3 doesn't take any major risks in design but is simply a nice refinement of what we've seen in the past from both the Galaxy Note and Galaxy S series. We would however like to see what Samsung can do with nicer materials like we've seen on the Galaxy Gear.

Also, we have to mention the changes to the S Pen itself. While the physical functionality hasn't changed, the ergonomics have greatly improved. The S Pen can now be placed back into to Note 3 easier and is physically larger which allows for an easier grip.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Like with the Galaxy S4 over the S III, the Note 3 is slightly larger and higher resolution than the Note II. One aspect that is distinctly different is that the Note 3 goes back to the Diamond pattern AMOLED pixel arrangement that the S4 uses. Like on the Galaxy S4, the super high 1080p resolution simply overpowered the inherent issues caused by PenTile matrix pixel arrangements.

At 5.7 inches, the Note 3 does like the S4 and increases the screen real estate by a noticeable amount without sacrificing usability as this year's Samsung phablet is just about imperceptivity smaller than its predecessor the Note II. For a device this huge that is aimed at mass market appeal every millimeter counts and Samsung nails the execution here.

Also like the S4 Samsung has gone with a 1080p display. What's different this time around is unlike the Galaxy Note II, the Note 3 goes with the same "Diamond"-like PenTile pattern seen on the Galaxy S4. But just like on the S4 we didn't see any huge noticeable increase in character or edge aliasing so like on the S4 we are very happy with the quality of the display on the Note 3.

As with all AMOLED panels, colors were super saturated and vibrant and black levels were unparalleled. Contrast was good, and extreme angles were improved in terms of reducing color degradation and the cyan hues that we've seen in the past. It still isn't perfect but the improvement is nice especially for a device that's more likely to have a few people crowd around for impromptu group YouTube viewing sessions.

Overall we were very pleased with the display on the Note 3, despite other displays using more preferable pixel arrangements or having much higher DPIs than the PenTile and 386DPI on the Note 3.

Like every other Samsung flagship, the Note 3 has a capacitive menus and back button flacking a physical home button. While we don't like it and would rather see the hidden menu button removed, we can't see Samsung changing at this point. What will be interesting to see is what Samsung will do if/when Google drops support for hidden menus and forces the overflow button.

The volume and power buttons were as we remember on other Samsung devices, discreet yet functional.

Battery Life
The Note 3 continues the dominance of the Galaxy Note series when it comes to battery life. With a huge 3200mAh battery we had no issues getting through a day on heavy usage which includes the usual bevy of smartphone activities including SMS, Hangouts, calls and Browsing as well as power intensive tasks like tethering and 3D Gaming.

Instead of going with an in-house Exynos solution, the Note 3 is powered by the well-received Snapdragon 800 Quad core Processor. As with the similarly equipped LG G2, the Snapdragon 800 was pretty battery efficient and allowed for some very good battery endurance. Two days on one charge wouldn't be out of the question, however more mainstream phones like the G2 have caught up in this regard and it will be interesting to see how the battery trend turns out in 2014.

Also worth mentioning is that in our time with the Note 3, we had the Galaxy Gear tethered to it via Bluetooth. While we don't believe it was a huge strain on the Note 3 battery life, it certainly did have a slight impact on battery endurance and is something to keep in mind if you're considering getting the Gear in tandem with the Note 3.

Internal Hardware
We are no strangers to the Snapdragon 800 and were really happy to see it in the Note 3. With all that horsepower under the hood, coupled with such a huge display, it isn't surprising the people consider the Note 3 a superior flagship to the S4 despite the less than mainstream size.

- 2.3 GHz Qualcomm Quad Core Snapdragon 800 CPU
- 3GB of RAM
- 16/32/64GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable by up to 64GB
- Adreno 330 Graphics Processor
- 4G LTE and HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 13 MP camera with LED flash and 4K (3840 x 2160 pixel) video recording capabilities
- NFC - Near Field Communication

Like with the other Snapdragon 800 equipped smartphones, the Note 3 was absolutely blazing fast. There was absolutely nothing that could slow down the Note 3. We aren't surprised by the beastly performance given that the camera can even do 4K video. Processing four times the pixels of 1080p is certainly a testament of how powerful the Qualcomm CPU can be when coupled with 3GB of RAM.

In synthetic benchmarks the Note 3 performed in the same range as the G2 with 20000 points in Quadrant and 30000 points in Antutu. This is just about as we expected as the performance was about on par with what we previously experienced on the Snapdragon 800 equipped LG G2.

That being said, the Galaxy Note 3 was a speed demon. Nothing could slow down the phone and it seems like Samsung ironed out some of the performance hiccups we experienced on the Galaxy S4.

LTE 4G Capabilities
Our particular review unit was a Bell version and speeds were as good as we've remembered on previous LTE devices on the Bell network. With download speeds north of 12mbps, they weren't the fastest speeds we've ever seen but they certainly will be sufficient for all that the Note 3 can do.

As usual, your mileage will vary and given that this is multi carrier phone, the LTE coverage of your carrier in your area will be an important factor as areas covered with Rogers and Bell's 2600MHz LTE network have reported speeds of 50mbps and up. In our case, Bell doesn't have 2600MHz coverage in Montreal.

Speaker and microphone
Sound from both the earpiece and microphone were decent. Basically par from what we've heard on previous Samsung devices. The loudspeaker is, yet again, a mono speaker setup as is the case with other Samsung devices but is improved as it is bottom firing rather than rear firing. In real world usage it wasn't the loudest but certainly was good enough to get the job done but don't expect any stereoscopic sound like we've seen on HTC devices or on Samsung's own Galaxy Tablets.

Like the S4 before it, the Note 3 is packing a 13MP camera that produces some of the best stills we've seen from an Android smartphone. Stills were crisp and detailed with accurate yet vivid colors. In a lot of common shooting situations where light is abundant the Note 3's camera was simply outstanding. The most notable omission has to be Optical Image Stabilization which is present on the G2 as well on the One, however low light shots came out quite good.

In terms of video the Note 3 does something that no other smartphone can do and that is record video in 4K resolution. At 3840 x 2160, the resolution that the camera can record at is absolutely mind boggling. The fact that there aren't any readily available and, most importantly, easily affordable 4K capable monitors, projectors presents significant pros and cons to the Note's recording capabilities.

On one hand, user who have their sights on purchasing a 4K television can rest assured that videos taken with the Note 3 will look great. But on the other hand given that there isn't widespread adoption for the resolution in both content and hardware it probably won't seem like a big advantage, to most, in the short term.

Camera software was a bevy of settings, preset modes and options as is expected with any Samsung devices at this point. Like on the S4 the various shooting mode were a mix of great ideas and some not some not so great ideas. But those that were good ideas often ended up working very well on the Note 3.

Overall, when considering the camera, the Galaxy note 3 is without a doubt one of the best we've seen. From resulting picture and video quality to the plethora of shooting options, the phone delivers in the camera department.

Sample Pictures


Samsung TouchWiz /w Android 4.3
Once again like on the Note II, the Note 3 borrows just about every software feature from S Memo, S Beam, EasyMode, MultiWindow, and Smart Stay to Smart Scroll, S Health, S Translate, Easy Mode, Air View and Air Gestures the Note 3 has just about every feature under the sun.

Like with our Galaxy Note II review we will focus on the S Pen functionality which has been significantly revamped on the Note 3. Unlike on the Note II there is more of an emphasis on using the S Pen throughout the phone via the S Pen Air Command rather than in the designated Note Applications on previous firmwares.

Unlike on the Note II, users aren't smashed in the face with by page buddies but instead are greeted by a simple yet intuitive Air Command interface. This is a huge improvement over last year's implementation as it allows users to not only be more user friendly, but also allows non TouchWiz Launchers to continue to have Air Command functionality.

The hand writing recognition is just as good as we remembered on the Note II and even expands upon it on the Note 3 as it seems even more tolerant of less than legible handwriting. Again, as someone who rarely writes anything by hand these days, the usefulness didn't go beyond the occasional time to show off the Note 3 or random doodles. But the appeal to artists or people who prefer writing over typing on a software keyboard can be very enticing.

One software feature that we didn't get the chance to try on the Note II but got to try on the S4 and Note 3 was the MultiWindow support. It has come a long way since its debut on the original Galaxy Note 10.1 where quite frankly it was pretty bad. On the Note 3 it has evolved to become not only usable but very versatile and quite honestly a great experience.

Given the larger screen and the more precise user input of the S Pen, the Note 3 is the device to use the MultiWindow support on. While the S4 performed fine, it the extra screen real estate and the precision of the S Pen that really makes the feature shine. Samsung has improved it substantially with the addition of more apps that can be "Multiwindowed" and has even allowed for easy transferring of data between like drag and dropping text from one pane to another.

While this might not seem like a big deal it certainly is impressive given Android's built in App Sandboxing that usually prevents data from going from one app to another without first going through a OS subsystem like the clipboard that would hold text to be copy/pasted.

One last significant change we noticed was the "My Magazine" feature. This is something of an answer to HTC's Blinkfeed. It's powered by Flipboard which we've always appreciated, but to be honest the integrations doesn't feel as coherent as Blinkfeed does (regardless of how one might feel about Blinkfeed).

As for the rest of the Samsung branded software experience, it's basically identical to the Galaxy S4 software review, so check out our full review of the Galaxy S4 for a more in depth analysis of the latest version of TouchWiz.

The last thing we want to mention is that given that the Galaxy Note 3 is pre-loaded with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, it comes with Bluetooth Low Power support which is of course a prerequisite to compatibility with the Galaxy Gear, but more on that in our in depth review of the Gear.


The Galaxy Note 3 stand alone on the top of the phablet market, no one has ever doubted that, but when compared to the rest of the smartphone market we believe the Note 3 is carving itself a very nice segment. With 10 million in shipped Note 3 is defying all critics, including yours truly, and proving that it is a mainstream device.

While the use cases for the Note 3's advantages over conventional smartphones, in our opinion, remain sparse the demand for the Note line has never been stronger. With some of the most powerful hardware around and a plethora of features it's easy to overlook the initial apprehensions of getting a Galaxy Note.

If carrying around a 5.7-inch phone isn't a problem then the Galaxy Note 3 is the best all-around on the smartphone market, period. S Pen capabilities coupled with blazing fast performance and a very good display make it a no brainer for those who aren't averse to the idea of having a "phablet".

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9/10
- Great improvement in design and materials (good riddance hyperglaze). Still far too large for most people.

Screen: 9.5/10
- Fantastic display that is a great improvement over the Note II's screen. 1080p on such a large screen still looks great.

Buttons: 8/10
- Still annoyed that it has a back key, otherwise status quo. Nice to see S Pen work on capacitive buttons.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Once again, the Note 3 is one of the fastest phones on the planet. Smoking fast performance.

Battery Life: 10/10
- Phenomenal battery life by sheer Brute force. Largest battery in a mainstream smartphone.

Speaker and Microphone: 9/10
- Solid performance all around. Nice to see speaker be bottom firing rather than rear firing. Would rather have front firing speakers like on Galaxy Tablets.

Camera: 10/10
- Top notch camera. Great still and next gen 4K video.

UI Changes: 8.5/10
- The TouchWiz we all know (and love/hate) from the S4.

Addition Enhancements: 9.5/10
- S Pen integrations is even better. Nice iterative improvements on usability and features.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 8/10
- Bell pre-loaded apps are surprisingly lighter than previous devices (normalized score for other carrier versions.

Final Score: 9.1/10

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