We saw the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for the first time at IFA in Berlin when it was unveiled alongside the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch. Now the device is available this month for 299.99 from all four carriers, and we spent some real-world usage time with a retail unit from Sprint.
Samsung has come a long way since the release of the original Galaxy Note 1 in 2011. Then, most people made fun of me when I was placing calls from this “ridiculously big phone”. Fast forward to 2013, it looks like the Galaxy Note smartphone lineup is taken very seriously now, and Samsung has sold over 30 million Galaxy Note 2. Ultimately, the Korean giant started the “large display phones” trend in the mobile industry and recent flagship smartphones such as the LG G2, feature over 5-inch displays while they are not even categorized in the phablet segment anymore. 5” is the new normal.
The most notable feature upgrades in the Galaxy Note 3 are the full HD 5.7inch AMOLED display, the new powerful processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (2.3 Ghz), 3GB RAM, an improved S-Pen and the new design language with a faux-stitched leather back that replaces the overly criticized plastic body of the Galaxy Note 2.
On the software side, the most interesting innovation is the Air Command menu that works with the S-Pen and gives access to five practical productivity features that we will describe in the review.
- Processor (option 1): LTE Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2.3 GHz Quad-Core CPU with Adreno 330 GPU
- Processor (option 2): 3G Samsung Exynos 1.9 GHz Octa Core CPU (four core: A15 1.9 GHz + Four core: A7 1.3 GHz) > for some markets outside the US
- Display: 5.7-inch (144.3mm)Full HD Super AMOLED (1920 x 1080)
Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean)
- Camera: 13 megapixel rear camera with LED Flash and 2 megapixel front camera – both full HD @ 30fps video recording
- Memory: 3GB RAM
- Internal storage: 32/ 64 GB＋ microSD slot (up to 64GB)
- Connectivity: WiFi a/b/g/n/ac, GPS / GLONASS, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, IR LED (remote control), USB 3.0, MHL 2.0
- Battery: 3,200 mAh
- Dimensions: 5.9×3.1×0.33 inches – 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3mm
- Weight: 168g
It’s important that I tell you how I use my phones before you read the review. My own usage is the prism through which I will see how useful and practical the phone’s features really are, and how they improve the user experience or not. Hopefully, you can relate to my usage and figure out how this will apply to your own.
I use my phone as a computer: I check a lot of emails and mainly curate/flag them. Social network updates (FB, FourSquare) are important to me, and I tend to test a lot of apps as well, so it’s pretty common for my phones to have 50-80 apps installed (in addition to the pre-loaded ones) and I don’t always take time to close them all, except if I’m going to run some benchmarks. I don’t play games or watch videos much, except maybe during a long flight. Finally, I’m really liking the wearable technology trend, and I have used a number of watches and other self-quantifying sensors.
- Same height, 1 mm slimmer and 15g lighter than the Galaxy Note 2
- Faster processor Snapdragon 800 with 3GB RAM (4G LTE markets only), the Note 2 has an Exynos 4412 and 2GB RAM (3G markets may get an Exynos processor on the Note 3)
- 5.7-inch full HD 1920×1080 super AMOLED display – previous version features a 5.5-inch 1280×800 super AMOLED display
- 13 MP rear camera (vs. 8 MP for the previous model)
- 3200 mAh battery (vs. 3100 mAh for the previous model)
- New S-Pen: slimmer with enhanced sensitivity. Much faster ink speed
- Android 4.3
- New multi-window features and new Air command user interface with new apps including Scrapbook
- My magazine news application accessible when swiping up from the bottom from the home screen
- New camera application, similar at the one found in the Samsung Galaxy S4 – surround shot new feature replace Photosphere + 4k video capture
- New design language
Samsung launched the first “phablet” (phablet=phone/tablet) in 2011, namely the Galaxy Note, and we named it a “fablet” when we reviewed it in 2011 … I personally loved the large form-factor right away despite the mockery of my tech friends, who regularly said that I looked ridiculous when placing calls with this “huge brick” on my face (their term). My preference for the large smartphones comes from the fact that it is much more comfortable: I can read books on them, have a great mapping experience when travelling abroad and comfortably browse desktop websites.
Except for the handset manufacturer “headquartered in Cupertino”, the 5-inch+ display size is not uncommon nowadays, and I have not heard so many negative comments for quite a while. The 40 million sold mark (Galaxy Note 1 and Note 2) is also a valid evidence that large-display phones is a successful product idea, when developed correctly.
Compared to its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 3 offers a larger display (5.7-inch vs. 5.5-inch) for a similar footprint, thanks to the reduced size of its bezels. The phone speaker is placed at the top center of the display, on the right you will find the proximity and light sensors. The 2 MP front camera is located on the upper left corner. At the bottom of the screen, in the center, you will find the home button and on the right the back key and on the left the menu key.
"THE FAUX-LEATHER ADDS ELEGANCE AND WARMTH" Samsung created a new design language, probably after listening to the feedback related to the “cheap-looking plastic” used on the back of its Galaxy line up. The back cover is now made of faux-leather with stitching and all, which helps to add some elegance to the package. At the same time, the new design conserves the scratch-resistance and light weight that made the previous polycarbonate design work. The 13 MP camera with the led flash is placed at the top of the backside, above the Samsung logo. The Galaxy Note 3 logo is printed at the bottom.
Like any Galaxy Note, the back cover is removable, to give access to the large 3200 mAh battery and the microSD card slot that extends the internal storage by up to 64 GB. The slot which located on top of the SIM card.
At 0.33-inch (8.3 mm), the Note 3 is a hair thinner than the Note 2 (0.37-inch/9.4 mm) and features a textured metal-looking frame that runs around the edges. Just like all the Galaxy series smartphone, the volume rocker is located on the upper part of the left edge, while the power button is on the right side, close to the top. The humidity and temperature sensor can be barely seen just above the lower right corner of the device.
The micro USB 3.0 connector that supports MHL 2.0 connectivity is located at the bottom, on its right side you will find the speaker. The microphone is placed on its left side. Close to the right corner, you will be able to slide the S-Pen out. USB 3.0 delivers a theoretical maximum transmission speed of up to 5 Gbit/s, which is a great improvement over USB 2.0 which provides at best 480 Mbps.
You will be able to plug your headphones in the 3.5 mm audio jack located on the left side of the top edge, where you will also find the second microphone. The IR transmitter is placed on the right side at the top.
The beautiful 5.7-inch Full HD super AMOLED (1920×1080) delivers a crisp and clear image quality with a higher definition than its predecessor: 386 ppi vs 267 ppi for the Galaxy Note 2. I personally like the slightly unrealistic and over-saturated style of the AMOLED technology, however, we noticed that the latest flagship smartphone from LG, namely the LG G2 delivers a better viewing experience with its 5.2-inch IPS display, for people who prefer more realistic color rendering. Additionally the Note 3 features good viewing angles.
What sets the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 apart from other smartphone is the S-Pen and its new Air Command menu that gives access to five new mini productivity apps.
TouchWiz and Samsung apps
The Note 3 features the latest available version of Android (Jelly Bean 4.3) with Samsung own custom user interface TouchWiz. Samsung offers a suite of applications that can now be found in the Samsung Folder (in our Sprint unit), it includes S Voice, Voice Recorder, Samsung Hub, Samsung Link (that replaced AllShare Play in may 2013), S Translator, WatchON (which crashes a lot on our unit), Group Play, S health that launched with the S4, the new PEN.UP and the new applications accessible from Air Command Action memo and Scrapbook (and more see screenshot).
Basically PEN.UP by Samsung is a Pinterest-like app that allows people to share their artwork made with the S-Pen and other tools, it was launched simultaneously with the Galaxy Note 3.
Features specific to Samsung released with previous devices such as eye tracking, reading mode and one handed operation are still available and can be enabled in the settings. We went over those during our Galaxy S4 Review if you are curious.
My Magazine powered by Flipboard
My Magazine, which was developed in partnership with Flipboard, is similar to HTC’s BlinkFeed (powered by Mobiles Republic), except that it does not sit directly on your home screen: you access My magazine by swiping up from the start page. Check our HTC One review if you want to know more about Blinkfeed.
Multi Window, the multitasking feature developed by Samsung was first introduced with the Galaxy Note 10.1 first generation, which allowed users to use two applications at the same time by splitting the tablet screen in two part.
The Galaxy Note 3 and the new Galaxy Note 10.1 features the enhanced version of multi-window and it is now possible to drag and drop content from one application to the other within the split-screen. The demo I saw at IFA featured the map application and the text message app, where an image of the map was dragged and dropped inside a message.
Unfortunately that feature only works with the text message app, when I tried to drag and drop an image to a note in Evernote, to a note in S-Note, to a book in Scrapbook or even to a Gmail, it could not work. For Evernote, S-Note and Scrapbook, the message “not supported” appeared, and for Gmail, once you are in a new email the whole screen is occupied by the email and the keyboard and I found no way to access the image I wanted to include there. Our assumption is that developers of third party applications did not implement the feature yet.
Air Command and S-Pen
A new Air Command menu has been created to work with the S-Pen, it provides access to five ultra-cool mini applications that I tried a little more for this review:
1) Action Memo
Action Memo allows to convert a handwritten note into an action. In one click, a handwritten phone number is converted into text in the phone app where you can place the call, similarly an email address can be clicked to create a new email, and a jotted street address directly shows the exact location in the Map application. From the actionable note you can also start a web search or save a task in a to-do list. The feature works impressively well even with my ugly handwriting, and it takes you from the written note to the related the application rather quickly.
With Scrapbook you can collect different kind of content from various sources including the web, the photo gallery, YouTube, and aggregate them in various Scrapbooks in the Samsung Scrapbook application.
3) Screen Write
With Screen Write users are able to grab a screenshot of the current window and write a note on top of it, see the example in the photo gallery. A similar feature was previously released by LG with the Optimus G in September 2012 (link). I find this to be more convenient than the usual screenshot button combination (Power+Volume Down).
S-finder is a search engine dedicated to search any type of content on the device, including handwritten notes. The search can be filtered by date, location, and content type to search related documents, events, communication threads, and even the Help page. When tested against the Google search app that allows to search the phone ( bottom of the screen), the results were better with the S-finder which found names in my contact list and inside Evernote as well. Google returned no results from within the phone.
5) Pen window
Pen window is one of my favorite new features: simply by drawing a window of any size on the screen with the S-Pen, users can quickly open another application window such as YouTube, calculator or Browser. The new window stays on top of any application window and when you minimize it, it is displayed as a small circle that can be reopened as a window by clicking on it. The concept of having small circles floating around the screen of a mobile device has been shown first by Facebook chat for Android.
Galaxy Gear – Smartwatch
The Galaxy Note 3 was launched simultaneously with the Galaxy Gear, Samsung’s smart watch. To set it up the first time, you just to tap the Note 3 on the back of the charging cradle. Make sure that the Gear is not inside the cradle when you do that, it will not work. The animated graphic that indicates what to to the user to start using the Smartwatch was somewhat clear, the cradle appear without the watch in t, however in my logical mind I could not imagine why it would not work with the device inside it.
Last month, the Galaxy Gear can only be paired with the Galaxy Note 3, other Samsung Galaxy (S4, S3, Note 2) smartphones have just been enabled to use the Galaxy Gear as well, opening a much larger market to Samsung’s watch. Ultimately, we can only hope that Samsung will opening this up to more Android phones, possible through an app.
The Gear features an amazing product design and allows users to perform some cool and fun tasks, including replying to phone calls directly from the watch, just like James Bond would do. The high quality display
Read more information in our Galaxy Gear hands-on from IFA. I want to spend more time with this one before a complete review, which is coming soon.
Galaxy Note 3 Camera (very good+)
In terms of camera hardware, Samsung has basically taken the Galaxy S4 camera and used it in the Galaxy Note 3. This explains why there was no “big push” in terms of communications about the camera. The good news is that the S4 camera was very good and overall the experience is great. The Note 3 may benefit from some improvements in terms of speed due to progress made in the Snapdragon 800 chip versus the Snapdragon 600 one used in the S4 (at least, in the flavor that we did review here in the USA).
To quickly go over the camera specs, the Note 3 uses a 13 Megapixel sensor (which is from Sony) and uses a lens with a fairly large focal length of 4.2mm (31mm equivalent in 35mm terms). the front camera is a 2 Megapixel, and again, it seems to be the same as the S4. No surprises here.
The Galaxy Note 3 is particularly good at taking scenery photos where the extra resolution is actually really useful, so much that Sony has been pushing for more megapixels, without filtering on some of their high-end cameras.
In terms of color balance and exposure settings, the Note 3 does the right thing most of the time, without user intervention. I would love the idea of being able to focus and expose in two different locations, but none of the handset makers seem to like this idea, but apps like Camera+ does it very well on iPhone.
Despite being a very good camera, the Galaxy Note 3 doesn’t have a particular “claim to fame” in either low-light photography, or capture speed. It delivers a solid, predictable and consistent user experience. We have uploaded some photo samples on our flickr account, so feel free to check the full-size photos.
In terms of video recording, the performance is once again solid, but this time, Samsung has added a 4K video recording option, thanks to the added support in the Snapdragon 800 chip. The recording bitrate of 48 Mbps is very high for a mobile device, but actual 4K videos for movies will be even bigger! the bottom-line is that 4K videos storage will accrue at least 2X faster than when recording 1080p. Maybe it’s time to get that 64GB microSD! Finally, there’s an “audio zoom” feature that allows the phone to focus its audio recording on a character when you zoom one someone during the recording.
As usual, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 camera app is packed with features, and the usual modes are all here: sports, VR sphere, Panorama, Eraser (to remove photo-bombers), Animated photos, Best faces (pick a face among many photos), Beauty face (built-in Photoshopping, basically) and more.
I suspect that most of you will use the default “Auto” mode, and the good news is that Samsung’s camera app does a very good job at tweaking the camera properly to take good photos.
As a final word on the camera, I would like to add that the display is actually a huge element (no pun intended) in the overall user experience. When you take photos, the large screen does enhance the experience in a meaningful way, more than you would think if you have never used a large display phone (try it). Also, users frequently show the photos on the phone itself, so again, having a large display with a full 1080p resolution does make a big impact on how the photos look. The extra saturation of the AMOLED display will often draw very positive comments from those who look at them.
The “display” aspect of mobile photography should not be underestimated because the reality is that we’re not dissecting those photos in Photoshop at a 100% scale, we’re looking at them on the web (after image size reduction) or on the screen directly.
Fortunately, nearly all high-end smartphones excel at handling high-quality media files, music and so on… For instance, the Galaxy Note 3 can play full-on 4K movies like this fabulous TimeScape video. The entertainment capabilities of a mobile device tends to be defined by a few things like : display size, display quality, speaker size and headphones playback quality.
By looking at it from this angle, you can easily see why a handset like the Galaxy Note 3 would excel in terms of entertainment. The big and beautiful display makes sure that movies and photos are stunning. When you are on a long flight, would you rather watch a movie on the Note 3, or one a 4” display? My answer to that is pretty clear: the large displays rule when it comes to watching movies."LARGE DISPLAYS RULE WHEN IT COMES TO ENTERTAINMENT"
The loudspeaker is powerful and the sound quality is pretty good. At this point, it’s very challenging for any smartphone to evolve much further without some serious sound processing because of the physical limits of small speakers. The Note 3 does well, but I think that the best speaker option remains having speakers facing the user. Both the iPhone 5S and the Note 3 have a sound that is “directional” in the sense that you can feel that it is coming from one side of the phone.
When using headphones, things look pretty good. In theory, the Note 3 could have killer audio, thanks to the surround sound algorithms embedded in the Snapdragon 800. Unfortunately, it has proven to be very difficult to pinpoint where you could find movies using the proper encoding. The demo sounded pretty amazing, and we’ve watch a couple of blockbuster movie clips during technical demos that would make everyone salivate. Now, we need to see the commercial applications of these technologies. What we know is that it will come.
Finally, Games will without a doubt benefit from the speed of the Snapdragon 800 graphics processor. Since it is one of the fastest hardware platform on Android at this moment, it’s fair to say that Android gamers won’t be disappointed. Again, the large display helps you have a better gaming experience, there is no question about it.
Galaxy Note 3 Performance (excellent)
As the most recent high-end Samsung smartphone to be launched, the Galaxy Note 3 performance is going to be higher than its Galaxy S4 cousin. After all, it runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, while the S4 has a Snapdragon 600 (or a Samsung Exynos chip in select countries). There are noticeable differences in both CPU and graphics performance, along with some software optimizations along the way. What’s more interesting is to look at how it performs against other Snapdragon 800 smartphones, including the Vaio Z Ultra or the LG G2.
It’s impossible to talk about this topic without addressing the questions raised about benchmarks in recent months, namely “optimizations” or “cheats” depending on who you talk to. The context of this is that Samsung and other manufacturers have been using benchmark detection methods and modifying their thermal and battery management for those specific apps to allow for maximum hardware speed.
This can be done because benchmarks only run for a few minutes at most, so there are no real damage risks for the devices involved. Now the real issue is that this would misrepresent the behavior of the phone, and since benchmark are written to measure exactly that, the score would be inflated – by anywhere from a few % to 20% or even 50% in specific cases (btw, “synthetic benchmarks” don’t really represent what the phone is really doing).
"BENCHMARKS ARE INDICATORS BUT WE DO NOT RECOMMEND BASING A PURCHASE ON THEM" In the scope of this review, the Geekbench 3 benchmark show a “boost” of 4% per core for the Galaxy Note 3. Cumulated over 4 cores in the multi-core benchmark, that translates into a 18% or so score increase over the regular thermal management settings. If you really want to dig into the details, I recommend reading the following articles from the team behind the Antutu Benchmark, Ars Technica and Anandtech who provide ample details if you need “proof”.
Samsung has responded with the following: “The Galaxy Note 3 maximizes its CPU/GPU frequencies when running features that demand substantial performance… This was not an attempt to exaggerate particular benchmarking results. We remain committed to providing our customers with the best possible user experience.” (Samsung spokesperson)
Those who have followed the issue have pointed out that virtually every manufacturers do, or have done something like this, and we’re not even sure that the remaining OEMs aren’t doing it, or have not been caught yet. For this review, we will be gathering “un-optimized” scores whenever possible.
Although we do not recommend making a purchase decision based on “synthetic benchmark” performance scores (overall user experience is much more important, and often loosely related to speed), we do think that Benchmarks are useful to get a general idea about where a device performance stands in a competitive landscape. However, if one’s value-add is to precisely measure and compare scores, then you can imagine how “cheating” could wreak havoc on what they are trying to do.
Let’s look at the numbers. In terms of graphics performance, the Galaxy Note 3 does very well in both GLBenchmark (vertex-biased) and BaseMark X (pixel-biased), but also in 3DMark IceStorm (fairly vertex/pixel/cpu balanced test). In Theory, you would expect it to get similar scores to the XPERIA Z1 and the LG G2 since they all run on the same S800 platform – however, note that differences in legitimate thermal management (the Note 3 is bigger, so easier to cool down) may explain some of the differences.
CPU-wise, we can also see that the Note 3 ranks well and still a bit higher than the LG G2, which makes me think that the regular thermal management and threshold is more aggressive on the Note 3. In Single core mode, pretty much everybody loses to the iPhone 5S. The thing that we like about single-core performance is that it benefits virtual ALL the apps that are out there, since only a low percentage of them are designed to use many-cores efficiently.
That said, keep in mind that Geekbench mainly focuses on math performance and memory bandwidth, which is typically not what “real apps” do. If you are curious about what Geekbench measures, check their score interpretation page and the detailed workloads of that app. If you would like to know about multi-core vs. single-core, read our Are More Cores, Better? Article."OPTIMIZATIONS OR NOT, THE NOTE 3 IS VERY FAST"
Regardless of the “boost” that a phone can receive, it won’t affect the perceived performance that we had during the review since those “optimizations” should be OFF outside of the benchmarks. The Galaxy Note 3 is noticeably more responsive than the Note 2, which was itself much faster than the original Galaxy Note. This is most obvious when using the pen as the virtual “ink” which is much smoother now, and feels very natural when writing on the screen.
Most people will be very happy about the overall responsiveness of the Galaxy Note 3, but if you are absolutely keen on getting an even faster responsiveness on an Android phone, you may want to try the LG G2 as well. We don’t think that it plays play in the same category as the Note 3 (the G2 feels like a “normal” Android phone, not a “phablet”), but until LG comes out with the G2 pro, the Galaxy Note 3 will be the king of large smartphones.
The Galaxy Note Series has built a huge following, thanks to its large-capacity battery, and I was expecting the Galaxy Note 3 to perpetuate that tradition, Overall, the Galaxy Note 3 remains very close to the Note 2 in terms of battery life, and this is just what we expected. At time, it may slightly under-perform its predecessor, and this may be due to a number of things, including software or power management changes, and of course, the new 5.7” larger display."THE BATTERY LIFE IS COMPARABLE TO THE NOTE 2"
In our tests, it was possible to play a streaming movie from Google Play for 7.14hrs, while a local file playback would yield a maximum of 7.7hrs which is equivalent to the iPhone 5S, but on a much bigger display and with 1080p content. Leaving the phone in standby mode for 8hrs consumed about 7% of the battery’s life.
However, the rise of battery-optimized handsets like the LG G2 (9-11 hrs of video playback) will probably force Samsung to further optimize its power consumption. Apple has shown that aggressive power management can yield good results on a battery that is half the size, and LG has demonstrated that it is possible to do better with the same Snapdragon 800 platform, so it is fair to say that despite having a very good battery life, the pressure will be on Samsung Engineers to squeeze every milliliter of power. As of late, Samsung’s software team was in “add features” mode, but maybe it’s time for an optimization pass.
In terms of charging time, we are looking at a 55% charge in one hour, and if you take into account that the final 10%-15% are always longer, we end up with something like 2.5 hrs for a full charge. It’s good for such a huge battery.
The Galaxy Note 3 has excellent performance in a 5.7” form factor, making it the perfect device to perform the tasks you would do on a smartphone or a tablet (reading books or watching videos), effectively nullifying the need to buy both devices. “Phablets” have become more common nowadays, and we have seen our share of them, like the 6.4-inch Sony Xperia Z Ultra, the 6-inch Acer Liquid S2 or the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega."THE NOTE 3 REMAINS THE KING OF LARGE PHONES"
What sets the Galaxy Note 3 apart from every other competitors is the S-Pen and the Air command menu that give access to Action Memo, Scrapbook, Screen Write, S-finder and Pen Window. The five productivity apps designed by Samsung are pretty interesting and highly practical, for those who love the idea of taking notes with a pen.
The S-Pen has been enhanced with higher level of sensitivity, and more importantly, the virtual ink is much faster and provides a much smoother experience while drawing/writing. The updated multi-task feature (Multi Window) is also impressive, although we would like to be able to drag and drop content between windows with more apps than just the message application.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is an excellent large-display smartphone that provides a unique user experience in a well crafted piece of hardware. The Note 3 simply remains the King of large phones.