Samsung’s strategy of carpet bombing the market with smartphones of all shapes and sizes may have worked extremely well for it and made it the top dog in the phone segment globally, but if we were to pinpoint the two brightest stars in the company’s galaxy, they’d have to be the flagship S series and the Note. Of the two, the latter is rather special, since it came almost out of nowhere and helped create a new category – the one we call phablets. It also brought styli back in fashion, and even after ‘inspiring’ quite a few others to ramp up on the screen size front, still remains the one to beat as far as stylus functionality is concerned. Now in its third generation, the Galaxy Note is clearly here to stay. Drumroll, ladies and gents, as the Note 3 is now in the house.
Design and Hardware
If there was one thing that was highlighted as a con in big, bold letters in almost every review of all high-end and mid-range Galaxy devices from Samsung, it was the plasticky build and the same-y design language. With the Note 3, Samsung has come back with an answer, and while it still speaks the same language to a large extent, the accent has changed… for the better, we’d like to think. The biggest highlight of the design is a rear cover fashioned out of faux leather, with a nice texture and feel… and a stitch that goes all around. It does manage to look several notches more premium than most of the earlier Galaxy offerings by Samsung. The rear cover is still made from thin plastic though, and this becomes apparent when you pry it open, making it lose many of the brownie points it had earned only moments ago. However, it’s the look and feel that’s important, and it does manage to come across as a solidly built device. Though our review unit was black and stayed in presentable condition throughout the duration of the review period, Samsung also sells it in white and pink, and we do wonder how tough it’d be to keep the light-colored variants free of smudges and stains.
Surrounded by a strip finished in chrome, quite similar to the one on the S4, the fascia bears the screen, the front camera and sensors, and the familiar home button at the bottom flanked by touch sensitive keys. Samsung’s done an outstanding job with the design – there’s hardly any bezel, so the end result is that the Note 3 accommodates a larger screen size in a body that’s actually smaller than its predecessor, and that’s no mean feat. The idea is, of course, to make sure the device isn’t too unwieldy to handle, and though it’s still a fairly large device, we must say that Samsung has succeeded. At the bottom, you’ll find a microUSB 3.0 port for charging and data. The vendor includes a compatible cable in the pack of course, but since the port is backward compatible, you can use any other cable or charger with the device. No other surprises as far as ports and their placement is concerned. The S Pen is tucked away in its silo and is accessible from bottom right, the volume rocker is on the left, a power / sleep key on the right, and the 3.5mm audio socket and an IR blaster on top. The leather-feel rear is home to the camera module and flash, both placed inside a rectangular window closer to the top, while Samsung branding can be found in the center.
The original Galaxy Note rocked a 5.3-inch screen, and its successor topped that with a 720p 5.5-inch display. The latest version of Note takes the screen size to 5.7-inches and bumps screen resolution to 1080p, offering a pixel density of 386 ppi. We will reiterate that thanks to the extremely slim bezel, the overall size remains quite manageable and is actually smaller than its predecessor, the Note 2.
As far as the Note 3’s full HD 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen is concerned, it’s top notch in terms of quality and displays colors brilliantly. Viewing angles are great, while sunlight visibility is very good too. Needless to say, the large screen size coupled with the great display quality does wonders for pretty much everything you do on the device – web browsing, viewing images and videos, and gaming too.
The Galaxy S4 rocked a 13-meg shooter and it’s only fair that the Note 3 gets the same goodness too. The Note 3’s main snapper is the same as the S4’s and sports the same UI, complete with the slew of filters, effects and features. Modes such as HDR, panorama, best photo, and eraser are all there, and it can shoot video in full HD. We loved the S4’s camera and still think it’s one of the best and most versatile smartphone cameras around, and thankfully, the Note 3 isn’t too different. It delivers the same pleasing results in almost all shooting conditions and is yet another feather in the cap for what is turning out to be a nicely rounded device from Samsung.
It still can’t beat the Nokia Lumia 1020 or possibly the HTC One in terms of low light shenanigans, but overall, it takes the cake for being an extremely capable shooter that should keep pretty much all casual photographers happy with what it delivers, both in terms of still and video performance. We must note here that the Exynos version we have here isn’t capable of recording 4k videos unlike its Snapdragon 800 version.
Even though Samsung’s proprietary Android skin TouchWiz covers it all up, the Note 3 is one of the first mainstream non Nexus device to ship with Android version 4.3, the latest available version of Google’s mobile OS. Okay, that isn’t technically true since Android 4.4 KitKat is the very latest, but as of the time of writing, that has just reared its head, is only shipping on the newly announced Nexus 5, and hasn’t even made its way to other Nexus devices yet. In the past, Samsung has made a big deal out of the frills and software tricks TouchWiz offers, and we remember calling it all a tad overwhelming when we reviewed the Galaxy S4. Guess what, all of those tricks are present in the Note 3 as well, and then some more… since the new S Pen comes with its own set of software tricks that complement it and add functionality. And here’s a spoiler: rather than being mere gimmicks, most of them are actually quite useful. Before we get to the S Pen features however, let’s go through a brief overview of the other goodies on offer. Multi Window is there of course, and now lets you open two instances of the same app (two browser windows, for example) and even lets you drag and drop content between the two. Various gestures and eye-tracking features are on board too, and cover the likes of Smart stay, Smart scroll, Smart rotation and Smart pause, along with Popup video, Direct call, Air gesture, Air view, a special reading mode and a power saving mode (we did call it overwhelming, remember?).
Then there are the app goodies and content hubs, all waiting to be tapped upon and tapped into. While many of these are ones we’ve seen before, such as S Planner, S Health, S Voice, Samsung Hub, and ChatON, there’s a new one dubbed ‘My Magazine’. Accessed via an upward swipe from the bottom of the screen, this is Samsung’s answer to HTC’s BlinkFeed and developed in cahoots with FlipBoard, is a customizable feed aggregating various social and news sources laid out in an animated, stylish magazine format for your consumption. It does look rather sweet on that large, full HD display. You’ll also find WatchON to support that IR blaster, providing universal remote functionality to control home electronics and a chance to play mischief at public places by switching TV channels on the sly. The Note 3 is also home to KNOX, Samsung’s new security suite that allows you to store data and run apps within a password-protected, sandbox-like location termed ‘Container’. Text input is handled by the Samsung Keyboard, and courtesy the large screen and a dedicated row for numbers at the top, handles its responsibility quite well. You can switch to a floating keyboard too if you like, or use its one-handed mode to dock it to one side for easier input.
Moving on to the S Pen specific apps, all you need to do to get access is pull the S Pen out of its silo. Doing so opens up a fan-shaped carousel labeled ‘Air Command’ on the screen, with a bunch of apps capable of squeezing the most out of the plastic appendage. First up is a feature-rich note taker called Action Memo, capable of recognizing your scribbled squiggles and turning them into actionable commands, dialing a phone number, for example. Then there’s Scrap Booker, a personal repository of digital tit bits and clippings you can capture and store into your own scrapbooks. Screen Write captures a screenshot and lets you scribble notes or drawings over it – handy for things like giving directions using a map, for example. Pen Window is another feature of note (pun unintended), letting you draw an arbitrary window on the screen and then choosing an app to run within it – sort of like a floating or a mini app. Of course, it comes with a menu of compatible apps that can be run within it. Samsung has also preloaded AutoDesk’s SketchBook Pro, a full-featured drawing software that works well with the S Pen.
It’s not that you have to use the S Pen if you’re the proud owner of the Galaxy Note 3 (or even one of its two predecessors), but given the progress Samsung has made with it and the functionality it offers, the stylus (can we still call it that?) is definitely an asset. This holds true no matter if you’re the creative sorts, an obsessive note taker who prefers scribbling or a casual user looking to squeeze the most out of the features available. The fact is, if you do own a Note and don’t use the S Pen, you’re not making full use of the device. Of course, the Note 3 still remains a perfectly capable and compelling option regardless.
Performance and battery life
The Galaxy Note 3 is a dream come true for spec maniacs, loaded with top notch specs and connectivity options. While the European variant of the Note 3 is powered by a Snapdragon 800 processor and is capable of recording video in 4K resolution, the model available in India sports the Exynos 5 Octa 5420 SoC that integrates a 1.9GHz quad-core and a 1.3GHz quad-core processor, with the former being brought into service only to do the heavy lifting. The other vital organs comprise of a class-leading 3GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage augmentable via a microSD slot. Connectivity options are wide and varied as well, and apart from the aforementioned microUSB 3.0 port, you’ll find dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, and A-GPS – all mixed seamlessly into the alphabet soup.
With all this packed into a flagship phablet, did you really expect any performance slowdowns? We didn’t either, and are glad to report that the Note 3 matches its top-of-line specs in terms of performance. There are no jitters or speed bumps anywhere and the device tears through everything thrown at it with admirable ease. From multitasking to heavy games, media to productivity, WatchON to ChatON… things work smoother than a Carrom board sprayed with talcum. Call quality is quite good and the on board speaker isn’t bad either. The Note range has typically been generous with battery life, and the 3,200 mAh removable pack in the Note 3 doesn’t disappoint – taking the device through a full working day with ease, even with intensive usage. And don’t be surprised if it lasts you till the second day, especially if your usage isn’t too heavy.
The MRP of the Galaxy Note 3 is pegged at a heart-stopping half a lakh Indian rupees (Rs 49,990 or $780), while the best buy price is Rs 47,990 (~ $810). If you’re in the US, it will cost you $699 sans contract and $299 if tie yourselves into a two-year fling with the operator. This makes it one of the priciest smartphones out there, and it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted or light-walleted. But when you’re out looking for the best there is, a few thousand rupees should be nothing more than small change. If the S Pen functionality doesn’t appeal to you or if you’re looking for a more conventional screen size, the LG G2 is the best option available so far, and is slightly cheaper as well. Its rear button placement may not be as useful as LG may have hoped, but the G2 shines otherwise with a lovely full HD 5.2-inch display clad in a sleek body, speedy Snapdragon 800 powered performance, useful software features and great battery life. As far as the Note 3 is concerned, it’s got almost everything going for it as well – lovely screen, loaded specs, handy S Pen and related software features, smooth performance, capable camera and good battery life. The only thing we don’t like is that between the faux leather rear cover, the faux stitch and the faux metal sides – that’s three more faux embellishments than we like. However, if you need a large-screened device and aren’t averse to spending what it asks for, you can’t do better than the Galaxy Note 3, period.