The debate for whether or not phablets have a place in our current mobile device market has been going on for several device generations. The larger screen hybrids are perfect for some, and cumbersome for others. What may be the perfect single device symbiotic relationship for one man may be an unnecessary weight in the pocket of another. CultureMass spoke on the subject in an episode of the tech podcast “Techasaurus” a few months ago, and it’s worth a listen for anyone interested.
Today’s challenger is the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, reviewed on Verizon Wireless. This is the third version in the Note line, which has sold over 70 million devices combined.
When we set out on this journey using the new Note, we asked ourselves two important questions: the first was if this new iteration had what it took to be a true next generation, and the second was if phablets are still relevant in the market.
External aesthetics and quality
The Note 3 is ever so slightly smaller and lighter than it’s older brother, and yet because of the design decision it feels to be the same size. I have medium-sized hands and can hold it in one adequately; however, I still need the second to properly use the device. Part of that is because Samsung has opted to trash the human-inspired design of the previous generation and go with a more squared body structure for this new line.
The corners themselves are still a bit rounded; however, it has very sharp and cut lines when looking at it from any distance. Perhaps the most noticeable change in the shell is the back panel. While it is still made primarily out of the same reinforced plastic as all previous Samsung devices, the Note 3 sports a very stylish leather finish on the battery cover. This gives the device a professional look and sets it apart from the competition.
Despite Google’s Nexus line and general Android OS continuing to move toward on-screen buttons and menus, it is worth noting that the Note 3 inherits the physical home button and capacitive back and menu buttons. They still function the same way these buttons have in all previous phones, but it is curious that manufacturers continue to include them when Android is attempting to unify the OS experience with on-screen controls.
While we are on the topic of screens, the Note 3’s 5.7-inch front is as big as it is beautiful. The Gorilla Glass 3 display offers a full 1920×1080 resolution in one of the prettiest Android devices yet. Movies, TV shows, and photos are displayed in 16M gorgeous colors and you will definitely be that friend boasting about your phablet’s superb picture quality.
Before moving on to the OS, we should go over the raw numbers for the internal features of the device:
- 2.3 GHz quad-core processor
- 3 GB RAM
- 32 GB internal storage (expandable up to 64GB via microSD)
- 3200 mAh Lithium-ion battery
- CDMA 3G & 4G LTE
- Dual cameras (13 MP rear and 2 MP front)
- Bluetooth 4.0
Everything inside the Note 3 is top-of-the-line for current generation hardware. It is definitely nice to see Samsung keeping up with the microSD slot as several other devices are doing away with this. The extra storage will come in handy after a few hundred 13 MP photos start building up inside. Bluetooth 4.0 is a welcome sight making it compatible with all of the currently-released smart peripherals, including the Galaxy Gear and Pebble Smartwatch.
The Note 3 comes with Android 4.3 (necessary for connecting to the Galaxy Gear series), but the OS doesn’t seem that much different from Android 4.2 on the Note II. There are a few behind-the-scenes changes, but nothing spectacular. The real difference is the S-Pen functionality and some changes in the Samsung apps.
The international updating of the Note 3 to Android 4.4 (KitKat) has already begun, as has the US updating (Sprint was the first off the block with T-Mobile following). Eventually AT&T and Verizon will release their updates, but the question is more along the lines of a general update cycle – i.e. how long will Samsung support the Note 3 and provide steady updates? Considering the processor (2.3 GHz quad-core), RAM (3 GB), and how often they’ve updated previous devices (based on a couple different reports it seems that the S III will be the oldest model to receive Android 4.4; it was released in Summer 2012 on Android 4.0), it would be safe to assume that the Note 3 will have at least a 2-year update cycle, lasting until Fall 2015 (of course, that depends on what Android versions are released at what time).
You can now bring up a slick, five-part menu when you hold the stylus close to the screen and press the stylus button. This is called Air Command, and the options are Action Memo, Scrapbook, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window.
While I checked out all the options, the two I particularly enjoyed were Pen Window and Screen Write. Pen Window enables you to, at any time, draw a box on the screen with the stylus and bring up another app within that window. For example, you could be taking a note and bring up the Internet app to check something, or the Calculator to do some quick math. Screen Write lets you write on the screen and save the whole thing as a sort of custom screenshot. Both worked well in my testing.
The Camera in the Note 3 is pretty decent. While not up to par with the Nokia Lumia 1020 (not much else is), the 13 MP rear camera is a slight improvement over the 8 MP camera on the Note II (not just in resolution, but in overall quality as well; see the comparison below).
Note 3 main (rear) camera pictures:
Gear camera pictures (also viewable in our Gear review):
Call quality and data signal
Call quality of the Note 3 is superb. Volume on the handset is easily adjusted and plenty loud enough to hear the other party over outside noise. The mic is crystal clear and the noise canceling microphones around the exterior do a great job masking and removing the unwanted noise from wherever you’re calling from.
I never ran into any connectivity issues with 4G or Wi-Fi data signals; however, it is worth noting that I did notice the speeds to be lower than other devices. This is strange because of how fast Verizon’s 4G network usually is, and my Wi-Fi is far from sluggish. It just took the Note 3 longer to load web pages and YouTube videos than my tablet or Galaxy S over the same connection.
The whopping 3200 mAh battery behind the stylish back plate mentioned earlier provides ample longevity for the use of the Note 3. I found that it would easily survive an entire day of emails, twitter, Reddit, SMS, and phone calls, and would even continue on through about half of the next day as well. This is very good news to those who use their devices as alarm clocks, as sometimes we do forget to plug them in at the end of a long day. But the Note 3 is there to wake you up in the morning like a loyal dog.
There are a lot of good things about the Note 3. The screen is one of the best you can find on an Android device in the world today, and its camera is there to take photos capable of showing it off. I’ve never had better phone call quality even though I do just about anything I can to not have to talk to anyone on the phone. The device’s storage is top notch, and the inclusion of a USB 3.0 cable makes copying movies for a long trip really easy.
I did however run into a very troubling issue during my experience that needs to be noted. I mentioned earlier that data speeds even over Wi-Fi are quite slow, and this is surprising for a device supporting 802.11n connections.
- Boots ~10-15 seconds faster than my Note II.
- Battery life seems to be on-par with the Note II – will last 2 days if turned off at night, with decent usage (not heavy).
- A few improvements with the S Pen: Scrapbook, Screen Write, Pen Window. I especially liked Screen Write and Pen Window.
- New micro USB 3.0 connector is backwards-compatible.
- The leather-ish back feels better when holding, and provides a reduced chance of slipping.
- The stylus is improved. Instead of having only one side flat and the rest curved like with the Note II (which made me accidentally press the button on the stylus every so often), all the sides are flat, and the stylus can be placed back in the Note 3 either way.
- Samsung continues to integrate microSD card functionality in the Note series.
- New micro-USB 3.0-to-USB 3.0 connection is supposed to allow for faster charge times when connected to a computer. When turned on and plugged into a USB 3.0 port on a laptop that was plugged in, went from 25% to 80% in ~4 hr. 20 min. Not terribly impressive, but potentially better.
- It’s starting to get confusing when wading through the Samsung-provided apps. While some things are more streamlined (Samsung Hub took over some of the other media-related apps), there’s still a plethora remaining, and some appear to not be worth the installation (cf. our previous mention of NFL Mobile and PEN.UP). I can understand Samsung wanting to provide their own content, which is fine, but too much is too much.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the Note 3. It seems to be a refinement in most areas (physical, stylus, stylus abilities), but slightly frustrating in others (bloatware). I’m impressed enough with it that I can’t imagine what they’ll look to improve with the Note 4.
One final note: If I had to compare the Note 3 with my Note II, I’d say the Note 3 is definitely superior, with mostly small improvements (except for the screen, which, as Art mentioned, is notable). If I had to say if I miss the Note 3 or not, I generally missed it for a week or so afterwards; however, I specifically miss the increased stylus functionality to this moment.
While not revolutionary, the Note 3 does improve on the Note II in areas such as technical specifications, display, and stylus functionality and features. However, during testing there were data speed issues. Overall it’s the go-to choice for the note-taking phablet user looking for an up-to-date device.