The success of the original Note really kick-started the phablet market and Samsung’s latest annual improvement puts it right back on top. The Note 3 manages to pack a bigger screen and more powerful components into a slightly smaller and lighter form. The S Pen functionality has been improved, there’s yet more Samsung software, and it’s compatible with the Galaxy Gear smart watch. It will also cost you £600 or at least £35 per month on a two-year contract, so, does it do enough to justify that price tag?
Samsung works hard to squeeze ever larger displays into its devices. The Note 3 has a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED, which is a noticeable boost over the 5.5-inch display on the Note 2. Despite that larger screen the phone measures 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3 mm and it weighs in at 168g, which makes it a touch thinner and lighter than its predecessor.
At first glance it looks more angular than the Note 2, but the fact it is a member of the Galaxy family is immediately obvious. Beneath the huge screen the standard physical home button is flanked by the touch keys, menu on the left and back on the right. You’ll also find the volume rocker on the left spine and the power key on the right spine.
The chrome effect surround is ridged for extra grip, but it’s a disappointment when you pick it up to find that it’s actually plastic. The big departure, in style terms, is the faux leather back. It’s actually a polycarbonate cover, but it has a leather texture, complete with pretend stitching. There’s no doubt it makes the Note 3 less prone to sliding around and easier to hold than its predecessors, but it feels a bit…cheesy.
You could definitely say that the Note 3 handles well, for a big phone, but there’s no escaping the fact that you need two hands for comfortable operation.
We can rely on Samsung to push it with powerful hardware. The Super AMOLED looks gorgeous, and naturally it is full HD at 1920 x 1080 pixels. Inside there’s a 2.3GHz quad-core processor backed up by 3GB of RAM. Apparently some markets will get the 1.9GHz octa-core processor version. It’s an impressively powerful combo, and for the most part it performs very smoothly.
Storage-wise we have the choice of 32GB or 64GB versions and you can boost that by up to another 64GB with a microSD card. You’ll find an MHL port, NFC support, LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, A-GPS, the list goes on with no serious omissions.
The main camera is an impressive 13-megapixel shooter with LED flash, auto focus, image stabilization, zero shutter lag, and the ability to record HD video at various frame rates. There’s also a front-facing 2-megapixel camera and a host of modes and features that range from truly useful to throw-away novelty.
You’ll also find a 3200mAh battery inside the Note 3 and it can be swapped for heavy users. Most people should be able to get through a day of normal use without having to reach for that charger, and a couple of days is not an unreasonable expectation.
It’s also worth mentioning the IR blaster up top, which enables the Note 3 to be a universal remote, and the smorgasbord of sensors including accelerometer, geomagnetic, gyro, RGB light, barometer, proximity, gesture, and temperature & humidity.
With Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and TouchWiz on top the Note 3 is packed with software features. Unfortunately some of them conflict with Google’s services, like Samsung’s inferior S Voice which wants to replace Google Now as the conversational side of your smartphone. The ability to gesture without touching your device and talk to it is handy in certain circumstances, but it never seems to work flawlessly. TouchWiz does not offer the smoothest experience around.
Two features that are really good, and that do work especially well on the Note 3, are the Multi Window feature and the S Pen.
With Multi Window you can open two panes simultaneously, so you can keep an app open and do a quick web search or respond to an email. You can also create paired windows if you want to use the same two apps together frequently, which is a nice touch.
The real headliner, which lends the device the Note name, is Samsung’s super stylus, the S Pen. For sketching it offers an unparalleled experience and the handwriting recognition is excellent, so you really can use the Note 3 as you would a notebook, but with all the advantages of editing and sharing your notes directly. Whenever you remove the S Pen from its home you’ll find the Air Command menu pops up with five options that allow you to take notes, save clips, grab a screenshot and write or draw over the top, search your own content, and open a limited selection of mini-apps or utilities in a small window.
The app options that Samsung provides on its devices now are overwhelming at first, but it would be churlish to dismiss them. The intent is to deliver a great deal of choice and if you can find a use for even a few of them it’s tough to argue that they don’t add value, though it would undeniably be nice to be able to replace defaults you don’t like and get rid of apps you don’t intend to use.
If you want as large a screen as possible, and you like the idea of a hybrid smartphone and tablet, then you will not find a better one on the market right now. The Note 3 offers a whole lot of features and functionality for your money. We would opt for a good Bluetooth headset as a partner for it, rather than the overpriced Galaxy Gear. The phablet category is going to get a lot more competitive, but the Note 3 keeps Samsung on top for the moment.