Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review – Noteworthy

OVERVIEW

Welcome to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review – the most powerful Samsung phone yet. It released just as September ended, and went on to become a very well grossing product, even if its image was tainted with the fake region locking fiasco. It is expensive, but priced the same as all other flagships, while packing in some very useful features and top of the line specs. Still, not everything is perfect, especially considering the plastic body while Apple, HTC and Sony have moved on to aluminium, and TouchWiz is as poor as ever. The target audience of the Note 3 then falls to those who need a large screen for entertainment purposes, as well as the multitude of S-Pen functions useful in note taking and the like.

PROS:

  • 5.7 inch screen in an incredibly compact space
  • Removable battery
  • S-Pen features are really useful
  • Device is really light
  • Screen has excellent contrast and blacks due to it being AMOLED

CONS:

  • Plastic body while competitors (save LG) have moved on to aluminium for flagships
  • TouchWiz is still hideous and clunky
  • Camera could do better
  • Samsung still backward with the back button on the right and a menu button instead of a task switcher button
  • AMOLED display still struggles in accurate colour reproduction and is too dim

INTRODUCTION

Q4 of 2013 was a bumper year for anyone looking to upgrade their device to the latest and greatest. The smaller of the Koreans got their flagships out first, with the LG G2 releasing in mid-September. Samsung responded with a end-September release as well, following which Sony got cracking with the Z1, and finally a month later, Google surprised everyone (and yet no one) by dropping the Nexus 5 on the very day they announced it.

Compared to the Note 2, the Note 3 is a massive leap. Gone is the 720p 5.5 inch display, and in is a Full HD 5.7 inch display – all in a smaller chassis. Also gone is the poor 1.6 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 and year old (at time of Note 2 release) Mali 400-MP GPU, which actually featured in the Galaxy SII. The new SoC is the roaring Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, with four cores clocked at 2.3 GHz and an Adreno 330 GPU – both of which are top of the line, and power all the late 2013 flagships. Here are the Note 3’s specs in more detail.

  • Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S800 processor, clocked at 2.3 GHz
  • Adreno 330 GPU
  • 3 GB RAM
  • 16/32 (our review unit)/64 GB expandable storage
  • micro-SD card slot (up to 64 GB)
  • 5.7″ 16M-color 1080p Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen; Adobe RGB mode
  • 13 MP autofocus camera with LED flash
  • 4K video recording and playback capability
  • 3200 mAh battery
  • microUSB 3.0
  • IR Blaster
  • NFC
  • Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support; 3G with 42Mbps HSPA; 150Mbps LTE

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As said before, those who would have bought the Note II after the first iteration would be kicking themselves – the Note 3 absolutely grinds the Note II into dust. Still, critics still abound. Samsung’s largest competitor – Apple has always been using metal for their flagship, and last February and March Sony and HTC respectively also followed suit, swathing their flagships with aluminium and glass. Samsung’s use of plastic has never pleased many, and with their competitors now using metal, their refusal to budge is getting more prominent. However Samsung argues that converting their flagships to aluminium will make them lose one thing that makes Samsung devices unique today – the ability to remove the battery.

With the basics gone over, let’s begin!

UNBOXING, DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY

Like what has become characteristic of most smartphone boxes, the Note 3’s is also small, light and similar to all Samsung devices, is made of cardboard and is completely recyclable. It is a two-part design with a gap in between the top and bottom ones, so don’t worry that yours has been tampered with.

Opening it up, you find the device on top, a microUSB 3.0 to USB 3.0 cable, the wall adapter, in-ear earphones, spare earbuds, spare S-Pen tips and a tweezer, as well as the standard Quick Start Guide and warranty card. Measuring at 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3 mm, the Note 3 does not feel heavy. Even though there is just 2 g of weight difference between the Note 3 and my Z1, the 168 g of weight felt much less while holding the Note 3. The probable reason for this though, is the fact that the Z1 is made out of premium materials such as aluminium and glass, while the Note 3 is all plastic.

Yes, the Lumia 920 is heavier, but it is over a year old and was Nokia’s first foray into Qi Charging and had a 5-piece camera assembly, meaning the device was heavy and thick. Since then, the technology has been refined, but the Note 3 excludes it completely by default, and purchasing the add-on adds 1.5 mm to its thickness.

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From left: Apple iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920, Sony Xperia Z1, Samsung Galaxy Note 3

The all plastic choice makes the device feel really cheap, and the uninspiring, overplayed, industrial design of the Note 3 does not help either. Since the Galaxy SIII, all Samsung devices have looked alike, they just had different sizes. The ridiculous amount of plastic also takes away from the feel that I am holding a $1000 device in my hand – something that the iPhone, HTC One, and Sony Xperia Z1 nail. Even the faux-leather back is plastic – there’s no hint of any premium feeling about the device anywhere.

The Note 3 is large. Still, Samsung have to be commended with their use of space. The Note 3 has 0.7 inches of real estate more than the Z1, yet is just 7 mm longer, 5 mm wider and 0.2 mm thicker. The side bezels are thin, but not to the level of the LG G2. Putting the device in your pocket, you will definitely have it peek out the top of your pants, whether they are jeans or shorts. Sitting down there’s some issue though – the Note 3 digs into your thigh sometimes.

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The front of the Note 3 has the ambient light sensor, earpiece with the proximity sensor, ambient light sensor and 2 MP front facing camera. At the bottom is the hardware home button with the back button on the right, and the menu button on the left. It has irked many that Samsung still uses a menu button, and it seems that the Note 3 is the last device with one, as Samsung’s Note Pro and Tab Pro did away with it.

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On the left side is the volume rocker, which is easy to press even when in your pockets.

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The right has the power button as well as the finger hold to pry open the rear cover.

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At the top is the 3.5mm audio jack as well as the IR blaster, which enables you to control your TV and DVR using the WatchON app by Samsung (more on that below).

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At the bottom is the microUSB 3.0 port, the speaker, microphone and S-Pen slot. The microUSB 3.0 port is an upgrade from the 2.0, which enables quicker charging and data transfer. The shape is certainly different, but you can connect a microUSB 2.0 cable in there too.

The S-Pen is simple and has a nice metallic look to it, and has a single clickable button which brings up the S-Pen menu on screen, assuming the Pen is no more than 5 cm above the display.

The back is still made out of plastic, but has a faux-leather look to it. It might fool someone from a distance, but it feels as cheap as the S4 in your hand. Opening up the back you see the 3200 mAh battery and the micro SD and micro SIM-card slots. The microSD card sits above the micro SIM-card, so to remove the micro SIM, you’ll have to take out the micro-SD card slot first. Both slots are not spring loaded, which makes it a hassle to remove.

The design is bland, but that can be secondary if the rest of the phone steps up.

HANDLING

As a phablet, there are concerns over its handling, but I can safely say that normal one-handed usage is fine, though a little unstable. One-handed typing is also difficult unless the one-handed keyboard is enabled. It does not feel bulky, and not too large either.

It took some effort, but I managed to pull down the notification bar from close to the opposite top corner while holding the device one-handed.

It should be noted though, that the device did get really hot when playing a Full HD version of Thor, so much so that it became really uncomfortable to hold it in your hand.

DISPLAY

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has a Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) display spread over 5.7 inches, which gives it a pixel density of 386 ppi, which is well above what Apple claims to be Retina resolution. This is the standard flagship display, and has been for nearly a year, with the HTC J Butterfly kick-starting it amongst the major manufacturers.

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Even with a comparatively lower pixel density than the Xperia Z1, HTC One, S4 and LG G2, the display is crisp and it was impossible to isolate a pixel. However, due to the fact that Samsung uses AMOLED displays in their flagship, colour reproduction was still not perfect even with Adobe RGB correction. On the flip side, you get true blacks with AMOLED, as they can turn off individual pixels.

Viewing angles are impeccable, and sunlight legibility is good. Honestly, the only fault we can find that its colour reproduction is not perfect, and as you can see below, it’s very dim. Trying to use it in the afternoon sun was near impossible. In comparison my own Z1 and even the S4 is brighter than the Note 3. This has been an issue with AMOLED screens, but it seems to be more pronounced in the Note 3 than other AMOLED devices.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 0 149 0 379
Sony Xperia Z1 0.38 580 1513
Sony Xperia Z Ultra 0.47 467 1001
Sony Xperia Z 0.70 492 705
Huawei Ascend Mate 0.23 222 982 0.67 711 1053
Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 0.12 160 1364 0.32 440 1379
Samsung I9505 Galaxy S4 0 201 0 404
HTC Butterfly S 0.15 165 1117 0.43 451 1044
HTC One 0.13 205 1580 0.42 647 1541
Oppo Find 5 0.17 176 1123 0.51 565 1107
Apple iPhone 5 0.13 200 1490 0.48 640 1320

The Note 3 got a paltry 379 cd/m2 score for white levels at maximum brightness, a score that even the low end Galaxy Mega and old Butterfly S are able to outperform it by a huge margin.

Contrast is simply excellent, smashing the Z Ultra and Lumia 1520 by more than two times the score.

All in all the display is a decent one. As usual is with AMOLED, colours are oversaturated and the screen is remarkably dim. However, unless you’re going to be using this under the sun, this 5.7 inch screen is amazing for playing games and watching movies, and has brilliant contrast.

BATTERY LIFE

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 comes with a 3200 mAh battery, 200 mAh more than the Xperia Z1 and LG G2, and 900 mAh more than the Google Nexus 5. Considering that all of them have the same amount of pixels to light up, and that AMOLED has an advantage that it can actually turn off individual pixels, one would expect the Note 3 to perform really well, and it does.

In our own daily usage test, we used the phone heavily. I set the brightness as low as I could without having to strain my eyes and began the test. I started off by browsing the web for 1 hour on LTE, followed by another hour on WiFi. I then boosted brightness to maximum and started 1 hour of YouTube streaming over WiFi. After that I played half an hour of Train Conductor 2 and finally started playing a Full HD version of Thor. At the end of these tests, the battery was at 5%, but after I switched on Power Saving mode, where the CPU and GPU performance ceilings are lowered, it managed to idle for another thirteen hours, and gave an overall score of 18 hours and 21 minutes, with a screen on time of 5 hours and 15 minutes.

The score is a really impressive showing by the Note 3, especially considering the fact that I had not switched off the various Smart Services, such as Smart Stay, Smart Pause, Air Gestures and the like. It is certainly possible that you can squeeze more screen-on time, but how much it would impact the standby time is anyone’s guess.

All in all, this is a really good showing by the Note 3. Let’s move on to examining the User Interface.

USER INTERFACE, APPS AND S-PEN

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has the latest version of TouchWiz Nature UX (User Experience) and is running Android 4.3 Jellybean. At the time of release, it was the first non-Nexus device to be running Android 4.3, but competing flagships have all got their own 4.3 updates. Upon unboxing, the devices had 26.8 GB of free space out of the 32 GB given.

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TouchWiz is still TouchWiz. It looks stuck in the days of 2.3 Gingerbread, in both design and functionality. Having gone through considerably about the UI in our Ace 3 Review, I’ll just be highlighting Note 3 exclusive and other important features.

Just like all Android devices now, the lockscreen provides you with an opportunity to have widgets such as those for the weather, news, as well as quick launch shortcuts. An issue I do have with Samsung is that you cannot use the widgets nor the quick launch shortcuts if you have a password. On the other hand, Nexus and all other competitor devices do not have this shortcoming. This is one issue that Samsung needs to fix.

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A useful feature that Samsung has implemented in their phone/contacts app is that a swiping right over a contact will call them, and swiping left will open up a message thread. This has been in their devices for a long time, and this is perhaps one of the things we’re glad they carried over from Gingerbread.

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Another useful feature we found is that hovering your hand about 5 cm above the proximity sensor for a second will result in the screen turning on briefly to show the time, as well as any missed notifications. Pressing the power button returns you to the normal lock screen.

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Samsung has also smartly included Flipboard as one of the default apps. Launching flipboard can be done via two intuitive ways. You can either swipe up from the app dock in your homescreen or semi-long press the home button. The second method is a little finicky, as you often end up simply returning to the home screen or opening up the task switcher, as the length of the depression needs to be between a short press and long press that do the above respectively.

With the IR Blaster, Samsung has also included their own WatchON app which is able to control your TV and DVR. What’s more, after a quick setup, it can tell you the schedule of all the programs on all the channels of your TV provider. This is an incredibly useful feature as you do not need to hunt around for your remotes or TV guide, and you can quickly tap on ‘Watch Now’ to switch to the channel without having to key in the numbers. The fact that it worked on my 14 year old TV speaks volumes about Samsung’s effort here.

Aside from these, you also get 50 GB of Dropbox storage for two years, and Evernote is also one of the included apps.

Samsung has also customarily stuffed their device with the various Smart features, like Smart Stay, Smart Scroll, Smart Pause etc. Most of them do not work, or only work halfway. Two examples are Smart Scroll and Smart Rotate. Being a dark-skinned person, the sensor simply failed to recognize my head’s movement and orientation. In other features like Smart Pause, I also had to sit directly facing the light or the device would fail to see my head moving. When it did work, however, it took 1 second to pause, a gap that I really want to see reduced.

Now we arrive at the S-Pen. Widely touted as a deal-maker for many looking to purchase a new device, I know of many people who have continued purchasing Note devices due to the extremely useful features the S-Pen provides. Skeptical of Samsung features as I am, I have to say, Samsung has really hit a jackpot here.

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Upon pulling out the S-Pen you see an ‘Air Command’ context menu appear. Tapping on these with the S-Pen, you can launch Action Memo, Scrap booker, Screen Write, S Finder and Pen Window. As per their names, all of the features perform well. Action Memo pulls up a memo pad over your current screen, and Scrap booker allows you to circle part of the screen and store it into your scrap book. Screen Write takes a screenshot of your current screen and allows you to scribble on it, while S-Finder is just a simple phone and web search tool, and Pen Window opens up a list of mini-apps that you can run in your own sized window.

These features work, and serve their purpose well. Coming into this review I had really low expectations, but I can say they’ve been revised.

All that aside, what I really found the S-Pen shining in the S-Note app. Here you get to create notes with unlimited pages, and what you do there is absolutely unparalled. You can type using the keyboard, scribble around handwritten notes, change the colour, thickness and style of the pen and more. It is possible to add tables, images, videos, shapes, even map locations, voice memos, charts, graphs, clip-arts and whatever suits your fancy.

In short, this app is a boon to students who like to have all their data stored electronically, but want to add in items like graphs and such. Evernote is a similar application with PC and Mac backup options, but it has limited storage and does not have handwriting support.

Concluding this segment, I just have to say this. The functionality and design of the UX itself is really poor, and is a potential deal breaker on its own, but the S-Pen features that you get with the Note 3 are this device’s saving grace. I think I can manage with GEL running over TouchWiz this time.

PERFORMANCE BENCHMARKS

We now come to the performance part of the review. As said above, the Note 3 is the first Samsung device to be running Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 and Adreno 33o GPU. Samsung has clocked their SoC at 2.27 GHz, while LG pegged it at 2.26 GHz for the G2 and Nexus 5, while Sony put it lower at 2.15 GHz.

One issue I did find with Samsung is that when depressing the home button to return to the home pane, there is a 1 second pause because the device is waiting to register a second one to launch S Voice. This is a minor flaw, though, but it still irked me as I’m used to an instant response on my Z1.

Regardless of the results however, I must affirm that real world performance is hardly affected when comparing these flagships.

Benchmark Pi

In Benchmark Pi, where devices use their single core performance to calculate Pi, the Note 3 emerged second, placing almost at the median between the G2 and Xperia Z1.

BrowserMark

The Note 3 fell behind considerably in BrowserMark 2, but still had the power to beat the Z1.

Egypt

Here the Note 3 was the undeniable champion, scoring 9 FPS more than the nearest competitor.

T Rex

It was a similar tale in T-Rex, where the Note 3 emerged victorious by 3 FPS ahead of the Z1 and Nexus 5, with the G2 close behind with 22 FPS.

Epic Citadel

Once again the Note 3 impressed, scoring a higher average FPS than the Z1 by 4 FPS.

Geekbench 3

The story repeated, with the Note 3 leading and the Z1 coming in a relatively distant second.

Linpack

In Linpack however, the Note 3 was edged out by the G2, but still managed to beat the Z1. The Nexus 5 failed spectacularly.

Quadrant

In Quadrant the Note 3 raced ahead, with the Z1 and G2 close behind. The Nexus 5 again was nowhere to be seen.

SunSpider

In SunSpider, a gauge of JavaScript performance, the Note 3 scored a very auspicious (to Chinese) 888 ms, but unfortunately was well beat by the Z1 and Nexus 5.

Vellamo

In Vellamo, a HTML5 performance test, the Note 3 lost out narrowly to the leading Z1 and second placed G2, but was more than twice clear of the Nexus 5.

AnTuTu

Finally, in AnTuTu, the most comprehensive of all the tests, the Note 3 pipped the Z1 to pole while the G2 took third and the Nexus 5 was a distant last.

Once again I must say that these benchmarks should be taken with a pinch of salt, as real world performance does not always mirror the results. The Note 3 was meant to be a hulking beast, and with the Snapdragon 800 and Adreno 330, it is properly so. One thing is for sure, upon purchase the Note 3 will be blazing fast. However, Samsung’s track record with updates has been that is slows even flagships to a crawl, so the same might happen to the Note 3 in the future, but it’s only conjecture at this point.

CAMERA INTERFACE

The camera interface of the Note 3 is clean and simple, just like how it has been always.

Both the still image capture and video capture buttons appear together, so there’s no hassle in switching between modes. One note is that to shoot in the 13 MP resolution, the viewfinder switches to 4:3 mode. A widescreen 16:9 mode is only available for a 9.6 MP shot. The video is shot with the 16:9 viewfinder though, if 1080p or 4K is used.

The Note 3 comes with a multitude of camera modes, but I was quite puzzled not to see a dedicated night mode.

To change the various settings, one has to delve into the menu at the top. Basic settings like flash and sharing options are available at the first layer, but to change ISO or white balance you have to go one level deeper.

CAMERA PERFORMANCE

The Note 3’s camera has a 16 MP resolution, and shoots a 4:3 aspect ratio image at this resolution. It has a standard smartphone sized 1/3 inch sensor. Its video capabilities are the more impressive here, though. The Note 3 is the first smartphone capable of recording 4K resolution video (3840 x 2160 pixels) at 30 FPS and a 1080p video at 60 FPS.

Let’s start with the still photography. All the following images were recorded at the 16 MP resolution.

Day Samples:

The photos in the day have a lot of detail in them even in cloudy weather, noise is kept well under control. White balance is pretty natural and colors nice and warm.

In low light though, the story is very different.

Night Samples:

Images are really noisy, and lens flare is slightly excessive. At times where the post processing engine does try to minimize noise, massive amounts of fine detail is lost. Personally, I didn’t find this the mark of a good smartphone camera, especially considering that Sony’s Z1 and Nokia’s 1020 perform superbly.

Now we move on to the video recording. The Note 3 can record video at 4K resolution (2160p) at 30 FPS and Full HD resolution (1080p) at 60 FPS. When recording in 4K though, video length is limited to 5 minutes, and you cannot take a still image while the video is recording, unlike when recording in 1080p. You also lose digital image stabilisation while in 4K recording mode.

Day Sample (1080p):

Day Sample (4K):

As you can see in the day, the video is really smooth and colours are reproduced very accurately. White balance is perfect, and autofocus tracking is impressive. Level of detail in the 4K video is sky high, as is to be expected at that resolution. In the day, it is safe to say it has the best video recording of an Android phone, even better than the Z1.

Night Sample (1080p):

Night Sample (4K):

At night though, the camera starts acting up. Level of detail drops, presumably due to the processing engine correcting for noise, but noise is still very high. Lens flare is also present, but can be accepted. Colours are generally accurately reproduced, however white balance was too low. A more pressing issue was that the autofocus kept on trying to focus repeatedly, especially when the road was briefly empty. In the night then, the Note 3 performs decently, but the Z1 is still much better due to its larger 1/2.3 inch sensor.

All in all, the camera is good – it’s good enough for you to take pictures and show them around, and post them on the web. For most people, the camera is more than enough. However, the fact that many will find it more than enough does not mean it’s a brilliant camera. Night photos are a sore thumb in the device’s record. Still, the video recording is really good – 1080p at 60 FPS should be what everyone aims for, and the introduction of 4K recording shows Samsung’s willingness to be market leaders in this aspect.

CONCLUSION

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a device that everyone should take note of (pardon the pun). The thing is though, it is only a superb phablet.

In terms of S-Pen features, note taking capability, and the compactness while having the mammoth screen, the Note 3 is the undeniable king. If you want to electronically store your notes, and edit documents on the go, the Note 3 is on the go. Not only that, the long battery life and removable battery will make it a long-lasting device. Furthermore, the introduction of 4K recording will make this an entertainment junkie and student’s dream.

What does not make it a superb $1000 smartphone is everything else. Bright and contrasting as the AMOLED display may be, it does not reproduce colours accurately and is way too dim. Furthermore, the device is swathed with plastic. Plastic has now become the sign of something cheap, because it exudes cheapness in its feel. The boring and insipid design of the Note 3 does not help either. The camera too is not jaw-dropping like the 1020’s or Z1’s is. It also lacks features that make large differences, like how Sony has now become synonymous with waterproof, or how a HTC device means glorious speakers. And last but not least, its software is a major turn-off. The design and functionality is so curtailed that one can get really frustrated.

Comparatively, its Korean competitor LG has released their G2 with a bold choice. By placing the buttons at the rear, they have minimized bezels to an almost impossible level, and the battery life is something that makes everyone else look like a Galaxy Nexus.

LG G2
LG G2

Sony too has made a very strong case with their Xperia Z1 (review here). A large 1/2.3 inch sensor means that the device can actually take advantage of the 20.7 MP resolution, and who can forget the IP55/58 certification which allows the device to be dunked under 1.5m of water for 30 minutes? The device also looks and feels like it’s worth twice the amount of the Note 3, with glass at the back and an aluminium unibody.

Sony Xperia Z1
Sony Xperia Z1

Not to be forgotten is Google’s (and LG’s) Nexus 5. A dirt cheap price of US$329, and a pure, blazing fast Android experience make it a dream come true for those wanting pure Android and flagship specs at a low price. It also looks and feels miles better than the Note 3.

Nexus 5 - trio - black_575px
Google Nexus 5

All these three devices have much more brighter displays, and also use LCD which means accurate colour reproduction. Hence, at the end of the day, the Note 3’s target audience falls to those who cannot go without the S-Pen features, and want the large 5.7 inch display for entertainment purposes. Keeping those two requirements aside, the Note 3 is not a good smartphone.

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