Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review

Samsung's Galaxy Note has always been one of the company's more interesting products. It's the one that leads rather than follows the lead of another phone manufacturer. In many ways, it's the handset that proves Samsung can have great ideas that show more creativity than almost any other company on the phone scene.

We loved the Note 2, because it surprised us. We were among the critics from the off who thought it was too damn big. But it changed our minds: after using it for a week we were converted and it went on to become the phone we used as our own handset, day in day out.

So really, the Note 3 doesn't have to do too much to win us over, but it needs to move things on a bit too. We certainly expect big things from this big handset, and if it doesn't deliver, then we'll be its biggest critic. But enough preamble, does the Galaxy Note 3 push the series forward in the right direction?

Still big, still beautiful

The Note 3's additional 0.2-inches of screen size - toting it up to 5.7-inches - has been delivered without any major increase in device size. In fact, the Note 3 is just 0.1mm longer, but smaller in every other dimension than its predecessor. It's thinner and less wide than its predecessor. Mostly, this doesn't really show when you're using it, but it shows progress is being made, and the screen is larger without making the phone bigger.

But one area where the new device is notably better is in its weight. Or the fact there's less of it. The Note 2 weighed in at 183g, while the Note 3 is 168g. It no doubt sounds silly, as it's a mere 8 per cent lighter, but this makes a massive difference to how the phone feels. Although it's pretty much the same size as the Note 2, the reduced weight means that it feels more modern, and less of a burden to use.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review

There are other things that seem to make a big difference too. The sides aren't so rounded anymore, so it just feels nicer in your hand. The silver colour makes it look great too, and the etched-in lines make us think of an Art Deco building. In a good way. This is perfect for our taste, but you may not feel the same way.

Faux off

The back of the phone features a sort of faux leather effect. It's a bit silly as it's still just plastic. There's a fake stitching effect too, which is bizarre in the extreme, and it would be the last thing we'd choose to have on a phone, but in day-to-day use it didn't bother us all that much. As with all Samsung phones, the back is removable anyway, so you can replace it with a better alternative. The firm makes several different covers itself, including a "leather" fold over case with a clear window on the front - and we really rather like this.

Under the back cover, you also get some interesting changes. The battery has gone from a 3100mAh unit in the Note 2 to a 3200mAh battery in this phone. There's also Samsung's new all-in-one micro-SIM and microSD card slot. This combines both cards into a double stacked slot. A good space saver.

Elsewhere, things in the design department haven't changed all that much. The phone's controls are in much the same place as the previous device - power button on the right, volume on the left and headphone jack on top.

Out with the old

You get an IR blaster now too, so you can use the Note as a universal remote to change your TV channels and such - setting it up is incredibly easy too. We got it working with our Pioneer TV faster than we have with any other universal remote previously. The app, called WatchON, allows you to search what's on TV and then use that in combination with your TV and satellite receiver, cable box or plain Freeview to change the channel.

However, while the Note 2 had an FM radio, the Note 3 does not. This is sad, but we'll just have to stream our radio over the internet now, instead.

One of the other things that caused a fuss when details of the Note 3 arrived was that the phone would connect via a USB 3 socket at its base, rather than a standard USB 2 socket. The fuss came from the fact that the USB 3 socket is quite a bit bigger than USB 2. But that extra size brings with it a load of extra speed and much better charging options.

The good news is, your old USB chargers do still work with the Note 3, as USB 3 is compatible with USB 2. This means you won't find yourself somewhere, having forgotten to bring your own charger, and then be entirely incapable of charging your phone. We've tested this out and it works just fine.

In with the new

The Note 3 was always going to have a 1080p screen, because smaller phones have moved to this resolution, and there's really no good reason not to. We have to say though, the reality of this screen is better than we expected. On apps that support the new resolution, it's utterly breathtaking to look at. Fonts have a look that printed books would struggle with. It really is a thing of beauty.

The OLED panel is bright too, far, far brighter than the Note 2, and it looks fantastic all the time. We knocked ours down to the minimum and it was still incredible. You'll have no trouble seeing this one outside.

Samsung also seems to have done a lot of work on the auto-brightness, which now no longer annoys the living hell out of us constantly, but instead does its job with the skill and sophistication we would expect from a high-end device. You can modify the auto setting to give it more or less punch.

Video looks amazing too, with enough detail to do justice to a Blu-ray, and we think media fans will be very happy. Samsung still leads when it comes to the format support in its internal player - you can watch pretty much anything on the Note 3, including HEVC, which Samsung uses in its video store.

Samsung's TouchWiz

There are all manner of Android phones out there and many manufacturers dress the stock version up with their own apps, widgets, interfaces - the whole lot. So Samsung isn't alone in doing this, but sometimes we wonder why it feels the need to skin its interface so heavily over the Android base. There are some good aspects to that, and some bad ones.

On the downside, there is a Samsung app store, and a Google app store. There's a Google video store, and a Samsung video store and, guess what, there's a Samsung music shop and a Google music shop. Add in some alternatives from Amazon, Kobo and Nook and you've got about a million options for buying things.

Samsung gives you a free credit to get a film when you first use its store, so use this wisely and grab something in HD to show off your phone in the best light. Prices, as ever, seem a little steep in the download space - Argo in standard def is £9.99, for example - but they're on par with Google's. Just remember, Google Video is more universally supported on non-Samsung devices.

As an interface, TouchWiz keeps on evolving. We like it overall, despite a vaguely cartoony feel. The speed of this phone, and the animations that are built in to the OS and Samsung's user interface are all very pleasant though. The graphical style is quite flat, but there's plenty of faux metal and pretend notebooks to remind you what skeuomorphism is - where a design object represents itself by a real-world visual counterpart, something Apple ditched in its iOS 7 update.

The menus and settings are reasonably easy to work though though, although Samsung does throw a metric tonne of advice and information at you as you work your way through various apps. This does sometimes become quite annoying, and you'll forget the key information when you really need it too.

S Pen & air command

The Note 3 is more than just a straight-up phone. Some might say "phablet" - we cringe - thanks to the stylus included for proper handwriting gestures. Samsung calls it the S Pen.

The new S Pen stylus that comes with the Note 3 now has a better point that feels softer on the screen and makes writing by hand more comfortable. The interface that pops up when you eject the Pen from the Note is cool too. Samsung calls this "air command". Very Top Gun. 

It gives you some quick shortcuts into the best features. For example, you can scrawl a phone number and name, then the phone will add that to your phone book for you. It's worth double checking when you enter the numbers - but we found it to be very accurate.

You can also search your phone, using handwriting recognition. It's a bit like S Voice, but with handwriting. In fact, we found it works quite well. And there's also the "pen window", which allows you to draw a shape, into which you can load, say, a YouTube video. It's clever, but a bit limited in practice because the number of apps you can use is quite small. 



The same features as in earlier Note software is also present. You can capture the screen, and annotate it. You can cut out clips from anywhere, and use them in a note later on. There is a clipboard mode that allows you to save various things and use them elsewhere too. And Samsung also now provides a rather nice drawing app, something missing from the Note 2.  

Handwriting: great, but there's a glitch

One of the best parts about the Note 3 is the handwriting recognition. This now works better, is able to understand even levels of scrawly handwriting akin to your local GP and feels natural and even fun to use.

At least at first. See, there is a big bug, and it's a bit of a howler. After a few days using the handwriting recognition, we noticed that it just stopped working. We couldn't work out why, but a dig on XDA Developers yielded the usual brilliance from that community. Namely, setting the clock back one year will allow the handwriting recognition to start working again. Logic has led that community to conclude that a licence has expired somewhere, and the phone's software needs an update to restore this functionality. D'oh. A second, and better fix, is to install the beta app on which the Samsung software is based, you can find that on Google Play. Once again, credit to XDA user edem84 for working that one out. 

We've asked Samsung about this, we'll let you know when it's either fixed, or the company can tell us what the problem is. 

Snappy performance

Man alive, the Galaxy Note 3 is one fast phone. We haven't benchmarked it against other phones, because ultimately there's no point to what that means in the real world. If you want benchmarks, then there are apps and websites that will tell you how devices perform against each other.

What we can tell you is that the Snapdragon 800 processor in this phone is an incredible piece of silicon. We don't usually bother talking about chips, but it is worth spending a moment on the Snapdragon. This processor allows the 4K video recording, the 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 4 connectivity. The processor can also stream 1080p video via Miracast and decode Dolby Digital Plus and DTS HD.

We've seen the Snapdragon 800 in the Sony Xperia Z1 and found it ran rather hot. No such issues here though.

READ: Sony Xperia Z1 review

This processor and the latest version of Android gives a level of performance that feels quite incredible for an Android device. Any lag is gone, so moving between homescreens is a snappy process and complicated apps, such as games, load up very quickly indeed.

The bad news for non-EU users, is that the Note 3 uses different processors in some regions. We haven't tested these, so we can't tell you how they perform, but they use the the Samsung Exynos, which served the Note 2 very well.

Super-fast Wi-Fi and 4G

There was a 4G version of the Note 2, but you wouldn't have got one unless you specifically sought it out. Now though, all UK Note 3 devices will have 4G, with a very good range of frequency support included. Great news. The phone can support data transfer of 50mbps upload, and 150mbps download. We suspect most 4G networks won't offer those speeds for a while, but they are at least supported.

There's also 802.11ac Wi-Fi included. This excites us a bit, because 1. we're daft geeks, but; 2. because it should also interest you for its impact in massively reducing all the things that make Wi-Fi suck. The "ac" standard allows data transfer at rates that near those of cabled connections, so it's good to see it here.

SIM lock oddness

One other potential irritation that we noticed on our Note 3 box was a certain label warning that said if we tried to use a SIM card from a region outside the EU it would not work. A little panic - what if we want to put a US SIM card in for cheap calls and data while we're away? There was no suggestion of this with the Note 2.

We have also asked Samsung about what this was all about and why it was attempting to restrict things at all. Samsung told us that if you put a UK SIM in first, it will unlock the device and let you use another SIM.

We have been unable to verify this ourselves, unable to quickly obtain a foreign SIM card, and we're a little skeptical as some online videos from users in Asia make us think that perhaps this isn't the case. We will endeavour to find out what the score is here, and report back when we have a proper answer.

4K delights

One area the Note 3 has improved in significantly is with its camera and video. And now, for the first time, the Note can capture in 4K. This is, without doubt, one of the most impressive things ever to happen to video recording on a smartphone.

In terms of quality, we didn't know what to expect, but the results are breathtaking. We watched on 1080p monitors, as that's the best we've got, but the fine detail present was amazing. There's more to capturing in 4K than just the resolution, and that was evident in what we looked at. Colours are really amazing, the camera managed autofocusing well - you can touch the screen to focus on a specific object - and the contrast looks almost ridiculously good.

We shot video in bright sun, and under the shade of a skate park on London's Southbank, and we can't stop looking at it. We've never seen video this good from a phone camera before, and we have to give credit to Samsung for adding in a feature we think people will actually use.

There's also slow-motion capture. We have to say, we're a little less impressed by this. It comes in several different modes: slow motion, fast motion and smooth motion. Allow us to explain what all this means:

Slow motion is recorded at 120 frames per second and then can be slowed down to half speed, quarter speed or one eighth speed. Overcranking - as this is called in the cinema industry - produces a higher frame rate, which means you can then slow footage down without losing smooth motion. If you've ever seen jerky slow motion, that's because it's been shot at 25 or 30 frames per second, then dropped down to 12 or 15 in post-production. It looks dreadful. Here, you get either 60, 30 or 15 frames per second. We'd avoid the one eight speed mode for this reason.

But, honestly, neither are we all that impressed by the other two slow-motion modes. Both claim to be 720p, but there's a lot of problems with the picture - mostly in the form of aliasing which appears as jagged lines on the edges of objects. The issue we have here is that this feels like a software problem, rather than a hardware one. We could be wrong, but with some tweaking we think the slow-motion mode could be flawless. As it stands now though, it doesn't hold up to the iPhone 5S, and that's a shame.

READ: Apple iPhone 5S review

The "fast motion" mode allows you to shoot something at normal speed, but during playback it is speeded up by a factor of two, four or eight times. This means that if you're recording something like a car journey, or a walk, you can speed up the end result by that amount. It actually looks kind of cool, and we can see the point to it.

Smooth motion is probably our favourite of the trio though, because it allows you to capture 1080p at 60 frames per second. If you've seen the high frame rate version of The Hobbit, then this is the same sort of effect in that things look very real, but don't have an especially cinematic style (we know The Hobbit was 48fps, but in terms of feel is what we're getting at). It is, however, a great feature for real life. Recording in this mode means when you come to edit, you can do a 50 per cent speed reduction on anything without losing any motion detail. We think you should record 60fps all the time, because you'll capture so much more when the camera is moving than you would on 25 or 30 frames per second.

Photo performance

Still photos on the Note 3 are, at least in terms of dimensions, pretty huge. The camera has a 13-megapixel sensor, and you can choose to have 9.6, 8, 6 or 2.4-megapixel snaps too. If you opt for the classic 3:2 photographic ratio then you'll get images at 4128 x 3096. Those who want 16:9 widescreen images will see 4128 x 2322 pixel images.

Results are good enough for the most part. We found that zoomed in to their maximum size there was some mushiness in the images from processing. This may well not be a problem for most people and, in fact, you shouldn't notice when viewing images normally. We get the feeling that there might be some tweaks that could be made to the software that would produce better results, but it's no disaster, and the camera in the new Note seems far more capable than the rather lame one found in the previous model.

As is common though, good light will produce great photos. The Note 3 can certainly do justice to colour saturation, and there is a decent amount of detail in each shot to keep us happy. This new camera is a large improvement.

Battery life

With our usual rider about how we can't tell you how you'll use the battery on this phone, we are prepared to say that, for our use, it's impressive. We are quite confident that a careful user will see two full days. Use it a lot, and you might only make it through one, but it almost certainly will manage from when you wake to when you sleep again.

We used our Note 3 with a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and found that it gave pretty solid battery performance even with all the extra features that can involve. The Gear uses the phone to perform tasks like S-Voice and run other apps, so it may well have an impact on the overall life you see from your phone.

No doubt the new 1080p screen will drain power faster than the earlier 720p one, but that is almost certainly a price worth paying, and we didn't notice that the problem was too severe, even given how bright we had our Note 3 set.

The Note has always been solid performer when it comes to battery life, and the same is certainly true here. The Note 3 is a phone that will suits the power user.

Gear-ing up

Samsung's new smartwatch, the Gear, launches alongside the Note 3. We'll have a separate review for the Gear, for now we can only nod to the fact that we think they're really good companion devices for one another.

Because the Note is a little on the large side, it makes sense to interact with it via a smaller screen at times. The Gear gives you that interface, but the fact that the phone runs Android 4.3 means that it's just about the only device that's compatible with the Gear right now. In the future that will change.

Having used both together we have become very attached to the way the whole system works together. The watch compliments the Note, and vice versa. They feel like Batman and Robin, or Delboy and Rodney - a true dynamic duo.

Verdict

There are a few little things about the Note 3 that we think require some attention, such as photo processing and possible concern over SIM region-locking. These feel like software issues though, and that gives us some hope that they might be fixed at some point in the future.

Aside from that, the leap forward from the Note 2 is pretty epic. The included S Pen is great for handling the new air command interface, while handwriting recognition is more accurate now. But the bug that causes handwriting to time-out after a few days use is just stupid. It'll get fixed, no doubt, but it's worth pointing out.

Then there are the real leaps in technology too. The screen is now 1080p, and looks utterly glorious. It's an OLED, so of course colours are a little on the wild side, but for a phone this is perfectly acceptable. We love the new 4K video function, and the camera is good for stills, although not quite amazing.

The right things have improved and we find ourselves loving the Note 3 more than old one. If, like many, you find the screen too big for practical use then you may want to look elsewhere. But if you're after a large-screen handset then we can think of few competitiors to match - the Note 3 is very much the one to get.



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