The Samsung Galaxy Note, when it was first announced back in late 2011, was pretty much mocked by the Tech Press in general. Surprisingly, it did reasonably well. Well enough, that when the Note 2 was launched in 2012, the Tech Press actually paid more attention to the device. There’s something about a phone with a massive screen (what most would call a Phablet) that is close to carrying a small screened tablet, in your pocket. You can add in all the “Gimmicks” that Samsung has chucked in there, including the S Pen, and some of it actually turns out to be useful. Samsung’s new Note 3 went on sale a couple of months ago and both Vinu and I have been using it since then. How has it held up? Was it worth the money spent on it (and it was quite a bit)? Let’s find out.
Before we actually get to the device, here’s the background regarding the devices we both came from just before this. I had a Galaxy S4, the Exynos Version, (and a BB 8520 for work), and a Nexus 4 before that. Vinu had a Nexus 4, an iPhone 4S and the Lumia 1020 (and the 920). I currently use the Note 3 and an iPhone 5S everyday (with the iPhone having replaced my work Blackberry) and Vinu uses the Note 3 along with the Lumia 1020 and now has a Oppo N1 CyanogenMod edition also. We’re going to try and talk about what it was like to use everyday, in light of the devices we have, and our different use cases. So, this is more of a report of how the device has been after using it for an extended period of time.
Specs of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Having said that, here’s the specs:
- Display: 5.7” Super AMOLED 1080p
- Connectivity: Quad Band GSM (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz), HSPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz) (For the N900 variant. The N9005, aka the one running the Snapdragon 800 also has LTE support.), WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (Dual Band), Bluetooth 4.0, USB 3.0 (with a weird plug), IR Blaster
- Imaging: 13 MP Primary Camera, 2 MP Front Facing camera. 1080p (30 & 60 fps recording) (with 4k aka 2160p on the N9005), Slo Mo Video (just like on the Galaxy S4)
- Battery: 3200mAh
- Storage: 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage, expandable with a Micro-SD card
- SOC: Exynos 5420 (aka the Exynos 5 Octa) for the N900. (the N9005 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800)
- OS/Platform: Android 4.3 (with 4.4 rolling out for the N9005/N900 as we wrote this)
The Software Experience
New Touchwiz – The Touchwiz on the Note 3 is a huge improvement over the previous versions, but for the Google purists, Samsung still lacks. There’s no quick access button for Google Now, and you have to perform multiple clicks to access this feature. On the S4, long pressing the menu button anywhere brought up Google Search (if you weren’t in an app) or the search menu within the app you were using. On the Note 3, this brings up Samsungs S – finder, which, to put it mildly, is absolutely useless. Frankly, I preferred the earlier implementation as in the S4 over the soft key pull up action as in the nexus series, because this lets you bring up in app search apart from google search. The search hot key brings up Samsung’s S Voice, which is not the best of breeds compared to Google’s Voice Search.
How does it compare to “Google’s Vision”? – Touchwiz is far far far away from “stock” Android and the “Google vision” of what Android must be (take the Nexus 5 and it’s Google Experience launcher as an example). The colours, the menu layout which is tabbed (it even has a search option to find settings!), the toggles. But there are some redeeming features, some of which are now part of stock android. For example: the transparent status bar was a Samsung/HTC introduction, which third party launchers took advantage of, and now Google has added it as a feature on Kitkat. The ability to swipe down from the top in full screen apps to reveal the status bar is another TouchWiz feature that Google has added in Kitkat. The camera application is way better and more feature rich when compared to the stock android camera app. It’s an acquired taste and this is very much a YMMV (your mileage may vary) thing. You either like it or you don’t.
S Pen and Features:
Pen Window – A nice idea, that isn’t really well implemented. You basically have floating apps, of whatever size you want. But there’s a limited number of supported apps and I wish that they didn’t actually take the size and shape that you draw, but rather retained the aspect ratio of the app and sized to within an acceptable tolerance of the drawn window size.
Action Memo – This was one of the features that was actually useful. Pull the S Pen out, tap on Action Memo and quickly jot down a note. For me, having just moved to a new country, it was really useful while hunting for apartments, asking people for places to buy things and so on. Small things that I would have never put on Evernote, but might have written down on a notepad, if I ever carried one.
Scrapbooker – Like Action Memo, I actually used this to put together stuff while apartment hunting – Maps Data, Written notes, Web Pages with important rules and tenancy laws, etc, and then combined them later into S Notes (which can be set to sync to Evernote).
Handwriting Recognition – The Note 3 also comes with Samsung’s Handwriting recognition keyboard, which is a novelty feature, since not many would pull out the stylus and write up stuff on screen instead of typing. That said, I do agree that Samsung’s handwriting recognition works really well, it detects even cursive writing and no you don’t have to change your writing habits to get this to work – works well 90% of the times.
Other Perks that came with the Note 3 included (this may vary by region though):
- Free Evernote Premium, integrated with S Notes
- Free Dropbox 50 GB
Other Samsung Applications – There’s a boat load of Samsung applications preinstalled, but not all of it is bloatware. The only app that I appreciate is S-Health, which I use as a pedometer and also to track my weight, etc. You can connect it to a few peripherals and can also track your diet (although the diet portion is a pain to enter and manage, and I have more or less stopped using it).
Display – The 5.7 inch AMOLED display is pretty good, with really wide viewing angles and pretty decent outdoor readability. You also have to option to change the way it displays colours, either having them to a more “natural” tone all the way up to super contrasty and bright. The pentile sub-pixel arrangement is not noticeable (to be honest, I haven’t been able to pick out pentile vs non pentile, so your mileage will vary).
The New Back, non Glossy – The Black version that I have has a nice, non-glossy, faux leather back panel, which is a huge improvement over the Hyper Glaze rear panel on the S4. It still manages to look and feel new. As for the white cover – it’s not too bad, but tends to get a little dirty from time to time if you don’t use the a case.
The New Pen – there’s not much to say here. It’s thinner than the Note 2 S- Pen and it’s more or less symmetrical, so you could put it back into the slot without fiddling around too much. In my opinion, it’s too thin and the button seems to be a little harder to press and activate.
Access to buttons – The side mounted volume and power buttons (volume on the left, power on the right) are placed in typical Samsung fashion, although I wish they took a more Sony like approach and brought the buttons down a little bit for better access.
The IR Blaster – Now this is something that is actually useful. The Samsung WatchON app is useful, if you’re in a region and your cable provider is supported. The app is actually made by Peel, which also makes the HTC remote application, and is updated quite often adding support to a larger array of providers and set top boxes and TVs. But, if you really want to use the IR Blaster to it’s fullest potential, check out our post on the Smart IR Remote. This app is worth every cent because it allows you to control other peripherals as well (Your AC unit as an example).
Durability – The phone shows a few nicks and scratches on the plastic side from being dropped on the road, without a case to protect it. There are some minor scratches on the screen as well, despite being covered by Gorilla Glass 3 (this is where I go ahead and say “it’s scratch resistant, not scratch proof”)
Auto Night Mode/Low Light Detection – Works reasonably well, but can be really irritating at times, as you have to toggle it off to use the flash.
Smooth Capture AKA 60fps 1080p Video – Honestly, I have not tried this feature, and since Youtube cannot really render/play 60 fps videos right now, I don’t see much use for this.
Slo-Mo Video Capture – The Note 3 does some great Slow Motion Video Capture, here is a sample:
Camera UI and Controls – A lot has been said and written about the camera UIs on various OEM skins, but I have have to say that compared to stock android, the Samsung camera interface is much nicer to use, through not necessarily easier. If you see the screenshots below, similar to the Galaxy S4, you have access to slow motion videos (samples of which are posted below), but most people would never be able to find it. On the other hand, I like the fact that it does make use of the available hardware to let you take full sized photos while recording videos, unlike the AOSP camera app and the Sony camera app, that only take 1080p photos while recording videos (essentially capturing a screenshot of the video record).
The original, full res photo samples are available on Flickr – here.
The large 3200 mAh battery really lets you go free from a charger for extended periods, since it gives a really good backup. On the Nexus 4, Vinu had the battery last for 5-7 hours based on his usage, but on the Note 3, he goes for around 12-16 hours on a single charge. I used to get about 8 hours of use on my S4 and around 12 on the Note 3. Of course, your mileage may vary, as evinced by the stats from 3 users of the exynos model, on different firmware versions, on different networks, with different use cases below.
Performance in day to day tasks
The phone performs quite well with day to day tasks of emails, social media and assorted gaming, the 3GB RAM and the processor allows multi-tasking without the usual slowdowns which show up on lower spec’d phones. Some people on the Exynos model of the Note 3 complain about freezes on their phones, but we didn’t notice that on our phones.
A few months later, and a few months closer to the next round of flagship releases, is the Note 3 still worth being considered as device to be purchased? Well, yes and no. The price should drop a bit soon and there’s still quite a ways to go before the next version of the Note series is announced. If you need a big phone with a big screen and the stylus, then yes, the Note 3 is definitely worth it. The IR Blaster is quite handy, especially when you consider all the other apps that can really take advantage of it, check out our previous post on how to do it. It also depends on which device you’re moving from. If you are used to a big phone, like the original Galaxy Note, then the Note 3 is worth a try (also, the original Note needs a rest). If you’re on a Note 2, you could possibly wait for the next one, unless you’re the frequent upgrader. In which case, go for it.
As mentioned in the beginning, @vinuthomas contributed to this post.