Samsung Galaxy Note 3 - Design and Screen Quality
What is the Samsung Galaxy Note 3?
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a slightly larger-screen stylus-equipped alternative to the Galaxy S4. It’s arguably a much more interesting phone than the Galaxy S4 too, although at £600 SIM-free this comes at a price. We’re not hugely into every design change Samsung has made this year, but this is a tech-head’s dream.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Design
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a large phone. It’s a very large phone. But it’s not in the same league as mobiles like the Galaxy Mega 6.3 and Xperia Z Ultra. You don’t feel entirely ridiculous holding the thing, and fitting it in one hand is not a struggle. Samsung has managed to make the Galaxy Note 3 narrower than the Galaxy Note 2, even though the new phone has a larger 5.7-inch display.
It’s an impressive feat by Samsung, but let’s not forget the phone is still 8cm wide. If you want a phone that you can easily use one-handed, this is not it. For a bit of context, the iPhone 5S is just 5.8cm wide.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is also among the first Galaxy phones not to use a glossy plastic rear. Samsung has tried to fool us into thinking the Note 3 has a leather rear. It looks like leather, and the battery cover has fake stitching around its outer edges. But make no mistake – this is not leather.
So what is it? It’s rubberised plastic with a leather-effect grain to give it a frictional quality of the real thing.
Take the battery cover off and you’ll see quite how similar it really is to the backplate of the Galaxy S4 and Note 2. It’s thin, it’s bendy, it’s plastic. And while it doesn’t feel bad as such, we prefer the aluminium of the HTC One and the matt plastic of the Nokia Lumia 925.
This is not a deal-breaker, but don’t approach the Note 3 thinking Samsung has revolutionised its approach to hardware design – it hasn’t.
If anything, the new stylistic tweaks are likely to polarise opinion more than the old phones.
As well as a leather-effect rear, the sides of the phone are ribbed chrome effect plastic, clearly intended to look like metal. And it ends up looking a bit naff. Moreover, the white version has a less convincing feeling than the black.
SEE ALSO: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 vs Note 2
This ribbed plastic is also seen on the S Pen, which slots into the bottom edge of the phone. There is at least some consistency, even if the surface-level generational upgrades feel like changes for change’s sake.
One such change – but also something that tech geeks will lap up – is the new connector socket on the bottom. It looks like a microUSB with a partially developed conjoined twin attached. It’s not graceful, but it does come with benefits.
The Galaxy Note 3 has the first USB 3.0-compliant socket we’ve seen on a phone. This hugely increases the rate at which the phone can leech data from a computer (when using a USB 3.0 port), and will increase the rate of recharging when doing so over USB (again when using a 3.0 port). With just 32GB of internal memory in a Note 3, we’re not hugely excited about faster file transfers. But faster charging from a work laptop sounds good to us.
You don’t have to use the supplied extra-large cable, either. The Galaxy Note 3 is happy to charge, and transfer data, using a standard microUSB cable. Like previous Galaxy-series phones, the port is also MHL-compliant, meaning you’ll be able to output video and audio to a TV with the right cable. You don’t get one in the box, though.
Like every other Note phone, the Note 3 offers expandable memory through a microSD memory card slot. The UK version of the phone has 32GB of memory, and while Samsung does make a 64GB edition, it's unlikely to get particularly wide distribution here.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Screen Quality
The Note series has seen a gradual increase in screen size across its three generations. The first had a 5.3-inch screen, the Note 2 has a 5.5-inch screen and the Galaxy Note 3 has a 5.7-inch screen. These small increments have been made without any negative effects on the bodywork. The Note is less wide and less heavy than either of the former Notes.
The Note 3’s core screen technology is similar, though. It uses a Super AMOLED display of 1080p resolution.
Like Galaxy S4, the Galaxy Note 3 uses a PenTile ‘diamond’ display, where the sub-pixels are arranged into a diamond shape. In a lower-resolution screen, using a PenTile display would result in fuzzy text, but here the 396ppi pixel density is high enough to make it a non-issue. This is a super-sharp screen despite being oversized.
And as comes with any good OLED-type screen, contrast and black levels are excellent in the Galaxy Note 3. Colours are a little more problematic. Fresh out of the box, they are a little hot, but Samsung gives you some control over the character of the display.
In the Settings menu you can pick between Dynamic, Standard, Professional Photo and Movie screen modes. Dynamic is as ugly as a TV in a Curry’s high street store (i.e. oversaturated), but the Photo and Movie modes get pretty close to giving an impression of accuracy.
As we saw with the Galaxy S4, top brightness is excellent for an AMOLED panel, although whites aren’t quite as searing as you’d see on a top-end IPS screen. This is a great display.
The most interesting part of the Galaxy Note 3’s screen, though, is the digitiser layer. You can’t see, it, but it’s what lets the S Pen stylus work. Wacom makes the digitiser in the Note 3 – it’s the company behind the ‘industry standard’ Intuos graphics tablets, used by professionals across the world. We’ll get onto what it’s capable of later.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Android and TouchWiz
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, and uses a custom UI very similar to that seen in the Galaxy S4. It’s called TouchWiz.
TouchWiz is infamous for packing squillions of features into Android, many of which are arguably unnecessary – or at worst completely useless. The features obsession continues with the Galaxy Note 3, but it fits pretty well here. Its large screen makes great use of some of the extra features, and the Notes have always felt like pretty geek-friendly phones.
The interface’s look is bright and colourful rather than desperately cool or stylish-looking. You can mute the Samsung style a little with your own wallpaper and widgets if it looks a little too toy-like for your tastes, but the Note 3 software is a little less tasteful than the HTC One’s.
At a basic level, Samsung doesn’t mess too much with the way Android works. It adds things to the basic building blocks of the system, rather than altering the fundamentals.
The best of these extras optimise how Android feels on a large screen. Multi View is one of the most interesting extras. It lets you run two apps on-screen at once, each taking up half the screen. However, it only works with native apps, not ones you’ve downloaded from the Google Play app store.
Still, you can chat with friends using ChatON (a Whatsapp/Google Hangouts alternative) while reading emails, scan through two websites at once, have a book/video open while browsing the web – and all manner of other combos. You can choose how much screen space each app gets too.
Multi View gets a firm thumbs-up, even if it’s not new – it even features in the old Samsung Galaxy S3. Some of you will think it's unnecessary, though.
Samsung also offers features to make the Note 3 easier to use for smaller hands. An accessibility mode lets you create a scalable ‘phone within a phone’ view. However, if you think you’ll use this as your everday view – please don’t buy the Note 3. Embrace the size or get out of town.
There are also one-handed versions of the keyboard, number pad, passcode unlock screen and call keypad.
Always keen to jump on a gimmick when it can, Samsung has packed in as many ways to interact with the Galaxy Note 3 as possible.
A touchscreen is no longer enough. The Note 3 also responds to fingers lingering above the screen, gestures in the air, palm swipes across the surface of the display and even senses your eyes looking at the screen.
These moves control pretty pedestrian things like flicking through photos, scrolling through web pages and silencing sounds or calls. As gimmicks to impress friends, they’ll do the trick, but we find they’re solutions to non-existent problems, and ones that can at times introduce their own issues. As some react to fingers hovering above the screen, you’ll occasionally set something off accidentally when browsing the web.
Perhaps more seriously, they turn your first few hours – or days – with the phone into a pop-up filled mess as the Galaxy Note 3 desperately tries to explain how to use its dozens of superfluous features every time you get near them. You can turn them all off within Settings easily enough, but don't buy this phone for a technophobe.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Software and Apps
As well as interface tweaks, the Galaxy Note 3 comes with a bunch of additional apps. Helpfully – with our review phone at least – Samsung packs most of them into a pair of Samsung folders in the apps menu rather than bombarding you with their unfamiliar icons as soon as you get the phone out of the box.
As well as the note-taker Evernote, Flipboard, Trip Advisor and Dropbox (you get 50GB of Dropbox storage with the Note 3) you get these Samsung apps.
A basic fitness tracker that lets you log what you eat (a painful exercise in itself) and monitor the number of steps you take in a day using the phone’s accelerometer. Samsung could have incorporated full GPS tracking here, but it would have killed the battery in-use – and that’s only going to make everyone angry. It’s an app for your average, possibly slightly overweight, Joe and Joetta.
This is a TV guide app that also lets you control your TV and various home entertainment boxes using the IR transmitter of the Note 3. It looks snazzy, but setting it up for your telly is a pain. The commands in its database are only specific at the manufacturer level, so you’ll need to try out multiple iterations of each command (i.e. each remote button) to make them work with your specific TV.
A solid translation app that – we imagine – may have been inspired by the communication difficulties between Samsung’s Korean HQ and its many global satellites. Just a guess.
Samsung’s Siri alternative can perform the same sort of tasks as Apple’s voice assistant. It’ll call people for you, set calendar events, set alarms and so on. It’s not quite as advanced as Siri in some respects, but it’s the same sort of idea.
Probably the most impressive part of TouchWiz’s extended software suite is Knox. And it’ll be the least-commonly used by normal people. Knox is a hardcore security solution that secures work data much more completely than standard Android. Even the Pentagon has cleared it for use within its walls. Either your work will say that you have to use it, or you probably won't use it at all.
Is TouchWiz’s interface and software library a success? Yes, it doesn’t make the phone run slowly, doesn’t look too bad and isn’t buggy. But it does require patience, isn’t quite as snappy as vanilla Android 4.3 and is about as far removed from the simplicity of an iPhone as you can get.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3: Performance and Games
The Galaxy Note 3 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, which is a generation more advanced than the chip of the Galaxy S4 (the quad-core version we have in the UK). It’s significantly more powerful, making this one of the fastest phones on the market right now.
There are few games to challenge it on Google Play right now. Our standard gaming test, Real Racing 3, is no problem for the Note 3. And the 3D Mark and Geekbench tests show that it’s on par with, or slightly faster than (thanks to its super- generous 3GB of RAM) the Snapdragon 800 Xperia Z1.
The extra power doesn’t really manifest that obviously, but it is there. We'll have to wait until Epic Games releases Infinity Blade 3 on Android to see whether the Snapdragon 800 is really capable of the sort of graphical feats as the iPhone 5S's new Apple A7 chipset. It's all rather academic at present.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – S Pen
The Snapdragon 800 processor is a case of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s the Galaxy Note 3’s S Pen that’s really worth talking about.
It uses a Wacom digitiser, meaning it can sense varying pressure levels. It’s much more intelligent than a simple capacitive stylus.
In-hand, though, the Note 3’s S Pen feels like a simple stick of plastic. It’s light, it’s small and it slots into the bottom of the phone – making it slightly less easy to lose. Samsung also puts in a software feature to help out on this front. If you take the S Pen out of its cubby hole and walk away a few paces, the phone bleats to let you know the pen isn’t aboard.
But more importantly, what can you do with the S Pen? Quite a lot as it turns out. The Galaxy Note 3 benefits from being the third phone in the Note series, the third to feature a stylus like this - giving Samsung and other developers time to optimise their apps for this rare (in phones) technology.
You can use the pen to navigate around the phone, to write texts and emails using the phone’s excellent optical character recognition, to draw pics and more. The biggest chance in the Note 3’s S Pen software, comapred to the Note 2, is the S Command menu.
Hover over the screen and press the button on the stylus and this circular menu pops-up. It offers five shortcuts to the most stylus-centric features, and the Note 3’s universal search function.
Action memo is a little post-it style window that lets you jot down quick handwritten notes, or perform commands. For example, you can write a phone number ring it, or write down a term and search the web for it.
The second S Command feature is Scrap Booker. You draw around anything on-screen you want to keep in your virtual scrapbook, which is a separate app.
The third S Command feature is Screen Write. Tap it and a screengrab of whatever’s on the display is captured, which you can then scribble on. You can then save your scribbles to the Galaxy Note 3’s gallery.
The final S Command feature (bar the self-explanatory universal search), and perhaps the most ambitious, is Pen Window. It asks you to draw a box on the screen, which opens up a window of multi-tasking apps.
These can be run on top of whatever else you’re doing, within scalable windows (a bit like a windowed app in… Windows). In a smaller-screen phone this feature would be ridiculous, but in the Note 3 is makes sense – just about.
Apps that can be windowed like this include YouTube, the web browser, calculator and the dialler.
These additional S Pen features make the Galaxy Note 3 quite a complicated phone that requires a good deal of time to get used to. Matched with the already-abundant features of TouchWiz, it’s an awful lot to take on.
Like the gestural features, you can ignore the extra stylus bits if you want.
S Pen apps
Samsung also offers a few stylus-centric standalone apps in the Galaxy Note 3. The most important are S Note and Sketchbook.
S Note has been around since the early days of the Note series, and – as its name suggests – is a note-taking app. As well as just scribbling, and adding text using OCR, you can add audio clips, images, videos, charts and even maps. It’s much more than just a virtual post-it note.
Autodesk’s Sketchbook is a drawing/art app that is one of the few to make full use of the phone’s pressure sensitivity capabilities. It’s great, too. It's dead easy to use and offers a bunch of different ‘brush’ types and full support for layers. It’s pretty complete app.
It’s casual enough for those who aren’t used to using programs like Photoshop too. You’re limited to 18 layers, and very large images offer fewer layers, but if you want to do ‘real’ professional work, you’re probably not going to be using a Note 3.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Camera App and Performance
The Note 3 has a camera app very similar in use to that of the Galaxy S4. It’s pretty easy to use, designed to be operated with just the one thumb – there are separate video and stills shutter buttons that sit just under your digit.
As standard, the Galaxy Note 3 camera is set to full auto, meaning you only need to pick the subject of your shot. There’s no physical camera button on the phone, but with fast focusing and virtually zero shutter lag, this is a very enjoyable camera to shoot with.
Like the rest of the phone’s interface, though, it does bombard you with options a bit. Aside from Auto, there are 12 photo modes. Some are great, some are unnecessary chaff – and you’re left to sift through them to find the useful ones. We have a feeling some people may be daunted by the sheer number, causing them to stick to Auto mode.
Our favourites include Rich Tone (an HDR mode), Panorama and Sport. HDR merges multiple exposures types to bring out more detail in your snaps, perfect if the lighting conditions are poor, or if you’re shooting a scene with overcast clouds; Panorama is self-explanatory, shooting a wide view of your surroundings; and Sport keeps the shutter speed quicker than it would be in Auto mode, making fast-moving objects appear sharp.
The other modes are a little more involved, going far beyond the scene modes you’d get in most dedicated cameras. Beauty Face softens faces to get rid of wrinkles and spots – it’s a bit odd. Drama takes multiple exposures and merges them, to let you get multiple instances of one moving object in a single picture. Eraser takes multiple exposures too, but with the aim of removing moving objects from a scene. The weirdest of the lot is Golf, which is designed precisely to capture a multi-exposure shot of a golf swing.
The madness continues. These slightly odd modes can produce some fun shots to share on Facebook, but as they’re a bit like an ice cream maker (you’ll use it once or twice, then never use them again) we wish there was a way to stash them into a box to hide most of them. Of course – that’d just add more features for smartphone novices to stumble over.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Camera Image Quality and Video
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has a 13-megapixel camera with a single-LED flash. It’s very similar specs-wise to the Galaxy S4, with an f/2.2 lens and a 1/3.2-inch sensor, resulting in tiny sensor pixels of 1.1 microns.
It’s a camera that a bit old-school in its approach - it uses a small, high-resolution sensor when other phone-makers are starting to put more priority on increasing sensor and sensor pixel sizes (both good moves, photographically).
Detail and Exposure
In good lighting, the Note 3 can produce a good level of detail that surpass the HTC One and the iPhone 5S. Sometimes megapixels do pay.
However, we did find the images to be slightly less sharp, and slightly darker than the Galaxy S4. It’s not a huge performance difference, though.
Low-light Performance and Flash
Where the Note 3 really disappoints is its low-light performance. For some reason, Samsung has cut the dedicated Night mode out of the Note 3. Instead, it relies simply on the Auto mode for low-light shots.
And it’s simply not up to it. In poor lighting, photo performance is terrible. Where rivals tend to produce grainy but discerable photos of our standard low-light scene, the Note 3 shot is basically pitch black. Objects only become discernible when you’ve processed the images significantly - and they still look awful.
Fingers-crossed Samsung will sort this out by reinstating Night mode in an update. At present, the Note 3 falls way behind the competition.
Depth of Field and Macro
The Galaxy Note 3 gets back to the sort of camera performance we’d expect with its macro skills and depth of field effects.
Macro performance is solid, producing good close-up detail and better-than-average focusing distance – i.e. you can get quite close to your subject. As we saw in our standard crop of the London skyline, images were slightly less sharp than those of the Galaxy S4.
One area where the Note 3 performs better than the S4 is creating depth of field effects. The Galaxy Note 3 is better-than average (in this top-end phone camera field), offering better background blurring than its smaller brother.
Shallow depth of field is the easiest way to make a shot look arty, making the background appear blurred in order to make the subject ‘pop’.
Perhaps our favourite ‘extra’ photo mode of the Note 3 is HDR – high dynamic range. And the Note 3’s version of it is excellent.
It combines multiple exposures of the same scene to produce more detail-filled shots. Without HDR enabled, the sky in the shot below would be a block of white/grey. But here you can see the full detail of the cloud cover. This is an example of seriously effective HDR in action. Well done, Samsung. We should say that the effect is at times so intense that it’s often pretty clear you’re using a ‘creative’ mode – which photo purists would call cheating. The iPhone's HDR mode is subtler, but arguably not 'better' as such.
"The clouds above Trusted towers were tumescent with ominous portent..."
hoot, the Note 3 also lets you edit your images. As well as fixing issus with brightness and contrast, you can add creative filters, frames, ‘stickers’, and you can also crop and rotate. Here's an example of the sort of pic you can create.
The Galaxy Note 3 offers solid video capture. There’s refocusing during shooting, 1080p video capture, software image stabilisation and both slow motion and fast motion capture.
Slow motion is captured at 720p, fast motion at full 1080p. Samsung doesn’t drop these into the mode section, making them very easy to miss. But they’re great fun, and can produce some good (and hilarious) results.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Battery Life
The Galaxy Note 3 has a large battery – its capacity is 3,200mAh. That’s 100mAh up from the Galaxy Note 2, in order to compensate for the larger, higher-resolution screen.
In use, this increase doesn’t really seem to cover the upgrades, though. Stamina is acceptable, but we found it to be less remarkable than the second Note. You’ll have to charge every day with moderate use, as each day we were down to 50 per cent battery life or lower by mid-afternoon.
There is a Power Saving mode that’ll help to get the maximum running time out of your mobile, though. It throttles the CPU, turns off haptic feedback and offers a low-brightness screen mode. The removable battery cover gives you easy access to the battery - letting you take around a spare if you need to the phone to last a particularly long time away from a charger.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Connectivity
As you’d expect from a phone that packs-in every software feature under the sun – including features most of us have never thought of before – the Galaxy Note 3 has every connectivity feature you could ask for.
Aside from the smartphone standards, you get NFC, 4G, Bluetooth 4.0, and IR transmitter and MHL. Samsung also offers a few apps that try to make better use of the lesser-used connections. Samsung Link is a Wi-Fi-based connectivity app that lets you speak to other Samsung Link devices. Group Play uses NFC to let you share music with other Samsung phones. There’s also a Wi-Fi Direct sharing option within the Gallery – Wi-Fi Direct uses a Wi-Fi signal, but doesn’t require internet connectivity.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – Call and Sound Quality
The Galaxy Note 3 offers solid call quality, with a reasonably loud, clear earpiece speaker and active noise cancellation thanks to the secondary pinhole microphone that sits on the top edge of the phone. As the phone's outer is made entirely of plastic - aside from the glass screen front - the Note 3 avoids the signal issues that can crop up in metal phones.
Given the size of the Note 3's body, though, we were a little disappointed by the quality of its internal speaker. There's a single speaker grille for the speaker on the bottom edge, and while top volume is decent, sound quality is nothing to boast about.
It's quite thin-sounding, and with just a single speaker outlet, it's an entirely mono speaker. We'd ideally like to see Samsung incorporate a DSP mode to improve sound quality - we don't rate using DSP with headphones, but they can improve the tone of a tiny mobile phone speaker no end.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Note 3?
The Galaxy Note 3 is a mostly safe, predictable entry in the Note series. It’s more powerful, it has a larger screen and more features than its predecessor. And the stylus is more useful than ever before, with an improved app selection to make use of the S Pen stylus.
You need to buy into what the Galaxy Note 3 is all about, though, as it’s significantly more expensive than a Galaxy S4. It smaller sibling is available for around £420 SIM-free, where the Note 3 will sell for £600-650. That’s a lot to pay for a pen, some extra screen space and some slightly upgraded internals.
Still, this is a phone type that the competition still hasn’t managed to successfully replicate – a bit of a surprise given that the Note series has sold in excess of 38 million units to date. It's also worth considering the Note 2, which is available for just under £300 less than its replacement. It's less powerful and has a screen that is slightly dated specs-wise. But if anything we have fonder memories about that phone, not least because of its longer battery life.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 successfully continues the one Samsung series of phones that no other manufaturer to date has really managed to touch. Stylus phones aren't for everyone, but we have to applaud the lengths to which Samsung has gone to in order to try and make the thing feel useful. However, the ridiculous number of features mean this is not a phone for smartphone beginners.