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Samsung Note 3 Review: In Depth

The Good

  • The fastest device money can buy

The Bad

  • Buggy
4

It’s been two years since Samsung introduced the world to the Galaxy Note series. At first, the world wasn’t impressed, mocking the supersized phone for its large proportions in a world still populated by 4-inch devices.

Fast forward to the present day, and it’s clear that the Note has been a huge success for Samsung. The company has sold over 38 million Notes so far, so it’s only natural for the company to want to capitalize on that trend. That’s where the Note 3 comes in.

Business as usual

It’s easy to be cynical and see the Note 3 as a minor revision in terms of hardware, but there are bigger changes here than you might think. The most significant is the move away from the gross glossy plastic used on the rest of Samsung’s Galaxy series, and it’s certainly the most welcome. The back of the phone no longer feels disgustingly slippery after a few minutes use, and it’s good to finally have some kind of grippy texture to hang on to.

Having said that, it leaves a lot to be desired. Samsung still seems to be obsessed with mimicking more premium materials instead of actually using them. You’d be forgiven for thinking the back of the Note 3 has a soft touch feel, but it’s the same hard polycarbonate used on the handsets of Christmas past. That “stitched leather” around the edge? Not really leather. It’s just more hard plastic.

It’s the same story with the “metal” frame surrounding the device. The ridges are a nice touch, and definitely give the Note 3 a more appealing visual look, but why not just use actual metal at this point? The weaved pattern overlaying the front of the phone still confuses me too. It’s not noticeable from a normal viewing distance, and it doesn’t exactly make the front look any better when you’re holding the handset a little closer than usual.

There are some concerning build quality issues as well. First, the power button doesn’t feel firm when depressed. It can be a little bit gummy on occasion, and sometimes it didn’t register my presses at all. Second, the home button isn’t properly fixed in place. As Android Police recently pointed out, the button can become crooked through regular everyday use – a fact I confirmed with my own review unit. That’s pretty poor.

Purple Haze

How did Samsung manage to fit a 5.7-inch display into smaller dimensions than the Note 2? The same way as the Galaxy S3 to Galaxy S4 transition: by simply cutting back on bezels. Better yet, Samsung has bumped the AMOLED panel from 720p to 1080p. It’s sharp and extremely bright – probably the brightest AMOLED display so far, actually. Using the Galaxy S4 outside was somewhat of a nightmare, but I had no trouble at all with the Note 3 when cranked up to maximum brightness. Naturally, you still get those inky blacks.

AMOLED is still oversaturated to my eyes. I liken it to the Torch Mode often used on TVs in showrooms. Sure, it looks extremely impressive when you walk past, but it’s a nightmare to look at day in and day out. Luckily, Samsung has carried across the different screen modes found on the S3 and S4 that help keep the absurd colours in check. I found Movie mode to be the most tolerable after turning off Auto Adapt and Auto Adjust Screen Tone.

But it wouldn’t be AMOLED without some weird issues. The purple scrolling bug – first seen on the Galaxy S4 – has made a reappearance. If you’re scrolling through any images containing black at the edges, a purple trail will be temporarily left behind as the display tries to light up the correct pixels. You can see the same effect – although not quite as pronounced – in the settings menu too (pay attention to the white lines).  There’s also a noticeable purple tint towards the bottom right hand of the display, which is pretty strange. AMOLED isn’t really known for its uniformity issues, unlike LCD panels, so it’s disappointing to see this type of issue slip through quality control.

Samsung is also still being far too conservative with its automatic brightness profile. The panel is always far too dim when indoors – even under bright lights – and the bias adjustment does little to help. Yes, the company is trying to save precious power, but it’s really not an issue when you’re dealing with a battery this large (3,200mAh, in case you were wondering). Turning off auto brightness and manually adjusting the brightness in the notification shade is the best way to go, although third-party app Lux is a solid alternative.

Punch it, Chewie

The Galaxy S4 may include a Snapdragon 600 SoC, but the Note 3 one-ups its smaller sibling for Qualcomm’s newest silicon, the Snapdragon 800. It absolutely flies.

Almost everything on the Note 3 is smooth and lag free. iOS set the standard for the fluidity of a smartphone all those years ago while managing to pull it off year after year on lesser hardware specs. But the Snapdragon 800 has finally levelled the playing field, and devices like the Note 3, Xperia Z Ultra, and LG G2 prove it: Android now feels just as smooth as iOS.

The Note 3 is also the first Android device to include 3GB of RAM, which should alleviate any multitasking fears. I rarely saw any apps having to reload or refresh after leaving them in the background for extended periods of time, nor did I ever run into any memory issues. You could push the limits of 2GB equipped phones if you tried, but I highly doubt the Note 3 will present any problems. The only remaining barrier to 4GB of RAM is 64-bit support for Android.

Battery life is great too. It doesn’t quite reach the heights set by the Note 2, but I could easily get a day and a half out of the Note 3 before it needed to be topped off. That’s with two push gmail accounts, Twitter syncing in the background, photos, the occasional video, WhatsApp, and some light gaming. If you need a device that can get you through a full working day with plenty of juice to spare, the Note 3 is the clear choice.

Swell Pen

I immensely dislike TouchWiz. It’s garish, obnoxious, and far too feature heavy. It often gets in the way rather than helping, and is generally a pain to use. You can hide some of it… but it’s always there, lurking beneath, ready to irritate you when you least expect it. Rather than retread the latest iteration of Samsung’s customisations – have a look at the Galaxy S4 review instead – I’ll focus on improvements to the S Pen.

Unsheathing the pen from its dock will automatically open a radius menu, giving you five options. The first is Action Memo, which converts your handwritten notes into text that can be used as contact information, phone numbers, short messages, browser queries, map requests, and tasks. In practise, it works pretty well – my scrawny handwriting was recognised nine times out of ten without any issues. I can see this being useful to jot down contact information, but I wouldn’t use it with Maps or the browser.

The second feature is Scrap Booker, which can pull images or text from any app on the device into your very own digital scrapbook. Again, this works pretty well. Even a rough circle or square around the content I wanted to save resulted in an intelligent selection – you don’t have to be particularly accurate or careful when picking what you want.

Next up is Screen Write. It takes a screenshot which you can write over. It works.

Then there’s S Finder, which is essentially a localised search feature which has clearly been ripped off from Google Now. Even the fonts and card layout are similar. Anyway, you type what you’re looking for, the phone tries to find it. There are filters you can apply – time, type of content – but otherwise, that’s it. I never really used it.

Finally, there’s Pen Window. If, for whatever reason, you don’t want to use Multi Window, you can instead draw a small free floating window with the S Pen and fill the gap with an app. Choices include the calculator, the clock, YouTube, Contacts, Phone, ChatOn, Google Hangouts, the browser, and WhatsApp. It doesn’t quite work as intended.

If you draw an irregular rectangle, Samsung’s software tries to compensate accordingly, but it usually gets it wrong. The browser – and all content contained within – ends up being squashed if you don’t draw the right kind of shape. The same thing happens with WhatsApp and all the other supported apps. The novelty wore off quickly, the bug irritated me, and I quickly started to wonder why you would ever use this over Multi Window.

The S Pen, then, is still hit and miss. But the handwriting recognition is the best in the business, and the pressure sensitivity in tandem with the software means that you can do much more than idle doodling. Most people will probably never use the pen in day to day life, while others will seriously love it. Your mileage may vary.

Pixels pixels everywhere

HTC and Apple have chosen to increase the size of the pixels on their camera sensors, but Samsung has opted for a more straightforward approach. Just like the Galaxy S4, the Note 3 includes a 13-megapixel sensor, but it doesn’t include optical image stabilisation like the HTC One or LG G2.

The camera on the Note 3 can be rather unpredictable. Photos taken in good lighting conditions look great, even if they are a tiny bit oversaturated, yet it’s hard to ignore Samsung’s image processing.

Just like the Galaxy S4, areas of pictures taken on the Note 3 can be overfiltered. Sharpening often rears its head throughout photos, resulting in some ringing and artifacting around hard edges, while noise reduction ends up softening fine detail rather than curbing actual noise. What’s the point in having 13-megapixels to play with if your software tweaks lower the effective resolution?

Low light pictures aren’t great. They’re filled with noise, and detail levels aren’t anywhere close to standard shots. The One, G2, and Lumia 1020 really don’t have anything to worry about.

But the worst part is the way that pictures in low lighting conditions are actually taken. Normally, you take a photo, you see the flash around the edges of the display, and that it’s. Your brain recognizes that the picture has been taken and that you’re free to move the phone. In low light, however, the phone performs some addition processing while displaying a pesky loading bar. If you don’t hold the device completely still during that interval (it lasts several seconds), then your photo will be blurry and unusable.

Most people will probably make the same mistake I did by moving the phone or walking away before that “Processing” step has been completely, especially because there’s no prompt telling you not to move during that period. “Processing” isn’t a very helpful indicator, even to a geek. Now think about what will go through the mind of a normal person. Has the picture been taken or not?

The 4K videos that the Note 3 is capable of recording look extremely crisp, although there’s some minor blocking and artifacting in darker areas of the footage. Still, how useful is 4K on a smartphone at this point in time? You’re not getting any added benefit thanks to the 1080p display, 4K TVs aren’t mainstream yet, and while YouTube can handle 4K uploads, your computer will probably struggle to play them back smoothly. It’s an impressive technological feat, but it’s not yet ready for primetime.

There are also slow motion recording modes, but they’re confusing to access and the results leave a lot to be desired. Choices include 1/2, 1/4, and 1/8 speeds, but you’ll never be able to select which mode you want quick enough to capture that all important moment. And while all three modes shoot at 720p, there are horrible scaling artifacts that suggests footage has been captured at a much lower resolution.

Samsung has also included a “smooth motion” mode, which is essentially 1080p at sixty frames a second. As advertised, it’s nice and smooth, although you’ll need to keep your hands nice and steady. Any unwanted movement is extremely noticeable once you start hitting framerates this high.

The only good bug is a dead bug

The Note 3 is a buggy device. In no particular order:

  • Sometimes the display take a second or two to wake up after pressing the power button. Other times the display lights up immediately, but the clock and notifications take another half second to appear.
  • Occasionally websites failed to fully render in the standard browser, with only a tiny square appearing in the top left hand corner. Scrolling rectified the problem, but it’s still a weird issue.
  • Plugging the headphones in will give you a list of app suggestions in the notification shade. Great, I guess. Except it recommends things that have nothing to do with music, like Falcon Pro and Nova Launcher. The phone isn’t really recommending apps for headphones, it’s recommending apps that I happened to be using while my headphones were plugged in. That’s not the same thing.

  • If you’re listening to Google Music and shooting photos at the same time, you’ll get an annoying pause every single time you take a picture. And if you’re taking a low light picture, the music will come to a completely stop while the phone is in its “Processing” mode. You then have to manually start the music again.
  • Home button responsiveness is still poor because of S Voice integration. This has been the case since the Galaxy S3, but I’m chalking it up as a bug as this point, purely because it becomes so much faster once you turn S Voice off. And really, who uses S Voice?

Most of these could be fixed through software updates. In fact, Samsung is rolling out an over-the-air update right now that might quash these issues. That doesn’t change the fact that they should never have made it into a shipping product.

So, should I buy this thing?

If you bought a Note 2 and are thinking of upgrading, then you should buy the Note 3. It’s much more than a minor update – it’s faster, lighter, thinner, includes a better display, and *feels* like a better device. Even if you haven’t owned a Note product in the past but prefer larger handsets, then the Note 3 is a good choice. Samsung has found the sweet spot between “big” and “too big”. The battery life is also great.

But…

But?

Saying the Note 3 is the “best big phone” is a cop out. What competition does Samsung even have? The Xperia Z Ultra isn’t a phone, it’s a tablet with LTE connectivity. HTC’s One Max doesn’t technically exist yet. And as good as the LG Optimus G Pro was, the company never brought it to the UK market.

The Note 3 is only really the “best” because no one is even competing in the same area. And really, Samsung’s “best” pales in comparison to other manufacturers. The South Korean chaebol is still making the bare minimum effort when it comes to build quality, and TouchWiz at this point needs a complete overhaul. Yes, the hardware specs are fantastic on paper, but actually using the Note 3 isn’t a good experience.

Samsung can do so much better than this, and we all know Samsung can do better because of the Galaxy Gear. Where’s that premium build quality, that simplified software, that tasteful approach? That’s what I really want to see. Please, Samsung, make it happen for next year’s Galaxy devices. Get us actually excited about something for a change. Show us what you can really do.

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