The Galaxy Note 3 is Samsung’s highest-end phone of 2013. With a shiny new 1080p screen, a 13MP camera, and a monstrous processor, the Note 3 is already the winner specs wise. But now with fierce competition, can the Galaxy Note 3 and its new partner, the Galaxy Gear be trump the rest and take top spot as the best Android phone? Or better yet, the best phone of 2013? Read on to find out.
The Galaxy Note series has been setting benchmarks and changing our notions of what a smartphone is, ever since the first Galaxy Note was released back in 2011. The Note redefined the smartphone form factor and ushered in a new generation of phones,the phablets, pushing the screen to 5 inches, and rekindling the stylus trend with the S-Pen. In 2012, the Note II was launched with up-to-date internals and was one of the first commercially available devices with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Today, we have the Galaxy Note 3, boasting a drool-worthy spec sheet, the latest version of Jelly Bean, and a colourful sidekick to go, the Galaxy Gear. (Unfortunately, we were not provided a Galaxy Gear for review).
Every aspect of the Note 3 is impressive. Samsung have done a great job with the material and build quality of the phone, and critics of the plastic backing that Samsung have always used will be happy to know that there’s now a faux-leather backplate. It’s a welcome step away from the plain plastic, but for a phone of this price and quality, we were hoping Samsung would have made the backing real leather, or metal. That would have really made heads turn. Premium plastic would have to do for now. The majority of the front is housing the giant 5.7 inch Super AMOLED display ( more in the following section). The bezels are noticeably thinner now, and that helps fit the huge screen without sacrificing width. We have to say, if the phone were any wider, it would be uncomfortable to hold. This is the limit, and if they intend on pushing it to 6 inches for the next model, they might have to go for a bezel-less display and on screen buttons, ( a la the Nexus 5).
On the top are the proximity, light sensor, and the secondary 2MP camera. On the bottom is a physical home button flanked by two capacitive touch buttons, the menu key on the left, and the back key on the right. They light up for a few seconds upon use ( changeable in settings). There’s a faux-metal band around the edges of the whole device. Again, this is just plastic made to look like metal. We wonder why Samsung didn’t opt for a real metal band. The internals are all of the highest quality, so Samsung should build the exterior with premium materials too. On the right side of this band is the power button. The power button is positioned very well for both handed use. When using with your right hand, it’s exactly where your thumb is. With left handed usage, it sits roughly where your index would curl around the other side of the device. Powering on/off the screen felt natural and wasn’t hard. For those worried about the size of the phone, it’s great for big handed people. It really does fill the space of your hands nicely, with everything positioned just where you’d like them to. However, single-handed operation is really not possible for everything. If you were holding the device slightly to the bottom, you wouldn’t be able to pull down the notifications bar, without serious stretching. For small handed people, you’ll have to get used to two-handed usage. Fortunately, a number of OS functions have a single-handed mode. A good rule of thumb as a guide, if the Galaxy S4 felt big for you, this will be a huge phone. ( Or phablet, if you prefer).
On the left side of the outer band you’ll find the volume rocker. The rocker is located near the top, so if you decided to assign this as a camera shutter button, rest assured you’ll be holding the Note 3 just like a normal camera. You wont have to awkwardly stretch your index fingers to take a photo. (Especially handy in winter conditions ). The 3.5mm headphone jack and Infrared blaster ( for WatchON ) sit on the top of the phone. Looking at the bottom, you’ll find an all new port, a Micro USB 3.0 port. The Galaxy Note 3 is the first phone that comes with the new standard, and it’s a feature you don’t know you need until you have it. Many were wondering if they have to buy a new set of USB cables and chargers for the new port, but rest assured, the port is backwards-compatible. What this means is, you can still plug in your old Samsung chargers, or any USB 2.0 charger, and it will charge and transfer data fine. Samsung supplies a shiny USB 3.0 cable though, and we recommend it highly, due to the superb boost in charging speed you’ll get. To give you an idea, we went from 20% to 80% in under an hour. Finally your last minute charges will actually make a difference. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test the USB 3.0 data transfer speeds, due to our Windows 8 machine not having the motherboard set up for it. We do apologize for this, but theoretically you would get 10x faster transfer speeds. ( This is affected by type of storage and speed of your PC/device memory). We’re commend Samsung for including the new standard, and hope all 2014 models come with the port. Besides the port, you’ll also find the speaker grille to the right of it. We are happy that Samsung opted to place the grille here and not on the back of the device. Now, you don’t have to turn your phone on it’s back just to listen to music on loudspeaker. To sum it up, you’ll find the new 3rd-generation S-Pen on the bottom right corner of the phone. ( More on the S-Pen and Note specific features later). Storage wise, we were provided the 32GB version, with 5.64GB already used by the system. You’re left with about 25GB of solid memory.
Software and Display
The Note 3 comes with a huge 5.7 inch screen, up from 5.5 inches on the Note II. The Super AMOLED HD screen pushes 1920 x 1080 pixels, with a pixel density of 386ppi( pixels per inch). For comparson purposes, the Retina Display on the iPhone 5s has a ppi of 326, so the Note 3 does have sharper text and images. If you don’t care about the numbers or details about ppi, we’ll have you know that the screen is nevertheless fantastic. Despite having a lower PPI than the Galaxy S4, you won’t notice a difference. It’s Full HD in all it’s glory, and there wasn’t a moment to prove otherwise. Even in broad daylight, the screen is visible. You’ll have to crank the brightness to 100%, but you can view the screen fine. We don’t recommend browsing social sites or the Internet, ( you shouldn’t be using your phone while walking on the streets), but calls and text messaging will work fine. In normal lighting conditions, Auto Brightness works fine. We found that this was the best option, both for battery saving and comfort. When getting into the car, the screen immediately got brighter to accommodate the new light levels.
Enough about the display itself, now let’s get into what it displays, the Software. The Note 3 comes with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, ( Android 4.4 Kit Kat update in January 2014), with Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX 2.5. Aesthetically, the Note 3 looks almost identical to the Galaxy S4 in terms of software, (the Galaxy S4 runs Nature UX 2.0 ) but there are notable differences, mainly pre-loaded apps and the features baked in Android 4.3. Other than a few aesthetic changes, the new Touchwiz just skins the new features that come with Android 4.3. The notifications panel now includes a full settings panel, with a new icon on the top right to mark the new addition. You can also access this control panel with a two-finger swipe down from the top of the device. ( One finger swipe pulls notifications, two finger swipe pulls control panel ). However, you don’t get your Google Account profile picture on the control panel like stock Jelly Bean. Samsung has included two widgets for the new Lockscreen Widgets feature, Camera and Favourite Apps. Now all you have to do is swipe from right to left on the lockscreen to access either. The camera feature is particularly useful, but we also found ourselves accidentally accessing the camera app, instead of unlocking the device. Since both requires the same swiping motion, you have to get used to witch part of the screen you swipe. Aside from that, Samsung also bundles a number of S-branded apps exclusive to the Galaxy Note 3. S Health is a full-fledged fitness app that keeps track of your workout routines, calorie intake and even a step calculator.
We mentioned earlier that the Note 3 has an IR Blaster, and the WatchON app enables you to connect to any branded TV, and even your ASTRO set top box. The app also allows you to control your DVR, Home Theatre System, and even your air-conditioner from your phone ( doesn’t have to be a Samsung). Most of the time, manufactures introduce cool new features and services, but us Malaysians always seem left it. We applaud Samsung for domesticating the WatchON app for our local services. Once synced with your ASTRO box, the app automatically brings up programming and the channel guide, all tailored to your favourite shows. There’s even a lockscreen and notifications panel, so you can use WatchON while doing other things. You also get the same batch of S-apps; S Beam, Smart Scroll, Air View, Air Gesture, and Smart Stay. It also comes pre-loaded with Knox, Samsung’s Enterprise solution. Knox allows you to run a sandbox environment within the phone for work purposes. Apps are secured and cannot interchange data outside of the sandbox. It’s Samsung’s take at BlackBerry Balance. ( More on Knox ). On the whole, Samsung’s software provides a very user-friendly approach to Android, but somehow many of the S-apps feel like gimmicks more than everyday use cases. They’re great tricks to show off, but then you’ll end up turning them all off. The battery you’ll save with them off is more beneficial then the usage with them on. The stock firmware also takes up a lot of storage space, but the starting storage is already 32GB, which is a better choice than the 16GB Galaxy S4, with only 9GB usable storage.
S-Pen and S-Note
The Note 3 comes with so many features and apps that people forget its excellent Note taking abilities ( no pun intended ). Every iteration of the Note series has brought improvements to that experience, and with the Note 3 we’re happy to say that Samsung has made the most improvements in this area. There’s a new popup, “Air Command” that appears the moment you pull out the new S-Pen, with a nice animation and sound on cue. You can also manually activate the popup by hovering the S-Pen over the screen ( dot cursor is visible ) and pressing the button on the stylus. Air Command has 5 pre-loaded functions on its palette; Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S Finder, Pen Window.
Performance and Battery Life
When you look at the spec sheet of the Note 3, you’re looking at top of the line internals that promise a smooth and responsive Android experience. We were never let down by that Quad-core beast running in the phone, and the ability of the phone to multitask with tons of apps open, and two windows running simultaneously without a hitch. It certainly reminds you what 3GB of RAM can do. Jelly Bean’s Project Butter does help maintain the OS at 60fps most of the time. However, we do encounter slight hiccups whilst using the phone, but there wasn’t a moment where the phone locked up and required a battery pull. There were two instances where the phone just rebooted suddenly, but we’re classifying that as isolated cases. On the whole we’re very pleased with the performance of the phone; it is arguably the most powerful phone available now. Benchmark scores also don’t disappoint, scoring around the range we expected, besting all other models we’ve tested so far including the HTC One and Galaxy S4. Below are just a few scores we got from the phone.
Galaxy Note 3: 22275 / HTC One: 12480 / Samsung Galaxy S4 : 12075
Galaxy Note 3: 35370 / HTC One : 23300 / Samsung Galaxy S4 : 24701
Galaxy Note 3: 1225 / HTC One : 781 / Samsung Galaxy S4 : 784
The Note line of smartphones have always boasted superb battery life, and the Note 3 has a huge 3200mAh battery to run the power hungry internals. It’s a very slight upgrade over the Galaxy Note II’s 3100 mAh, and although it is sufficient, we would have liked for Samsung to have made a more significant upgrade to the battery size. The display and processors have all been upgraded from the Note II, and the battery should also follow suit. Nevertheless, the Note 3 provides the best battery life of any phone we’ve tested here, except the Note II. With normal usage, you’ll definitely get through a whole day with this phone. However, the display does drain the battery, so we recommend setting it at Auto or 25%, it’s good enough most of the time. For power users, you’ll be able to get through your entire work and still have enough juice to get home and charge it. You don’t have to worry about battery dying, unless you have Bluetooth, NFC and 4G running constantly. One thing we do have to say is, kudos to Samsung. Finally we have a 4G device that can actually use the 4G speeds without dying before you do anything with it. 4G still drains the battery much faster than Wi-Fi, but you can use your data without worrying that much. For comparison sakes, our BlackBerry Z10 couldn’t last more than 5 hours with 4G on. The Note 3 will last 10 hours on 4G constantly. The screenshots below show roughly how it fares with heavy use. The only department the previous gen Note II can trounce the Note 3 in, is battery life.
The Note 3 has a 13MP camera, but the photos it takes are sort of hit-and-miss. Sometimes the camera takes beautiful shots, others leave you frustrated with the amount of noise. We took the Note 3 along for a tour of Europe and find that it performs best in outdoor daylight conditions. The shots we took of monuments and famous buildings very fairly detailed and weren’t washed out. Some phones struggle in daylight due to over exposure, and need adjustments to the exposure values. We feel that a phones “Auto” mode should be able to handle most conditions without tweaking. Majority of people do not tinker with settings and toggles to get a good shot, they just take the photo. The Note 3’s Auto Mode does do a very good job at balancing light levels for most shots. All photos we post here were taken with Auto Mode, no adjustments @ 13MP. It’s also worth nothing that at full resolution of 13MP, the photos are a 4:3 ratio, whereas 8MP is 16:9 ratio. Basically, fans of Instagram will be happy to see their photo not losing much edges after the 1:1 crop on before uploading on Instagram. ( Instasize does solve this problem ). The Note 3 can also record video at 1080p and also 4K resolution. However, we don’t recommend 4K because it uses way too much storage space. We recommend 720p for a balance of quality and storage consumption. Audio recording is also decent. We tested the mic on an acoustic drumset, and the phone was able to record the drums quite well. Drums are the hardest instrument to record due to the varying sonic levels it produces, but the recording was clear enough to distinguish between hi-hats, snare, and kick strokes. Basically, highs mids and lows are all recorded with a balanced sound.
The GALAXY NOTE 3 is a fantastic phone, and truly a phone worthy to conclude 2013 on Cracktech. Samsung’s final release of the year, and righfully its best effort so far. Combining powerful hardware, a huge AMOLED screen, great software, superb battery life and the evolutionary S-Pen, the Note 3 manages to hold off the competition and claim the spot as, arguably, the best Android phone now. Will it still remain significant after the models of 2014 are released? Only time will tell, but rest assured, buyers are guaranteed a great experience, and one that will certainly last throughout the lifetime of the device. With the Android 4.4 KitKat update promised in January, the phone will receive a rebirth with the new features and smoother performance that KitKat brings to the Android experience. A few hiccups like the plastic backing, large build, and hit-or-miss camera are apparent, but certainly aren’t deal-breakers for us. We’d also recommend you pick up a Galaxy Gear. The smartwatch was tailor made to complement the Note 3, and it is a nice gadget to have as a companion device. Definitely worth trying out that Note 3 + Galaxy Gear combination Samsung always markets.