Samsung edges toward perfection (November 11th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Samsung
Price: $300 to $750
- Big, beautiful screen
- Terrific S Pen integration
- Long battery life
- Amazingly powerful
- Feature overload betrays lack of focus
- Still plastic
To the puzzlement of many, Samsung's series of massive Galaxy Note smartphones has carved out a considerable niche for itself, with each iteration selling better than the last. We here at Electronista were much enamored of the Galaxy Note II, noting in our review that it was probably the best smartphone available for creative-minded individuals. Its follow-up, the Galaxy Note 3, sports a larger display and enhanced S Pen capabilities, but the question remains: is it demonstrably better than its predecessor?
Some things about the Note 3 are different, but one thing remains the same: it is still a gargantuan phone. We had no problem with the size of the second Galaxy Note, though it was about all we could handle even given the size of your reviewer's hands. While the Note 3 fills up hands and pockets in the same way its predecessors did, we point out its size this time by way of complimenting Samsung. The South Korean tech giant managed to put an even bigger and better screen into the new Note without expanding its form factor.
The new Note has about the same footprint as the Note II, but it is actually a bit smaller, measuring 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3mm, as opposed to the Note II's 151 x 80.5 x 9.4mm. It is also a bit lighter than its older sibling, weighing in at 168g, 14g lighter than the Note II.
In terms of build quality, we remain a bit disappointed by Samsung, but not overly so. The company stuck with the plastic composition that marks all of its mobile devices, but there have been some improvements. The new Note sports a rougher, grippier back, with a faux stitched leather design. The overall effect lacks the tactile appeal of, say, Apple's "unapologetically plastic"iPhone 5c, but it feels much better to the touch than the Note II's slick, glossy backing. The only build edge that we'd give to the older Note is that the Note 3's backing feels flimsy around the microUSB port at the bottom, as though it could easily pop off.
The bottom front edge of the device sports the same mix of capacitive and physical controls seen in the older Notes, and we had the same take on those as we did in the past. They are, for the most part, quite solid in their operation. There is, though, the risk of triggering one of the buttons accidentally, which can back one out of an app even when one did not desire to exit. Despite this, we're pleased with Samsung's design choice, as those buttons mean that the whole of the Note 3's beautiful screen is at one's disposal, whereas the bottom portion is taken up by Android controls on many other devices.
The Note 3's display is indeed a sight to behold. Big, beautiful, and unapologetically bright, the screen is one of the device's best features. The Super AMOLED screen measures 5.7 inches diagonally, and it outputs at an eye-scorching 1080x1920 resolution. That amounts to a pixel density of 386ppi, making it one of the more amazing screens on the market for just about any device. Samsung's default lock screen image for the Note 3 is a close-up shot of brush strokes in an array of colors, as though the company wants you to know from the moment you turn the device on just how powerful the display is. The effect is not lost: the clumps and streaks of the brush strokes are stunningly, immediately discernible.
The display's AMOLED technology often results in oversaturation, which we've never considered too much of a big issue. We've actually been fans of the saturation levels, to some extent. When showing off pictures on the display, they seem to pop so much more than on other devices. Samsung, though, has included a display settings option that tweaks the color levels, just in case any potential users are unsatisfied with the exaggerated color representation.
If you're considering buying a Galaxy Note 3, you likely already know that the device is a beast, as were its forebears. We're not too big on benchmarks, as their numbers are typically of little import to the average consumer, but we ran the Note 3 through the Geekbench 3 tests for decorum's sake. The device scored 935 on the single-core test and 2,985 on the multi-core test, positively blowing away the Note II's respective scores of 501 and 1583. Given Samsung's sluggish pace at pushing out Android updates, we must note that the Note II was running Android 4.1.2, but we don't think a software update would do too much to close the gap with its younger, sleeker counterpart.
Just how does that power translate into everyday use? Everything on this device is fast and smooth. Graphics-intensive games open before you know it, and browsing is a breeze. Given the Note 3's pedigree, we don't think it too necessary to dwell on the device's performance, so well sum up this section in four words: fast enough for you.
Connection, battery life
Last year, the Note II review unit that we got was on T-Mobile's network, and this year is no different. What is different, though, is that T-Mobile has activated its 4G network. The difference, of course, is considerable. Whereas the Note II saw speeds as low as 342kbps for downloads and 1231kbps for uploads, the Note 3 gave us 19.32Mbps download speeds and 11.78kbps upload speeds.
Battery life remains fantastic in the new Note. Samsung managed to squeeze a 3200mAh battery into the Note 3, as compared to the Note II's 3100mAh battery, which is again surprising due to the device keeping roughly the same form factor. We put the new Note through the same sort of usage abuse as we did its predecessor: gaming on it, taking pictures, surfing the web, recording video, watching video, streaming music, occasionally making phone calls, and even more.
We said it last year, and we'll say it again: the Note's battery took everything we could throw at it, and it kept on coming. Only with concerted effort were we able to get the indicator into the red, but we think the average consumer will probably only get it around half-spent on their heaviest use days. Quite pleasantly, the Note 3 also has terrific standby life, so users will still likely be able to get another full day's use out of it even having forgotten to plug it in overnight.
The camera on the Note 3 is about what one would expect, given the device's other powerful features. As always, Samsung has loaded the camera with tons of features that, frankly, the average user will not use and may not even discover. Taking pictures on the device is, though, a speedy and pleasant affair, although we'd recommend that, for expediency's sake, one leaves it on the Auto setting. Beyond Auto, though, the Note 3 camera has all of the bells and whistles one might expect from a high-end smartphone.
We were a bit disappointed with the Note 3's low-light performance, as the images wound up somewhat grainy. Samsung has built in a feature that should improve low-light performance, but we noticed no real improvements in image quality. That said, most of the best smartphone cameras struggle to capture suitable low-light images, and one is really better off going for a dedicated camera if that is a real concern.
One thing to consider, though, is the impact of that display on captured images. Many people simply keep their camera rolls on their smartphones in order to show off, and that is where the Note 3 shines. Images look much brighter and have a lot more pop than those we've seen when viewing on other devices. If your smartphone has basically become your wallet, you could definitely do worse than to use the Note 3 to show off pictures of your kids.
As we said last year, we are big fans of the Note series' signature S Pen. Right as he was about many things, Apple's Steve Jobs was quite wrong about companies having screwed up if they include styluses with their touchscreen devices. The S Pen enables features that are far superior to anything one will find on an iOS device, even - as we have noted, with a specialized stylus and dedicated app. The native stylus support built into the Note series makes them, in this one area, far more capable than any other mobile offerings, Apple's included.
This year, Samsung has tweaked the S Pen's functionality with the aim of distinguishing the Note line even further. The first among these tweaks was to make the stylus a bit slimmer overall. The physical change will likely do much one way or another to shift your view on its ergonomics, but the other changes Samsung added may pique your interest.
Upon removing the S Pen, a radial menu pops up, giving one the choice between five options: Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window. Of these, we'd have to say that Action Memo is the coolest. Tapping that option takes one to a Post-It Note-like interface, where one can scribble to one's heart's content. Upon pressing the "Action" button at the top of the note, one can turn those scribbles into a task on a to-do list, a new Google contact, a phone book entry, an email, or a map entry, all automatically. So long as the Note can recognize your handwriting, it can turn that scribbling into a digital element, and it is all carried off very smoothly.
The other menu options are also interesting. Scrap Booker allows one to pick items from the web to save into an on-device scrapbook, while Screen Write captures a screenshot and immediately lets one begin editing it. S Finder searches both one's handwriting and other entries in the Note's history, and Pen Window tweaks the Pop-Up Video feature that was in the older Note into something that is actually useful. By drawing a small box, a user can pop up an item like a calculator or YouTube video atop the current screen and interact with it.
As with previous Notes, the freedom the S Pen allows one in creating is undeniable. We still like to sketch a few things now and again, and the pressure-sensitive S Pen allows for a much better degree of precision than any other devices. It also faithfully reproduces one's handwriting, which can then be translated into digital text by the Note. We maintain our position from last year that this one feature of the Note fully sets the device apart not only from those from competing manufacturers, but also Samsung's other high-end offerings.
One disappointing thing, though, seems to stem perhaps from Samsung's own culture. We had hoped that the company would hone the performance of the S Pen, specifically the handwriting recognition. This year, we found that the Note was slightly better at turning handwriting into printed text, but not nearly as much as we had hoped for a third-generation device. It seems that, as is often the case with its devices, Samsung has decided that "more and bigger" features are more important than perfecting the features it has already. Which leads us right on to...
As with most other Android device manufacturers, Samsung sticks its own "skin" atop Google's mobile operating system. This is how the manufacturer enables features such as Air View, which previews material when one hovers over it with the S Pen, and Smart Stay, which keeps the screen active so long as the device can see your eyes. There are other features, such as one that should turn on a low-power view of the screen when one waves one's hand over an active device. "Fickle" would be an understatement in describing that last feature, and therein lies the root of our problem with Samsung's approach to software.
As a company, Samsung seems so focused on throwing in more and more largely extraneous features that the core aspects of just about any device Samsung releases go undernourished. Compare this with the manufacturer's chief rival, Apple, which introduces only a fraction of the features Samsung does with each new device. Most of those features, though, are polished to near perfection, or, at the very least, solidly reliable function. Especially with a device of the Note's caliber, it would be refreshing if Samsung, say, got the handwriting recognition right and held off on largely useless features like Smart Stay.
What is especially frustrating about these incomplete and flawed features is that they actually don't ruin the experience of using the device. They are mostly little bugs, and the features can typically be deactivated. The fact that the features are so inconsequential, though, signals to us that Samsung could very well have scrapped them all together and instead focused on the core aspects of the Note experience, thereby pushing out a much more polished device.
The overall effect of Samsung's feature additions can perhaps be summed up in a comparison of last year's review and this year's. Last year, we made passing mention of the numerous bits Samsung built into its TouchWiz skin. This year, they're not even really worth discussing. Not that they're terrible; we just never ran across anything outside of the core Note functionality that made us stop to take notice.
The first Galaxy Note was a novel, if flawed device. The second improved on its predecessor, yielding a truly quality product that still had some flaws here and there. The Note 3 shows that Samsung continues to improve its products, although not at the rate we would have hoped.
It really is a terrific device, though. The build quality and power boost alone would be enough to recommend upgrading from the already-stellar Note II. Add to that the bigger, even more beautiful screen, and upgrading is a tempting proposition to say the least. Much as was the case with the Galaxy S4 earlier this year, the Note 3 is more of an iterative update to its predecessor: some tweaks here, some improvements there. We still, though, think it makes for a more than worthwhile purchase for anyone that loved either of its two predecessors.