A smartphone reviewer has to be dispassionate. We bring to a product industry knowledge and context, but we approach every new device with a blank slate. This approach stood me in good stead when I came to review the Galaxy Note 3. I spent a lot of time early in 2013 making a series of tutorial videos showcasing the Galaxy Note 2. Reader: I hated it.
The Note 2 is a perfectly good Android phone, you understand. And it has proved very popular. But as much as I admired its superior performance and amazing screen, I couldn't get on with the build quality and design - it just felt too big and too plastic. And as for the (don't call it a stylus) S-Pen? Give me strength. It may offer access to new and intriguing capabilities, but it adds a level of complexity and fiddlyness with which I could happily live without. Being lefthanded doesn't help.
So it is with pleasure that I can report that my personal and unprofessional reaction to the Note 2 has not been repeated with this iteration. The Galaxy Note 3 offers stunning performance and an amazing and huge screen. Furthermore it feels like a premium device, and it is slim and light enough for the massive screen to seem like a bonus rather than a hindrance. (See also: The best phones you can buy in 2013.)
Galaxy Note 3: specs and performance
The Note 3 has simply staggering specifications, and performance to match.
It pairs a new Qualcomm Snapdragon Quad-core 2.3 GHz Krait 400 processor with a whopping 3GB RAM. And it shows. Synthetic benchmarks shouldn't be relied upon when making a purchasing decision, but if they were the Note 3 would be a must buy. It smashed our record for the GeekBench 2 real-world performance test, turning in a record average score of 4057. This beats out our next two highest performers, the SonySony Xperia Z1 with its score of 3673, and the Samsung Galaxy S4's 3227. More importantly in use the Note 3 feels slick and zippy. It's a truly fast phone.
Graphics are handled by an Adreno 330 graphic processing unit, and benchmark results are similarly impressive. Running the GFXBench 2.7.2 Egypt HD test onscreen we got an excellent - record - result of 54fps. (Indeed, GSM Arena recorded an offscreen test result of 68fps, which is the best we've ever seen in a pphone or tablet.) Again, none of this would mean much if the real-world performance was poor, but we found games and video footage worked well, with no lag at all. And the opposition? The Xperia Z1 tops out at an also amazing 53fps, and the Galaxy S4 manages 41fps. These would have all seemed like magical performances just a few months ago, so you can see just how impressive
The graphics performance to which we refer above is put to good use on the Galaxy Note 3's exquisite display. This is an FHD sAMOLED display with a colour depth of 16M. That's a lot of colour and it shows. In the past we've said that Samsung's AMOLED screens may be too colourful for some, and that may well be the case here. But if a vibrant and deep hue is something you like in your display you need look no further.
And the colour is just the start. This is a huge 5.7in screen with an HD resolution of 1920 x 1080. That gives it a world class pixel density of 386ppi. We're used to smaller smartphones boasting retina-busting displays, but such sharpness on a screen of this size is truly a thing to behold. Movie content looks amazing, games stunning. But the Note 3 really comes into its own watching sport on TV. Held naturally a couple of feet from your face it offers a better visual experience than a big TV on the other side of the room.
The Note 3 is big, yes, but it feels slim. And it has that indefinable quality: I want to pick it up and use it. This is subjective of course, but in the past I've found Samsung phones - and the Galaxy Note models in particular - to feel plasticky and cheap. Just my personal opinion.
The Note 3 differs in a few small but significant ways. For one thing the thin plastic back that offers access to the battery on Galaxy phones has a new textured finish. From the outside it does a good impression of being leather. Now stick with this: a leather phone may sound risible, but the faux stitching and leather-like texture adds an important feel of quality, without detracting from the undoubted practicality and durability of the removable and thin back cover.
There's a grooved metal rim around the edges of the Note 3 that makes it feel well put together and sturdy. And although the width of 8.3mm is considered thick when compared to the iPhone 5S (7.6mm), but it is thinner than the excellent Xperia Z1 (8.6mm). An impressive achievement when this phone's performance and display is taken into consideration.
At the bottom we find the S Pen, docked into the grooved metal rim. The stylus is topped in metal so it fits in neatly, although it does irritate the southpaw in me that if I am holding the Note 3 in my right hand it is difficult to extricate the S Pen with my left. Also down here at the bottom is what Samsung refers to as the 'Multipurpose Jack'. Not a handyman named John Patrick, this is in fact the power and synch connector port. It looks different to anything you have ever seen, and indeed the supplied USB cable has a unique connector.
But before you howl about incompatibility with your existing USB cables it is worth pointing out that any mini USB cable will connect the Galaxy Note 3 to computer or mains. (Samsung includes a warning not to use non-Samsung cables or 'the device may blow up', however. Take this warning as you see fit: despite using multiple third-party USB connectors we haven't yet blown ourselves up.)
On top on the rim of the phone we find a 3.5mm audio jack. On the left toward the top is a volume rocker, and on the righhand side is the on/off button.
The Note 3 is a little bit lighter than its predecessor, weighing in at 168g compared to the 183g of the Note 2. For a device with a display like the Note 3's that is a very respectable weight: the X1 by contrast weighs 170g and the much smaller-screened iPhone 5S is a tiny 112g.
The front of the Note 3 is dominated by the huge display, as you'd expect. To the sides is a thin white bezel. At the top and bottom this is much thicker, although little space is wasted. The Home button sits below the screen, with touch sensitive areas either side for the usual settings and go back one action buttons. Beneath these sit white LEDs that light up when you use these actions. It's very intuitive and reduces the need for multiple buttons. Above the screen a sliver of silver is the speaker for the phone, and there are three apertures for the camera and flash.
Overall the Galaxy Note 3 feels big, yes, but compact and well put together. Design wise we like it (and we didn't expect to). The Note 3 is available in white, black and pink. We tested the white version.
Galaxy Note 3: cameras
The Galaxy Note 3 has two cameras, a front-facing 2Mp camera for selfies and video calling, and a 13Mp rear-facing snapper for more serious photography and video capture. The latter is a serious piece of compact camera kit, offering such features as auto focus, image stabilisation, LED flash and zero shutter lag.
Shooting modes include Drama Shot, Sound & Shot, Animated Photo, Eraser, Best Photo, Best Face, Beauty Face, HDR (High Dynamic Range), Panorama, Sports, Golf, Surround shot and Live effect. And specs wise the Note 3 makes a great video camera, capturing Ultra HD video at 30fps, all the way up to slow motion HD at 120fps.
You'll read a lot of articles that repeat the claims Samsung makes on behalf of its battery, or show test benchmarks that can mean little in the real world. I'll take a more meaningful approach and talk about the battery tech and my experiences of using the Note 3 over the necessarily short period of a review test.
First up is the Note 3's battery cell. Taking advantage of the larger chassis used to house a large display this is a huge 3200mAh Li-ion battery. And the Qualcomm Snapdragon Quad-core 2.3 GHz Krait 400 processor should be lighter on the battery than was the Note 2's. Can we expect battery life to be better than that of the Note 2, then? Of course it's not that simple.
Remember that this handset has a brighter screen with more pixels, which will negatively impact battery life. It is utilising 3GB RAM, too, and all the software options that Samsung adds in will suck up battery power when you use them.
My instinct tells me that Samsung would not allow the Galaxy Note 3's battery life to suffer in comparison to its predecessor. And that bigger battery should help. But I wouldn't expect a great leap forward in terms of running time away from the mains.
Samsung claims up to 13 hours of internet usage and up to 21 hours of talk time (I've had conversations like that). You can take those with a pinch of salt. In my experience of using the Galaxy Note 3 for a few days, however, I'd say battery life is a stong point. Using it for email and web browsing, listening to music on the commute, a little social media and some video watching, I could easily get through 24 hours on a single charge (I was asleep for seven of those hours). More importantly there was enough juice left over the next day to get in to the office.
This is not the handset that will make the great leap forward in terms of battery life. But it is up there with the best current handsets, in my limited experience of it.
Galaxy Note 3: software
The Galaxy Note 3 comes with Android 4.3 'Jelly Bean' installed, as well as Samsung's own TouchWiz interface. Jelly Bean is the best Android yet, offering a slick consumer experience and access to all the media and apps that Google Play can offer.
You can also install and purchase apps and media from Samsung's own store, which is in some ways confusing but does at least offer you the opportunity to compare and choose based on price.
Samsung does love to stuff its handsets full of software features, many of which I'd wager you never use. There's voice control that allows you to wake up your handset without using your hands. S Finder is like iPhone's Spotlight, allowing you to find files and apps from anywhere in your handset. There are other functions that we'd file under 'bloat'. Digital Scrapbook and My Magazine may prove to be central to your experience on the Note 3. They won't be to mine.
We like Multi Window, although it takes a bit of doing. In essence this is a means of using two apps at once on the same display. With a screen such as the Note 3 this is a key competitive advantage over other devices.
One problem I did have was with the Note 3's onscreen keyboard. Despite the enormous screen real estate I found I made typing mistakes with this much more than I have with the other handsets I use, including the BlackBerry Z10 and iPhone 5. It was just more difficult to hit the right key, and less likely to autocorrect when I did.
Galaxy Note 3: S Pen
Then there's the S Pen. Samsung's stylus that must never be referred to as a stylus. Again, I'm going to try not to allow my personal feelings to seep into this. I know some people love their S Pens. I don't. I think that if a stylus is required it is a failure of the touchscreen interface. And I don't think a stylus is required here.
However, here is the counter argument for those new to the concept of the S Pen. Pulling out the S Pen wakes up the phone. Hover it over the screen and it brings up contextual menus. The S Pen allows you to write freehand and move around windows on the display. You can capture a screenshot and launch command menus.
I have tried all of the above, and they all work. But I'd still rather use my finger. And I find the process of pulling out the S Pen tiresome and fiddly, even when I use my right hand.
Buying Advice We're not sure you need all the extra features that Samsung packs in, and we could live without the S Pen. And not everyone needs or wants a smartphone with a 6in display. Neither is the camera all that great. But be in no doubt about it, the Galaxy Note 3 is a high-quality portable device, offering the best performance we've ever seen, a stunning screen and nice build quality.