Citizens of the smartphone-using world, hear this: When it comes to what you carry in your pocket, size definitely matters.
Just look at Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3. The device is the latest in a line that brought big back into style -- and now, plus-sized phones are a category all their own.
Lucky for Samsung, size isn't the only thing that sets the Note 3 apart. The phone's S Pen stylus opens the door to some interesting and innovative ways of interacting with a smartphone -- and this latest model offers some meaningful improvements over its predecessors in both form and functionality.
While the phone has plenty of attractive qualities, though, it also has some noteworthy downsides. So all considered, is it a phone worth buying?
I've been living with the U.S. model of the Note 3 for several days to find out. Read on to see what the new Note is actually like to use in the real world -- and whether or not it's the right device for you.
(The Galaxy Note 3 is available now on AT&T for $300 with a new two-year contract, Sprint for $250 with a new two-year contract, and T-Mobile for $0 down and a two-year $29.50/mo. payment plan. It'll be available on Verizon starting October 10 for $300 on contract. U.S. Cellular has said it will sell the phone sometime in October as well but has yet to announce any specific pricing or availability details.)
Body and screen
It may seem obvious, but it has to be mentioned: The Note 3 is a large device. Like, really large.
At 5.95 x 3.12 x 0.33 in. and 5.93 oz., the new Note is significantly bigger than any standard-sized smartphone. As such, it's not going to be for everyone: The device can be rather uncomfortable to hold in one hand and even more awkward to hold up to your ear for a call. Depending on your gender and pant preferences, it'll range from being uncomfortable to carry in your pocket to impossible to fit in it at all.
That's not by any means to say it's an outright bad form; these days, plenty of people prefer a plus-sized device that's able to provide the benefits of a smartphone and the screen space of a tablet. I'd simply suggest stopping by a brick-and-mortar store and holding one for yourself to see how it feels to you.
For owners of past-generation Galaxy Note devices, the Note 3 certainly won't seem outrageous; in fact, it's pretty darn close to the same size as last year's model. And thanks to slimmed down bezels, it packs a beefed-up 5.7-in. display, up from the 5.5-in. screen on the Galaxy Note 2.
At about 386 pixels per inch, the Note 3's 1080p Super AMOLED display looks fantastic: Details are sharp and colors appear rich and brilliant. Display aficionados may note that the display looks somewhat oversaturated -- as Samsung devices often do -- but for the vast majority of smartphone users, this thing's gonna be a treat for the eyes.
AMOLED screens in general tend to suffer in sunlight more than their LCD counterparts, but Samsung has made some significant strides with the Note 3's display: Thanks in part to ramped-up brightness capacity, the Note 3's screen remains perfectly viewable even in the glariest of conditions. To my eyes, it doesn't quite match the outstanding outdoor visibility of a top-of-the-line LCD-packing phone like the HTC One, but it's not at all bad and marks a massive leap forward from past Samsung products.
The Galaxy Note 3 has a silver plastic trim that's made to look like metal around its perimeter. A volume rocker lives on the left side, while a power button sits on the right. On the phone's top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and on the bottom is a special USB 3.0 charging port that doubles as an HDMI out-port with the use of an MHL adapter.
The inclusion of USB 3.0 is a nice touch: The phone charges ridiculously fast when you use the included USB 3.0 cable and wall adapter, and the port can provide extra-speedy data transfers if your computer supports USB 3.0. The Note works with regular micro-USB cables, too -- you just plug them into the right side of the port -- though you obviously won't get the faster charging and data-transfer speeds when you go that route.
The Note 3 has one small speaker on its bottom edge, to the right of the charging port. The sound quality is decently loud and clear by smartphone standards, though nothing to write home about.
Next to the speaker is the slot for the phone's S Pen stylus -- a highlight of the device that I'll get to in a minute.
Design and build quality
First, let's talk design, shall we? Samsung has long suffered the wrath of many a reviewer (myself included) for its cheap-feeling plasticky constructions. With the Note 3, the company is clearly trying to step things up and provide a phone with a more premium body.
In some regards, it's succeeded: The Note 3 ditches Samsung's long-favored glossy plastic back for one with a textured faux-leather finish. The material feels softer and more pleasant to the touch and has a less toy-like (and fingerprint smudge-attracting) appearance than what I'm used to from Samsung. It's still a bit on the chintzy side -- thanks mainly to the somewhat tacky fake stitching around the panel's perimeter -- but it's definitely an improvement over past Samsung products.
That said, it's all relative, and the Note 3 still feels less thoughtfully designed than devices like the HTC One or the Moto X. When I peeled off the phone's thin back panel, for instance, the covering for the camera lens popped right out. I had to futz around with it to get it back in place, bending its flimsy-feeling metal support legs to force it to stay attached before putting the cover back on.
The phone's physical Home button, meanwhile, is slightly loose and subtly shifts around with each pressing, often looking crooked as a result (something other early users have also noticed). These kinds of things just don't scream "premium build" to me.
Speaking of buttons, the Note 3 uses the same odd and dated hybrid button setup Samsung has long clung onto, with a physical Home button flanked by capacitive Menu and Back buttons (the former of which was phased out of the Android platform years ago). This design choice results in some meaningful downsides when it comes to user experience, ranging from hidden and hard-to-find options to an awkward contrast in button sensitivity, especially when using the S Pen.
The setup also forces an almost comical number of inelegant workarounds. You long-press the Home button to get to the Android app-switching tool, for example, and double-press it to get to Samsung's S Voice voice-control utility. You long-press the Menu button to load Samsung's S Finder search app and long-press the Back button to load Samsung's own Multi Window multitasking tool. A single press of the Home button, meanwhile, will usually take you to your home screen -- except if you're already on your main home screen, in which case the same action will pull up the Note's integrated news-viewing application.
Got all that? Yeah -- me neither. It's not exactly what you'd describe as user-friendly design.
Under the hood
The Galaxy Note 3 runs on a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor along with 3GB of RAM. That kind of horsepower should result in flawless performance, but -- as we've seen with other recent Samsung devices -- the Note 3 suffers from some baffling performance imperfections.
For most tasks, the phone is plenty fast: App loading and multitasking are generally fine, and Web browsing is satisfyingly smooth and swift. But the phone has occasional lags and jitteriness, and just doesn't feel as snappy as other devices in real-world use.
The worst offender is the Note's Gallery app: I regularly counted five to 12 seconds from the time I tapped the app until it was fully opened and ready to use. The same sort of delay was present when tapping folders within the Gallery. Given the phone's hardware capabilities, this is a pretty clear indication to me that Samsung's software is doing something wrong.
The Note 3 does perform admirably in the realm of battery life: The phone's 3200mAh battery -- which, in a move that'll delight hardcore power-drainers, is removable and replaceable -- always managed get me safely from morning to night. Even on days when I had moderate to heavy use -- as much as four hours of screen-on time with half an hour of phone calls, half an hour of video streaming, and a few hours of scattered Web browsing, camera use and social media activity -- the Note 3 consistently had around 30% of its charge left by bedtime.
All U.S. models of the Galaxy Note 3 ship with 32GB of internal storage, which leaves you with about 23GB of usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled software. The phone also has a microSD card slot that lets you add up to 64GB of external storage.
The Note 3 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data transfers. It also has an IR blaster for controlling your TV and other remote-based electronics. The Note doesn't support wireless charging, though it appears Samsung will sell a separate Qi-enabled case that'll provide that functionality.
While the Galaxy Note has full LTE support, the model I tested was connected to Sprint's network -- which has pretty spotty coverage in my area -- so data speeds weren't great for me. Voice calls sounded fine, though; I was able to hear people with zero distortion and the lucky souls with whom I spoke reported being able to hear me A-OK.
The Galaxy Note 3 comes with a 13-megapixel main camera that's capable of capturing great-looking images. I did notice a fair amount of noise in some shots that were zoomed in at full resolution, but for most common uses of smartphone photos -- like online sharing and standard-size printing -- the Note 3's camera should more than meet your needs.
The exception is in low-light conditions, where the Note 3 -- like most smartphones -- struggles, especially compared to a low-light-optimized device like the HTC One.
There are, however, a few Note 3-specific camera qualities worth noting:
The Note often seems to stick on a "Processing" message for a few seconds after capturing a photo. This can be annoying when you're trying to capture photos fast.
The phone's "burst" mode, in which you can capture multiple shots rapid-fire by holding down the shutter button, was also a bit finicky in my experience and sometimes wouldn't activate.
The Note 3 has a new camera mode called Surround Shot, which is Samsung's version of Google's 360-degree Photo Sphere feature. This was a curious omission in the Galaxy S4; it's nice to see it showing up here.
The Note 3 is capable of capturing 4K resolution videos, but since most people don't have TVs or displays that support that resolution, the capability probably won't mean much for you in practical terms at this point -- aside from getting files that take up a massive amount of space on your smartphone's storage.
The Galaxy Note 3 also has a 2-megapixel HD front-facing camera for all your selfie-snapping and video-chatting needs.
The S Pen
Even if you're convinced you'd never want a stylus, a few days with the Galaxy Note 3 might just change your mind. The phone's S Pen is a fun and potentially productivity-boosting element of the device that goes a long way in setting it apart from the competition.
The pen's actual construction, not surprisingly, isn't its greatest strength: The stylus is plastic and feels light and insubstantial, almost to the point where you fear that squeezing it too hard might cause it to snap. Its single button is also hard to find by touch alone, since the pen feels the same on its top and bottom edge.
But once you get used to its form, the S Pen is packed with power. Pull the pen out of the Note 3 and you'll immediately see a new pie-chart-style menu called Air Command on your screen; this new element helps make the stylus feel more like a core part of the Note experience than it ever has before.
The Air Command menu gives you easy access to a handful of primary S Pen functions.
The Air Command menu -- which you can also summon anytime by clicking the pen's button while holding it over the screen -- gives you easy access to a handful of primary S Pen functions. The most useful is Action Memo, which lets you jot down quick notes with the pen. You can either save them for later reference or convert them into action-oriented tasks, like shooting a handwritten phone number into the Phone app for dialing or converting a handwritten note into a ready-to-send email.
What's vexing, though, is that Action Memo is treated as a separate entity from S Note -- the more fully featured note-taking app for S Pen use. Notes written in Action Memo are not accessible in S Note; instead, they're saved in a separate area that's accessible only by tapping an unlabeled icon in the Action Memo app.
Confusing overlap aside, the separation between the two apps is frustrating because S Note offers the option for automated syncing with Evernote, which makes all of your handwritten notes available and searchable from any mobile device or PC. The syncing has been seamless and instant in my experience, but any notes taken in Action Memo -- which, remember, pops up as part of the Air Command menu while S Note does not -- aren't included.
The Note 3 itself does a good job of letting you search through handwritten notes on the device with its S Keeper function. I also really like its system-wide handwriting-to-text functionality: Anytime you're in a text field, you can hover the pen over the screen and tap a special icon to input text by writing. The Note converts your handwriting into regular text and puts it right into your document, email or whatever you're composing.
Even with my embarrassingly sloppy penmanship, the system did an impressively good job at deciphering (most of) my words. Particularly with longer messages, I often found it quicker to input text like that than by using a traditional on-screen keyboard.
Unfortunately, the handwriting-to-text functionality doesn't work everywhere, as it's supposed to; I encountered a handful of apps, including Chrome, Twitter and Google Drive, where I couldn't get the handwriting-input icon to show up. That inconsistency was irksome.
While some of the other S Pen functions struck me as more gimmicky than practical, the stylus also holds serious value for artists or anyone who wants to sketch or scribble on the go. The Note 3 ships with a version of Autodesk's Sketchbook software that shows off the pen's excellent accuracy and pressure sensitivity. And while the bundled Polaris Office app does a poor job at stylus-based PDF markup, programs such as RepliGo PDF Reader ($3) or the fully featured OfficeSuite Pro ($15) work well with the pen for that purpose.
Last but not least, Samsung has included a smart feature called S Pen Keeper that sounds an alert on the device anytime it's separated from the stylus by a certain distance. It kept me from leaving the pen behind on a couple of occasions; you just have to be sure to head into the phone's settings and enable it right away, as it's deactivated by default.
The Galaxy Note 3 runs custom Samsung TouchWiz software based on the Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) operating system. Aside from the aforementioned S Pen elements, it's essentially the same user interface and feature set present in the Galaxy S4.
There are, however, a handful of new features in the Note 3's software:
Samsung's Multi Window multitasking feature has a few new tricks up its sleeves. The feature -- which lets you split your phone's screen in half and have two apps open and visible at the same time -- now allows you to drag and drop content between windows. With certain programs, like chat services, it also lets you have two instances of the same app open side-by-side.
With the Note 3's large screen in particular, I found Multi Window to be both cool and useful for times when I wanted to write an email while referencing a Web page, for instance, or look something up in Chrome while watching a YouTube video. Even if you only use it once in a while, it's a valuable option to have.
The Note 3's new news-viewing tool, My Magazine, is unnecessary and annoying. It's basically just a custom-branded and dumbed-down version of Flipboard, and it's integrated into the Note at such a core system level that it's hard to avoid and easy to launch by mistake.
Excellent Google services take a back seat to subpar Samsung alternatives on the Note 3, even more so than on past Samsung devices. The Note 3 has system-wide access to the shoddy S Voice app, for instance, but not the far superior native Android Voice Search tool. And there's no longer a system-wide shortcut to get to the frequently praised Google Now intelligent assistant.
From a corporate-goal perspective, it's not difficult to understand Samsung's motivation in promoting its own services over Google's -- but from a user-experience perspective, given the sharp drop in quality, it's disappointing.
At a Glance
Galaxy Note 3
Price: $300 at AT&T, $250 at Sprint, $300 at Verizon Wireless (starting October 10) with a new two-year contract; T-Mobile for $0 down and a two-year $29.50/mo. payment plan; U.S. Cellular sometime in October (no price yet available)
Pros: Excellent display; USB 3.0 for fast charging and data transfers; microSD slot for storage expansion; good battery life; superb pressure-sensitive stylus with accurate handwriting-to-text functionality
Cons: Hardware design feels cheaper and less premium than other smartphones; dated button configuration; inconsistent performance with occasional stutters and delays; bloated user interface; sporadic software errors
I've encountered semi-regular software glitches while using Samsung's S Pen apps and functions -- usually several seconds of black followed by a force-close error. This kind of thing absolutely shouldn't happen with native software on a new phone. I can only hope Samsung addresses these issues with an over-the-air update soon.
I'm not going to spend much time talking about the Note 3's user interface, since it's largely unchanged from the Galaxy S4, but I will say this: You're getting Samsung's standard mishmash of clashing colors and inconsistent elements. You can, at least, cover up some of those sins with a custom Android launcher such as Nova Launcher, Apex Launcher or Action Launcher Pro. I tested the Note with each of those apps, and all the S Pen-specific enhancements -- and even general Samsung-added software features like Multi Window -- were accessible and worked fine in the third-party environments.
The Galaxy Note 3 is a standout device with plenty of perks. It has a large, gorgeous screen, fast USB 3.0 charging and data transfers, and a microSD slot for storage expansion. It also has a superb stylus that's full of interesting potential for productivity and creativity alike.
The Note is held back, though, by some troubling issues. Despite improvements over past models, the phone still feels cheaper and less premium than competing products; its dated button configuration creates awkward usage scenarios that detract from the user experience; its performance is imperfect and its software is bloated and visually inconsistent.
Still, the Note 3 has a lot of good things going for it. If you want a plus-sized phone, the new Note is hands-down the best product you can buy today. And if the functionality of a stylus appeals to you, you'll be absolutely thrilled with what the S Pen can do.
Just be sure you're okay with the compromises those benefits require.
This story, "Galaxy Note 3 deep-dive: A plus-sized phone with perks and quirks" was originally published by Computerworld.
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