Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review: The most compelling phablet yet

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

Not too long ago, if you wanted the biggest smartphone display, you went and bought a Galaxy Note or Note II. You also got laughed at for holding a slab to your head every time you made a call. These days, however, almost every company seems to have a gargantuan smartphone out and phablets have become the norm. How can the Note 3 stand out? By improving everything across the board. From the larger display, better camera, smarter S Pen functionality and blazing fast processing power, the Note 3 has it all.


Bigger Screen, Same Size Body

As Samsung proved with the Galaxy S4, a bigger display doesn't necessarily mean a bigger device. The Note 3 is slimmer than the Note II, but its size is roughly the same in terms of length and width. If you found the Note II too big to hold comfortably in one hand, the Note 3 won't be any different.

By slimming the bezels even more, Samsung was able to squeeze a slightly larger screen — 5.7-inch (1920 x 1080 resolution) Super AMOLED display — into the Note 3. In comparison, the Note II only has a 5.5-inch (1280 x 720 resolution) display. You won't see any pixels on the Note 3 unless you're squinting real hard or have your face pressed up against the screen. To steal a quote from Apple's Jony Ive: "Everything defers to the display." Full HD videos and photos look stunning on the Note 3's display and playing 3D games has never looked so clear.

Another nice touch aped from the Galaxy S4 is a setting that lets you use any pair of gloves with the touchscreen. Obviously, using gloves won't give you the accuracy of a fingertip, but it's there for when the weather gets cold.


Plenty Of Muscle

The gorgeous 5.7-inch display may be the showstopper, but don't be fooled, the Note 3 also has plenty of power underneath. The 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor is nothing to sneeze at and is overkill for normal smartphone users. Even my "power user" needs — lots of web browsing in Chrome, lots of reading news in Feedly, lots of email, lots of phone calls and lots of taking pictures and video — couldn't force it to choke up. The 3GB of RAM is bountiful enough that you won't ever need to worry about memory management. And Android 4.3 skinned with TouchWiz is as responsive as ever. With so much processing power and memory, using the Note 3's multi-window feature, which lets you open two apps at once, is finally functional without frustration.

Battery life is just bonkers. With light usage, you can easily go almost two days without needing a recharge. Firing on all cylinders, the Note 3 lasted us on average 9 hours (without any gaming), which is just impressive. You'll get even longer battery life if you turn off all of Samsung's silly features such as Smart stay, Smart scroll or Air gesture.

Additionally, the Note 3's rear camera also received a nice boost to 13-megapixels, up from the Note II's 8-megapixel camera. While the days of bragging about megapixels are over, it is nice to have higher resolution photos. For the most part, the Note 3's camera works just like the one found in the Galaxy S4. Colors are a little over-saturated and exposure is still kind of iffy, though. But despite the lack of optical image stabilization (OIS), photos are still quite sharp. Personally, I found pictures taken with the LG G2 (which does have OIS) and the new iPhone 5s to be a hair sharper, especially in low-light scenarios, but the Note 3 is a close third.

Video recording is another story, though. Whereas every other smartphone tops out at Full HD a.k.a. 1080p, the Note 3 can record footage at 4K resolution. Since I don't own a 4K TV or display, I had to cozy up to a photographer bud of mine to see just how good the 4K footage was. In a single word: amazing. Then again, anything shot in 4K resolution usually is. But before you start shooting in 4K, consider this: a 30-second video in 1080p clocked in a 61.9MB and a 30-second video of the same footage in 4K came in at 177MB. Needless to say, you'd be smart to get the largest microSD card you can find if you're doing any kind of 4K recording. Or just record at the still-good 1080p.


Simpler S Pen, Smarter Handwriting Recognition

If you stop and think about it, the Note smartphones are named so because they're supposed to be digital notebooks. But strangely enough, I have never seen anyone in public use the included S Pen while wielding their Note. A quick check with all my friends who own a Note or Note II reaffirmed my observations. When asked why they didn't use the stylus, most of them responded with something along the lines of "It stinks" or "My finger is faster." I couldn't agree more.

I've tested every single Galaxy Note and it's always the same: the S Pen is fun to fiddle around with in the beginning, but then it's forgotten. Making doodles is cute on day one, but it's a chore by day 30. Most of time you can't even remember what the S Pen can do because all of the features are tucked away in apps. To address that, Samsung added Air Command, a suite of five quick actions that can be selected when you hover anywhere on the screen and press the S Pen's button.

The five options include Action Memo, which brings up a little notepad; Scrap Booker, a way to collect content such a photos by drawing a circle around items; Screen Write, which takes a screenshot and lets you draw on top of it; S Finder, a system-wide search for all of your content; and Pen Window, a way for you to overlay a small, resizable window that can open up a contained app (calculator, Youtube, contacts, Google Hangouts, clock, phone, ChatOn or Internet) on top of an existing screen by drawing a rectangle anywhere.

For creative types who do enjoy collecting digital clips for scrapbooking or business types who need to calculate or organize content, the Note 3's S Pen features are great and more straightforward than the two previous Notes. But for everyone else, the S Pen will sit in its slot, unused and unloved. That's okay, for me, since the spacious screen more than compensates.

Surpisingly, the handwriting recognition in the Note 3 is actual decent. Whereas the first Note could hardly recognize my degrading handwriting, the Note 3 was able to identify some of my sloppiest cursive. For instance, in Action Memo, the Note 3 could actually recognize my scribbled URLs and translate them into openable web links that open in a browser.


Plastic Disguised As Leather

A premium product deserves premium design. The Galaxy S III, S4, Note I and Note II all received rave reviews, except they were all slammed for being unapologetically plastic. The Note 3 sheds some of that criticism by masking its plastic rear with fake leather and fake stitching. (Don't bother sniffing it. It doesn't smell like leather. We checked.) The plastic edges are also now faux metal. You'll either love the new design or hate it. I'm not completely in love with the leather-like aesthetic, but I do like that it's no longer as slippery as previous models.

Samsung's decision to stick with plastic while other companies are touting slick aluminum constructions is not without merit. It's a compromise that gives users a swappable battery, a microSD card for storage expansion and a durability other smartphones don't have. For many people, those three features are necessities.


Another Home Run

Samsung takes a lot of heat for throwing devices of every screen size and dimension at the wall to see which ones stick, but the company's attention to its flagship devices — the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note brand — has not slowed. With a bigger and sharper screen, a thinner body and a whole lot of processing power, Samsung's proved once again why its phablet is better than everyone else's. Whereas other phablets simply tout how big their screens are, the Note 3 has the S Pen to back it up. I'm still not the biggest fan of the stylus as a smartphone input, but at least it's more convenient to activate this time around thanks to Air Command.

The Note 3 is available for $299 with a two-year contract on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon. Although, with the holidays creeping up, you'll probably be able to pick one up for less.

(All photos by Raymond Wong for DVICE.)

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