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Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review: The best Samsung yet?

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When Samsung launched the Note range back in 2011, the phones seemed so outrageously huge compared to the competition that few backed the concept.

Now, as the smartphone screen has grown, the 5.7-inch display on the Note 3 doesn't feel particularly big compared to the competition. Samsung has polished virtually every element of the Note experience and delivered what we think is its best smartphone to date.

Hardware and Design

First a Note (sorry) on the phone's design. Samsung is clearly aware of the criticism it is coming under for the use of plastic in its products. Its answer? Replace that plastic with an equally as bad faux leather back.

With devices like the HTC One around, it's not really acceptable to produce a circa £600 device produced almost entirely from plastic. The company has promised it will produce the Galaxy S5 using a metal shell, so let's hope wrongs can finally be undone there.

The same can be said for the faux metal wrap around the Note 3, and the gloss black effect on the front. The white version of the phone feels even more cheap to hold. Really, Samsung just needs to sort out its use of materials.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

© Digital Spy



The rest of the phone's design however we really can't fault. Firstly, the massive 5.7-inch screen takes up the majority of the front of the phone. It has a very small bezel and Samsung squeezed a set of touch sensitive buttons below it, which means you get to use the entire display. It's a much better approach than that of say the Xperia Z1.


The S Pen also sits nice and plush in the phone's shell, so it never felt to us like you might end up losing it accidentally. Samsung has also incorporated a vibrate function which will let you know when the pen is locked in place. Finally there is a clever S Pen keeper that issues a notification whenever you leave the pen accidentally detached from the phone.

The real standout point with the Note 3's hardware is its 1080p 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen. Smartphone displays don't really get better than this. Sure it might be a touch too vibrant and still suffer from a blue tint when viewed at extreme angles, but it is as crisp and bright as you could ever want a screen to be.

With a phone this size, the display really needs to be good enough to warrant the pocket space sacrifice. The Note 3 is more than adequate here and makes a fantastic piece of kit for browsing websites, writing notes and viewing video. It never feels particularly big either.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

© Digital Spy



There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the benchmarking of the Note 3's processor, but whatever the truth, it's incredibly fast in real world usage. There wasn't a single moment where the 2.3 GHz Snapdragon 800 unit in our review phone felt even remotely stretched. 3GB of RAM is total overkill for multi-tasking as well, so overloading the Note 3 is going to be a challenge. Make no mistake, this phone is lightning quick.

The 3200 mAh battery is more than enough to keep the phone ticking over for a day, despite its massive screen. In fact, it has so much power that we found ourselves using the Note 3 more than we might other devices, because we knew it would still make it home for its nightly charge.

MicroSD support, as well as a range of connectivity options including things like Wi-Fi direct, ensure it's easy to take the Note 3 beyond its display and onto other devices.

Interestingly, Samsung has included a microUSB v3.0 connection with the phone, which means provided you use the included cable, that the Note 3 can transfer information very quickly.

The Note 3 is a bit of a technical powerhouse. It's blazingly fast, has a beautiful screen and more connectivity than you could ever possibly use. Samsung just needs to tick the design box and it really will be producing the best of the best now.

One thing worth noting, is that the Note 3 is a region locked device. Samsung hasn't been entirely clear on exactly how the device is restricted, but it appears that any Note 3 purchase must be activated with a SIM from the same region. So a European SIM in a European phone.

Camera

13-megapixels is a big number for a smartphone camera, but when compared to the Nokia Lumia 1020 or Sony Xperia Z1, it's still fairly low.

The same problems that we had with the Z1's 20-megapixel unit seem to be present here. Firstly, the camera just lacks any proper punch or dynamic range. Taking photos on the big screen is a delight, but most come out flat and uninteresting.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

© Digital Spy



Samsung has also gone to town on the gimmick front with the phone's camera. Awkwardly named features like 'Beauty Face' and even a 'golf swing camera' seem unnecessary. We wish more focus had been put into image quality and processing than creating even more auto modes for the phone camera.

Admittedly, some are fairly useful. 'Surround shot' for example, which draws on the 360 panorama function in Android 4.3, is great fun. The 'eraser' mode which takes moving objects out of a shot is also very convincing.

Most of Samsung's UI-ugliness manifests itself in the camera app on the Note 3. It's in need of simplification and streamlining, rather than more features.


Amazingly, the Note 3 can record video in 4K. It's certainly an impressive feature to have, but to us doesn't seem entirely necessary given the number of platforms on which 4K video can be watched.

Normal 1080p video is good, especially when viewed back on the phone's big display. The ability to snap stills while recording video is a handy one, but again feels like a feature we don't really need.

In reality, Samsung needs to do a bit of a clean-up with its approach to cameras. Less features, more quality.

User Interface and Apps

Obviously the main draw of the Note 3 is its S Pen. The majority of the device's Android tweaks revolve around adding functionality when using the pen.

For the most part, Samsung has actually included some genuinely useful tech, but there are of course the usual gimmicks that the device could do without.

What's key is the actual note writing side of the Note, which is thankfully near perfect. The pen is very responsive and its handwriting recognition is very good.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

© Digital Spy



Some users have been reporting issues with the recognition tech, so to fix this, make sure you update the "Samsung Keyboard Note 3" app manually through the Google Play store.

Our favourite Note 3 tweak has to be the S Note app and widget. Quick to open and a perfect way to manage all your written notes, it's the most persuasive part of the device. We especially like how it shares with Evernote.

Once you remove the S Pen from the Note 3, an 'air command' quick menu wheel will pop up on screen. This can also be accessed anytime by clicking the button on the side of the pen.

There is quite a large number of different writing apps built into the Note 3, which we feel could be refined into one single application that's easier to customise. That said, what's there on the air command wheel is handy.

Being able to save someone's phone number just by writing their name and number is very handy. We like how you can also grab sections of the screen and save them directly into notes.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

© Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

All in all, the handwriting side of the Note 3 has been used very intelligently. Aside from the S Pen, it's mostly all Galaxy S4 from there on out. You get S Voice for example, which is just like Apple's Siri, as well as a nicely laid out user interface and an easily customisable notifications bar.

We found ourselves enjoying the Note 3's user experience more and more as our time with the phone went on. The S Pen feels extremely natural when in use and nearly all of its features are genuinely handy.

We still would like to see Android left alone as much as possible, but Samsung has largely done things right here.

Music and Movies

The Note 3 is an excellent piece of kit to watch movies on, simply because of its screen and the abundance of apps available.

Sky Go just announced compatibility with the device, while Google Play plugs any other rental and streaming gaps.

The Spotify app is nice on Android and the included music player works fairly well. Our music issue is more with the quality of the Note 3's speaker, which just isn't any good.

Spotify overhaul on Android
32GB of storage with the Note 3 is plenty for most music fans, but the ability to expand space up to 64GB via microSD means you have a ton of storage to play with.

Galaxy Gear

At the moment, the Samsung Galaxy Gear is designed to work primarily with the Note 3. As such, it's important to address here how the two work together.

Essentially, provided you stay within Samsung's own app suite, all notifications will be sent and are readable on the Galaxy Gear. Go beyond this however and the watch will ask you to look at the Note 3 for more info.



Our full review of the Galaxy Gear is here, but in a nutshell this is what you need to know. It's too expensive and battery life is an issue, but if neither of these bother you, then it's definitely a fun accessory, especially for early adopters.

The competition

At the moment, the only other two phones we can think of that compare with the Note 3 are Sony's Xperia Z Ultra and the Samsung Galaxy Mega.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

© Digital Spy

Sony Xperia Z Ultra



The Sony has a better screen and the Mega is cheaper, but neither has the added functionality of the S Pen, which is a bit of a deal breaker.

The Sony will let you control the device using any conductive material as a stylus i.e. a normal pen, but it's just not as much of a complete experience.

Verdict

The Galaxy Note 3 ticks a lot of boxes. It is powerful, has a top quality screen and its S Pen is genuinely useful.

Samsung still insists on making what feel like fairly tacky products to us and it's irritating to see such a compelling device let down by build quality.

The camera could do with being a touch better and we would also like to have seen a more streamlined approach to S Pen use, but all in all, this is a very good device.

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