The original Note was widely mocked when it was first unveiled in 2011. Two years on Sony, Huawei, HTC, LG, Nokia, and even BlackBerry have produced phablets of their own. Yet the Note remains the most popular product in the category and the one that continues to define what a phablet should be: more than just an oversized phone.
The Note 3 is the most incremental of updates, maintaining the product’s position at the top of the specs race while making welcome refinements in key areas.
There’s nothing in the hardware that can be complained about.The full HD display is stunning, the quad-core 2.3GHz processor is the fastest around, the 3GB of RAM is 50% more than in any other phone, the 13MP camera matches the very high standards set by the S4 earlier this year, the 3200mAh battery is huge and replaceable, and there’s a memory card slot too.
The previous Note devices have taken their styling from the year’s S handset, and the Note 3 is no different in its appearance as an upscaled S4. A couple of tweaks have been made to the design that offer real improvement.
First is that the bezel has been significantly reduced in size, meaning that the Note 3 is actually marginally smaller than the Note 2, while squeezing in a screen that is 0.2 inches larger. It makes a noticeable difference to have not increased the footprint of this phablet. Make no mistake, though, it is still an enormous device and its size will be the main reason why you want to buy the Note 3, or why you don’t.
The second design improvement is the new backplate. Samsung’s traditional choice of a thin, glossy plastic with a decidedly low-grade feel, has been replaced with a rubbery, faux leather texture that feels far nicer in the hand. It’s still plastic and sports a silly fake stitching effect around the edges, but hopefully marks the moment Samsung starts shifting away from its basic utilitarian designs towards something befitting a premium handset.
The rest of the phone’s externals reveal the expected ports and buttons, with the addition of a USB 3.0 compatible that will improved data transfer rates and charging speeds when connected to another USB 3 port, and the silo for the S Pen which we found to be a little fiddly to get to.
The S Pen stylus is the star of the show, and combines well with some nice software features. Previously pulling out the S Pen would automatically launch you into a screen of S Pen compatible apps. It was the right idea, but occasionally intrusive. With version three what you get instead is a small semi circular menu called Air Command that pops up on top of your current app so no longer interrupts what you were doing.
From here you can perform five pen-centric functions.
Action Memo is a note-taking app with a smidgeon of intelligence – it’ll try and decipher your handwriting and recognise phone numbers and the like (with reasonable success); Scrap Booker enables you to draw around anything on screen and it will be clipped and saved in a virtual scrabook; Screen Write grabs a screenshot that you can then write directly onto with the pen; S Finder searches either the device or the web; and Pen Window, a new take on Samsung’s multitasking feature – draw a box on the screen and you can launch select apps into it, on top of your current app. YouTube and the browser are among the supported apps and it’s a useful feature that makes god use of the Note’s large screen size.
There are a few other S Pen tricks. In some built-in apps you can hover the pen over an item to get a little pop-up preview (eg of an image), and there are a few extra apps, such as for drawing or note taking. S Pen support can also be built into third party apps, although the ecosystem has yet to exploit its undoubted potential, disappointingly so given that the product is now into its third generation. As a result the S Pen counts as a nice feature if not an essential one.
The rest of the software is pure TouchWiz, with all the bleeps, gestures and superfluous functions that are loved and loathed in equal measure across the Galaxy range. Its greatest excesses are perfectly summed up by the presence of the Golf mode in the camera app.
This is a scene mode that is designed to capture all the stages of your golf swing and is absolutely the kind of thing that should be provided by third parties. Fortunately the hardware is now so powerful that such bloat does not slow the phone down. but we’re certain that first time Galaxy users will find the mass of options overwhelming.
In spite of its quirks the Note 3 is the best Note yet, and probably the best Galaxy device as well. Whether you want it depends entirely on whether or not you want such a large device. If you do the Note remains the phablet to beat.