It's hard to believe we're already three generations into a device that launched a category few thought would take off. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is a shrewd refinement of the company's mainstream phablet – two words I never thought I'd put together – and continues to be an excellent combination of power and practicality in an oversized phone. It's also considerably more powerful than the Galaxy Mega, despite the latter phone's even larger 6.3in display. The 5.7in Galaxy Note 3 is quite simply the most powerful phablet we've ever tested, and it's good enough to scoop one of our coveted Best Buy awards.
No one will mistake the Galaxy Note 3 for a regular smartphone. It measures 79 x 8.3 x 151mm (WxDxH) and weighs 168 grams, which makes it a little thinner and lighter than last year's Galaxy Note 2. I really like the new sides of the Galaxy Note 3 – it has a flat edge, as opposed to tapered, and there's a plastic chrome band engraved with ridges. It doesn't sound comfy on paper, but it makes holding a super-sized device like this easy. The rest of the comfort comes from the stitched faux leather back panel, which is flat save for a small raised protrusion for the camera sensor and flash. The overall look is classier than the Note 2 and a nice step up from Samsung's usual polycarbonate body (you might want to take a look at our Galaxy Note 2 vs Note 3 spec comparison for a more detailed overview of how these two handsets stack up).
The 5.7in Super AMOLED display boasts 1,920 x 1,080 pixels and it’s a stunner, with 386 ppi, vibrant colours, deep blacks, and wide viewing angles. It's tough to find any fault with it. Typing on the on-screen keyboard is a cinch even in portrait mode, and I love the extra row of number keys at the top. Below the screen are two capacitive Menu and Back buttons, which stay hidden until you push them, and an oversized hardware Home button in the centre.
There's a volume rocker on the left side, and the power button is on the right. On top you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and infrared sensor. The bottom edge of the phone houses a microUSB 3.0 connector, which charges the phone and transfers data more quickly when connected to a computer, as well as a mono speaker and a small microphone. This being a Note product, you also get a stylus, which parks neatly underneath the bottom right edge of the phone (see below).
Connectivity and call quality
The Galaxy Note 3 supports HSPA+ (850/900/1900/2100 MHz) and 4G LTE for super-fast mobile surfing. You also get 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0.
Voice calls sound clear, crisp, and full in the earpiece, and it gets plenty loud. Transmissions through the mic are a little soft, with some hiss around words, and a bit too much external street noise leaks through the mic. Reception seems strong, and calls sound fine through a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset. I had no problem triggering voice activation over Bluetooth, but the phone never recognised my voice dialling commands through the headset. The mono speakerphone sounds clear and loud, and should be no problem to use outdoors.
The massive 3,200mAh battery should help keep the Galaxy Note 3 going even with the super-bright display. We're still conducting battery tests, and will update this review as soon as we have a result, but after two days of moderately heavy usage I still don't have a low battery warning.
Hardware, OS and apps
The UK spec Galaxy Note 3 gets a quad-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, along with 3GB of RAM and Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, which is the latest version of the OS. This is one fast processor – it aced every benchmark test we ran. As with all Samsung Galaxy devices, the Galaxy Note 3 is about as far from stock Android as is imaginable. But in day-to-day usage, Samsung seems to have tuned its heavy UI layer nicely, because the Note 3 always felt fast to me and didn't bog down anywhere.
There are five home screens you can customise and swipe between. The new Air Command is a half-moon bubble that opens when you pull out the stylus, or when you hover the tip over the screen and press the button, thanks to the stylus' proximity sensor. The semi-circle contains five icons: Action Memo fires up a Post-It-style notepad; Scrap Booker lets you clip items from the screen and save them to a virtual scrapbook; Screen Write snaps screenshots and lets you annotate them; S Finder is a device-wide search; and Pen Window is an improved version of Multi Window that greatly increases multitasking flexibility by allowing for multiple resizable windows with different current tasks running. You can also drag and drop apps into different windows more easily than before.
And then there's S Note, which remains a full-featured note-taking app, packed with voice memo, video, images, illustration tools, a clipboard, the new scrapbook, and Google Maps integration. It's fun to use, and works well for marking up email and cutting out partial screenshots.
That said, the form factor isn't really appropriate for transcribing lots of notes – it's just too small, just the way a tiny paper notebook of this size would be too small. Instead, it's more for jotting down ideas, or showing someone a quick diagram in a meeting. The stylus writes very accurately, and 1080p seems to be enough resolution so that you don't see any pixellation even when writing very small. The stylus is also pressure sensitive; push down a bit harder and your strokes become bolder.
Some of the bloatware is near useless, though, and continues to undermine the stability of the OS. Samsung Hub exists just to sell you DRM’ed media that only works on Samsung devices, and is completely redundant with Google's Play Store. S Voice, while good, doesn't really accomplish anything you can't do with Google Now. With just the default apps installed, I saw a couple of process-stop error dialogs while the phone was just sitting on my desk, which wasn't confidence inspiring. And unfortunately, this is one dialog-box-laden phone; every time I did something new to test it out, Samsung popped up a large dialog with further instructions, and often another EULA to agree to.
Multimedia and camera
There's a roomy 32GB of internal storage on the base model we reviewed, but Samsung's huge amount of preloaded software knocks over 7GB off the total, leaving 24.9GB available for your own apps and media. My 64GB SanDisk card worked fine in the microSD slot beneath the battery cover, though. All of our test music tracks played, including FLAC files, and sounded fine through a Plantronics BackBeat Go stereo Bluetooth headset. High Definition 1080p movie files including H.264 and Xvid looked fabulous in full-screen mode, although DivX files wouldn't play.
Samsung has bumped the Note 2's autofocus camera sensor up to 13 megapixels, matching the one in the Galaxy S4. This being a Samsung camera, there are many extra features and modes, including a useful Eraser that eliminates a person from a series of photos, Best Face for merging group shots and getting the right expression on each person's face, and Rich Tone (HDR), which intensifies colour and improves contrast. There are some less useful modes, too, like Beauty Face and Drama Shot, which don't seem to accomplish much.
In testing, the camera itself was quite fast to focus and shoot. Outdoor shots were quite good, but still looked a little soft, and dark areas sometimes lacked detail. Indoors, again focus was soft; noise was kept under control well, but photos were clearly "mobile phone camera" and not point-and-shoot camera quality. The front-facing camera takes bright selfies that run a little warm, colour-wise, but are very usable. The video side is excellent: Both the front and rear cameras record smooth and sharp 1080p footage at 30 frames per second, and the rear camera's stabilisation and detail look really good.
Should you get a phone or a phablet? Samsung isn't making the decision easy, thanks to its sheer number of available devices with all manner of screen sizes. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Mega (which we’ll have a review of very soon) steps up to an even larger 6.3in display, but it's lower in resolution, and the Mega's dual-core processor is significantly behind the quad-core next-gen chip in the Galaxy Note 3.
Heading back down in the other direction, the Galaxy S4 still has a substantial 5in display, and since it's also 1080p, its pixel density is even tighter. The LG G2 (another handset we'll be reviewing very shortly) splits the difference with its 5.2in screen, and it has the same processing powerhouse internals as the Note 3, but it's not quite in the same league software-wise.
All told, the Galaxy Note 3 is the best phablet you can buy right now, and it scoops one of our Best Buy awards as a result. There wasn't much wrong with the Galaxy Note 2 that a spec bump and software refinements couldn't fix, and we basically got exactly that here.
Manufacturer and Model
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
1920 x 1080 pixels
79 x 8.3 x 151mm (WxDxH)
Video Camera Resolution
Available Integrated Storage (As Tested)
Snapdragon 800 Quad-Core
Total Integrated Storage
Super AMOLED HD
Screen Pixels Per Inch
Battery Life (As Tested)