Being the world’s largest smartphone brand is no easy job. Just ask Samsung. Not only does it have to ensure it is present across product categories and price points but also innovate continuously and look for new experiences or risk becoming tomorrow’s Nokia or BlackBerry. Things get murkier when general consensus reckons that Samsung is not a trend creator but a follower, especially those set by Apple. That always leaves holes for a rival, that might not even exist today on a global scale, to suddenly spring up and catch Samsung by surprise.
But it would be unfair of me to say Samsung does not innovate. Its “hit anything against the wall and see what sticks” attitude have had mixed results. The most recent ones like the Galaxy Gear smartwatch and the Galaxy Round smartphone with a curved display have been the butt of many jokes, but so was the first generation Galaxy Note, which was launched in late-2011 and most critics dismissed it (yours truly included) as being too big and unwieldy to use as a phone. Many were also bewildered for Samsung introducing stylus input, which was famously proclaimed dead by Steve Jobs when he unveiled the first iPhone in 2007. Many thought that Samsung was taking a step back with the Galaxy Note. Proving all critics wrong, Samsung has sold close to 40 million Galaxy Notes since then, which is massive, especially for what many consider to be a niche device.
The Galaxy Note 3 continues the tradition of having an even bigger display than its predecessor, which now translates into 5.7-inches of full HD awesomeness. Its predecessor, the Galaxy Note II was in my books the best Android smartphone at the time of its launch. Can the Galaxy Note 3 be the same?
Having been ridiculed in the past for using plastic, which in most circles is associated with being cheap, the Galaxy Note 3 sports a faux leather back complete with faux stitching to complete the look. That is the first thing anyone would notice apart from the fact that the device is huge (but you already knew that). The leather finish is so realistic that a friend actually tried scraping the back with his teeth to check. Needless to say, we are not friends any more. There is no doubt that Samsung has done a great job with the back panel. However, removing the panel reveals it still remains the thinnest slice of plastic possible that can hold its form. Well played, Samsung! That’s one way of making plastic as one of the phone’s key USP in its advertising.
The Galaxy Note 3 is a design marvel in itself but not in the obvious sense. It looks more similar to the first-generation Galaxy Note than the Galaxy Note II or the Galaxy S4. It is still a slab of plastic and glass when others have graduated to glass and metal. Yet, its design amazes me. The Galaxy Note 3 features a bigger 5.7-inch display in a chassis that is almost the same size as the Galaxy Note II along with it being somehow thinner and lighter. It has a marginally bigger battery too. Samsung has managed to achieve that with an edge to edge display with an almost non-existent bezel.
Both the faux leather back and thin bezels on the front make the Galaxy Note 3 feel great to hold. It looks and plays the part of being a premium design. It feels more comfortable to use than the Galaxy Note II. Yes, it is still a pain to use with one hand but that’s the tradeoff I assume you have already made if you are considering the Galaxy Note 3, in lieu of a bigger display and the added functionality.
As far as the market is concerned, the Galaxy S smartphone range has always been the flagship smartphone from Samsung, this year the Galaxy S4 being that device. But from the hardware perspective, the Galaxy Note series has always received the best hardware available. The Galaxy Note 3 is no different. It gets a better processor – the improved Exynos 5 Octa 5420 in India and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 in countries that have wide LTE deployments. It also gets 3GB of RAM and comes with 32GB of internal memory by default. Then there is the 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, which is among the best displays I have seen on any smartphone.
There has been a lot of hue and cry about Samsung not launching the Snapdragon 800 variant in India, which apart from being the best smartphone SoC’s currently available in the market, also supports 4K video recording and is expected to provide better battery performance. I was a bit skeptical about the Exynos 5 Octa chipset myself, especially after my experience with the Galaxy S4. The Galaxy Note 3 has an updated version of Exynos 5 Octa that takes care of most of the issues I encountered with the Galaxy S4. The phone does not heat up significantly even with some heavy usage. The battery life too is excellent, easily lasting me for over 24 hours constantly over a period of two weeks. There is no noticeable lag and things move at a smooth clip.
The Galaxy Note 3 sports the same 13-megapixel camera as the Galaxy S4 and the results are pleasing. It is a robust camera that would give you great shots in well-lit conditions and just about decent shots in low-light conditions. Yes, it is not comparable to the camera chops of the Nokia Lumia 1020 or even the Xperia Z1′s camera in manual settings but like the iPhone 5, it is consistent in its performance. If I were to nitpick, it does over-compensate for noise in low light shots that results in loss of details. It can shoot videos in 1080p resolution, which is at par for the course. Again, don’t expect Lumia 1020 quality videos as it lacks the Lumia’s elaborate optical image stabilization mechanism.
One thing that many would notice is the strange charging port and charger that comes with the Galaxy Note 3. Samsung is first off the block to provide a USB 3.0 port on a smartphone, which not only offers faster data transfer speeds when connected with a PC’s USB 3.0 port but Samsung also claims it charges the phone much faster. The best thing about this new port is it is backwards compatible, which means you can still continue to use a regular micro-USB cable to charge or transfer data in case you forget your USB 3.0 cable. Like Apple’s move to Lightning cable last year, these are still early days for USB 3.0 on smartphones and tablets but eventually everyone would move to it.
The Galaxy Note series has always been as much about software innovations as it is about the hardware specifications. The S-Pen stylus input is addictive and adds to the user’s productivity. The Galaxy Note II last year introduced Air View that lets users preview options, photo albums and videos without touching the display. The Galaxy Note III retains that and add some new features. Removing the stylus from its silo automatically launches the S-Pen menu that gives multiple options for using the stylus.
The first of them is ‘Action Memo’ that is a smart note taking application. After scribbling something on the notepad, you can hit the action button that will let you call a number, save it as a contact, send an email, search the web, search it on a map (in case it is an address) or save it as a task list.
The next is ‘Scrapbooker’ that lets you select content from anywhere and store it in a scrapbook. So if you are on a web page and there is something you’d like to save for later, you can remove the stylus, select Scrapbooker, draw a circle around the item you want to save and it’s done! Then there is the usual ‘Screen Write’ feature that takes a screenshot of your current screen and you can scribble on top of it. There is also a ‘S Finder’ that is essentially a universal search app that can search for stuff residing on the phone by using keywords and applying smart filters.
My favorite is the ‘Pen Window’ option with which you can draw a box anywhere on the display and open apps in that box you have created. It is a nice way to multitask, especially in situations when you require the calculator, the phone keypad or contacts without leaving the page. Of course, you can invoke many more apps there but I mostly ended up opening these three quite regularly. The multi-window feature continues to exist and can be invoked by long pressing the back button. Samsung’s Siri equivalent, S Voice, can be activated by double tapping the home button.
After the backlash Samsung received with the bloatware on the Galaxy S4 that used up precious internal storage, I believe Samsung has done a good job with TouchWiz by providing features that users will end up using. However, that’s not to suggest that everything is fine on the software front. A big pet peeve for me has been the additional steps it takes to use Google Now on the Galaxy Note 3. Normally, Google Now can be started by either double tapping or long pressing the home button or in case of on screen menu buttons just pressing the home button and sliding the thumb up. On the Galaxy Note 3 one has to long press the home button that takes the user to the multitasking menu and from there one has to select the ‘G’ icon from the bottom bar. A workaround for this is to have a Google Search widget on the homescreen and touching the search bar.
Also, the autocorrect on the Galaxy Note 3′s keypad is frustrating and does not make any sense whatsoever. I find Google’s default keyboard to be the best for Android smartphones but it is not available on Indian Google Play Store. Besides these, I cannot find any major faults with the UI. By the way, it runs on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. Normally I’d mention it right at the beginning but this also shows what Samsung has managed to do on top of Android and customized it. Despite the heavy customization, Samsung has improved its track record for providing Android updates quickly for its flagship products and is usually one of the first when it comes to non-Nexus devices.
The Galaxy Note 3 is a top-of-the-line smartphone and that is reflected in its performance. Between charges that lasted me regularly for 26 to 28 hours, I could easily squeeze in three hours of calls, about four hours of online browsing along with two email accounts, one Facebook and Twitter account that were all set to push notifications. It is one of those devices where you won’t have to constantly remind yourself to carry the charger along if you were stepping out for the day.
The 13-megapixel camera is one of the most versatile cameras you will find on a smartphone, offering consistently good photos under any condition. It won’t always provide the best photograph like the Nokia Lumia 1020, which has changed the benchmarks when it comes to smartphone photography, but as an overall package it provides satisfactory results with closer to natural color reproduction and good saturation levels. Photographs don’t appear over or under exposed. Like I said, it would please majority of users.
The Exynos 5 Octa 5420 chipset gives no real reasons to complain and handles most tasks comfortably. Once a device gives you upwards of 24 hours of usage, I don’t see a reason to complain even though the Snapdragon 800 variant could have slightly better battery performance. I did not experience any network issues either with consistent network reception and the other person could hear my voice clearly.
Assuming the device size is not a deterrent as that’s the audience the Galaxy Note 3 targets, it is a class apart and nothing comes closer. Sony’s Xperia Ultra is the only other device that comes to my mind but it does not offer anything significant apart from its even bigger 6.4-inch display. The Xperia Ultra does not provide any user experience that takes advantage of the bigger display. Even the form factor is not conducive to be used as a phone, unless you want a tablet that can make calls. I found it impossible to use the Xperia Ultra as my primary smartphone and it won’t even fit into my trouser pocket, often sticking its head out. The Galaxy Note III, on the other hand, actually improves the user’s productivity and gives them the best of both smartphone and tablet worlds.
If you are simply looking to buy the latest flagship Android smartphone and don’t care much for the display size or the S-Pen functionality, then the other options would be the Sony Xperia Z1 and the LG G2. The Xperia Z1 is a brilliant product that also provides water resistance and a 20.7-megapixel camera. However, it is severely let down by its display quality, which is the main reason why I do not recommend it. The LG G2, on the other hand, is a great value for money Android smartphone. I have been using it for a week now, though the placement of the volume and power buttons, and the lack of a microSD card could be the possible deterrents.
In the end, the Galaxy Note 3 is the device I would recommend to buy if you want the latest and greatest Android smartphone currently available in the market. It is easily available for under Rs 47,000. However, things might change when Google launches the Nexus 5 later this month. But even then the Galaxy Note 3 would continue to have an edge for those who know how to make the most out of its customized features.
Photographs: Harshita Rastogi