Samsung's Galaxy Note series has been the most popular BIG phone since it was first released a couple of years ago. The Galaxy Note 2 made some major improvements over the original in terms of speed and utility, and while the Galaxy Mega was a giant step backwards, the Galaxy Note 3 looks to leapfrog them both. And, generally, it does.
It's a big honkin' phone that runs Android 4.3 with Samsung's TouchWiz skin over the top. It has a 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display that comes in at 386 pixels per inch. It also has a built-in stylus (oops, sorry, "S Pen"), for all your jotting and scribbling.
Big-handed people who never learned QWERTY. People who do a lot of reading on their phones. People who like to doodle.
Ohmygod. Samsung made a phone without a cheap plastic back! The back of the Note 3 is covered in leather. Or, at least it looks and feels like leather (enough to fool a lot of people). Up front is the big, lovely screen surrounded by a very minimal bezel. It retains Samsung's clickable home button and capacitive keys for Back and Menu. The S Pen tucks neatly into the bottom of the phone and remains unobtrusive until you pull it out. There is one (easily muffled) speaker at the bottom of the phone. There's a bit of a bump in the back for the 13MP camera.
In general, the Note 3 is plenty fast. Apps open reasonably quickly, but then run very without a hitch. Why only reasonably quick to open? The grumpy gatekeeper. Samsung's TouchWiz software is a heavy burden to carry, and even the mighty quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.3GHz and a hulking 3GB of RAM stumbles from time to time, which is pretty crazy. It's fast, but frankly, it should be faster.
Samsung has also borrowed a couple of ideas from its competitors here. My Magazine is essentially HTC's BlinkFeed, but worse. It's an app that tries to lay out your life in a visually appealing way, breaking it into categories like News, Personal, Social, and "Here and now" (local stuff). It looks nice enough, but it's barely functional most of the time. This app crashed over and over, often freezing and crashing other, completely unrelated apps.
The other thing the Note 3 borrows are the Moto X's Touchless Controls. It allows you to wake up your phone and have it do stuff for you without even laying a finger on it. Instead of saying, "Okay Google Now," you say, "Hi Galaxy!" Then, instead of Google Now opening, you get Samsung's S Voice app. This is unfortunate. While S Voice can do virtually everything Google Now can do in theory, it just doesn't work as well. It's clunky, unreliable, and not as smart as Now.
S Pen software has gotten much, much better. For starters, its handwriting-to-type engine is greatly improved. It's still not as fast or as accurate as a good touchscreen keyboard, but if you really like scribbling, this is pretty great. It can pull off some slick maneuvers. For example, if you scribbled a bunch of contact info into a note and you want to dial the phone number, you just circle it, click "Link to action" and it'll put it in the dialer (or a person's contacts, or your text messaging app). It's the kind of utility that the Note series has always promised, but it's finally arrived. Even little things like erasing text is easier. It's legitimately good stuff.
Audio quality is universally bad on this phone, which is a shame because despite being tablet-ish, it's still supposed to be able to make phone calls. Callers had constant issues understanding me and vice versa. Using T-Mobile's Wi-Fi calling helped a bit, but not enough. The external speaker is bad, too. Aside from sounding muddy and totally unbalanced, its position at the bottom of the phone makes it extremely easy to muffle.
The back of this phone feels fantastic! That is something we have never, ever said about a Samsung phone, but it's true. The leathery-finish looks good, doesn't pick up fingerprints, and provides a really nice amount of traction for your fingers. It won't easily slide off your leg, either. It feels nice and strong, too, and yes, it's still removable so you can get to the battery and SD card slot. We hope Samsung continues in this direction with the Galaxy S5, though we suspect this may just be a play for the attention of business-folk who seem to gravitate toward the Note (it's big and shiny).
- Until we all have the same-sized hands, the debate about whether a phone is or isn't too big will never end. It's subjective. That said, to me this phone is too big. I have large hands, but I struggle to use the Note 3 one-handed, something that's a must for me. Your phone-handling preferences may vary.
- The 3200mAh battery holds up admirably, but all those pixels take a toll. More often than not, I made it until about 8pm before I needed to reach for a charger. With heavier use it was shorter, and with lighter use I made it well into the night. It's unquestionably not as long-lasting as the Droid Maxx, but then again, not much is.
- It's presently one of two devices that works with Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and the only phone.
- The 13MP camera is excellent, especially in sunlight. Photos and videos were sharp, had nice color, and decent depth-of-field. You can see some samples here.
- TouchWiz has been refined somewhat in this implementation, but it still bogs down the phone. The Google Edition of the Galaxy S4 (which has stock Android instead of TouchWiz) instantly became one of our favorite ever phones. The presence of the S Pen makes us think we'll never see a Google edition of the Note 3, however.
- Despite the fact that Samsung licenses software from SwiftKey (our favorite third-party keyboard) the built-in keyboard is way worse. Text predictions are all over the place and words get broken into fragments a lot.
- The screen is really lovely, especially for viewing photos. It has those perfect blacks we love so much on AMOLED screens, and it's nice and sharp.
Do you like really big phones? Then yes! This is the best big phone out there. Do you hate big phones? Then no, of course you shouldn't get it because you will drop it on the ground and cry. That's pretty much the long and short of it, at least for now. Oh, except for the price.
Depending on the carrier, this puppy will run you $300 to $350 on contract. That's pretty damn steep. But if you've got the coin, you like this size, and you can get over the software annoyances, this is probably the phone you want. Ignore the gravitational pull of the Galaxy Mega. Size aside, this is three times the phone that is.
We still long to see Samsung get it together on the software side. As it is, the software on the Note tends to get in its own way, which has long been a Samsung tradition. Less is more, Samsung, even on a phone this big. [Samsung]
• Network: Most major U.S. carriers
• OS: Android 4.3 with TouchWiz
• CPU: 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800
• Screen: 5.7-inch 1920x1080 Super AMOLED (386 PPI)
• RAM: 3GB
• Storage: 32GB or 64GB plus micro SD up to 64GB
• Camera: 13MP rear ("UltraPixel")/ 2.MP front
• Battery: 3200 mAh Li-Ion
• Price: $300 - $350 (with a two-year contract, generally)