Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review: Samsung's huge, powerful Galaxy Note 3

There are so many settings for every little bit of the phone that the settings menu has had to be split into four separate tabs. If you absolutely love tweaking every aspect of technology in your life then you'll probably love the sheer volume of different options, but it's far from simple to understand.

S Pen

Tucked into the bottom of the Note is the S Pen stylus for handwriting notes. It's 110mm long and very lightweight, so it's not as comfortable to hold and write with as a regular pen, but it's perfectly fine for some quick notes. The nib has a very small tip that allows for much greater accuracy than you can achieve using the wide, squashy tips you'd find on third-party styluses designed to work with any devices.

Samsung has, surprise surprise, chucked in a bunch of software to help get the most out of the S Pen. For the most part though, it's actually quite helpful. It's updated the S Note app, which allows you to draw, type and illustrate notes within attractive little booklets. It's full of different buttons and settings to confuse you, but for scrawling shopping lists, or jotting down notes at a meeting, it's pretty handy.

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S Note is handy for scrawling down shopping lists or memos in a meeting, but it can be fiddly to use.

There's also a Note-optimised version of Autodesk's SketchBook app, that lets you get all creative and artistic with the pen. With numerous pen styles, colours and layer options available, the only thing stopping you from creating masterpieces -- I found -- is a miserable lack of artistic talent.

When you pull the pen from the phone, a little pop-up dialogue box will appear, allowing quick access to key S Pen tools. With Action Memo, you can write a phone number, email address or just regular words into a toolbox, then select whether to call, text, email or do a web search for what you've written. Screen Write captures a screenshot of whatever's on screen at the time, allowing you to scrawl notes over the top.

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Use the stylus to draw a square and you can make an app float above whatever else you're up to. In this case, YouTube.

The Pen Window meanwhile allows you to draw a square on the screen and select an app -- YouTube, for example -- to launch in that box, hovering over the top of the other app you're in. Hold down the little button on the stylus and draw around any object onscreen -- the selection will be captured as a screenshot for you to paste into S Note or send as an image in an email.

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Scrawl down a phone number or email address and Action Memo will let you call or email it, without needing to search through your contacts.

There's a bunch of other little tricks you can do with the S Pen. They're interesting additions, but none of them are exactly crucial. The main issue is that with so many different options available to you to perform a task, it's very difficult to remember all the different ways you can do something. You'll need to spend some time getting used to the Note, poking around and finding out the best ways to get things done.

Processor and performance

Stuffed into the Note is a stonking 2.3GHz quad-core processor, together with 3GB of RAM. Those are some seriously potent specs, so I wasn't surprised when it delivered the best scores on my benchmark tests that I've ever seen.

On the Geekbench 2 benchmark test, it achieved a whopping 4,139, casually beating the Xperia Z1's (the previous top performer) score of 3,706 and laughing in the face of its predecessor's 1,998. Its 22,487 result on the Quadrant test is again the best score I've ever had from a mobile device.

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That really is an astonishing benchmark score.

Those are undeniably impressive scores, but it's important to take them with a pinch of salt. For one, Samsung has been accused of tweaking the processor specifically to give better scores. Whether that's true or not, the fact remains that benchmarks aren't always totally accurate tests of how they'll perform in real life. Thankfully though, I found the Note 3 to be every bit as blistering in my own use as the tests suggested.

There's zero lag when swiping around the home screen, placing apps, pulling down notification bars, or jumping into menus. Photo editing in snapseed is extremely nippy and playing back Full HD video is stutter free.

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Glossy racer Asphalt 8 played without any hiccup whatsoever.

Gaming is handled with aplomb too. Water racer Riptide GP 2 played with deliciously smooth frame rates, as did the graphically intense Asphalt 8 and N.O.V.A 3. With the graphical prowess of the updated Jelly Bean software eventually allowing for even more demanding games, the Note 3 is well-poised to be able to hand the next generation of titles.

Camera

The back of the Note is home to a 13-megapixel camera. That's the same resolution as the S4's snapper -- bad news if you were hoping for impressive numbers like the Xperia Z1's 20.7 megapixels or the Nokia Lumia 1020's ludicrous 41 megapixels. Megapixels aren't everything though and they certainly don't mean better pictures, so let's see what it can do.

Galaxy Note 3 test photo
Galaxy Note 3 image test (click image to enlarge).

In my first shot of London's St Paul's Cathedral, the camera performed about as well as you'd expect a high end phone camera to do. It has very even exposure, with the blue sky being clearly visible, while the shadowy areas aren't lost to darkness. There's plenty of detail too when you look at the full screen version and the colours are accurate.

Galaxy Note 3 test photo
Galaxy Note 3 image test (click image to enlarge).

My second test shot of this fruit and veg stand was also pretty good. The detail on the basket weave is excellent and the colours -- particularly on those luscious-looking tomatoes -- are excellent. It's not leaps and bounds ahead of the Galaxy S4's camera, but it's at least rivalling it.

Galaxy Note 3 test photo
Galaxy Note 3 image test (click image to enlarge).

It didn't perform quite as well in low-light scenarios though. My esteemed colleague Marc Ganley might look threatening with this enormous Nerf rifle, but the image is let down somewhat by the unnatural colour tones, a lack of clarity and the image noise creeping in on the top right.

Like the S4, the Note 3 has a bunch of creative modes to play around with including the panorama, HDR, animated photo and weird dual-shot feature. This lets you paste your face from the front-facing camera over the top of the image from the main camera to 'put you in the picture'. More excitingly though is the Surround Shot feature that takes a 360-degree photo of your surrounding by piecing together numerous photos at once, letting you pan around the scene on your phone.

Galaxy Note 3 test photo
Galaxy Note 3 image test (click image to enlarge).

I saw this first on the Google Nexus 4 and was very keen on it, but I'm less thrilled here. The main reason for this is that it simply doesn't work very well. I took various test shots along the bank of the river Thames and all of them showed very poor stitching on the images. This shot taken on a bridge is a good example of how it failed to accurately piece together the scene. It also can't make the 'mini planet' photo that I loved on the Nexus 4.

Perhaps the headline feature of the Note's camera is its ability to shoot video in 4K resolution -- or 'Ultra HD', if you will. It's certainly an impressive boast, but it shouldn't be the reason you buy the thing. For one, you won't notice any increase in definition when viewing footage on your phone or indeed on any normal display. You'll need a 4K display in order to see any kind of benefit and 4K TVs are extraordinarily expensive still.

4K video files are also extremely big, thanks to the sheer volume of information being saved to the phone. My 2-minute test video came to around 1GB, which is a lot of space to take up on a phone. It'll also involve a long wait if you're uploading it anywhere. I don't recommend shooting video in anything higher than 1080p.

Battery

The Note 3 packs in a very capacious 3,200mAh battery, which is far bigger than most cells you'll find in standard smart phones. Big it might be, but that enormous, high definition display and powerful processor really do take their toll on battery life. As such, the Note 3 very much falls in line with what I'd expect from most smart phones.

With moderately careful use you can probably squeeze a whole day of use out of it. If you keep the screen brightness down, avoid using GPS and don't spend your time playing demanding games or shooting 4K video then you won't need to live in fear of running out of juice before lunch.

Keep the screen on all the time and watch Netflix on your way to the office and you might want to give it a boost at lunch if you want enough power to play some podcasts on your commute home. As a general rule with all smart phones, you'll almost certainly need to charge it every night.

Conclusion

With its bold, Full HD display, superbly powerful processor and responsive stylus, the Galaxy Note 3 is an unquestionable powerhouse that's well suited to those of you looking for a device to tackle work on the move. Its enormous size -- not to mention its high price -- means it's not going to be a sensible option for the casual phone fan though.

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    Samsung Galaxy Note 3

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