Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review: Powerful new Note wields mightier pen skills

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has a gorgeous and massive screen, screaming quad-core processor, and refined S Pen skills. It also has long battery life, makes clear calls, and takes great pictures.

The Bad The Note 3 is expensive, large, and its faux-leather styling is crafted from cheap plastic.

The Bottom Line Though its plastic skin doesn't do its high price justice, Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 makes the most compelling case yet for a supersize phone.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

The new $299.99 Galaxy Note 3 is a tour de force in juggernaut handset design. Not only is it big, bold, and blazingly fast, the imposing device has an incredibly sharp 5.7-inch display, and battery life to go the distance. More importantly, the Note 3 features a sleeker design than its predecessor, the Note 2, a streamlined S Pen interface, plus the same superb camera you'll find on the Galaxy S4.

The third generation of the Note, however, is the most significant upgrade yet and the first Note device, thanks to a more thoughtful S Pen interface, that mainstream customers will actually want to buy. Frankly it has the power to school any flagship device on the market, and the only device since the old Palm Treos to get me seriously thinking about using a phone with a stylus.

Pricing and availability
Shipping now and hitting US carriers in force in October 2013, the Note 3 costs $299.99 on Verizon (in stores 10/10), AT&T (in stores 10/4) and Sprint (in stores 10/4). T-Mobile (available now) sells the device for a lower $199.99 up front, but you're on the hook for 24 monthly payments of $21. U.S. Cellular have also said it expects to scoop up the Note 3 soon.

What's new in the Note 3
The Note 3 represents a massive upgrade over its previous Note counterparts. In a nutshell, the Note 3 has a bigger 5.7-inch full HD screen; revamped S Pen features and S Note app; a thinner, lighter chassis; huge processor speed bump; and a built-in news app powered by Flipboard technology.

Design and build
Samsung's overarching theme of refinement is clear in the Note 3's physical appearance. In my view, it's much more elegant and sophisticated than both Notes that came before it. Measuring 6 inches long by 3.1 inches wide and a mere 0.33 inch thick, the Note 3 is only a hair taller and wider than its predecessor. Even so, this new Note is thinner despite boasting a larger screen (5.7 inches compared with 5.5 inches).

Along with shaving off a few fractions of an inch, Samsung has also lightened the device by five-tenths of an ounce, which puts the Note 3 at 5.9 ounces. But even as the sleekest Note yet, it still dwarfs flagship phones like the HTC One, Galaxy S4, and Motorola Droid Maxx, all of which were big boys in their own right. On the other hand, the Samsung Galaxy Mega with its gargantuan 6.3-inch screen makes even the Note 3 seem a reasonable size.

Samsung Note 3
The Note 3 is very thin despite its large footprint. Sarah Tew/CNET

Designwise the Note 3 also takes huge departures from the smooth, plastic, and oval frame of the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Notes before it. The Note 3 has a rectangular chassis ringed with flashy faux-chrome edges that are ridged, and the handset's patterned backing is designed to imitate the feel of leather. This leatherette back along with the Note 3's silver highlights evoke images of Samsonite briefcases from the 1960s. Further channeling this retro fashion accessory vibe are fake stitches that run along the back edge of the handset.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Though the Note 3's back is crafted from plastic, Samsung does its best to convince you it's leather. Sarah Tew/CNET

These design modifications aren't just for show, either. The Note's textured rear surface handily resists fingerprints and offers a sure grip. Now I'm sure many people out there will find this new look for the Note 3 a tad over the top, even chintzy -- the phone's back is plastic, after all, and only patterned to imitate leather. Still, all this gives the Note 3 a very handsome and distinctive look, especially compared with the slippery and truly cheap-feeling plastic chassis of the Note 2 and original Note.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
There's no getting around the Note 3's large size. Sarah Tew/CNET

Also on back is the Note 3's 13-megapixel camera lens and LED flash. Removing the back cover reveals other welcome touches, specifically a high-capacity (and removable) 3,200mAh battery plus a microSD card slot. Interestingly, and no doubt to save space, the device's SD card slot sits directly on top of its micro-SIM bay. That means you'll have to remove the battery to add more storage.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The S Pen is tucked away in the bottom edge. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Note's S Pen stylus lives in a receptacle on the phone's bottom lip. The device sports just three physical buttons, though: a tiny power key on the right edge, a thin volume bar placed on the left side, and a large oval home button below the screen. Flanking either side of this are two capacitive keys for Menu and Back.

Above the display you'll find a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for self portraits, video chat, or simply to amuse the kids. The Note 3's top edge houses its 3.5mm headphone jack for wired audio.

Also living on the Note 3's bottom edge is what at first I thought was a proprietary port. Instead it's a combination Micro-USB connector along with one of the new USB 3.0 jacks. USB 3.0 offers faster charging times and data transfer rates (up to 10 times quicker) over the older USB 2.0 standard, but you'll have to own a compatible PC.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The bottom edge sports one of the new USB 3.0 ports. Sarah Tew/CNET

A screen that's stunning
Trust me when I say that the Samsung Galaxy Note 3's screen is simply gorgeous. Measuring a vast 5.7 inches across, the AMOLED display has an ultracrisp full HD resolution (1,920x1,080 pixels) which translates into an amazingly sharp 385ppi. That's a level of detail that puts the smaller screens of the iPhone 5S (4-inch, 326ppi) and Samsung's own Galaxy S4 (5-inch, 441ppi) to shame.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The massive 5.7-inch AMOLED screen renders images sharply and in vibrant colors. Sarah Tew/CNET

It certainly outdoes the Note 2's (5.5-inch, 267ppi, 1,280x720 pixels) viewing experience. The Note 2 produces text that's noticeably less crisp than on the Note 3. Also, while the HTC One (4.7-inch, 468ppi) technically has a sharper screen, its viewing area is minuscule when saddled up against the Note 3.

The latest Note's high-contrast display produces well-saturated colors as well, with deep blacks and very wide viewing angles. As with the Note 2, you have five screen modes to choose from (Adapt Display, Dynamic, Standard, Professional Photo, and Movie), which offer specially tweaked color settings. I prefer the Movie mode, since its colors are the most lifelike. Samsung apparently honed this mode further because its colors look even more natural than the same selection on the Note 2.

And because its screen is brighter and sharper than its predecessor, watching all sorts of visual content on the Note 3 is extremely captivating. Characters in movie trailers practically leap off of the screen and into your lap, and detail in photos and video is incredibly crisp. Viewing desktop versions of Web sites, an activity I don't recommend on devices with cramped displays, was also pleasurably not eye-straining.

It's all about the S Pen
I doubt even the most avid Galaxy Note adherents use their S Pens often, at least those who don't primarily communicate in complex character-based or pictographic languages. Samsung hopes this third iteration of the Note franchise, though, will convert more users into being S Pen faithful. To this end, the company says it has revamped the S Pen experience on the Note 3 (and new Note 10.1 tablet) to provide a refinement of existing features, not overwhelm them with a confusing laundry list of capabilities and tools.

I think Samsung has made large strides toward its goal since this is the first implementation of the S Pen I've actually been tempted to use. Here's how it works.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Removing the S Pen launches the new Air Command menu. Sarah Tew/CNET

When you pull the S Pen out of its sheath, a little fan-shaped graphic called the Air Command appears. You can also activate it from any screen or app by holding the pen close to the display and pressing the S Pen's button. This single change alone, the addition of Air Command, does the most to make the S Pen a compelling tool for ordinary people than ever before.

Unlike with older Notes, which diluted the S Pen's abilities across the entire OS (where they would become lost or forgotten), Air Command places them all in one spot. Plus everything is boiled down into five main options: Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window. Just tap a selection to launch the feature.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Action Memo lets you e-mail, text, or convert handwritten scribbles into to-do lists. Sarah Tew/CNET

Action Memo lets you create a handwritten note, then provides a handful of options to manipulate the info you've just jotted down. For example you can scribble a name, number, and other details, then have the choice to either mail the data, save it to your contacts, use it in a text, or look it up on a map. You can also convert notes into to-do lists and even port them over to Evernote for safe keeping.

Of course the practice doesn't work perfectly. The phone had problems accurately transcribing my admittedly terrible handwriting into text. I often had to scribble words multiple times for it to correctly register what I wanted to jot down.

The Scrap Booker lassos images and content you see, whether that be a Web site, photos, or YouTube videos, to save in a virtual scrapbook. You can create and name as many volumes as you'd like, then access them through the scrapbook application.

In practice the feature worked well enough and I was able to grab images and other content then save directly to a personal scrapbook. Personally, however, I'm not someone who scrapbooks in real life or even does so virtually using sites like Pinterest. That said, if you're researching projects that require sifting through lots of visual info (home improvements, shopping for a new wardrobe, etc.) then I can see it being handy.

Think of S Finder as universal search. The function will sift through the phone's memory for keywords, including your handwritten notes, and present a list of documents containing relevant information.

Hitting Pen Window allows you to draw a box on the screen, then select an application that will fill that space. So for instance you can have your e-mail or Web browser open then pull up a little window for the calculator, phone, or contacts, which will float above everything. It's an interesting idea, and I can see it being useful in certain situations.

For example, imagine reading e-mail, then punching out people's phone numbers, making calls to follow up, all while digging through messages for Web links and office memos. Of course it takes about three steps to create an application windows vs. just switching between apps.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
View two apps at once with Advanced Multi Window. Sarah Tew/CNET