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

For $299.99, the Galaxy Note 3 from Samsung is larger than life but incredibly fast and boasts a better S Pen interface.

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Brian Bennett
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Brian Bennett

Senior writer

Brian Bennett is a senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET. He reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from cordless and robot vacuum cleaners to fire pits, grills and coffee makers. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he rides longboards downhill in his free time.

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14 min read

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.

Samsung Note 3
8.4

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy Note 3</b> 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.

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.

Samsung's sharper Note 3 (pictures)

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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.

Samsung's revamped S Note app mostly gets it write (pictures)

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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

I do think the Advanced Multi Window feature is very useful, especially to power users who juggle data from multiple apps at once. The function allows you to open two application windows at once, then drag and drop content between them. I actually found it pretty helpful, especially for grabbing location details directly from e-mail and using it to create meetings in my calendar -- a task I do constantly. You can also create paired windows to use later.

Software, interface, and Samsung extras
It may not be KitKat, but the Galaxy Note 3 runs the modern Android 4.3 Jelly Bean operating system, which is the most recent available. Android KitKat is due out soon, and I'm hoping the Note 3 will receive this update in a timely fashion.

Layered on top of that is Samsung's custom interface, once known as TouchWiz. Aside from all the S Pen enhancements, it's essentially the same skin you see in the Galaxy S4.

While it's highly functional and crammed with features and ways to tweak them, I find Samsung's UI more confusing than those from other phone makers. Just looking at the quick settings menu in the notification shade alone gives me a headache. HTC's Sense software on the HTC One is easier to comprehend, for instance, as is the close to stock Android UI on Motorola's Moto X.

One aspect that's new to the Note 3, though, is how Samsung has pregrouped certain apps in the application tray into custom folders. Front and center is a "Samsung" folder, which holds shortcuts for many of the company's self-made software and services. Highlights include the S Health pedometer, Action Memo, S Voice for voice commands, Group Play, which shares video and photos with other Galaxy devices, plus utilities such as My Files and Voice Recorder.

Interestingly, all of Google's installed programs are also tucked away in their own virtual home. Honestly, my eyes kept sliding past it since stock Android never arranges Google apps like this. This folder houses Gmail, Google Search, Google+ social networking, along with icons for the company's digital content storefronts like Play Books, Games, Movies, and Music.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The My Magazine screen grabs content based on news topic. Brian Bennett/CNET

Samsung has also taken a cue from HTC and its BlinkFeed news aggregator, which first appeared in the HTC One. Swiping upward from the home screen on the Note 3 launches the My Magazine news viewer. Using technology from the popular Flipboard app, My Magazine serves up articles and news stories from a variety of sites.

Similar to HTC's solution, though, there's no way to remove My Magazine, since it's apparently baked right into the Note 3's OS. Additionally, you don't have control over which media outlets and Web sites the reader pulls info from. The most granular selections you can exert are choosing which topics of news My Magazine will fetch for you.

Flip through Samsung's Flipboard for phones and tablets (pictures)

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Camera
If you like the Galaxy S4's digital camera, then you'll have no complaints about the Note 3's shooter. The device is equipped with the same sharp 13-megapixel sensor with companion LED flash.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The Note 3's camera app is jam-packed with features and shooting modes. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Note 3's camera app comes with a huge bucket of shooting modes, unlike Motorola phones, for example, that have pared-down menus and settings. In fact the camera options on the Note 3 are identical to those you'll find on the Galaxy S4. They range from the very useful such as HDR, Burst, Panorama, to the strange, like Beauty Face, Golf (captures your swing for study), and Eraser, which removes people and moving objects in the background. You can also fiddle with virtually every aspect of image capture such as photo and video size, ISO settings, white balance, and light metering.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Indoor shots were clear and well exposed. Brian Bennett/CNET

Indoors, the Note 3 snapped breathtakingly clean still-life images, with vibrant colors and crystal-clear details. Pictures inside were also properly exposed and white balance selected correctly in automatic mode.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Nabbing images of fast-moving toddlers wasn't a problem. Brian Bennett/CNET

Out in the field, the Note 3 also captured photos of flowers in very vivid colors, even under overcast skies. Details were sharp, too, especially in its highest picture size (4,128x3096 pixels).

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Colors of flowers were vibrant outdoors. Brian Bennett/CNET

Also, akin to the performance of other flagship mobiles such as the HTC One and Galaxy S4, the Note 3 nabs photos practically instantaneously. That makes it nimble enough to capture unruly subjects, such as playing toddlers and scampering pets.

One area where the Note 3's camera didn't impress me was shooting under low-light conditions. While the fill-flash did a pretty good job of painting subjects in dark locations evenly, not blowing them out like less-capable phone cameras, without the flash the sensor simply couldn't grab enough light to work with.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Lighten details in shadows with the HDR mode. Brian Bennett/CNET

Massive mobile power
Inside the Galaxy Note 3 is a cutting-edge 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor. That's backed up by not 2GB but 3GB of RAM, along with 32GB of internal storage.

And as I expected, the Note 3 handles with the maneuverability of an attack jet, zooming through menus with alarming swiftness and popping open applications with zero hesitation. The Note 3 blew a fiery hole through all the mobile benchmarks I threw at it, too. It incinerated Quadrant, achieving the highest score I've ever seen (23,048). I admit I did a double-take and had to confirm that I didn't accidentally add an extra zero.

This result essentially buries what both the HTC One (12,194) and Galaxy S4 (11,381) managed. Even the vaunted LG G2 (19,050) with the same Snapdragon 800 processor couldn't catch the Note 3 on the Quadrant benchmark.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The Note 3 notched an extremely high Quadrant score. Brian Bennett/CNET

Data speeds
I tested the T-Mobile variant of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and the device was able to connect to the carrier's 4G LTE network in New York. I observed quick if not blisteringly fast download speeds, which averaged 8.3Mbps. Uploads weren't too shabby, either, clocking in at an average of 6Mbps.

This enabled the Note 3 to fire up CNET's mobile site in just over 4 seconds and the desktop version in 8 seconds. I also managed to download a 4.96MB application in 8 seconds.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Throughput was pretty fast over T-Mobile's 4G LTE network. Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality
Samsung didn't neglect the Note 3's voice communication abilities, either. While testing the phone on T-Mobile's GSM network in New York, I experienced excellent call quality. Callers described my voice as sounding refreshingly clear with virtually no background distortion. That said, if they listened clearly enough they could detect the telltale hollowness cellular connections often have.

Voices came in through the earpiece with plenty of clarity and volume, forcing me to dial the phone's loudness down a few notches. The same goes for words piped over the Note 3's powerful speakerphone. People I spoke to were also surprised at just how good I sounded conversing hands free.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:

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Battery life
Despite its wafer-thin frame, the Galaxy Note 3 has oodles of mobile stamina. Its large-capacity 3,200mAh battery propelled it to an astonishingly long 15 hours on the CNET Labs video battery drain benchmark. This test consists of playing an HD video continuously until the phone calls it quits.

By comparison, the Motorola Droid Maxx, whose most touted feature is its longevity, survived a minute shy of 16 hours during the same trial.

Performance: Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Average LTE download speed (T-Mobile) 8.3Mbps
Average LTE download upload speed 6Mbps
CNET app download 4.96MB in 7.9 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.1 seconds
CNET desktop site load 8.1 seconds
Boot time 21.5 seconds
Camera boot time 1.2 seconds

Where it stands and who should buy
Once Samsung commits to making a product, it plays to win. The company may not get things right the first time around, but it patiently persists until it creates a truly seductive piece of hardware. The third time is indeed a charm, because the Galaxy Note 3, while certainly a niche gadget, is the most compelling phone/tablet mashup Samsung has ever created, and the best I've ever used. That list includes a growing of phablet monsters such as the LG G2, Motorola Droid Maxx, and LG Optimus Vu II.

I admit a few of its attributes won't appeal to some people. Its sheer size is hard to ignore, or squeeze into tight pants pockets. The handset's textured imitation leather backing and retro styling will be a stumbling block as well. Frankly, though, I'm completely in love with the Note 3's aesthetics, especially in its classy black hue (it also comes in white). To me it harkens back to the venerable Galaxy S2's design as well, one of my favorite phones of all time.

And whether you ever unsheathe its S Pen stylus and much-improved stylus interface, the Note 3 is an amazingly advanced device in its own right. Its components and swift processor are top-notch, and its engaging screen practically functions as a portable HDTV. Sure, priced at $299.99 with a two-year contract, the Note 3 is one of the most expensive mobile phones on the market, right up there with the Droid Maxx ($299.99).

It's also true the Maxx is more pocket-friendly and offers longer battery life, but the Note 3 packs a better camera and comes close to the Maxx's lengthy runtime. That latter accomplishment is the Note 3's most heroic achievement considering the device brings to the party a much swifter processor, more RAM, Android 4.3 (compared with the Maxx's 4.2.2), plus a larger and sharper display. That's why if you consider yourself a power Android user who'd rather not spend extra on a small tablet like the Nexus 7, or just want the most phone you can buy, the Galaxy Note 3 is the clear choice.

Samsung Note 3
8.4

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9
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