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

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.

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:

Samsung s3

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.

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