Samsung’s Galaxy branding reaches across their smartphone and tablet range, from the diminutive Galaxy Mini up to the recently announced NotePro and TabPro. One of the most successful handsets in the larger screened devices is the Galaxy Note 3, an update to the Note range of ‘phablet’ devices.
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The Galaxy Note 3 sports a 5.7 inch screen running at HD resolution (1920×1080 pixels). This actually came as a bit of a surprise to me when I looked up the specifications, because the iconography and text in the TouchWiz UI is rather chunky and bold. By increasing the physical size of the UI, the Note 3 minimises the impact of the size of the device by showing an interface that feels more suited to a 4 inch screened device that the large screen on offer here.
The screen uses a modified layout of the red, green, and blue sub pixels to create each pixel. Rather than a full RGB per pixel layout, Samsung has created what they call a ‘diamond pixel’ l about, which is a slight improvement on the pentile display seen in other displays. It still means there are less sub-pixels on this HD screen compared to a full RGB screen, but at such a high resolution, it is not as critical an issue as it once was.
It is present though, and if you are looking for a perfect pixel devices, the Note 3 is not for you. On the flip side, if you’re looking for a handset that you can read comfortably in an outstretched hand, or your eyesight is not up to picking out elements on a tightly packed UI, then the Note 3 is actually a good choice for an Android device.
Drawing And Interacting With S-Pen
The size of the UI also means that many of the touchable elements, from settings and status bars to menus and dialog buttons, are easier to select with fat or shaky fingers. The other element to the UI which benefits from these larger targets is Samsung’s S-Pen, a stylus that is tucked away at the base of the handset. Acting as pointer the stylus can duplicate your finger to navigate around the Note 3. It also allows you to select times with far more accuracy through the small nib on the pen. This means that note taking and drawing applications are much more useful on the Note 3 compared to other Android handsets where your finger would have to do the drawing.
The S-Pen also has a menu button in the side of the barrel. When you are close enough to the screen for the nib’s location to be determined, a small circle appears on the Note 3 screen to show the location of the nib in relation to the screen and you can tap the button to call up the S-Pen’s functions menu. These allow you to capture moments from your life, be it in the form of notes and sketches in the memo application, annotating a screen-capture on the Note 3, scrapbooking links and media into a central collection, or calling up the universal search function.
The great thing about these apps are that they provide the functionality that you would expect to have with a stylus enabled device. They work well, are easily accessible, and give the S-Pen something to do, and not just be a cute stylus on top of a normal Android UI layer. The only issues I have with the stylus is that over a two-year contract I wonder just how strong the friction grip inside the pen holder will be. Facing down and out of the phablet the S-Pen may be in danger of falling out if the grip’s functionality ever weakens.
Finding the S-Pen button is a bit tricky as well, with no haptic clues on the barrel of the pen as to which side has the button. Without looking down, I had to resort to a spinning motion between my fingers to active the button ‘blindly’. A small ridge or bumps on the side barrels of the pens could have helped a lot here.
The other area where the accuracy of the S-Pen helps is in Samsung’s split screen view. While it is not available for every Android application, a quick swipe on the arrow tab at the side of the screen brings up a list of applications that can be run in either of the two windows the screen can be split into. You can move the split between the windows as you wish, and the view runs in both landscape and portrait mode.
Given the resolution of two matching windows would be 960 x 1080 pixels, double the pixels in a qHD enabled mid-range Android devices, I find it frustrating that Samsung has retained the same ‘big’ UI from a single screen view. If the UI sizing was reduced, this split screen mode to give you two Android screens side by side would be genuinely useful. Right now the split view feels bloated, oversized, and a bit of a missed opportunity.
The Bloated Nature Of TouchWiz Does Not Help
You’ll notice that almost all the features discussed above are Samsung’s additions to the native Android environment. More than the Galaxy S4 smartphone, the Note 3 feels like Samsung’s vision of a portable device, and not a tweaked version of Google’s vision. It is still Android underneath, but the Note 3′s UI and application load-out is almost exclusively Samsung. Given the discussions between Google and Samsung during and after CES 2014 (with the NotePro and TabPro), the Note 3 is probably as far away from Google’s Android vision as any manufacturer using Google Play will be allowed to stray.
It’s notable that the only Google elements on the opening home screen are those mandated by Google – the search box and the Play Store icon – everything else is a Samsung replacement app, from the email and web browser client to Samsung’s weather view widget and app store.
This speaks to the ‘bloat’ nature of Samsung’s TouchWiz UI. Much of the expected functionality of a smartphone can be found twice – Gmail and email, Samsung’s web browser (called ‘Internet’) and Google’s Chrome browser, the two app stores, S-Planner and Calendar for diary management, there’s a huge amount of choice out of the box. Unfortunately the choices pull users in two directions between Samsung and Google. It’s not helped that Google’s apps are generally a bit more competent and user-friendly than Samsung’s, but Samsung hides all the Google apps in their own folder as far out of sight as possible.
I’m interested to see in Samsung’s Android devices during Q1 2014 how the South Korean company address this issue, because it has led to a confusing choice of applications for those lacking any detailed knowledge of Android coming to the Note 3.
Comparing The Samsung Mega To The Samsung Note 3
Handling the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, I can’t help but recall the Samsung Galaxy Mega, released a few months before the Note 3. The Mega felt a strange combination of a large screen coupled with underpowered specs that was a hard choice to justify a purchase. The Note 3 makes that even more obvious. While the screen on the Note 3 is slightly smaller, it has a higher resolution, faster processor (the European unit reviewed comes with a 2.3 GHz Quad Core Snapdragon 800 CPU), 32 GB or 64 GB of storage, and 3 GB of RAM. The Note 3 also comes with the S-Pen, which helps create a better experience for the user.
The Note 3 is around £40-£50 more expensive out of contract in the United Kingdom, but that is a price worth paying if you are looking for a larger Galaxy device. It also begs the question who exactly the Samsung Galaxy Mega is for?
Back to the Note 3 though. Samsung has certainly given the phablet a decent set of basic specifications, and is a notable bump up from the Note 2. The design of the Note 3 has improved as well. The Note 3 carries on the new styling touches from the Galaxy S4, with the single home button and the menu and back soft keys either side. The edge of the device is a plastic rim given a metallic look, and the screen is covered by the now standard Gorilla Glass.
The biggest change is on the rear of the handset. Even though it is still a single sheet of plastic held on with numerous plastic clips around the side, the addition of the faux leather does give the Note 3 a much nicer feel in the hand. There is more friction in your hand when holding the Note 3, it creates a much nicer tactile feel, and even if the pretend stitching will not fool anyone, it is certainly improvement over the bendable sheet of plastic seen on other Galaxy devices.
It’s also worth nothing that the Note 3 comes with the new USB 3.0 connector, which allows for faster connections and charging with suitable hardware. It’s backwards compatible with your USB 2.0 cables so you don’t need to bring an extra cable with you on a trip. If you’ve got USB 3.0 support on your computer, transfer times for data can be up to twice as fast. Over time I think that the USB 3.0 support will come into its own, for now it’s a little bonus that may or may not be useful.
Samsung has managed to tick all the boxes in building the Note 3. From a technical point of view, the Note 3 is a phablet that delivers on paper. In the hand it’s perhaps not as clear-cut, with a jumbled interface and some strange decisions over the size of the UI elements.
The Note 3 is a safe and iterative update from Samsung. It retains the advantages the Note 2 had with the S-Pen, improves in the design and styling, and ups the specifications to keep the Galaxy Note range on top of the phablet pile. There’s nothing drastically wrong with the Note 3, it does the job it sets out to do, does it well, and while it might not stretch the phablet envelope, it does everything you expect it to do.
This review handset was provided by UK retailer Phones 4 U, who stock the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for sale on the UK mobile phone networks.