You've been warned: the Galaxy Note II was probably my favorite smartphone of 2012, and it looks like its successor, the Note 3, is stealing my heart all over again. With big hardware improvements across the board, as well as substantial additions to software, the Note 3 feels like a true next-generation sort of phone. Samsung has rather effectively ruined every other large-screen device for me, and frankly, probably every other phone released this year.
The thing I've come to like about the Note phones is their no-compromise approach to the big phone concept. Some large devices will sacrifice on the camera, the quality of the display, the processor, or practical ergonomics (*cough* Z Ultra *cough*) in order to meet a price or size target. Samsung, however, seems dead set on making the Note 3 the very best phone it can possibly be, period. And it's not just about specifications - anyone can have those. It's about putting them to good use.
While I will be among the first in line to call out some of Samsung's superfluous software gimmicks, there's little denying they've developed features that have legitimate uses, and that their phones have a degree of functional versatility that remains unmatched by any of their competitors. With the Note 3, Samsung does add a little to the pile of toggles and overflow menus, but it has also refined and honed many parts of TouchWiz NatureUX 2.0 (yep, that's the name), including some Note-specific features that may be worth a second look. And while NUX still won't be winning any beauty contests, it still does focus on providing in-built functionality stock Android lacks.
The Note 3 is, to me, is Samsung's way of saying "here's what we can do." It's the phone that, in my opinion, every other OEM wants to build. They just haven't managed to do it. It's a marriage of hardware and software in a way that compels people to come back a year later and buy another Galaxy Note, not because of loyalty to a brand, but because it sets a precedent in terms of expectations. The Note 3 is a phone addict's phone.
Note: This review is based on the Qualcomm-powered LTE variant of the Note 3, not the Exynos version.
Galaxy Note 3: Specifications
- Processor: 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974)
- GPU: Adreno 330
- Network compatibility: Varies by model (all US models support LTE)
- Operating system: Android 4.3 with TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0
- Display: 5.7" Super AMOLED 1920x1080 (386 DPI)
- Memory: 3GB RAM / 32GB storage (26GB usable)
- Cameras: 13MP rear / 2MP front
- Battery: 3200mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes
- Infrared: Yes
- Wi-Fi: Dual-band, A/B/G/N/AC
- Bluetooth: 4.0 with BT Smart (LE) support
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB 3.0 (type B) / microSD
- Thickness: 8.3mm
- Weight: 168g
- Speed: The Note 3 is incredibly, stupidly fast. The new Adreno 330 GPU ensures excellent 3D performance, and the phone opens and runs apps incredibly quickly.
- Build quality: Is improved, I think. We'll see. But so far the Note 3 feels much sturdier than the Note II, and the faux leather, while horribly tacky, feels so much better than the slimy plastic of the S III / S4 / Note II.
- S Pen works with capacitive buttons: This was such an oversight on the Note II, it had to be addressed. Unfortunately, you still have to press the physical home button for that to work, but back and menu work with the S Pen just fine.
- Camera: This is the same camera from the Galaxy S4, and while it doesn't seem to do as well in dark conditions, it's still an excellent daytime shooter that yields tons of detail.
- Much better display: The Note II's display was too dim, and at 720p, wasn't exactly the optimal viewing experience given the size of the panel. The Note 3's is much brighter, and at 1080p it looks incredibly crisp.
The Not So Good
- Camera night performance: Compared to the Galaxy S4, it's just not very good. It's the same sensor, so I'm not sure what happened here.
- Gimmicks: Samsung has added some legitimately useful features to the Note 3. It also hasn't really removed any of the stupider ones.
- Down firing speaker offers no real improvement: It's not any louder, and it doesn't sound any better. Even with the S4's rear-firing speaker right next to it on a hard, flat surface. This seems like an entirely superficial design change.
- TouchWiz aesthetics: Remember how cargo pants were super cool and super functional... in 1999? TouchWiz is that guy still wearing cargo pants. Samsung just hasn't sent them to Goodwill yet.
- Faux. Leather. Come on. Really? You couldn't just give it a bumpy texture, or a rubberized matte coating? You had to go the whole "we're literally making it look like a notebook" route? Groan.
Design and build quality
The Galaxy Note II was not particularly pretty. It was also quite flimsy, its slimy rear cover easily accumulated scratches and scuffs, and the phone simply didn't feel particularly premium. Samsung is trying very hard to change that perception with the Galaxy Note 3.
You know where this is going: Faux. Leather. Well, it's not even faux leather - it's just plastic textured sort of like leather with some fake stitching around the edges. Does it look better than it did before? Sure. Is this going to age well aesthetically, or go down as one of Samsung's better design moves? Ha. Ha. If it makes into the Note 4, I'll be genuinely surprised. Samsung had the right idea here (make the back feel less like a slimy plastic suckfest), but then someone started getting clever and decided 'polyurethane cowhide' was The Next Big Thing, and through what I can only imagine was a series of escalating dares about how long they could get away with it, the Note 3's design was born.
The plasti-chrome border going around the entire phone now has little lined accents that, according to Samsung, evoke the feeling of a journal or book. And thus goes the reasoning for the faux-leather, as well. I'm not making this up, I swear. Even the S Pen has a bunch of ridges and lines all along the shiny end, though it still feels too light for a stylus, not to mention incredibly cheap.
I will say that the Note 3 as a whole feels like a substantial move up from the Note II, though. The frame seems more rigid (this may fade with time, we'll see), and the textured rear cover has none of the 'gross' factor that the old glossy plastic did. Even the camera module looks fancier - I quite like the body color-matching accents they went for. It certainly looks better than it does on the Galaxy S4.
Come around to the front, and the Note 3 is all classic Samsung. The visible display area has tiny little triangular cutouts on each corner, the sensors are arranged just as they are on the Galaxy S4 (seemingly sans RGB light sensor), and the earpiece speaker grille is the same one you'll find on the S4, too. There are a few minor differences, however. The inlaid texture on the glossy white plastic around the display is a series of interlocking triangles and diamond shapes. The home button is no longer vaguely trapezoidal, but a perfect pill shape. The shape of the Note 3 itself is also more rectangular, with the curved corners of the phone being substantially smaller and more squared-off in appearance than those of the Galaxy S4.
Along the bottom you'll find a couple of interesting things, too - the first-on-a-smartphone type B microUSB 3.0 port and the bottom-firing speaker many have been clamoring for since the original Note. The S Pen slot rounds out this area. The power and volume buttons are the same metallic ones found on the Galaxy S4, and are positioned similarly.
Pop open the rear cover (which is still incredibly thin and flimsy) and you'll find the SIM and microSD slots are stacked, the long-lasting 12.16Wh (3200mAh) battery, and the external speaker module, which where there would normally be a grille is simply a solid piece of metal, so that the audible noise is pushed down through to the bottom of the phone where it can escape. From an acoustic perspective, this doesn't strike me as a particularly optimal design, but I guess whatever works.
The ergonomics of the Note 3 are quite similar to the Note II. In fact, Samsung's managed to shave 12g of mass off the newest Note, despite increased display and battery size. That's a commendable feat, to be sure. For me, the Note II was about as big as I was willing to go with a phone I'd be carrying around every day in my pocket. The Note 3 is actually slightly narrower than the Note II (79.2mm vs 80.5mm), but only 0.1mm taller. It's also a full millimeter thinner. As such, it's actually a bit easier to hold.
All things considered, this is the best effort Samsung's given to making a phone feel like a "premium" device to date, I just wish they would have stayed away from that fake stitching.
First off, the S Pen now works on the menu and back capacitive keys. Just tap them with the pen and they'll register the input. Hooray! This was very badly needed. The home button, unfortunately, does not work with S Pen. You still have to physically press it, which is much more frustrating than it needs to be. That seems like a pretty big oversight.
The pen itself seems a little nicer than the one that shipped with the Note II, and now the pen button is a bit higher up, which Samsung claims makes it easier to reach (they suggest using your index finger, which I found incredibly awkward). In my opinion, it's still a pain in the butt to click. Otherwise, the pen hasn't changed much. Oh - you can slide it back into the Note with the button facing up or down now, so it's easier to do without looking (the pen is wider than it is thick, so that much is easier to feel out). Good call, Samsung.
The 5.7" display on the Galaxy Note 3 is largely reminiscent of the one you'll find on the Galaxy S4 - in all but two respects: size and brightness. The Note 3's full HD AMOLED panel is exceptionally crisp (though it still uses a weird subpixel layout that is not as dense as true striped RGB), and when set to movie mode in the screen mode menu, reproduces colors with decent accuracy. It still has the same yellow cast issue as any AMOLED display, though (compare an S4 to an HTC One on a blank page in Chrome to see what I'm saying), and some colors (greens, blues) still end up a little too hot even when in the most accurate display mode. That said, the screen mode menu is one of my favorite additions to Samsung phones in the last year, and I couldn't live without it now. If that's not your thing, set it to dynamic mode and you'll have your Crayola acid trip effect going on in no time, especially with some of the Note 3's colorful built-in wallpapers. And let's not forget - AMOLED displays are still the best at low black levels, which means the Note 3 is great for videos and games.
Getting back to the brightness issue, the Note 3 gets substantially brighter than the Galaxy S4, even in direct sunlight. Brightness was arguably the biggest drawback of the Galaxy S4's display, and while the Note 3 still doesn't really touch the HTC One for raw retina-searing power, it is respectably luminous at its maximum setting. It also appears that, like the Galaxy S4, setting the Note 3 to automatic brightness will actually allow it to get even higher than the maximum setting in particularly bright scenarios (eg, outside on a sunny day).
Automatic brightness, by the way, does seem to work a bit better on the Note 3 than it did on the S4. It still takes a while to adjust to changes in lighting, but the brightness it settles on is generally usable, unlike the Galaxy S4, which appears to have an ambient light sensor with bipolar disorder.
As for the glass itself, the Note 3 is equipped with Gorilla Glass 3, same as the S4.
So here's the thing about reviewing a Sprint phone: Sprint really sucks in, I don't know, 95% of the country. And as such, I was constantly flipping between 3G and LTE where I live, which pretty much wrecks the battery. Inside my house, I get spotty Sprint 3G, which also, you guessed it, wrecks the battery. Though apparently the Note 3 does have a nifty new Qualcomm radio power management tech, so perhaps the wreckage is less severe than it might have otherwise been. Anyway, thanks to Sprint, I've been on Wi-Fi most of the time. Here's what I've found.
With all of my various crap synced (2 Google accounts with all the trimmings, Twitter, FB / Messenger, Foursquare, Amazon / MP3, Play Music, Dropbox, Mint.com, RunKeeper, Yelp), I still felt very comfortable making it through an entire day on the Note 3. Not "there's no way I could possibly run down this battery" comfortable, mind you - if you go out on mobile data with the display cranked to max brightness (or on auto on a sunny day outside) and start taking a bunch of photos, holy moly does the battery drain fast. I was taking test shots with the screen at maximum brightness for about the last 30 minutes (20 photos, plus 2 surround shots), and the battery went from 61% to 42% in that time. Photo processing is a very CPU-intensive task (especially night photos and panoramas), and the display is the biggest potential source of battery drain on any device. Put them together, and the Note 3's strengths (brighter display, quicker processor) combine to chow down on the battery big time.
However, for generic tasks like checking email and social networks or web browsing not using Wi-Fi, I think with a decent LTE connection (so, not Sprint) I could probably get about 3-3.5 hours of screen-on time with the brightness on 85% or so. That means it's still a pretty big step away from, in my experience, the DROID MAXX, which consistently hit 4 hours on mobile data with the display cranked to 100% (granted, it's a dim screen). That puts the Note 3, for me, in the company of the LG G2, which in my opinion gets excellent battery life. The Note 3 has 0.5" more display, but also 200mAh more battery capacity than the G2, so it makes sense that they're comparable in this regard.
And yes, the Note 3's battery is removable.
Storage, mUSB 3.0, wireless, and call quality
The Note 3, finally, ships with 32GB of onboard storage as standard. There is also a 64GB model, but there's no sign that this variant will see the light of day in the United States. Of that 32GB, 26GB is available at the user level, which should be enough for most people. If you want more space for media, the microSD slot is at your disposal.
Allegedly, this storage will also be faster to access thanks to a microUSB 3.0 connection interface. The Note 3 is the first smartphone to use this port, which should aid in faster file transfers. The Note 3 is still using the same old 2A charging interface, though, so it doesn't seem like the new port provides it any more power, apart from when charging on a PC. More than likely, this is just Samsung getting ready to introduce a new standard connector, and the Note 3 is the first consumer trial, while also getting the benefit of future-proofing. The connector works fine with standard microUSB cables for both data and charging.
Wireless performance on the Note 3 has been difficult to judge on Sprint's network. Considering my data connection regularly drops or hangs, the experience, for me, has been really awful. Every time I review a Sprint device, though, the experience is awful, so I really can't blame it on the phone. The few times I did have LTE coverage on Sprint didn't yield outstanding speeds, though latency was much better than on CDMA. Wi-Fi AC is supported on the Note 3, as is Bluetooth 4.0 LE - the standard by which the Note 3 communicates with the Galaxy Gear.
Call quality on the Note 3 has seemed to be quite good. I've made about a dozen calls on it in the last week and never once did someone have an issue hearing me, even on Sprint's lame-o network. The Note 3 does appear to have 3 microphones, though, so I'm sure that's helping out.
Audio and speaker
Audio from the Note 3's headphone jack is outstanding. I've written the same thing about every recent Snapdragon-powered device, and that's because they all use the same line of audio hubs, designed by Qualcomm. The result is an extremely consistent earphone listening experience across all Snapdragon devices, and the experience is a very good one.
The new external speaker really only has one advantage: it doesn't get muffled when the phone is lying on a flat surface. That's it. As far as I can tell, it's actually a bit quieter than the one on the Galaxy S4, and sounds no better. And oddly enough, even with the S4 lying on a hard flat surface, the S4's speaker still sounds louder than the Note 3's. I'm guessing it's the same exact speaker in both phones, with the Note 3's just set up to fire downward instead out of the back.
The Galaxy Note 3 uses the same camera as the Galaxy S4, and like the S4, is configured to take 9.6MP photos - not 13MP - out of the box, in order to reduce capture times. As such, you'd expect comparable results from each in all situations. Not so much, though. The Note 3 does take truly fantastic photos in good lighting. For example, have a look at these creepy-crawlies I captured at the LA Museum of Natural History's spider exhibit.
Then, there's the low light performance. The Note 3, for whatever reason, really appears to struggle compared to the Galaxy S4 here. I took sample shots using both phones, and then compared them. The Note 3 fared disappointingly compared to its smaller sibling in each low light test. On the left, you'll see a photo from the Note 3, on the right will be a matching photo from the Galaxy S4.
Note the amount of detail lost on the Note 3 photos, which are underexposed (perhaps this is to reduce the amount of blur - which is generally more evident on the S4 samples). The colors also appear more reddened / yellow, making the photos from the Note 3 look rather unnatural. Maybe this is because of change to processing night shots on the Note 3 - Samsung did switch the name of automatic night detection to "smart stabilization" on the Note 3, though it appears to work the same way in practice. Or maybe they just got a crap batch of sensors.
As for video, the Note 3 has the ability to actually record 4K video (at 30FPS), as well as 1080p 60FPS video, and even 720p 120FPS video. Yay high frame rates! It can also shoot video in slow motion (1/2, 1/4, or 1/8 time).
One last bit for the camera section: surround shot. This is Samsung's take on photo spheres. It works just like a photo sphere (a dot guides you to the next photo, arrows tells you whether you have remaining frames up, down, left, or right), too, and it even works on Google+ and shows up as a photo sphere there. It just doesn't seem quite as good as a photo sphere. You can check out the sample I posted on G+ here.
Processing a surround shot takes around 15-20 seconds if you choose to capture every frame for the sphere, though like regular photo spheres, this isn't required.
Performance and stability
The Galaxy Note 3 is really, really fast. You're not going to find a faster phone on the market at this point, though pretty much any device with a quad-core Snapdragon 800 chip is going to feel quite quick moving around the OS. Perhaps the biggest boost provided by the new chipset is in the graphics department, with the new Adreno 330 GPU. Qualcomm claims up to 50% improved performance over the outgoing Adreno 320, which was already a very robust chip.
3GB of RAM can't hurt the Note 3's performance, either, with around 2.4GB of that available at the user level. I think it also gives Samsung something of an excuse to eat up more of these available bytes with various persistent processes. For example, pairing a Galaxy Gear (review coming soon!) with your Note 3 results in 14 new persistent processes being spawned consuming a total of 75MB of memory. That said, I highly doubt any added service bloat outweighs the advantage of the extra gigabyte of capacity.
In terms of general smoothness, I'd rank the Note 3 right alongside the G2 - another very, very fast phone.
Stability on the Note 3 has been rock solid for me thus far - I haven't run into any app compatibility issues or crashes. Well, apart from one, lone app: the gallery. Samsung's gallery app has struggled under the weight of cloud-synced albums since the Galaxy S III, and it still seems Samsung hasn't resolved the issue. I have thousands of photos in my Dropbox account, and this sends the gallery app into full-on panic mode. It freezes, it crashes, and sometimes, it even works normally. If you want to see just how bad it is, check out Ron Amadeo's video demonstrating it.
I did notice that doing things like taking photos while outdoors caused the phone to get really, really hot. Not even necessarily in direct sunlight. When I was taking the surround shots (photo spheres), it felt like the processor - which must be directly to the right of the camera module - was about to burn a hole in my finger. Same thing happened running benchmarks or when doing turn-by-turn in the car. At least that means it's dissipating well?
Other than that, though, it' been pretty smooth sailing.
UI and features
There are two ways I could go about doing this section. The first is pretending I've never used a TouchWiz phone before and agonizing over every single feature. The other, which I would much prefer, is a detailed look at what is specifically new in this latest iteration of Samsung's UI layer, and features that are unique to the Note (largely owing to the stylus and large display size). So, if you know there's a feature on the Note 3, but I don't describe it here, please check out my Galaxy S4 review, which more than likely does describe that feature. I have a Galaxy S4 side by side with the Note 3, so I will do my best to spot even the little differences.
Homescreen, app drawer, multitasking, and notification bar
The homescreen layout of the Note 3 is exactly the same as the Galaxy S4. The only difference you'll note is that if you tap the menu button, a new option is on the Note 3 ("Help"), and another has vanished ("Search" - we'll get to that later). Otherwise, you'll be hard pressed to find anything new here. What about homescreen customization, though?
Long-pressing on a blank region will bring up the same customization UI, although it's styled differently - the font is larger, and Samsung has switched to all-blue theme for the various UI elements, eschewing the rather ugly gray accents on the Android 4.2 incarnation of TouchWiz. Samsung constantly does this, and I'm not sure why. If you're going to pay attention to such details, why not just go ahead with a full-on restyle? It's wasted man hours messing around with this kind of stuff.
The app drawer has also had minor stylistic alterations, now using white highlights instead of gray along the tabs at the top, and the pagination indicators at the bottom are elongated rounded rectangles, instead of rounded squares. Exciting. Tap on the menu button in the app drawer, and holy bloat reduction, Batman - half of the options are gone! Here are the items Samsung removed from this hilariously overstuffed overflow menu.
- Play Store (what? why was that EVEN IN THERE?)
- Downloaded applications (there is and has been a button for it literally several inches away at the top right)
- Share apps (because seriously who is ever going to click that)
- Hide applications (replaced with disable applications, which is now combined with uninstall applications as an option)
Another addition has been in the form of new actions when you long press an app in the drawer. Previously, this gave you two options - put it on the homescreen, or create a folder for it. Now, you have two new tabs up top alongside create folder: disable and app info. Neat. How about uninstall? I can't understand why that wouldn't be there as opposed to disable, which most people don't really understand in the first place.
Left: new, right: old
Anyway, that covers the app drawer.
The multitasking UI (not to be confused with multi-window, that comes later) has not changed at all from what I can tell. Same colors, same layout (memory manager, Google Now, clear recent tasks).
The notification bar is basically identical to the old one. The only difference is the way you can configure which power / feature toggles are in the primary notification pane versus the secondary through the settings menu. There's now an indicator separating which icons will appear where. A victory for usability, I suppose.
The lockscreen is a complicated beast on Samsung phones since Android 4.2, and they've not really lessened the confusion in Android 4.3. They have, however, provided you some new options in terms of configuring it, and removed a few others.
The owner information and "personal message" options now live in the top level of the lockscreen settings area, and both are turned off by default (no more "Life companion"). The new default lockscreen animation is watercolor, which looks like some paint misting across the screen. I actually think it's pretty cool. The ripple effect is still there, too, and if you use the S Pen for the unlock gesture, you can see a bunch of liquid ink welling out from the center of the ripples (you can choose the color, too), with the intensity varying by the amount of pressure you put on the screen. Is this in any way useful? No. Is it fun just to mess with for the heck of it? Absolutely. This is the sort of thing I think a lot of people really enjoy, because it makes the experience of using your phone more immersive and, dare I say it, delightful. It's the little things.
There's also a new weather widget for the lockscreen, if you enable multiple widgets, that is. Yes, that whole part of the interface is just as confusing as ever. I don't even want to talk about it.
Another new feature is Action Memos from the lockscreen, which are an S Pen-specific addition. We'll talk about them later.
New options for secure lockscreen modes are limited, but one in particular is pretty nice. Pressing the power button versus letting the screen time out are now two separate behavior settings - you can set the lock up such that it engages immediately when you turn off the display with the power button, whereas if the display simply times out, you can set a time before the lock becomes active. I'm not sure why the power button doesn't have similar time-based options (so you could set two different times), but it's nice to have the behaviors separated, regardless.
Multi-window has received a significant update since the Galaxy S4 was released, in the form of a new feature: shortcuts. Simply arrange the two apps you'd like to create a launch shortcut for, and then hit the overflow button at the bottom of the multi-window bar and select "Create." A shortcut that will launch those two apps will then be created. You can't transfer this shortcut to a homescreen, sadly, but I think it's the most compelling addition Samsung's made to multi-window thus far. I still doubt I'll use it, but the feature's value is clear.
There's a Play Store button in the edit interface. I have no idea why.
Otherwise, multi-window functions just as it always has. The shape of the little tab to bring up the sidebar is slightly different, the sidebar no longer has rounded edges, and the overflow arrow has replaced the "Edit" button. And yes, the multitasking menu still shows multi-windowed apps as two apps, not one.
Air view, air gestures, smart screen, palm motion, and motions
I'm cramming these all into one section because very little has changed with these features.
Air view has a new option, though it only works in pen mode, to scroll through lists by hovering the S Pen over the edge of the screen. There's also an option to auto-detect if you're using your finger or the pen to hover.
In air gestures, we've actually lost an option: air move has been removed, probably because it was insanely unintuitive to use (it allowed you to swipe across the edge of the screen to move an app shortcut or calendar event to another page). Otherwise, nothing has changed here.
Smart screen, palm motion, and motion are all unchanged.
Air command is a new Note-specific feature utilizing the S Pen. Hover the S Pen over the screen of the device, press the pen button (an act I still find very awkward and difficult), and a semi-circular floating app will appear with 5 options to choose from.
The Note 3 is also configured to launch air command by default when you remove the S Pen from its holster, though this behavior can be changed. The air command options are as follows: Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Writer, S Finder, and Pen window. Here are a few other things air command can do.
These are for stock Samsung apps only, so they're pretty niche.
Action Memo is a way to jot down a quick note. We'll cover it in more detail soon.
Scrapbooker is a separate app, which we'll also get into in more detail shortly.
Screen write is a simple, useful feature - the system takes a screenshot (sans air command UI), and then you can draw on and save it. Easy.
S Finder is, again, a separate app I'll get into soon.
Pen Window is an interesting, albeit in general useless, feature that allows you to draw a window of a given size (just make a rough rectangle), and then launch a floating app in that window. There are 7 apps by default that support the feature: calculator, clock, YouTube, phone, contacts, Hangouts, and Samsung's stock browser app. Why not just make this a way to launch floating apps you can then resize without the trouble of drawing the box? Seems a bit silly to go through all that trouble.
So that's air command.
S Pen options
The S Pen has continued to evolve with the release of the Note 3, though some of the features found here actually debuted with the Note 8.0. I'm doing this from a standpoint more in line with the Note II in terms of "what's new," though, so excuse me if any of this is rehash.
There's a feature called S Pen keeper that will cause your phone to alert you if it thinks you're walking away without the S Pen. That's definitely pretty cool. I tested it, it works.
You can configure the S Pen to auto-launch the air command UI or an action memo as soon as you take it out, or to do nothing at all. The sound the phone makes when the pen is removed can also be altered, with three options available (plus an option for no sound). You can also set the Note 3 to turn off pen detection when the pen is attached to the phone, which apparently can reduce battery consumption.
Finally, there's direct pen input, which is a replacement for the old handwriting entry box system that's part of the stock Samsung keyboard (which oddly, is still there, though totally nonfunctional). Turn on direct pen input, and every time you hover over a text box with the pen, a small icon will appear. Tap it, and a pop-up window emerges with space for you to handwrite your text. It works very similarly to the old system on the keyboard, but seems a little quicker. It works well, if you have a desire to use such a feature.
That about covers the S Pen configuration options.
Action Memo is a new app that really doesn't need to be a new app (it does one special thing that could easily be integrated into S Note). Regardless, Samsung has decided to package it as such. The purpose of Action Memos is to link a note you've jotted down to, wait for it, an action of some sort! The feature is actually pretty cool, I must admit. It's definitely interesting enough that it has me considering using the S Pen more. Here's how it works.
While holding the button on the S Pen (annoying!), double tap anywhere on the screen with the pen. This will work in just about any app, too, as by holding down the S Pen button you're telling the system not to register the taps as normal touch input. Anyway, you'll then see a notepad pop up, on which you can write things.
Let's say someone's giving you a phone number or an email address, and you don't want to go through the hassle of creating a new contact card for them right now, and you just decide to jot down the info on a piece of paper. Well, with Action Memo, you can smarten up this process quite a lot - in theory.
Open up an action memo (easily done), and start writing the information like you would on the paper (name, email / phone number), with each field getting a line. Then, hit the lasso button up at the top-left. It should auto-select what you've written, though you can custom select if you want only certain information to be recognized. Then, you get a little pop-up list of options: phone, contact, message, email, web, map, and task. So if we have Bob Robertson, his phone number and email, as pictured below, and hit contact, it will start the process of creating a new contact for Bob with the name, phone, and email pre-entered as written.
Unfortunately, Action Memo has some rather frustrating limitations at the moment. For sending a text message, for example, all you can get it to do is recognize and pre-fill the recipient, and it has to be formatted as a phone number. It does not recognize contact names. So that's pretty useless.
The handwriting recognition is also very unforgiving with spaces - give your words a wide berth between one another. Action Memo will not recognize text written in landscape (how hard could that really be to do?), and the app is portrait mode only, making long names or email addresses rather difficult to enter on a single line.
I will say this is an ambitious feature, and it's Samsung's first stab at it, so it probably needs a little more time to get fully baked just yet. But I do like where it's going.
Yes, they called it a finder. S Finder is a local and cloud search service synced to your Samsung account, and the app itself is actually quite beautifully organized. There are three basic filter layers you can apply to any search: timeframe, content type, and tags (you have to have tagged content previously for this to work). You can launch S Finder instantly by long-pressing on the menu key at any time or through the air command interface.
The content filter gives you an idea of what you can expect to find in results: handwriting (Action Memos, S Notes), notes (includes typed notes), communication (call logs, SMS, probably ChatON), help (help with your phone), images, music, videos, personal information (calendar events, contacts), or just do a web search. In this sense, you can probably see why Samsung has gone about creating S Finder - it can do quite a bit more than your average search app. At present, there are also quite a few 3rd party apps that can integrated with S Finder. Here are the ones I've noticed (read: installed) on my device:
- Google Chrome
- Google Drive
- Amazon Mobile
- Amazon MP3
- Google Translate
Unfortunately, the integration is really hit or miss. Mostly miss, actually. If I enable all these apps to be included as potential results in S Finder searches, the output gets heavily polluted with irrelevant information. For example, if I search "Robert Redord," I get suggestions from eBay, Amazon, and web search, but not IMDB. If I do a search for "Rob," I get results from eBay (suggestion: rob), Amazon (suggestion: robin thicke blurrred lines), IMDB (suggestion: RoboCop, Emma Roberts), Yelp (suggestion: roberts restaurant, robek), and web search, along with a few other local results. It really doesn't make sense, so you're probably best off just turning all this stuff off if you even want to use S Finder in this first place.
All that aside, the S Finder app is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion, and it's good to see Samsung focusing in on design and aesthetics more with its software products. I can imagine TouchWiz is due for a pretty major visual overhaul sometime in the next year, and apps like this are probably teasing what that experience will look like, to an extent.
One of the other cool features in S Finder is the ability to share certain content (generally, only from Samsung apps) directly from your search results. So if you search for images taken in the last 7 days tagged #vacation, you can hit menu, then share, and then select the images you want to use the share intent on. That's handy.
S Finder is clearly, like Action Memo, a work in progress. It has some interesting features, but it's not something I'd see myself using regularly at this point. But it does make me genuinely believe Samsung wants to develop a powerful, "grown-up" software suite for its devices, rather than simply adorn Android with a theme and a few customization options.
Samsung's My Magazine feature is a completely shameless response to BlinkFeed - there is no way around that fact. Seeing the generally widespread praise BlinkFeed achieved, Samsung set out to deepen its partnership with Flipboard, and My Magazine is the result.
The thing is, though, Samsung's ended up with something that is arguably better than BlinkFeed in many respects. For starters, My Magazine does not eat up one of your homescreens. Instead, it's launched by pressing the home button while you're already on your main homescreen, or by pulling up from the bottom of any homescreen. As far as I can tell, these are actually the only ways to get to it, suggesting it actually lives inside the launcher process.
My Magazine has, at the moment, 4 tabs: News, Personal, Here & Now, and Social. News is what it sounds like - a dumbed-down version of Flipboard that allows you to select generic topics (there are 18 topics) to put into the news feed. Obviously, Samsung isn't targeting existing Flipboard users here - this is a very casual sort of feature. This does make it slightly less powerful than BlinkFeed, which has the option to select specific "featured" publications, something My Magazine lacks.
My Magazine makes up for this, though, with those 4 tabs. I don't use any of BlinkFeed's social / content integration because it pollutes the quality of the news feed - you only get one feed in BlinkFeed, and if it's full of random calendar events and photos I took a month ago, it becomes pretty useless. Samsung had the foresight to separate this all out. Social houses your social accounts, with a wide variety supported (Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Flickr, Tumblr, 500px, SINA Weibo, Renren, YouTube), though oddly missing Facebook. Personal pulls from a number of Samsung apps, including calendar, email, gallery, SMS, music, phone logs, S Health, S Note, Scrapbook, Story Album, and videos. Any of these can be deselected. Finally, Here & Now pulls "local" (I use it loosely, because the results are often pretty far from me) results for movies, sports, and places. This could include things like highly rated restaurants on Yelp or TripAdvisor, local movie showtimes, or Groupon deals at locations relatively near you.
Are there purpose-built apps that could do any of these one tasks better than My Magazine? Sure. Is My Magazine a quick and easy way to browse this kind of information while you're waiting in line somewhere or killing time on your phone? Definitely. This feature isn't aimed at power users, but I think for a lot of people it's a sensible, easy tool to work with. And it doesn't get in the way of using your phone - if you don't want it, just disable the home key shortcut and don't pull up from the bottom of a home screen (that also launches it, and cannot be disabled).
The one thing I will say is that the app's performance isn't fantastic. Scrolling through the feed produced noticeable choppiness pretty regularly, though reading actual articles was fine - the paginated animation is also very cool.
S Note is the replacement app for S Memo, and provides a major update to the aging app. S Note relies on an organization system using notebooks (similar to the folders of S Note), each of which can then house pages of notes you've created. You can customize the covers, names, and even create homescreen shortcuts for your notebooks. Notes can be synced via Evernote or your Samsung account, and you can even now export whole notebooks to Google Drive as SPD files.
Notes themselves have a variety of improvements over those in the old S Memo app. You can add videos, a greatly expanded selection of clipart and shapes, charts (which you create in the app), scrapbook items, and something called "idea sketches," which are basically black and white clipart that you can also create yourself and save for later.
There's a brand-new way to create new pages, as well, with templates - there are 13 to choose from, and you can see some of the options below. You can also mark pages as indexes, with a small stripe and a 10 character title to make them stand out from the rest of the pages in a notebook. S Note also ditches the tacky faux leather theme of the old S Memo app, and has a design more in line with that of S Finder - clean and elegant.
The ability to create charts is probably the most exciting addition to S Note, and they're actually pretty cool once you get the hang of them. You can create tables, bar charts, pie charts, and line graphs. On the bar, line, and pie charts, you actually draw the proportions or values of the variables directly onto the graph. Selecting a particular value will also let you hold and drag to adjust it. The final way to adjust values is direct pen input - just tap on the value, hit the edit icon, and write the number. It's difficult to convey exactly how all this works in text, but suffice it to say, it's pretty dang cool. S Note will cache up to 10 charts you've created for easy insertion in new notes, as well.
I won't get much further into S Note, but as you can see, this is quickly becoming a very powerful app. Samsung is slowly building a case against competitors like Evernote. I will say S Note is rather laggy, though, and that's probably my biggest gripe about the entire app - some tasks are just hideously slow, like opening and closing pages in notebooks.
Scrapbook is definitely a flyover feature - this new app has grand ambitions, but as far as I'm concerned, is pretty hard to find a use for in practice. The premise of Scrapbook is saving the content you want to remember, look at later, or share with friends. Be it a web page, a funny picture, or a video on YouTube. After scrapbooking something, you can add a note or tags to it for easy reference at a later time.
To actually engage in the scrapbooking action, bring up air command, select scrapbooker, and then draw a circle or rectangle around the content you want to save. If it's a webpage, the URL will be preserved at the top of the scrapbook item. If it's a video, a screenshot of the current frame will be taken.
Samsung makes it sound like clipping YouTube videos does more than it actually will - if it's a web YouTube clip, it'll save the URL of the page / video and a screen capture. If it's the YouTube app, it'll just save an image of the screen and any text it can recognize (aka useless). Samsung itself seems to have trouble deciding what this app is good for, and I can't really help them out here - it seems like someone wanted to make a high-concept, user-friendly sharing and saving solution but then decided they actually had no idea how to make it into a compelling experience and gave up.
The keyboard on the Note 3 is a substantial upgrade over the abysmal solution that shipped on the Galaxy S4, though only for two reasons. Accuracy seems much improved and automatic word replacement is now supported (yes, it really wasn't until now), though there is no way to adjust the aggressiveness - and it can be very picky, and it occasionally doesn't recognize words that are very obviously words (like "were", which it constantly corrected to "we're" unless I added were to the device dictionary). It is still apparently powered by SwiftKey at some level, as SwiftKey Flow is still an input option.
With a new phone comes new things to mess with. Here's what I found, in brief.
- Settings menu now has new tab categories - connections, device, controls, and general. It makes moderately more sense than the old layout (connections, my device, accounts, more).
- There's a search bar in all the settings tabs. That's useful I suppose.
- Location services are now under the connections tab.
- Kies via Wi-Fi connectivity appears to be gone.
- Keyboard sound / haptic feedback are now in the sound settings area.
- You can choose whether or not emergency alerts will cause your phone to emit a tone, vibrate, or do nothing.
- Hearing aid mode has been added in call settings.
- S View cover has new options - change background color, display weather info, and walking mate stats.
Here's where the little apps that got random changes go.
- Calendar: Dropped the faux leather skeuomorphism and brown tones, now themed green.
- Calculator: Re-themed from raised, circular buttons with faux display to non-skeuomorphic flat square design.
- Camera: There's a new golf swing shot mode (yes, really), a 360 sphere photo mode (see Camera section), tap to take photo mode, audio zoom on video, and shutter sound is now always on unless your phone is silenced.
- Gallery: Recolored the navigation bar black.
- Group Play: Rethemed to a flatter, cleaner design. Can now share video.
- Browser: Now has a fancy 3D tab management interface, syncs with Samsung account.
- Messaging: Now has a tabbed settings interface.
- My Files: Brand-new tile-based interface that shows storage usage based on content type (also shows Dopbox usage), ability to search directly from navigation bar.
- S Health: Bolder, brighter UI. Removed blood pressure and blood glucose monitoring, presumably because the accessories never panned out. Remember the Samsung scale, activity band, and heart monitor? Yeah, those didn't actually happen.
The Galaxy Note 3 is the first Samsung phone to launch with KNOX, Samsung's enterprise-grade security and device management solution. I have literally no idea what kind of administrative capabilities IT departments will have over KNOX, or really a strong understanding of just what makes KNOX so secure. So, those questions are ones I can't answer. Sorry.
I can tell you installing KNOX is super duper easy. Just download the 190MB package, set a password and backup PIN, and you're set to go. KNOX will only run certified apps, making it ideal for enterprises looking to keep their employees' data secure, even on their personal phones. As such, there is no Play Store - just the KNOX app store. The preinstalled apps number just 12, all of them Samsung-developed. The KNOX app store currently houses about a hundred apps from what I can tell, and most of them are indeed quite businessy.
KNOX cannot communicate with your regular profile instance, so as to keep anything you do in KNOX secure. KNOX settings include the ability to set the timeout (the default is 10 minutes before locking, at which point your password is needed to start KNOX again), change the KNOX password, and a notification bar toggle for quick switching in and out of KNOX (switching locks KNOX, as well).
The idea behind KNOX is to be able to empower enterprise employees to have one phone for both work and personal use, with the KNOX profile shielding sensitive information in the event a device is lost or stolen (all information associated with the KNOX profile is encrypted). If you want to learn more about KNOX, check out Samsung's website.
Oh, and I can't get you any screenshots of KNOX - screenshots are disabled when you're using it.
Compared to the Galaxy Note II, the Note 3 is a very substantial leap forward in both hardware and software. It has a much better screen, a much better camera, a much quicker processor, more RAM and storage (as standard), and a more refined design from both an engineering and build quality standpoint. It is anything but incremental in this sense. Samsung's suite of software has also continued to evolve impressively, and while there are still a bunch of rather useless gimmicks packed into this and other Samsung phones, they're easily enough ignored (though they can make the legitimately useful features hard to find sometimes).
The Note's real problem is more aesthetic than functional - TouchWiz looks more dated by the month, and the leather textured back complete with tacky stitching make this anything but a fashionista's phone. That said, Samsung has never really tried to appeal to customers by being chic or "cool" - it's all about the features.
I would be more than happy to call the Note 3 my own. I loved the Note II, and the Note 3 builds and improves on that device in many very real ways. And with Samsung, you have the surety that, at some point, this thing is getting at least a couple of Android version upgrades.
The Note 3 is not for the person desiring the very best camera phone, the biggest or best display, or things like ruggedness and superb build quality. And those are perfectly legitimate desires. To put a bow on it, the Note 3 just feels incredibly well-rounded - a phone with something for everyone, and with advantages anyone can appreciate. It has its flaws, but it more than makes up for them by excelling in a wide variety of areas, rather than just a select few. And that's what I think makes the Note 3 a great phone - it's focused on the big picture.