I’ll admit it. I was wrong.
When I reviewed Samsung’s last two models of the Galaxy Note, the super-huge smartphones that come with a stylus, I called them duds because I thought they were too large. With 5-inch+ screens, I felt like the Galaxy Notes were too large and absurd looking to even consider.
I’ve had a change of heart in the last year.
In that time, I’ve become frustrated with the teeny tiny 4-inch display on my iPhone 5. I’ve tested dozens of phones with bigger, better screens than the iPhone, yet year after year Apple refuses to match its competitors. I have Big Screen Envy.
This year, Samsung has a new model of its flagship “phablet” (part phone, part tablet), the Galaxy Note 3. The Note 3 has an even larger screen at 5.7 inches, but its body still has about the same footprint as last year’s Galaxy Note II. It’s also thinner and lighter.
The Note 3 goes on sale in the U.S. this week for about $US300 on contract, depending on your carrier.
In many ways, the Note 3 is just a super-sized version of Samsung’s Galaxy S4 phone from earlier this year. It’s powered by Android, but packed with gobs of Samsung-exclusive features and apps, more than you’ll ever use. The Note 3’s most distinguishing feature apart from the big screen is its stylus, which Samsung calls the S Pen, and a bunch of extras that go with it.
When you remove the S Pen from its slot at the bottom of the device, a wheel of stylus-specific options fans out. From there, you can clip photos and from the Web and store them in a scrapbook app, open a pop-up window that can run a few select apps in a separate screen, or annotate what’s on your screen and store the screenshot for latter.
Most of those features aren’t very useful though, and they end up being more of a complex distraction than stuff you’re likely to use a lot. The only thing I did find handy was the S Finder app that lets you quickly search through all the content on your device in a nice photo-intensive layout. Other than that, I kept the S Pen tucked away.
Samsung may have taught the S Pen a bunch of tricks, but I don’t think most people will need them. Your fingers are the only styli you need.
Bigger Can Be Better
Compared to most smartphones, the Galaxy Note 3 is a monster. It’s 5.95 inches tall and 3.12 inches wide. Its 5.7-inch screen is large enough to entirely surround the iPhone 5 with room to spare. The downside to that though is that its a little awkward to hold up to your head when making a call (it’s bigger than a Pop Tart) or storing in your pocket (it barely fits in my jeans).
For me, the advantages you get with a big screen far outweigh the sometimes awkward physical size of the device. The display just as sharp as Apple’s high-resolution Retina displays and can play full 1080p HD video. It’s better for streaming Netflix. It’s better for gaming. It’s better for reading on apps like Kindle, Instapaper, or Digg.
The Note 3 is the perfect in-between device, big enough to replace your tablet for most tasks, yet small enough to serve as your calling/texting device/messaging that you take with you everywhere.
Another advantage: the Note 3’s larger size also means it has a much bigger battery than your average smartphone. I was able to get well over a day’s use out of one charge, which is pretty much a miracle these days. I check my phone countless times a day, and it’s nice not having to panic that my battery is going to die before I can make it home for a recharge.
But I’m not a fan of the overall design of the Note 3. Like most Samsung phones, the Note 3 feels flimsy and plasticky. Samsung tried to mask it with a backing that looks like leather (faux stitching included!) but it’s really just the same bendy cover it uses on the rest of its phones. Even if Samsung did use real leather, the overall look is pretty kitschy. Samsung markets its Note products as premium devices, but the Note 3 still doesn’t feel or look like one. I would’ve loved it if the Note 3 were made out of metal or the more durable plastic Apple used in the iPhone 5C.
(And now for my boilerplate disclaimer on plastic phones. Yes, some people like phones made out of plastic. Yes, plastic tends not to scratch or break as easily as metal phones. Yes, plastic makes phones lighter. But I prefer my phones to be made out of metal and glass because I think it looks more polished and attractive. If you disagree, you’ll have no problem with the look and feel of the Note 3.)
Samsung likes to heavily modify Google’s Android operating system, packing it with a ton of extra features and apps. The Galaxy Note 3 is chock full of a bunch of apps from Samsung, content partners like Flipboard, and your carrier. (I tested the T-Mobile version and it came with five apps from the carrier like “T-Mobile TV” that I’d never use in a million years.)
There are also a ton of features that Samsung built on top of Android like Air Gesture, which lets you wave your hand over the screen to scroll through photos or answer the phone and Smart Scroll, which can detect when you’re looking at the phone and lets you tilt the device to scroll through Web pages. These, and a slew of others, are the same features Samsung introduced in the Galaxy S4. And like with the Galaxy S4, they either don’t work as advertised or are unnecessary and complex.
You’re better off keeping most of Samsung’s extras switched off and sticking with Google’s services like the excellent voice assistant Google Now.
If you can get past the giant size, the awkward design, and all those extra apps and features you don’t need, the Galaxy Note 3 is probably the best device you can buy in the phablet category. But I’d suggest trying it out at the store first to make sure you’re ok with the size.