We all used to joke about these enormous phones coming out of Korea a few years back. We called them 'phablets', and then we didn't call them that because we hated the word. Now, with the surprise behind us, we just call a phone with a 5.7-inch screen a smartphone, and it's easy to argue that Samsung makes the best of the phones in this size.
It is funny how quickly we all acclimatised to the larger size of phones like the Note. People used to stretch their hands over the frame and then hold it to their face like it was a hilarious joke to even consider a device like this was a phone.
Today, in the WhistleOut labs, the Note 3 doesn't look out of place at all, either in the hand on in a pocket. We'll admit it is the upper limit of what you'd probably want, in terms of size and shape, but it is never an uncomfortable phone to use.
Most of what made Samsung's first Note handsets a success returns in the Note 3. It looks a lot like a larger Galaxy S4; the way the Note 2 looked like the Galaxy S3, and so on.
Samsung build the Note 3 out of plastic, but it does so in a way that suggests every element is made from something else. The trim looks like Stainless Steel, for example, and the battery cover is designed to look like leather -- right down to fake stitching around the edge.
It comes with a stylus, or S Pen in Samsung parlance. There is a slot on the bottom right hands side that houses the small plastic stick, and the phone gives you an onscreen reminder if the Pen is out, so that you know quickly if you have misplaced it.
One very new feature is a USB 3.0 port on the bottom of the phone, and the inclusion of a new, larger charging cable in the box. Charging the phone with this cable wipes about one-third off the charging time, bringing it down to about 2-hours for a full charge, and has the potential to speed up file transfers, providing that you have a USB 3.0 connection on your PC.
Before you start swearing about Samsung moving away from the ubiquitous micro-USB port, it has made an excellent decision you should be aware of. The USB 3.0 port is split into two distinction section, and one of them is a micro-USB connector. So yes, you can still use old chargers, though you'll just miss out on the extra speed on offer with the cable in the box.
There no point beating around the bush: the screen in the Galaxy Note 3 is probably the best screen Samsung has put into a smartphone or tablet. You see it as soon as you take the phone out of the box.
On paper, the screen in the Note 3 seems identical to the screen in the Galaxy S4. They both use Samsung's Super AMOLED screen technology, and both have 1920 x 1080 pixels. In fact, with its smaller size, the screen on the S4 should look better with a high pixel density.
But while we've noticed something dull about the S4 display, the panel in the Note 3 appears brighter and much more vibrant. Reds and greens burst off the screen, and blacks look rich and inky.
The screen is also impressively responsive to touch; even near touch - which can be bothersome from time to time. If you wear gloves, there is a setting which enhances this sensitivity even further.
As we've come to expect from a new Samsung phone, the Note 3 is jam-packed with features; some new and many old ones too. In fact, if you pulled down the notification curtain and press on the icon beside the 'Settings' shortcut cog, you'll get an idea about how many techy odds and ends are squeezed into the the Note.
As you can see in the photo above, we leave most of these 'features' turned off, as many operate like apps in beta testing and not components ready for public consumption.
All of the eye-tracking gimmicks fall under this category. While they are fun to play with, most don't work well enough to replace the old-fashioned way of accomplishing the same thing, like scrolling down a webpage with the swipe of a finger, or turning off the phone with the power button.
Key to the Note 3 proposition is the inclusion of its advanced stylus, S Pen. Armed with a single button, the S Pen can do anything you finger can do, plus it interacts with a handful of specially-designed notebook and sketch apps, and is well-used when paired with the handwriting box in Samsung's keyboard.
A major new addition for the pen this year is a pop-up menu called Air Command that launches whenever you take the pen out of its sheath. Air Command has 5 pen-related app options: Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S Finder and Pen Window.
Action Memo and S Finder are the stand-out tool. The former lets you take a note down by hand and then tries to convert your note into another smartphone command. If you write down a phone number, the app identifies it and gives you the option to launch the Dialler and call the number, or open your Contacts and save the number for later.
S Finder is exactly as its name describes. At its core, it is a universal search app, but it has the ability to filter the search results to show only objects containing handwriting, for example, or Notes, or to search for content you have created within a certain time period.
The other 3 apps, in our opinion, are pure filler. Scrapbooker and Screen Write might appeal to some users, but Pen Window is just silly. When you launch Pen Window you start by drawing a box on screen. You then choose an app, from a preset list, to fill the space you have drawn. It works well, but when you are use a mini-version of the calculator you'll end up wondering why you didn't just launch the full-size one.
With a huge screen and a magic stylus, Samsung isn't relying too heavily on the photography chops of the Note 3 to win over potential customers. Even still, the phone includes a 13-megapixel camera with most of the bells and whistles found in the Galaxy S4, including 1080p video recording and the ability to take a photo while shooting a video.
The most amazing component of the camera though, is the phone's 5.7-inch screen -- and not just because it helps you line up your shots. After almost every photo we've taken with the Note 3 we've come away impressed. Everything looks colourful and sharp -- until you take a closer look.
See, the photos aren't really that great, but the Super AMOLED screen tells a different story. When you consider that 90% of photos taken with this phone are probably viewed on the phone, this isn't such a bad thing.
A big bright screen and all of the features Samsung packs into this phone require a best in class processor to keep it all running smoothly. Happily, Samsung don't skimp out on the horsepower.
The Note 3 includes probably the best mobile processor in market today, with a quad-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset, 3GB RAM and an Adreno 330 graphics processor.
We really can't fault this hardware. We enjoyed nothing but smooth performance during the review process, with the handset flying through benchmarks and sailing through everyday tasks.
Battery life is also superb, with the Note 2 easily able to keep a charge for two days of moderate use. When pushed harder, we notice that battery drain tends to drop at a rate of around 10-percent per hour, giving you 10-hours of use.
Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 is a great device, maybe even Samsung's best. You do have to turn off a lot of gimmicks and filler-features before you find the phone at its best, but this isn't difficult and the results are worth the extra aggravation.
The S Pen is hit and miss, and the balance of hit to miss will vary based on who you are and how you use the phone. This reviewer's handwriting is like a chicken might write with a pen in its beak, and his drawing isn't any better, so the S Pen had limited value. Those with calligraphic handwriting will fair better and may enjoy the feature more.
But, at the end of the day, if smartphones are little computer with comparably little screens, then Note 3 is an excellent example. Samsung tries so hard to impress us with its bells and whistles and it is entirely wasted. But still, the Note remains an outstanding device, with one of the best screens in a mobile device available and powerful processing. The Galaxy Note 3 is highly recommended.