|Summary: Though not the most recent device, the Note 3 still provides a powerful stylus + large smartphone combination that appeals to members of a small, but vocal minority of smartphone users. Succeeded only in October of 2014 by the more recent Note 4, the Galaxy Note 3 retains most of the unique characteristics of its younger sibling, with slightly less powerful hardware. Fortunately, the cost to obtain these devices is substantially lower than prior to the release of the Note 4. As such, the Note 3 has now become more appealing to the wider range of more cost-sensitive users who still desire the unique advantages of a still-powerful device with a stylus pen.Review Length: Six Months (about 180 days).
Intended Market: Technology hobbyists or Android developers who desire some of the most powerful Android-based, larger screened hardware on the market, along with access to Samsung’s unique features and style. As this device is now “price tempered” by the fact that it is no longer the most recent iteration of the Note product line, hobbyists and developers will find much of the same capabilities that they desire, but at a substantially lower cost.
Sub-optimal market: Those persons who would prefer to use a device that integrates with Microsoft or Apple services and devices. Those persons who prefer to have a device that “hides” technical complexity, removing access to less-used features to gain a more streamlines and efficient experience. Users who desire smaller screens due to having a smaller hand size or a penchant for using their devices one-handed would have their needs met more readily by the Galaxy S line of phones. In addition, users for whom the included S-pen stylus is not needed for their lifestyle may find that this device is overkill when compared with less expensive versions of the Galaxy S, such as the S4.
Approximate Retail Price: ~$250-$300 (used off contract). ~$600 new off contract.
Purchase Link: To purchase our specific review unit, please see this Amazon Page: UNAVAILABLE. Note, if the auction is unavailable, our review unit has already been purchased.
Unboxing Experience and First Impressions
On first glance, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is similar to most other large screen phones from 2013-2014, with two cameras, light sensors, and a rectangular home button with a back button and a menu button.
The Note 3 continues Samsung’s focus on using lighter, plastic materials to save weight, although with faux leather stitching on the back cover, the Note 3 strives for a more premium build feel than the previous year’s Note 2: attempting, but not quite managing, to evoke the feel of a premium wallet or a notebook from Moleskine.
However, the overall appearance and feel, due to the overall prevalence of plastic construction materials, is somewhat down-market when compared to other vendors, such as HTC, or Samsung’s own A-series or its Note 4. Conversely, those same plastic construction techniques and materials result in a device that is lighter than many other phones of the same size.
Out of the box, we see that the Note 3 has a new USB 3 port for significantly enhanced speed of data transfers to and from a computer. In addition, the Note 3 begins Samsung’s recent focus on health related capabilities by introducing a new step measuring capability and the S Health app.
Included in the box is a set of in-ear, noise isolation headphones (standard with all recent Samsung phones), a USB 3 charging and sync cable. Also included is a removable, 3200mAh battery that can be replaced with even larger, expanded batteries, resulting in run times approaching 3-4 days of constant use at full power.
In Daily Life
Set up of the device took some time, as the Google and Samsung mechanisms to restore my account login information for email and calendaring were somewhat ineffectual. In addition, I needed to enter the extremely large 30+ character password for our NetWise Life Google account into the phone twice to make it work with our Google account. This is mostly due to our use of two factor authentication security to prevent the “bad guys” from being able to access our account even with that password (highly recommended – please see a forthcoming article from our friends at NetDefend Consulting for more information). That said, it would have been nice to only need to enter that password once. There were multiple steps and screens that needed to be passed through, including ones for T-Mobile’s own proprietary services that are pre-installed on the phone, such as Wi-Fi calling. Some of these built-in capabilities and apps, especially those encountered by AT&T and Verizon users, are often called “bloatware” by fans of a more clean Android experience. This lack of acceptance stems from the confusion that these built-in apps cause users, along with additional memory impact. That said, many users do find them to be valuable, especially services such as T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling which can extend cell phone use well into areas of poor cell phone reception, such as underground basements. T-Mobile does not escape the “bloatware” accusation entirely: with the prominent presence of pre-installed security, entertainment, and diagnostic apps that, while beneficial to some users, can be unwelcome by those who are more technically astute.
Once set up, I was able to install my apps to the phone fairly easily through the Google Play store. In fact, the ease with which I installed apps was greater than on the Apple iPhone, if only because I could set the store to NOT require a password every time I purchased an app. This can become tiresome on iOS devices, so having the ability on Android to avoid extra step was pleasant. As I did not share my phone with others who enjoying purchasing apps with abandon, this was not a concern to me. For those of you with children who share your devices, you may wish to keep the option active to require a password to purchase apps from the Google Play Store.
I kept the phone with me as my primary phone for over six months, using it for everything from tap-to-pay purchases through Softcard (formerly ISIS), to standard emails and calendaring, to playing light games such as Solitare and Minecraft, to web browsing, and note taking, using Evernote, OneNote, and S-Note with the included stylus pen. Even a few phone calls and texts were made every now and then.
My daily routine looked like this:
- At 7am, I would remove the phone from the wireless QI charging stand that was placed on my nightstand and check the weather forecast for the day, using either the built-in weather app or Accuweather.
- After that, I would proceed through my morning routine and then go to work.
- The phone would stay synchronized with my car’s Bluetooth radio on the way to work, enabling me to receive phone calls if necessary.
- After arriving at work, the phone would be set aside until I took a 10 minute break to review emails, Facebook, or the news.
- Later in the day, during lunch, I would often bring the phone with me, purchasing my meal at McDonald’s through ISIS (who changed their name to SoftCard for obvious reasons) and then checking the news and special interest articles.
- Please note that while McDonald’s was chosen for lunch, this was only due to the fact that at the time (mid-2013) there was a relative lack of stores supporting NFC payments.
- Since that time, especially after the advent of Apple Pay, the number of stores which support NFC “tap and pay” has increased dramatically.
- Google Wallet was unfortunately not compatible for Tap and Pay purchases with this phone. This was and is no fault of Google’s, but rather of the mobile carriers (other than Sprint) who restricted Google’s ability to use the secure element on the phone needed for Tap and Pay purchases with the phone. This is obviously due to a desire on their part to force users to make use of SoftCard, which is partially owned by the carriers, thus driving their revenues. Regrettably, I found SoftCard to be an unfriendly, slow app whose limited selection of compatible credit cards were restricted to being used on only one phone at a time, which is problematic for my specific use case where I have multiple phones active at once.
- In the afternoons, I would sometimes stream music through Pandora or Spotify through headphones for around an hour or two when I needed to focus.
- At the end of the work day, I would check commute times through Google Now and then head home.
- After reaching home and having dinner, I would sometimes use the phone to write notes and bits of various articles for NetWise Life.
- After getting into bed at 11pm, I would place the phone on the QI charging stand on my nightstand, usually with around 5-10% charge remaining.
During this time, it became apparent that the phone was a capable phone, but when pushed hard, especially through music streaming or a significant number of apps updating, the battery life would suffer, going down below 5 hours under heavy use. At this time, it was appreciated that the phone has user replaceable batteries that can be replaced with extended batteries with up to 10,000 mAh of capacity, enabling around 2-3 days of hard use with the obvious trade-off of substantially increase weight and thickness.
Speed and Performance – What’s It Like Under The Hood?
The Samsung Galaxy S5, released in April 2014, remains one of the more powerful handsets currently available on the market: easily capable of running applications that run the gamut from demanding interactive games to professional line of business applications. For those readers who are interested in technical specifications, the Galaxy S5 uses a Quad-core 2.5 GHz Krait 400 CPU, with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset, along with 2 GB of RAM. Effectively, this means that, for the next couple of years, those who prefer an Android / Samsung combination, will find the performance of this phone, compared to other Android phones, to be more than sufficient.
On the other hand, as with all Android phones, I found the differences in function placement between apps from different manufacturers to be somewhat jarring, increasing the difficulty with which I was able to become familiar with new apps. From time to time, I was impacted by performance issues, and stuttering of the UI.
These performance quirks are common to many Android implementations and are mostly related to the underlying foundations of the Android OS itself; foundations that can cause any Android device to exhibit certain erratic performance tendencies. These issues may include erratic, temporary slowdowns, sporadic “jerkiness” in the user interface, and more. Thus, those people who are not familiar with these oddities of Android may find these performance hitches to be unexpected and jarring. This will ideally be corrected with the release of Android “L” (a.k.a. “Lollipop”), which will use a more modern, streamlined, and powerful engine, called “ART”, to run the Android OS and applications. Android Lollipop is expected for the Note 3 at some point in the first half of 2015, likely before April.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 supports a wide range of connectivity options to push information in and out of the phone, including USB 3, micro-SD card support, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, 802.11n/ac, and cellular network connectivity via 2G/3G/4G/LTE. Now, what do all of those technical buzzwords mean to you? Here’s a quick run-down:
- USB 3: a much faster means of sending information, such as movies, TV shows, music, and more back and forth between your computer and this phone. Most modern computers support this standard, enabling large files, such as the aforementioned video and music files, to be sent to the phone up to 3-5 times faster in real world testing than with phones that use the previous USB 2 connection
- Micro-SD support: for when the size of stored music, videos, and apps becomes so large that the phone cannot save any additional content, the user can use a small, removable storage chip to add up to 3 times the previous storage capacity present out of the box in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
- NFC: a very short range, wireless communication standard capable of sending and receiving small amounts of information between either devices or devices and small tags that may be placed on other physical objects. By using this standard, the Samsung galaxy S5 will enable convenience features, such as tapping the phone on a small sticker on your car’s dashboard to activate in car mode and a navigation app, or perhaps tapping the back of one phone to another to enable the transfer of business card information. In addition, support for Tap-and-Pay mobile payments for SoftCard (formerly ISIS) is accomplished using NFC.
- Bluetooth 4.0 LE: many people are familiar with the advantages of Bluetooth, such as connecting to in car stereos to allow for hands-free operation or working with an ear-based Bluetooth headset. However, in the case of the most recent version of Bluetooth, version 4.0 “Low Energy”, even more uses may be found. For example, phones with Bluetooth 4.0 LE may connect to fitness devices and smartwatches, such as the FitBit One, or smart tags (e.g. “Tile”) enabling people to locate lost items such as key rings.
- 802.11ac: This wireless networking standard enables devices to communicate with the broader internet, or your computer at home much more rapidly than older, slower standards, such as 802.11b or 802.11g, or even the most previous speed champion, 802.11n. This can enable the much faster download of music, apps, and videos to your phone from your computer, or just a more stable connection.
- CDMA/3G/4G LTE or 2/3/4G/LTE Cellular Connectivity: By supporting a wide range of cell phone connectivity, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has the ability to communicate in a broad range of areas that remain on older, slower cell phone standards. Similarly, by supporting the much newer LTE standard, in areas where your cell phone carrier, such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint, have implemented “4G LTE”, the Note 3 will be able to stream videos and music, while downloading apps rapidly. In tests that were performed throughout the 180+ day period that this phone was in use, we found that the Note 3 performed well in speed tests, averaging similar speeds to other LTE devices on the same carrier network (T-Mobile). The phone’s ability to pull in marginal signals was similar to other phones on T-Mobile, such as the Nokia Lumia 1520, the iPhone 5s, and the Galaxy S4. That said, when comparing this same phone on AT&T and T-Mobile, there were expected differences in each carrier’s speed and signal quality. For more information about carrier comparisons, please check back with us for our forthcoming carrier comparison, where we exhaustively use multiple devices with multiple OS versions with multiple carriers in a cross country trip.
There are several new features that Samsung added in to this generation of their Galaxy Note series of phones, including:
- Significant processor upgrade: going from an quad core 1.6ghz Cortex-A9 processor to a quad core 2.3 Ghz Krait processor. Technical terms aside, the performance of this phone is approximately 30-40% faster depending on the task at hand, when compared to the most previous version 2 of the Note series.
- Larger Screen: going to 5.7 inches in size and being capable of displaying full 1080p HD. This produces text and pictures that are measurably more clear and crisp than the Note 2. Covered in the newer, and stronger Gorilla Glass 3, the screen of the Note 3 is more resistant to scratches and impacts than the previous version. That said, we still do recommend a resilient screen protector, such as those by BodyGuardz or Tech21 and/or a flip screen case to cover this valuable screen.
USB 3: Supported through a combination USB 2.0 / 3.0 port, which allows for synchronization of data to happen at 2-4 times the speed of the older standard present in the Note 2 and even the Note 4. Interestingly, the Note 3 and the Galaxy S5 were the only devices from Samsung to use USB 3, even given its substantial performance increase. It is puzzling why Samsung would eliminate USB 3, with its substantial speed bump, from subsequent devices (e.g. Note 4).
Streamlined and improved S-Pen experience: consolidating S-Pen stylus note taking into one spot, a new semi-circular menu that pops up on the screen to show the user the types of notes and actions that they can perform with the pen: Action Memo (handwritten sticky notes that remain on the screen if chosen), Scrap Booker (capturing web site, images, and more into a virtual scrapbook app on the phone), Screen Write (allowing for a picture of the phone’s screen to be made and notes taken on the picture), S-Finder (universal searching), and Pen Window (allowing for multi-tasking through a user drawn window).
Other Major Features
Samsung has always been well known as a phone manufacturer that adds a lot of additional hardware and software functions into their devices to make themselves stand out amongst strenuous competition in the Android handset market. The Galaxy Note 3 is no exception to this rule. In addition to its new features mentioned previously, the Note 3 comes with a number of software and hardware features that are common to all of Samsung’s Galaxy series of Android-powered phones. Here are a few of those capabilities:
- QI wireless charging: This is an optional feature that is enabled by purchasing a replacement back cover for the phone or a wireless S-View case. These QI wireless charging covers contain a metal coil that reacts with another coil in a charging plate, causing electricity to be delivered to the phone without the need to connect any cables. While charging with the QI wireless charging system is only about half as fast as charging with a cable, the phone was able to reach full charge within 4-6 hours overnight. Two key benefits of course are the speed and convenience of not needing to attach and detach the device from a cable while using the phone. Another significant positive is the reduction in repetitive wear on the micro-USB connector on the phone and cable; micro-USB connectors are quite fragile, lasting for many fewer insertions and removals as compared to more solidly designed connectors, such as Apple’s lightning connector.
- S-View Folio Cases: Most Samsung phones offer the option of using a style of folio case with a clear, plastic window on the front, exposing a portion of the front screen. The plastic window is conductive, allowing for keypress interactions through a closed folio cover. This has advantages in both screen protection, allowing a user to keep their phone’s cover closed more often, while allowing for interaction, such as answering phone calls, to occur in a more rapid fashion than might occur if the user needed to manually open the phone’s cover each time.
- SmartStay and other Software UI Features: Over the past few years, Samsung has continued to refine their TouchWiz proprietary layer that sits on top of Android: a layer that not only changes the look and feel of the interface of their devices, but also provides a number of additional features. Included in these features are items such as these:
- SmartStay, which detects the user glancing at the screen and keeps the device from timing out while the user is actively looking at the device’s screen.
- Automatic dial, which dials the displayed contact if the user takes their phone and places it to their ear.
- SmartSwipe: which allows the user to perform a screen capture by swiping their hand above the screen from one side to the other.
- Please note that there are a number of other additional features that TouchWiz provides, features that are too numerous to list in this article.
The following are a selection of pros and cons associated with this device. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a sampling of the more significant strengths and weaknesses of this specific smartphone.
Lower Cost Compared to Most Recent Samsung Galaxy Note
As with all things, the newer and more advanced the item, the more likely it is to be more expensive than the older variants of those items. Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is no exception, with its new retail price (not under contract) decreasing by more than $300 subsequent to the release of the Note 4. Unsurprisingly, the used price of the Note 3 is now as low as approximately $250 for an non-contract device.
S-View Case with Wireless Charging
The ability to quickly see screen notifications and interact with them, while at the same time allowing for wireless charging can be a convenient option for some users.
This advantage is held in common among all Android smartphones, allowing Android users to adjust many more settings of the phone than users of other platforms, including Windows Phone, iOS, or Blackberry. Key for developers of Android apps and technology hobbyists, this customizability extends to enabling, with varying levels of difficulty, the user to “root” his phone and obtain extremely low level access to the phone’s internals. Finally, this level of customization even allows for users, again with varying levels of difficulty, replace the stock Android OS on the phone with highly customized OS versions, known as ROMs, providing the ultimate in phone “hot rod” modifications.
Uninspired Tap to Pay System with SoftCard (formerly ISIS)
While the Galaxy Note 3 does have the hardware to work effectively with the more user-friendly Google Wallet system, the restrictions placed on the phone by mobile carriers created a situation that forces users to choose the less streamlined SoftCard solution. SoftCard does function well, within certain parameters, allowing for Tap and Pay purchases to be performed at supporting merchants. However, unlike Google Wallet on other Android devices, and Apple Pay on the iPhone, SoftCard has a number of restrictions, enforced by three major U.S. carriers (T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), that result in a less effective user experience. For example, a credit card may only be used on one phone at a time, making shared credit card use for families difficult. In addition, if a user were to switch carriers, their previous SoftCard account would not function on their new phone, resulting the obscure error, “Cross-MNO not supported”: in effect, the mobile carriers are enforcing lock-in in an attempt to increase customer retention.
High Cost Compared to Other Android Vendors
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is more expensive than other, comparable flagship phones (from the most previous generation) from vendors such as HTC and LG. As such, unless a person is specifically attracted to the Samsung ecosystem of services and apps, as well as the few unique UI (e.g. smart stay) and health features, the differential may be hard to justify.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is unfortunately hampered by a common difficulty faced by many Android manufacturers: sporadic performance issues. For example, opening apps can sometimes result in slowness and/or “jerkiness” in the UI, while even scrolling through the UI of the settings page after turning the device on can result in unsightly UI jerks. The overall visual impression is of a chaotic and unstable platform. There have been some comments from Google that these issues with performance instability will be addressed with the upcoming release of Android version “L” (a.k.a. Lollipop), which will use a new backend engine design, called “ART”, for apps that may increase overall speed.
Chaotic UI Standards
Android app developers do not regularly adhere to a common set of UI guidelines. This means that color schemes, icon appearances, and placement of similar functions differs from developer to developer, and even from vendor to vendor or model to model of the same vendor’s phones. This may be addressed with the newer UI design standards called, “Material Design”, present in Android “L”, lollipop.
Slow, restricted, and convoluted access to updates
Much has been written about the difficulty of updating Android devices in past.
In summary, when looking at the process of how patches and updates for Android are distributed, we come to realize that the convoluted path by which Android updates must travel (how they promulgate ) causes systemic issues for Android users: getting updates is a slow, and never guaranteed process.
While some may see this as an oversimplification, most users of Android would agree that Android devices in general tend to appeal to two separate, and somewhat contradictory markets: cost-conscious smartphone buyers who desire to use a large number of apps, video, and music features, and more technically savvy, but less price sensitive, programmers and hobbyists who desire the most powerful devices that give those users the ability to customize and tweak their handsets to fit their unique needs. We will cover this overall in more detail in our forthcoming mobile OS platform comparison, however, in summary Android tends to appeal to two ends of the spectrum.
After digesting this information, it becomes apparent that the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is primarily targeted to a specific market of users; users identifiable through specific characteristics. As such, if a prospective user of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 matches two or more of the following characteristics, this device may be a good fit:
- Is above 5’4 – 5’6″ in height, with a thumb length of greater than 2.3-2.5″, or who does not mind holding the device with two hands.
- Is a technology hobbyist or programmer desiring access to the deep internals of the handset to perform significant levels of customization.
- Is tied to the Google ecosystem of services and apps, such as Gmail, Google Now, and Google Voice.
- Desires access to heart rate monitoring and step tracking which, although limited, can provide a window into the general health level of the user.
- Is not particularly price sensitive, although with the substantially decreased price of the Note 3 compared to the Note 4, price becomes less of a concern for some users.
Just as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is targeted to users with a specific lifestyle, so to is there a category of users for whom the S5 is not the most appropriate handset.
Thus, users who match two or more of the following characteristics may find this device to be a less than perfect fit for their lifestyles:
- Users who are under 5’4″ in height with a thumb length of less than 2.3″ and who do not desire to hold their device with two hands.
- Users who desire a streamlined, consistent user experience more than access to deep levels of customization. These are users who value stability and simplicity, even at the cost of eliminating less commonly used settings and features.
- Users who either work in security-focused organizations, or who are concerned about the timeliness of security patches that must make their way through the multiple layers of the Android OS update process.
Given all of this information, we can come to a broad conclusion about the lifestyle and type of user for whom this device would be a good fit. This particular device, due to its substantial price premium, significant processing power, and raft of premium features, tends to appeal to those technology hobbyists or developers who desire a powerful, premium experience, with less of a hit to the wallet than a newly released device would entail.
Thank you for reading this review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. For a quick video analysis of this device, please take a look at our Mentor Minute for the Galaxy Note 3, just posted for this phone on YouTube. Please subscribe to our YouTube feed as well. In addition, if you are interested, we will be selling this device through eBay in the next few weeks. For a link to this auction, please see the link that will be posted at the top of this article.
Thank you again, and have a Wise Day!