Samsung Galaxy Note 3: Once, twice, three times - a Very Large Phone™
Third-gen phondleslab is substantial. Nice whopper-snapper too
Review Laying Dell’s Streak to one side, you can blame Samsung for starting this whole VLP™ business with its 5.3-inch Galaxy Note, which sold in more-than-decent numbers, as much to the surprise of its maker as anyone else, I suspect.
Its successor, the Galaxy Note 2, upped the stakes by featuring a 5.5-inch screen and promptly sold in huge quantities. At the time I called it the “most complete digital communications device known to man”, words I stand by. The moral here? Bigger, as far as Joe Public is concerned at least, is quite clearly better.
So it should come as no surprise that the new Galaxy Note 3 takes things a step further, with a 5.7-inch display, a 2.3GHz quad-core processor and 3GB of RAM. That’s a pretty impressive all-round technical specification but does it make the Note 3 the daddy of VLPs and, more to the point, better than the Sony Xperia Z Ultra? But is it worth twice the price of its Samsung stablemate, the Galaxy Mega 6.3?
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3: even bigger screen than before – but not a bigger device
Despite its larger screen, the Note 3 is no wider and even slightly thinner and lighter than its predecessor. This is thanks to a thinner bezel which means more screen in less chassis. It’s still a bit on the large size: 151mm tall, 79mm wide and 8.3mm thick. But it’s noticeably smaller than Sony’s imposing Ultra.
With a certain inevitability, the front of the Note 3 borrows its design cues from the Galaxy S4, complete with chrome-effect speaker grille and silver-edged physical home button. Around the edge is a faux-chrome plastic band which looks just a little tacky to my eyes. At the top you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack while the bottom edge houses a USB 3.0 power and data port, a solitary speaker and the stylus slot.
The faux leather back will fool no one
Tucked into the sides are the volume and power buttons but these aren’t as cleverly placed as those on the Z Ultra. The volume rocker is too high to be easily accessible by either thumb or finger no matter which hand you’re holding the device in.
The glossy hyperglaze back of the Note 2 has been replaced with a leather-effect, but still plastic, cover. Make no mistake: it doesn’t feel like leather, though the rubbery texture and fake stitching may fool some folk at first glance. It does make the Note 3 easier to hold than the Note 2 or the Z Ultra, though. But since most Note users seem to swap the standard back panel for a flip cover, this change really makes no odds.
The Note 3’s 5.7-inch display boasts a 1920 x 1080 resolution which is the same as the Galaxy S4 and the Xperia Z Ultra. Given that the Note 3’s screen is larger than the former but smaller than the latter, it has a higher pixel density (386dpi) than the Ultra (344dpi) but a lower one than the S4 (441dpi). The naked eye really can’t tell the difference, though, with even tiny web page text rendering pin-sharp.
It’s a Note so it comes with a stylus
Videos and images look bold and vivid on the Note 3’s screen thanks to the rich colours and deep blacks of the “Super AMOLED” OLED display Samsung has used. It’s extremely bright and rather garish – at times too garish, which can make some content look over-saturated. There are various screen modes you can choose from to tone things down – though I have to say I prefer the more natural hues of the Z Ultra’s screen.
The Note 3 runs the latest version of Android, 4.3 Jelly Bean. On top of that is Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay, which adds a plethora of extra functions – not least support for the very handy S Pen stylus and the option to run certain apps in windows.
You also get Air gestures, which allows you to swipe above the screen to scroll through images without touching the phablet and the same eye-tracking technology from the S4 that will pause video when you look away from the screen. They’re all features that are fun to play with once or twice but some are not really much more than clever and occasional diversions.
Android and then some
So is all this TouchWiz malarkey a good or bad thing? No doubt Samsung would say it is adding value to Android by installing a lot of different services and features, but you could also argue that the Note 3, like the Galaxy S4, is jammed to the gills with so much extra functionality that it makes it difficult to get to grips with it all.
Now with USB 3.0
After all, do you really need Samsung’s S Planner when the basic Google Android calendar app is, in my opinion, better? Or two web browsers? Or S Translate and S Voice – both of which I think lack the polish of Google Translate and Android’s built-in voice command. On the plus side, the Samsung media playback apps are impressive if not quite up to the standard of Sony’s.
The two aces in the Note 3’s hole though are its sheer power and its camera.
The 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset is brutally fast – on paper faster even than the 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM component fitted to the Ultra (though Note 3 didn’t beat the Ultra in either the AnTuTu benchmark or SunSpider browser tests by a particularly large margin). Assuming, of course, that in the light of recent allegations of benchmark rigging – which Samsung denies – you can trust the numbers generated by either device. Regardless, this is still one handset that won’t be regarded as underpowered at the end of a 24-month contract.
The chrome-look side band is a bit naff
The 13MP camera is capable of shooting 4128 x 3096 stills in its native 4:3 aspect ratio, is accompanied by a powerful LED and has all the usual software additions like dual shot, Panorama, Rich Tone – that’s HDR in the Samsung-speak – touch focus, the option to attach a sound file to an image and so forth. The Note 3’s camera sensor derives from the Galaxy S4’s and reproduces the phone’s impressive image quality.
The Note 3 isn’t in the Lumia 1020 or Xperia Z1 league, but the pictures it takes still display good levels of detail, low noise and excellent contrast. The camera can also record 4K – 3840 x 2160 in old money – video which though a tad pointless at the moment is potentially a handy feature for later. The resultant MP4 files are on the large size: a 10-second clip took up 72MB. Just as well then that the Note 3 can be had in a 64GB flavour and can take Micro SD cards up to the same capacity.
Note 3 plus flip case
All in all, the Note 3’s camera is a country mile ahead of the Ultra’s 8MP snapper. Want to bet a second-generation Ultra with the Xperia Z1’s camera will hove into view early in 2014?
The Note 3’s 3200mAh removable battery kept a 1080p video looping for seven hours and 45 minutes, which, while more than acceptable, was more than an hour less than than Z Ultra managed – despite its slightly smaller battery.
The connectivity suite includes 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, a 4G/LTE radio, Bluetooth 4.0, an NFC chip, an IR transmitter and a micro USB port that supports On-The-Go hosting and MHL media streaming. It even makes a pretty good phone call and has a decent, if slightly raucous at higher volumes, loudspeaker.
The Reg Verdict
Impressive though it undoubtedly is, the new Note 3 doesn't eclipse the Sony Xperia Z Ultra. The Ultra’s screen is larger and more natural in hue; Sony’s tweaked version of Android is a darned sight less confusing than Samsung’s; the bespoke Sony media apps are better if only by a small margin; and the battery life seemed better. And of course it’s waterproof.
But the Note 3 runs a more modern version of Android out of the box, has much the better camera, a stylus, and a very bright and vivid screen. Its battery is removable. Which is the better of the two is a truly tough call. I would be more than happy with either. But if all you want is a whopping display, you could save yourself £250 and buy a Mega 6.3 instead. ®