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Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 3

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I've been a lover of the Note line of phablets since the first Galaxy Note came to, and consequently, created the market. Yeah, yeah, I know… there were other large format smartphones on the market prior to the Note but how much of the buying public was actually aware they existed? Right. History aside, what does the Note 3 offer you today that makes it a standout choice among some pretty stellar competition? Plenty. Maybe too much for some, so I'll unpack that below.

"But, it's huge!" That's what the pundits said. And they were right. What's much more interesting is where they were wrong. Some people don't want to carry around a smartphone and tablet everywhere they go, but they've gotten used to handling the larger 7", 8" and 10" tablets so dealing with a device that is approximately 6" in hand (the screen is 5.7" for those counting) from top to bottom and a little over 3" across is much less an issue than it may have been just a few short years ago. Part of what makes the device easy to handle is that there is very little bezel on the sides of the device and the folks who write code for Samsung have actually listened to users and created a keyboard which allows you to make it smaller and push it to the left or right side of the screen. This makes using one hand much easier! More on that later.

 

Notes On The Hardware

The Note 3 looks very different from the Note 2 with a more angular appearance and less bezel which really makes the screen look bigger and the device feel more svelte. Even though it's not quite as rounded, it is still comfortable in hand. The full HD (1080p) Super AMOLED screen is bright and vibrant, making movies and other content a pleasure to watch. Just above the display you'll find the 2MP front-facing camera, light and proximity sensors and the earpiece/speaker grill. The proximity sensor has some pretty cool features built-in but we'll get into that when we talk more about the software. Below the display is the home button which has given Samsung some problems here and there with some users reporting that the button has failed or "sticks" sometimes. On a personal note, I really wish Samsung would get rid of the hardware button all together and go with the software buttons found on some versions of Android like the Nexus 5 and LG's G2. The top edge of the device has your standard 3.5mm headphone jack, noise-canceling microphone and IR port. The left side of the device has your volume rocker with the power button on the right and the bottom edge is where you'll find the primary microphone, USB 3.0 port, speaker and the much ballyhooed S Pen. This time around, the S Pen and housing have been designed so that you can place the pen back in its holster nub first, anyway you like. On the previous versions, the S Pen had to be placed back into the holster in a very specific way. The back of the device had many people talking when Sammy first announced the phone due to the faux leather stitching included in the design of the plastic back cover. Not much to say, you either love or hate it but at the end of the day, it's just a back cover. Under that back cover is a massive 3,200mAh battery that should easily power you through the day, and the stacked SIM/MicroSD slot. One the rear of the phone, you also get a 13MP camera with LED flash but sadly, no Optical Image Stabilization. The device does have Digital Image Stabilization but the optical version generally produces better results. Rounding out the outward appearance, both the black and white versions have a silver tone ring wrapping around the edge of the device.

With the hardware out of the way, let's spend some time looking at the features built into Samsung's software, TouchWiz Nature UX 2.5, as well as those specific to the Note 3 and its S Pen. When Samsung launched this device, one of the features they touted was a new software quick menu called Air Command which gives you fast access to five apps: Action Memo, Screen Write, Pen Window, Scrapbooker and S Finder.

 

New Stuff

Here's what the Air Command apps do:

  • Action Memo allows you to quickly jot a note and save it to the memo app, but the cool feature of Action Memo is the "Action" part. You can assign an action to the note you jot! So, if you're picking your little ones up from school and your son or daughter wants to have a play date with a classmate and wants you to meet that child's parent, you can quickly jot down the name and phone number or email address then link an action to that information that automatically opens the dialer or Gmail for instance.
  • Screen Write is an app which, when activated, takes a screenshot then allows you to markup that screenshot with the Pen. I used it recently to make some edits to an essay my son sent me. Sure, I could've just edited his document, but he learns nothing from that so I prefer to "markup" the document so he can see the changes vs. what was already there.
  • When it comes to true multitasking, there are very few mobile devices which can touch the Note phablets since they debuted the feature Multi Window and Pen Window is just their latest software feature in a continuing effort to keep the Note all about utility! Once activated, you literally just draw a square on the screen which then turns into a window and allows you to open up an app in that window which floats on top of whatever you were already doing. If you're in the middle of typing up that epic Reddit post, or email reply and don't want to risk losing your place or post but need to do something else briefly, just pull out the S Pen, choose the Pen Window option and do whatever else you were needing to get done. Simple.
  • Scrapbooker is somewhat like Screen Write except that what it does is allow you to draw a circle around whatever content on screen you want to save and that information is clipped and saved to the Scrapbook app. From the app, you can add tags, or memos to the captured images, as well as share that content to whichever apps you choose, like Gmail, Twitter, etc.

Ultimately, I find Scrapbooker somewhat redundant, though I can see its use case. As I've said previously, Samsung does tend to go overboard on the inclusion of software features in its TouchWiz Nature UX 2.5 and that can be overwhelming for some people, to the point where they end up missing out on discovering some useful apps because it's just too much. I find myself using Screen Write and Action Memo more than the others, but I've definitely had occasion to use Pen Window as well.

One of my favorite apps on the Note 3 is S Note which integrates with another favorite of mine, Evernote. As I've said before, I'm not a huge fan of standalone apps. I'm a services kind of guy and I have my services which are already a part of my lifestyle, so when a phone with the utility of the Note 3 comes along, it's important to me that it's flexible enough to integrate into my established mobile lifestyle.

 

Sammy's Innovation, My Frustration

Unfortunately, Samsung is increasingly trying to disturb my services Zen because you can no longer get to Google Now with a simple long press of the menu button. That action now takes you to Samsung's built-in universal search feature, which isn't a bad thing, if it were optional. I do like a universal device search similar to what Blackberry and iOS has, but not at the expense of losing quick access to Google Now which I find much more valuable. Now, you can still get to Google Now easily by long pressing the Home button and then pressing the G+ icon at the bottom of the screen but it seems like Samsung is on the hunt to replace as many Google features with its own version of their services and this is where I need to be clear… much like when Apple launched Maps and it was sub par in comparison to the long established Google Maps, I don't want Samsung's services that compete with Google's. Competition is definitely a good thing and I hope that Samsung will be forward thinking enough to keep Google innovating, but I'm well invested in Google's services at the moment and don't want to be forced into workarounds for using Google's built-in apps when I buy Samsung devices… or, I'll just stop buying Samsung devices. When you buy a newer Sammy device, you'll see that this is clearly the direction they're headed in when you notice the S Translator, Samsung Apps, Samsung Hub and more in the Samsung folder in the app drawer. If these apps ever surpass Google's native offerings, I'm game but until that becomes a reality (and from the user perspective), Samsung needs to make use of these apps optional - which of course doesn't make good business sense for them, I know.

The other thing that Samsung has created which is a sub par experience for me is the WatchOn app. Having used other built-in TV remote apps, I'm disappointed in what Samsung has included. It works for the most part, but the most important button that a remote can have other than channel rocker, volume and mute, is the "Guide" button. Instead of programming a remote interface which allows me to pop up the guide on the AT&T Uverse system I'm watching, Samsung wants me to use WatchOn's built-in guide… ummm, no. This creates extra steps, which is counterintuitive. Look at what LG did with the G2 as an example of a well executed, built-in remote control interface guys. Please. Fortunately there are other remote apps in the Google Play store that you can download to replace the WatchOn app and utilize that glorious IR port on the top of your device.

 

More To Love

One of my favorite user interface elements of Samsung's TouchWiz user interface is their Calendar app. Their calendar app and accompanying widget is infinitely more usable than Google's stock calendar and widget, which is nothing new to TouchWiz but worth mentioning if this is your first look at a Samsung device. Though the text is small, you get the headings in one view for all your calendar entries, even in month view, which is made even better by one of Samsung's ingenious features made possible by that proximity sensor and the Smart View which allows you to hover over certain pieces of information which pops up a quick look summary of that information. Love it! If you've used the Note before, you're probably a fan of Multi Window and if you haven't, you may soon be! Multi Window allows you to open up two windows on the screen simultaneously by dragging them from a tray on the left side of the screen when the feature has been turned on. Not all apps are Multi Window compatible but with this latest version of TouchWiz, more have been added and it should be noted that there are developers who are making apps specifically for Multi Window, which you can find in the Play Store by searching the term "Multi Window."

Being that the Note 3 really is the Batman Utility Belt of smartphones for me, I really appreciate the fact that this phone is equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 aka BT Low Energy. Since I've had the device it's been connected to Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch but I've also been testing the MIO Alpha as well and when you're constantly connected to devices via BT, you appreciate the fact that the Low Energy specification is very battery friendly. The beauty of the standard is that it enables connectivity to devices in the sports and fitness industries as well as health care equipment like medical temperature measurement devices and blood glucose monitors. Sky's the limit as far as the future of Bluetooth LE and it will be exciting to see what manufacturers in the different industries come up with.

One of the very smart decisions Samsung made going back to the previous Note was to add an option to the on-screen keyboard to make it smaller and nudge it to the left or right side of the screen, making it easier for some to "one-hand" the device. You can see that in the pictures to the left of this article, where the keyboard has a little arrow pointing either to the left or right of the keyboard. This setting is easy to turn on from the settings menu: Settings > Click the "Controls" tab > Choose "One-handed operation" > Check "Samsung Keyboard



Wrap Up

In a word: Awesome. That really sums up what I think of the latest iteration in Samsung's successful line of smartphone phablets. It really does a lot and with it being the first Android device with a full 3GB of RAM, it really doesn't slow down under the crush of the power user. The only thing which may slow you down is cost, unless you're taking advantage of one of the newer "contract-free" upgrade plans offered by carriers where you can get a device for between $0- $200 down and between $15 and $27 dollars a month. Off-contract the Note 3 may cost you as much as $700 before tax, on-contract you're looking in the neighborhood of $300.

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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