Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review

Front and back of samsung galaxy note 3 phoneAs you can guess from the title, I’m way behind on my mobile device reviews. But in some sense, this is a benefit since I’ve spent months rather than days with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Spoiler alert – I just traded it in on an LG G3 – so you can guess where this is headed.

Let me start at the beginning. I originally switched from iPhone to Android (Nexus 4) because I really wanted a larger screen. While the Nexus 4 was affordable with a reasonable screen, the camera was complete garbage, as well as audio recording and video conferencing, it being a combination of the two. Internal speaker output was also horrible, worse than the iPhone which was saying something.

Along came the HTC One. It had an amazing good screen, bright, sharp, and accurate color. With that you get really great built-in speakers considering the size, and good microphones for recording the occasional live band. I really liked this phone, and unlike many others I LOVED BlinkFeed. But I wanted to go even bigger and the HTC One Max was really a downgrade from the One, so I bought myself a Note 3.

Over time I found myself really addicted to the larger screen of the Note. I feel like the phone is just a hair too big for easy carrying, but man, I do like a big screen. Now in terms of screen quality, it’s above average, but like most Samsung phones not great. I know that probably sounds like heresy, since people rave about the bright colors, but I like taking photos and the color profile of the Note is terrible. You can tweak it some in the settings to remove that blue/green tint common to all Samsung phones, but you can’t make it entirely go away.

Strangely, and I can’t quantify this, I found that the HTC One screen appeared sharper or crisper than the Note, but I have no way of measuring this. The screen is smaller, but looks better.

The funny thing is that I really missed things about the HTC, which I kept around it being a developer model. I would miss BlinkFeed, or the speakers, or the better battery life, etc. So I’d move the sim and start playing with the One again, but always found myself switching back within a day or two. I finally admitted that I just can’t live in a screen that’s less than 5.5 inches, so I gave up fully on the One.

So let’s go over what’s good, bad, and ugly on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The Good:

As I’ve already said, the screen size is great, near optimal. Overall the phone is just a touch big for me, but of course this is a feature that will really depend on your hands and pockets. Since then I’ve found the LG G3 size to be even better, though it’s just a touch smaller, because it’s really more manageable.

Samsung really nailed the size / weight profile on the Note 3. The Note 2 is a bulky thing, but the Note 3 is lean and trim. I don’t find the leather trim as nice as a high-end metal phone, but it’s not horrible and a sight better than anything Samsung has done in the past.

Overall performance was decent. The phone is fast on most things and can run some of the heavy stress apps like cool games very well. Again though while performance is normally snappy, it has random UI hangs for a couple of seconds all to frequently. And again, this is a common feature of most Samsung phones. I think more and more that this is Touchwiz rather than the hardware.

The stylus – this can be a great thing or a silly thing. I thought I’d use it a lot, but in the end I almost never pull it out. I have more than one friend who swears by it, so I’d have to say you need to figure this one out for yourself. It’s certainly not a bad thing, but I found it was not necessary for me. I suspect if you do a lot of drawing, note taking, diagramming, artwork, etc. that you’d really like this. It’s a good stylus, good response, nice size, and building it into the device is a huge plus.

I’ve come around on the idea of a removable battery. I do a lot of travel, both business and pleasure. I spend a lot of time on airplanes and in remote places away from easy outlets. I like that I can carry a couple of spare batteries with me and be good to go for days or even a week. You can even get a double-size battery for the Note that will do two days even under my heavy load. Battery life is another thing, but I like the removable battery.

The Bad:

Unfortunately this list is much bigger than I’d like. First of all, when I got the device it would full-hang once or twice a week. By that I don’t mean the usual lagginess of a second or two, I mean the device is frozen and you’ve gotta pull the battery. Add to that random reboots, again two or three times a week. Just doing whatever, frequently not even using the phone, and randomly it just reboots itself. I’m not talking a quick thing either, a full slow boot that runs two complete cycles, a double-boot. Not sure what/where/why, but it’s a part of life with my Note at least. Add those two together and it’s nearly a daily occurrence.

After I got the latest Android update most of the flakiness went out of the OS, almost never frozen, and extremely rare random reboots. This however came at a price, namely that battery life was cut almost in half. Where I was used to going a full day on a battery I now found my crash-free life including a mid-day phone charge. This is completely unacceptable to me. Phones should ideally run several days on a single charge, meaning more than two even. A bare minimum requirement is one fully day or normal use.

Now there are those that tell me if I turn this off and that off and don’t use this app or that app I can extend the battery life. This is true, but it’s a huge compromise, and one I didn’t have to make with any other phone I’ve ever had. Yah, I said it, the Note 3 in spite of it’s huge battery has the worst battery life of any phone I’ve ever owned. Take that all of you crazy reviewers who look at the size of the battery and claim great battery life based merely on size. That’s NOT how it works.

The battery life was helped along in the wrong direction by a bunch of known issues. There is a media server issue that you have to configure for, photo gallery settings, dropbox settings, etc. Way too many things that end up chewing up battery during the day. Things that shouldn’t be using much battery at all. I ended up turning off the Knox security because it’s a monster battery chewer.

I’ve mentioned the horrible screen color above, but just to put it in this section for those scanning the bad – you really need to change the profile. The closest one I found to normal color is to set the “movie” profie.

The camera – again this is something that reviewers get wrong so frequently. The camera has a lot of megapixels. This doesn’t make it good. In fact, in small sensors, anything above 8 megapixels can and does lead to all kinds of noise and artifacts in your photos. The way to make a great phone camera is to put a bigger sensor in it, NOT more megapixels.

The camera has it’s ups and downs. If everything is perfect in bright daylight it can take a great picture. It’s almost the opposite of the HTC One, which is best in poor light. But the camera is lacking image stabilization, opting instead of software stabilization that is slow and produces fuzzy images. This is one of the key reasons I started looking for a new phone, I like to take pictures when I’m out doing stuff. This camera almost never made me happy with what I shot.

And finally, all the fancy Samsung screen hand waving face detecting bloat. After playing around briefly, I turned off every funny thing I could find. It only led to extremely random behavior – the phone had a mind of it’s own because of something you’d done without knowing it. In the end it was more manageable without that junk. Somehow I must have missed a setting in there somewhere, because any time I would hand the phone to show something to a friend, the phone would end up doing something and losing it’s place. Not being able to share stuff is annoying.

The Sad:

my Magazine isn’t nearly as cool/useful as BlinkFeed. not intelligent, not blended, not filtered. But that’s not the worst part. The darn thing crashes and restarts almost every time you use it. BlinkFeed when you get it setup right is a really great way to get your news, calendar items, Twitter, Facebook, etc all rolled up in one place, which some serious intelligence filtering and prioritizing. It’s so good that if HTC would give up the Ultrapixel cameras or at least either put more of them or a bigger sensor, I’d switch back in the blink of an eye.

Another thing that the HTC One does well that the Note 3 is bad at is contact management. Now I own’t blame Samsung for this, because no one gets this right except for HTC. Not Samsung, not LG, not Apple, not Microsoft, not anyone. For those who don’t know, HTC scans your contacts from your multiple accounts and suggests links, so that your mom on Facebook is also your mom in your address book and your mom on Skype. One combined view of the three records.

Everyone else lets you do this manually, which is bad enough, but they also have limits on how many links you can make for one person. You’d be surprised how easy it is to pass the limit. The end result is that my contacts are much messier without my HTC, but I don’t blame Samsung. I just wish they’d fix it, here’s a better way to differentiate than some of their whacky ideas.

The photo gallery has this really cool feature that pulls in your pictures from your cloud storage, but you have to turn it off because it makes the gallery unusably slow. If you have it on, you can forget about trying to send photos in text messages, emails, etc., because it’s not going to happen. Good idea, bad implementation.

Now to keyboard software. Their version of finger swiping isn’t as clever about learning as some of the others like SwiftKey. It frequently gives bad auto-correct suggestions when you don’t expect it (Apple iOS anyone?) and isn’t as fluid as the others. On the plus side, they realize they’re on a big screen and give a keyboard with letters and numbers at the same time. If they could bring this up to snuff it’d be great. I suspect that someone else will just produce a phablet appropriate keyboard before Samsung figures it out.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Conclusions:

If you don’t mind carrying it, the big size is addictive. You could almost replace your kindle with it and I suspect many people do. Reading and video aren’t too bad, I find myself doing things I would normally go grab a tablet for. When you combine this with an unlimited data plan, you can watch TV to your hearts content no matter where you are.

The big screen allows you to surf more effectively and if you’re trying to get some work done, review a doc, spreadsheet, or slideshow, you can’t beat it. In short, the best value is the screen size, and nothing else. Certainly for some the stylus is also a benefit, but your mileage will vary.

Overall I’d say yes, get a big phone. But unless you know you need the stylus, it doesn’t need to be a Note – take a look around at somme of the other options, like the LG G3 or Nokia Lumia 1520.

I’d love to hear about your big phone experiences.

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