When we first used the original Samsung Galaxy Note, it seemed ridiculously big, like a prop from a comedy show. It says something about Samsung's prescience for consumers wanting bigger screens that the Galaxy Note 3 now seems like a reasonably normal-sized phone.
With devices such as Sony's 6.3-inch Xperia Z Ultra on the market, the 5.7-inch Note 3 actually looks downright sensible. In our view, the improved power, bigger screen and greater S Pen functionality all make for a winning combination in the next generation of Note smartphones.
The RRP for the Note 3 is AU$999 and you can find a full list of plans for the phone across the main carriers by clicking here.
While we would have liked to review the Note 3 in conjunction with its companion smart watch the Galaxy Gear, we have yet to get our hands on the Gear. We'll cover the smart watch separately when we do.
Considering that the Note 3 has the both the largest screen and the biggest battery of the range, it's rather impressive that it's also the slimmest and lightest of the three.
At 8.3 mm thick and 168g, it doesn't bulge out and weigh down a pocket the way the original Note did.
The Note 3 sports a 5.7-inch, Full HD screen, a slight boost from the Note 2's 5.5-inch display. The screen is as bright, colourful and responsive as we've come to expect. You can do everything with your fingertip, but the S Pen stylus gives you even finer control.
We found the Note 3 quite usable in a single hand, but your mileage may vary depending on just how big your own mitts are.
Around the back is a 13-megapixel camera with LED flash. It's set in a textured, leather-effect rear edged in fake stitching. Perhaps stung by the criticism aimed at the cheap-looking glossy plastic of the Galaxy S4 and its ilk, Samsung is obviously going for the premium look of an expensive wallet, and, coupled with the classy metal trim, it actually works.
In particular, the lack of grubby fingerprints everywhere has us wishing that more manufacturers would opt for a leather feel. We'd even argue that the textured back adds a little bit more grip than slick plastic, which can be a big help with a larger phone.
The S Pen is unobtrusively housed at the bottom of the Note 3, featuring the same ridged metal rim as the phone. For the first time, there's no single "right way" to put the pen back in the phone — it can slide in no matter which of the flat sides is uppermost.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The camera app is the same as what's on offer with the Galaxy S4. You'll get access to all of the same modes, including Best Face, Sport, Drama shots and more. Bizarrely, there's also a dedicated Golf mode to help you analyse your golf swing, if that's been bothering you.
The Note 3 also sports Ultra HD video recording — 3840x2160 at 30fps. If you want to stick to Full HD video, you can record at 60fps, and the slow-mo option bumps that up to 120 frames.
At the risk of damning with faint praise, we found the camera to be workmanlike, producing thoroughly adequate photos that were clear and crisp.
It doesn't wow like some of the more specialised camera phones do (such as the Nokia Lumia 1020), but it does produce solid photos that look good. We're also not going to turn our noses up at the Ultra HD video recording option, even if we're unlikely to make too much use of it just yet.
A sample photo from the Note 3.
(Credit: Nic Healey/CNET Australia)
You can't talk about the Note series without talking about the S Pen, and the Note 3 has managed to integrate the S Pen functionality better than any of its predecessors.
When you pull the S Pen from its slot, the Air Command wheel appears on-screen, floating on top of the app or home screen. You can also call up the wheel by hovering the S Pen over the screen and clicking the button on the side of it. The command wheel gives you access to the basic run of stylus functions.
The most basic use for the S Pen is to scrawl a note or memo, but those scribbles don't stay static. Draw a box around them, and you can access some of the more interactive functions of the pen.
The Air Command wheel.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
For example, scribble down some digits, and you can call that number from the note. The same goes for URLs, email addresses, even street addresses. Maps, browsers and the like can all be opened directly from the notes.
The scrapbook app lets you draw a box around something you want to save, whether it's part of a web page, an image, some text or even a YouTube video. These all get saved to the scrapbook, and you can add your own tags or handwritten notes to each snippet.
The S Finder can be used to search your Note 3 for files, music and photos by name, date or tags. You can search handwritten notes, even for hand-drawn symbols like a star.
All of this takes some getting used to; there's a lot of functionality, and sometimes the icons and names of the features are quite as self-explanatory as we'd like. But once you're across what the S Pen can do, it becomes a really intuitive experience.
That said, only the most stylus-obsessed user will find a way to use all of the S Pen's features. For most of us, it'll be the note-taking and scrapbook functions that get the biggest work-out.
A bigger screen means more room for movies and games. That's all very well, but previous Notes came up with a next-level use for a big screen: simultaneous multitasking. When you've got all that leg room, why stop at one app when you can use two at the same time?
With Multi Window, you can divide the screen in half between two apps. On the Note 3, more apps support Multi Window. You can even drag and drop stuff between two apps — no more cumbersome copying text, switching apps, pasting in, switching back, copying the next bit and so on and so on.
Instead, you can just use the S Pen to select what you want — some text, a link, a phone number or whatever — and slide it neatly to the other app.
You can grab the dividing line between the two apps and slide it around to choose how much space each app takes up. And you can even split one app in half to use the same app in two windows.
For example, why not have two separate browser windows open at the same time to compare information? Or two separate chat windows to chat with different people behind each others' backs?
If there's a pair of apps that you often need to bring together, you can save them for quick access in the future. And there's no limit to how many of these combinations the Note 3 remembers.
But why stop at two apps? Sometimes you want to use an app very quickly without disturbing your main app. So selected apps can be called up to quickly float over your main app, then be pushed to one side just as quickly, waiting to be called on again. The clever part is, you can have as many of these quick apps open or minimised at one time as you'd like.
These quick-access apps include the calculator, phone dialler and YouTube app. Grab your S Pen, call up the Air Command wheel and select the option to call up one of the quick apps. Then draw a box or just a line where you want the app to appear — any size, and anywhere on the screen.
Say you're browsing the web and you see some numbers you need to crunch. Draw a box to open the calculator or phone app, and do a quick sum or make a quick call from the numbers in your main app. If you're done with the quick app but think you may need it again, just minimise it.
It then becomes a small, round icon floating above the screen, ready to be moved around and opened again for more speedy calculations.
Inside the Note 3, you'll find a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. With the microSD slot, you can bump that up by another 64GB.
It all makes for a very zippy device. While the SunSpider results don't compare to the 64-bit iPhone 5s (around 399ms), at 976.8ms, the Note 3 is beating out its stablemate: the Galaxy S4 (around 1100ms).
The AnTuTu benchmarking software threw back a score of 32,627 compared to 26,004 for the Galaxy S4 (a higher score is preferred in AnTuTu).
(Screenshot by Nic Healey/CNET Australia)
But ignoring the often meaningless raw numbers, the experience of using the Note 3 is extremely pleasurable. It's a very fast phone, with apps opening rapidly, web pages performing quickly and everything feeling deft and responsive.
We tested speeds on Telstra's 4G network across the Sydney CBD and out into the Inner West region. As the Note 3 is a Category 4 device, we expected solid results, and we weren't disappointed.
The top speed observed for download was a blistering 88.73Mpbs, while the best upload speed was 33.07Mbps.
On average, download speeds sat around the 40Mbps-50Mbps mark, a little higher than what we've come to expect from the network. Average upload speed was 25Mbps-30Mbps, which was mightily impressive to us.
There were also no issues with call quality — everyone was clean and crisp, with no obvious distortion. The speaker phone was loud, but also bright, avoiding the muddy quality that some hands-free speaker calls can suffer from.
The battery performance was an interesting one. Despite the 3200mAh battery, our first day of testing saw us barely make it through 12 hours of life — but that was with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and pretty much everything else turned on. Turning down the screen brightness from full to auto and disabling a few of the less useful Samsung functions such as Smart Scroll and Air Gesture got us back to the kind of insanely long battery life you want from a Note. We imagine that with an S View cover, the power savings would be even better.
The Note 3's new USB 3.0 port.
(Credit: Seamus Byrne/CNET Australia)
There were a few niggles, of course. Double tapping with the stylus while holding the S Pen's button down can sometimes be frustrating. The Note 3 is also USB 3.0 enabled, but that requires a special port at the bottom. While technically, this can still take a normal micro-USB plug, we found a few of our cables a little tricky to insert.
More than anything, Samsung's TouchWiz UI is starting to feel a little dated, and we're really sick of the fact that the app dock across the bottom of the interface can't be customised. That's a little inexcusable these days.
According to Samsung, people buy the Galaxy Note for the big screen, but stick around for the multitasking and S Pen features. We're not sure whether this is totally true, but even if you're not using the S Pen features to their fullest extent, you're still getting a powerful, well-designed phone — albeit at a slightly higher price than we'd like.
If you're a Note user, then getting the Note 3 is a no-brainer — it's the best of the series and well worth the upgrade.
But even if you're just in the market for a big-screen Android phone, the Galaxy Note 3 is hard to walk past. This is a powerful and feature-rich smartphone that doesn't fail to impress.