One month with the Galaxy Note 3: This is Samsung’s best work, but is it the best phone?

BY Stefan Constantinescu

Published 19 Dec 2013

Last month, on the 18th of November, I took delivery of Samsung’s highest end smartphone, the Galaxy Note 3. I want to say that I’ve had my SIM card in it for 31 days, but that would be a lie since I’ve also been playing with Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra, LG’s G2, and the Nexus 5. Still, of all those phones, I’ve easily used the Note 3 the most, without a doubt in my mind. Below are my thoughts on the device as someone who has owned a Galaxy Note II for roughly 10 months.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Note 3 is the screen. Forget about the size, if you’re not a fan of big phones, then you shouldn’t even be reading this. The screen on the Note 3 is drop dead gorgeous, but it would be a mistake to call it perfect. It’s stupendously bright, the color reproduction is hugely improved, yet there’s a serious issue for those who consider themselves “power users”.

Every morning, at 06:30, my alarm goes off and I pick up my phone. For the next hour to hour and a half, my eyes are glued to it, catching up with everything that happened while I was asleep. As you’d expect, this prolonged usage causes heat to build up. The Note 3 doesn’t get uncomfortable to hold, that’s not the issue, but the device, in order to maintain a certain temperature, turns down the screen brightness.

Sounds logical, right?

Well, what if I told you that you won’t be able to read a 500 word article without the brightness changing at least three times? It’s that bad. Now granted, my heavy usage is limited to the morning, because for the rest of the day I just use the phone in small bursts, but the same problem presents itself if I want to watch a thirty minute television show on the Note 3 or play a game. Despite one month of using this handset, I still haven’t gotten used to the screen dimming itself due to thermals.

And there’s more bad news.

When I owned a Note II, I absolutely loved to use it with the stylus. You don’t know how fast you can be on a smartphone keyboard until you’ve used SwiftKey Flow in conjunction with an S-Pen. With the Note 3, however, I felt a pain in my stomach every time I wanted to eject the stylus and poke around the screen.

First problem, it’s orders of magnitude harder to remove the S-Pen from its silo on the Note 3 than it is on the Note II. Again, even after a month of intense usage, I still need to fiddle with the bottom of the phone to make sure I can take the stylus out.

Second problem, and this is what kills it for me, the stylus just feels wrong on the Note 3’s display. It’s difficult to put this sensation into words. It’s like when you borrow someone else’s pen to write something down, and that person’s pen has a completely different feel compared to what you’re used to using.

The only word I can think of to describe the texture of the Note 3 stylus against the display is rough. It’s not as smooth as I want it to be, so I found myself using the stylus less, which is a total shame since that’s one of the device’s key selling points.

Now enough about the screen, let’s talk about the Snapdragon 800 and 3 GB of RAM under the hood. The Note 3 is blindingly fast, but it’s not the fastest phone I’ve ever used. Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra, despite having a slower processor (2.2 GHz vs 2.3 GHz) and “only” 2 GB of RAM, felt more fluid. This tells me that the problem here isn’t hardware, it’s Samsung’s software. Now again, I want to stress this, the Note 3 is not even remotely close to what I would call slow, but the Z Ultra felt just that extra bit smoother during the two weeks it was in my hands.

Moving on to the camera, the Note 3 made me feel substantially more confident when taking photographs than my Note II. The 13 megapixel shooter is good. Really good. Not as good as the LG G2 I’ve also had a chance to play with, but it’s still a fine camera. It takes a while to start-up, and sometimes you’ll need to take two shots to get a good one, but I’d say I’m pleased with what Samsung has delivered. Coming from me, that’s quite a bit of praise, since I despise the camera on the Note II.

Sticking to the multimedia department, the speaker on the Note 3 is definitely not as nice as the speaker on the Note II. It doesn’t sound as full, though admittedly it is plenty loud. And the fact that the Note 3 speaker fires downwards as opposed to out the rear means it’s easier to hear if you’ve got it in your pockets.

But let’s cut to the chase, what do I think of the Note 3 as a whole?

It’s both a step forward and a step back. The screen is amazing, but it dims itself too often. And yes, I set my own brightness manually, in case you’re wondering if this is an auto-brightness issue. The texture of the Note 3’s display also just feels wrong when you use the stylus. The processor is mind blowing, but there are still the occasional hiccups due to Samsung’s TouchWiz software, which frankly feels a million years old right now. Half the time you’ll spend setting up the Note 3 will be to turn off Samsung’s useless features, and that’s an incredible waste.

What ruins this device for me is the price. It’s 700 Euros where I live, and that’s too high. I spent 600 Euros on my Note II in January of this year, and when I bought it the phone had been out for barely three months. But say the Note 3 did cost 600 Euros, and I bought it to replace my Note II, I’d still be upset about the stylus.

Ultimately, I can’t say I’d be happier with a Note 3 compared to a Note II. When Steve Litchfield came to the same conclusion in his Note 3 review, I thought he had gone completely insane, but now I see exactly what he’s saying. The Note II is nearly 200 Euros cheaper than the Note 3, and it’s a far better value. Plus, it’s already been updated to Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, so the software differences are non-existent.

What would I like Samsung to do for the Note 4?

I want to see build quality go up dramatically. The Note 3 I was provided suffers from loose home button syndrome, a manufacturing defect that’s been well documented. It doesn’t affect how you use the device, but I can imagine becoming furious if I spent 700 Euros on a phone and the home button was crooked out of the box.

Speaking about home buttons, I want to see Samsung’s 2014 portfolio dump them. After using the Xperia Z Ultra and Nexus 5, hitting physical keys just feels silly and archaic to me. Also, can someone at Samsung copy LG’s Knock On feature?

Most importantly, however, I want to see Samsung introduce a completely redone version of TouchWiz. Speaking as someone who has played with a stock Android device, there are definitely things in TouchWiz that I miss, but even Samsung has to admit that the software looks ancient, is bloated, and needs a swift kick in the pants.