Galaxy Note 3 deep-dive review: A plus-sized phone with perks and quirks

Samsung's new big-screen phone has a lot of great qualities, but a handful of issues keep it from reaching its full potential. So is it the Android device for you?

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Cameras

The Galaxy Note 3 comes with a 13-megapixel main camera that's capable of capturing great-looking images. I did notice a fair amount of noise in some shots that were zoomed in at full resolution, but for most common uses of smartphone photos -- like online sharing and standard-size printing -- the Note 3's camera should more than meet your needs.

The exception is in low-light conditions, where the Note 3 -- like most smartphones -- struggles, especially compared to a low-light-optimized device like the HTC One.

The Note 3's camera interface is easy enough to use, if a little bloated with silly and gimmicky features. All in all, it's quite similar to what we saw on the Galaxy S4.

There are, however, a few Note 3-specific camera qualities worth noting:

  • The Note often seems to stick on a "Processing" message for a few seconds after capturing a photo. This can be annoying when you're trying to capture photos fast.
  • The phone's "burst" mode, in which you can capture multiple shots rapid-fire by holding down the shutter button, was also a bit finicky in my experience and sometimes wouldn't activate.
  • The Note 3 has a new camera mode called Surround Shot, which is Samsung's version of Google's 360-degree Photo Sphere feature. This was a curious omission in the Galaxy S4; it's nice to see it showing up here.
  • The Note 3 is capable of capturing 4K resolution videos, but since most people don't have TVs or displays that support that resolution, the capability probably won't mean much for you in practical terms at this point -- aside from getting files that take up a massive amount of space on your smartphone's storage.

The Galaxy Note 3 also has a 2-megapixel HD front-facing camera for all your selfie-snapping and video-chatting needs.

The S Pen

Even if you're convinced you'd never want a stylus, a few days with the Galaxy Note 3 might just change your mind. The phone's S Pen is a fun and potentially productivity-boosting element of the device that goes a long way in setting it apart from the competition.

The pen's actual construction, not surprisingly, isn't its greatest strength: The stylus is plastic and feels light and insubstantial, almost to the point where you fear that squeezing it too hard might cause it to snap. Its single button is also hard to find by touch alone, since the pen feels the same on its top and bottom edge.

But once you get used to its form, the S Pen is packed with power. Pull the pen out of the Note 3 and you'll immediately see a new pie-chart-style menu called Air Command on your screen; this new element helps make the stylus feel more like a core part of the Note experience than it ever has before.

Galaxy Note 3
The Air Command menu gives you easy access to a handful of primary S Pen functions.

The Air Command menu -- which you can also summon anytime by clicking the pen's button while holding it over the screen -- gives you easy access to a handful of primary S Pen functions. The most useful is Action Memo, which lets you jot down quick notes with the pen. You can either save them for later reference or convert them into action-oriented tasks, like shooting a handwritten phone number into the Phone app for dialing or converting a handwritten note into a ready-to-send email.

What's vexing, though, is that Action Memo is treated as a separate entity from S Note -- the more fully featured note-taking app for S Pen use. Notes written in Action Memo are not accessible in S Note; instead, they're saved in a separate area that's accessible only by tapping an unlabeled icon in the Action Memo app.

Confusing overlap aside, the separation between the two apps is frustrating because S Note offers the option for automated syncing with Evernote, which makes all of your handwritten notes available and searchable from any mobile device or PC. The syncing has been seamless and instant in my experience, but any notes taken in Action Memo -- which, remember, pops up as part of the Air Command menu while S Note does not -- aren't included.

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