When the Samsung Galaxy Note first emerged a couple of years ago, few suspected it would go on to become a cornerstone of Samsung’s Android device lineup. Yet here we are in 2013 witnessing the launch of the Galaxy Note 3, the third iteration of a highly successful device family.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 formula is a familiar one — combine a big screen with stylus input, a powerful CPU and a ton of software features. On the hardware side, the Note 3 is more or less the same size and shape as its predecessor, although it’s sporting a larger screen (5.7 inches), a larger battery (3200mAh) and a lighter weight. It’s entirely more squared-off than many recent Samsung devices, indicating a departure from the nature-inspired design language of old. If anything, the new Note resembles an old-style paper notepad — that’s mostly due to its bold new back cover design.
In a somewhat skeuomorphic turn, the plastic back has a faux leather effect to it, complete with faux-stitched trim. It’s a dramatic change from the glossy plastic of old, and feels better in the hand than earlier Notes, but it does look just a little odd — especially on the white version of the device. On the black version, it’s a bit more palatable.
As usual, Samsung’s new Note sports top-level hardware. Depending on market, you’ll get a Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip (LTE) or Exynos 5 Octa (3G), complete with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage as standard — though a 64GB version also will be offered.
The Note’s display is a massive 5.7-inch Full HD 1080p SuperAMOLED panel, which is extremely bright and bold, even more so than the Galaxy S4’s screen. Despite stretching the same number of pixels over a larger area, it’s still plenty sharp. Thanks to reduced bezels, the Note 3’s 5.7-inch display fits in much the same footprint as the Note 2’s 5.5-incher.
Around the back — in the middle of that textured battery cover — is a 13-megapixel unit with Samsung’s own “smart stabilization” technology. Video recording is also supported at up to 4K (UHD). And beneath the back cover lurks a beastly 3,200mAh battery, which should provide ample juice.
But the Note 3’s software is where it really gets interesting. Samsung’s going to great lengths to ensure more users make the most of its S Pen stylus. Unsheath the S Pen and you’ll get an “Air Command” radial menu on-screen, showing you a selection of main stylus-based capabilities. These include basic stuff like “screen writing” — essentially a screenshot function — to more advanced capabilities like windowed apps.
Scrapbook is a new feature that expands on the image-clipping features offered by earlier Note products. As well as capturing the area you draw around with the S Pen, Scrapbook “harvests” metadata from the app in use — for example, URLs and page data from the browser. Clippings can then be placed in various categories to create a digital collage of “favorite stuff” from both apps and the web.
Your Scrapbook, among other things, is searchable through the new S Finder app. Unlike Google Search, Samsung’s search app is focused on sorting through the mess of content that you often find on your smartphone — stuff like pictures, notes and contacts. As well as keyword search it’s possible to narrow your searches by time period or tags — including location data. Samsung says it’s using optical character recognition to properly recognize the written notes, allowing them to be searchable, and this seemed to work pretty well on the demo units pre-loaded with sample content. We’ll have to wait and see how well it performs in the real world, however.
Similarly, this central repository of stuff on your phone can be turned into a magazine of sorts, through the new “My Magazine” app. This looks and functions a lot like Flipboard, only with a little less set-up.
Multitasking has also been switched up a little on the Note 3. The multi-window feature, which allows two apps to be run simultaneously by splitting the screen, returns with a neat new trick that lets you save combinations of apps to the sidebar. If, for example, you’re always running YouTube and the browser at the same time, well, now you can access that combination with just one tap.
But there’s yet another neat multitasking trick involving the S Pen. From the “Air Command” radial menu you can select “Pen Window,” which lets you draw a window on-screen and then populate it with an app. Like multi-window, not all apps are supported, but the core Samsung and Google apps will work just fine. Just like on a desktop OS, windowed apps can be dragged around, resized and made fullscreen, as well as minimized. Minimizing an app through Pen Window turns it into a little icon — sort of like chat heads in Facebook Home — which you can then drag around the screen.
Multitasking on a smartphone is still something many major players are working out how to do right. And Samsung’s approach is an innovative one, but with only limited app support it’s appeal will be limited.
So as usual with a new Samsung product, we’re dealing with incrementally upgraded hardware and a slew of new software features. But the new tricks on the Note 3 aren’t nearly as arbitrary as some of the Galaxy S4’s software features seem. They’re focused on highlighting the Note’s two headline features — the giant screen and the stylus — and making them easier for consumers to use.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 will launch around the world and on five U.S. carriers later this year.
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