PREVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Note 3

After months of leaks and speculation, Samsung has officially unveiled the Galaxy Note 3 at the annual IFA technology tradeshow in Berlin.

Slimmer, lighter, larger, faster and longer are the words Samsung is using to describe the much awaited follow up to their big-screen flagship smartphone. The tech giant has packed a lot under the hood of the device but the company has also refined the software to make the stylus, or the S-Pen as Samsung calls it, an integral part of the overall experience.

While Samsung has made the most of its fast follower reputation, big screen phones or phablets is one area where the South Korean giant has been ahead of the pack. The Galaxy Note 3 manifests just how successful Samsung has been in able to tap into the burgeoning demand for a device range that was subject to sustained criticism from some quarters.

The allure of the phablet is screen size and the challenge has always been to cohesively connect the extra screen real estate with a compact form and practical usability. While HTC and Dell dipped their toes into the phablet space early, it was Samsung’s Galaxy Note that really set the pace in 2011. It might not have pleased all the critics but the public certainly liked what they saw.

The total sales figures to date for the Galaxy Note 1 and 2 stands at 38 million, pretty impressive when you consider that the first note only came out 19 months ago

The third iteration of the Galaxy Note now enters a far more receptive market, with popularity of phablets on the rise. According to IDC, the category overtook the combined shipments of tablets and notebooks in Asia/Pacific last quarter, with 25.2 million phablets sold in Q2 2013 compared with 12.6 million tablets, and 12.7 million portable PCs.

Power packed performance

As expected, Samsung has gone with the latest chip from Qualcomm with a 2.3Ghz Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor, but this time around they have gone with a whopping 3GB of RAM, making it the first smartphone to do so. In another first, select models will also be able to record and playback 4K video.

So what about that big screen then? Samsung has upped the screen size to a 1080P 5.7-inch display but thankfully the physical size of the phone hasn't increased from the Note 2. In fact, it’s a millimetre thinner and a shade lighter than its predecessor, while also packing a thinner bezel to accommodate the bigger screen.

Similar to the Galaxy S4, the Note 3 comes with a 13 megapixel snapper but the phone should produce sharper images and better low light shots due to the sensor now incorporating Optical Image Stabilisation hardware. Audiophiles will be happy to hear that the smartphone now supports 24-bit/192kHz Hi-Fi audio, a feature that some other smartphone manufacturers such as Sony are also incorporating.

Thankfully, Samsung has decided to make the 32GB version the base model, a trend that we hope to see continue with future flagship smartphones. The phone still comes with the ability to expand the storage using a Micro SD card and the battery is also removable.

Speaking of battery life, the capacity has been ever so slightly increased to 3200mAh but Samsung have done some software optimisation that they claim boosts runtime even further. Considering that we were able to comfortably achieve all-day battery life with the Note 2, we would be curious to see how much more juice this translates to in terms of real world use.

Unfortunately, Samsung has decided to persist with a largely plastic build, but the phone should be easier to hold in the hand thanks to a grippy faux leather back which looks rather garish in white but more refined and at home in black.  

The S-Pen

The main differentiator for Note smartphones is the S-Pen and Samsung is leveraging their stake in Wacom to improve the handwriting recognition on the device.

While we found the S-Pen particularly handy for taking notes on the Note 2, it was difficult to memorise all the different commands to actually make use of the other S-Pen related features.

To ease the learning curve, Samsung has this time around incorporated "Air Command" - a little pie control menu that acts as a launcher to five key pieces of S-Pen infused functionality. Air Command appears whenever the S-Pen is drawn from its holster and can also be brought up at any time by clicking the built-in button on the stylus.

The five shortcuts include Action Memo, Scrapbook, ScreenWrite, S Finder and Pen Window.

Action Memo

You can now turn your handwritten scribbles into actionable items. For example, jotting down a phone number will now give you the option to call, save to contacts or share the number via email or social media. Similarly, writing down an address will give you the option to bring up the directions in Google Maps without having to copy and paste anything.

Scrapbook

Capturing content from websites and apps has now been vastly improved with Scrapbook. You now only need to draw a circle on the piece of content to neatly store entire videos, images or articles in your scrapbook.

ScreenWrite

Selecting ScreenWrite will immediately perform a screen capture that you can then use to write directly on the screenshot. It’s a handy feature for annotations or capturing your location on Google Maps and SMS or emailing it to a friend or colleague.

S Finder

S Finder is essentially a glorified search tool that allows you to locate specific emails, text messages, contacts, videos, voice recordings, images or web history stored on your smartphone using search terms. The impressive part about it is that it will even recognise and search through handwritten content so you can quickly retrieve those important meeting notes.

Pen Window

Multitasking junkies take note; you can now launch applications by simply drawing a window of any size on the screen. The size of the application window will be based on the size of the rectangle you drew, effectively allowing for a number of different applications to be open and viewable all at the same time.  As an example, you could use the calculator application while browsing the web and simultaneously checking emails. 

The windowed applications can all be minimised and moved around the screen with a tap of the S-Pen.

While on the topic of multitasking, one of the most useful features from the Note 2, Multi Window, has been improved further.  Multi Window allows you to run two applications side-by-side with each application taking up one half of the display.  

Samsung has added the ability to drag and drop content such as text or images between the open applications. As an example, images can be dragged from a browser window and dropped into an open email turning it into an attachment.

Final thoughts

It's a welcome change to see Samsung focused on improving existing features as opposed to throwing in a boat load of poorly implemented features which was quite clearly the approach with the Galaxy S4.

The enhancements made so far clearly position the device as a productivity tool and the improved usability should mean that more people will be able to pick it up and start using it without too much of a learning curve.

The attention to detail on the Galaxy Note 3 highlights what Samsung needs to do to stay ahead of the pack. The success of the Galaxy Note, which captured 90 per cent of the overall phablet market, has spurred other smartphone manufacturers to enter the market with phablets of their own- such as Sony with the 6.1-inch Xperia Z Ultra.

The competition is set to heat up further with both HTC and Nokia rumoured to be releasing a phablet each by the end of the year and even Apple reportedly working on screen sizes of up to 6-inches

On top of that, there’s increasing competition from Chinese brands such as Huawei and CoolPad with low cost sub $US200 phablets. So plenty at stake here for Samsung and the Galaxy Note 3 just might let it hold on to the phablet crown for now.