Hands on: 7 silly things about the Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Silly

Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3 has some good things going for it -- no question there. But the phone also has its share of silly and sometimes frustrating elements.

Since I looked at seven cool things about the Note 3 yesterday, I thought I'd balance it out today with a look at seven aspects of the device that leave me scratching my head.

Welcome to the jungle, baby -- here we go:

1. The button setup

You had to know this was coming, right? I've harped on it plenty before, but Samsung's odd and dated hybrid button setup just doesn't make for an ideal user experience -- and the issue is particularly problematic on a device like the Note 3.

The first part is Samsung's ongoing decision to include the long-ago-deprecated Android 2.x-level Menu button on its devices. Google phased the Menu button out of Android for a reason: Its presence causes options to remain buried and out of sight -- and consequently out of mind for users.

In phones that follow current Android 4.x design guidelines, all functions appear on-screen. When there are extra options available -- like in the Play Store, for instance, the options to view your apps or wishlist or to access your Play Store settings -- you see an icon on your screen indicating such options are there.

On the Note 3, that contextual on-screen icon is never displayed. In fact, there's no visual cue at all letting you know when extra options are available; you'd have to randomly tap the phone's Menu key at the right time in order to stumble onto them. Having elements of the interface hidden and hard to find, my friends, is not a great user experience.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Menu Button

Functions that appear in an on-screen menu on a phone that follows Android design guidelines, at left, are hidden with no visual cues on the Galaxy Note 3, at right

In addition, the presence of a stylus makes the already-awkward combination of capacitive and physical buttons even more vexing: While the Note 3 allows you to tap the capacitive buttons with the S Pen to activate them, the Home button is clearly not designed with the stylus in mind -- and pressing it with the pen is tricky and unnatural.

2. The downplaying of good Google services

Google Now and Voice Search are two of Android's most useful features -- but on the Note 3, Samsung has tucked them away into tough-to-reach corners with its own half-baked replacements taking center stage instead.

Let's be brutally honest for a minute: Samsung's S Voice is pretty much a crappy version of Android's native Voice Search tool, right? There's really no reason you'd want to use it over Voice Search.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 S Voice

Yet it's S Voice that's integrated into the Note 3's main buttons (a double-press of the Home key pulls it up). And worse, that button implementation puts the frequently praised Google Now service out of easy reach; to get to it on the Note, you have to long-press the Home button to open the app-switching tool and then press a Google icon that appears at the bottom of that screen (whew!).

The right set of home screen shortcuts and widgets can serve as a serviceable workaround -- but it's anything but ideal, and many users won't know to set it up and will end up missing out on some of Android's finest services as a result.

3. The "My Magazine" integration

In what may or may not be a direct response to HTC's implementation of BlinkFeed in its One smartphone (I'll let you decide), Samsung has baked a new news-viewing tool called My Magazine into the heart of the Note 3's software. It's basically a custom-branded version of Flipboard.

No big deal, right? It wouldn't be -- if it weren't for the way the feature is integrated into the system: Anytime you swipe up from the bottom of the home screen, it loads. Anytime you press the Home button while on the home screen, it loads. Anytime you press the Home button from the multitasking tool -- an action that should logically return you to the home screen -- you guessed it: My Magazine loads.

For a service that's essentially just a glorified news-reading app, having it baked into the phone at such a core level -- and thus having it be prone to numerous accidental openings -- ranks pretty high on my Silly-Meter.

4. Action Memo and S Note separation

In addition to the traditional S Note notepad app, the Note 3 includes a new program called Action Memo. It's basically a version of S Note designed for action-oriented tasks: You can write a phone number in it with the S Pen and then have the device dial that number, for instance, or write some text in it and have the system put it into an email.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Action Memo

Action Memo is part of the Note's new Air Command "control center" that pops up every time you pull the S Pen out of the device, so it's pretty core to the Note-using experience. But anything you write and save in Action Memo doesn't go into S Note; instead, it's saved in a separate place that you can access only by clicking an unlabeled button in the Action Memo app.

Confused yet? Yeah -- me, too. It'd make far more sense for Action Memo to be a feature of S Note rather than its own standalone (and oddly organized) app.

5. The Pen Window multitasking mode

One of the new Note 3 features Samsung's spending a lot of time discussing is something called Pen Window. In short, you tap an icon in the S Pen Air Command window and then draw a box anywhere on your screen. You select an app to run in that box; it then sits on top of whatever else you're doing and can be moved around as you wish.

It sounds cool enough in concept -- actually, it's a lot like the QSlide function LG introduced in its Optimus G Pro earlier this year -- but in practice, it's more than a little silly.

First and foremost is the fact that very few apps are supported: As of now, you've got a choice of seven. And beyond that, no matter what size and orientation of box you draw, the apps seem to show up in one of a few preset window sizes. Consequently, the whole "drawing a box" thing ends up feeling more like an unnecessary gimmick than an important part of the process.

The apps also tend to appear distorted and strange-looking in the scaled-down windows. All around, it's a fine idea but -- in this current implementation, at least -- just not a great experience.

6. "Use for all screens" mode

Another silly one is an option Samsung refers to as "Use for all screens" mode. Once activated, the feature lets you swipe back and forth from the edge of the screen to shrink the active portion of the display down to a smaller size -- effectively giving you a small-sized phone within a large-sized body.

You really have to see it in action to appreciate just how silly it is:

'Nuff said.

7. The carryover gimmicks from the Galaxy S4

The last item on our list is a familiar one: the slew of gimmicky features introduced with the Galaxy S4 and still present on the Note 3. On the one hand, you could say that their presence doesn't hurt anything; you could just ignore most of them if you wanted and go about your regular business.

On the other hand, though, they contribute to an increasingly bulky and bloated piece of software that takes up lots of storage space, dilutes the user experience, and sometimes leads to imperfect performance.

To be clear, I'm not talking about the legitimately interesting features with practical appeal; I'm talking about the purely silly features with fleeting novelty and little lasting real-world value -- things like Air Gestures, Smart Pause, and the mess of features that duplicate native Google services in less effective ways (hello, S Translate). A teensy bit of focus and restraint would go a long way toward making the Note 3 an even stronger device.

All things in perspective...

No phone is perfect, of course, and these little quirks certainly aren't make-it-or-break-it sorts of qualities. There's plenty to like about the Note 3. And there's plenty more to consider, too -- important things like form and hardware design, display, camera, and performance.

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Rest assured: I'll delve into all those areas in detail in my in-depth review. We've got a lot of pieces to think through with the Note 3 -- and the big question is what kind of experience they add up to create.

I'll be continuing to live with the Note 3 over the weekend and will share my full impressions and conclusions with you soon.


7 cool things about the Galaxy Note 3

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

How to remap the buttons on the Galaxy Note 3 (or any Samsung phone)

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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