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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Design and build quality

First, let's talk design, shall we? Samsung has long suffered the wrath of many a reviewer (myself included) for its cheap-feeling plasticky constructions. With the Note 3, the company is clearly trying to step things up and provide a phone with a more premium body.

In some regards, it's succeeded: The Note 3 ditches Samsung's long-favored glossy plastic back for one with a textured faux-leather finish. The material feels softer and more pleasant to the touch and has a less toy-like (and fingerprint smudge-attracting) appearance than what I'm used to from Samsung. It's still a bit on the chintzy side -- thanks mainly to the somewhat tacky fake stitching around the panel's perimeter -- but it's definitely an improvement over past Samsung products.

That said, it's all relative, and the Note 3 still feels less thoughtfully designed than devices like the HTC One or the Moto X. When I peeled off the phone's thin back panel, for instance, the covering for the camera lens popped right out. I had to futz around with it to get it back in place, bending its flimsy-feeling metal support legs to force it to stay attached before putting the cover back on.

Galaxy Note 3
When the reviewer peeled off the phone's thin back panel, the covering for the camera lens popped right out.

The phone's physical Home button, meanwhile, is slightly loose and subtly shifts around with each pressing, often looking crooked as a result (something other early users have also noticed). These kinds of things just don't scream "premium build" to me.

Speaking of buttons, the Note 3 uses the same odd and dated hybrid button setup Samsung has long clung onto, with a physical Home button flanked by capacitive Menu and Back buttons (the former of which was phased out of the Android platform years ago). This design choice results in some meaningful downsides when it comes to user experience, ranging from hidden and hard-to-find options to an awkward contrast in button sensitivity, especially when using the S Pen.

The setup also forces an almost comical number of inelegant workarounds. You long-press the Home button to get to the Android app-switching tool, for example, and double-press it to get to Samsung's S Voice voice-control utility. You long-press the Menu button to load Samsung's S Finder search app and long-press the Back button to load Samsung's own Multi Window multitasking tool. A single press of the Home button, meanwhile, will usually take you to your home screen -- except if you're already on your main home screen, in which case the same action will pull up the Note's integrated news-viewing application.

Got all that? Yeah -- me neither. It's not exactly what you'd describe as user-friendly design.

Under the hood

The Galaxy Note 3 runs on a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor along with 3GB of RAM. That kind of horsepower should result in flawless performance, but -- as we've seen with other recent Samsung devices -- the Note 3 suffers from some baffling performance imperfections.

For most tasks, the phone is plenty fast: App loading and multitasking are generally fine, and Web browsing is satisfyingly smooth and swift. But the phone has occasional lags and jitteriness, and just doesn't feel as snappy as other devices in real-world use.

The worst offender is the Note's Gallery app: I regularly counted five to 12 seconds from the time I tapped the app until it was fully opened and ready to use. The same sort of delay was present when tapping folders within the Gallery. Given the phone's hardware capabilities, this is a pretty clear indication to me that Samsung's software is doing something wrong.

The Note 3 does perform admirably in the realm of battery life: The phone's 3200mAh battery -- which, in a move that'll delight hardcore power-drainers, is removable and replaceable -- always managed get me safely from morning to night. Even on days when I had moderate to heavy use -- as much as four hours of screen-on time with half an hour of phone calls, half an hour of video streaming, and a few hours of scattered Web browsing, camera use and social media activity -- the Note 3 consistently had around 30% of its charge left by bedtime.

All U.S. models of the Galaxy Note 3 ship with 32GB of internal storage, which leaves you with about 23GB of usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled software. The phone also has a microSD card slot that lets you add up to 64GB of external storage.

The Note 3 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data transfers. It also has an IR blaster for controlling your TV and other remote-based electronics. The Note doesn't support wireless charging, though it appears Samsung will sell a separate Qi-enabled case that'll provide that functionality.

While the Galaxy Note has full LTE support, the model I tested was connected to Sprint's network -- which has pretty spotty coverage in my area -- so data speeds weren't great for me. Voice calls sounded fine, though; I was able to hear people with zero distortion and the lucky souls with whom I spoke reported being able to hear me A-OK.

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