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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The Note 3 itself does a good job of letting you search through handwritten notes on the device with its S Keeper function. I also really like its system-wide handwriting-to-text functionality: Anytime you're in a text field, you can hover the pen over the screen and tap a special icon to input text by writing. The Note converts your handwriting into regular text and puts it right into your document, email or whatever you're composing.

Even with my embarrassingly sloppy penmanship, the system did an impressively good job at deciphering (most of) my words. Particularly with longer messages, I often found it quicker to input text like that than by using a traditional on-screen keyboard.

Galaxy Note 3
Action Memo lets you jot down quick notes with the pen.

Unfortunately, the handwriting-to-text functionality doesn't work everywhere, as it's supposed to; I encountered a handful of apps, including Chrome, Twitter and Google Drive, where I couldn't get the handwriting-input icon to show up. That inconsistency was irksome.

While some of the other S Pen functions struck me as more gimmicky than practical, the stylus also holds serious value for artists or anyone who wants to sketch or scribble on the go. The Note 3 ships with a version of Autodesk's Sketchbook software that shows off the pen's excellent accuracy and pressure sensitivity. And while the bundled Polaris Office app does a poor job at stylus-based PDF markup, programs such as RepliGo PDF Reader ($3) or the fully featured OfficeSuite Pro ($15) work well with the pen for that purpose.

Last but not least, Samsung has included a smart feature called S Pen Keeper that sounds an alert on the device anytime it's separated from the stylus by a certain distance. It kept me from leaving the pen behind on a couple of occasions; you just have to be sure to head into the phone's settings and enable it right away, as it's deactivated by default.

The software

The Galaxy Note 3 runs custom Samsung TouchWiz software based on the Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) operating system. Aside from the aforementioned S Pen elements, it's essentially the same user interface and feature set present in the Galaxy S4.

There are, however, a handful of new features in the Note 3's software:

Samsung's Multi Window multitasking feature has a few new tricks up its sleeves. The feature -- which lets you split your phone's screen in half and have two apps open and visible at the same time -- now allows you to drag and drop content between windows. With certain programs, like chat services, it also lets you have two instances of the same app open side-by-side.

With the Note 3's large screen in particular, I found Multi Window to be both cool and useful for times when I wanted to write an email while referencing a Web page, for instance, or look something up in Chrome while watching a YouTube video. Even if you only use it once in a while, it's a valuable option to have.

The Note 3's new news-viewing tool, My Magazine, is unnecessary and annoying. It's basically just a custom-branded and dumbed-down version of Flipboard, and it's integrated into the Note at such a core system level that it's hard to avoid and easy to launch by mistake.

Excellent Google services take a back seat to subpar Samsung alternatives on the Note 3, even more so than on past Samsung devices. The Note 3 has system-wide access to the shoddy S Voice app, for instance, but not the far superior native Android Voice Search tool. And there's no longer a system-wide shortcut to get to the frequently praised Google Now intelligent assistant.

From a corporate-goal perspective, it's not difficult to understand Samsung's motivation in promoting its own services over Google's -- but from a user-experience perspective, given the sharp drop in quality, it's disappointing.

I've encountered semi-regular software glitches while using Samsung's S Pen apps and functions -- usually several seconds of black followed by a force-close error. This kind of thing absolutely shouldn't happen with native software on a new phone. I can only hope Samsung addresses these issues with an over-the-air update soon.

I'm not going to spend much time talking about the Note 3's user interface, since it's largely unchanged from the Galaxy S4, but I will say this: You're getting Samsung's standard mishmash of clashing colors and inconsistent elements. You can, at least, cover up some of those sins with a custom Android launcher such as Nova Launcher, Apex Launcher or Action Launcher Pro. I tested the Note with each of those apps, and all the S Pen-specific enhancements -- and even general Samsung-added software features like Multi Window -- were accessible and worked fine in the third-party environments.

Bottom line

The Galaxy Note 3 is a standout device with plenty of perks. It has a large, gorgeous screen, fast USB 3.0 charging and data transfers, and a microSD slot for storage expansion. It also has a superb stylus that's full of interesting potential for productivity and creativity alike.

The Note is held back, though, by some troubling issues. Despite improvements over past models, the phone still feels cheaper and less premium than competing products; its dated button configuration creates awkward usage scenarios that detract from the user experience; its performance is imperfect and its software is bloated and visually inconsistent.

Still, the Note 3 has a lot of good things going for it. If you want a plus-sized phone, the new Note is hands-down the best product you can buy today. And if the functionality of a stylus appeals to you, you'll be absolutely thrilled with what the S Pen can do.

Just be sure you're okay with the compromises those benefits require.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, Galaxy Note 3 deep-dive review: A plus-sized phone with perks and quirks, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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