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The review you have been waiting for: Samsung's Note3!

Recently, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, supposedly brand new, unlocked, with 1700MHz capability and compatibility with Tmobile's oddball 3G service, because Tmobile is my current carrier of choice in the U.S. but I need to be able to pop a local SIM card in overseas wherever I go. Well, not only was it NOT brand new, but it was STOLEN, and the IMEI number was blocked. I found this out when I went to the local Tmo shop to get a new SIM card, in case my handcut and several year old Tmo micro-SIM was not making good contact or something in the new Note 2.

Well, I opened up a case on ebay and got a full refund, but while I was at the Tmo shop I went ahead and bought the Note 3. I paid full price which was rather high, $733 I think, all in. Yes that sounds high but a new iphone unlocked is $100 higher than that. You can get it cheaper upfront with a 2 year agreement but then you still pay just as much, only it is spread over two years while they have you captive in their greedy clutches. I would rather not mess with that. I BUY it, period. Anyway, Tmo won't unlock it until I have it on Tmo for 40 days but it only cost me $10 for an unlock code, so it was worth it. I rooted it as well, making the phone as versatile and capable as any other computer.

Anyway, here are my impressions of this impressive "phablet", a phone that thinks it's a tablet, or maybe a mini-tablet that also makes a pretty good phone.

First of all, the obvious. This thing is pretty big. It is about as big as you can go, and still fit in the side pocket of a pair of carpenter style jeans. It is nearly too big to use one-handed, and if you have small hands, then forget about the "nearly" part. To be fair, there are some tweaks available to make it more one-hand friendly, but I haven't tried them yet. The touchy screen goes all the way to the edge of the device, making it tricky to hold in some situations. I can use my iphone 4S laying on my back or reclining in a chair. This thing basically needs to lay on its back in your hands. It can't rest on its forward edges in your hands. The lower front of the device has a touch sensitive BACK arrow to the right of the home button, and a MENU touch icon on the left. Even when they are not lit up and you can't see them, they are waiting to capture your faintest touch and do crazy things while you are trying to do intelligent things. It took a while to learn to keep my fingers away from that menu icon.

Okay, that's the negative about this hyooooge phone. The positive side is well, it has a really big display. Lots of real estate, making it a fairly practical web tool and even a pocket word processor or graphics editor. The iphone is just too small for stuff like that. Yes, you CAN do it, but it is so tedious, and the Note3 makes it much more bearable with its big ol screen.

There really is no good place to put the Power button or the Volume Up/Down buttons. Samsung puts them in a pretty conventional location near the top, Power on the right, Volume on the left. They are inobtrusive enough that I can slide the phone into a pocket and usually not activate them. So there are three hardware switches, including the HOME button. They are neither more, nor less, robust than the iphone's switches.

The audio quality is slightly better than the iphone, and in fact, slightly better than my Tab2 7.0" tablet. Of course, a bit more oompfh would be welcome, but if you root your phone there are volume tweaks you can apply at the possible risk of blowing the teeny speaker or audio amp.

The USB interface uses the new 3.0 plug. All my USB3.0 portable HD cables seem to work. A little known fact is that the micro USB cables, even though they don't engage the whole socket, will charge the phone. I haven't tried to feed any data through the 4-pin micro USB cable yet so I don't know if that will work or not, but it will allow charging. I wish they had stuck with the regular micro USB interface but I imagine that eventually the phone and many peripherals will support full duplex data xfer with dedicated in and out pins, so I guess it's a good thing. Anyway, better than the oddball connector for the Tab2, which looks like the old iphone connector, but isn't.

Battery life is not bad. Okay, it is bad, but all phones have bad battery life, to me. I want to be able to web surf, do multi-GB downloads, bluetooth tether, and watch movies all day and still have juice in the battery at the end of the day. Well, no phone can do that with its onboard battery. But compared to the iphone, battery life is pretty good for the power user. I downloaded three full episodes of "American Horror Story" without plugging in, one via torrent and the other two via UseNet. Also web surfed and texted during the download. This was at Starbucks with about a dozen laptops and a half dozen smartphones on the wifi, so this took a while but the battery was still at 30% when I left. Better than any other phone I have ever used, and right up there with the Note2 Tablet. Oh, yeah, and I watched a movie and a couple of 3 stooges episodes, too. And listened to tunes the rest of the time.

And back to the size... this phone is really thin. That's really cool, but I would rather have it 1/4" thicker and have a big monster battery. An aftermarket back, with room for a battery big enough to jumpstart your car, would be a good 3rd party accessory. This thin-ness craze is the tail that wags the dog, and it is mostly at the expense of battery size.

There are only a couple of real phones that are bigger. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra, at 6.4", and Samsung's Galaxy Mega, at 6.3" both outdo this 5.7" phone, but I personally don't think they would make very good pocket devices. YMMV. This is about the upper practical limit, for me, I think. I have made phone calls on my Tab2, but it feels all clunky and dorky. The Note3 still feels like a phone when making or taking a call.

I am using a 64Gb micro SD card, and with the 32Gb onboard RAM, that's a respectable amount of storage. But why not multiple card slots? Sure, 64GB of extra storage is sweeeeeeet, but 128GB or 256GB would be even better. I guess they got to save something for the Note4. And why not dual SIM slots? Cheap CHinese knockoff phones have dual SIMs. Why not a good phone?

A lot of folks have criticized the fake leather back, but I kind of like it. It makes it a little easier to hold on to, but doesn't interfere much when going in or out of a pocket. Looks kinda strange but who cares?

The camera is one of the few things that the iphone does better but the Note3's camera is still pretty awesome, and does good stuff in low light without flash. Resolution isn't bad. But I haven't played around with the various modes or settings yet so it might end up proving to be the better phone, after all. And the screen is pretty awesome, too, about as good as the retina display that apple is so proud of. Big improvement over the original Note, or the S2. It is brighter than my Tab2. Colors are stunning.

The Android operating system just keeps getting better, while iOS keeps getting tighter and more obstructive and restrictive. This device came with Android 4.3 onboard. I haven't tried any custom ROMS on it yet, partly because there aren't any yet. Google made a token effort to block custom ROM flashing, but it can and will be done. Rooting is fairly straightforward, though. Once you have full root access, a Droid really grows wings. Bluetooth/Wifi tether, anyone? Torrent? UseNet, FTP?

The GPS seems a good bit more sensitive than the iphone, on par with the Tab2. I have not had the GPS signal drop, yet. It performs well for both land and marine navigation. Even indoors I get pretty good performance.

To be honest, I don't even notice the much vaunted S-Pen. I have only pulled it out maybe 4 times to play around with it. But it's not in the way, so no biggie. Some folks will like it, though.

Voice apps work great. Google has a nice little widget... I get its attention by saying, "Google!" and then I can tell it what I want. I can ask for directions and ask it to navigate me to my destination, set it down in the seat of my truck, and not even look at it. It literally tells me by voice step by step how to get where I need to go. It does google searches by voice, of course. It isn't as good of a conversationalist as Siri, but who wants to have a conversation with their phone, anyway?

The quad-core chipset seems to be doing a great job of providing true computing power without draining the battery too quickly. I haven't tried any games but file operations are pretty quick. Text string searches, file searches, copy, cut and paste, move files, delete, all happen at the speed of thought.

Be sure to check out the Galaxy Gear watch, a "smart watch" that interfaces with the phablet so you can do stuff without taking the phone out of pocket, briefcase, or backpack. Kewl. But I spent enough on the phone already, and my Casio still keeps better time than a Rolex, so I'm not biting yet.

The phone comes with a LOT of bloatware. However, some of it just might prove useful as I get more used to the phone. The "TouchWiz" interface and all the S-Pen's apps and features seem like a ball and chain shackled to a racehorse right now. Later, I will probably turn a bunch of stuff off or get rid of it. One of the nice things about a rooted droid is being able to do stuff like that. There should be an option to turn off the stuff that is S-Pen centric even in an unrooted phone, for those who just can't be bothered, but obviously Samsung is really proud of their pet stylus so I don't think that's gonna happen.

PLASTIC PLASTIC PLASTIC! ALL PLASTIC! I thought it at least had a metal band around the edge but that is plastic, too. Oh well. No biggie. But there should be some aluminum or magnesium in the case for this price, I think. The back cover seems very flimsy when you take it off. Once it is locked back in place, though, it seems fairly solid and substantial.

Apps I like to use a lot on this phone:
Ttorrent (With PirateBay browser app)
PowerNZB (a Usenet client that supports NZB files and UseNet indexing sites)
PDANet, a tethering utility.
TomTom, the famous land navigation app
Notepad, a 3rd party text editor. The built in app is too pen dependant and simply isn't simple enough for me to find practical and efficient
Google Earth
Google Maps-- both these apps of course interface well with Google Search
TouchTunes, a jukebox control app that lets you play music on any enabled jukebox with your own personal playlists and credits that nobody but you can play.
Root Explorer, a good file manager that interfaces nicely with the Android OS
DGS Tides
Navionics marine navigation apps
MX Mariner
OpenDocument Reader
Polaris Office 5

Apps I am waiting for:
VLC. The current version doesn't play on my Note3.
SeaIQ, a marine navigation app that can utilize the CM93 electronic chart portfolio, as well as most of my other charts. I love it on my iphone. The Android port of this great app is still a work in progress.
OpenCPN, my favorite marine navigation all for windows or linux laptops. This app runs the CM93 charts as well as most other nautical charts. OCPN really needs to be fully ported to Android. There is a very kludgy workaround involving running Linux on a Droid device in a loop file, and installing OpenCPN within the linux environment, but to me, it aint nothing pretty.
A good DOS environment complete with some flavor of BASIC, as well as BAT file support, for quickie programming tasks.
Open Office, the open source MS Office replacement. This needs to be on Droid, too.

My iphone was running iOS 5.1, jailbroken, and I could have upgraded to 6.0 to 6.2 and re-jailbroke before the window to install that version closed, but I didn't. I was actually okay with running 5.1 forever. However, SeaIQ, that most excellent and versatile marine navigation app, won't run on less than iOS6, and since I can't install 6.0 on an iphone 4S now, even with the correct blobs, I had to upgrade to 7.0 and the jailbreak for iOS7 is not out yet. Until I had a pocketsize droid that was rooted, I couldn't do without jailbreak on my iphone. Now I can rely on my new rooted droid as my pocket computer, at least until the iOS7 jailbreak is released, and I only keep the iphone around to use SeaIQ with my own charts. So getting this new Note3 has enabled me to add SeaIQ to my bag of tricks, without losing any of my former capabilities since the droid covers pretty much all my other needs.

SPECS
Chipset: Qualcom Snapdragon quad core
Speed: Each core runs at 2.3GHz
Battery: 3.2 amp/hour. Pretty awesome, actually.
Display: 5.7in full HD 1080p Super AMOLED
IR Blaster for use as TV or appliance remote
Hotspot functionality
Back camera: 13mp with LED flash, lots of tweaks
Front camera: 2Mp resolution.
Digital image stabilisation
Connectivity: 802.11 b/g/n, micro SD, micro USB, 3.5mm headphone jack
Bands: GSM, CDMA, HSDPA, 4G (Frequencies vary with model) 700, 800, 850, 900, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100, 2600 MHz
T-Mobile branded model SM-900T uses the following bands:
GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900
UTMS: Band 1 (2100), Band 2 (1900), Band 4 (1700), Band 5 (850)
LTE: Band 4 (1700), Band 17 (700), Band 1 (2100), Band 2 (1900), Band 5 (850), Band 7 (2600)
So the T-Mobile version has just about every band that any GSM carrier in the world would require in a handset.
Size: 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3 mm
Weight: 168g
Other: Accelerometer, gyro, proximity, compass, barometer, temperature, humidity, gesture
And a bunch more stuff I don't remember or don't think is very important in the big scheme of things.


Final comment: The T-Mobile variant, model SM-900T, gets two thumbs up in spite of being about $50 more than I would expect it to be. If you don't need or want a big screen, consider the Galaxy S4 instead.
 
Thanks for the thoughtful review. Personally I cannot stand the thin, plastic devices that Samsung keeps churning out, and I'm not a fan of the stupid gimmicks that they've been incorporating (IR blaster? total waste of space and resources). TouchWiz is unbearable - unlock and root those suckers ASAP. I had the Galaxy Nexus and enjoyed the heck out of it for a couple of years, though I never got comfortable with the flimsy plastic feel of the thing. I tried a Galaxy S-whatever a few months ago for my wife and we both hated it.
 
Thanks for the writeup. I rather like plastic or leather backed phones as compared to glass or metal. I have read so many reviews of people who talk about the exterior of their phone as if it were a sexual object, when a light weight material/radio friendly material/less fragile material such as plastic provides more practical advantages.

Does Note3 have the eye tracking + window scrolling ability? I am not exactly sure how it works/flows in practice but I seriously considered buying an S4 for this feature. The feature where it tracks your eye movement and notices when you are at the bottom of the page and automatically scrolls up. I like to read news sites such as flipboard, and not needing to touch the display to scroll up and down would seem to be a great feature. As if the phone was reading your mind.
 
I don't know if it can do that or not. Frankly, I think it would creep me out to know that my phone is watching my eyeballs.
 
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