Monday, April 10, 2017

Galaxy Note 3 Review in 2017 (I Like Big Phones and I Cannot Lie)

Oh, my, God Becky, look at his phone 
It is so big, it looks like
one of those rap guys' phones


I'm switching over to a new phone (the fabled and hard-to-find Google Pixel XL), and I wanted to look back and reflect on my previous phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (no not the exploding one). When I bought the Note 3, it had already been out for over a year, and the Note 4 had just come out, so I was able to buy it at a discount. It was $450 from T-Mobile at the time, but now I believe you can get it for under $250 online. I was originally looking for something extremely cheap like a Moto G but decided I wanted to play XCOM: Enemy Within on the go and also thought I could make good use of the Note 3's S Pen. This trusty phone, despite some of the problems I list below, has been very reliable and has been with us through thick and thin... we've taken it on our travels to Disneyland, to Europe, the Philppines, Mexico, and Hawaii...  This phone (plus TMobile's free international data) has been a life-saver on international trips.

Screen 

The screen is great, and possibly the biggest selling point of the Note 3. It's very crisp and clear and I've gotten so used to the large screen size, going back to a smaller phone would admittedly be an adjustment (that's what she said). I haven't had problems fitting the phone into my pants pocket or operating the phone with one hand (that's what she said... although if you try it while jogging or operating heavy machinery then you've got bigger problems than one-handed phone use). And while my Note 3 has scratches, dings and some gross gunk stuck to the plastic on the back, the screen remains virtually pristine. I did have a screen protector on at one point but I ditched it long ago and I've never had problems. With larger screen sizes becoming the norm, I didn't look like as big of a weirder as I thought carrying around a huge phablet.

Battery

The battery life has been disappointing, although I've never had a phone where I could leave all of its features on and have it last for the whole day. I'm hoping the Pixel XL bucks that trend but the jury's still out. After upgrading the Note 3 from Android 4 to 5, I could barely get through the entire day without charging, despite the Note 3's 3,200mAh battery. Using GPS with Google Maps or Waze seems to drain the battery extra fast. On a 30 minute drive to work in the morning, The battery usually goes from 100% down to about 70%. I always have to keep a spare charger at work and in the car, or keep an external battery with me whenever we were traveling. Not sure if it's my fault and the apps I've installed (shouldn't have installed Battery Sucker) that are draining the battery or just stupid Android Lollipop, but I had a ritual of turning on and off features as necessary whenever I needed  to conserve power. I'm accustomed to it now but I sometimes wish I could just leave everything on and not have to worry about it killing my battery. When I read about phones like the Moto Z Play, which can last for days without a recharge, it just makes me want to break down and cry.

A feature which I thought I would take more advantage of is the removable battery. Being able to keep a second battery around to instantly swap out if I'm low seemed like a good idea a couple of years ago (Samsung even had this commercial touting the removal battery "feature") but I was too lazy to order a second battery and I've just been using external battery chargers instead. It also seems like most phones are doing away with the replaceable battery anyway.


Performance

The most intensive game I played on the Note 3 was XCOM Enemy Within, which runs pretty well with only the occasional crash. I feel like age has crept up on this phone, though, as there are times when opening apps can feel a little sluggish (XCOM takes a little while to load on the Note 3, but on the Pixel XL the load time is way shorter). I'd also like to install the latest Android on this phone but seems like Samsung has abandoned the Note 3. I could install a custom rom but who knows how safe those are and if the S Pen would still be supported?

I've never had issues with using up the 32 GB of storage space on my phone (I remove apps and back up all my pictures religiously, which allows you to use Google Photos' "free up disk space" feature) and haven't really had to use the external micro sd slot but it was nice to have it there "just in case."

Interface

I'm not a big fan of Samsung's TouchWiz UI and all the extraneous apps/overhead they add to Android. The samsung calendar app is impossible to turn off permanently (or I just couldn't figure out how to do it in 2.5 years). That being said, I can't really say whether I like Android better or iOS better... they're almost the same, for all intents and purposes. Android does give you access to a proper filesystem and makes it easier to copy files to your computer by simply connecting through a usb port, while iOS makes copying stuff to and from your phone a chore of ridiculous proportions. Other than that though I don't like one more than the other. They get the job done and get out of the way so you can enjoy your phone.

S Pen

The S Pen is great.. I just wish I had used it more often to practice sketching or for its other neat features. Unfortunately I turned most of the S Pen features off in order to save battery. The pen is probably the thing I'll miss the most but honestly it's not really necessary for a phone. You can do everything with the touch screen and typing on the virtual keyboard is faster for me than scribbling with the S Pen. For sketching, it's useful to have on a phone but I should probably just go back to the old-school method of using physical pencils and paper.

Camera

When the Note 3 first came out, the camera was highly regarded as one of the best available (and even when I first got the Note 3 in late 2014), but now it may be my second least favorite part of the phone (the crappy battery life takes first). The camera app takes about three seconds to open, which doesn't sound like a lot, but if you want to take a quick snap, three seconds is enough to miss important moments, like when my cat tried to hump the dog but realized he has no balls. Can you believe I almost missed filming this precious moment???

Daytime photos are pretty good but low-light and the pictures taken with the Note 3 camera flash are pretty bad. There's an HDR mode which works pretty well but is even more sluggish because it takes a few seconds to process the HDR after taking the picture. In dim light, comparing the Note 3's pictures to more recent phones like the iPhone 6S or Google Pixel reveals just how much detail gets lost in the Note 3 images (see below for comparison images. Why the iPhone 6S and not the 7? We've got to work with what we've got...that being said, the 6S still has a great camera which in some cases in my tests, took better pictures than the newer Google Pixel XL).

When it comes time to take a group picture or a pic of some touristy scenery, we prefer to use my wife's iPhone 6s. It generally gives better, more consistent results. I only used the Note 3 camera when I didn't have my GoPro or DSLR with me (or I didn't feel like pulling one of those out). Now that I have a Pixel XL, we'll see whether we use it more as our main casual camera or not.


Camera Comparisons

What mobile phone review would be complete without comparing some pictures? Here are some unedited pictures taken in dimly lit areas with different phones for comparison in an extremely unscientific and uncontrolled comparison test. These pictures were taken within seconds of each other under the same lighting conditions using auto mode and no flash.

Galaxy Note 3 (can't even see my cat's beautiful face here)
iPhone 6S (looks a little washed out and blurry but still better than the Note 3. Still dark though)


Galaxy Note 3 (really loses a lot of the detail in the shadows)

iPhone 6S (still a little blurry but overall the picture is better and retains more detail)


Galaxy Note 3 (left) vs Google Pixel XL (right)


Notice how the dark areas from the Note 3 (left) are seen more clearly with more detail in the Pixel XL photo (right). The Pixel image looks sharper, too.

Galaxy Note 3 (left) vs Google Pixel XL (right)


In this pic, the Pixel XL (right) has a lot less noise than the Note 3 (left)
Note 3
Pixel XL




Now here are some pics comparing all three phones (iPhone 6s, Galaxy Note 3, and Pixel XL)
iPhone 6S
Galaxy Note 3
Google Pixel XL
The iPhone6S took the sharper picture here of my dog. The Pixel took a good shot but it didn't seem to be as sharp when I zoomed in. The Pixel's color is also cooler (cooler as in temperature, not cool as in awesome). I prefer the cooler image, but that's just personal preference.




iPhone 6S

Galaxy Note 3

Google Pixel XL
The iPhone 6S took a better picture of my cat looking out the window.






iPhone 6S

Galaxy Note 3

Google Pixel XL
The 6S and the Pixel do a better job capturing the texture of our cat's blanket


Note 3

iPhone 6S

Pixel XL
Wow, in this test, the Google Pixel's low-light capabilities really shine. Believe it or not, these three were all shot under the same lighting conditions. The Note 3 wasn't even able to get anything from this scene. The iPhone 6S got a decent image but the Pixel really didn't have any trouble at all getting a bright, detailed photo.


Final test: early morning, window blinds closed.. almost no ambient light. 
Pixel XL

iPhone 6S

Galaxy Note 3
In these extremely low-light test, the 6S can barely make out any detail at all, while the Note 3 seemed to say "screw you I'm not even gonna try." Even the Pixel is really struggling under these lighting conditions.

THE VERDICT: Don't take pictures in the dark

The Note 3 has been a great, reliable phone. If I didn't want a better camera and a better battery life, I could have probably continued to use this phone for at least another two years. As it is, I'll probably keep the Note 3 around as my home "tablet" with wifi only (goodbye trusty, but extremely slow 2012 Nexus 7). If you need the latest phone technology, speed, and the ability to play the latest games, you'll probably have to go elsewhere. But if you just need a solid phone that gets the job done, lets you do basic you surfing, check email, social media, etc and has a pressure sensitive pen, the Note 3 can be a great bargain. However, you should also check out newer low-cost Android phones like the new Moto G Plus ($250) if you don't want a four year old phone that isn't really supported by Samsung anymore. I've also been hearing good things about the Moto Z Play (~$450 unlocked) and its amazing battery life.

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