Samsung's made an annual tradition of introducing a new Galaxy Note at Berlin's IFA trade show and this year's no different. The Galaxy Note 3 sticks close to the winning formula: it enlarges the Super AMOLED display of the Note II to 5.7 inches, adds a bombastic 3GB of RAM and a 2.3GHz quad-core processor, raises the camera resolution to 13 megapixels, and simultaneously trims the fat so it can be a millimeter thinner at 8.3mm and a shade lighter at 168g. Those incremental upgrades all point to a better device, but only marginally so — Samsung's hopes for attracting new buyers to its Note platform rest on a suite of new stylus-friendly software features and a physical redesign aimed at making the Note 3 look that extra bit more glamorous.
The big novelty on the software front is called Air Command. This menu pops up any time you extract the S Pen from its silo, and can also be brought up by hovering the stylus above the display and clicking its built-in button. The latter method is thoroughly unintuitive, but once you get over the initial awkwardness and figure it out, it works pretty well. From the Air Command launcher, you can access all the central S Pen features — dubbed Action Memos, Pen Window, S Finder, and Scrapbook.
Samsung wants to kill the onscreen keyboard and the S Pen is its weapon of choice
Action Memos turn your handwritten scribbles into actionable items. For example, if you jot down someone's phone number, you'll be able to call it directly from the note. Alternatively, any legible address you put down can be discovered in Google Maps, again without having to copy and paste anything or leave the note. S Finder expands the Note 3's reliance on good handwriting recognition by making it possible for you to search through the content of written notes, not merely their titles — my time with the Note 3 showed these features working with good accuracy, which is testament to Samsung's growing competence on the software front.
The Note 3 also introduces a new My Magazine interface for "content snacking." It's Samsung's own take on the same sort of news aggregation you'll get from Flipboard or HTC's BlinkFeed. It's accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the home screen, though it feels very much like an unnecessary gimmick that's been tacked on. There had to be one, right?
More useful improvements include a wider range of apps compatible with Samsung's Multi Window functionality — allowing you to have, for example, Google Maps and a browser window open at the same time — plus the new ability to run two separate instances of the same app side by side. This makes dual-wielding apps a more attractive option than before, and is further enhanced by the Pen Window option. The latter allows you to draw a little area on your screen where you can float a mini-app atop your screen. The list of compatible apps is limited, but you can have a YouTube video or a calculator just tucked into a corner somewhere for fast access. They can, furthermore, be minimized into a cute little circle that hangs out on your screen like one of Facebook's Chat Heads or maximized to fill the whole screen.
Although at first glance the Note 3 looks much like its predecessors, Samsung has made a number of subtle and almost universally positive changes. Firstly, the S Pen is now symmetrical, so you can tuck it into its slot without having to have it "the right way up." Additionally, I tried using a Note II S pen on the Note 3 and it reproduced nearly the full functionality — the only difference was a slightly lesser pressure sensitivity. This interchangeability between S Pens is truly handy to have, whereas the other Samsung tweaks are mostly cosmetic.
The back cover is now made up of faux leather on the outside but is still the exact same thin plastic as before on the inside. It really has no right to work, but Samsung has actually pulled off its design very well. Even the false stitching detail doesn't look too bad. The sides of the Note 3 have been given a metallic look, though they too are plastic, while their lined appearance is intended to emulate the profile of a closed notebook. Taken as a whole, the redesign makes sense for the Note 3 and feels cohesive and well thought-out. Ergonomics for such a large device remain very good.
Samsung's software is starting to mature and really enhance the UX
Taking the new physical shape and S Pen together with the software tweaks, the Galaxy Note 3 is Samsung's best attempt yet at making touch input optional on a mobile device. The S Pen quickly starts to feel like a natural way to interact with the large screen.
The Galaxy Note 3 will be available globally by the end of this year, with all the main US carriers getting some version of it: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular are all on Samsung's list of agreed partners. The processor inside will vary with territory; the Note 3 I tried out had a Qualcomm 4G sticker on it, but Samsung will use its own Exynos chip in certain markets.