Not my own Samsung Galaxy Note 3, no. But our good friends at AT&T kindly loaned us this unit, along with a complementary Galaxy Gear watch, and Lenny kindly slid the boxes across the table in my direction at Buffalo Wild Wings and told me to “take them”, which I knew meant, try them out for a while and see if I could cook up some words of wisdom for the site.
I’ve not been using the devices for very long, but one of them has been packed back into its box already: the Galaxy Gear. It’s not that I’m against smart watches (I’m wearing a Pebble as I type this!) but the Gear just wasn’t for me. Mainly because the way the screen ‘comes on’ when you twist your wrist to check the time… because it doesn’t. Unless I made a conscious effort to really twist my wrist, but even then I would have to do it over and over again until the screen lit up to reveal the time. Nah, I haven’t got time for that malarky. Time! Ha! Geddit? (Groan)
So, the Note 3. Hailed as the notiest Note of all the Notes. I’m not really an Android person, but I know many people who are. I could live with it if I had to, but Windows Phone seems to gel more with how I use my phone on a day-to-day basis. And yes, being on Nokia devices helps enormously, because (yes, I love their stuff) really, you can’t beat Nokia hardware. Or cameras. Or community.
The Note 3 and I tried to be friends, for five whole days. Mostly, we got on quite well, like two kids forced to be ‘in pairs’ by their teacher, but who hardly ever speak to each other at school. The Note is bigger than I expected, which is saying something considering it’s called a Note, which instantly suggests that this thing is going to be flipping massive. And that is why I couldn’t deal with it for more than five days. I know, I’m useless.
OK, so size alone didn’t make the only item on my “No thanks” list. (I’m not sure I’d be able to use the Lumia 1520 because of this experience; great devices sure, but I’m not Geoff Capes). I found the whole interface to be, well a bit cumbersome and sort of tricky. I come from a Maemo/Symbian-flavoured history (E75, E73, N95, N97-mini, N900, E7, N8, E6, C7, N9, 808) so I am not someone who is averse to a bit of tinkering and customisation. Hell, you need something side-loaded? Ha! I could do that in my sleep!! But on Android? Oh my. It was like I had said I’d help someone fix their computer, thinking I was going to upgrade their RAM modules, and instead, they took the panel off and it was like looking into the guts of the Millennium Falcon. I was a bit lost, to be honest.
My fault entirely. I haven’t dipped my toe in Android for years. The last Android device I owned, was the only Android device I’d ever actually owned, and even then it was only to play around with, not use as a daily device. It was the E7-esque slidey T-Mobile G2 (or Desire Z to everyone outside of YankeeLand) and I liked it, but then again I didn’t. The slider did actually hang like a weird circus act, and the keyboard was a bit squishy, and the interface was, well, again, thinking back, not really for me.
The Note 3 offered up a beautiful bright screen, with vibrant colours and crystal clear images. Very nice indeed, and the extra size made it quite enjoyable to watch Netflix or read emails. But holding it would always be on my mind; I’d be thinking, “Oh, I see, another email from….oh man this thing is big!”
I installed Nova Launcher on the advice of Richard Yates, which did make things more enjoyable. TouchWiz is just a hard-to-explain pain in the neck, aimed at normal mobile users who won’t think to tweak, tinker and install something different. Fair enough, but it was not for me. Nova Launcher was a much better option, and I managed to customise the homescreens to something akin to my Symbian experience. Saying that, my E7 is now down to just one homescreen, with the absolute bare essentials. The Note 3 wasn’t so neat and tidy while it was with me, mainly because I wanted to actually use the homescreen panels for my Gmail, calendar, Twitter feed (TweetCaster) and a whole bunch of shortcut icons. I think I wanted to try and go all in on the Android experience, and I did actually enjoy it, to a point. And for not very long.
Other things: I found the camera to be just fine, and pictures were good overall. Yes, I own a Lumia 1020, so I was, naturally and constantly comparing the quality of Note 3 photos with what I thought the 1020 might achieve, and that’s not really what owning a mobile phone should be about! But when you’re a Nokia fan, and you’ve owned an N8, 808 PureView and Lumia 1020, it’s something that you just can’t help. The Note 3’s camera interface was easy enough to use, but I missed the built-in onscreen tools and features of the 1020.
Interestingly, despite being a new and spanky addition to the world of mobile, this device did a pretty poor job of picking up AT&T signal in my apartment. My E7 and 1020 both do well, giving me either three or four bars of signal, depending on their mood. But this Note 3 was mostly happy to stick with just one bar, occasionally two, but also would give the game up and drop to ‘no service’. It was also a bit lame when it came to picking up my wifi signal. Our Apple Airport Express is in the living room and usually it gives us anywhere between 15 and 21 Mb/s (according to Ookla), and in the kitchen this drops off to a reasonable 6 to 8 Mb/s, on the Lumia 925, 1020, Kindle Fire HDX, and my MacBook Air. However, in the kitchen the Note 3 would often stall when I was checking Facebook or whatever, and on quick inspection I’d realise that it had dropped the wifi and was trying to use 4G on just one bar, and so nothing ever loaded. On Ookla it would inform me speed was around 1 Mb/s or less. If the OS is deciding that one bar of 4G (not picking up AT&T’s LTE either) is better than my wifi at home, than that is also a big no no. Major, in fact.
Other things, and things I really hated: the cheap feeling fake white plastic back with fake leather stitching. Yuk! I really hated looking at that – if it was my phone I would somehow cover that up with some kind of case (and inevitably make a huge phone even huger!) Not good design at all if you ask me. Again, I can’t help but think I’m unfairly comparing it against the beauty of the all aluminium N8, or the gorgeous polycarbonate of the N9. That plastic has to go in the Note 4 , surely??
Call quality was absolutely fine, but who actually makes real phone calls anymore?
Things I liked a lot: I loved using Chrome browser with the tabs, very cool and familiar to me as I use Chrome everywhere (at home, work, Windows 7, OS X etc). I also really liked the simple integration of my Gmail, Calendar, Google Voice (brilliant!) and other Google apps. But of course an Android device is going to play nice with Google stuff, if it didn’t then that would be one crazy world.
Crudely comparing the notification system of the Note 3 with my current device, the Nokia Lumia 1020, this is going to sound bonkers, but here goes anyway: I prefer the 1020. Whaaaa??!! Yes I know, I’m opening myself up to a paintball barrage of “Nokia fanboy! You’re just saying that!” so let me try and explain. On my 1020’s homescreen I have Live Tiles for my Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and Calendar. Of course I have the mandatory ‘Phone” and ‘Messaging’ tiles (small size) right up top, and so when the phone is on, I can see immediately if I have any new… anything really. And what’s better, when the phone is in standby, nearly all of these things can also be observed in the sleeping screen thanks to Nokia Glance. So I can see if I have any new emails, calls, texts, or Whatsapps, and I never even have to lift a finger – the little white icons are right there. (My fifth Glance icon is battery percentage, so there’s that too).
On the Note 3, even with the kludge app DynamicNotifications, I couldn’t get my head around notifications. There were lots of little icons appearing at the top of the screen to inform me that new emails had arrived, or new mentions in TweetCaster, or whatever, but the number of those items wasn’t present, and I just like the way Live Tiles work. Swiping down on the screen from the top will (obviously) give you the settings pane, something us Symbian users have been used to for a while ever since it was –ahem– borrowed from Android years ago. But even using this seemed to me a little troublesome; information wasn’t arranged in a way that made sense – sometimes information was buried way too far down at the bottom of the screen, and sometimes nothing happened when I tapped on a particular item. If this (as is rumoured) comes with WP 8.1 I’m not sure it will be the first place I visit to see notifications; like I said, Live Tiles (+ Glance) just seem to work for me.
The Note 3 is a great device but it’s also heavy on features to a point that makes you wonder if half of the stuff is necessary really. It’s almost like there is too much going on here. Even Android users I know admit that when using their Samsung device (namely a Note 3 or an SGS4) they say they only use the visible part of the iceberg with regard to the functions of their device. I asked my friend if he ever used the stylus with his Note 3 and he said he’s probably removed it about three times since he bought the phone. I found it to be a bit gimmicky myself; if I could do what I needed to do with my fingertips and thumbs then… hmm. But I know there are people out there who a) love their Note 3, and b) use the stylus all the time, so good for them. They are probably putting the Note 3’s options and functions to much better use than I ever could. If I put it another way, it’s like I’ve gone and bought the most complicated, expensive and amazing cooker for my kitchen, when all I do is cook frozen lasagne and boil eggs. Sure I might want to roast a chicken now and again, but the cooker I bought could roast a chicken while informing me of the price of the gas currently, peel potatoes automatically, sieve flour for a cake, and also allow me to watch ‘Breaking Bad’ on the mini flatscreen next to all the knobs. Some people would love all that, but I would never use half the controls.
So that’s what it boils down to (haha) for me with this device. It’s most certainly got its appeal, and I can imagine thousands upon thousands of people buying this and being thoroughly pleased with its hardware enormity and its software capability, but for me, I’m more of a phone-sized phone man, and I like some whistles and bells, but not the whole dashboard of the Starship Enterprise. The whole time I was using it I was thinking, ‘Blimey this is uncomfortable to hold’; it’s too big for me, and yet too thin at the same time. Too wide, too thin = not a comfy hand fit. And as for using it one-handed, well unless you’re that enormous bloke, Jaws from the James Bond films, forget it. I actually tried to send my wife a text while on the bus, holding onto the overhead bar with one hand and hopelessly trying to stretch my thumb across the endless frozen ocean of screen to tap out my message. Unless my words would’ve only contained letters from the right-hand side of the keyboard, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to manage! Two hands is almost a must with any kind of chosen function here, and that’s not something that appeals to me.
No, Windows Phone will do just nicely for me right now thank you. And if you want to give me an updated version of Microsoft’s OS in the summer, then that will just make me even more happy. No doubt around the same time the Note 4 will be released and people will be clambering over themselves in AT&T and Verizon stores to get their hands on Samsung’s next iteration of their famous phablet.
But I won’t be.