Called by many as the younger brother of the vastly popular Galaxy Note III, the Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo is nothing but exactly that. It is in fact, a younger, shorter twin brother of the Note III, if something like that even exists biologically! When we got out hands on the device for the very first time, we mistook it for the Note III itself. The differences are subtle and it is only over time do you start realising them, unless you happen to be holding both the devices together at the same time. We spent about 2 weeks with our primary SIM in the device, so we have a pretty good idea of what the phone has to offer. The comparisons to the Note III are inevitable, but all through the review we will try our best to treat the Note III Neo as a stand alone product without getting into where Samsung has cut costs on the device as compared to the Note III.
Box, Contents and Availability
The Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo comes in a recyclable box, sorts that we have seen from Samsung already with the likes of Note Pro and Note III. The contents of the box are: the device itself, a 2.0 Micro USB cable, power brick, headphones with integrated microphone, some replaceable ear-tips, S-Pen tips and tool to replace them and some documentation for warranty and start guide.
The device is available for Rs 33,900 on E-Com portals like Flipkart, but in the market we could pick the device for as little as Rs 31,000. Look for some attractive bundle offers including a flip cover on several online portals before you settle on a unit. The device although was released in black, white and green (ish) variants, only black version is available commonly. We had no trouble spotting the device in the market and pretty much at all the major electronic stores, the device was available for sale.
Call Quality and 3G/HSPA+ Performance
There is no use of a fancy pretty smartphone if it cannot make a mean phone call or struggles with reception. Having used the device as our primary phone, we made several phone calls using it. The reception was good and noise cancellation worked like a charm even in loud places like traffic jams.
To an extent we felt the phone signal was a bit boosted than the real value and we did test this by using our Vodafone SIM both in our iPhone 5s at the same spot. While the iPhone reported the signal strength of about -83 dBm, the Note III Neo pulled about -73 dBm. Again, this is not a huge issue as all the major OEMs have their own algorithm to calculate the signal strength. We did repeat the exercise at a couple of places and there always was a difference of about 8/9 dBm. Even in places of really bad signal like where we did this HSPA+ speedtest, the device stood well up to the task, giving us reliable downs at least. We had about 3 dropped calls in the 24 that we made or received in about two days.
Hardware, Build Quality and Design
The Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo follows the fashion statement (or lack of) from the other recently released Galaxy Note family like the Note III, Note Pro etc. The phone is entirely made out of plastic, and the trims on the edge, which might give a feeling of metal thanks to the color or shine, is actually plastic. The back of the device is made of same faux leather with stitched edges which kind of looks classy on our black unit and provides good grip. The front of the phone is largely the display with the customary home button that we have come to expect from Samsung. There are two capacitive buttons, back and menu flanking the home button. If you look closely at the device from front, you will observe an obvious attempt to give the black unit feel of metal with metal like lined pattern running. We must admit, this does look pretty sweet at least in areas where light is scarce. The phone is undoubtedly huge and made for operation with two hands. If you have giant hands, you might get away with using one hand, but the Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo is undoubtedly a phablet device. Having said that, the weight distribution feels even on the phone and we did not feel like the phone will slip away any moment. At 162,5 grams, the phone is pretty light weight and we had no discomfort in carrying it in regular dude jeans. At no point does the device give you a feeling of being super premium, but it does not look downright cheap, its a true Samsung product, if we could say. You must check out our detailed hardware tour of the Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo to look at the phone from various angles and sides here. The buttons on the device including the power button, volume rocker and the home button provided reasonable feedback and there were no real issues of creeks or loose ends here. We must say though, removing the back panel of the device to put our SIM in was a real pain. You literally have to rip the back apart and we were super scared of one of the groves failing us.
To quickly recap what is where, the front of the device is dominated by a 5.5 inch 720 P resolution Super AMOLED screen with Samsung branding on the top, just below the main earpiece. There is a notification LED on top left of the device, while the 2 MP front facing camera and ambient sensor lives to the right of the device. The bottom of the front has the home button and two capacitive keys which were really responsive. The back of the device hosts the 8 MP camera with LED light as well the slot for S-Pen. This back is removable and houses the 3100 mAh battery and slot for your SIM and Micro SD card. NFC is present too. The right side of the device as the power button while the volume rocker is on the left. Bottom of the device has the main microphone, mono speaker grille and a 2.0 Micro USB slot. The top of the device has an IR blaster, secondary microphone and a 3.5 mm headset jack.
The Display despite being a 720 P is adequate
In the time where anything below 1080P is considered to be a sin and inadequate to the eye, the 720 P panel on the Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo actually is very adequate. Without ever blowing our minds away, the display looked sharp and produced colors very accurately. Reflectivity was also not much of an issue on the device and viewing angles were actually some of the very best we have seen. Outdoor visibility was fantastic as well.
Text looked sharp and clear and images actually looked really pretty. Multimedia playback was very reasonable too with frame skips few and far. Given the PPI of 267, obviously the closer we kept the device to the eye, more pixels we saw, but at decent reading distance like say 13 cm, we had no complains with our Note III Neo. Colors like orange and blue are slightly oversaturated, but that was never too much of annoyance.
There are some strange software choices
Admittedly, we are not big fans of Touchwiz, the powerful Exynos 5260 SoC with Quad-core 1.3 GHz Cortex A7 & dual-core 1.7 GHz CPU and 2 GB of RAM kept the Note III running along without ever flying. Samsung has persisted with the colorful and rather heavy customizations to Android on the Note III and there is nothing you can do about it. The device is running Android 4.3 currently with no confirmation or date for KitKat update as such thus making the Note III Neo, a Note II from the inside with a Note III external. Touchwiz although has some very cool features, you certainly would not miss them in case they were not there, and neither would you go back to them after initial excitement has died down.
The moment you pop the S-Pen out of the back of the device, you are greeted by Air Command giving you the option of writing into scrapbook, searching the device or simply writing on the screen. You will need the S-Pen to take the screenshot too which is a major annoyance as the standard Volume Down + Power combo does not work on the device, neither does the gesture where you can swipe the hand from either flanks to take screenshot. Air View, which is a little pointer resting on the screen when you detach the S-Pen works only at certain places like within Gallery of the device to give you a quick preview of images and videos, it is an interesting idea whose implementation we would have liked across the device, maybe in places like browser to quickly check meaning of the word. Gesture based stuff like Smart Scroll, Rotation of screen based on your neck barely ever worked for it. Stay Awake feature though worked well when we looked at the screen without wearing reading glasses, but with glasses, it did not work. The Easy mode too is a good way of getting rid of all the fancy stuff and keeping just the basic screen setup with large icons.
Multi window is a feature we liked a lot as it used the huge display of the device intelligently. Watching Youtube video while Tweeting was our favorite time pass on the device, if only more apps took advantage of this feature though. You can initiate a multiwindow session by long pressing the back button of the device which opens the pane from the side and you can pick two apps from it while resizing them too.
Swiping up from the bottom bezel brings out a magazine which encompasses all your social feeds, news and personal add ons like videos, messages etc. S-Health too is an interesting feature where you need to add in personal information like your weight, height etc and update the app every time you eat something so it could help you to reach the fitness goal of shedding weight.
Double clicking the home button brings about S-Voice, while you need to go into multi tasking by double pressing the home button to access Google Now, looks like someone at Samsung loves the way Apple does multitasking on their iPhone.
Some of the stuff that Samsung has bundled by default such as Scrapbook, Group Play and S Voice were pretty much of no use to us, though we did use Sketchbook to bring the inner artists from within us out. You get apps such as Dropbox, Evernote, Tripadvisor etc right out of the box.
Performance and Benchmarks
The Note III Neo performed reasonably well with all the tasks we could throw at it. It was only when we decided to throw the kitchen sink that the phone really started stuttering. Browsing on 3G for about 25 mins lead to the device become really hot. Gaming was good but the device really stuttered when we had three four memory sucking apps making even games like Stick Cricket drop frames badly. Launching apps like camera too took a good solid second which was annoying.
Out of 16 GB on the device, 4.42 GB is reserved for OS leaving the rest for the user to exploit. You do have the option of adding a Micro SD card here. On the RAM front, on a fresh boot we got about .91 GB of RAM as used out of 1.67 GB usable RAM. We were pretty disappointed with this though and as a result when we had Chrome and few other apps such as Twitter refreshing in background, there was a noticeable slowness in the device. The speaker on the device is again really average, and we honestly much preferred listening to music with headphones on than on the mono speakers. The equalizer though, definitely made a difference, so we do advise you to play with them in case you like deeper bass cause generally the audio output was pretty flat.
We did a full featured post on benchmark performances of the device here for those who like to know exactly how did the device perform in those. To summarize all the tests though, the device was certainly in the upper mid section without ever troubling the leaders like the LG G2, Note III or the Xperia Z1.
Typing on the device was again plain average. While we enjoyed a full featured keyboard with dedicated number key on the top as well as writing recognition, lack of ‘swipe’ typing left a sour taste in the mouth. Very soon we found ourselves switching to Swiftkey to help us input text on the device which worked very well. We must say though, that we fell in love with the S-Pen all over again and it worked like a charm on the device just like on the Note Pro which we recently reviewed.
The rear Camera on the Note III Neo is an 8 MP shooter with LED flash. The interface of the Camera app is very much like those we have seen on the likes of the Galaxy S IV or Note III. You have several modes present in the app like Sports Mode, Best Photo, Audio Note with Photo etc which could be useful in certain places. Usually Samsung’s phablets are known to take a mean shoot, as we found out for the Note II and Note III, but that certainly is not the case here.
As we put the Note III Neo through an exhaustive photo shoot test here, we found out that the cost cutting on the camera really shows through. While the shots taken in broad sunlight and macro are still more than acceptable, it is in low light that we found plenty of noise and issue with over saturation due to heavy post processing. The device is capable of shooting in 1080 P from both the cameras, though the video quality was certainly not all that great. The audio recording was good but there were certainly ghosting and lack of stabilization. We did ask the Samsung PR team for more information on the internals of the camera on the device, but we have not heard from them by the time of writing this review. In case there is a response, we will come back to edit this space. Make sure you go through our Camera walkthrough post to get a greater idea of the camera performance of the Note III Neo where we have plenty of shots for you.
Like all the Note devices, the 3100 mAh battery on the Note III Neo helped us easily get through the day. Turn off some of the features like smart stay and location reporting etc, and you can actually get upto days out of the device on medium usage. Even heavily using the device on 3G, gave us about 4 hours of Screen on time with about 16 hours of stand by.
The standby times on the device are seriously good, and unless you have a resource hogging app on the phone, you will not complain about the battery on here.
The Samsung Galaxy Note III Neo is certainly a bit pricey even at Rs 34,000. Maybe, at about Rs 30,000 you would be tempted to recommend this phone, and knowing that Samsung has a history of slashing the prices it would not be beyond reality for the price to come around that, though the question is when.
The phone certainly lacks the firepower to be ranked in the top tier of smartphones of 2014 and you would be well suited to pick maybe some of the other devices in the range of Rs 35,000. Yet, if you are somebody who has use of the S-Pen because you take a lot of notes or draw visualizations and stuff, and would not want to spend on a Note III, the Neo is a very smart substitute. We would certainly recommend it over the Note II at this stage.