Late last year, a video showcasing the prototype of a modular phone - Phonebloks - circulated virally around the Web. The idea of a phone that can be whatever you want it to be definitely met with approval, and we might soon see it turn into reality, thanks to Motorola.
Samsung seems to have the same goal, but its approach has been to create a new model for every possible need. Did we hear someone enquiring about a smartphone with a 5.1-inch screen and top-of-the-line specs? We have the Galaxy S4/S5 for you. No? Do you want a slightly bigger screen with a full-HD display and a stylus? Take a look at the Galaxy Note 3. You think that's too expensive but don't mind a slight compromise on the screen resolution and camera specifications? Enter its younger sibling - the Galaxy Note 3 Neo.
For the uninitiated, this cacophony of device names might be unnerving. Did we mention there is also a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Neo Duos? Now, while we are at the topic of bewildering monikers, check this out.
The Neo is slimmer and sleeker than its namesake, and Samsung is also blowing its trumpet about the hexacore processor housed inside the device. Is the younger sibling rough around the edges? How is the performance compared to the Note 3 which is slightly more expensive? Is there a single redeeming feature for us to recommend the Note 3 Neo? Read on to find out.
Look and Feel
This 'lite' edition also has the faux leather plastic back with a distinctive stitch design running across the border akin to its elder sibling. The Neo feels comfortable to hold if you have big hands, but it isn't too comfortable for single-handed operation. Reaching the top of the screen with your thumb is bound to be a hassle.
Looking at it from the back, the camera and flash modules sit on top of the Samsung logo running across the breadth of the device. Removing the rear cover reveals the removable 3100mAh battery, a slot for the SIM card, and another one for the microSD card. It is interesting to note that the NFC module is a part of the battery.
We reviewed the alluring white edition and it is definitely a dust magnet. However, the Neo is also available in classic black and cool mint (which looks rather bland). This phablet has a single physical button for the home function which is flanked on either side by the back (right) and menu (left) buttons. Right above the screen is the earpiece grille. To its right are the proximity and light sensors, and the front camera module. To its left, you can see a discreet (almost invisible) notification LED. A bit too cramped in our opinion.
A chrome trim runs around the border, which houses most of the buttons and ports. The left edge has a volume rocker and the power button sits on the right edge, which is great for accessibility considering the size of the device (we're looking at you, HTC). The bottom is the busiest, with the Micro-USB charging/data port, speaker grille, microphone, and enclosure for the S Pen stylus. The top is also crowded, with the 3.5mm jack, extra microphone for the speakerphone, and an infrared LED.
The oft-used statement 'don't judge a book by its cover' holds true in the case of the Neo, since the faux leather might give it a premium look. Once we pry open the rear cover, it is unmistakably and unapologetically plastic. Despite this, the Galaxy Note 3 Neo is a sturdy device with no signs of flex.
Features and Specifications
The USP of this Samsung phablet is the hexacore processor, which includes a quad-core Cortex A7 clocked at 1.3 GHz and a dual-core 1.7GHz Cortex A15, supported by a Mali T-624 graphics subsystem. The Neo has 16GB of internal storage and supports up to 64GB more using a MicroSD card. Two gigabytes of RAM are available for the user, which is a gigabyte less than on the Note 3. The rear camera is an 8MP variant (again stripped down from the Note 3's 13MP) with flash and there's also a 2MP front-facing camera capable of capturing 1080p video for those long Skype sessions.
Coming to the connectivity, Samsung has all bases covered, with 2G, 3G, LTE (no support for 2.3GHz band, though), GPS, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0. Moreover, Samsung has added a multitude of sensors including an accelerometer, gyro, proximity sensor and compass.
Since the Neo is supposed to be a stripped down version of the Galaxy Note 3, Samsung has made a compromise on the screen, which is a 5.5 inch 720p Super AMOLED capacitive touch panel. It translates to a pixel density of approximately 267 per inch. Despite being a PenTile screen, it isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the accurate colour reproduction and impressive viewing angles are an advantage. The screen also has Gorilla Glass 3 for protection just like the Note 3, which should allow it to handle a few scratches.
Colourful wallpapers and icons are standard for TouchWiz - Samsung's custom UI on top of all its Android (4.3 Jellybean, in this case) devices. It is garish, loud, cartoonish, and we are no strangers to it anymore. Nothing's changed in the case of the Galaxy Note 3 Neo.
The Neo carries forward all the software embellishments Samsung introduced with the Note 3. The most interesting of the lot is Air Command, which uses the S Pen (capacitive stylus) exclusive to the Note series. Basically, the moment you detach the S Pen, you'll see a semi-circular wheel of commands on screen. Using the S Pen, the user can select any of the following tools: Action Memo, Scrapbooker, Screen Write, S-Finder and Pen Window. Except for Pen Window which is used to launch apps compatible with Samsung's multitasking scheme, the rest of the features seem to have limited value. Still, we noted that the S Pen works better than any stylus in the market.
A few other features like Smart Stay, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause are present too. They work occasionally, but using Smart Scroll, for example, appeared to bystanders as though we were performing advanced neck exercises.
Samsung provides a panel of applications that the can run on screen simultaneously, and we found ourselves using this quite often, especially when we wanted to watch a video and do other little things such as sending a text message alongside.
TouchWiz offers a plethora of options in the notification panel and frankly, despite looking messy, it is indeed functional. Also, Samsung's default keyboard includes a number row on top of the QWERTY layout which is handy. Another nifty addition is the handwriting-to-text feature on the keyboard that works like a charm.
Users can find the regular set of Google apps, including Chrome, bunched up in a folder. We can always expect Samsung to fill their devices with bloatware, and they don't disappoint in the case of the Neo. Here is the laundry list: Samsung Apps, Samsung ChatON, Samsung WatchON, Samsung Link, Screen Mirroring, S Voice, S Health, Group Play, Story Album, and S Translator.
Samsung also bundles Evernote, Dropbox, Flipboard and Tripadvisor with the device. The apps are placed in a folder called Galaxy Plus. Samsung teams up with Flipboard for content syndication for the Magazine app and tries to emulate the functionality of HTCs Blinkfeed, which in itself shares design ideologies with Flipboard. The user can swipe from the bottom of the screen to pull up Magazine.
Samsung's idea is to give the user plenty of choice, but these apps are a part of the core system, and there's no easy way to delete them.
Samsung's Note series of phablets tend to deliver great camera results. In the case of the Note 3 Neo, Samsung has bumped down the rear camera's specification compared to the Note 3, which incidentally has one of the best smartphone cameras on the market today. This model features an 8MP rear shooter compared to the 13MP one on its elder sibling, and a 2MP one in front. Both are also capable of recording 1080p full HD videos.
Users accustomed to Samsung's camera interface will feel at home. The various available shooting modes largely eliminate any need for third-party apps. We found ourselves reaching for the Best Photo, Best Face and Sound and Shot modes more often than not.
We tested the image quality of captured photographs under different conditions. At first glance, images captured in broad daylight look great but on closer inspection we found that the leaves on a tree had a bit of chromatic aberration. Indoor shots under incandescent lighting reproduced natural colours with minimal noise. Samsung enhances performance in low light using a feature called Smart Stabilization. Noise levels are high despite using the enhancement. Video captured at 1080p skipped frames and had interlacing issues when panned. All we can say is that the camera could have been better.
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We ran a bunch of synthetic tests to determine the Neo's processor performance and fortunately it performed to our expectations. AnTuTu returned a score of 29,075 and in the Quadrant test, the phablet clocked in an overall score of 11,858. The hexacore processor of the device is definitely a workhorse, and it shows in the buttery smooth performance while sifting through homescreens and the app drawer in general.
For graphically intensive processes we used GFXbench and 3DMark's Ice Storm tests. The scores were 24.3 fps and 9446, respectively. This is definitely not top-tier performance, and a few other devices in the same price range such as the LG G2 and Sony Xperia Z1 perform much better.
SunSpider took 870.8ms to complete and Mozilla Kraken returned a score of 8,106ms. Once again, the other phones performed better. Our disappointment was compounded by the fact that opening multiple heavy web pages at once caused the Neo to stutter.
Video playback is a cause of concern, especially since the default apps refused to play 1080p videos. If the encoded audio is 5.1 channel, the default app throws up the 'audio codec not supported' message. VLC, on the other hand, managed to play all the files we threw at it, but the heavier 1080p files had artifacts cropping up from time to time and dropped frames occasionally. We felt shortchanged with the experience on the 'supposedly' high-end hardware.
The bundled earphones are the same ones that Samsung includes with most of its high-end Galaxy devices, and are mediocre at best. The shrill treble overpowers the muddled bass. The only saving grace was tight mids in songs which emphasise only vocals. Audio purists will have a better experience with third-party earphones, and we noted that the quality of sound improved drastically when we tried our own.
At its highest volume, the loudspeaker is a bit soft but definitely not enough to be a deal-breaker. Once a call was made, the Neo managed to hold on the cellular network signal even where performance is generally supposed to be weak. The 3100mAh under the hood is a revelation since it lasted a good 12 hours, 22 minutes in our continuous video loop test. Discounting the testing process, during normal usage, we reached for the charger only twice in five days.
A look at the aforementioned observations, hexacore processor or not, reveals that the Note 3 Neo is not meant to be a powerhouse device but a workhorse.
All points considered; if you are looking for a sturdy phablet with a powerful stylus for note taking, a big, beautiful screen and great battery life, then look no further than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Neo as it might just serve the purpose. But be warned, the performance of the Neo is middling for an expensive device.
At the time of this review, online e-commerce websites were retailing it at approximately Rs. 36,500 whereas the Note 3 retails for Rs. 43,500. Give the elder sibling a serious thought before settling on the Neo. If you don't need the stylus and can live with a smaller screen, we would also suggest that you take a look at the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact and the LG G2, which perform better.