Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Gear smart watch exclusive first look

Consumer Reports

Just before Samsung's Unpacked Episode 2 event today in Berlin, the company gave us a sneak peek at its just announced Galaxy Note 3, an update to the mega-screen Galaxy Note II smart phone, along with a new smart watch called the Galaxy Gear, which works exclusively (for now) with the new and improved Note. Both products will be available worldwide September 25.

The Note 3 offers significant improvements over its predecessor. These include a larger, higher-definition display; a faster processor; a higher-capacity battery; and all of the advanced wireless sharing and gesture controls available on the Galaxy S 4. Yet, this new Note is about the same size as the old one and actually a bit lighter, according to Samsung.

The apps on it have been tweaked to use the S-Pen stylus in new ways, such as to jot down notes that get stored as text or phone numbers you can dial directly. Other enhancements include the ability to simultaneously interact with two apps on one screen and a flowing, magazinelike view of your photos, messages, social-network feeds, and news sources.

The water-resistant Galaxy Gear smart watch, with a 1.67-inch OLED display, is designed to keep major features of the Note 3 on hand—literally. On its own, it serves as a watch, a pedometer, a voice recorder, and a 2-megapixel camera/camcorder. When paired with the Note 3 via Bluetooth 4.0, this wrist-strapped device can make and take phone calls, send and receive text messages, and access Samsung's Siri-like S-Voice assistant to make appointments, dictate messages, and more.

We like what we saw in a brief meeting with Samsung, though the Galaxy Gear had several shortcomings, such as no direct support (yet) for Facebook or Twitter and a display that stays on only briefly with each press of the power button. (The Pebble smart watch we recently reviewed has an always-on display.) We expect to have review units in our labs soon for a complete workup. In the meantime, here's our take on the new Samsung smart devices:

Bigger, sharper screen

At 5.7 inches wide, the Galaxy Note 3's SuperAMOLED display is 0.2 inches wider than that of the Note II. Yet in the hand, it feels no bigger than the Note II. More important, resolution has been upped from 720p to 1080p, providing a home for every pixel of an HD video on its gorgeous SuperAMOLED screen.

Faster hardware

The Note 3 has a faster quad-core processor (2.3GHz per core), the Snapdragon 800, which should let it better handle multiple apps simultaneously and consume less power. The processor also enables the phone to record 4K video, a feature that can be fully appreciated only on a 4K HDTV.

One performance-enhancing feature anyone can appreciate is the 3 gigabytes of RAM, the most we've seen yet on a smart phone. That extra one or two gigabytes of memory should help apps, including video, run smoother. Another Note 3 video advantage: The camcorder supports 60-frame-per-second video, which should reduce image jitter as you pan the camcorder left or right.

Longer battery life, faster charging

The Note 3's 3200mAh battery offers 100mAh more juice than the one on the Note II and, Samsung says, should provide noticeably longer battery life. As a point of reference, the Galaxy Note II received an Excellent score for battery life in our tests, so the Note 3 could be long-lived indeed if it meets that claim.

The Note 3 supports USB 3.0, which not only provides speedier file transfers between compatible devices but also facilitates lightning-fast charging via a wall outlet or any computer with a USB 3.0 port.

Multi Window

The Multi Window feature, which lets you view two apps on one screen, has been updated to let you use them simultaneously. For example, you can simply drag a photo from an open album into a text message to send it as an attachment. Or you can open two browsers at the same time so you can check Ratings on ConsumerReports.org and simultaneously shop online.

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This view of social-network activity, message alerts, and news feeds can be summoned by sliding your finger upwards from the Note 3's Home button. Similar to HTC's BlinkFeed, it's an attractive, flowing grid of captioned, tilelike photos and other graphic elements that you can easily tailor to your preferences. Best of all, unlike with BlinkFeed, you can turn it on and off with just a swipe of your finger.

S-Pen enhancements

Pulling the S-Pen stylus out of its holder in the Note 3 calls up the Air Command, a semi-circle-shaped menu that provides quick access to a number of cool features with just a peck, including:

  • Pen Window. This feature lets you draw a window of any size on the phone's desktop, into which one of several key apps can appear, such as the phone dial pad, the calculator, or a Google Chat. The app can be resized, even reduced to a tiny circle (think Facebook Chat Head) you can drag to the side until you need it again.
  • Action Memo. This app lets you scribble notes and phone numbers with the S-Pen. The phone will scan that information and store it as editable, actionable text. For example, pecking a phone number will launch the phone dialer. But in our informal trials, typing more than one phone number on a page confused the app.
  • Screen Write. This feature lets you use the S-Pen to carve out all or part of an image on your screen and add comments in just one or two steps.

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You can use the watch by itself, but it can do much more when paired with the Note 3.

Take it for a swim

The Galaxy Gear supports the IP67 standard, which means it's highly dust resistant and should survive a 30-minute dunk in up to 3 feet of water. While the Galaxy Gear is not officially shock resistant, the display is protected by sapphire glass, a comparably tough alternative to Gorilla Glass.  

Talk to it

One cool thing about the Galaxy Gear is support for the Samsung S-Voice feature: To make a calendar appointment, place a call, or search for a contact, you just say what you want in plain English. In informal tests, we set a calendar appointment several times with 100 percent success. The phone feature also seemed to work well, though we couldn't gauge voice quality because the person we called was in the room with us.

Other phone-linked capabilities include the weather and social networking. Initially there won't be direct support for Facebook or Twitter. But you can access feeds from these and other social networks via an included social-media app called Banjo.

Shoot pictures and video

The Gear's 2-megapixel camera isn't front facing, but rather mounted on the wristband adjacent to the watch. While that configuration rules out Dick Tracy-style video chats, it puts the camera in a better position to capture images in front of you.

Since the Gear has its own storage, you can take pictures and shoot 10-second videos without being paired to a Note 3, then sync up later. You can view photos and videos you take with the Gear on the Note 3, but you can't play back pictures or videos from a Note III to the Gear. Also, subjects are not very easy to discern on the Gear’s relatively small display.  

Charge it

The Galaxy Gear's charger is a plastic snap-on attachment that surrounds the watch but doesn't block the Gear's face, so you can use the device while charging it. On the side of the charger is a USB 3.0 port for quick charging via a wall outlet or computer. Just an hour or two of charging should give you a full day of normal use, according to Samsung. Don't lose the attachment—you won't be able to charge the Gear without this relatively small piece.

Program it

While the Galaxy Gear has some basic programming controls onboard, you don't have to fumble with its tiny display to set it up. The Gear's programming app actually resides on the Note III, which makes things a whole lot easier. The only hitch is you have to do it while the devices are both on and paired to each other.

Find it

Should you misplace your Gear, you can have your Note 3 activate the device's beeping homer signal. But this works only when watch and phone are within about 30 feet of each other—that's the range of Bluetooth.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 we eventually test should be a compelling choice for note takers, e-book fans, and heavy Web users—or anyone who could use both a smart phone and a tablet but has money enough for only one.

The Galaxy Gear, too, appears to be one of the most useful devices to adorn the wrist since the wristwatch. But its expected initial high price could limit its appeal to early adopters with deep pockets.

—Mike Gikas

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