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Measuring the camera capabilities of Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3

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The Note 3 looks quite similar in size to the Note 2, on the right, but is thinner and lighter.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 makes good on the promise of the “phablet” thanks to its huge, high-resolution screen and its muscular processing. We’ve already touched on the device’s basics in a brief hands-on, and now we’ve had a chance to put the phone through its photographic paces under more varied conditions.

Key Photographic / Video Specifications 

  • 13 MP BSI rear camera
  • F2.2 31mm equivalent lens
  • 4K video recording
  • LED flash
  • High-speed burst mode
  • Digital image stabilization
  • ISO 50-1000
  • HDR, Surround Shot, Panorama, Dual Shot

Other Specifications

  • Exynos 5 Octa-core processor 1.9GHz / Snapdragon 800 2.3 GHz quad-core (for LTE markets)
  • Android 4.3 
  • 1080p 5.7-inch Super-AMOLED screen (386 ppi)
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32/64GB memory options
  • microSD cards up to 64GB
  • S Pen stylus
  • NFC
  • black, white and pink color options
  • 3200 mAh battery

Design and Hardware

The Note 3 reportedly features the same camera unit as the well-regarded Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone, and its image quality does seem mostly in line with that of its smaller cousin. The key specs, a 13-megapixel BSI sensor behind an F2.2 31mm-equivalent lens, are the same.  

The Note 3 features a faux leather exterior, offering extra grip over its predecessor, the Note 2.

The Note 3 manages to cram an even bigger screen into a body with the same footprint as its predecessor, and it’s thinner and lighter to boot. Whether you think the ridged chrome surround looks classy or cheesy is a matter of taste, but it does offer a decent grip for shooting photographs. When pinched in landscape orientation, the edge of the faux leather back meets the fingers, providing a little extra sense of grip. The sheer expansiveness of the thing, combined with the center-line mounted camera unit, means your fingers can wander all over the place without interfering with the lens. Unfortunately, Samsung hasn’t changed its mind about shutter buttons and there still isn’t a proper one on the Note 3 (though you can set up the volume buttons to trigger the shutter).

But getting back to that screen. Full HD displays aren’t really newsworthy these days, but on the Note 3’s 5.7-inch screen that resolution is more useful than when all those dots get squeezed onto 5-inch or smaller displays. At the Note 3’s 386 ppi, you can actually see detail that you’d need a magnifying glass to find on smaller screens. Photos, and anything else, look great, with rich colors. Composing a shot on that massive display gives you some of the big picture goodness you know if you’ve ever snapped a shot with a tablet, but without the penalty of looking ridiculous. The screen remains visible in sunlight, but washes out more than the best.

Camera App and Features

The Note 3’s relatively clean camera app interface is fine for point-and-shoot work but gets fiddly if you dig into it.

The Note 3 is saddled with the same updated Samsung camera app we saw in the S4, but there are a few functional differences.

The camera app focuses continuously. Tapping on the screen selects a focus point, but exposure won’t be biased toward that area, even if you have spot metering turned on. With burst mode disabled, holding the shutter button down locks focus and exposure. With it enabled you lose that ability, but can rip off a 20-frame burst in less than two seconds. That makes it amongst the very fastest burst modes we’ve seen, though its stamina is less impressive (the iPhone 5s is a little slower but can sustain the burst for 999 shots). The Note 3 we reviewed, customized for American carrier Sprint, defaults to burst mode on a long shutter press, but others lock focus (the Sprint version also has an annoying shutter sound you can’t turn off, though thankfully third-party camera apps can work silently).

You can set up three shortcuts which help reduce menu diving, though you have to tap the gear icon to reveal them (Samsung’s last-gen camera app kept them accessible on the side of the main screen).

The Note 3’s camera app defaults to the same carrousel-style mode selector we saw on the S4. Thankfully, you can switch to a far more practical tile view. You’ve got a variety of special modes (see the details in our S4 review): Drama mode, Animated Photo, Sports, Surround shot, Panorama, Eraser, HDR, Beauty Face, Best Photo, Sound and Shot, and, um, Golf. The Golf mode apparently helps you analyze your golf swing. We don’t play golf and it’s not really a photographic tool, so we’ll leave it at that.

This is the default mode switching view, and it’s a pain to use.
Fortunately, tapping the four-square icon in the bottom corner switches to this far more functional tile view.

One improvement over the S4’s camera app is that the former Night Mode has been rolled into the everyday Auto mode: you can force it off in the Settings menu (where it’s now called “Smart stabilization”), but if you leave it on it kicks in as needed in low light. It takes a quick burst of shots and averages them together for a relatively low-noise result. It works impressively well as long as there’s not too much movement in the scene. One quirk of this function is that it disabled manual ISO control even when light conditions aren’t low enough for it to kick in.

With Smart stabilization turned off, shots in low light can be dark and noisy.
With Smart stabilization active, the effective ISO is raised for a brighter result while noise is kept under control.

The camera app does fine in point-and-shoot scenarios, but many interactions with it are more complicated than they need to be. The customizable function shortcuts require a touch to access, while the gimmicky dual-shot mode (which takes pictures with the front and rear cameras simultaneously and stopped working during our review, requiring some meddling in the app manager) gets a permanent shortcut on the main screen. The useful shooting modes are lumped in with weird stuff like Golf and Sound & Shot. Settings that should be toggles (because they only have two positions) require you to make selections. There’s definitely room to make the app more photographer-friendly. 

S Pen

Samsung’s effort to resurrect the stylus continues in the Note line with the pressure-sensitive S Pen. While it has clear applications for text input and drawing, photo editing apps have been slow to embrace it. Most that do support it (PicsArt and CameraAce, for example) use the pen to enable drawing and painting on top of photos rather than creating masks or selections. Repix does let you paint special effects onto areas of a photo with the S Pen, but you can’t make it do the same for basic image corrections.

The Note 3’s S Pen stylus now has some support in photo apps, but it’s mainly used for drawing and painting on top of photos rather than for making precise selections or applying corrections to specific parts of an image.

The bottom line: the S Pen may be generally useful, but its specific utility for mobile photography tasks remains limited.

Image Quality and Performance

Given the Note 3’s brawny specs (3 gigs of RAM!) it’s no surprise that general performance is snappy. The same mostly goes for the camera app, which opens in a split second. There is, however, a little more shutter lag than we’d expect. Shot-to-shot times, while reasonably quick at a little over half-a-second, aren’t as nimble as the best in class competition. Both the S4 and the iPhone 5s take pictures about as fast as you can hit the shutter button. Given the Note 3’s supposed shared heritage with the S4, the lack of blinding speed is surprising.

The Note 3’s autofocus was fast and accurate in good light, and generally quick in lower light, although it was occasionally hesitant about locking focus under conditions that don’t give most top of the line phones much trouble.

Daylight, Low ISO

In good light, the Note 3’s 13 MP sensor captures images with a lot of detail. Colors are a bit richer than life, but not overly juiced up by phone standards. The automatic color balance in shade is on the cool side.

Even at base ISO, there’s some smearing of low-contrast detail and some visible noise in the areas of even tone, but these weaknesses are in line with the better performances of the competition. Dynamic range remains restricted, but the HDR feature does a good job of offsetting that.   

In good light, the weakest link in the image quality chain may be the lens. Our review unit frequently produced substantial softness on the left side of the frame. This wasn’t visible in every shot: some were sharp corner-to-corner. Weirdly, we observed the softness come and go in two shots of the same subject taken seconds apart. It’s possible that small shifts in the focus distance chosen by the AF system reveal the softness. It’s also possible (even likely) that not all Note 3’s will experience the same issue. Sample variation remains a problem in optics.

This image is sharp, corner to corner.
The same scene, shot a second earlier: the center and right sides of this shot are sharp, but the left side exhibits substantial softness. Shifts in AF distance selection on top of a lens flaw are likely to blame.

Low Light, High ISO

In low light, the Note 3 closely tracks the performance of the S4. Details get sacrificed quickly as the ISO rises, but noise remains under control and even higher-ISO images look good at web resolutions. 

The relatively low ISO ceiling of 1000 means that underexposure and blur can be issues at the maximum shutter speed of 1/15 sec. Enabling “Smart stabilization” produces much brighter, cleaner results via image stacking. The function both cuts noise and preserves details, but shutter speeds don’t appear to be any higher with stabilization on (this isn’t reported) and any motion in the scene will be a blur. 

Video

The Note 3 is one of the first phones capable of shooting 4K video, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160. This is a huge resolution jump over standard full HD video: an HD video frame is 2 megapixels, while a 4K frame is more than 8 megapixels. 

At the moment, very few people have 4K-capable TVs or computer screens, so this feature is probably more interesting as “future proofing” than anything else (you may also have trouble playing it back, even at normal HD resolution, on older hardware because the processing demands are substantial). You can already upload and view 4K content to YouTube, but the compression takes a big bite out of quality as usual. The frame grabs below give a better sense of how much more visual information 4K video carries.

This frame grab from the Note 3’s normal HD (1920 x 1080) video mode looks good …
… but it’s nothing compared to the detail in this frame from the 4K mode (3840 x 2160).

The Note 3 caps 4K recordings at five minutes, and digital video stabilization isn’t an option at the higher resolution (we didn’t see much evidence of it working at normal HD resolutions anyway). 

Conclusion

Do you look at the Samsung Galaxy S4 and think, “Wow, that looks like a great phone, but the screen’s a little too small?” Then the Note 3 is just what you ordered. The phablet features a camera that’s similar to (if not the same as) the 13-megapixel shooter in the S4, and that’s mostly a good thing. 

In good light, images contain plenty of detail and colors are pleasant. When the lights go down, the Note 3 turns in a respectable performance as well, especially when its low-light image stacking mode kicks in. However, the relatively low maximum ISO of 1000 means that blur at low shutter speeds (both from camera and subject movement) is more of a problem than with phones that have optical image stabilization or more ambitious sensitivity caps.

The Note 3 shows rapid burst speed, ripping off 20 frames in less than 10 seconds. However, its shot-to-shot speed, at around a half second, is noticeably slower than the S4.

Our review unit’s lens produced blur along the left side of the frame in some shots, but this is likely a sample variation issue rather than something that all users should expect. Check corner sharpness before you file away the receipt. 

The Note 3’s native camera app is serviceable, especially for point-and-shoot use, but far from inspired. Several useful features (HDR, a powerful panorama mode) are lumped together with a fistful of gimmicks in an interface that’s usable but clumsy compared to the polish of Apple’s iOS 7 camera or Nokia’s native ProCam app. 

If you have a 4K TV, the Note 3’s standout high-resolution video mode will definitely tickle your fancy.

Mobile photographers looking for a double handful of phone won’t be disappointed with the Note 3, though low-light aficionados may be better served by something with optical image stabilization (perhaps Nokia's entrée into phablet territory, the Lumia 1520). 

Sample Gallery

There are 18 images in our Samsung Galaxy Note 3 samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter/magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution.

 

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 sample gallery
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Comments

Total comments: 50
silambu
By silambu (8 months ago)

Nice...and i came across the article from http://www.gadgetride.com/blog/samsung-galaxy-s5-concept.html, it creates expectation.

0 upvotes
tank587
By tank587 (9 months ago)

I dont have the note 3 but my note 2 was just updated...was wondering if the changes that i see is because of the (3') software...i am no longer allowed to steal photos from videos...any explanation to why?

1 upvote
Klee2000
By Klee2000 (9 months ago)

Take my advice coming from the Note 2 samsung have to do something about this camera. Pictures are way to soft. My note 2 pics sure way more color. My expectations have been tainted from the camera of this beast of a phone.

1 upvote
Scottelly
By Scottelly (9 months ago)

Thank you for this review, but I wish you would have told us more about your experience with video and the memory card specs. How long does it take to empty the buffer? Does it make a difference to insert a Class 10 vs. Class 6 card? How about UHS-1 cards? What are the video formats in 1080p60 and 4K 30p? H264? What bit rates? The Sony A55 shot 1080i60 at 16 Mbit H264, but the A65 shoots 1080p60 at 28 Mbit H264. That's the type of information only available through a real photography site, like this one. Unfortunately you have not provided that info. Too bad.

0 upvotes
lee sze yong
By lee sze yong (10 months ago)

this review highlights shutter lag, but users in XDA say otherwise http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2455543. which is the more accurate diagnosis?

0 upvotes
Elaka Farmor
By Elaka Farmor (11 months ago)

Of cause no information about fps in 4K recording.....240fps? 2fps? 24fps? 25fps? 30fps? 60fps? 15fps? 20fps? Or what?

0 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (11 months ago)

30 fps. And, based on the test videos I've seen so far, no frame drops - that's steady 30 fps.

0 upvotes
Michael Ma
By Michael Ma (10 months ago)

30fps and it looks amazing. Which is a nice surprise considering the first 1080p on Samsung Galaxy devices were just scaled up from lower resolution (pho-1080p). 4K is the real deal. Each pixel accounted for.

0 upvotes
huyzer
By huyzer (11 months ago)

Video screen grab suggestion:
If you do a screen grab, it's preferable to use .png as the format, because .jpg will give compression artifacts, as clearly seen on the lettering/font of the advertising on the right, above the lady's (in the white headband) head.

0 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (11 months ago)

Exactly. These framegrabs are of pretty high JPEG compression - 176k for the 1080p and 470k for the 4K frame.

0 upvotes
bradleyg5
By bradleyg5 (11 months ago)

My thought on it shooting 4K was it would be excellent for image stabilising in post. Premiere Pro would do a better job with its warp stabilizer than in camera(as long as frames arent blurred.) also the ability to pan and zoom in post would be usefull.

0 upvotes
halc
By halc (11 months ago)

Nice, but when it it barely resolves 600 lines over the whole vertical screen area, where you get the stabilization line space from?

Yes, you can stabilize, but you'll be throwing away resolving power.

That's the nature of the beast, until the cameras that output 1080+ actually start resolving more lines than 1080 in video.

That's still a LOOONG way off.

Even the best DSLRS at multiple thousand dollar bodies, full frame sensors and multithousand dollar lenses don't do it yet (Canon, Nikon, Sony, even with Magic Lantern on Canon).

0 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (11 months ago)

Halc, you're absolutely wrong. The GSMArena double-res ISO12233 tests prove the 4K mode of the Note has almost true 2160p resolution: http://www.gsmarena.com/vidcmp.php3?idType=3&idPhone1=5665&idCamera2=30010%20&idPhone3=5371

I've even created a crop of the double-res horizontal line area proving this:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/33448355@N07/10572028204/

0 upvotes
BurningPlatform
By BurningPlatform (10 months ago)

Halc, where do you get the resolution values for the lens? Anyway, lens resolution is measured usually in line pairs / mm, you need at least 2 pixels to resolve a line pair. More does not hurt either, as you may then skip anti-aliasing.

Comment edited 11 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Scottelly
By Scottelly (9 months ago)

Halc, if the lens can produce a decent 13 megapixel still image then it can produce a decent 4k video image. The same goes for the sensor. Video is just lots of stills, one after another, so ultimately an 8 megapixel camera could be used, but 13 megapixels is enough to have digital image stabilization for video. Too bad it isn't included in 4k recording on this device.

Comment edited 7 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Dean Holland
By Dean Holland (11 months ago)

Awesome review! All the important stuff, none of the waffle, and nice to read too. Thanks for taking the time to craft such a great bit of info.

1 upvote
thx1138
By thx1138 (11 months ago)

And I quote "This image is sharp, corner to corner."

Really! The image is mush corner to corner if you care to look at it at larger than thumbnail. If this is all it takes to get reviewers gushing over IQ, then we might as well give up. And this is as good as it gets for the Note III, low ISO, good light. It's all down hill from there. However, the IQ from stills extracted from the 4K video is quite good, showing that 8MP would have been more than good enough. However, the whole thing is let down by the poor quality lens.

As has been the case since forever, you don't buy any of these devices for there cameras (Nokia pureview excepted). Ok for happy snaps and shots look ok at small size. Displayed on even a phablet screen they can give the illusion of quality, but don;t be fooled.

2 upvotes
leerob
By leerob (11 months ago)

Hi,
Nice images of Paris. My favorite city in the world.
Best phone cameras are from Samsung IMHO.
Merci!

2 upvotes
Joe Ogiba
By Joe Ogiba (11 months ago)

4K video tests :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87nDlOPSPog
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDAVq6w_tdE

Verizon Note 3 specs showing UHD video settings:
http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3798/10439215633_6b87d0cba3_b.jpg

0 upvotes
bigley Ling
By bigley Ling (11 months ago)

Strange how the note3's camera has issue with it's lens with regards to side softness. Was this an inherent issue with the S4 too??

We all know the Lumia 1020 can have side sides consistantly. It would be really good to be able to get to the bottom of this issue.

1 upvote
Akpinxit
By Akpinxit (11 months ago)

A build-in "water colors" art filter in every image , especially on high ISO settings . How much cool can it be ...

5 upvotes
halc
By halc (11 months ago)

Very good for social media low-res sharing photos and for a camera that is always on you. Unlike that RX100 or that Canon 5d MK II.

1 upvote
Akpinxit
By Akpinxit (11 months ago)

True . Also " for social media low-res sharing photos" you don't need more than 4MP and ridiculous debates about lens corner softness .

0 upvotes
Arn
By Arn (11 months ago)

This phone is incredible. Everything works smartly and the S pen works very well (much better than for example on Note 10.1 tablet). The camera is not that important to me, as I much prefer even a quality compact with RAW shooting over a phone (not to mention an ILC or a DSLR). But the phone's camera comes in handy with the occational snap, taking notes, copying receipts/articles, etc and videos (120 fps recording is useful for me). The screen is of course a pleasure to use.

One of the best things about the phone might be audio quality. Finally even an audiophile can ditch a separate mp3-player and use a phone with hifi-headphones (and as long as they are relatively low impedance you won't need an external amp). Especially the Adapt Sound feature on the phone is pure genius! That feature should be on every music player. You can only make one set of adjustments (presets for different headphones would have been nice). But even like this, it's of course a cut above anything else.

2 upvotes
MrTaikitso
By MrTaikitso (11 months ago)

Interesting, I have a Note 3 and had no idea about the Adapt Sound feature, it is brilliant! I could not hear about 20% of the beeps (or they were very very quiet) and after finishing the process, the audio is way better! Thanks!

0 upvotes
CyberAngel
By CyberAngel (11 months ago)

Picture text
"… but it’s nothing compared to the detail in this frame from the 4K mode (3849 x 2160)."
3849 -> 3840

0 upvotes
Richard Shih
By Richard Shih (11 months ago)

Thanks! Fixed.

1 upvote
DigitalSteve1
By DigitalSteve1 (11 months ago)

I saw some post that 4k recording was not available in the USA, but I found it on my phone. You must place it in photo mode (not video), then you can touch the menu button, to bring up a menu that shows settings, then you have to choose the video camera icon on the top of the setting menu, then video size and audio zoom adjustments are available.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 10 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
jose4261
By jose4261 (8 months ago)

digitalsteve1 hello jose here i just picked up my note3 and i am trying to figure out how to shoot in 4k thanks jose.

0 upvotes
IchiroCameraGuy
By IchiroCameraGuy (11 months ago)

I looked at this Note 3 when picking new phone a few weeks back...didn't seem enough of a difference between this and LG Optimus G Pro for the Sammy to be 3x the price.

If camera quality is at the top of the list then Nokia's best seems the choice.

0 upvotes
LKJ
By LKJ (11 months ago)

Three times the price? Surely you jest.

Unless you've been comparing subsidised prices, which is a bit like claiming that 30°C is three times as hot as 10°C.

0 upvotes
meanwhile
By meanwhile (11 months ago)

Hmm, isn't it 3 times as hot?

2 upvotes
LKJ
By LKJ (11 months ago)

I didn't expect to have to explain this!

Convert the example to Fahrenheit. Now the comparison is 86°F vs 50°F. Did it suddenly become only 1.72 times as hot? Remember; the conditions haven't changed, only the system of measurement has. Celsius and Fahrenheit are not absolute scales (they are relative; their absolute counterparts are the Kelvin and Rankine scales), and neither are subsidised phone prices.

2 upvotes
Johnsonj
By Johnsonj (11 months ago)

These are freaking great looking pics.

2 upvotes
Andrew ATM216
By Andrew ATM216 (11 months ago)

I've had the note 3 for 3 weeks and I love it. It takes awesome pics for a phone. I highly recommend it.

3 upvotes
ConanFuji
By ConanFuji (11 months ago)

I never use the native camera app. I use camera360 with the superfine quality compression.

3 upvotes
HiRez
By HiRez (11 months ago)

"With Smart stabilization active, the effective ISO is raised for a brighter result while noise is kept under control."

Yes, by absolutely smearing the hell out of it with NR.

5 upvotes
yonsarh
By yonsarh (11 months ago)

I heard video quality is superb.

0 upvotes
CameraLabTester
By CameraLabTester (11 months ago)

The Point and Shoot market has truly collapsed.

Nokia, Samsung, Apple, etc are taking the spoils...

.

4 upvotes
Karl Summers
By Karl Summers (11 months ago)

Can I hook this up to a D800 and use it to focus?

0 upvotes
DanielFjall
By DanielFjall (11 months ago)

I use my SG4 with a third party app to control my Canon dslr. "DSLR Controller" is the name of the app, and it's great!

5 upvotes
Jan Brittenson
By Jan Brittenson (10 months ago)

CamRanger has an Android app in beta.

0 upvotes
FRANCISCO ARAGAO
By FRANCISCO ARAGAO (11 months ago)

Wonderful photos for a mobile phone but the 2 pics shot with flash (11 and 18) arent that good.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

None of these LED "flashes" are really great, that's where the Nokia 1020 with its Xenon flash can really score.

2 upvotes
drrjv
By drrjv (11 months ago)

The newly designed 'True Tone' flash on the iPhone 5s is pretty good as far as flash goes. Plus, the iPhone 5s is fantastic in low light.

http://www.imore.com/iphone-5s-vs-iphone-5c-vs-iphone-5-camera-shootout

http://www.apple.com/iphone-5s/camera/

0 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (11 months ago)

Absolutely great. Love the 4K, the double-shot, the 8M capture during video shooting, the 720p120 / 1080p60 and the stunning panorama. I'll definitely get the Note 3.

2 upvotes
DigitalSteve1
By DigitalSteve1 (11 months ago)

Better verify the 4K, because it is not on USA versions.

0 upvotes
supeyugin1
By supeyugin1 (11 months ago)

I have US version and it has 4K. I the phone for one week, and it's a fabulous phone, it blows off every other phone I've seen and used so far!

5 upvotes
Combatmedic870
By Combatmedic870 (11 months ago)

The US version DOES have 4k video.

0 upvotes
dm29
By dm29 (10 months ago)

Yes, and you don't need a 4K TV to see the difference, because you are in fact making oversampling when watching at Full HD. A lot of noise that would be present in the original 2160p film should disapear along with other artifacts.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 50
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