Measuring the camera capabilities of Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3
Peter M Ferenczi | Published: Oct 25, 2013 at 17:27 UTC50
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
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 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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.