IRL: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear

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IRL: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear
Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

Well, this is a fitting idea for an end-of-the-year column: let's revisit one of our favorite gadgets of 2013 (the Galaxy Note 3) along with one of the most disappointing (that'd be the Galaxy Gear). Does Jon like the Note 3 as much as our reviewer James did? And might he be a little more forgiving of the smartwatch?

In theory, the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Gear make a great power couple: you get a big, powerful smartphone for heavy-duty tasks, and a small, convenient smartwatch for basics like calls. I wanted to see how well this combo worked in practice, so I've been using them for the past several weeks on Telus in Canada. Are they worth the premium over other Android flagships like the Nexus 5?

The Note 3 certainly is, at least for fans of big-screened smartphones. The 5.7-inch display is just about right; it's large enough to be superb for web browsing and videos, but it's not so big that it becomes truly unwieldy (as with the Galaxy Mega 6.3 or Xperia Z Ultra). Its battery easily lasts all day, even with my frequent use of Google+, Instagram and Twitter. I don't use the S Pen much, but I see it as a handy bonus. In addition, Samsung addressed a couple of the GS4's flaws: the Note's Snapdragon 800 chip irons out the few performance hitches, and the textured back has a nicer feel than the GS4's mostly featureless shell. LTE is certainly fast, too, reaching up to 30 Mbps on Telus' Ottawa network.

Still, it's not a perfect smartphone. For one, Samsung still doesn't know how to handle low-light photography. The Note 3's night mode is a little too eager to remove detail in the name of a blur-free picture -- so much so that shots sometimes resemble Impressionist paintings. My Nexus 5 isn't exactly an imaging champ, but it's at least more consistent. I'm also not a big fan of Samsung's many eye- and gesture-driven commands, as they generally aren't reliable enough to be useful.

As for the Galaxy Gear? I thankfully received the firmware update that expands notification support, but even so, it would be hard for me to justify the $300 price. There just aren't enough watch-ready apps available. Many of the titles I'd want to use from my wrist (Foursquare and Instagram, for example) just aren't available, and neither the camera quality nor the phone features are good enough to stop me from using the Note 3 for those tasks. Pebble's smartwatch is more enticing, simply because it's a better value. It may not have as many extras, but it offers much of the core functionality I'd like for half the price -- and with broader device compatibility to boot.

-- Jon Fingas

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