With the Galaxy Note 3, Samsung shows the pen is mightier than the phone

Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 3 looks like a solid refresh over its predecessor thanks to a more premium design, faster hardware and a higher resolution screen. If you overlook the S-Pen and its latest functionality, however, you’ll miss the real compelling reason why the Galaxy Note 3 has appeal: This large Android(s goog) phone is a productivity powerhouse.

Although I’ve had limited time to play with the new Note 3, the S-Pen improvements are very noticeable if you’ve ever used the prior models. Samsung said that the “S-Pen is now the key to unlock all the functions of the Galaxy Note 3? and I can see why. Some of the phone’s best features require the pen.

For example, to get a floating, often-used app to appear, you draw a box on the display and up pops a list of software choices. Want to drag and drop some data between two apps when multitasking? Tap the pen to the screen to make it happen. And specific productivity apps appear when you hover the pen over the the display and press the pen’s button: Action Memo, Screen Write, S-Finder, Scrapbook, and Pen Window.

Galaxy Note 3 Action Memo

All of the inking software is more refined and the usability seems improved as well: Nice radial-style menus, for example, that give you a lot of useful options without being overwhelming or taking up a large amount of screen space.

Of course, the phone is nice too. Samsung boosted the screen size to 5.7-inches without increasing the phone’s width over last year’s model. It’s also a 1080p display. In my limited time with a Note 3, I saw snappy performance thanks to the 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon(s qcom) 800 and 3 GB of memory.

The camera sensor is now 13 megapixels and the LTE model of the handset can take 4k videos. Samsung also upped the design factor with faux (but still nice) leather and stitching on the back of the Note 3. Some folks may not care for it, but I think it’s a welcome change from the plastic cases we’ve seen in the past.

Galaxy Note 3 back

Overall, the Galaxy Note 3 hardware upgrades are both expected and useful. But I think Samsung is improving its software more than its hardware and the heart of that solution is designing smart apps for the included digital pen. Others may be making large phones, but right now, Samsung is taking the lead in maturing the use of digital ink and smartphone productivity.