I remember a time when even 4.3-inch screens seemed massive. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Samsung tried something totally different. Three years ago, in 2011, it took the stage during the IFA trade show in Berlin and unveiled the Galaxy Note, a smartphone with what seemed like an insanely-too-large 5.3-inch screen.
The world hadn’t really seen much like it before, but the form factor was a hit. Samsung followed up each year with a new model, and unveiled the Galaxy Note 4 during IFA in Berlin last month. It’s refined product, but also one that Samsung has improved through listening to feedback from its customers. The S Pen is better and, yes, Samsung finally added some real metal to the frame. Gone are the days of that chipping plastic metallic border that appeared on earlier models. It also improved the S Pen, and created a way to make one-handed use much more feasible.
We don’t usually give away our thoughts on a phone so early in the text, but we’ll make an exception for the Galaxy Note 4. It’s arguably one of the best smartphones Samsung has ever built. While it does have some issues, a lot of them are worth overlooking for the incredible hardware served up in a gorgeous form factor.
I’ve been using the Galaxy Note 4 for a week now, so let’s jump in and explore what makes it such a winner.
Sharp is the first word that comes to mind when I pick up the Galaxy Note 4. We reviewed the black model, which I prefer over the white version, and it’s about as clean cut as a phone can come.
Samsung added beveled metal edges to the borders of the phone that are, as the looks of the device can be described, sharp. They’re not soft, not flimsy, not plastic – sharp like a blade, though dull enough not to slice.
They look fantastic and catch the glimmer of the light in the room as you move the phone around. The design isn’t drastic but it’s certainly noticeable. It’s like comparing a shoddy second-hand suit to a freshly pressed new one – it’s cleaner, refined, something you put trust in.
You’ll find that Samsung also didn’t skimp on components, in fact, almost all of the hardware is among the best available on the market right now. There’s a Snapdragon 805 processor under the hood, complemented by 3GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard storage that can be expanded with a microSD card slot, a 16-megapixel camera with OIS, a wide-angle front-facing camera and more. Save for wireless charging, which I would have loved out of the box, the phone is purely high-end.
I love the satisfying click offered by the easily reachable volume buttons, and the power button offers the same tactility. Samsung included the IR blaster on top of the device, right near the 3.5mm headphone jack. It also ditched the USB 3.0 port on the bottom for a smaller and more standard USB 2.0 jack. It admits folks may miss the faster transfer speeds offered by USB 3.0, but said it made the decision to return to USB 2.0 following customer feedback. I like the choice, since it’s easier to find a USB 2.0 charger with Quick Charge, particularly as new phones with that support hit the market.
The backside is home to the aforementioned camera with OIS, and Samsung also included the heart rate monitor. That sensor area can also now measure your blood oxygen level, UV levels, your stress and more, though we’ll get into that later. The new S Pen rests in the lower-right hand corner of the phone and the home button, once again, also doubles as a fingerprint reader. It’s seemingly more accurate than the Galaxy S5, at least it feels that way to me, but it’s still not as accurate as Touch ID on an iPhone.
The back cover can be removed and, while it feels good on the device, is still a flimsy piece of plastic. I do prefer having a removable back panel, however, since it provides easy access for swapping out the battery, SIM and microSD card.
I’m nitpicking here, but I do wish the design was also IP67 rated for water and dust resistance. I know I can’t have it all, but folks who appreciated that aspect of the Galaxy S5 might be a bit let down to learn the Galaxy Note 4 has no such rating.
Finally, the display. It’s insane. I’ve been perfectly happy with the iPhone 6 Plus screen, which looks sharp and stunning, even with “just” a 1080p resolution. But you can really tell the difference looking at the Note 4’s Quad HD screen. AMOLED allows Samsung’s blacks to look truer than on any other smartphone – really black. That’s great for movies and photos, as are the popping colors.
I was bummed to find that the Galaxy Note 4 didn’t come with any pre-installed Quad HD clips to play back on the screen, so I downloaded a few open-source samples and wow – the quality is just truly stunning. Even 1080p videos looked great on the display. Also, text, while reading a book or a magazine, is sharp and crisp. And the screen seems to hold up just fine outdoors, where I didn’t have any issues with brightness.
I know I’ve used the word “sharp” a lot, but that’s sort of what the whole package offers: a fine design and a screen to match.
It’s too bad the software isn’t as clean cut.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat out of the box which, until recently, was the most recent version of the operating system. That’s great, but TouchWiz still isn’t. Yes, it has been improved as we saw with the Galaxy S5 but it still feels overly colorful and bloated. Thankfully, you can side skirt that issue with a third-party launcher, which is the first thing I usually do to cover up TouchWiz.
TouchWiz, to me, still feels sluggish. Despite the Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM, there are small little jitters here and there that aren’t buttery smooth, and I think that other skins like Sense 6 tend to be more efficient. I’m not going to harp on TouchWiz too much, though, I know some folks like it and the many options available, and really, with Android, skin is a matter of taste and there are plenty of third-party options for tweaking.
Samsung outfitted the Galaxy Note 4 with S Health 3.5. I’m still trying to figure out how useful all of this is – it’s great at reminding me that I’ve been sitting still at my desk for one, two, three hours on-end without moving, but and I did use it for tracking the calories I was eating. Still, for me, I don’t know why I’d need to check my blood oxygen levels – which seem to work well enough, or my heart rate, from my phone.
I get Samsung’s trying to create a health gadget, and adding more functionality is appreciated, but it’s just not going to make or break my decision on a smartphone these days. Thankfully, the software is clean and beautiful to look at. The heart rate monitor is also accurate enough – the reading on my Moto 360 and the Galaxy Note 4 was the exact same. The UV sensor could be useful for folks particularly worried about sun damage, so that’s an appreciated addition, but other options like a stress monitor don’t really give me much. It told me I was stressed and the Coach function suggested I take time out of my day to relax. My wife has been saying the same thing for years.
Samsung’s S Note software is awesome, and the S Pen is better than ever. You can now use the S Pen it to select groups of items, like pictures, easily. It’s also even more accurate, allowing you to sketch really beautiful drawings inside of S Note. The density of the digital ink on your canvas changes as you press harder on the screen with the S Note, and it seems more sensitive than ever before, making it more powerful in the process.
Multiwindow has been improved, too. Not only can you run two apps side-by-side, you can also pop some of them out, like Hangouts, the browser, the camera and more, and run them in smaller, mini windows right on your homescreen. It’s more useful than I thought it would be, and you can also convert supported apps into small windows by dragging from the top-corners of the screen.
As for one-handed use, Samsung created a small menu that hides in the side-bar that provides quick access to home, return and menu buttons. That means you can hold the device with one hand and still access the buttons that reside at the bottom of the screen without extending your thumb. I’m a big fan of phablets and have used them for years, so I typically use two-hands anyway, but this works well enough for folks who are concerned about one-handed functionality.
Overall, the software is solid, but I still think Samsung should revisit TouchWiz. I feel like the external body of the phone, which is incredibly premium and first-class, suddenly takes a trip to Toys R’ Us and gets too colorful. Where are the options for cleaner, black or white menus? That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see tweaked in the future, but there’s enough here to cater to a large audience of users, and that’s what Samsung is trying to do.
We said Samsung didn’t skimp on specs, and that statement holds true for the 16-megapixel camera as well. Samsung opted for optical image stabilization (OIS) support, which we’ve seen in other flagship Android smartphones and in the iPhone 6 Plus. OIS allows you to take better shots in low light and also helps keep the phone record more steady video. It’s not perfect for moving objects, those are still apt to blur in a shot, but it should help you take cleaner images if you’re prone to having shaky arms yourself, or in places like a moving car.
The shots we took with the Galaxy Note 4 came out really well, mostly clean and crisp, and didn’t seem to have some of the artifacting/blurring we’ve seen in other Samsung smartphones. In those instances, it sometimes looks like Samsung’s software is working overtime to make an image clean, though it looks overdone. That doesn’t seem like an issue here.
The flash is nice and bright and works well in low-lit conditions, though thanks to OIS you might not have to use it as often. We also enjoyed the 3.7-megapixel front-facing camera that snaps wide-angle photos. It’s not as great as you’ll find on something like the HTC One Eye, which is its own unique product, but it works well.
Samsung offers a ton of camera features but they aren’t jammed in your face like before. Instead, you can download even more from a standalone store. Some pre-loaded examples include support for rear-camera selfie, selective focus and panorama. HDR is also supported, and you can get more granular manual controls to tweak ISO, exposure value, metering and more by digging into the camera settings. That’s where you’ll also find an option to turn on UHD video recording in 3840 x 2160 resolution, though the camera defaults to 1920 x 1080.
Check out some of the photo samples in the gallery above. Overall, we think this is one of the best camera experiences on an Android smartphone today.
Call Quality and Battery Life
One of the main reasons we like to test phones for more than just a few days is that, often, there seems to be some improvements in battery life over time. That was the case with the Moto 360 and it’s the same with the Galaxy Note 4. The first two days I used the phone, the battery life ran out pretty quickly, definitely by the end of the day.
Then, after a few charges, it really picked up. After taking the Galaxy Note 4 off the charger at 7:00 a.m. in the morning, I had 68 percent at dinner time, right around 6:30. That’s awesome, and for kicks I compared it with another reviewer who had been using his for about the same time. Our percentages were within a few points of one another. You should easily get through a full day, even with pretty dedicated use, and light use will easily carry you well into another day. As always, this will definitely depend on your cellular connection strength and how long the screen is on, but this is a tank and, alongside the iPhone 6 Plus, one of the best battery performers on the market right now.
Call quality was good during my use, but I didn’t notice anything astounding. Signal strength was on a par with other AT&T phones in my apartment, too. The speaker isn’t awesome, and I often found myself muffling it while holding the phone in landscape. Also it performs better if you place the phone face-down on a table, where it’s not muffled, for speakerphone calls. But who wants to put that incredible display face down?
The Galaxy Note 4 is going to be spending a lot more time in my pocket, and I highly recommend it spend some time in yours, too.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
The Galaxy Note 4 is one of the more feature-packed powerhouses on the market right now. Samsung has done this in the past with its Note products, usually offering some of the finest hardware components available, but the overall experience was held back by the build quality.
The Note 3 was a fantastic device, but it just didn’t feel as premium as other handsets that launched later. That’s not an issue with the Galaxy Note 4, which feels, looks and performs like the first-class handset it is.
We test a lot of phones around here, as you well know, and often I’ll gravitate to another handset rather quickly, particularly if there’s a new advancement in display technology, hardware design or camera technology. The Galaxy Note 4 feels pretty future-proof to me, though. It’s packed to the gills with the latest tech and I don’t see a competitor offering a better stylus experience or a huge leap in display technology anytime soon.
The Galaxy Note 4 is going to be spending a lot more time in my pocket, and I highly recommend it spend some time in yours, too.