Known for its handwriting friendliness and screens pushing near six inches, Samsung's Galaxy Note series is the progenitor of the modern stylus-centric smartphone. It's easily the go-to choice for an Android phablet. But with LG's G3 Stylus here and the rumoured iPhablet around the corner, the new Galaxy Note 4 has to work a whole lot harder. So far, it seems like it does.
What's new, what's better, and what's stayed the same since last year's Note 3? Quite a lot, actually. The physical design has been tweaked, Samsung's TouchWiz apps are more organised, and the internals are more potent than ever. If you're a Note fan, it's exactly what you were hoping for.
For the Samsung devotee, one feature will noticeably stand out: the Note's new frame. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha introduced a brave new world where Samsung built metal phones, and the Note 4 solidifies that choice of material by adopting actual metal trim, as opposed to the Note 3 and the S5's faux-chrome rim. It's a small, and for the average customer, negligible improvement, but side-by-side the improved material gives the handset a more solid and premium feel.
From left to right: faux-chrome laden Note 3 and terminator-metal Note 4
Samsung also extends a few minimal design changes to the removable backing, removing the faux stitching and changing the texture a bit. The difference is actually hard to put into words. It's still definitely plastic but retains some of the leather-ish quality of the Note 3.
Physical buttons remain in their familiar places. Power button on the right, volume rocker on the left, and twin capacitive buttons are embedded in the bezel flanking the Note 4's oblong home button. The sensors are new, though: Samsung copies over its fingerprint scanner from the Galaxy S5, bringing added security to the device and also integrating with online services for secure mobile payments, according to Samsung. The Note 4 also integrates a UV sensor for additional S Health features.
...And the improved
But, as you'd expect from Samsung, the Galaxy Note 4's screen is the star of the show. The display is undeniably stunning, with the new device flaunting the first ever QHD Super AMOLED screen on a smartphone. That's a 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 (515 ppi) screen if you're keeping track. I often involuntarily muttered "wow" to myself while swiping through different menus and apps, so that's a good sign.
Other times I was fawning over the Note 4's screen for completely different reasons. The Note 4, and only the Note 4, will be the screen powering Samsung's new Gear VR virtual reality headset. Although this is a niche selling point for most, it's irrefutably the most unique. Impressively, the Gear VR delivers a comparable VR experience to even the latest Oculus Rift developer kit that blew us away at CES, minus the head-tracking feature. Considering Samsung partnered with Oculus on Gear VR, that makes a lot of sense. So the extra pixels in this case might be more important than with your average smartphone because you may have them strapped inches away from your face.
While we didn't get to test the Note 4's camera, Samsung swears it's much improved. Aside from a minor spec bump to 16 megapixels, Samsung says the camera performs much better in low-light because the lens stays open longer, allowing the sensor to capture more light. It also now features optical image stabilisation. As is true with many other smartphones releasing at IFA, Samsung is also hoping to offer a better selfie experience. The Note 4 updates its front-facing camera with a 3.7-megapixel sensor, a small bump over the Note 3's 2 megapixels, as well as a wide-angle lens to fit more people -- or whatever you're taking a selfie with -- in the frame.
Samsung also introduces touchless capture via facial recognition so you can use the Note 4's impressive rear camera or flash function for selfies. A series of beeps and noise tell you when your photo is lined up perfectly and then snaps a photo on its own, so it's not a point-and-click crapshoot like smartphones of old. You can additionally take pictures by tapping the heart rate sensor under the lens.
With better displays, sensors, and cameras, and yet the same size 3200mAh battery pack, you might be worried that the phone could suck down more power compared to the legendary battery life of the Galaxy Note 3. Your fears may be unfounded: Samsung reps say battery life is about the same as the Note 3 thanks to a more energy efficient 2.7 GHz processor, which is most likely the Snapdragon 805 though Samsung is currently being ambiguous about that info. In our experience, that means you can expect almost all-day battery life on a single charge.
But when you do have to grab for the USB cable, the Note 4 can go from completely dead to 50 per cent charged in 30 minutes thanks to a new fast charge feature. The charging performance isn't 100 per cent linear, meaning 50 per cent to completely full doesn't take an additional 30 minutes (it will be longer than that), but you won't be hopelessly tethered to a charger for long if you need just a few extra hours of use. If that little battery icon does dip into the red, the Note 4 also inherits the S5's Ultra Power Saving Mode for a safety net in the most dire of circumstances.
And then there's TouchWiz. The bemoaned and bloated proprietary Android from Samsung is still here, and just from a cosmetics standpoint, it doesn't look drastically different. Pull out the pen and up pops Air Command with a suite of S-Pen-centric applications, including Action Memo, Screen Write, Image Clip and Smart Select. Samsung says they have tried to make the S-Pen a more integral to the Note 4 by imagining additional uses for it. For instance, it can pretend to be a mouse when selecting text on web pages and help you manage multitasking windows.
Traditionally, Samsung's camera app has been a complete mess of features and settings. For the Note 4, Samsung placed the common use cases front and center and tucked more advanced settings out of sight, so you're not immediately assaulted with options once you open an app. The settings menu is now mercifully searchable, meaning you don't have to wade through tons of options just to find "screen brightness." Samsung also revamped the My Magazine application with a news-reader equivalent that's actually powered by Flipboard on the back end, but overall, doesn't seem much different -- at least at first glance.
With limited hands-on time, my impressions of TouchWiz haven't changed. The UI feels a bit behind and bloated compared to stock Android, CyanogenMod, or even LG's revamped Optimus UX. Blinkfeed also seems a bit more useful with added social media integration options. Add to the mix action memos cluttering up the screen and other S-Pen apps and the organisation, while improved, still feels messy. But if you own and love your current Galaxy device, you'll feel right at home.
The Galaxy Note 4 will be available in October on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. Prices have yet to be announced. The phone will come in white and black in the U.S. with additional "Blossom Pink" and "Bronze Gold" in global markets. The Note 4 also comes with 32GB of onboard storage (expandable to 64GB) and 3GB of RAM, more than enough to multi-task and a good amount of QHD video.
If the Note 4 isn't enough of an upgrade, Samsung also announced a variant, the Galaxy Note Edge. The Note Edge is a carbon copy of the Note 4 except for one distinguishing feature. The right edge of the display subtly slopes downward, giving you a ticker-type sidebar that displays trending tweets, sports scores, and stock prices. You can also place apps in an app tray along the edge for easy access.
Even with the quirky Note Edge in tow, The Note series will face staunch competition when their latest variants release this fall, perhaps more than ever before. But with better materials, an impressive screen, and VR possibilities, the Galaxy Note 4 won't slip by unnoticed.