In a world of big phones, phablets and mini-tablets, what does the fourth-generation Samsung Galaxy Note have to offer? After a bit of time in the lab we can say one thing for sure: it's still the best at being big on Android.
What Is It?
- Processor: 2.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor
- RAM: 3GB
- Screen: 2560x1440 Super AMOLED, 515ppi
- Memory: 32GB, expandable up to 128GB
- Camera: 16-megapixel rear-facing, 3.7-megapixel front-facing
- Connectivity: 4G Cat 6 + Carrier Aggregation, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC,
The successor to Samsung's phablet throne.
The screen is the same size as it was on the previous model, measuring in at 5.7-inches, but the amount of pixels Samsung has been able to jam into that panel has vastly increased.
Inside the new Galaxy Note 4 is a 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal memory (expandable up to 128GB with a microSD card) and a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera.
The really impressive update in this year's model comes from the screen. Rather than stick a simple 1920x1080 panel into the new Note, Samsung has upgraded it to an amazing 2560x1440 panel.
You can pick up the Note 4 from all the usual telco suspects for $949, or on a plan. Check with your favourite telco for specific pricing.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is a great leap forward in some areas, and a bit of a disappointment in others. As always, however, we'll start with the good.
Whereas the previous Samsung Galaxy Note was still suffering from the deathly touches of tacky design in parts with faux stitching, fake leather backing and plastic everywhere, the new Galaxy Note 4 feels like a handset for grown ups. The fake leather has been ditched in favour of an almost polycarbonate backing plate with a ridged design; the plastic banding has been replaced by the metal-banded edges of the Galaxy Alpha model, and a front-facing edge bezel that doesn't feel like it's going to chip, crack and break like the Note 3 did over time. It feels solid, and beautiful, even for a big phone.
Inside that bezel is one of the best screens we've ever seen on a smartphone. The 2560x1440 panel is gorgeous, and renders colours beautifully. The only panel that equals it is the inside the LG G3, and that's only 5.5-inches in size rather than the Note 4's 5.7-inch footprint. Which means you've read that correctly: if you want unparalleled screen perfection inside a phablet, don't buy the iPhone 6 Plus, buy this. While that's a little simplistic, it's on the money. It devours battery, but we'll get into that later.
That screen gives way to what is as close to stock Android as Samsung has ever shipped. TouchWiz is very much out of your way this time around, meaning you can play with Android 4.4.4 all you like. The best thing about the stripped-out TouchWiz version is that you can move every icon around to wherever you like, with just a single long press. No more locked down docks that we slapped the Note 3 for when it came out. Huzzah!
After fixing how intrusive TouchWiz was, Samsung decided to have a crack at a few other dodgy software issues on the Note before releasing it, and as a result, it managed to build a half-decent keyboard for a change. Normally the first thing I do after getting the absolute shits with the stock keyboard is install the Google Keyboard app, but this one is actually half decent. It has more space between the keys and no annoying clacky keyboard noise.
The Note 4's camera is, for the most part, the same 16MP shooter you'll find in the Galaxy S5 when it comes to image quality. That is to say that its pictures have a tendency to wind up a little oversaturated and a little heavy on the contrast, but still fine — damn good even — for a mobile phone camera. At least so long as the lights are on; like the S5, the Note 4 doesn't do too well under low light conditions. You can read a bit more about how the sensor in the S5 holds up to the competition in our big smartphone camera roundup, which helps put the Note 4 into context.
And here are a few sample shots from the actual Note 4:
The new things that the Note 4 brings to the table are two-fold. First, that 16MP rear-facing shooter is now equipped with Optical Image Stabilisation. That isn't new or unique tech, of course — the iPhone 6 Plus also has OIS as an improvement over the iPhone 6's camera. But it's handy to have; most of my shots came out pretty clear. Way clearer than the shoddy Nexus 5 photography I've grown accustomed to.
There's are a few (fairly gimmicky) features on the front-facing side as well. The Note 4's front-facer is a respectable 3.7 megapixels, complete with a wide-angle selfie mode that lets you take panoramas. It's a feature that seems both over the top and suspiciously foreshadowed by that Samsung selfie stunt from the Oscars. Expect to see that horse trotted out again. On top of that, the Note 4's otherwise pretty useless heart sensor can be used a trigger to take selfies with the rear-facing shooter. Or you can engage a setting that will autofire when it detects a face. Nothing utterly revolutionary or totally unique, but features that are handy for the vain.
Overall, it's a great experience using the Note. It wedges into the hand beautifully thanks to the new metal banding, which also makes one-handed use easier still. The monstrous Snapdragon 805, paired with 3GB of RAM means that the handset just glides along. From animations, window changes, video playback and games, the Note 4 is a joy to use.
And then of course there's the stylus. Pull the bespoke S-Pen out from its clever little nook and you meet the fluid animation of Air Command, back for another round on the Note 4.
The Air Command feature refers to a a radial menu that anchors in new apps designed to leverage the Note 4's giant screen and handy power: Scrapbook for web clipping, Action Note for powerful handwriting tools, S-Finder for looking around your device, Screen Write for doodling on screenshots and Pen Window for putting hovering apps over any screen.
Air Command is fast, fluid and incredibly functional. Pen Window allows you to drop funky widgets on your existing multi-window layouts, bringing the power of three tasks at once onto the single, 5.7-inch screen. You don’t notice any slow-down the more you throw at the device.
Scrapbook is a fun little feature that lets you circle just about anything you can find on the Galaxy Note 3 from either the web or inside another app. Whatever you put in your selected area gets clipped, Evernote-style, into a centralised Scrapbook for you to access later. Scrapbook also pulls out the contents of said webpages, for example, and embeds the content in a new page so you can watch that YouTube video or listen to that SoundCloud track inside the app without having to bounce out to your browser.
Action Memo is the natural evolution of the S-Note app that Galaxy Note users know and have come to love, only this time Samsung has done a great deal to make your handwriting meaningful and useful this time around. You can now create “Actions” from your handwriting, which uses optical character recognition-style software to encircle your text and turn it into something that other apps can use.
Got an address written down? Open it up in Maps with an Action to see where you need to go rather than writing it out again. Need to call that girl who left her number in your phone because you’re the smoothest dude around picking up chicks with your Note 3? Just Action her number into your phone and ask her out to dinner. Sadly, the Note 3 can’t help you with that unironed shirt hanging in your wardrobe you need to wear. That OCR-style software comes in handy with the new global device search feature known as S-Finder, too. Not only can you now search for stuff on your handset better than ever before, S-Finder also looks at handwriting as well so that note you scribbled in a meeting won’t be lost forever. You can also add filters for time-specific searches and even location specific searches. If you were in London recently for a meeting and took a few photos, too, you can look for those specifically by your geotag.
The stylus feels more precise this time around, and I think that comes down again to the metal band. The thing might be heavier than ever, but it feels more solid and your handwriting, clipping and whatever-else you're up to comes out better as a result.
The Note 4 is still large and in charge, decimating its phablet competition, but that's not to say it's without issues.
While that new screen and quad-core processor are both freaking awesome to have, they absolutely eat power. We only got around two days maximum out of our Note 4, when we usually expect three or even four from a Note product.
You see, the Note used to be a powerhouse when it came to battery life. The battery is as near as makes no difference exactly the same size on the Note 4 as it is on the old Note 3. That made for impressive battery life on the Note 3, but disappointing results on the Note 4. Considering that battery life was one of the main upselling points that had people jumping from the Galaxy S5 to the Note 3, it's disappointing to see the two reduced to about the same life cycle. Of course there is Ultra Power Saving mode which is awesome, but it's just not the same.
While we're comparing the Note 4 to the S5, it's a bit disappointing to see that Samsung hasn't carried the ruggedised features of the Galaxy S5 up to the Note 4 model.
The design changes on the Note 4 are impressive for the most part, but for some reason Samsung has made the top bezel on the Note 4 larger than it was on the older model, making the screen feel larger overall. Honestly, it's such a nitpicky thing, and you won't even notice unless you hold the two side by side for an extended period of time.
Something else struck me while I was using the Note 4 as well, and it was something that took me a little while to put my finger on exactly. Somehow, the Note just doesn't feel as special as it has the last three times around. This isn't to say that it's a bad phone. Quite the opposite: the Note is my new favourite Android device (at least until the Nexus 6 comes along).
What I'm saying is that we live in a world full of giant phones. Everyone from Sony through to Huawei and even Apple have phablets and larger devices now. So in a world where phablets are the new normal, what's making the Samsung Galaxy Note stand out? The hulking size and dominating battery life meant that it was the device of choice for power users, but with a screen that eats power and dimensions as big as last year's model, the Note 4 feels like it's losing its edge.
And it's almost like Samsung know that. This doesn't feel like it pushes the boundaries as much as the Note II or Note 3 did. They had bigger screens, better batteries, software that let you do new things with then S-Pen. The Note 4 just has a better camera and a crisper screen. Even the design is reined in.
The Note-line of handsets used to inform the design language for the rest of the Galaxy products Samsung made. If you look at the Galaxy S4 for example, you’ll see the same minimal bezel, oval-shaped home button, sensor placement and grille/pattern design found on the Galaxy Note II. And that was great news, because it meant every time we saw a new Note, we'd get a sneak peek at the future of Samsung's design language. But not this time. On the Note 4, Samsung has taken design cues from a mid-range phone (the Galaxy Alpha), while leaving other elements unchanged like the back-plate texture and the S-Pen.
Over time, the Note 4 was able to prove itself as an insanely capable Android handset, but some of that magic is gone, and I think that's sad.
Should You Buy It?
Despite the fact that the Note 4 is missing some of the razzle dazzle that its predecessors had, it's still the best phone Samsung has ever made.
It's fast, capable, beautiful, and powerful. You'll pay a pretty penny for it, but it really feels like a phone that will last you right through your two-year contract period and beyond.
I said earlier that it's my favourite Android device right now, and that's absolutely true. It's a fantastic do-anything, go-(mostly) anywhere smartphone.
Images: Campbell Simpson
Eric Limer contributed to this review