Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: if you want a phablet, you want this
The most striking thing about the Galaxy Note used to be its size. Carrying a Note meant you’d be stopped on the street, on the train,
at the urinal over coffee at the cafe, curious onlookers asking with mild bemusement, “sorry, but … is that a phone?”
But it’s 2014 –three years after Samsung unveiled the first Galaxy Note– and in 2014, big is the new normal. For better or worse, consumers have drawn a parallel between display size and device capability: from outliers like Huawei’s Ascend Mate 7 to more mainstream offerings like Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus and Google’s new Nexus 6, today’s smartphones are huge and getting huger. That’s a trend that shows no sign of reversing.
To stand out in such a swollen smartphone space takes more than size. It takes powerful specs, useful features, and a devotion to putting all that added screen area to use in an intelligent way. Fortunately, Samsung’s Note line has always been a leader in these respects, and the fourth iteration of the world’s consummate “phablet” is the best one the company’s ever made. Does that make it a good enough smartphone to earn a slice of your pocket (and your salary)? Hit the review after the jump to find out!
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Whether you’re coming from the Galaxy Note 3, from another large-format device, or from a smaller smartphone, your first thought upon unboxing the Note 4 will probably be the same as ours: This feels way better than a typical Samsung. With the Note 4, Samsung finally addresses one of our longest-standing gripes with its smartphone design: lackluster fit and finish.
True to expectations, the company has ported the design language from its Galaxy Alpha almost wholesale. In a throwback to the Note 3, the polycarbonate backplate is done up in fake leather to fit in with the “notebook” motif, but last year’s stitched detailing –and the plated plastic that abutted it– is out. In its place: an unadorned seam lying flush with the aluminum-magnesium midplate, reinforced at the corners for added protection against drops (and presumably to look more bawss). The side rails bear a matte-finish coating colored to match the rest of the device, while the top and bottom edges sport a gorgeous double-chamfer that exposes the glinting metal underneath. Have we seen this design before? Absolutely. A few times. But we’ll never get tired of design that looks this good, and after the fragile plastic of the Note 3, this comes as a welcome change.
Still, if you’re the clumsy sort, you may want to consider a case. Even taking our usual care with our review device, we’re already seeing fine scratching on its metal frame after just a week, probably from accidentally dropping it into pockets alongside keys or coin change. Also, given its large dimensions, you should probably expect to drop the Note 4 all the way to the floor at least once: at 8.5mm and 176g, it’s thicker and more massive than most smartphones on the market, and reaching across its 5.7-inch display with one hand is just asking for trouble.
That display is a Super AMOLED panel at the super-high resolution that’s become a necessity for flagship smartphones: QHD 2560×1440, with a pixel density of 515ppi. We’ve already waxed poetic countless times about Samsung’s mastery of vibrant colors, striking contrasts, and nearly perfect blacks, so we’ll just say that yes, it’s as beautiful as you’ve been hearing. Like the Galaxy S5’s screen, this one is dimmable to less than 10 nit for bedtime reading and it’s bright enough to read in broad daylight too (though it didn’t seem able to match the Galaxy S5 Active for sheer overpowered brilliance in the brightest sun). It’s protected by a glossy layer of smooth material that Samsung tells us is more robust than Gorilla Glass 3; sadly that didn’t stop it from picking up a few minor scratches after an accidental drop to the floor. Sapphire this is not.
The glass extends almost to the Note 4’s metal border, where its rounded edge meets up with a built-in expansion gap that’s caused a big stir. To be honest, we find the whole “gapgate” issue tiresome –you can barely see it unless you’re staring at it from an inch away through a macro lens– but it does make us wonder how much dust will find its way into the Note 4’s body over time. (We’ll keep an eye out for that issue in a future episode of After The Buzz.) Embedded in the glass is a Wacom digitizer that doubles last year’s precision to over 2000 levels of pressure sensitivity, giving new life to the S Pen that sits nestled in a protective silo at the phone’s bottom edge.
Though ignored by some, that special stylus is a core component of the Note experience (indeed, it helped give the line its name). It’s essentially the same design as last year’s, with a textured body featuring a single button, rubberized tip and a symmetrical cross section so it can be docked in either orientation. Its build feels a little chintzy next to this year’s premium handset, but what it lacks in heft it makes up for in functionality.
The S Pen works in concert with the Wacom digitizer to let you doodle, annotate, and navigate better than any other smartphone stylus on the market. The drawing capability is the most obvious, and it comes in handy more often than you’d think. Even if you’re not big on making your own art, the S Pen is very convenient for quick markup of screenshots: sometimes all you want is to call out a specific passage of text with a highlighter, or circle a particular part of a book with red marker, or sketch out a detour by drawing over a Google Maps route. The Note lets you do all of that.
Given that robust set of features, maybe it’s surprising that we’re equally impressed by the S Pen’s comparatively ho-hum navigation features. The Note 4 reviewer’s guide mentions this but we swear we’ve said it before: the S Pen is to the Note as the mouse is to a desktop machine. Holding the pen’s tip near the top or bottom of the screen causes lists and webpages to scroll, while hovering over photos in the Gallery presents you with a preview and shortcuts to share, delete, or edit. Selecting multiple photos is as easy as dragging a box around them while holding the pen’s button, and highlighting text is similarly just a press-and-drag away. This “right-click” functionality has been lacking in previous Note implementations, and along with the slight streamlining of the software, it makes the Note 4 more useful than previous pen-packing efforts. In a very real sense, we wish every smartphone could have an S Pen; it’s much more than a simple stylus.
Where the Note 4 stumbles is when it tries to do too much, and nowhere is that more evident than in the phone’s software. Samsung is very much stuck in old habits here.
Notice that we said “slight” streamlining in the S Pen section above: the pen’s interface has been simplified somewhat, but party-trick contrivances like Action Memo are still here just in case you want to dial a phone number by drawing it, or navigate to a website by writing out its URL. Even without the italics, it sounds ridiculous – because it is.
Even if you don’t use the S Pen, cruft like that still litters Samsung’s UI, resulting in software so heavy that it can’t help but keep you waiting. The delays are tiny –less than a second on average– and almost impossible to demonstrate to someone looking for typical kinds of “lag,” but they’re frequent enough to be annoying. The Briefing feed still takes a few hiccups and false starts to get going when you swipe over to its permanent berth on the leftmost homescreen. The multitasking ribbon still takes too long to pop up when you press its dedicated key. The former issue is forgivable because you’re given the option to remove Briefing; the latter sluggishness is far more irritating if you routinely use Android’s task switcher.
Stutters and starts are very common issues –we’ve yet to meet a smartphone that doesn’t lag at some point– but in our experience Samsung flagships often start bogging down earlier than other Android phones, which is concerning considering how much power they’re usually packing. And what you get in exchange for that performance hit are features that all too often seem incomplete: S Pen scrolling, for example, only works in some parts of Samsung’s UI, and only on some third-party apps. Tossing content between apps in Multi Window is the same story: you can drag and drop a gallery image into an Evernote memo, but forget about bringing it into a Hangouts thread or a Facebook post. Several preloaded apps duplicate functionality: S Note, Action Memo, and Samsung’s two photo-editing apps are crying out to be unified in a single powerful graphics suite. And many of Samsung’s special features are still contingent on using the company’s native apps – not an ideal solution if you’re a fan of SMS/Hangouts integration or third-party email apps like Mailbox or Gmail.
The reason Samsung can get away with this middling user experience (for now) is the raw capability it offers in exchange. If you can get past the inconsistent interface, you’ll get a feature package that makes the Note 4 feel like much more than a smartphone. Toss apps into resizable windows, shrink them down to floating orbs, or divide them across the screen so you can keep an eye on your Facebook feed while you’re watching YouTube. Use S Finder to search the entire system for one word or phrase. Pin an S Note memo to the home screen so you don’t need to open it to read it. When the Note 4 intelligently leverages its powerhouse feature set, it can do amazing things. Crucially, it looks better doing it than previous generations too: new transparencies and minimal design give the new software a more modern feel, and the Briefing app is so hip-looking that you may forgive its sluggishness. Comparing the Note 4’s software side by side with the Note 3’s, it’s hard to believe that only a year separates these devices.
The Note 4 also incorporates and improves many of the fitness add-ons introduced by the Galaxy S5 back in April. The S Health exercise hub is more capable than ever thanks to the heart rate/blood oxygen/UV sensors that sit nestled behind a window set beneath the Note’s camera. We’d still like more context for the data that sensor generates –not all of us are hip to healthy living– but Samsung thought of this when building S Health: Coach by Cigna is back to monitor everything from your diet to your sleep schedule and stress level, and if you haven’t moved in a while, Coach can sound a notification that suggests you “go for a walk” or something (the “fatty” at the end is implied but not directly stated). Like much of Samsung’s new software, S Health is sensibly laid out, easy to use, and quite good-looking. In this regard, not much has changed since our kayaking adventure a few months back.
Security and accessibility get upgrades here too. The fingerprint scanner integrated into the home button works much better here than on the S5; we’ve left it enabled for the entirety of our review period, and while it’s still not as reliable or comfortable as Huawei’s or Apple’s solutions, it’s at least usable. And speaking of fingers, the Note 4 comes with some familiar magic to make the device easier to use with a single paw: activating one-handed mode shrinks the entire interface to a smaller frame within the display, which you can then resize and position wherever it makes the most sense for you (lefties included). The activation gesture for one-handed mode is inconsistent at best, so thankfully you can install a quick toggle in the Side Key Panel, which is summonable with a swipe and also includes shortcuts to the home, back and multitasking keys (but not, sadly, the notification shade).
With a 16MP sensor and Samsung’s only use of optical image stabilization outside of its niche offerings, the Note 4’s camera isn’t lacking for power – and Samsung has once again redesigned its software to accommodate it. Cosmetically, the viewfinder hews closely to the rest of the UI: it’s pared down and slightly modernized, but still a little inconsistent for our taste. Hitting the Mode button lets you turn on features like selective focus and panorama, but if you want HDR or night shooting options you need to tap the settings hamburger and wait for its wall of toggles to load. Fortunately Samsung does give you the option to move some of those options to the persistent column on the left side of the viewfinder, which makes the process much more straightforward.
This being 2014, selfie-centric options abound for the narcissist inside us all. The 3.7MP front-facing camera may not be as high-res as the one fitted to HTC’s new Desire EYE, but its new Panorama Selfie functionality lets you fit more in the frame than any wide-angle lens … assuming you and your friends can hold still long enough to avoid distortion. Alternately, you can take a detailed self portrait with the main camera, which uses face detection along with audio and vibration cues to help you position the camera properly. It works well, and it’s nice to see old ideas put to use in new ways.
Once you get over yourself, you can start taking pictures of the world around you – and here’s where the Note 4’s fancy hardware really starts to pay off. Purists still won’t like the overblown colors here, but those who enjoy a little kick to their photos will appreciate the luscious vibrance of each shot. Contrast is rich, and automatic settings adapt quickly to changing conditions. Samsung’s OIS implementation works quite well, stabilizing the image both in the viewfinder and in 1080p video. Combined with faster autofocus and Samsung’s traditional software magic, it makes low-light photography a pleasure rather than a burden.
The Note 4 is still a big device, so it’s a little awkward to shoot with. Given the abundance of space on the chassis, we’d really like to have seen a hardware camera button (and no, the hacky solution of using the volume rocker or the heart rate sensor as surrogate shutter keys doesn’t count). Also, despite the three-microphone input, audio tends to peak more than on other phones when shooting video in loud environments, and there’s a good amount of digital noise in any video that’s not shot in perfect lighting. Still, that’s a pretty short list of complaints for a smartphone camera. Habitual shutterbugs and budding cinematographers will be very well served by the Note 4’s shooter, and we hope Samsung brings the improvements made here –along with a sleeker UI– to future devices bearing the Galaxy moniker.
Using the Note 4 on AT&T for eight days in the Greater Boston area has given us a good idea of what it’s like as a daily driver. The short answer: it’s nice. Quite nice.
Talking is easier on the new Note compared to last year’s, with the few millimeters of added height making the Note 4 slightly more comfortable as a phone (though the sharp beveled edges aren’t the greatest on the ear). Sound quality is fairly clear and plenty loud on our end, and callers report that we come through the same way: loud to the point of clipping, but a bit muddier than other phones like the iPhone 6 Plus. Noise cancellation is solid through both handset and speakerphone modes. Speaking of speakers: we’re not terribly happy with Samsung’s decision to move the Note’s to the back cover from its erstwhile position on the bottom edge, but the component is actually loud enough that it’s not a dealbreaker, even if you’re someone who uses a lot of loudspeaker. Make a speaker loud enough, and it doesn’t matter where you put it.
Gaming is a delight on hardware this powerful. Our SM-910A review unit packs the potent combination of a 2.7 GHz Snapdragon 805 CPU (with Adreno 420 GPU) and 3GB of RAM, backed up by 32GB of onboard storage. Every game we threw at it, from Modern Combat 5 to Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy to Asphalt 8, ran without hesitation. Not that that’s rare these days; with lower-end silicon as capable as Qualcomm’s, even midrange phones can run pretty intense titles. Still, it’s nice to know that if a game offers a souped-up graphics mode, you’ll be able to indulge without any problems. And with microSD expansion up to 128GB, you can install plenty of games to external memory if you’re willing to take a few extra steps.
It’s also nice to know that your battery won’t die after a half-hour of gameplay, and here the Note 4 is … well, just okay. On the plus side, it’s got Samsung’s super-efficient Ultra Power Saving mode for dire endurance emergencies, as well as a swappable battery which allows road warriors to carry a spare to swap in on the go. That battery is about the same size as last year’s at 3220 mAh/12.4 Wh: big, but not nearly as big as some truly mammoth power packs out there like Huawei’s 3900 mAh battery for the Ascend Mate 2. Over our week of testing, we’ve been able to squeeze 5 hours of screen-on time from a 16-hour day, which is fine. But the Note family used to be more than “fine;” it was once legendary for its longevity. We can’t help thinking what kind of endurance we’d be seeing if Samsung hadn’t felt the need to deliver QHD resolution at this screen size. As it stands, the Note will probably get you through the day, but we wouldn’t recommend trying to last all weekend off the charger.
To cushion the blow of those thoroughly average performance figures, the Note 4 includes a truly awesome charging solution: using Samsung’s proprietary Fast Charging technology and a special (included) charger, the Note 4 can suck up juice from a wall plug faster than almost any phone we’ve tested. Starting from a fully drained battery, our Note 4 reached 47% charge in 30 minutes and 87% charge in 60 minutes. At 1:15 it was at 94%, and we had a full battery again 90 minutes after we first plugged it in. That rapid replenishment –particularly in the first half-hour– is bound to resonate with those who often have time to plug in, but only for short bursts at a time. And if you prefer Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 to Samsung’s homegrown solution, that’s supported as well.
+ Super high-end specifications
+ Premium fit/finish with outstanding display
+ Best camera on a Samsung smartphone (K Zoom excepted)
+ Best stylus experience on any smartphone
+ Powerful, adaptable software
– Only average battery life
– Many duplicate/incomplete features
– Interface still needs UX work
Pricing and Availability
The Note 4 has been widely available for several weeks on its home turf in South Korea, even selling out its initial round of pre-orders. Here in the States, its official availability kicks off just as this review goes to press on October 17. All four US national carriers –and US Cellular– will carry the device, with full retail prices ranging from $699 (Verizon Wireless) to $825.99 (AT&T). The two-year contract price on Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T is $299.99, though all three (and T-Mobile) also offer installment pricing of $31-$35 per month. Launch colors in the States are Charcoal Black and Frost White, with Blossom Pink and Bronze Gold variants also available in other markets.
You don’t have to go far to find a big smartphone these days. You’ve got to look a lot harder, though, to find one that uses its size to its advantage. The Galaxy Note 4 is more than The Next Big Thing; it’s the next big thing that deserves to exist.
With it, Samsung has reasserted and reinforced its dominance of the phablet market it helped create. Like any mobile product, the Note 4 is not without compromises: it trades battery life for a class-leading display, and adds burdensome complexity in the quest for more features. Yet it’s those very features which make the Note something more than a typical smartphone. It’s a product for people looking to blur the line between phone, tablet, and desktop – for people who don’t mind using their gadgets with two hands as long as it means they can do more. It’s a smartphone for those who want as much capability as possible, even if they won’t use most of it after the first week. Because sometimes, no matter what you want to do, you just want to know you can. And the Note 4 is the phone that can.