We review Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, the latest phablet-sized phone rocking the usual S Pen stylus.
I guess it’s kind of telling that the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 no longer feels ridiculously huge when you first pick it up. The launch event for the very first Galaxy Note was hilarious; a room full of confused tech journalists, gawping with raised eyebrows at this behemoth handset. “It’ll never sell,” we all squawked, but here we are with the fourth generation of the original phablet and it’s lost that obscene edge; in fact, it’s only marginally bigger than the likes of the Galaxy S5 and Sony’s Xperia Z3.
So how does the Note 4 stack up against previous Notes and the slew of rival phablets?
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 design: Finally, a beautiful Samsung
Although the Galaxy Note 4 sports the same 5.7-inch sized screen as the Note 3, the newest Note is a wee bit taller and thicker than last year’s model. Of course, the difference is minimal and the Galaxy Note 4 doesn’t feel ridiculous to clutch in one hand, mostly because we’re so used to these oversized handsets now.
That said, the flat edges don’t sit as comfortably in the palm as the LG G3’s wonderfully curved frame. One-handed operation is also nothing less than a ballache, unless you have claws like Nosferatu, but that’s all to be expected.
Still, Samsung is definitely to be applauded for its more premium metallic design, first spotted on the Galaxy Alpha and continuing at last in its flagship models. The metallic trim feels solid and looks the business, nicely complemented by the soft-touch faux leather backing (thankfully minus that rather random stitching effect). It’s only the jutting camera lens that takes away from an otherwise gorgeous design, pointing out like an overly proud member. We really hope that Samsung sticks with this more premium finish going forwards, especially for the inevitable Galaxy S6, even if it means no more waterproofing.
You can prise the back cover away to reveal the micro SD memory card slot, micro SIM slot and the removeable battery. The power and volume rockers are on the sides of the phone and rightly so, making them easy to access no matter which hand you hold the Note 4 in. You’ll find an IR blaster up top alongside the headphone jack, while the micro USB charging port and S Pen stylus are housed below.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 screen and media: Pump up your quads
Samsung has retained the 5.7-inch screen of the Galaxy Note 3, but the Note 4’s Super AMOLED display now boasts sharper images thanks to the Quad HD resolution. At 515 pixels-per-inch (ppi), we couldn’t help but be impressed by the pin-sharp visuals produced, matching the LG G3’s gloriously crisp output.
Other than the boost in ppi, the Note 4’s screen is just as enjoyable to use as the Note 3’s. Colours are richly reproduced, standing out boldly as they do on the Sony Xperia Z3’s screen, and the only quirk we noticed was a tendency for yellows to take on a greenish tint as you tilt the phone.
That display is also bright enough to cancel out any kind of glare, making it a great portable pal.
But if you’re hoping to fill your study with booming tunes, you’ll be sorely disappointed with the Note 4’s tinny little speaker. Not only is it easily smothered by your hand when clutching the phone, and facing away from your earholes, but the sound produced is best described by the word ‘meh’. We’d expect poor audio quality from smaller, cheaper handsets, but expected more of this mighty phablet.
If you’re downloading movies or other massive media files and you need them quick, Samsung’s Download Booster feature will probably appeal. Turn this on and you’ll find your downloads come via both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G at once, speeding up the process – just make sure you’ve got a decent data contract.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 interface and user experience: Wiz bang
Samsung and TouchWiz fans know what to expect from Samsung’s Galaxy Note handsets, but even though aesthetics are much the same (with the exception of subtle changes such as more translucent widgets), there are a couple of big changes in the Note 4.
For a start, you can now multi-task by pulling down from the top right corner of some apps in fullscreen mode, to shrink them into windows. You can then drag them around the desktops, resize them or even shrink them into icons until you need them again.
This only seems to work with some native and Google apps – we tried with Twitter, FB Messenger, Voice Recorder and a few others and just received a ‘cannot open in pop-up’ message. Still, we’re glad it worked with our Gmail and Chrome apps, which are the two we often use side-by-side anyway. And if you want to, you can split-screen two apps as usual.
If you’re a Flipboard fan, you’ll be relieved to hear that Samsung’s Magazine UI has shouldered its way in for another outing too. You can get the latest headlines delivered direct to your desktop – or rather, you’ll have to, because you can’t actually remove the page.
Then there’s the iconic S Pen stylus, with its 2048 different levels of pressure sensitivity, which can be used for any tasks that require a little more finesse – or if you simply prefer madly scribbling instead of frantically tapping on a virtual keyboard.
Whip it out and you’ll be presented with Samsung’s S Pen wheel, which gives you four main options. First, you can scribble down a note using Action Memo. Second, you can draw directly onto the screen, always handy if you’re making notes on a webpage, slides or something else visual, or jotting down important info while on a call.
Third, you can take a snapshot of a portion of the current screen (just drag a box around the section you want), which can then be saved to a scrapbook or shared around. It’s basically a quick way of sharing hilarious photos or excerpts of text that you’ve encountered online. And the fourth option is essentially the same, but it allows you to draw your own border around the section you wish to copy, wavy lines and all.
All four options are useful in their own way, whether you’re keeping productive on the move or just pissing around online. And of course you can also use the stylus with any creative apps, to doodle to your heart’s desire. We’d share some of our creations with you, but they’re liable to cause heart failure with our more sensitive readers.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 features: So many our fingers now hurt
Okay, deep breath, we’ve got quite a lot to cover here…
Samsung has ported over its fingerprint scanner from the Galaxy S5 and it seems more accurate here, perhaps thanks to the setup process which now has you swiping your print ten times over the pad to register it. However, you can only set up three prints, so bear that in mind if you’re hoping to share the Note 4 around.
We still prefer Apple’s Touch ID scanner, which you merely press your thumb against to unlock the phone. The Note 4 requires you to swipe your digit instead as the pad is too narrow, which is practically impossible when using one hand.
That said, security-conscious users will love having that extra layer of protection and should also be appeased by Samsung’s encryption and remote deactivation features. It’s also a shrewd move on Samsung’s part that the fingerprint scanner can be used to authorise PayPal transactions, giving you one less password to remember.
Another feature ported from the Galaxy S5 is the heart rate sensor, housed on the back of the phone. This works with the S Health app to monitor your pulse as well as pointless stats such as your blood O2 level (which took about ten attempts to actually work). The pulse rate feature is actually pretty handy if you’re on a serious training regime, giving you a quick and easy way to track your resting rate over time.
Less intense fitness freaks will be doubtlessly entertained by the pedometer, which tracks your daily motions in a more-or-less accurate fashion, and the virtual coach who can recommend workout sessions and set you realistic goals. And if you’re a lazy, slovenly mess like us, you’ll be treated to notifications that tell you how inactive you’ve been and suggest you get off your arse and go for a walk. Thanks, Samsung.
One particularly interesting new feature is the UV mode, which uses the rear sensors to detect how many dangerous sun rays are flying around. Given our fantastic British ability to burn even on cloudy days, it’s a good way of working out if you need to slap on the sunscreen, especially if you’re fair of skin (or practically translucent like us).
It may sound a little dull, but we love the new Voice Recorder app too. It’s incredibly versatile, allowing you to record meetings and then zone in on individuals during playback (any more than five or six people tends to confuse it), or even record five-minute memos which it then translates into text.
And of course this wouldn’t be a Samsung handset without the IR blaster up top, so you can fiddle with your telly or other infra-red gizmos. As ever, the Smart Remote app allows you to hook up to pretty much any TV or projector you can think of and there’s a handy programme guide.
Last and most certainly least, Samsung’s S Voice assistant is bewilderingly still available at a double-press of the home button, despite Google Now’s increasing popularity. To be fair, it’s a lot better than we remember it, but Google Now has superior reminder functionality and ties into your accounts better, leaving poor old S Voice sat on the sidelines.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 performance and battery life: Shoot to the stars
A mighty 2.7GHz Snapdragon 805 processor, found on sadly very few phones so far, makes the Galaxy Note 4 one seriously powerful handset. If we were hack writers, we’d say it has the power of a million galaxies or something. And we are. So we will.
Apps and games load instantly and run without any problem, but it’s the multi-tasking that really tests those multiple cores and the Galaxy Note 4 easily holds its own. There’s a slight pause when resizing the windows, but that’s about the harshest criticism we can throw at this phone.
Handsets like the Note 4 obviously have real business appeal and so battery life becomes even more important – you don’t want to be training it to your next meeting with your phone at one per cent charge. Thankfully the Note 4 nails it in this department too. We made it through two full days with plenty of use, the kind of longevity we haven’t seen since the LG G2. Try streaming video non-stop and you’ll run the phone down in about six hours, which is a better-than-average result still.
The battery also charges remarkably fast, with roughly 50 per cent power returned in just half an hour. And if you still find yourself running low when you’re out and about, Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving Mode will drop you down to an amazingly retro black-and-white desktop and cut a bunch of power-sapping features to stretch the battery dregs a little further.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 camera: Sharp shooter
We’re happy to see Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) debut on the Galaxy Note 4, in the brand new 16-megapixel snapper. We’ve been using it to shoot our lives for a few days now and we’re more than pleased with the results, with photos taking almost instantly when you hit the shutter button (we’re talking LG G3 levels of speed) and nine times out of ten appearing crisp and attractive when viewed back.
Everyday scenes are as sharp as you’d like and packed with detail and when you get up-close and personal, the Note 4 shines just as brightly. With HDR mode on, we never had a single duff image when shooting around town. Even tricky skywards angles didn’t defeat the camera.
In low light, it’s another story. Shots are hazy at best and blurry if your subject’s moving and you’ll definitely need to use the (capable) flash.
Of course you get a handful of random bonus modes, which we’ve covered in previous Samsung reviews. Virtual Tour can be used to shoot a series of 360-degree panoramas, Selective Focus has been covered in the below video and then there’s Beauty Mode, which obviously you won’t need because all of our readers are bloody gorgeous.
As for video, you can shoot movies in up to 4K UHD, but if you scale it back to Full HD you get a bunch of extra features, including slow and fast motion, HDR and ‘dual camera’ mode (shooting with both cameras at once). Our home movies came out just as sharp as our photos, with minimal shaky cam footage thanks to the OIS.
You also get a sharper front-facing camera compared with previous Notes and the 3.7-megapixel lens is basically made for selfies, with a wide-angle mode that we’re expecting several gormless celebs will use to capture their grinning mugs at various self-indulgent back-slapping ceremonies. It’s actually great for groups, having you shift the phone side-to-side and then merging the multiple snaps together into one big self-gratifying masterpiece.
You can even use the rear camera to take a selfie if you’re too gorgeous for a mere 3.7-megs. The phone vibrates in this mode to warn you a photo is about to be taken, once your grinning/pouting mug has been detected.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 verdict
The Galaxy Note 4 is Samsung back on top form. They’ve nailed the basics – solid design, gorgeous screen, satisfying battery life – and topped them off with a seriously capable camera and tons of useful features.
Best of all is the broad range of appeal. The S Pen is better than ever for creative and business users, while the added security and convenience of the fingerprint scanner is as good for general consumers as it is for execs. Even sporty types can get in on the action thanks to S Health and the additional sensors.
If you aren’t looking for a massive phone, then it goes without saying that the Note 4 isn’t for you. For everyone else, as long as you’ve got the cash to spare (the Note 4 is over £600 here in Blighty), this is one of the best premium phones out right now.