Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Hands On Review: A Top Choice for a Very Select Audience
After a week using the Galaxy Note 4, Samsung's latest flagship phablet for 2014, I have a new appreciation for the quirky big-screen Galaxy Note line, and for the company that has stuck with it, despite early criticism, for four years. But I also have a renewed appreciation for comparatively tiny 5-inch Galaxy S4.
Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 is everything you've come to expect from the Galaxy Note series, and more (which is redundant, since "Galaxy Note," for better or worse, is pretty much synonymous in tech circles with the word "more").
But kidding aside, this year the Galaxy Note series gained newfound legitimacy in the mainstream, after Google and Apple all but copied Samsung's long-running phablet (phone/tablet hybrid) series with their own ~ 6-inch monsters, the Nexus 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
And Samsung isn't letting us forget it.
Mainstream appeal, thanks to this year's late-to-the-party copycats, doesn't automatically mean the Galaxy Note 4 is for everybody.
But building off of four years' worth of design improvements, new heavy-hitting hardware specs, and a robust software package specifically made for the device, the Galaxy Note 4 should be the first consideration for anyone interested in a new phablet.
The Galaxy Note 4 is big, and there's no getting around that fact. For me, it's too big to truly feel comfortable using it as my go-to device.
Seriously, anyone who's used to smaller-screened smartphones should at least go to a store and try using the Note 4, for as long as the salespeople allow, before considering moving up to a phablet like this.
But it's not that Samsung hasn't done all it can to make the Galaxy Note 4 the most comfortable phablet it can. Samsung has stuck with a 5.7-inch screen for the Note 4 (which is plenty), while keeping the width and thickness of the phone close to last year's Galaxy Note 3 dimensions -- which, itself, was slimmed down from the previous year.
At about 6.2 ounces, a little heavier than the Galaxy Note 3, it's still impressively light. And the device feels solid and well-balanced.
In addition, it seems Samsung has found the perfect placement to fit the power/standby and volume rockers right where your fingers go: volume on the top left for your thumb, and power in the middle-right for your forefinger.
(Photo : Robert Schoon)
And while the back button is still a stretch to reach, I've had a much harder time accessing various buttons on smaller-screened, less consciously-designed smartphones like the Asus PadFone X and even the flagship HTC One M8.
To put it concisely: If some antagonistic oddball tech deity condemned me to use only a phablet, with only with one hand for the rest of my life, I'd choose the Galaxy Note 4.
The Note 4 improves on aesthetics, especially over its predecessor. While the Note 4 still comes with that faux-leather back panel design mistake choice that Samsung has kept with, going on three flagship devices now, that façade now feels and looks less awkwardly "faux," and simply more like a nondescript no-slip veneer.
And borrowing the Galaxy Alpha's metal rim to frame the new handset, rather than the Note 3's lambasted corrugated-plastic-painted-chrome edges was a good idea.
It seems the only aspect of the Note 4 that Samsung didn't make prettier, or tweak the design of, is the S Pen. Its action button is still too close to the S Pen's business end, and hard to press. And unfortunately this S Pen's ridged design provides grip, but seems inspired by the famously luxurious feel of rebar.
(Photo : Samsung)
When it comes to the current crop of smartphones, you can't do better for a mix of power, capability, flexibility, and future-proof hardware than the Galaxy Note 4.
Take the display, for example: Samsung amped up the Galaxy Note's Super AMOLED 5.7-inch display to a ridiculous 515 pixels per inch with a 2K total resolution (1440 x 2560p). That blows Apple's "new higher-resolution Retina HD" display out of the water, and on a screen that's 0.2-inches larger.
Simply put, this screen looks as bright as you want it in any condition and nonstop gorgeous. Think: a (semi-) pocket-able version of a MacBook Pro Retina screen.
Similarly, the primary camera has been bumped up to 16-megapixels, meaning a maximum picture resolution of 5312 x 2988px, overkill for anyone who's printing posters from their smartphone pictures on the regular.
However, while the camera comes with optical image stabilization and autofocus, and can shoot 1080p video at 60 frames per second (among many other tricks), Samsung still isn't buying into either HTC's light-capturing "ultrapixels" or Apple's own low-light adaptation, dual tone LED flash. But selfies will look great with the (once again overkill) 3.7-megapixel front-facing camera.
No complaints about the rest of the Note 4's steroidal hardware specs. The latest quad-core Snapdragon 805, clocked at 2.7GHz with an Adreno 420 GPU and 3GB RAM (for most U.S. editions), will do nicely, even though it's a 32-bit processor. And if you're worried if the non-Exynos variant of the Note 4 is future-proof enough without the 64-bit chip, read this thoroughly.
Needless to say, in heavy daily use and with even with performance-sapping high-graphics gaming, the Note 4 was lightning fast and impervious to stutters.
Samsung's Note series has the advantage of fitting in some of the biggest batteries a smartphone can carry, and the Note 4's 3220 mAh battery easily lasts all day and then some. Forgetting a nightly charge could get you in trouble later the next day -- but even then, switching on Samsung's "Ultra Power Saving Mode" will extend the phone's life for many, many more (feature-restricted) hours than usual.
For pro users, the fact that Samsung still uses removable batteries (thankfully) allows you to obviate any battery problems by carrying a spare or using an extra-large third-party battery with a custom expanded back panel. Samsung's removable back also allows for the (unfortunately) increasingly rare microSD expansion feature, which can cheaply add up to 128GB of additional storage to the Note 4's standard 32GB.
There are other goodies like a slide-based on-screen fingerprint scanner that's an improvement over Samsung's previous attempts, and the only major hardware feature that's conspicuously missing is a front-facing speaker (much less stereo speakers) for watching videos without headphones. Still, it's clear Samsung's emphasizing keeping the Note's profile as manageably small as possible, so the lack of a Boom Sound-type setup on the Note 4 is understandable.
One of the biggest complaints about Samsung is that its TouchWiz UI layer that it adds on top of Android is ungainly, unnecessarily processor-taxing, and too full of pointless "feature-creep" additions, options, and other gewgaws that no one ever actually uses.
But at least this version of TouchWiz -- currently running on Android KitKat 4.4.4 out of the box -- doesn't bog down the system, and doesn't feel too in-your-face awkward either. Sure, there are still preinstalled Samsung apps you probably won't use, but the general level of self-promotional nonsense seems to have been carefully lowered to avoid annoying most users.
On top of that, Samsung has gotten its S Pen software down to a science. Admittedly, I'm still clumsy using a stylus on a smartphone (another consideration for the uninitiated that may be curious about moving to a phablet), but I can't blame the S Pen interface for any of my flubs.
Pulling out the S Pen brings up the Air Command popup, along with a helpful tutorial for first-timers. Air Command has been simplified into the four most essential options, including Action Memo (to write memos on the fly), Smart Select (like a screenshot-based reminder), Image Clip (an image copy-paste/storage quick-action) and Screen Write (a screenshot option that lets you write notes on the image).
As with Samsung's Multi-Window option, the way I habitually navigate smartphones makes Air Command feel a little gimmicky, or at least nonessential. But I could imagine a couple of options, especially the Screen Write and Image Clip, quickly becoming an essential tool in my arsenal of handy smartphone shortcuts.
And then there's the essential, beautifully flexible and super-convenient S Note app. It's the successor to S Memo that now looks and feels much more like you're just writing on a whiteboard than ever before. In fact, Samsung has upped the pressure sensitivity for the S Pen and Note 4, which makes your free-hand notes look more beautiful than you probably should take credit for.
Finally, there's one-handed mode, which actually does a decent job bringing the Note 4 down to size. You can toggle the overall size of the interface, making everything on the screen easily accessible from the right or left side of the device, for example.
But another one-handed feature I found much more useful is the side menu -- which has been refined from various previous attempts in TouchWiz at a "floating menu." The side menu is more like the dock in OS X, with the same transparency and show/hide features, and customizable buttons. Remember how I mentioned the back button was difficult to reach? I put an extra one in the side menu and never ran into that problem again.
Samsung is showing a lot of restraint with its extra software features, and the most spotlighted ones are actually useful. Of course there are still lots of other more esoteric customizations and features, but hopefully as Samsung works on the upcoming TouchWiz for Android 5.0 Lollipop, those at least won't proliferate again.
Final Thoughts, Availability & Price
Now that Apple and Google have committed to the larger screen, it probably won't be so unusual to see people carrying around monster slates. And in the near future, more people will undoubtedly be thinking of getting a 5.5-inch+ screen phablet as their next smartphone -- especially members of the Apple herd considering the iPhone 6 Plus.
Those people should think long and hard about whether such a large device is right for them, because even the Galaxy Note 4 -- the excellent end result of four years of tweaking the first premium phablet ever introduced -- isn't for everyone.
But if you decide you really do want a new, flagship phablet, you should think about and at least fiddle with the Galaxy Note 4 first, before the iPhone 6 Plus.
Because, despite the snark, Samsung has a point: In this case, they're the trailblazers, not Apple. The company has had four attempts to figure out what works for phablet users, and what doesn't. And the Galaxy Note 4 is a testament to that.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is currently available on all five major carriers: Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon. It's unsurprisingly expensive, generally priced at about $300 with a two-year contract.
Unlocked, or without the contract subsidy, the price gets even steeper, with total cost ranging from about $700 to $850. Color options include white, black, gold and pink.
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