Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Smartphone Review
With a sturdier, more mature design Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 gets to work.
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More than any other electronic device in your life, smartphones are asked to do it all. What was just a decade ago merely a way to stay connected on the go has morphed into the all-encompassing nexus of your digital life. Smartphones these days are just as useful for business, web browsing, playing games, finding directions, taking photos, and sending e-mail as they are for making calls while away from home.
It's no surprise then that so many people have gravitated to large-screen phones (aka phablets). After all, when you're browsing the web, writing a quick e-mail, or looking up directions a larger screen is unquestionably better. Samsung kicked the large phone craze into high gear with its original Galaxy Note, a surprise success that shipped millions of units. The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (MSRP $299.99 on-contract, $949 unlocked) is the latest iteration of that lineup, boasting the usual performance increases and a long overdue improvement to ergonomics.
While some reviewers still malign such giant phones as needlessly large, the market has spoken: the people want big screens and Samsung's doubling down on that success. The Note 4 includes an improved stylus, an incredible screen, one of the longest-lasting batteries you can get in a smartphone, and a screaming fast processor. It's a testament to excess, and unabashedly devoted to one guiding principle: bigger is better.
Design & Usability
Improved in almost every way
Above all else, the defining characteristic of the Note 4 is its size. At 5.7 inches it's not the biggest display, but it's close. It's certainly beyond the point of comfort for most people to use one-handed. Personally, I don't mind the size of the screen, but I'm used to them. If you're not, you might hate the Note 4 the moment you pick it up (if not the moment you drop it).
To Samsung's credit, the Note 4 is significantly easier to handle than its predecessor. Gone are the Note 3's sloped, curved edges and the tacky, faux-stitched leather. In their place, the Note 4 is rimmed by thick, sturdy aluminum. Save for a few buttons, the entire outer edge of the phone is flat and boxy, flaring out near the corners of the phone.
The back is still a removable, plastic, leatherette panel, with Samsung finally ditching the ugly chrome trim in favor of materials that actually aid handling.
The result is a device that looks slightly less flashy, but is far easier to hold, adjust in your hand, and pick up off a flat surface. The improved handling is essential, making what was previously an extremely unwieldy phone slightly less problematic to use. It's worlds better than previous Notes, and it's fairly simple to execute basic tasks one-handed—once you learn the repertoire of hand gymnastics necessary to reposition the phone as your thumb moves around the ample screen.
Of course, all this isn't to say that the Note 4 is easy to handle; it's not. Even with larger hands I still found it took some serious getting used to. In my experience, you need about two weeks of moderate use with a phone this large before you stop feeling like you're going to drop it all the time. Even then, I still can barely reach the bottom-left corner when holding the phone vertically in my right hand.
This is a huge UI problem, especially if you're holding the overhead railing on the subway and suddenly can't hit your browser's back button. Samsung has included a number of one-handed operational shortcuts to make this easier, but this is a problem that's just never going away completely.
When you are using it two-handed, the controls all work swimmingly, especially when taking advantage of the included S Pen. The included stylus is better than ever, with an improved texture and more functions. It still slots right into the bottom of the Note 4's frame, slipping out as soon as you need it. Despite the changes, for the most part the stylus experience is the same as it has been: perfect for taking notes or jotting down an idea, but most other tasks can be accomplished quicker via other means.
Like previous Galaxy Note phones, the screen is huge. This time around it's a 5.7-inch Quad HD (1440x2560) Super AMOLED display. That's the same size as the Note 3, but with the resolution bump it's got a truly insane pixel density of 515 PPI. The result is a display that's beautiful and sharp at all normal viewing distances, bringing photos, games, and high-resolution websites to life.
Ultimately, Samsung's done an excellent job of smoothing down some of the Note 3's rougher edges. The results aren't yet perfect, and those with small hands probably need not bother, but day-to-day life is much easier with the Note 4 than its predecessors.
Samsung continues to squeeze all it can out of a small sensor.
Though the cameras in smartphones still badly lag behind the best high-end point-and-shoots, they're getting better and better. The Galaxy Note 4 is a perfect example of how far you can get, even when you're stuck with a small sensor and camera module. It's not the best smartphone camera we've tested this year, but it's darn close.
The Note 4 reportedly uses a Sony-produced 1/2.6-inch image sensor, with a resolution of 16 megapixels and optical image stabilization. That's slightly smaller than the sensors typically found in most point-and-shoot cameras, with pixels that are about 1/4th the size of your average consumer-level DSLR. That gives the Note 4 a tough hill to climb when it comes to shooting top-quality photos, especially in low light.
In our lab tests, we found that it counteracted most of these shortcomings with software enhancement. Soft edges became sharp with improved local contrast, which yields an ugly halo effect on close inspection but makes shots look better unless printed to giant sizes. Even when adjusting for this, the Note 4 still managed to to resolve more detail than any other smartphone in our tests.
Where the Note 4 fell down slightly was in low light shooting. It was still better than most smartphones, but there was a notable jump up in quality when looking at the shots we got from the Sony Xperia Z3, which has a larger 1/2.3-inch sensor.
It's worth noting that the optical stabilization does help with these kinds of shots, but that does nothing for noise or noise reduction. What would have helped in low light would've been phase-detect autofocus, a feature that is found on Samsung's Galaxy S5 and its home-grown ISOCELL image sensor. It's absent here, but that's not a huge surprise given that Samsung is opting to utilize Sony's camera module instead of another of its own.
The Note 4 can take advantage of basically any camera app that is available for Android phones, but the default one has some interesting options. It comes with a selection of shooting modes that you can customize, including rear-cam selfie, selective focus, panorama, virtual tour, beauty, and the standard auto mode. There's precious few manual controls by default, but you can add things like HDR, exposure compensation, white balance, metering, composition guides, and ISO options if you so choose.
If you're serious about your photography you'll probably want to take advantage of a more robust camera app, but for most people the default one is just fine. It works well if you simply want to point and shoot without messing with any settings.
Performance & Features
It's not a generational leap, but it's faster than the competition.
We focus on four key areas of performance testing for smartphones: battery life, the camera, processor speed, and screen quality. On paper, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 seems unstoppable in those areas. It's got a brand-new Snapdragon 805 processor, 3GB of RAM, a massive 3,220mAh battery, and that gigantic 5.7-inch, Quad HD AMOLED display. It meets, or exceeds, nearly every other flagship phone on the market today.
In our processor tests, the Galaxy Note 4 performed about as ably as we expected. Though the Snapdragon 805 isn't quite the generational leap that many may have been hoping for, it's indeed faster than other flagships. It edges out the Sony Xperia Z3 as well as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, but not to such a degree that you'd actually notice. There are fewer hitches when loading core apps like the gallery and the dialer than with previous Samsung phones, however, giving the TouchWiz experience a much smoother feel than we saw with the Galaxy S5.
The one area where the Note 4 did lag behind some of the other flagships was with screen quality. Though the AMOLED display is big, and beautiful, it's not exactly bright; it was one of the dimmer displays that we've seen in our test labs, lagging behind basically every phone except the LG G3. It's not a surprise that both of these phones use OLED/AMOLED displays, which produce generally excellent contrast but don't tend to be all that bright.
That really comes into play on sunny days, when you need the display to get extra bright to counteract the glare you'll get from the sun. Ever try and fail miserably to see your phone on a summer day? It's because your screen wasn't bright enough. The Note 4's display does have excellent gamma control and color accuracy (against the Rec. 2020 standard), but that limited brightness also impedes contrast performance in bright light.
By far the Note 4's best attribute is that big, honking battery. Not only is it huge, but Samsung's optimized the Note 4 very well, squeezing nearly two full days of usage out of a single charge. Samsung's also gone the extra mile by including battery-saving modes (such as a monochrome display mode) that help squeeze every last drop from the cell.
In our extremely intensive battery rundown test the Note 4 managed to hold on for a whole 6.2 hours—around 40% more than what the iPhone 6 was able to accomplish. It was bested only by the Sony Xperia Z3, which lasted 6.5 hours. It's also worth noting just how fast the Note 4 charges with its included charger, letting you add about 50% battery in roughly a half hour—perfect for topping off before you head out for the night.
Samsung's engineers also went out of their way to improve the stylus. Though the stylus still has limited day-to-day utility, when you do use it you'll enjoy an improved design that's easier to keep hold of. Samsung has tacked on some extra features like the ability to create a window for certain apps on the fly, but by far the most useful feature is still just jotting down quick notes. You can accomplish similar functionality with Google Keep, Evernote, and the like on just about any Android phone, but there's something to be said about actually writing a note instead of merely typing it into an easily forgotten list.
Add it all up and you've got an extremely powerful combination of hardware that works together wonderfully. It feels the way a flagship should feel: powerful.
Phablet as way of life
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is one of the most powerful phones you can buy right now. It's got a faster processor than just about every other flagship phone on the market, it's got a better camera than nearly every other phone on the market, and it's got a better battery than just about any other phone on the market. It's a complete package, with a number of useful features that'll make it perfect for business and power users alike.
In the end, deciding on the Note 4 isn't about simply trying to pick the best phone; it's about deciding if a giant phone is right for you. Personally, I've loved large-screen phones since the first Note hit the scene. The increased size doesn't bother me much because I have larger than average hands and the extra size means more room for a larger battery—never a bad thing.
For example, over 90% of what I use a phone for on a daily basis is considerably improved by having a large, beautiful screen. I make anywhere from 30-40 phone calls a month, but I use my phone for everything else at least 30-40 times per day. Reading websites, checking scores, updating fantasy football rosters, and sending text messages are all better with a large screen. And if I'm stuck on a plane or train for any length of time? You can bet I'd rather have a large phone than lug a tablet or laptop around just to keep myself entertained.
Though there are now a ton of phablets to choose from—including Apple's new iPhone 6 Plus—the Galaxy Note 4 is still the finest example of what you can do with some extra screen real estate. From multi-window multitasking support, to innovative stylus features, to improved battery life, the Galaxy Note 4 is an excellent extension of the original Note blueprint. It may lose out to the 5.2-inch Sony Xperia Z3 in important areas like camera quality and battery life, but if you want a giant phone (especially on carriers where the Z3 isn't available) then there's no better option than the Note 4.
Our one caveat? Try it out before you buy it, or make sure you know your return policy inside and out. It'll take at least a week to adjust to using a phone this large, if not longer if you're coming from a smaller phone like the 4-inch iPhone 5S. If you don't like it by then, you probably won't enjoy it in the long run.
That's the simple truth: Phones this large simply aren't for everyone. And for many people, a 5.7-inch phone is simply unusable. But if you're like me and you're set on a large-screen phone, the conversation once again starts—and frequently ends—with Samsung's excellent Note 4.