Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review: The Phablet Redefined
When Samsung first released the original Galaxy Note in 2011, critics thought it was absurd. A famous comparison was holding up a piece of toast to your face. Fast forward to 2014 and you can see the global impact the Note made, modern day flagships sport 5 inch screens now and even Apple was forced to change up its design due to the insane demand. So today we are going to take an in depth look at the latest successor of the original phablet, the Galaxy Note 4.
Before we get started, it would be safe to say that this review will get a bit long simply because there is so much to talk about with the Note 4.
Samsung has always faced criticism for its use of cheap plastics to construct its smartphones but the argument always ended with the company justifying the material choice by offering a removable back. With the Note 4, Samsung finally changes up the material choice (though the Galaxy Alpha got the metal treat first) and features an aluminium design. Not only does the Note 4 look great with its sleek chamfered edges but it feels fantastic in the hand. I especially like how the sides have a matte finish whilst the edges are bare metal. The matte finish is really what lets you grip the phone so easily. The 2.5D glass that seals the face of the device tapers ever so slightly over the edges of the display and somehow makes the Note’s display feel like it’s flowing off over the sides. Thankfully it does not go over the metal bezel otherwise it would have been the first thing to take damage if the phone was dropped.
Pictures and videos simply do not do justice to how amazing the phone feels in the hand. It’s rigid, it’s sturdy and has a good weight to it that makes the device feel more secure in hand. Although the display is 5.7 inches, it certainly does not feel like that. The Note 4 is compact if I must say. Similar sized smartphones don’t feel nearly as easy to hold and use especially in one hand. The comfortable one handed experience has to do a lot with how balanced the weight distribution is. Now as the screen is pretty big, reaching for the top portions is a bit difficult but the easy to hold design makes the chore require less effort.
The faux leather removable back makes a return but has none of the ugly fake stitching around the edges as was in the Note 3. The back is thin and flimsy when you remove it but when it’s snapped into place, it lies flush with the body of the Note 4 making the design seamless. Once in place, it’s hard to believe that the same piece of plastic is what is rounding up the design because it feels so solid. The plastic back itself is not slick or slippery and actually has a clingy feeling which again makes it feel incredibly secure in the hand. The metal body on the bottom slightly curves giving the illusion that the Note 4 has a curved body but in reality there is no curve, the body is completely straight.
To sum up the design of the Note 4, we have to call it premium, subtle and sophisticated; words seldom associated with Samsung’s smartphone design. The design upgrade was long overdue for Samsung’s smartphone lineup but with this we have to pat the company on the back and say they hit it out of the park. The Galaxy Note 4 is the best designed smartphone Samsung has ever released!
P.S #GapGate is NOT real, I tried to fit an A4 paper in the space between the metal edge and display and failed. Also I suggest putting a case or at least a screen protector on the Note 4 because the bare metal finish scratches pretty easily.
Samsung has always been a leader in the smartphone display market. Its Super AMOLED panels with exaggerated bright colours and super high contrast have been the topic of many heated debates before. With the Galaxy Note 4, Samsung takes its display game to a whole different level. The Note 4’s display is by far the best on any Samsung device, period.
Similar to the design upgrade, Samsung changed things up to what critics and consumers have been wanting and complaining about for ages. First up, the colour accuracy is drastically improved. Samsung has taken a step away from the crazily overdone and overexposed colours that jump out of the screen and punch you in the face. Instead the display reflects real life colours more precisely without making compromises in contrast or vividness.
The Note 4 display has been heralded as one of the best panels by many display analysts and it’s very clear why (pun intended). The main highlight of the Note 4’s display is its 2k resolution. The 2560 X 1440 screen has a resolution of 515 pixels per inch giving it one of the highest pixel densities of today’s smartphones. If you ever thought that a 1080p panel was insufficient, the Note 4 will serve your needs. My favourite part about Samsung and LED displays in general is the deep blacks. Essentially the colour black is a turned off LED meaning it emits no light and is thus the deepest black you will find.
A popular question regarding 2k is whether or not there is a difference when compared to Full HD displays. I will confirm that there is some difference when compared side by side but it is not really that noticeable. One main reason behind this is the lack of 2k content and optimization. This scenario is very similar to when 1080p displays first hit the market, there was a lack of optimized content but after everyone got on board, 1080p flourished. With Google themselves adopting 2k on the Nexus 6, you can be sure 2k content will soon hit the mass market.
However the content debate goes, one of the main reasons we believe Samsung used a 2K panel was because the Note 4 is meant to be used with the Gear VR where the display is mere centimeters away from your eyeball. At this distance it is pretty easy to spot pixels on a 1080p display but not possible on a 2k display. Here the added pixels make perfect sense even though the Gear VR is for a niche market.
Another complaint from critics is the increased battery consumption due to the greater number of pixels. The talk about the increased power consumption is true for LCD displays but tests have shown that the 2k Super AMOLED displays from Samsung are more power efficient than the 1080p panels!
The Note 4’s display is really fantastic. It has great viewing angles and can crank up the brightness incredibly high making it viewable under direct sunlight. The display brightness also goes down very low so that you can easily read with the lights turned off without straining your eyes.
The Note line is famous for pushing the envelope for specifications which is one of the reasons why power hungry consumers flock to it. As usual, this year’s Note brings the bleeding edge specifications to the table. Our unit has a quad core Snapdragon 805 processor clocked at 2.7 GHz (we did not get the international variant) with 3GB RAM and 32GB on board storage and an Adreno 420 GPU. As the back is removable, we have access to a microSD card slot and a removable battery which are all big pluses in my book.
Talking about some new hardware additions, Samsung has brought the heart rate sensor and fingerprint sensor from the S5 to the new Note. This time around we also have a UV sensor and as usual the IR blaster. Samsung also added 3 microphones which do a pretty great job to record audio and for noise cancellation. A Note would not be a Note without the S Pen (we will get more into that later) which is housed in the same place as the previous Note.
The fingerprint scanner was a hit and miss on the S5 and the iteration found on the Note 4 is much better but, the same issues return. The swiping motion is not the easiest to execute and to get the fingerprint to register, you have to swipe in a very specific way. If you do take the care to carefully execute the gesture, the scanner will work almost always, otherwise it can grow to become a pain. I learned from practice that it is easiest to use if you register your thumb sideways and cover the entire home button.
The face of the Note 4 is the usual Samsung arrangement, home button flanked by two capacitive buttons. Although I now prefer on screen buttons, the home button of the Note 4 is very satisfying. Unlike the loose home button of the Note 3, the Note 4’s is sturdy, clicky and responsive. The volume and power buttons too are sturdy and clicky to our delight. At the bottom, we have a standard USB 2.0 jack (instead of the USB 3.0 from the Note 3) which supports fast charging.
Call quality on the Note 4 is awesome. What is a phone if it can not make phone calls? At this day and age OEMs seldom make mistakes with the call quality. Over the entire duration of testing the device, I not once experienced a dropped call whilst on Grameen Phone’s network here in Bangladesh.
The speaker is the last hardware component I want to talk about in this section. Samsung chose to move the speaker to the back of the device which I simply can not appreciate given how amazing front facing or even bottom facing speakers are. However unlike previous back firing speakers, this version is adequately loud and not too tinny. This makes speaker calls especially good. The disappointment comes when you think how great the audio experience could have been if the speaker faced downwards or right at you.
Samsung this time chose to put a Sony IMX240 sensor in their latest smartphone instead of the ISO Cell sensor we saw in the S5 and frankly, we are not complaining. The big addition to the camera (aside from the bump to 16 megapixels) is optical image stabilization. Some of the known benefits of OIS are better low light shots and obviously some less jittery videos and we saw both these clearly in our tests.
The camera interface is toned down from what we’ve seen from Samsung before and is rather easy to get your head around. It offers you a number of settings which do come in handy every now and then. The viewfinder itself is pretty clean and also customizable. For example if you toggle HDR all the time you can choose it from the settings and drop the toggle onto the viewfinder so that it’s always there to use instantly.
Talking about the camera quality itself, photos and videos turn out great as expected. We see a recurring theme here of Samsung toning down exaggeration and sticking to more honest and true colours and exposure. Daylight shots are amazing, the camera captures all the details you want and the great megapixel count allows you to zoom and crop without losing much detail.
Low light performance is not the best in the world but is certainly up there among some of the industry’s best. The more open aperture allows more light into both the front and rear camera. You will get decent shots if you are in a dimly lit restaurant or outdoors at night but if it gets a bit darker shots come out noticeably grainy.
Recording videos with the Note 4’s camera is a great experience especially due to the optical image stabilization. There is an option to use electronic image stabilization for HD and Full HD videos but OIS works much better than this so don’t bother toggling it.
As mentioned before, Samsung cleaned up the camera interface and settings quite a bit and put features you might actually use. My personal favourites are slow motion video recording and the active HDR preview. Others that stand out are smooth recording for video, the wide selfie mode and the use of the heart rate sensor to capture selfies.
One point that must be noted is the occasional lag when going into the gallery from the camera. It does not happen that often but at times it will take a good 2-3 seconds.
All in all the Note 4’s camera is among the best there is in the market and is definitely Samsung’s best yet.
The main differentiator separating the Note line from every other handset is the S Pen. Over the years too many companies have tried to revolutionise the stylus but it seems the Note line is the only one to get it right. The S Pen has improved with each iteration of the Note and gives you more reason to pull it out of the silo now than ever before.
Unlike other capacitive based styluses, the S Pen is induction based which allows it to be thin and lightweight whilst sporting a button and a movable tip. This also means that it can be used exclusively with the Note line of devices.
Many people say the S Pen is another one of Samsung’s gimmicks but fact is, if you know how to use it then you will constantly reach for it. I myself have developed a bad habit of instinctively pinching the bottom of other phones searching for a stylus and miss its presence on other devices.
The S Pen brings with it neat features like Action Memo, Smart Select, Screen Write, etc. which are all advertised by Samsung but what I found most compelling about the S Pen is its mouse like functionality. The ability to click the button and select multiple objects is something every touch based device NEEDS. It saves a lot of time and is so easy that it’s ridiculous we are seeing the feature only now. You can use the S Pen to select and copy text similar to a mouse and hover over things to get a preview of the content.
The S Pen has much higher sensitivity and precision than previous renditions. A personal favourite is being able to activate only pen input in S Note so you can comfortably rest your hand on the screen and work with the stylus alone.
The S Pen has evolved every year to become more refined and useful. The mouse like functionality added this time around is the standout feature of the S Pen and is genuinely more handy and useful than any other method of selecting, copying and pasting.
The worst is saved for last, TouchWiz. For the record, this is the best version of TouchWiz yet but some things are still nagging about the skin and get in your nerves after while. As usual Samsung has a boatload of software features packed into the Note 4 and it would simply take too long to list them all down so we will go through some of the main highlights.
Every now and again you will see signs of the skin slowing down the experience. The most noticeable issue is the slow transition to the recent apps screen which can take up to three seconds on some occasions. Other slowdowns you may notice are occasional stutters if you swipe down the notifications shade too fast or switch between homescreens to fast.
What you lose in terms of TouchWiz hiccups, Samsung more than makes up for it with the Note 4 monstrous power and multitasking abilities. No OEM right now has a good enough multitasking feature when compared to Samsung’s. Multiwindow is a fan favourite of Note users and makes a great return on the Note 4. Entering multi-window is much easier now, you can just hold the back key to see a list of launchable apps or go to your recent apps screen from where you can launch compatible apps in multiwindow. With the Note 4, you also have the ability to turn these windows to a small floating bubble similar to what you will find in Facebook Messenger. The only drawback with this is a lack of compatible apps however the list is getting bigger every year. We recently heard of Google collaborating with Samsung’s Knox Security service for Lollipop and would love to see Google incorporate these multitasking features into the next version of Android.
Why do so many people buy the Note? S Pen, large screen? The main reason the Note line is so popular is because of the sheer amount of raw power available. Right now the Note 4 is at the top of benchmark applications and that is clearly reflected in real life performance. TouchWiz issues aside, the Note 4 is scary fast. It tackles high end games with no effort and barely warms up. It can run more applications than you would possibly need simultaneously and barely break a sweat.
One of the main draws of phablets is the long battery life and here the Note 4 delivers as expected. The phone will easily last you through a full day (even though we were mostly on a 2G network!) and almost a day and a half of heavy usage. If you use it more sparingly, you could squeeze two days of battery life out of the device. Our battery results are with the screen set to auto brightness. Please note that if you plan on playing games like Asphalt 8 all day long, battery life will obviously take a beating.
On the event that you do run out of juice, fast charging is always at hand to rescue you. Fast charging is one of my most favourite features of the Note 4. If you go to bed without charging the device after some extensive use, you can just hook it up to the fast charger and have around 80% battery by the time you are done with breakfast. Samsung claims you will get from 0% to 50% in 30 minutes and is spot on with that statistic.
When things really do get critical, try Ultra Power Saving mode. What this does is it turns your device into a dumbphone, giving you access to calls, messages, internet and a handful of other apps. It turns the screen black and white and dims down the brightness to conserve power. This feature is especially useful and could even give you a few days of usage.
The Galaxy Note 4 is the best smartphone Samsung has ever made. Most refer to the Galaxy S line as Samsung’s flagship but by now it should be clear that Samsung’s best is always the Note. It offers exceptional power, probably the best display and camera as well as a killer design. Samsung after a long time has produced a handset that thoroughly impressed us. Most consumer demands such as an improved design and more power have been met without fail. Although TouchWiz is still a thorn for the Note 4, it is the smoothest version yet and can be replaced by a good launcher.
If you really want to know how great the Note 4 is, just drop by a Samsung shop and play around with the device. as i mentioned before, pictures do not do justice to how unbelievably great the phone feels in the hand. The Note 4 is one of the best Android devices to release this year and we would recommend this device to anyone without hesitation.