[alert type=alert-blue]Technical details[/alert]
OS Android 4.4
Processor 2.7GHz quad-core
Screen 5.7 inches
Resolution 1440 x 2560 pixels
Memory 3GB RAM
Micro SD Compatible? Yes
Camera 16MP rear-facing, 3.7MP front-facing
Dimensions 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm
Sometimes Samsung doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Fans gush over Apple’s ability to create new product categories overnight, yet its South Korean rival created what is arguably one of the most popular today: the “phablet”
For the uninitiated, the phablet is the tag given to any phone so large that you might as well stop bothering to use your tablet. When Samsung unveiled the first Galaxy Note, many people dismissed it as an oversized Dom Joly-esque novelty. Yet here we are, reviewing Samsung’s fourth iteration of the Note. And it’s better than ever. It even stands up to a major contender in the shape of the massive iPhone 6 Plus – Apple’s first foray into phablet territory.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 barely strays from the formula. In fact, there’s very little different here from the design of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but that’s okay because its predecessor was one of the best phones of 2013.
Some readers will be relieved to see Samsung calling a ceasefire in the screen-size arms race. At 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm, the Note 4 is only a few millimetres taller than its predecessor, with an almost identical screen and front face. You’d struggle to spot the difference.
Pick up the handset and you’ll immediately feel one change though: its body. While it tips the scales at only 176g, Samsung has finally swapped out the cheap plastic frame for a metal one. It feels just as manageable – the power button remains in place on the right hand side – but much more premium. It’s a welcome move, and the slightly curved profile adds to the aesthetic.
Once again letting the side down, however, is Samsung’s horrible faux leather rear cover. It certainly provides grip, but it looks like a sofa the singer in an Abba tribute act might own – the white version particularly. It isn’t as awful an eyesore as Apple’s gold iPhone 6, but the full metal jacket of the regular iPhone 6 Plus wins on style. We’d strongly suggest switching the back cover for one of Samsung’s folio cases, which activate the screen when you flip the front cover open.
On the plus side, the rear is at least removable, so you have access to a microSD slot for storage expansion, the battery, if you eventually need to replace it, and the SIM
There’s even a heart-rate sensor. That’s right, a heart-rate sensor. Put your finger on it and the S Health app can give you a reading. It’s a nice option to have, though Samsung’s other hardware addition, a fingerprint scanner, is something of a flop. We’re of the view that for fingerprint security to be faster than a PIN code, it has to work every time, or why bother? Apple’s Touch ID gets it right, but the ‘swipe to unlock’ tech inside the Note 4 is unreliable. As a result, you’re unlikely to use it.
Of course, a well-built phablet should be all about the screen, and here Samsung delivers. The 5.7-inch 2K – or Quad HD, four times more pixels than a 720p HD screen – display is one of the best we’ve seen on a mobile, matched only by the likes of LG’s powerful G3. It’s pin-sharp, but importantly for a Super AMOLED display, not overly saturated, meaning photos look naturalistic rather than covered in tie dye.
At almost half a foot long, that screen size might sound daunting, especially if you’re used to an iPhone 4s or older handset. But it’s important to stress just how manageable the device is, provided you’re the type of person who doesn’t make too many phone calls. It fits in your pocket and you can type one-handed. The only thing you probably can’t do is reach the top control bar on the web browser one-handed when held in portrait mode, but that’s a small price to pay for something almost as big and even more powerful than a chunky tablet. Watch a movie on the Note 4 and, believe us, you’ll never again settle for in-flight entertainment on your travels.
Much of its usability is down to the software available on the Note 4; a slide-gesture keyboard such as SwiftKey makes typing one-handed easy (replace Samsung’s archaic default keyboard immediately), while Samsung’s custom Multi Window software makes full use of all that screen space by letting you open two apps at the same time and resizing them to fit. You could have Twitter running next to a YouTube clip, for instance, or open WhatsApp while searching Google Maps.
It’s incredibly helpful, and we’re astonished Google hasn’t included the feature on its latest version of Android: 5.0 Lollipop.
What makes the Note 4 truly stand out is its integrated stylus. It’s still the best example of a digital pen on the market. Pop out the
S Pen from the bottom of the phone and you can write a memo or draw straight away. It’s surprisingly accurate and sensitive for a capacitive touchscreen, which is designed to recognised fingertips rather than precise points of contact.
Better still, you can select a section of the screen with the pen and copy the text on it to send to others.
If you’re not artistically inclined or have virtuoso pianist hands, you might never need to use the stylus, but it’s worth checking out as it could just make your life easier.
One thing that won’t, though, is Samsung’s software. Manufacturers of devices running Google’s Android operating system are allowed to alter the software such as changing the layout of the homescreen, or in this case, adding stylus integration. But often the changes detract from the experience.
The Note 4 is no different. Instead of clean, simple Android, the launcher on the Note 4 is a kaleidoscopic mess, plainly pulled from the flat look of Apple’s iOS 7 and iOS 8 software.
It’s also bogged down with needless commercial tie-ins. Swipe to the left on the homescreen, and social reader app Flipboard immediately loads. Why?
Samsung also duplicates apps. While it’s fair to say that, Flipboard aside, Samsung has reined in the amount of preloaded ‘bloatware’ on its phones, there’s still a lot of duplication of core Android services to confuse you for no clear reason.
For instance, there’s a Samsung Music app, as well as Google’s own Play Music app. There’s an Internet app, as well as Google’s vastly superior Chrome browser. Long-press the home button and you can talk to your phone using Google Now, but double tap it and you can use S Voice instead.
Google’s stock calendar app, meanwhile, is not even included – be sure to avoid Samsung’s S Planner though.
Samsung has yet to improve on Google’s own offering, so why it persists in giving users two options is baffling.
Of course, Android is customisable so you can deactivate any apps you don’t like. And the Galaxy Note 4 certainly performs: its 2.7GHz quad-core processor flies, while 3GB of RAM is also a serious reserve to help you multitask better than most rival phones.
It regularly smashes a score of 3,000 in the Geekbench 3 benchmark test, which few rival flagship phones can lay claim to.
In more than a year of use, not once did
we ever manage to cause slowdown on the Note 3, and we’re confident the same will be true of the Note 4.
One thing to be aware of, though, is that the Note 4 is not running Android 5.0 Lollipop, the latest version of Google’s mobile software. At the time of writing, the company had not confirmed whether it planned to upgrade the Note 4 to Android 5.0, but we’re confident that this will remain a powerful phone capable of servicing your needs long after your contract has ended.
[alert type=alert-blue]Battery & Camera[/alert]
All this comes at surprisingly little cost to battery life. The replaceable 3,220mAh cell easily cleared a day of heavy use in our testing, with about 20% left most evenings, meaning there was no need to activate one of two (handy) power-saving modes. It’s not the day and a half of use you’d get from the Note 3, but the bottom line is you’re still going to need to charge your phone up every night.
Last but certainly not least is the 16-megapixel camera on the Note 4. It’s surprisingly on a par with the flagship Galaxy S5’s sensor, thanks to optical image stabilisation, and in daylight at least it holds up very well, with sharp, accurate results. The single LED flash doesn’t solve the problem of noise in dark scenarios, however. We actually prefer that Samsung’s dumped some of the more pointless shooting modes seen on the S5, keeping it to a manageable four.
Samsung invented the phablet three years ago, and no company has managed to snatch the crown away since.
The solid battery life, built-in stylus and split-screen app make this a stand-out device, but the latest crop of larger flagship phones should give you plenty to think about when it comes to picking your next phone.
This year’s top-of-the-range handsets include some big hitters in the shape of the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z3.