Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: The best Samsung smartphone ever

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About 4 years ago, the first Galaxy Note was unveiled, which started a new trend of phones pushing the envelope with display size. The original Note had a 5.3-inch display, which seemed huge at that time. With each edition, Samsung increased the display size by 0.2-inches, topping out at 5.7-inches with last year’s Galaxy Note 3. The Note series has always catered to a niche audience because of its size alone. Fearing that niche could dwindle, Samsung decided to not increase the display size for the Note 4. That is very rare in the Android world where every flagship phone’s display goes up at least 0.1-inches just because. As much as consumers love large phones, there is a limit. It’s the reason why even the most loyal Android fanboys are concerned with the upcoming Nexus 6 and its 5.9-inch display.

So with the display size staying the same, you would think the Note 4 is just a minor upgrade, but nothing could be further from the truth. The display has increased from 1080p (1920 x 1080) to 2K Quad HD (2560 x 1440). The processor has been bumped to the best one available today, and the camera has been upgraded in not only megapixels, but with the addition of optical image stabilization. On top of all this, Samsung finally upgraded the design and materials significantly.

The Note series isn’t just about size, it’s also about the S Pen features that aim to make you more efficient and productive. There isn’t a phone on the market quite like the Note, so I have often wondered if consumers really use the S Pen all that much. Let’s face it, if it were really all that important, more manufacturers would have adopted the same concept, but they haven’t.

Still, when it comes to larger phones, the Note always comes to mind. S Pen or not, when you think of getting a phone that you can barely hold, the current Note always has to be considered. However, things are a little different as compared to years gone by. Samsung’s biggest competitor, Apple, is finally offering phones with larger displays (4.7 and 5.5-inches). Samsung always had the “size” of their displays to lean on, but no more. Offering a large phone isn’t enough today. It has to be desirable and it has to offer features that matter.

Is the Galaxy Note 4 still on top of the mountain or is it just another large phone lost in the crowd?

Design

Unfortunately I had to miss the Samsung Unpacked event so I didn’t have a chance to see the device in person until about a week ago. I bring that up because I can’t remember the last time I was excited to get my hands on a Samsung device. Samsung’s design has never impressed anyone, but things are different this time around. Samsung finally appeased the consumer’s call for metal, and they dropped that dimpled band-aid look from the Galaxy S 5.

However, the changes might not be as dramatic as some may have hoped. It’s not like the entire phone is made of metal. Samsung knows they can’t increase the price of the device, and they aren’t about to lose profit margins either. One look at the device, and it’s clear that it’s a Samsung. The overall look is still very similar to past Samsung offerings, so it’s not a drastic change in that regard, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.

By far the biggest change is the frame, which is no longer made of plastic trying to look like metal. This time around, it’s truly metal, and it gives you a much better grip. Samsung has always liked a glossy shine, and they just couldn’t resist with the inclusion of shiny silver chamfered edges at the top and bottom of the phone. It’s just enough shine to give it some class.

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It should also be noted that where the display meets this edge has become a little bit of controversy in that there is a small gap. Some are reporting that you can stick a business card in it. Samsung says the gap is normal for the endurance of the device as in if you drop it. The gap doesn’t appear that big to me, but it very well could be a dust and dirt magnet over time.

The back of the phone sports a faux leather texture (plastic) that is similar to last year’s Note 3, but they dropped the fake stitching in favor of a cleaner look. It also looks and feels more authentic, giving it a nice soft touch. Just like past devices, the back cover can be separated from the frame to reveal the removable battery, micro SIM and microSD slot. It’s quite flimsy, but feels solid when attached to the phone.

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Taking a look at the rest of the buttons and ports, it’s set up much like past Samsung phones. The top has a microphone jack towards the left while the IR blaster is towards the right. The bottom has the micro USB port dead center with the S Pen slot at the right corner. The power button is now metal and sits at the right side towards the top. The volume rocker is on the left side of the device towards the top and is also now metal, but it also gets a new design. It now sticks out a little at the top and bottom of the button making it easy to feel what is up and what is down.

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The back of the device gets the 16 MP camera lens towards the top at the center. Below that is the LED Flash and heart rate sensor. Unlike the Galaxy S 5, the heart rate sensor also includes pulse oxygen measurements and a UV sensor. You can also use it as a shutter button for selfies.

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Of course no Samsung phone can be a Samsung phone without the home button at the front with capacitive buttons to the left and right. We keep wishing Samsung would drop this design, but it’s unlikely. It serves the same purpose as a logo because whenever you see it, you automatically know it’s a Samsung device.

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Interestingly enough the Note 4 is actually thicker than the Note 3 (8.5 mm vs 8.3 mm), which can be attributed to the curved display. As far as the dimensions, both phones are nearly identical. The Note 4 (153.5 mm X 78.6 mm) is a little taller, but not as wide as the Note 3 (151.2 mm x 79.2 mm).

I won’t say that Samsung hit it out of the park with the Galaxy Note 4, but this a phone in which you can feel proud to hold. The inclusion of metal with a touch of shiny silver and a soft touch rear panel really make a difference. You won’t find any complaints from me.

Hardware

The Galaxy Note 4 features a 5.7-inch Quad HD (2560 x 1440) Super AMOLED display at 515 ppi and Corning Gorilla Glass 3, a 2.7 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 or Exynos 5433 consisting of a 1.9GHz Octa Core Cortex-A57 and 1.3GHz quad-core Cortex-A53,  an Adreno 420 GPU (paired with Snapdragon) or Mali-T760 GPU (paired with Exynos), 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage, microSD slot for up to an additional 128 GB of extra storage, 16 MP rear camera with f/2.2 aperture along with OIS, HDR, and 4K video capture, 3.7 MP front-facing camera with f/1.9 aperture, IR blaster, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2X2 MIMO), Download Booster, NFC, Bluetooth 4.1, USB2.0, MHL 3.0, Micro-SIM, and a 3,220 mAh battery.

Radios:

GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900, 3G Network HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100,  4G Network LTE 800 / 850 / 900 / 1800 / 2100 / 2600

Performance

Samsung rarely fools around when it comes to utilizing processors and RAM in their flagships, and the Note 4 is no exception. As usual, the international version gets an in-house octa-core processor and North America gets a Snapdragon. Since my review unit is AT&T branded, it’s the brand new Snapdragon 805 clocked at 2.7 GHz paired with 3 GB of RAM. What can you say at this point other than the phone flies? It’s one of the fastest phones on the market, and some might consider the 805 to be an overkill. For most phones, that is true, but Samsung utilizes it to the fullest extent with their multi tasking (Multi Window) capabilities. Being able to run two or three different apps on the display at the same time can certainly take it’s toll on any processor, but the Snapdragon 805 eats it up. New to Multi Window this year is the camera application, which can be re-sized and superimposed on top of other apps. We are talking the full camera application, not a simplified version. Samsung couldn’t pull this off without the 805.

The Note 4 features the first Super AMOLED Quad HD display on a smartphone, and boy does it impress. Much like the 805, many might also consider the display resolution an overkill, but here again, Samsung actually utilizes the entire resolution with Multi Window. Miniature versions of floating apps look as crisp as ever. If you think about it, a smaller version of an app in Multi Window could still show as 720p, whereas in past year’s models, it might be 480p or less. Now I am not saying a Quad HD is a must have, but it’s not a complete waste either. Of course, a 1080p version of this same phone for $199 (on contract) might be a better value.

Another interesting feature of the display is the ability to change how it shows colors. This is set under Screen Mode in the settings. Out of the box, it’s set to Adaptive Display, which automatically optimizes the color range, saturation, and sharpness for in-house apps like the Gallery, Camera, Internet, and so on. They also offer AMOLED Cinema, AMOLED Photo, and Basic. Adaptive Display will provide more of a colorful pop, but some users might like something a little less saturated, so they might go with Basic.

Sound on the Note 4 is average at best. That’s not a bad thing because I don’t believe too many people require stereo output from their phones, but it’s surprising that Samsung has yet to adopt the front-facing stereo setup. It’s probably something to look forward to in 2015.

Just like the Moto X (2014), the Note 4 sports Qualcomm’s rapid charging. Utilizing the USB cable that comes in the box, you will be able to charge the phone from 0% to 50% in about 30 minutes. Interestingly enough, the second 50% won’t charge in another 30 minutes. It will be closer to an additional hour. I was told that you can still use one of Qualcomm’s approved rapid chargers, but the results might not be the same.

Battery

Since the Galaxy Note 4 is a bigger device, it can also support a fairly large battery. Although not the biggest ever offered, 3,220 mAh is generally more than enough to satisfy the most heavy power user. It’s also about the same size as last year’s Note 3. The only issue lies in that it needs to power a Quad HD (2560 x 1440) display this year, but the Snapdragon 805 should offer enough efficiency to compensate for that.

I did my usual rundown test in which I loop continuous video until the battery is dead. This is while the phone is connected to LTE and WiFi (not connected), Bluetooth (not connected), and the GPS are all turned on. Lastly, I leave the display at about about 2/3’s brightness. I was able to get 12 hours and 16 minutes, which is only 2 minutes less than last year’s test. Considering that you are looking at basically the same battery size, this is quite good.

So what about real life? I know your basic day isn’t watching video all day. You won’t have any issues getting through an entire day even with the heaviest of usage. You should go well into the next day as a matter of fact. And even if you’re stuck in a jam, you always have the Ultra Power Saving Mode (more in the software section), and the Qualcomm quick charging capabilities that I mentioned in the last section.

The bottom line is that battery life isn’t an issue with the Note 4, case closed.

Software

The Galaxy Note 4 features TouchWiz on top of Android 4.4.4. I can’t remember a reviewer ever saying that TouchWiz is a fantastic skin, and I doubt you will hear it from me. It hasn’t changed all that much over the years, which makes it pretty boring, but mainstream consumers like consistency. Now when it comes to proprietary software, Samsung has never held back, but for whatever reason the Note 4 doesn’t feel as bloated as past Samsung devices. It’s not because Samsung cut back on things, it’s more like I am either desensitized or they are hiding things a little better. It’s probably a combination of both. The good news is that Samsung didn’t include a lot of new things. Instead, they chose to spend some time refining their current offerings. So you’re going to still get all the familiars like Multi Window, Finger Scanner, Smart Stay, S Note, Action Note, S Health, S Voice, Ultra Power Saving Mode, Smart Remote and so much more.

WIth the Note 4, everything starts with what the S Pen offers. Just like last year’s Note 3, Air Command is the heart of everything. You open this circular menu by either removing the S Pen from the holder, or hovering it close to the display while pressing the button on the S Pen itself. This will work on any home screen or app. This year’s Air Command offers four choices: Action Memo, Smart Select, Image Clip, and Screen Write.

Action Memo allows you to jot down quick notes. You can even make them clickable. For example, you could write down a phone number. Later, when you look up the memo, you can tap on the Link To Action icon at the top and choose whether it’s a phone number, email address, browser link and so on. This means that you can tap the number you wrote previously and send it to the Dialer versus trying to remember it followed by opening the dialer app separately. New this year is the ability to Pin your Action Note to any home screen as a resizable widget. This is very useful for those that love using post it notes.

Smart Select is actually new this year. It allows you to quickly copy text or images from any app or web page for sharing. That in itself isn’t too big of a deal, but Smart Select allows you to accumulate information from several sources before actually sharing the information. You can even save the info in your scrapbook for later use.

Image Clip is just like last year’s Scrapbooker. Just draw any closed shape around the information you want to collect. It could be one particular image on a web page. You can then add more notes to it and when you’re ready, just save it. Everything you save will appear in the Scrapbook app, which is a lot like Evernote. When you open any previous image clips, you will find all the information associated with it. So for example, if it was a recipe you were after. You might have circled the picture of the food item, but all the contents associated with that page will go along with it. It will also save the URL for later reference. Plus you can add tags to it so you can easily find the information later. Again, this is much like web clipping with Evernote so it comes down to which you prefer. I prefer Evernote since I can use that app on any phone or tablet. Unfortunately, Samsung only syncs the Scrapbook with your Samsung account unlike S Note, in which you can choose to sync it with your Evernote account. Now you can still share any of your Scrapbook items, so in theory, you could re-share it back to Evernote, but what’s the sense in that?

Air Command’s final feature is Screen Write. Screen Write was on the Note 3, and it allows you to quickly grab a screenshot of your display and make annotations on it. Once you save it, you can later find it in your Gallery and share it.

S Notes are back again, which is where you can take both written (S Pen) or typed notes. You can include pictures and add as many pages as you want for each Note. You can even select from various templates if you wish. We have gone over S Note in the past and there isn’t much new here except for one thing…..Photo Note. Photo Note is perfect for students. With Photo Note, you can snap a picture of a whiteboard or piece of paper with various handwritten notes. It will then convert it into a vector image that you can easily manipulate. You can copy certain parts of it to move around or even delete other parts. You can then add your own notes. It’s pretty sophisticated and does take some time to learn how to get the full potential out of it.

One other cool feature with the S Pen is that it’s now easier to crop text. It’s actually more intuitive. They designed it to be more like a mouse in that you press and hold the button and drag just like you do with a mouse. If you’re using the stock Browser, you can highlight one word and select Dictionary to get the meaning. Samsung also brought this mouse-like feature to the Gallery. Just press and hold the S Pen button and tap on multiple images to select a bunch for copying or deleting.

Multi Window has become a staple for Samsung devices. It allows you to display multiple apps on the screen at the same time. It can be split screen or floating popups that you can resize. This version works very much like it has always worked, but the number of compatible apps has really grown over the years. New this year is the addition of the camera application. So if you’re walking around in New York City and using Google Maps to find that hot new restaurant, you can float the camera app over it in case you want to grab a quick photo of something. You will still have all the same menus and features as the full camera application. Accessing the list of apps that you can put into Multi Window or in a floating popup is still found by tapping and holding the back key. However, new with the Note 4 is the ability to swipe down from the top left or top right corner of any Multi Window compatible app (that is already open in full screen) to convert it to floating. You can also save some of your most used combination of apps. As I mentioned earlier, the Quad HD display helps the floating apps look crisp. As cool as Multi Window is, I still contend that it’s a gimmick and not something consumers really desire.

S Health is one of the best proprietary apps that Samsung has come up with. The app works much like the Galaxy S 5 version, but there are now options for measuring the oxygen level in your blood, the UV levels, and your stress level. Of source, you can still check your current heart rate (BPM). All of these are done by holding your index finger on the heart rate sensor, except in the case of the UV sensor. You would instead point the sensor towards the sun. The rest of S Health consists of managing your workouts, along with a pedometer that tracks every step you make, as well as a virtual coach to help you achieve your goals. You even get a huge nutritional database for tracking everything you eat.

The Fingerprint Scanner, which debuted on the Galaxy S 5, found its way on the Note 4. It works much the same way, and surprisingly works well once you get the hang of how to slide your finger.

Private Mode is a feature that also debuted on the Galaxy S 5. It allows you to hide images and documents from anyone else that might use your phone. There are a lot of other third party apps that will let you do the same thing, but it’s nice to have something built-in. Anything you save in the Privacy Mode won’t be visible so no one will know they exist. Just use your fingerprint or other security option (PIN or Pattern) to access your stash within Private Mode.

Ultra Power Saving Mode is for those times when you can’t get to a charger and you are running low on battery. With the fantastic battery life that the Note 4 possesses, I can’t imagine anyone ever needing it, but it’s there just in case. By enabling Ultra Power Saving Mode, it will only turn on the necessary apps to keep you going like the Dialer, Messaging, and such. It will also simplify the interface. You will be surprised at how much more life you can get in this mode. For example, with 27% battery life remaining, you can get about 4.8 days. Now I wouldn’t suggest using it with 27% left, so you might wait until you drop to around 10% and still get just under 2 days of life. Of course, if you know in advance that you’re going to have a problem later on in the day, you can always enable the mode even though you still have a lot of juice left so you will be covered later when you might have to use the device a lot. Again, most people should never need to enable Ultra Power Saving Mode, and that’s a good thing.

The Note series is one of the biggest phones on the market, and that is a major reason why some people don’t buy them. Unless your hands are huge, you won’t be able to control the device with one hand, and that is a deal breaker for many. Samsung makes it easier with the ability to reduce the screen size (Reduce Screen Size), miniaturizing the controls such as the keyboard and Dialer (One-Handed Input), and the ability to add the Home Button, Back Key, and Recent Tasks key to the side of the screen (Side Key Panel). They all work well, but if you’re already against larger phones, these features won’t change your mind.

As I mentioned earlier, Samsung always packs a lot of bloat on their devices, but for some reason it doesn’t feel as bloated with this phone. Whether they are hiding it better or I am desensitized to it (probably a little of both), I am finding that I don’t feel as overwhelmed with all the junk.

Camera

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Samsung has always done a pretty good job with the camera, but they really upped the game with the Note 4. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the same camera that’s in the Galaxy S 5. It’s a Sony IMX240 and is 16 MP with an aperture of f/2.2. The fact that it’s a Sony shooter means no ISOCELL, but for the first time, Samsung has finally thrown in Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). OIS not only helps keep things steady, but it helps a lot in low light situations. Selfies are also important and that is why they upped the front-facing lens to 3.7 MP with an aperture of f/1.9.

The software is identical to what the Galaxy S 5 offers, but they kept the pre-installed modes down to a minimum. If you remember, past Samsung devices used to have a slew of camera modes, but in order to simplify things, they are now leaving it to the user to decide which modes will show in the menu or which ones to install by including the apps in the Samsung Apps Store. The Note 4 only includes Auto, Rear-cam selfie, Selective Focus (Bokeh effect), and Panorama in the menu. However, if you select Manage Modes, you will see that Beauty Face, Shot & More, Virtual Tour, and Dual Camera are actually on the device, but they aren’t checked by default to show up in the Modes Menu. This is another example of Samsung trying to keep the bloat at bay. There are still more modes available in the Samsung Apps store, and they are Animated Photo, Sports Shot, Sound & Shot, Surround Shot, Sequence Shot, and Food Shot. Just tap on Download (under Mode) to get to them. All of these modes were available on the Galaxy S 5 other than Food Shot, which is supposed to emphasize the vivid colors from food.

Just like the Galaxy S 5, HDR is on board. There is a quick toggle to the left of the camera interface. It’s either On or Off. When On, you can see a real-time preview. HDR also works in video capture mode.

Another feature that doesn’t involve a Mode is Advanced Digital Zoom. This kicks in at anytime you zoom in at least 4X in Auto mode. Press the shutter button once, and it will interpolate multiple images and create a single clearer photo.

The selfie craze doesn’t seem to be letting up so Samsung has added a couple of new offerings. Rear-cam Selfie lets you use the rear camera to grab high resolution images of yourself. All you have to do is mark the area (resizable square) on the display for your face. Turn the rear camera towards yourself, and the picture will automatically be captured when your face is within the box that you marked. If you want to use the traditional method, the front-facing camera, you can now use the heart rate sensor as a shutter button. You can also press anywhere on the screen for selfie captures as well. Sticking with the front lens, If you want something more wide angle, you can choose Wide Selfie. Holding the phone in portrait mode, you start the phone at the center and then rotate it to the left and right. The final product will be a stitch of all three images together.

As far as the quality of pictures, this might be the best smartphone camera I have ever tested. Color reproduction was spot on and it performs well with action shots as well as low light. Low light photos do have some noise, but a lot less than competing phones. The only issue I have is that the shutter speed is very slow in low light environments so your subject(s) can’t move.

If you rank the camera quality high on your list of features you want in a smertphone, you will love what the Note 4 offers. Here’s a few pictures from a variety of situations.

Outdoors

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Outdoors HDR Comparison

HDR On                                                                         HDR Off

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Action

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Low Light – No Flash

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Extreme Low Light – No Flash

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You can record video at 4K, which is probably not going to be useful for too many of you. The good news is that you can still record at 1080p. You will also find a few options that are quite useful. You can choose Slow Motion 1/8X, which records videos at 240 frames per second or 1/4X, which is at 120 frames per second. Smooth Motion captures video at 60 frames per second and plays back at normal speed.

You also have the ability to pause your recordings, which makes it easier to capture multiple shots in one clip file. Generally, it’s always record and stop, which produces a file for each occurrence. However, if you are already recording, you can pause it and un-pause to keep it all within one file. It’s kind of like on-the-fly editing.

Closing

I am thoroughly impressed with the Galaxy Note 4 in every way imaginable.  With higher quality hardware, a fantastic display, the fastest processor on the market, amazing battery life, and an awesome camera, what’s not to love about it? Well there is TouchWiz, but I have to say that for the first time in a long time, I am actually thinking about using a Samsung phone as my daily driver. Yes, I will say it……I do love the Galaxy Note 4, even with TouchWiz.

The Note 4 is a serious contender for the smartphone of the year. The only thing that would hold it back is the price. At $299 on contract, it isn’t cheap. The LG G3 has a slightly smaller display and a slightly slower processor, but the battery life and camera quality between the two devices are pretty close. The G3’s $199 price tag (on contract) is also more palatable. However, it is missing the S Pen functionality. That of course brings us to the same question every year. If you think you will actually use the S Pen functionality, don’t hesitate on the Note 4. It’s an amazing phone. However, if you think the S Pen is going to sit in its slot more often than not, and you’re on a tighter budget, the G3 might be the phone for you. Barring something amazing from the Nexus 6, it’s safe to say that I will be picking either the Note 4 or the G3 as the Android smartphone of the year.

 

 


About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.


  • louis nicolaou

    Spelling mistake in software section. Hear not here. Nice review bro

  • DigitalBenny

    Why is EVERY article on this site riddled with typos???

  • Richard Yarrell

    It’s a wonderful handset nothing on the market is better that’s nothing new for Galaxy Note products. Very nice review

  • Rich

    Thanks for the great reveiw. The Galaxy Note 4 looks like a terrific device. The note series rises to the top of the heap once again.