Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review
This is how you build a phablet
Even Apple saved the very best components for its iPhone 6 Plus. And the Galaxy Note 4 is a contender for the most super-specced smartphone on the planet. A new 2K screen, that Snapdragon 805 processor, a huge 3220mAh battery.
More importantly, it’s as compact as a phone with a massive screen can be, while making said massive screen as useful and usable as possible.
The verdict is in: Samsung still does big phones best.
BIG AND (ALMOST) BEAUTIFUL
Let’s put this into perspective. The Note 4’s screen is a mighty 5.7in on the diagonal. That’s 0.2in bigger than the LG G3, and Apple’s giant new iPhone, but in terms of actual handset size and ergonomics, it’s somewhere in the middle of the two.
The LG is a lovely bit of smartphone engineering, and is more compact and comfortable to hold than the new Note 4. The iPhone 6 Plus, on the other hand, seems even bigger than it needs to be and doesn’t sit in the hand as well. The flatter sides of the Note 4 combine with a new softer, less tacky faux leather back panel to make the Note 4 pretty comfortable and easy to grip, and while there are still a few lumps and bumps around the camera, headphone jack and microUSB port, the metal band around the entire edge of the device makes the Note 4 feel impressively sturdy and even a bit, premium. And that’s not a word we often use to describe Samsung phones.
At 176g it’s lighter than it looks, too. Don’t misunderstand: this is still very much a two-handed phone and if you’re used to regular-sized phones (whatever that means these days) you’ll be more conscious of the Note 4 in your hand, pocket or against your ear.
Aside from the front of the phone, though, which still looks like every Samsung smartphone ever made and the fact that waterproofing is missing here, the Note series design is definitely on the right track.
There are more beautiful smartphones out there – the HTC One M8, the Sony Xperia Z3 – but you don’t buy a Note 4 to show off design details. You buy one to show off what it can do.
A SCREEN THAT WILL STUN YOUR RETINAS
One thing Samsung smartphones have always been able to do is stun your retinas into submission with AMOLED colours and plenty of pixels. And the Note 4 takes this heritage next gen with an LG-matching 2560 x 1440 display, making this the first 2K screen we’ve seen from Samsung.
Plenty of Samsung family traits are in evidence: it’s seriously bright (you’ll keep the slider way below halfway if you don’t want your phone to give you a suntan) and it uses the same Adaptive Display technology found in the Galaxy Tab S range, which means that it automatically adjusts its colours according to the warmness and brightness of ambient light.
Download a hi-res image and, side by side with a lesser pixelled phone such as the iPhone 6 Plus, it’s like you’re looking at two different pictures. There’s bags more detail and so there should be when the Note 4 is 515ppi. And that’s not all. Blacks are lovely and inky thanks to the AMOLED display’s ability to turn off pixels to render black. And colours are eye-catching if not accurate – still slightly on the warmer, saturated side but if you want to tweak this manually, head for the AMOLED cinema and Basic settings.
Whether this is the perfect screen for you depends on your habits. Homescreens and games look gorgeous but emails, browsing and ebooks do show up that usual AMOLED problem of contrast. Whites just aren’t as pure as we’d like next to the brilliant iPhone 6 Plus, and it gets worse when you tilt the Note 4 to the side – stream a black-and-white movie to see the difference instantly. Likewise, if the 16Mp cam and big screen appeals to photography fans, bear in mind that colours are also not as natural as the iPhone or LG.
Still, this is a leap to 2K done very, very right and if you were a fan of Samsung screens before, all those extra pixels will be a welcome treat. As we saw with the Oppo Find 7 and the LG G3, sky high resolutions often arrive with a dip in battery life. Not so on the Note 4.
THE BEST BATTERY LIFE OF THE 2K SMARTPHONES
n fact, not only is this the best battery life of any 2K smartphone we’ve tested, it’s even slightly better than the non-2K Note 3. Well, we’ll be damned.
The removable 3220mAh battery is just a smidgen bigger than the Note 3’s unit and Samsung claim a lot of the extra efficiency is down to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, something Sony also pointed to when explaining the Z3’s insane stamina.
In the week we’ve spent with the Note 4, ending the day with 10-20% still left in the tank has become the norm, with only those days that we’ve specifically hammered it with gaming and photography for testing purposes killing it quicker. It also lasted just over 11 hours in our HD video rundown test (Wi-Fi on, half brightness) which is an hour and a half longer than the LG G3.
It’s no Z3-style battery freak and it won’t last quite as long as an iPhone 6 Plus, but compared to the overwhelming majority of smartphones it’s still a distance runner. And the battery is swappable. And there’s a low power Ultra Power Saving mode that’s handy in emergencies (or festivals as we found with the Galaxy S5). And it has fast charging, with the supplied charger, of up to 50% in 30 minutes. You get the idea.
A REAL BENCHMARK BEATER
Qualcomm’s latest silicon saves the day, then. It also means that together with 3GB of RAM, the Note 4 is every bit the powerhouse you’d expect. Qualcomm’s new chip is beefy enough, in fact, to turn the Note 4 into an Oculus Rift-like VR headset, when slotted into the Gear VR. Impressive stuff.
In day to day use the Note 4 tears through Android games and demolishes its rivals in benchmarks such as AnTuTu, where it scores a huge 45111 – higher than any other flagship. Happily, Samsung’s TouchWiz skin is getting more and more fluid with every software update, so the experience is as smooth as you’ll get on a Galaxy. Smoother doesn’t mean perfect – there are still a few more stutters than you’d find on an HTC One (M8) or the almost pure Android Moto X. Samsung has done a good job of tightening things up but there’s still a little bit of work to do.
One small but frustrating characteristic of Samsung phones is that while there’s a teensy bit of lag to be found when you’re getting things done, they can also jump about opening apps you didn’t intend to. That’s a combination of a few issues – the slightly sticky out home button, the easy to catch capacitive buttons and the bigger size leading to more finger slips. It’s happened to us on every single Samsung phone we’ve tested and the Note 4 is no exception. It’s a little niggle but it bears mention.
Back to the good news. The basic model is £630 but it does at least come with 32GB of built-in storage and is upgradeable by up to 128GB with an SD card, too. Consider that a 128GB iPhone 6 Plus would set you back the best part of £800, a Note 4 with a 128GB microSD card starts to look pretty good value at a little under £700.
THE S PEN IS BETTER THAN EVER
There are a couple of other ways the Note 4 offers better value than the average phablet, and those are also things that mean it simply makes more sense as a big phone. One of those ways is the built-in S Pen and the other is software features such as Multi Window.
Both are iterations on the excellent Note 3, but both have been improved this time around.
The S Pen, which still hides in the lower right-hand corner of the smartphone, is still a bit cheap-feeling and spindly, but the fact that it’s always there makes a much bigger part of your regular smartphone week than, say, a third party stylus and an iPhone 6 Plus.
This time it’s twice as pressure sensitive, which makes a noticeable difference when sketching – the pressure, speed and tilt of the S Pen now all affect the thickness and opacity of the onscreen ink. Samsung has also thrown in fountain pen and calligraphy options.
When you pull out the S Pen you get a modified version of Air Command – apps that you can use with the stylus. These include Action Memo for quick notes, Smart Select for saving text and images to your scrapbook, Image Clip for freeform shaped screenshots and Screen Write for scribbling annotations on screenshots.
We’ve most used Action Memo and Smart Select during our time with the Note 4 – both are simply quicker than the finger-controlled alternatives every smartphone user will be familiar with. The S Pen might spent plenty of time sleeping (according to Samsung) but it’s still a big draw and holding the 5.7in phone in one hand with the S Pen writing in the other feels very natural.
SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 4 VERDICT
The Note 4 isn’t better than most smartphones because it’s big. But it is better at being big. It may be a little overpacked with features, but enough of them make proper use of the extra screen real estate to ensure this is a device that you use differently to a ‘normal’ phone – and isn’t that the point of phablet?
The iPhone 6 Plus seems like simply an embiggened iPhone 6 by comparison, while the just-announced Nexus 6 is going to have its work cut out to justify its 6in screen to quite the same extent. The design’s unlikely to take anyone to gadget bliss (you still need HTC or Apple for that), but that doesn’t have to matter.
The point is that the Note 4 is better made and easier to love than almost any previous Samsung phone, and that’s something to get excited about.
Samsung was first at the phablet game, and it’s still the best
As premium as Samsung gets
Best battery life on a 2K phone
Multi Window and S Pen make sense
Phablets aren’t for everyone
Lacks the S5’s waterproofing