Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (US)

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Gizmag reviews the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Samsung put the phablet category on the map with the original Galaxy Note. But with more companies than ever making large-screened smartphones, is the Note still the one to beat? Let's find out, as Gizmag reviews the US (AT&T) version of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

When I first played with the Galaxy Note 4 at Samsung's NYC launch event, I thought it was going to be a relatively minor upgrade over the Note 3. Strapped down with security devices in the hands-on area, it didn't strike me as a huge step forward for the Note line. Same screen size, similar design, no head-turning new features. Nothing much to see here, right?

Wrong.

Contrary to those initial hands-on impressions, the Galaxy Note 4 is a big update – not just for the Note line, but for Samsung in general. It's the company's biggest departure from the more-More-MORE! approach that we saw in years past, replacing it with a subtler – more powerful – focus on overall experience. The resulting product just might be the best smartphone I've ever used.

That isn't to say that the Galaxy Note 4 is perfect. Its fingerprint sensor is Samsung's best yet, but it still isn't as effortless to use as Apple's Touch ID. And though Samsung's S Pen stylus is also better than ever, its plastic build still feels a little cheap in hand. Even the best have room to improve.

Premium + Samsung?

Speaking of build materials, Samsung finally ditched its trend of all-plastic devices and threw in some metal. The band running around the edge of the Note, which was plastic in the Note 3, is now made of aluminum and magnesium – complete with iPhone-like chamfered edges. It looks and feels solid and premium, adding a high-end design aesthetic that we aren't used to seeing from Samsung phones.

This was one of Samsung's biggest missing ingredients through the last few years. Its flagship phones always had cutting-edge internals, but their plastic exteriors were a bit out of sync. With the Note 4, Samsung's outsides finally catch up with its insides.

The phone's body does still have more plastic than it does metal (the Note 4's back is a faux leather plastic, similar to what we saw in the Note 3), but this doesn't bother me. Pleather may not be for everyone, but its soft touch feels great in hand. It's also durable: when removed from the phone, you can bend the backing in two and it pops back into place like nothing happened.

I don't need all metal all the time; I just want a phone that feels premium in hand. And the Note 4 ticks that box.

Dazzling restraint

This 4th Galaxy Note is the first that doesn't have a larger screen than its predecessors. At 5.7 inches, its display is the exact same size as the one on the Note 3.

This might sound disappointing, but, after spending over a week with the new Note, I think it's an encouraging sign: I see a Samsung that's exercising restraint.

The thing is, the Galaxy Note didn't need a bigger screen. Once you move into ~6-in display territory, you start to limit your audience. They become niche products: less big smartphones, and more small tablets that you have to somehow finagle into your pocket. The Galaxy Note line is better off as the former than the latter.

As for screen quality, the Note 4 did get a big upgrade. For starters, its Quad HD display packs in the pixels about as densely as you'll see these days (515 pixels per inch). It has roughly the same resolution as the razor-sharp Galaxy Tab S series of tablets, only squeezed into much tighter quarters. Everything is crisp.

Though pixel density is fine and dandy, it isn't everything. Fortunately the Note's screen also overachieves in other areas.

Being an AMOLED display, it has rich colors and deep blacks. And if you don't like the hyper-saturated look that AMOLED screens deliver, you can switch among several different screen modes – including a couple that are more toned down, like what you'd see on an IPS display.

Viewing angles are also outstanding (you can look at the Note's screen from an almost completely horizontal angle, and it still looks bright, clear and colorful). The screen also gets bright: I rarely set it higher than 55 percent and, even in sunny New Mexico, it still looks plenty bright for my eyes.

S Penmanship

If the Galaxy Note 4 were just a big smartphone with a terrific screen, then it would still be sitting next to the
iPhone 6 Plus at the top of the phablet heap. But in my book, what pushes the Note ahead is its stylus.

I always thought stylus and phablet fit together like hand in glove. Most of the time you're going to be using a super-sized phone with two hands anyway: cradle the device in your secondary hand, while you point with the index finger on your dominant hand. So why not replace that finger with a stylus? It gives you a sense of fine precision and control that your stubby fingers can't replicate.

The S Pen (Samsung's name for its stylus) in the Note 4 is a big step forward from its predecessors. In older Galaxy Notes, you had to press down a bit to register the pen's taps and swipes. There also wasn't an enormous range of sensitivity.

But with the Note 4, you only have to touch the screen ever-so-lightly. Barely brush the pen's tip against the glass and it still registers. And when you're jotting down notes, pressing down hard registers as a dark and thick line, while a very light touch still registers as a light line. It's like using a physical pen. The overall stylus experience – whether scribbling notes, typing an email or scrolling through a web page – is 100 percent smooth and intuitive.

The S Pen gets some extra software-based functionality in the Note 4 as well. Your main pen features still live in Air Command (the pop-up pie menu that we first saw in the Note 3). Its options are a little different this time around, though, with the Note 3's S Finder and Pen Window options missing the cut.

The star of the Air Command show is still Action Memo, a virtual scratch pad that's never more than a click and a tap away. And if your scribbled note includes something like a phone number, email address or web URL, you can automatically shoot it to the appropriate app after jotting it down (like adding a number as a contact or jumping to a URL in your browser). The OCR (text recognition) is still very good.

This is all the same as it was in the Note 3 – only with one subtle, but very cool, addition. Now you can stash your note on your home screen as a widget. Hold down on the thumbtack icon in Action Memo, and your note shrinks down into a tiny post-it note (unless your writing is teeny-weeny, it will still be legible). You can move the post-it around just like you would an app icon, or resize it like you would any other widget. And when you're done, just long-press on it and drag it into the trash. It's a great way to keep short-term notes handy.

Smart Select is another highlight of the Air Command menu. It lets you wrap a selection box around anything on your screen, and quickly stash it away for safe keeping. It's similar to the Note 3's Scrap Booker option, but better.

First, you don't have to draw a line all the way around your target; instead the pen creates a selection box (just drag from corner to corner). Second, if you select an image that includes text, it can use that same great text recognition to translate it into something you can directly edit or copy.

I see Smart Select as another example of the Note 4 adding fewer new features, but more that you'll want to use.

My favorite new S Pen feature is text selection. To use it, just hold down the S Pen's button and drag the pen over the text – similar to how you would with a mouse on a PC. It works with images in the gallery app too (selecting large chunks of photos was always a chore before this).

After selecting some text, there's also a new clipboard history toggle that sits alongside the usual copy/paste/cut options. Clipboard history was on my wish list for new features when I reviewed the Note 3, so it's nice to see Samsung ticking that box.

My only nitpick with the S Pen is that it feels like a remnant of Samsung's plastic-only past. It would have been great to see a metallic S Pen, but, alas, its plastic exterior is almost exactly like what we saw in the Note 3.

... and it isn't just that the pen looks cheap – it also picks up wear and tear more easily than I'd like. After about six days of regular use, I noticed some tiny scuffs on the pen's top end. It doesn't affect the experience of using it, but it would have been nice to see the stylus' build quality matching the phone's.

Swiping and shooting

This year the Note has a fingerprint sensor in its home button, similar to the ones found in the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Tab S. The Note's is still swipe-based, but it's more accurate than those devices' sensors. After learning exactly how to swipe (from the bottom of the screen down across the sensor), I can get it to register my fingerprint on the first try pretty much every time I unlock the phone.

While the Note's sensor is a welcome improvement – and an easy way to keep your phone secure – the iPhone's Touch ID requires no thought or effort whatsoever. You just rest your finger on it, and it reads it. This is one area where the iPhone 6 Plus has a leg up on the Note 4.

The Galaxy Note 4's camera is almost exactly like the one found in the Galaxy S5 – which is to say it's damn good. The camera app also fires up from the lock screen slightly faster than the GS5's, though still a hair slower than I'd like (I can go from sleeping phone to snapped pic in around 5 seconds).

One nice touch is Advanced Digital Zoom. On most smartphone cameras, zooming is the same as cropping. If you cropped a shot after the fact, the result would be exactly the same as if you'd zoomed in while shooting. But on the Note 4, when you're zooming between 4x and 8x, it snaps multiple exposures and automatically merges them into one more detailed image.

The resulting shots are clearer, with noticeably more detail, than zoomed photos on other smartphones' cameras. They still look a little muddy (that can only be helped so much with digital zoom), but it's a clearer and more detailed kind of mud.

There's also Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) onboard. It's a good pairing with those zoomed-in shots, where shaky hands are more likely to cause trouble. During my time with the Note, it does seem like I've taken fewer blurred shots than I take on other phones.

If you're into selfies, the Note 4 has two modes that can help you to capture your mug. Wide-angle selfie mode is a panorama mode for selfies: tilt the phone left and right (it prompts you) to squeeze more friends or background into the shot. Everyone does need to hold still while panning, though, or you'll get some missing limbs or Picasso-esque faces.

Rear-facing selfie mode lets you use the higher-resolution rear shooter to snap a selfie. After switching to this mode, just hold the phone away from you, with its back facing you, and the phone will beep when you're in the frame (it detects your face). A countdown then begins and it will snap a high-res self-portrait. It works as advertised.

Battery

Samsung promised better battery life in the Note 4, and I can vouch for that. In our standard test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, it only dropped 10 percentage points per hour. That's the best score we've seen from any smartphone we've tested (though the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 were hot on its heels).

If you do run out of juice after hours of gaming or a binge House of Cards session, the Note 4 juices up quickly. As long as you're using the default charger, Adaptive Fast Charging Mode kicks in, which Samsung says can get your phone from 0 to 50 percent battery in "about half an hour."

I put Fast Charging to the test. After letting the Note completely conk out, I plugged it in with the supplied cable and adapter and left its screen off (only turning it on occasionally to check the battery level). After half an hour, it had jumped to 41 percent. To get all the way from 0 to 50 percent, it took 37 minutes (I suppose that's "about" half an hour).

It might have charged quicker if I'd put it into Airplane Mode, but since you probably won't want to do that, I'd say these results are about what you'll see. Either way, it's impressive. Fast Charging is a terrific bonus that can get your Note's battery back to a comfortable level before you head out the door.

Ultra Power Saving Mode, familiar to Galaxy S5 owners, also makes its way to the Note 4. If you aren't familiar with this innovative software feature, you can hit up our GS5 review for more detail (it's unchanged in the Note).

... and of course you can always just buy a spare battery to swap out in a jam. If you remember to a) buy a spare, b) keep it charged and c) keep it with you, then it's a big advantage that Galaxy devices have over sealed-shut rivals like the iPhone, Nexus and HTC One. If you don't remember those three things, though, then it won't mean anything.

Multitasking

Split-screen multitasking has always been a big part of the Galaxy Note experience. Samsung's Multi Window is a good fit for the Note's big screen, letting you squeeze two apps onscreen at once. With the Note 4, you can also drag and drop some content (text or images) between Multi Window apps.

It's a great idea, if somewhat limited in execution. Multi Window itself has always been hit-or-miss with third-party apps (meaning many of them aren't compatible), and the drag-and-drop functionality is even more limited. So while you can drag text or images from Samsung's browser and drop it into a message in Samsung's messaging app (very cool), you can't drop it into a Hangouts message. Ditto for dragging an image from the Gallery into a Samsung Email (yep), but not into the Gmail app. On the whole, it's an awesome feature – but one that I wish was universal.

Pop-up Window, which replaces Pen Window, lets you run an app in a small window sitting on top of another. With the Note 4, you activate it by swiping down from the upper-left corner of the screen. As long as you're in an app that supports it, it will shrink into its own little desktop-style floating window. You can then resize it, move it, minimize it into a floating bubble, or close it. You can also open up to five pop-up windows at once.

Samsung suggests some examples where Pop-up Window could come in handy: like popping up the camera app so you can take pictures while also looking at walking navigation, or popping up a YouTube video while you take notes. Situations like that don't come up often in my workflow, but, if nothing else, Pop-up Window sits alongside Multi Window as a nice option to have waiting for you.

Head of its class

The Galaxy Note 4 shows that Samsung isn't content with just creating the phablet category – it wants to make the best phablet, year after year. And despite having much stiffer competition this year (especially from the iPhone 6 Plus and LG G3), I'd still cast my ballot for the Galaxy Note as head of this class.

The biggest question might be whether you want a large-screened smartphone at all. If you've never held a phablet, then you might want to wrap your hands around a display model to see if it's right for you. For what it's worth, my average-sized male hands have no problem whatsoever with it. My wife, whose hands are much smaller, also thought it felt comfortable.

If you are comfortable holding the Note 4, then you get one device that can serve as both big smartphone and small tablet. There are still perks to owning tablets (even the smallish iPad mini gives you 116 percent more screen than the Note 4 does), but I love the phablet's one mobile device to rule them all approach. It simplifies my device workflow: the one I want is always waiting in my pocket.

The Galaxy Note 4 isn't the kind of upgrade that screams at you from the showroom floor, flashing its new features like an air traffic controller. But it's a much better upgrade: the kind that reveals itself more the longer you spend with it. For a company once synonymous with plastic, glitz and bloat, this is a huge step in the right direction.

With a long list of strengths and no major weaknesses, the Note 4 is Samsung's best mobile device to date – and probably the best smartphone I've ever used.

The Galaxy Note 4 is up for pre-order now. It goes on sale in the US this Friday, October 17, starting at $300 on-contract or $700 full retail.

Product page: Samsung

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