Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in-depth review - The feature-packed super phablet

 Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review - The feature-packed super phablet
5

Review by Sunetra Chakravati,10/16/2014 12:14:53 PM

10

out of 10

Performance

9

out of 5

Look and feel

9

out of 5

Ease of use

10

out of 5

Features

9

out of 5

Battery life

Pros:

Premium metal design | Quad HD screen | Camera great in low-light

Cons:

Too big for some | TouchWiz still not perfected | Expensive

Samsung’s award-winning phablet is back for its fourth generation and features a stunning Quad-HD screen, a more sensitive S Pen stylus, more powerful processor, and a new metal design. Will these be enough to earn another year of phabet glory, or will it suffer in the wake of the new (and equally massive) iPhone 6 Plus?

Samsung Galaxy Note 4: Look and Feel

Along with the Galaxy Alpha, the Note 4 represents a new chapter in Samsung’s smartphone design language. Gone are the chrome-covered plastic edges, replaced by a sturdy and shimmering metal chassis with chamfered edges. It’s a huge improvement over the previous three generations of Note phones and goes some way towards justifying the steep £629 price tag.


The metal frame - although mostly painted white and very easily scratched on its polished edges - does much to improve the Note’s design, but the back panel is still a plastic, fake leather affair as it was on the Note 3; mercifully, the fake stitching of the previous model has been dropped, but I’d like to see either real leather (like the new Motorola Moto X), or a softer plastic to match the texture.

At 8.5mm the Note 4 is thin enough to disguise much of its large frame, while a weight of 176g just about sits the right side of premium-heavy, not annoying-heavy.


The Note 4 is waterproof, but finally such a claim doesn’t come with the burden of flaps covering its ports; yes, somehow the microUSB charging port is waterproof without being covered up. Setting this phone apart from its rivals is the S Pen stylus, which tucks into the lower-right corner - more on this later.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4: Display

On paper the 5.7-inch screen of the Note 4 kicks almost all of its rivals to the kerb. A Quad HD resolution of 1440 x 2550 and pixel density of 515 per inch puts it on par with the excellent LG G3 and means many more pixels than the iPhone 6 Plus.

But it’s not as simple as that. While all those pixels make images pin-sharp and text beautifully rounded and smooth, it doesn’t mean the Note can actually fit more on its display. Open Twitter or Facebook on the Note 4 and iPhone 6 (which has a screen an inch smaller), and you can see exactly the same amount of tweets and statuses at a time, only everything is bigger on the Samsung.


For me this defeats the point of offering a higher resolution, but hopefully in the future application developers will create apps specifically designed to harness the extra pixels of Quad HD screens.

Just a year or so ago AMOLED screens like this would produce colours artificially bright and far too vivid, but thankfully for the Note 4 Samsung has upped its game in creating a screen which is almost perfect. Whites still develop a blue tinge the moment you look at the phone off-centre, and viewing angles are generally better on the iPhone 6 Plus, but these are small complaints.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4: Software and Performance

Until recently Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface was a cartoonish and convoluted mess, but starting with the Galaxy S5 earlier this year the company has worked hard to fix this. With the Note 4 it’s got closer than ever to a system which is as simple as it is powerful. It still makes annoying bloopy noises until you switch them off, there are still 21 settings in the pull-down panel, and there are still so many options in the Settings app itself that they take up six pages, but the general experience is gradually becoming more streamlined and intuitive.

S Health makes a welcome return from previous outings with the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Alpha, recording your walking, running, cycling, hiking, sleep, heart rate and more. New for the Note 4 is an oxygen saturation level monitor which records how much oxygen is in your blood, as well as a UV sensor to give a reading on how harmful the sun is; both of these are on the back of the phone, next to the camera flash.


A gutsy 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor with a healthy 3GB of RAM gives you all the performance you’ll ever need; apps open quickly, games are super smooth and HD video is flawless. Only the fingerprint scanner on the home button lets things down a bit, as it just isn’t as reliable as the iPhone 6’s and sometimes required a second swipe to work properly.

After 30 hours the Note 4 was down to 15% battery life, so it’ll easily see you through a full day of average to heavy use, or possibly stretch to two days of lighter use. For last-ditch situations there’s Ultra Power Saving Mode, which turns the screen to grey and limits you to calls, texts and email. With this turned on the last 10% of charge should see you through an extra day.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4: S Pen

Unique to the Note range and very much its raison d'etre is the S Pen stylus, which slides out of the lower-right corner. Its plastic nib has 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity - double that of the Note 2 and 3 - and as well as drawing, annotating, taking screenshots and jotting down notes, it acts as a handy way of navigating around the Note’s massive screen.


There’s something strangely satisfying about scything your way through Android with the S Pen, and new for the Note 4 are smart copying and pasting features which make grabbing bits of text and moving them between apps a doddle.

Where Apple entered the phablet market by taking the iPhone 6, photocopying it at 120% and adding a few software tweaks, Samsung has always offered that bit more with the Note; a stylus won’t be for everyone, but it demonstrates how the company is trying to make the phablet an entirely separate category of phone, not just a bigger version of what we already have.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4: Camera

The stripping back of software is most obvious in the camera app, where there are just seven different shooting modes; more settings and means of adjustment can be found, but they are hidden away from all but those few users who really want to adjust white balance, exposure and ISO.


A 16-megapixel sensor means the rear camera produces great photos and it can be used to take a selfie by either saying “cheese” outloud, or by tapping the rear-mounted heart rate monitor. Alternatively you can use the 3.7-megapixel front camera, which has a wide angle lens and can record Full HD video.

The rear camera can shoot 4K Quad HD video, as well as 240 frames-per-second slow motion, fast motion and ‘smooth motion.’

Optical image stabilisation means low-light photos look fantastic. Extra light hits the sensor, producing brighter and more detailed shots without relying on the flash. The two shots below were taken on the same road within a minute of each other. Although the image on the left - taken by the Note 4 - benefits slightly from the oncoming car headlights, you can see just how much more light is captured compared to the image on the right, taken with an iPhone 6.


Samsung Galaxy Note 4: Voice Recorder

Not usually a topic for much discussion in a phone review, the voice recorder of the Note 4 is something else. Using three microphones the phone is able to tell which direction sound is coming from, then isolate or mute it when playing back the recording. This means up to eight different voices can be detected, labelled and muted when listening back; say the person you’re listening to is interrupted by someone else in the room - you can simply mute the second person and their interruption is no longer heard.

It’s a very smart piece of technology and one which will be useful for journalists conducting interviews in noisy environments.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4: The Verdict

This is the best phablet ever made and it comes from a company which understand the needs of consumers looking for a bigger phone. Unlike the iPhone 6 Plus, the Note 4 offers more than just a big screen; this isn’t merely a bigger version of the Galaxy S5 or Galaxy Alpha - it’s an entirely separate product, thanks to its design, screen resolution and, most importantly, the S Pen stylus.

Many see phone styluses as a gimmick, but try the S Pen and it could well transform how you use the handset. The Note 4 has great design (minus the fake leather rear), superb build quality, an excellent screen, stonking performance, a great camera, and software which is (slowly) improving all the time. Not everyone wants a phone this big, and that’s fine, but for those who do the Note 4 is the one to get.

The iPhone 6 Plus will undoubtedly steal sales from the Samsung, but for those who are agnostic when it comes to operating systems, the Note 4 offers the more complete package.