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Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 comes out this Friday. It’s the fourth generation of the phone that first defined the “phablet” — the trend of phones with big screens that seems to have eaten the smartphone market.
But it’s not just screen size that defines the Galaxy Note, it’s also the S Pen: A stylus and software combo that is now more mature than those offered by any other mobile device maker. I’ve been using the Note 4 for the past week, and it’s a very nice phone, easily one of the most polished and powerful available. But now that almost all smartphones have caught up to the big screen, does the Note have enough to stand out anymore?
Hardware: The new aluminum construction is great
Let’s face it: The Galaxy Note 4 is large. It’s about the same size as its predecessor, which means it’s a little over 6 inches long and 3 inches wide. If you’re wondering if it’s too big, you’re probably better off with a smaller handset.
Although it’s the same size, the Galaxy Note 4 feels a lot better in the hand than the older Galaxy Note 3 because of a new design using an aluminum frame around the sides. The result is a much more solid feeling compared to phones such as the Galaxy S5 which can feel “plastic-y.” Samsung first used this type of aluminum frame on the Galaxy Alpha, and I’d love to see them use it on more phones in the future because it makes the phones feel strong yet light.
The Galaxy Note 4 has slim bezels on the top and the bottom of its face framing a 5.7-inch, 1440 x 2560 screen. The glass is slightly curved on the edges (like the iPhone 6) which gives a nice effect where the screen looks soft and maybe a little wet. This display is a looker. Its easy to tell even at a glance how deep its blacks are and how vividly it displays color thanks to Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen.
Some bloggers have made a big deal over “gapgate,” claiming that there are build issues where the glass screen meets the rest of the phone. I do not think the gap between the glass and the frame is an issue.
The button layout is classic Samsung: A big physical home button flanked by capacitive back and multitasking buttons, power on the right and a volume rocker on the left. Underneath the easily removable back panel is a replaceable battery and a slot for a Micro SD card.
On the bottom right corner of the handset you’ll find the S Pen.
In the United States, the Galaxy Note 4 is running on a [company]Qualcomm[/company] Snapdragon 805, which is a pretty fast chip. It’s got four Krait cores and a powerful Adreno 420 GPU. It’s one of the last high-end 32-bit chips though, so it won’t be able to take advantage of new 64-bit capabilities in Android L. It’s paired with 3GB of RAM.
The result is a phone that can handle almost anything you can throw at it. A lot of lag and stutter has been improved in Android in recent years, but the Galaxy Note 4 is particularly responsive. Benchmarks back up anecdotal evidence, with Geekbench scores beating other phones like the Galaxy S5.
Software is all about the S Pen
The Galaxy Note 4 is running Android 4.4, and Samsung has promised they’ll update it quickly to Android L. It also has a lot of Samsung software — including, but not limited to, the S Pen apps.
The S Pen is a stylus with a button that can be used as a mouse or as a pen. The primary way a lot of people will interact with it is through a function called Air Command, which you activate by hovering the S Pen close to the screen and pressing the stylus button. Air Command has four primary functions: Action memo, Smart select, Image clip, and Screen write.
The various pen functions feed into a Samsung app, S Note, which is more of a full featured experience like Evernote as opposed to the simple notepad on other devices.
Action memo is a sticky note app, and it gains a nifty ability to pin a sticky note on a home screen like a widget. It certainly helps the post-it experience. But how many people have unused space on their homescreen? It also doesn’t work with other launchers.
Smart select takes screenshots with the S Pen, and it’s very good at what it does. It does make taking a screenshot of part of a screen — like a single tweet — much easier.
Image clip replicates the screenshot abilities of Smart select, but with a freehand cursor provided by the S Pen instead of a box. Screen write lets you annotate any of these various screenshots.
The Air Command interface looks out of place on Android and it’s not intuitive, even though each option is clearly labeled. For me, there isn’t anything I end up wanting to do with the S Pen. It probably gets better with habitual use, but I still felt the experience was inessential, although it could be different for you especially if you speak another language or like to jot down notes in your own handwriting.
Say what you will about TouchWiz, Samsung’s interface that’s been developed over years, but at this point you can take what you want and leave the rest, especially with free launchers like the new Google Now launcher which provides a non-Samsung experience.
The fingerprint scanner and heart rate monitor from the Galaxy S5 are also on the Galaxy Note 4. I still find the fingerprint security experience to be a bit of a pain (you can’t swipe your finger up, for instance) and I still suspect most Samsung device owners might not even know the heart rate monitor is on the back, underneath the camera.
The camera is solid but could be better
The 16 megapixel camera on the Galaxy Note 4 can perform some impressive tricks, including optical image stabilization. It can also shoot 60fps video at 1080p, although it only records 4K video at 30fps.
Here’s an unedited photo:
Here’s a 1 to 1 crop:
Samsung’s seriously simplified their camera lately. There’s still panorama and selfie modes built into the camera software, but for general use, almost everyone’s going to be using the straightforward Auto mode, which is pretty fast at focusing, and produces fine images.
In daylight, the camera produced passable images, good enough for most purposes besides making prints. In low light, however, photos get grainy quickly. The Galaxy Note 4 is best-in-class in a lot of respects, but the camera is not one.
It’s an expensive phone, but it’s Samsung’s best
The Galaxy Note 4 is expensive — $300 with a 2-year contract, or $850 unlocked, and it’s a worthy and superior successor to previous Galaxy Note phones. If you’re looking to upgrade from the, say, Galaxy Note 2, you’ll find a lot to like here.
However, you should consider how much you like using a stylus. If the idea of using the S Pen to interact with your phone is appealing, then the Note 4 is probably a good fit for you. If you know the pen’s not for you, you might want to consider the Galaxy S5, which is less powerful but it’s also less expensive.
On the back of the Galaxy Note 4 is a perfectly acceptable fake leather. I like the way it feels, but it’s clearly a synthetic. I’d really like to see Samsung distinguish the Note line by making it their most premium. While it’s got the best of Samsung’s components, it’s the little details, like how nice the leather back is, which will make the extra cost easier to justify.
But there’s less to recommend the Note 4 than in other years, mainly because you’ve got other handset options in the 5.5 to 6 inch range. The LG G3 has a similar high-resolution screen, and the latest Nexus will be a 6-inch beast made by Motorola. Alternatively, you can save some money and get a perfectly acceptable, less powerful phablet for as little as $300. Apple, in case you hadn’t heard, also now makes a phablet of its own.
That makes the Galaxy Note’s primary selling point for many people — aside from the S Pen for those who want it — its big, high-resolution AMOLED screen. I don’t think the increased screen resolution is a reason to buy the Galaxy Note 4 over certain 1080p smartphones. As I’ve explained before, I’m not sure the human eye notices those extra pixels. But the main circumstance where the increased resolution comes in handy is when your eyes are up close and personal — which is why the Note 4 is the only current device that will work with Samsung’s planned Gear VR virtual reality headset.
It’s not clear when or if the Gear VR will gain a commercial release in the United States, but if you’re into cutting edge tech, the $200 headset is a big reason to pick the Note 4 over other high-end handsets.