A large-scale smartphone seems trivial now, but if we wind things back to September 2011 most devices on the market at the time were around 3.5in up to 4.7in at most. This was the status quo when Samsung rocked up at the annual IFA conference in Berlin, Germany, with the first-gen 5.2in Galaxy Note handset, the very first “phablet”. Needless to say, people were a bit shocked, not least the assembled skeptical tech press, many of whom muttered and moaned about the XXL proportions. Samsung knew better though, having clearly conducted a fair bit of market research before developing the collosal device; consumers loved the thing and it flew off store shelves around the world (but particularly in Asia).
In some ways the Galaxy Note brand has gone on to overtake the main Galaxy S flagship line as the company’s consistently popular handset. Samsung’s launched a new version of it at every annual IFA event since and it has continued to innovate significantly with each new model.
Since the Note series’ tentative beginning, Samsung has released three more generations of the handset. It’s now pretty much the undisputed leader in the phablet space. So much so, in fact, that major rivals, including Apple and Google, are playing catch-up with their own recently released super-sized smartphones (Nexus 6 and iPhone 6 Plus). However, these big guns have so far only paid attention to one aspect of Samsung’s winning formula: size. And that’s important because the Note series is actually about more than just a larger phone – over time, Samsung has carefully moulded the Galaxy Note concept and some of its best features are still yet to be beaten.
The Galaxy Note series is not only still one of the only phablets to offer a stylus, but thanks to the use of an ultra-senstivie Wacom digitiser and amazing handwriting recognition software, it also offers one of the best stylus experiences anywhere. Period. On top of that, Samsung realises the big screen needs to be actually useful, and there’s a ton of multitasking features squeezed into every iteration of the Galaxy Note which mean you can make full use of the expanded real estate.
The latest Galaxy Note addition, version 4, joins the likes of LG’s G3 and Google’s Nexus 6 in a rather exclusive club –– the QHD display club. Now, a lot more handsets with 2K displays will appear during Q1 2015, but not many of them will hugely broad appeal of Samsung’s Galaxy Note brand. Indeed, in recent time the Note range has begun eclipsing Samsung’s longstanding Galaxy S flagship brand. Of course, with the release of the Samsung Galaxy S6 at MWC 2015 all of this could change.
Design & Build
The Galaxy Note 4 clearly presented Samsung with something of a problem – the company had already honed its phablet concept into something optimal and refined with the Galaxy Note 3; what then, could be changed on the successor model? Well, on the outside not a great deal, it must be said.
The corners have been rounded off a wee bit more and the front glass panel is slightly raised and curved, while being embedded into the fascia for a unique look. Samsung’s usual silver surround design has been split into two ultra-thin bands with a slight contour to them and which sit between where the edges meet both front and back panels. The end result is that the sides are extremely flat, which helps with grip, and the edges are fashioned from a quality-feel matte aluminium. Not only is it practical but it looks pretty sharp too.
Samsung’s display tech has come under fire in the past over issues of colour accuracy and tinting, however, the 5.7in Super AMOLED panel has been upgraded with a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution at 515 pixels-per-inch (ppi), making it extremely sharp. The colour issue has been improved though, you still get a very vivid and saturated image as per Samsung’s apparently preferred style, but you’re not getting colours completely missed and swapped for bluish or greenish tones this time around.
Processor & Performance
The Galaxy Note 4 packs Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon chip, the Snapdragon 805. It’s a quad-core setup based on the updated Krait 450 architecture clocked at 2.7GHz, with an Adreno 420 graphics processor (GPU) and 3GB of RAM. Naturally this is a supercharged monster of a chip and easily capable of running even the most badass games, apps, and content from Google’s Play store. But then of course, so could the Snapdragon 801, and the Snapdragon 800.
In general operation it is pretty darn smooth, I had previously read reports of some juddering but can’t say I’ve encountered this myself; TouchWiz seems to slither effortlessly from one screen to the next.
In short, the Note 4 never felt lacking when it comes to sheer processing muscle. You’re unlikely to find it falling short for some time to come, or at least until app content becomes much more advanced and demanding.
Storage, Connectivity & Other Hardware
You’ve only got one option with the Note 4 and that’s 32GB of onboard storage with support formicroSD cards up to 128GB. Still, that’s a fair bit of space all in, so most users needs should be catered for. The phone supports 4G LTE 800/850/900/1800/2100/2600 and 3G including HSPA+, then there’s also dual-band Wi-Fi with Hotspot and Wi-Fi Direct. Bluetooth 4.1 is supported along with NFC, GPS, microUSB with MHL3 TV-Out, and there’s an infrared blaster for TV control. I know some of you still like FM Radios onboard your phones but you’re out of luck here as the Note 4 doesn’t pack one in.
The phone has a decent speaker on the rear panel, the quality is fine for watching films and the like and volume levels can be plenty loud. However, being a solo setup and rear-facing it’s not the best situation for multimedia. Methinks this could be a big area of improvement for Sammy on future devices.
Software & UI
TouchWiz is a hefty enough software as it is these days but on the Galaxy Note series it’s a whole different animal, with a big boatload of extra features designed to take advantage of that massive display and S-Pen stylus input. On the Galaxy Note 4 it is much the same deal as the Note 3, although there are a few tweaks here and there. The majority of capabilities here are pretty much the same, except this time it’s over the top of Android 4.4.4 KitKat straight out the box.
Air Command: Action memo, Smart select, Image clip, Screen write
The radial Air Command menu has returned once again, but this time the options contained within are a little different. Action memo remains the same and allows you to quickly scribble down notes, it’s a bit like a “lite” version of the full S Note application. Smart select and Image clip are both similar and are designed to allow you to screen capture and edit whatever is on screen, but each allows you to draw and select a specific area – with Smart select you drag a box, while Image clip lets you draw a freehand shape around what you want. Smart select allows you to share the image, send it to the Scrapbook application, or “Collect” it, which effectively saves it onto your homescreen as a post-it for later access. Image clip enables you to transform the shape of the copied image, Scrapbook it, or share it.
Lastly, Screen write is similar to what we saw on the Note 3 – it captures a screenshot of whatever is on the display and allows you to write or draw over it, edit, crop, and share.
What’s a little disappointing here is the apparent loss of some features we saw aboard the Note 3 (I say apparent because I’ll concede I may have just been unable to find them, but I did have a good long look and it doesn’t seem they’re there). Most notable is the absence of Pen Window, which allowed you to draw a box on the display to overlay a miniature application (for example, a calculator) – this further enhanced the already impressive multitasking, so to see it removed is a bit of a shame to say the least.
One other cool feature worth mentioning is that you can capture a picture of a document using the phone’s camera and it’ll convert it into an editable image that you can write and draw over.
Samsung has continued to improve its already impressive S-Pen stylus capabilities, the S-Pen is now much more sensitive than before and this means handwriting and sketching are pinpoint accurate, but also incredibly smooth in operation. Depending on which pen you choose in the S Note application you can get different results – the fountain pen is particularly good with its digital ink making even quickly scribbled notes a bit more presentable.
On top of this you also have the built-in keyboard functionality, which allows you to select a handwriting mode that will convert your writing into typed text (which can also be copied, pasted, and edited on the fly) – this is highly accurate and useful in a wide-range of situations, although I did notice that Google’s Hangouts application didn’t seem to support the feature, so it’s not exactly universal.
Image quality is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Samsung’s previous camera setups, particularly the Galaxy S5 and Note 3 – Samsung tunes its imaging for photos that really pop, with excellent dynamic range and contrast, and very vibrant colour even outside of HDR mode. While the sharpness and clarity isn’t going to have the Lumia 1020 or Sony Xperia Z3 quaking in their boots any time soon, it’s still plenty capable enough and puts much of the competition to shame – the optical stabilisation does seem to make a real difference both to the sharpness of the image generally and its ability to capture decent pics even in conditions that are not exactly ideal (on the move, shaky hangover hands, in a vehicle etc). Once again, Samsung also makes actually capturing good shots quickly an easy process.
Samsung’s managed to play the Galaxy Note series’ larger scale to its advantage for some time, with monstrous batteries providing at least better-than-average life spans between charging. It’s not always plain sailing though as the larger and higher resolution displays do take a hefty bite out of things. Still, somehow Samsung has managed to deliver excellent battery performance on the Note 4. I ran our video test with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which is just shy of 2.45 hours on runtime. Starting from 100% charge, with brightness on full and Wi-Fi switched on, a pre-loaded video from Google Play left the handset with an incredible 78% at the end of the film. I also tested using a one-and-a-half hour film played repeatedly from 100% charge until the battery died, with full brightness – this lasted eight hours and twenty minutes.
Just using the phone as my daily driver saw some fairly moderate use with browsing, note-taking, a spot of Youtube, calls, texts, Facebook, and a few other odds and sods. In spite of all this I still managed to get the best part of two days out of the handset, which is perhaps not quite as long as the Galaxy Note 3 but it does have a higher resolution display and a faster CPU. It still lasts a long-ass time though, in my opinion.
The removable cell is a 3,220mAh unit, meaning you’re able to swap out a new cell on the go or if your existing one becomes faulty. The Note 4 also features the Ultra Power Saving mode seen on the Galaxy S5, which when enabled turns the screen black and white and only allows a small handful of applications alongside calls and texts. This mode predicts how much life you’ll get from the battery percentage ahead of time, with a 100% charge stating 15.6 days. That’s a long time, and certainly useful for when you think you may be away from a charger for an extended period and may need to make the odd call – it’s not as long as I was expecting though considering the Galaxy S5’s smaller cell promises about 12 days from 100%, still – can’t really complain can I?