Can the Galaxy Note 4 stay ahead of the pack in the phablet game? Source: Samsung Electronics
Samsung’s latest super phone, the Galaxy Note 4, is off to a rocketing start with the handset moving over 4.5 million units in just 30 days in South Korea and China. According to Samsung, demand for the handset has been even stronger in western markets like the United States and Europe with the Note 4 outpacing the sales of its predecessor in those regions.
Samsung has brought plenty to the table with this year’s refresh including a jaw-dropping spec-sheet and an improved S Pen stylus experience. The Note 4 also sports a premium metal design - a first in the company’s plastic laden smartphone history.
But with the meteoric rise of the phablet segment, the Galaxy Note 4 faces more competition than ever before, including Apple’s very own iPhone 6 Plus. So is the Note 4 still the best in its class?
It’s big and beautiful
Build quality and design aesthetics matter to the public and this is one critical area where Samsung has always lagged behind the smartphone competition. The company has finally addressed its critics and equipped the Galaxy Note 4 with a solid aluminium-magnesium frame complete with a gorgeous double-chamfer and a matte-finish coating.
The durable build and attention to design is a welcome change to the bland fragile plastic but we do, however, have a few concerns.
There is a noticeable gap between where the front glass panel meets the aluminium frame edge which is large enough to fit the edge of a business card. Samsung has come out and said that the issue doesn’t affect the functionality or quality of the device. While it’s more of an aesthetic issue, and an unflattering one at that, when compared to the gapless construction of the iPhone 6 Plus, it could easily become a magnet for dust and grit over time.
The polycarbonate back suggests that Samsung isn’t quite ready to give up on plastic but given the slippery nature of metal back smartphones, the additional grip that the soft-touch back provides is a welcome inclusion especially for a phone of this size. It isn’t as comfortable to hold as other large-screened phones like the LG G3 and OnePlus One, both of which offer thinner bezels and a curved back design that meld in the hand.
Nevertheless, the Galaxy Note 4 is much easier to grip and hold than the iPhone 6 Plus.
Overall, the Galaxy Note 4 is the most well built and striking smartphone that Samsung has ever made, but it’s still a notch below the all-metal and seamless construction of the iPhone 6 Plus and the One M8.
Speaking of big and beautiful, the 5.7-inch AMOLED display packs 2,560 x 1,440 pixels (QHD) making it on par with the LG G3 and a step above other 1080p smartphone flagships on the market.
For context, the Galaxy Note 4 has a higher resolution display than the HDTV in your living room and most desktop displays. More pixels are always nice as it naturally makes text crisper and images sharper but as we highlighted in our LG G3 review, it’s a subtle improvement rather than a noticeable leap.
What you will notice, however, is Samsung’s mastery of vibrant colours, inky blacks and striking contrasts that makes gazing at the display a treat for the eyes. Basically, Samsung has taken everything that was great about the class leading display on the S5 and improved it even further. You can now dim the screen right down to 10 nits for bedtime reading all the way up to an incredibly bright 750 nits for viewing the phone in direct sunlight. There is simply no other display on the market quite like it.
Cutting-edge internals and great battery life
The Galaxy Note 4 isn’t just big in stature, it’s also big when it comes to under the hood performance.
The Galaxy Note 4 is currently the only smartphone on the market to rock Qualcomm’s latest piece of souped up silicon - the Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor clocked at 2.7GHz and an Adreno 420 GPU. We also get 3GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage.
Despite the handset having to push almost twice as many pixels as a 1080p smartphone, the Note 4 crunched through anything we threw at it from graphically intensive games to switching between 20 or so open apps. Other than a slight delay in the multitasking ribbon appearing, we didn’t experience any stutter or lag during our time with the Galaxy Note 4.
What's perhaps more impressive is that the additional processing power and large Quad HD AMOLED display hasn’t come at the cost of precious battery life. We were able to get through a full day of heavy use while more moderate usage should see you through a second day, which is in line with last year’s Galaxy Note 3.
S Pen and TouchWiz
The active stylus S-Pen (developed in partnership with Wacom) has always been a key differentiator for the Note line and Samsung has made some key improvements to not only the pen itself which doubles last year’s precision to an impressive 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, but the underlying software as well.
The nib of the S-Pen is removable and there’s set of rubber and plastic nibs supplied in the box, depending on whether you plan to do more drawing or writing.
Of course, outside of jotting down notes and drawing, the S Pen can be used to navigate the OS, scrolling lists and webpages by holding the pen’s tip near the top or bottom of the screen, select and cut out content from different sources, annotate a document or just quickly mark up a screenshot - handy when you need to sketch out a detour or landmark over Google Maps for instance.
The S Pen, now more than ever, replicates the experience of using a mouse on a desktop with the ability to preview content when hovering over photos and videos complete with shortcuts to share, delete, or edit. By far the most useful new addition is the ability to select multiple files, photos or lines of text by simply holding down the pen’s button and dragging away.
While these mouse like S-Pen features felt intuitive and easy to use other new features like Photo Note, which allows you to snap the image of a whiteboard or a handwritten page of text and perform edits directly from the handset, were cumbersome and poorly executed in comparison.
There are other inconsistencies that mar the software experience such as multi-window which allows you to run two apps simultaneously in a split-screen style mode but is sadly limited to Samsung’s native apps and a handful of third-party apps. Support for dragging and dropping content between open apps and the ability to run apps in pop-up windows is the same story.
On the topic of pop-up window, you can now have the camera viewfinder running alongside another open app allowing you to text while keeping an eye on obstacles in front of you using the viewfinder.
There’s also a new voice recording feature called ‘meeting mode’ which takes advantage of several microphones onboard the Galaxy Note 4 that can distinguish sounds coming from up to eight directions and isolate specific voices during playback, making it an ideal recording option for large meetings.
Overall, the Galaxy Note 4 offers a wealth of software features so long as you understand the quirks and limitations.
Samsung has improved the 16-megapixel camera we first saw on the Galaxy S5 with optical image stabilisation (OIS) hardware and a more open aperture. The result is a handset that is almost identical in performance when taking shots during the day but a marked improvement in challenging night-time shots producing brighter images and better detail.
There’s also a 3.7-megapixel front facing camera that offers the option of using the heart rate monitor (mounted next to the camera flash on the back of the phone) as a shutter button, which worked well in our testing.
A new feature that real estate agents are likely to appreciate is the ability to create an interactive virtual tour from a series of snaps and sharing them via cloud storage or email in mere seconds.
The best large-screen phone on the market
Anyone in the market for a phablet should look no further than the Galaxy Note 4. Sure, the S-Pen might not be for everyone and TouchWiz still isn’t as intuitive as it needs to be but it offers so much more than your typical smartphone.
While we would have liked to have seen front firing stereo speakers and waterproofing like on some other handsets, there’s simply no better smartphone on the market for power users and professionals who envisage using a large screened smartphone for more than just content consumption.