Are phablets the new flagships? It certainly looks that way if the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is anything to go by.
Samsung has hit back with cutting-edge specs, the company’s first ever quad HD display on a smartphone and improved pen stylus experience. But will it be enough?
Samsung goes metal
The Galaxy Note 4 marks the company’s first small step towards metal smartphones by adopting an actual aluminium frame, as opposed to the fake chrome trim that was used in previous flagships. In truth, most average consumers are unlikely to notice as the rest of the phone is still all plastic right down to the faux-leather back, which makes a return from the Note 3. Physically, the Note 4 looks almost identical to its predecessor, with Samsung choosing to play it safe in the design stakes as it did with the S5. Unlike the S5 however, the Note 4 lacks any form of waterproofing.
For the first in the Note series, Samsung has elected not to increase the display size, choosing instead to pack more pixels inside the 5.7-inch screen. The Note 4 packs a 1440 x 2560 resolution display, moving from 386 PPI to a whopping 515 PPI. The Note 4 joins other Quad HD competitors like the LG G3 and Oppo Find 7 but Samsung once again leads the pack with its superior AMOLED display technology that simply makes content pop on-screen.
Camera and battery
Pushing all those extra pixels to the screen draws more power and as the battery is only 20mAh bigger than the Note 3, I am concerned that the Note 4 will lack the remarkable endurance of its predecessor. Samsung however, claims that the Note 4 will have considerably more battery life thanks to the power efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor on board. Having to charge the unit itself shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience though, thanks to Qualcomm’s QuickCharge technology that enables the Note 4 to be charged from 0-50 per cent in just half the time (30 minutes) while going from a completely dead state to 100 per cent charge only takes 99 minutes - 40 minutes less than if it didn’t have QuickCharge.
Samsung is using the same 16 megapixel camera from the S5 however the shooter should perform better in low-light as the lens stays open longer, allowing the sensor to capture more light. Optical Image Stablisation (OIS) has also been added so video recording should be largely a shake free experience. In the age of selfies, the front facing camera is increasingly becoming an area of importance for smartphone manufacturers and Samsung has followed suit with an improved 3.7 megapixel sensor and a wide angle lens to fit more people in the shot.
S Pen software
The S Pen has always been a critical differentiator for Samsung in a market overrun with big screen smartphones and the company continues to improve the stylus experience on the Note 4.
Samsung has doubled the pressure sensitivity to 2048 points, which for context, makes it inline with professional graphics tablets and should provide a more authentic pen experience.
The S Pen functionality has also been expanded to work more like a mouse such as selecting several images or copying text content by simply clicking and dragging the S Pen across the screen.
Samsung is also hoping to swoon handwriting purists who might be put off by the plastic stylus by offering two custom pens from venerable pen maker Montblanc. The “Pix” and the “e-StarWalker” look and feel like high-end pens executed in the classic style but are designed for use with the Note 4 and comes complete with swappable nubs. This piece of luxury won’t come cheap - the e-StarWalker is set to retail for $US525 while the Pix will set you back $US350.
On the S Pen software front, the Note 4 boasts easier to use multi-tasking features that take advantage of its large screen. A new Smart Select feature enables users to easily piece together content from different origins, and share it with ease. The Snap Note feature allows users to take a picture of their notes on a paper or a classroom board, and then quickly and easily convert to a digital note with complete editing support using the S Pen.
Samsung lifts the design innovation stakes with the Edge. Source: Samsung
Galaxy Note Edge
Samsung also announced a second model, the Galaxy Note Edge (read a hands on review here) which is essentially a carbon copy of the Note 4 but adds a thin ticker-style sidebar display on the right edge of the phone and effectively acts as an independent screen that can be used to display sports scores, tweets, weather and notifications.
While it’s an interesting idea, the problem is that the ticker information can’t actually be on-screen without covering up content on the main screen. The secondary screen also slopes downward creating a lopsided design and distorts the content on the display.
A woman wearing Samsung's virtual-reality headset. Source: Bloomberg News
Samsung Galaxy VR headset
Samsung is entering the Virtual Reality game with the Galaxy VR headset - a self-contained unit which essentially acts as a plastic shell for the Note 4 to plug into via the micro USB port.
The headset was built by leaders in the VR space, Oculus, and essentially takes advantage of the QHD AMOLED display of the Note 4 for lag free VR gaming and stereoscopic 3D movie watching experience on the go.
The appeal for an accessory like this is certainly niche, after all, it’s hard to see anyone being brave enough to strap on one of these in public.
We also have our doubts about the quality of the VR experience and the availability of an adequate content library. Android game developers and movie studios will really need to get behind this for it to have any chance of success. And with the whole thing being powered by the mobile processor on the Galaxy Note 4, there will be technical limitations that are bound to hamper the VR experience. As Oculus demonstrated with their own Rift headset, VR requires the power of a high end PC to sell the illusion of immersion. We will reserve our final judgement until we get our hands on a review unit later this year.
With weaker than expected sales of the Galaxy S5 and increasing competition from big-screen Chinese brands, the world’s biggest phone maker is banking on its newest flagship to make a mark. The momentum behind phablets is only set to continue with IDC tipping the category to surpass tablets and portable PCs in 2015. And with Apple set to debut a phablet of its own, the Galaxy Note 4 faces more competition than ever.