Who knew what began in 2011 as a brand-new phone category would have flourished into one of the most popular in the world. Smartphones with big screens (phablets, to some) are now ubiquitous, but it all started with an odd device called the Samsung Galaxy Note.
Four iterations later, the Note series has continued to grow, mature and dominate the genre. Not only does the latest version, the Galaxy Note 4, come with the snazziest spec sheet on the market, but it also ushers in a fantastic new direction in Samsung’s design. It sure sounds like an improvement over last year’s model, and it is. Now that Apple’s ready to tackle the Note with a large-screen phone of its own, however, is Samsung’s baby still the best in its class?
Thanks to the company’s love of consistency, the Note 4 uses the same overall design and is just as aesthetically appealing as its smaller sibling. Its predecessor, last year’s Note 3, was a big step in the right direction, featuring a bigger screen and fashionable leather-like back. But it wasn’t enough. The ribbed chrome sides, the pointless stitches and the larger-than-life connector port at the bottom made it look cheaper than it needed to be. The Note 4 resolves those problems with aluminum sides, chamfered edges and smooth curves, and has a much more elegant appearance as a result.
Only the sides and edges of the Note 4 are aluminum, while the remainder of the phone is built with polycarbonate. And that’s OK. Samsung’s been opposed to using metal of any kind in its phones for years, and building a device with aluminum on the sides and plastic on the back is a solid compromise that makes it plenty durable. After all, most all-metal phones don’t come with removable backs, and that’s one of Samsung’s biggest strengths; for as long as I can remember, the company has allowed users to swap batteries and add external storage via microSD slots underneath the back cover. Now you can have the best of both worlds.
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Fortunately, Samsung pulled off this new design without adding much bulk. It’s 2.3mm taller, 0.6mm narrower and 0.2mm thicker than the Note 3 and, at 176 grams, it’s also 8g heavier. Slightly noticeable when the two devices are compared side by side, perhaps, but otherwise a wash when it comes to the in-hand experience; I probably wouldn’t be able to pick out which one was which if I were blindfolded.
On the front, there’s an LED indicator on the top left, proximity sensors next to the earpiece in the top center and a 3.7-megapixel selfie cam placed in the top right. You’ll also get a home button doubling as a fingerprint sensor, which is very easy to press because it’s slightly raised above the glass; this is flanked by two capacitive keys (recent apps and back).
Just like the sides they’re affixed to, the volume and power buttons (on the left and right sides, respectively) are also fashioned out of aluminum, and match up with the industrial design very well — plastic buttons would’ve looked awfully out of place. The 3.5mm headphone jack and IR sensor (for remote control functionality) are on the top, and a micro-USB port sits in the middle of the bottom side, while the S Pen holster rests closer to the corner. Curiously, the micro-USB connector is 2.0, which is technically a step down from the 3.0 socket found on the Note 3. While this means your data transfers won’t be as fast via cable, it also looks a lot cleaner; the port on the Note 3 was bigger, unsightly, took up too much space and, let’s face it, was never used to its full potential. It feels odd to say, but this is one time I’m happy to see Samsung go back to an older protocol. Unfortunately, the fact that the port is open, rather than sealed shut like it is on the Galaxy S5, shows that the Note 4 is not waterproof.
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When I first saw the Note 4 in October, I took a quick glance at the bottom and immediately thought the entire back was curved. After a moment, I realized that I fell victim to a design trick: The top and bottom of the frame have curves that give the device extra sleekness, but the bed of the phone on which the back cover rests is ever-so-slightly raised above the frame and is still completely flat.
The Galaxy S5 was the first Samsung device with a built-in heart rate monitor on the back, housed below the camera module and next to the LED flash. The Note 4 does the same, but it adds extra sensors for ultraviolet rays and blood oxygen levels. There’s also a mono speaker grille in the bottom-left corner; I’m not sure why it wasn’t just built into the bottom of the phone, like it is in the similarly designed Galaxy Alpha or even last year’s Note 3, but I suppose it’s at least consistent with how it’s positioned on the GS5. Underneath the back cover are the microSD and micro-SIM slots (not nano-SIM, like many competitors are using now), along with the 3,220mAh battery.
Samsung dabbled with a Quad HD display on a Korean version of the Galaxy S5, and now it’s ready to bring larger panels with the same resolution into full production on the Note 4. This means you’ll get to enjoy a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 on a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen, equaling 515 ppi in pixel density. Obviously, it’s a much higher number than the Note’s 386 ppi, 1080p display. It’s hard to say no to more pixels, especially on such a large device, but you’re not missing out on a vastly improved viewing experience if you don’t get the new phone — the old Note’s screen was quite lovely already, after all. The Note 4 panel is subtly better, with slightly crisper text and sharper image quality, but again, you’re not going to notice a drastic improvement over the last version unless you’re looking at them side by side (which, let’s face it, rarely happens).
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Of course, increases in display resolution mean more pixels to power up, so Quad HD screens aren’t exactly energy efficient. The good news is, as you’ll see later, that Samsung has found a way to compensate for that issue without having to use a significantly bigger battery. So, go ahead and enjoy the fantastic viewing angles, high outdoor visibility and extra details, all while shrugging at Samsung’s use of color saturation (you can’t say the company isn’t consistent) without feeling like it’s going to shut off any second.
There’s more to the Note 4’s camera than just a simple bump in resolution from 13MP to 16MP — a lot more. The new shooter also comes with optical image stabilization, which is a first in any Samsung Galaxy smartphone (except the Zoom series). As I’ll discuss shortly, this makes a difference in the performance of the camera.
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The rear camera isn’t the only one that got a quality boost — flip it around and you’ll see a much better “selfie camera” as well. As painful as the term sounds, every phone maker is pushing hard to capitalize on the selfie trend. Samsung’s in it to win it too, with a 3.7MP camera that offers a generous f/1.9 aperture (compared to f/2.45 on the Note 3 and f/2.4 on the GS5) for better low-light performance. Those vain glamour shots of yourself need to be taken just as often at night as during the day, right? It’s still a little blurry — in comparison, the 6 Plus’ nighttime selfies are sharper, but much noisier — but it’s a vast improvement over the other Samsung flagships because you can actually see your face.
Aside from the Huawei Mate 7, virtually every large-screened phone (or phablet, as the kids call them these days) is automatic competition for the Note 4, and there are a lot of options. Apple’s 6, LG, HTC, Huawei, ZTE, Oppo, Microsoft Devices, ASUS, Acer and (soon) Motorola all have handsets that are 5.5 inches or larger. The Note series has managed to stay unique thanks to its S Pen functionality, but that’s only tempting if you actually care to use a stylus in the first place.
The Galaxy Note 4 is the best large phone on the market. It’s a device you’ll be proud to whip out in public, thanks to its elegant design, robust build, beautiful screen, impressive battery life and solid camera. It also excels from a productivity standpoint, offering seamless multitasking and stylus functionality that’s as smooth as I’ve ever seen on a smartphone. And despite its large size, Samsung has nailed the one-handed experience better than the competition. There’s certainly a benefit to drawing from years of experience in this category: What began as an oddity three years ago has now evolved into a powerful tool at the top of its class.