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Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:14 pm 07/11/2014

Now that we’ve seen Apple do its first take on the whole big phone thing, it’s time to see Samsung make its Note phablet better than ever.

Features

The original phablet is back, as Samsung delivers its fourth incarnation of the tablet-sized phone called the “Note” with the Galaxy Note 4.

In this model, Samsung has left the screen size roughly what it was before (5.7 inches), and even made the dimensions similar, as the phone is a fraction thicker than the previous generation, but with some easily noticed changes.

Despite what we’ve said about the screen size, the first change is, in fact, the screen, which now runs with a higher resolution, jumping from the Full HD resolution of 1920×1080 and moves to a more pixel-packed resolution of 2560×1440, the same resolution used by the LG G3 smartphone but on a larger display.

Because of this slightly different screen size, the Galaxy Note 4 runs a pixel clarity of 515 pixels per inch, with Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 protecting the display, which is Super AMOLED, too.

Under the screen is a new processor, an upgrade from last year’s quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor increased to the newer Snapdragon 805, making it the first phone in Australia to sport the new chip, with Samsung relying on a model clocked at 2.7GHz.

This works with 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, though the latter of this can be bolstered with more thanks to the inclusion of a microSD slot capable of taking up to 128GB, while the graphics are taken care of by way of the Adreno 420 graphics chipset.

Google’s Android 4.4 “KitKat” runs here out of the box with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface on top.

Over to the connectivity options, and the upgrades include quite a lot of high-bandwidth connections for people who do a lot of work, and even a lot of play, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1 support for Low Energy/Smart, Near-Field Communication, infrared, GPS, and 4G LTE working across Category 6, a new technology that can offer download speeds as high as 300Mbps, while uploads can net as much as 50Mbps.

Cameras are also included, upgraded with a 16 megapixel shooter on the back, complete with flash, optical image stabilisation, autofocus, and 4K Ultra HD video capture, while the front-facing camera sports a 3.7 megapixel camera capable of recording selfie video in as high as 2560×1440, also known as WQHD or the same resolution as the Galaxy Note 4’s screen.

Extra features are included, too, such as a heart rate sensor on the back as well Samsung’s S Pen stylus, which sits at the bottom of the display in its neat little slot, providing a way — when removed — for Galaxy Note 4 owners to scribble notes, draw, and crop images down when needed.

A fingerprint sensor is also included on the phone, found underneath the home button on the front of the handset.

Connections are relatively standard, though, but a little different from last time, with the microUSB 3.0 port found on the Galaxy Note 3 and used on many a mobile hard drive switched around and replaced with a standard microUSB port here, though one supporting the latest version of MHL.

A 3.5mm headphone jack is also here, found at the top left of the handset.

The back of the Note 4 can also be removed, a plastic casing with a back designed to feel like leather, and covering the two slots the phone has, with microSD and microSIM catered for here.

The battery is rated at 3220mAh and is removable.

Performance

A few years ago, Samsung changed the smartphone world forever with an experiment: a handset that took a tablet approach and applied it to a smartphone. It wasn’t a full tablet, but rather a very big phone, which the media began to call a tablet-sized phone, or “phablet” for short.

The product that tested this concept out was the Galaxy Note, and while it took a second generation to really peg on, Samsung’s idea has paid off, with the phablet market taking off. Nearly every manufacturer has one, with Sony competing with the Xperia Z Ultra, Nokia and its 1320 and 1520 handsets, HTC with the “Max” series of products, Huawei’s Ascend Mate series, and even an LG or two that never found their way to Australia.

Samsung has even expanded beyond the Galaxy Note range, with the Galaxy Mega models, large-screened handsets that brought the big screen without the big prices to people who wanted it.

But the Galaxy Note range stayed, providing a flagship entry for people who preferred a larger screen, with more than just a big display at their disposal, providing high-end features and a pen to replace paper.

Replacing paper is one of the big deals with the Galaxy Note, as the S Pen — as Samsung calls it — is supposed to make it possible for you to do your work on your phone, turning your mobile into not just a calendar, not just a phone, not just a web surfing miracle machine, but a note taking gadget for when you need to get stuff done.

That’s one of the main reasons for this range of phones to exist, and with the Galaxy Note 4, Samsung hopes to put an end to your love of pen and paper diaries for good.

Will it work, and does this big phone pack enough of a punch to make you forget about paper once and for all?

First thing’s first, let’s get the good, and brilliant, and awesome out of the way, and if our enthusiasm hasn’t let us get the better of ourselves, we need to tell you about the screen, because it is all of those adjectives, and then some.

For Samsung’s first foray into WQHD technology, also known as 1440p in some circles, the company has embraced AMOLED with some interesting use of adaptive display technology. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this resolution, and it won’t be the last, as LG has previously touted the use of the resolution as being better for eyes than Apple’s “Retina” resolution, which claims that the level of 300 pixels per inch is the area where our eyes can no longer see the difference.

Back when LG announced its G3 with a Retina busting 534, it claimed that its PPI count was even better, and more akin to print productions of text and image, and therefore better again.

In the Galaxy Note 4, that is precisely the benchmark Samsung is aiming for, and based on what we’ve seen achieves it with flying colours.

It’s interesting, because even though the Note 4 loses a few pixels in the clarity count due to size differences (515ppi), the screen on the Galaxy Note 4 feels clearer on the eyes, and exhibits none of the brief moment of jaggies that LG’s equivalent screen on the G3 produces.

We’re not sure why, but Samsung seems to have nailed the formula a little better, and our eyes adjust to this display so quickly that there are no moments where it feels your eyes mislead, and there are no moments where you feel the need to turn away for seeing something too sharp.

Simply put, this is a brilliant screen, and it’s one of those displays that you won’t want to put down, but display quality is only one part of the equation, and there’s some extra power we need to talk about, because it feels like Samsung has come up with a solution for looking at your phone under the sun.

From what we understand, it’s called adaptive mode, and the technology essentially takes advantage of a light sensor on the front of the phone to work out when the phone is being bombarded by so much light that you must obviously be out in the bright light of the sun.

When that happens, the phone pulls from a reservoir of power that you can’t seem to access normally — we tried: it’s not in the screen brightness settings that are normally provided to you — and boosts the brightness to a level that makes viewing of that ultra sharp screen possible even in the harsh light of an Aussie sun.

To say we’re impressed would be an understatement, because the Note 4 fires on all cylinders when this happens, pushing out an immense amount of light, and making the phone almost glow. We’re not using the word “glow” in a glib way either, because when you pull the phone back into shade, you get a brief moment to see that ultra bright mode force its way out when it doesn’t need to, just before the phone catches up to the fact that you no longer need that awesome amount of power.

But there’s more to a smartphone than just a screen, and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 has more going for it.

For starters, it feels good in the hands, even though it’s a little thicker than the last iteration, and the body isn’t made totally from a premium material like we normally prefer.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: premium materials matter. That said, the Note 4 isn’t a totally plastic phone, not like the Galaxy S5, with a metal trim that provides a nice accented shiny edge and a rigid frame that we’ve long wanted in a Samsung product.

The back is a return to that fake fabric Samsung seems to like, and while there are no dimples like on the S5, you have fake leather on the back just like the Note 3. Thankfully, there is no fake stitching on the back — we’re not sure who Samsung was trying to fool last time — and this feels more natural, even though it’s obvious to everyone that this is plastic.

That said, the plastic does one thing metal and glass handsets fail to do: it makes the Galaxy Note 4 easier to grip, as the textured back tells you that you’re holding something, and even feels premium in the process.

Move past the design and you’ll see that the new Note is a little more powerful in this incarnation, relying on the slightly faster Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor, and the first phone released in Australia to do so, meaning there’s just a tad more grunt in this phone than others out there being released with the older 800 and 801 chips, though the difference appears to be marginal.

That said, synthetic benchmarks appear to be good, and jumping from app to app, we found only a hint of lag, though mostly solid performance across the board, with the 3GB RAM also assisting here, no doubt.

The supply of 32GB storage also helps here, one of the largest amounts of included and usable storage we’ve seen on an Android phone, where the amounts typically amount to 16GB, and there’s a microSD slot if you need it, too, which we did.

And the reason we did is because the Galaxy Note 4, like other handsets from Sony and LG, supports high-resolution audio in 24-bit FLAC, playing back 96kHz, 176kHz, and even the benchmark 192kHz files in 24-bit audio.

You’ll want a decent pair of headphones supporting the technology, as well as some files to make this work, but when you get them, they appear in Samsung’s “Music” application, and if they’re 24-bit will place a “UHQ” box in the top left corner, indicating that yes, you’re listening to high resolution audio.

Plug in as pair of good headphones and you’ll get good audio using this mode, allowing you a little more multimedia than your ordinary phone, especially if you’re already amassing a high-res library at home for that high-res HiFi system you keep telling yourself you’re going to buy.

Samsung’s overlay to Android is also feeling firmer than ever, with TouchWiz easy to get used to, and finally — yes, freakin’ finally — Samsung now allows Aussie owners to change their shortcut dock icons from out of the box.

Give Samsung a clap for this, because it has taken long enough, with Australians missing that feature for a couple of years, since the S3 stopped support for that about halfway into the life of that handset. The Galaxy S5 received an update earlier in the year that fixed this, and the Note 4 doesn’t even need a patch, with this aspect unlocked from the get go.

Look-wise, TouchWiz on the Note 4 is a cross between flat and not-so-flat, but the colours are vibrant, the menu fast and easy on the eyes with left to right menu scrolling, multiple home screens with easy sorting, and a Flipboard “Briefing” menu all the way to the left which from our testing isn’t able to be switched off, but does provide you with a small dose of news in a very easy to read system.

If you like checking out news in the morning or on the way home from work, this system will let you browse through the headlines, and scroll up and down through an article, reading it as if you were thumbing through the pages for real, up and down, printed on a small notepad. As you do.

Some other features grabbed our attention, such as the multi-tasking on Android, which now lets you sort through the apps in large windows, flicking them out quickly when you want to close them, while the audio can be modified to sound like different soundscapes with emphasis on various audio types, such as being more jazzy or classical focused.

An infrared remote is also included, meaning you can use this as a TV remote like you could last time, and just like on the Galaxy S5, there’s fingerprint sensor for on the front for unlocking the phone and a heart-rate sensor on the back just under the camera lens.

You won’t find the fingerprint sensor the greatest at picking up registered prints, and the backup password to get in has to be a touch more complicated than we’d like, but people who like that sort of security will no doubt appreciate it.

As for the heart-rate sensor, we’re still not sure we get the point on a phone, but once again, it’s here if you need it.

One area where Samsung has made the heart-rate sensor effective is by making this aspect used for taking selfies. When you hold your finger over this sensor and then remove it, the phone picks up on what you’ve done and takes the photo, similar to how LG’s G3 picks up on a balled fist opening up to take a selfie.

The camera isn’t bad either, though at full resolution can show up with quite the bit of softness and almost watercolour like dabbing.

For most things, people will be happy, with excellent colours in daylight, sharpness on-screen until you zoom in, and some relatively snappy focus.

Darker shots don’t result in as high a quality image as we’ve seen on competing smartphone cameras, but if you hold still, you may be able to get something decent, which is precisely the instruction communicated by the phone.

Image sample from the Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Video is also supported, with 4K Ultra High Definition if you need it, and there’s even a little bit of slow motion technology here.

Interestingly, Samsung has made some changes to both its gallery that are quite pleasing, and yet still left one feature out of its gallery that is, well, less so.

The camera side of things makes us happy because finally — again, freakin’ finally — the camera can be silenced.

You might say it’s better to have a camera that can’t be, and we’ve certainly heard that argument before, but so many phones can silence their cameras, so we never really understood why Samsung phones couldn’t. In the Galaxy Note 4, however, it can be done, and you can fire shots without attracting attention with a sharp glance as your phone makes a particularly loud fake clicking sound.

Samsung’s high-dynamic range mode or “HDR” as we call it also helps out when the shadows are a little too heavy in the image, which is great, and there’s an icon to take you straight to the camera even when the phone is locked, which is a welcome addition.

HDR mode on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 can really brighten up a scene: left has HDR off, right has it on.

But the gallery still bothers us, and if you want to rotate an image, instead of just rotating the phone, you have to rotate the phone and then press a button to rotate the image.

Just… no.

If we’ve rotated the phone, why do we need to tell the software to rotate the image to make this happen? Just rotate the image when the phone is rotated. Every other phone can, so why can’t the fastest phone in Australia do it.

There’s also a dose of high speed mobile downloads you’ll want to pay attention to.

For its final major flagship phone of the year, Samsung has brought Category 6 internet speeds to Australia, before most of the telcos are ready, it seems. We’ve not heard that Category 6 technology is in action across any of our carriers, but when it does go into effect, we’re told you should be able to achieve download speeds as high as 300Mbps, or in laymen’s terms, roughly equivalent to 30 times the average speed ADSL2+ subscribers get in Australia.

Not too shabby.

In our tests, we found Category 4 speeds were more likely, a result that probably will be found across most networks in Australia, now that it’s more than Vodafone with the tech.

That said, we also found a mind-blowing 127Mbps on our tests with Telstra’s 4GX network in Sydney, which pretty much blew our eyebrows off on the way to work one morning, showing just what the Category 6 capable smartphone was capable of pulling in.

Essentially, if you’re planning on using the Note 4 with mobile downloads and entertainment in mind and you’re within reach of a high-speed network, you’ll be most pleased, with solid speeds across the board, and WiFi 802.11ac when you get home (if you have an 802.11ac router).

And of course, there’s the pen.

Ah yes, the Samsung S Pen, the raison d’etre that the Note is so different from the other phablets that appear on shelves of mobile phone stores around the world.

In this incarnation, it does all the things you’ll expect a pen to do, like take notes, draw, and provide 2,048 levels of pressure, emulating the whole feeling of using a pencil when it’s quite obvious you’re not.

The pen still doesn’t feel like a pen, but rather a scrawny piece of plastic that you shouldn’t apply too much pressure with, and the screen doesn’t feel like paper as it’s far too glossy for that.

But still, you can take notes, and pull the pen out in a jiffy to scrawl down someone’s phone number, and you can even make a game plan if you’re a coach at a football game, taking a picture of the field using the camera and scribbling lines to indicate where people go, or something to that effect.

Some people will use it, we’re sure, but this year it seems to us that the pen functionality has kind of been pulled back a little, and aspects from last year’s Note — the Note 3 — are gone, such as the ability to draw a square on your phone’s home screen and make a web browser or another app appear in that little block.

You can make rather strange crops of pictures, which is feature we’re not sure many will use.

That whole level of multi-tasking and running apps on top of things has been shifted to a function you won’t know is there until you accidentally use it, and that is compatible applications with the tech can be swiped down from the corners from a diagonal angle and reduced in size.

The size reduction is shown on screen as you so it, and it makes a small version of the app to sit on top of everything else.

You’ll probably notice how we said “compatible”, and that’s because so few things are compatible, and as far as we can tell, this idea is an extension of Samsung’s two-apps-on-one-screen concept, as the apps that work with this seem to be the apps that work with that function.

That means messages and phone dialling and contacts and email, and a web browser or two can access it, but not everything you use, sadly, and this flawed continuity is just one of the minor quibbles we have with the Note 4, which tries to integrate itself into your life, but doesn’t let every app you’ll use partake in its properly multi-tasking skills, which is a shame.

We’d love to see more support for apps running simultaneously, really allowing people to make use of that big screen in the way that they want to, and not just the options Samsung provides.

Multi-tasking on a big screen makes sense, we just wish more apps supported it.

We also take aim at the Note 4’s lack of water resistance.

This one isn’t a deal breaker, but rather just a bit of a “why not” sort of moment for Samsung, as the Galaxy Note 4 lacks water-resistance, while the Galaxy S5 comes with it.

We’re not sure why on this one, either, as this is one of those must have features we’re seeing other companies compete on, and obviously Samsung knows the benefit of having this technology otherwise it wouldn’t have included it in the GS5.

But it is missing here, and we’re a little surprised, since that water and dust protection would have gone a long way to making it one of those phones you could take to the beach thanks to the amazing reservoir of power the screen has at its disposal.

Our biggest complaint, though, is with the battery, because for the most part, it’s a let down.

One day.

That’s not us saying “one day, we’ll see battery life like this on all phones”, but rather a statement of “one day is all you’ll get”, and that’s if you’re not a power user.

The one day maximum life was pretty consistent over several days of testing, and while you could rely on last year’s Note 3 to get you through over a day’s worth of work, you’ll want to charge the Galaxy Note 4 nightly if you’re relying on it for calls, texting, social networking, taking pictures, web surfing, the odd bit of casual gaming, taking notes using the pen, and listening to music.

If you’re a heavy user, you can even expect to plug it in before the day is over, or alternatively switch on the Ultra Low Power Saving mode, which Samsung has borrowed from the Galaxy S5 we saw earlier in the year, complete with that monochromatic mode which we’re told saves power, though from previous testing, only does it because you’re less likely to look at a greyscale screen.

You can also probably attribute the one day battery life to the high-end screen powering those extra pixels and — from what we can tell — the excess power from the adaptable display which gives Samsung’s screen an extra push to make it highly readable in pretty much any light, from the darkness to the blinding harsh sunlight we’re known to get in Australia.

In fact, it’s a similar performance to LG’s G3, which itself featured a very high-end mobile screen supporting that same very high-end 2560×1440 resolution.

We’re just a little surprised since the Note 3 set a good benchmark for mobile battery performance thanks to that massive 3200mAh battery, and with 20mAh more in the Note 4, you’ll actually find less life.

Obviously, with more pixels to power, the battery takes a bit of a beating.

At least Samsung includes a special power brick with a higher power output for a faster charge, but it’s not a real answer to a battery that should last longer. It really isn’t.

Conclusion

The fourth iteration of Samsung’s Galaxy Note range offers quite a lot in a phablet package, and features one of the best screens we’ve ever seen, but the battery leaves us wanting.

It seems we’re in iPhone 6 territory here, and while it’s nice to see such a huge screen supporting such a lovely resolution that’s pleasing to the eye, and with a display boost that makes it ideal for use in the Australian sun, the one-day battery can prove a touch problematic.

Outside of that, it’s a nice piece of kit, and you have to admire the gradual evolution Samsung is taking with the Note 4, especially since we’ve made our way from a fully plastic phone to one that feels elegant with a faux leather plastic back, and just the right amount of metal adorning the frame.

Indeed, it’s a nice phone to hold that you’ll find comfortable, and a top phone to use, just make sure to keep a spare battery or portable charger with you, because unfortunately, you’ll need it.

Price (RRP)

$949

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Holy pigeon, that screen is freakin’ amazing, looking clearer than the competition and boasting an extra boost when sunlight hits it; Amazeballs 4G speeds supporting Category 6 (first phone locally to do so); Solid performance; Support for high-resolution audio; The first time in a few years that Samsung’s Australian version of Android doesn’t feel handicapped or compromised in any way; A silent camera (woot!); Metal edges and textured back actually work quite well in the hands;

Product Cons

Not so amazing battery life; Samsung’s S Pen feels like it does less; No waterproofing like its S5 brother; Images still don’t rotate in the gallery until you press a button (sigh);

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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