You know things are going well when Apple is making products to directly compete with your specs. That’s exactly the position Samsung is in with its Galaxy Note 4.
Strangely enough, the Galaxy Note line of Samsung smartphones have always proudly existed for a niche, power-user market. But now that pretty much every 2014 smartphone has a display of 4.8” or bigger—whether it’s iOS or Android—the Galaxy Note 4 has become less an oddity and more a very practical purchase.
So what makes the Galaxy Note 4 stand out so much? Let’s dig in.
Bigger is better: it’s the secret that Galaxy Note users have known for years now. I’ll admit for myself that as smartphones have changed and evolved, the idea of carrying around a massive smartphone has become more and more enticing. The 5.7-inch screen of the Galaxy Note 3 was one point felt like a monstrosity in my hand, but here I find myself reveling over the 5.7-inch Note 4 and defending how well it fits in my pocket.
So let’s talk about the display for a second, because it’s where all the attention should go. The device has a 1440 × 2560 5.7-inch screen—which, if you do the math, is around 515 pixels per inch (ppi). That’s well over a hundred more ppi than the iPhone 6 Plus! The only smartphone with a higher pixel density is the LG G3’s “Quad-HD” display—however, the difference just might be negligible.
I haven’t always been super impressed by previous Galaxy displays, which have always been big and flashy, but have also often featured overly saturated and inaccurate colors. However, Samsung seems to have pulled back a bit on its Super AMOLED display and adjusted the calibration so that colors pop, while still remaining more natural. Overall, there’s no question that this is the best display Samsung has ever implemented on its phones. While that should be a given with each new generation, the Note 4 really does make a good impression when you first gaze upon its high resolution, wide viewing angles, and stunning colors.
The other major turnoff for me in previous Galaxy devices (both S and Note) has been the build quality and materials used in the case of the device. The original Note and Note 2 both featured a classic glossy plastic back that has been used in most of the Galaxy S phones before the S5. It was slimy, cheap, slippery, and prone to picking up fingerprints. While the Note 4’s removable back is still made out of plastic, it’s a big step up from the faux-leather stitching of last year’s model and a mile ahead of that glossy plastic from the Note 2.
The back is a hard, textured plastic, which feels nice to hold and doesn’t look half bad either (and is removable, for those interested in switching out the battery or buying SD cards). But the real element of the Note 4 that gives it a more premium feel is a bit more subtle—a line of aluminum that frames the edges of the device. This is where your hands will spend a lot of their time and it really makes a difference. The buttons are aluminum as well and have a nice, clicky travel to them (and they smartly put them on opposite sides of the phone). Overall, the Note 4 feels surprisingly great to hold and has just the right amount of subtle touches to put it above something like the LG G3.
On the inside, you’ll find nothing but very highest of specs, most notably the top of the line Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chipset. It features the Quad-core Krait 450 CPU for blazing fast speeds and the Adreno 420 GPU for fluid graphical performance, but you likely won’t notice if you’re upgrading from a previous generation or switching from another flagship device. It still won’t feel as light as a stock Android device like the Nexus 6 or the Moto X, but for the most part everything feels quick and snappy, as it should.
On the back of the device, the Note 4 has a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera that is really amazing at some things and fairly average at others. In particular, the Note 4’s camera has a really tight macro is possibly better than any other smartphone camera at grab a very close subject in focus. It makes for capturing some really dynamic shots that had onlookers skeptical that the photos were taken with a smartphone. On the other hand, in low light situations you’ll still get a ton of artifacting and noise, which was a bit disappointing. That is still commonplace at this point, but next to the camera and image processing of an iPhone 6 Plus, it doesn’t quite measure up.
Lastly, you’ll need a huge battery to power a phone this large—and that’s what Samsung has brought here. The 3200 mAh battery lets the Note 4 enjoy up to eight hours of on screen time, which is truly impressive. As always, this number will depend on your usage, but it really does beat out the competition when it comes to lasting a full day and more. As a fairly heavy user, I found that on most all days, the Note 4 easily lasted all day.
Historically, Samsung has never been known for sleek UI or intuitive features. More often, the company is known for zippy advertising campaigns and a “throw everything against the wall to see what sticks” approach to features. In some ways, that hasn’t really changed with the Galaxy Note 4.
When it comes to software, the device still has more gimmicks than truly useful features. You’ve got all the laundry list of features from previous models, such as Smart stay (which keeps the screen on if you’re looking at the phone) or a fairly unusable fingerprint scanner. And remember, this is just a couple out of seemingly hundreds. The good news is that in this newest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz operating system, it’s more or less kept these features hidden in the settings. You can turn off the obnoxious FlipBoard integration on the Home Screen or the terrible animations and sound effects. They are all still there, but they are easier to ignore or turn off than ever before.
That’s not to say that you’ll be able to pick up a Note 4 and have a great phone out of the box. I spent a good hour or two turning off animations, changing input and sound settings, downloading a lot of primary apps, changing default apps, rearranging my home screen, and even installing the Google keyboard. Eventually I got to the point where I could use the Note 4 as my daily driver without ugly UI or clutter getting in the way. Because of that steeper learning curve, I still have a hard time recommending the Note 4 to people who are new to smartphones or even new to Android. You’ve got to know what you want, or else you can still end up with a bogged down mess every time you unlock your Note 4.
There are still some weird parts of Samsung’s UI that are a bit more unavoidable, such as the odd placement of the app drawer (without giving you a way back to your home screen other than the back button or home button) or some convoluted proprietary apps that would be interesting to use if had been refined a bit.
This really comes into view when using the Note 4’s stylus, the S Pen. The S Pen has always been one of the defining elements of the Galaxy Note series and it has only gotten better over the years. Using the stylus feels incredibly responsive and the software’s ability to sense the tip of the pen above the surface of the phone opens up a lot of interesting possibilities.
One of the most impressive things the S Pen can do is accurately detect written words when using a messaging app. The ability to quickly take down a number or a name right on the screen or in an action memo is super helpful as well. Samsung seems to have held back the reins on some of the options and by doing so, has made it that much more accessible and easy to use. Lastly, switching between using your fingers and the stylus is quick and fluid, making it a truly valid secondary mode of input.
The Galaxy Note 4 has been the most surprising smartphone of 2014 for me. But it’s not because Samsung made some drastic changes to its philosophy on software or because its hardware is the best designed thing on the market. It’s because for the first time, Samsung has made a smartphone that finally has fit together all the pieces of the puzzle in a way that only Apple has been able to do on a large scale.
That doesn’t make the Galaxy Note 4 the best smartphone of all time—or even necessarily the right device for you. But considering the company just had a major drop in international smartphone sales this year, there couldn’t have been a better time for Samsung to release the best smartphone they’ve ever made.