In my review of the Galaxy Alpha, I declared it was the most beautiful Samsung phone I'd ever seen. 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.
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.
The Note 4 isn't the most comfortable large-screened phone to hold with one hand, but it comes in second place. That title rests with the LG G3, a 5.5-inch device with an arched back and thin sides that help it rest naturally in my hand -- it doesn't feel as large as it really is. That said, the new Note has an even bigger screen and I can still hold the device without hand fatigue (in which my hand gets tired after holding the phone for a while) or accidentally dropping it. I can't say the same about the Note's new competitor, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus; with a large bezel, rounded sides and a slippery aluminum build, it's tougher to hang onto with one hand than the Note. The only drawback to holding Samsung's new device is the edges, which feel a tad sharper when I wrap my fingers around them.
Of course, it's still big. Not everyone will like the fit and feel, simply because it is indeed a large handset. There's not much Samsung can do to remedy that, although it manages to trim down the Note's width with each new iteration. But for what it is, the product is reasonably sized.
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.
When I first saw the Note 4 in September, 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.
If the design has any flaws, it's in the space between the front glass panel and the edges. Some of the first Note 4 owners in other parts of the world report that the phone has a small gap, large enough to fit the edge of a business card. There's certainly some truth to this: Samsung officially commented on the matter, stating that the issue doesn't affect the functionality or quality of the device. I personally couldn't find a big enough gap in my review unit to stick a business card in, though I managed to squeeze a thin piece of paper into one spot on the left side. Your mileage will likely vary depending on where and when you get your device, but I didn't find it to be as huge a problem as it was made out to be.
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).
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.
Speaking of high outdoor visibility, if you're outside and having trouble seeing the screen, switch the phone to auto brightness; doing so allows the phone to push out as much as 750 nits, which is a lot brighter than any other phone I've used (and a far cry from the max brightness when you change it manually on the Note 4). This setting also discolors the screen somewhat while it's on, making it look similar to a picture that's overexposed; you'll see all of the details, but images and graphics won't look quite right. Small price to pay when you can actually use the phone in direct sunlight.
S Pen experience
What's a Note without an active stylus? The brand is synonymous with its S Pen in the same way peanut butter goes with jelly. It's arguably what helps the Note 4 stand out from its numerous competitors; very few companies have adopted the use of a stylus of any sort, let alone an active one that responds to changes in pressure, doubles as a desktop-like cursor and comes with an action button that offers additional features. To Samsung, it's not just about the extra real estate -- it's what you do with it that matters, and the S Pen gives the flagship a solid boost in productivity that's tough to duplicate anywhere else.
Just like every other S Pen, the version included here is molded slightly differently than its counterparts, but it's about the same length and width as last year's pen and retains its elliptical shape. This model has ridges that provide a better grip for your hand, and the button is flush with the rest of the pen, making it just as difficult to press as ever. I often had to turn the pen around because it's almost impossible to tell which side is which when I'm not looking. It's easy to take out of its built-in holster on the bottom of the Note, thanks to a large gap at the base of the pen, where I can place my fingernail and simply pull down.
The new pen is roughly twice as sensitive to pressure as the last one, capable of registering over 2,000 levels of sensitivity instead of 1,000. This, along with some haptic feedback on the screen and friction on the tip of the pen, is supposed to create a more realistic "pen on paper" feel; aside from the extra pressure sensitivity, however, the experience wasn't any closer to an actual pen or pencil than the Note 3 was.
Pull out the pen and a radial Air Command menu pops up with four options. The first is Action Memo, which is like a Post-it note app that lets you write to-do lists, notes to self or anything else that's short and sweet -- and you can either save it to S Note (Samsung's primary notepad app) or pin it to your home screen as a resizable widget. Up next is Smart Select, which lets you clip a part of the screen and add it to a small gallery-style widget that floats above the top of all your running apps; neat concept, but I couldn't find much practical use for it. After that is Image Clip, which also gives you the ability to take snippets of whatever you want and store it for scrapbooking. Finally, there's Screen Write, which is carried over from the last Note; it takes a screenshot and then lets you doodle on it immediately afterward.
The new S Pen is also capable of letting you select multiple lines of text by pressing down the action button and dragging the pen over the section you want to use. A menu pops up, giving you the option to copy the text, share it or even look up definitions in the dictionary. Copy and paste is an obvious use case, but I also found it handy when I accidentally took 20 burst photos and wanted a fast way to batch delete them; these are but two scenarios. This seems like one of those features that should've been there from the beginning, but oddly has been left out until now; regardless, it's a welcome addition that will make the process of sharing and selecting stuff faster and easier.
You'll also still enjoy the ability to preview content by hovering the pen over pictures, videos, emails, calendar appointments and more; this has always been one of my favorite S Pen features since it debuted a couple years ago. However, Samsung's added actions to these preview screens, so you can now choose to share or edit that content directly from those thumbnails instead of having to back out and go through extra menus.
With the added pressure sensitivity comes new capabilities. Samsung has included a calligraphy pen in the S Note collection, which is designed to let you draw fancy letters and numbers with a flourish. Since my wife has been learning the craft over the past year, I decided to have her put it to the test. Can this digital pen work as well as her traditional pen-and-ink setup? In short: No. She grew increasingly frustrated because it didn't properly mimic the behavior of the old-school ink and paper; doing the same brush strokes at the same angles and with the same amount of pressure produced entirely different results. Lines were light where they should've been heavy, and vice versa. She said that it works fine if you're just messing around, but no professional would want to use it on a regular basis -- and certainly not as a replacement to real-life calligraphy.
Finally, another clever new S Pen feature is found in the S Note app. A photo icon in the toolbar takes you to a camera viewfinder. Take whatever picture you want and S Note can convert it to a digital (and editable) version of itself. If you see a sign with a phone number on it, you can take a picture of it, convert it through S Note and then copy it.
One of the most common complaints about large-screened phones is that they're nearly impossible to use one-handed. I can relate: Most devices this size are frustrating when you're trying to dig them out of your pocket and handle even the most mundane tasks when one of your hands isn't available. The final purchase decision often comes down to what you treasure most: Would you rather have ample screen space and battery life, or feel comfortable? The user's experience varies depending on hand size and personal preference -- it won't be a problem for those of you blessed with large digits -- but there are a few things phone makers can tweak on the hardware and firmware to give you a better one-handed experience without feeling like you're going to drop the device.
Samsung's had several years to perfect the one-handed experience on the Note, and it shows in the Note 4. It is, by far, the best large-screened phone to use with one hand -- yes, better than the iPhone 6 Plus. I've already examined why this is the case from a hardware point of view, but Samsung's software features are more comprehensive and mature than Apple's nascent Reachability option.
The Note 4 retains the same one-handed functionality from earlier models, which includes smaller dialpads and keyboards that align to the right or left side of the device, as well as a gesture that lets you swipe in and out from the edge and shrinks the entire screen to a more manageable size. These have always been handy, but not features I've used on a regular basis. With the latest Note, however, Samsung throws in some new gestures and panels that are more practical.
First is a small menu that you can affix to either side of the screen. The menu, which stays hidden until you swipe inward from the edge, mimics the capacitive keys found on the bottom of the Note -- the home, back and recent apps buttons, in addition to a settings key. This allows you to easily navigate through the phone without trying to stretch your thumb or loosen your grip in order to reach those buttons. You can also adjust the opacity of this menu so it doesn't get in the way of anything displayed on the phone; and as soon as you're done using the menu, it'll get tucked back into the side, with only a thin tab indicating that something is even there. I found myself using this a lot more than I had originally expected.
You can also shrink most native apps by dragging your finger from the top-left or top-right corner toward the center of the screen. This converts the program into a pop-up app, which can be resized, moved around the screen, placed on top of other pop-up apps, transferred into Multi Window or minimized to floating, circular icons that resemble Facebook's Chat Heads. If there's a limit to the number of windows you can have open at one time, I couldn't find it. My favorite use for this feature was the camera viewfinder, which I shrunk down and used during my tests while also checking my Gmail and Calendar at the same time. Multitasking!
If you like what you've seen so far, here's another piece of good news: Samsung has trimmed down its in-your-face software experience. On the surface, it still looks like the freshly painted version of TouchWiz (with Android 4.4 KitKat running underneath) that first arrived on the Galaxy S5, but the company is continuing to clean up the UI and streamline its features; you're no longer going to find 500 pointless new options here. My Magazine, the Flipboard-esque eyesore that once occupied a full page on the home screen, is nowhere to be found on the Note 4. (In its place is Flipboard Briefing, which similarly displays social media and internet feeds, but this time you can actually disable it.) Several unnecessary smart features, like smart pause, smart rotation and smart scroll, are gone. Reading mode has also disappeared.
Don't get the wrong idea: There are plenty of new features, some of which I've highlighted in earlier sections. But at least the additions that Samsung threw in this go-round are more useful, don't appear to slow down the phone and don't have me sprinting to the settings menu in an epic quest to get rid of them.