Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 4

There are phones, and there are phablets. The iPhone 6 Plus? Phone. The Note 4? Phablet. These are the two premier Big Phones on the market today. But despite similar sizes, they offer two very, very different experiences. The 6 Plus feels like an outsized iPhone. The Note 4 feels like a small tablet. It’s a different use case for a different audience. Which one is right for you depends very much on who you are.

The Note 4 is a solid, mature device. Samsung has relentlessly refined it. The housing is great, the bezeled metal frame and textured back give it the feel of a tool, whereas some earlier versions (and some of Samsung’s current handsets) feel more like toys. The cameras are fantastic, both on the front and rear. It has a fast shutter, and works well in all kinds of lighting conditions. The battery is amazing. We ran it for more than 24 hours before it went into a low-power battery saving mode (more on that in a bit). And the Super AMOLED display is a joy to watch—especially for video. We even used the S-Pen. The S-Pen! Seriously, having an integrated stylus is pretty cool on a great big ol’ handset. Even Samsung’s normally annoying UI felt subdued in the wide-open spaces of the Note 4.

One of its best features is the brilliantly bright and vivid display. It looked amazing when we ran video on it, and was certainly our preference when watching a live-streamed football game via the CBS Sports app side by side with the iPhone 6 Plus. However, when looking at stills, colors seemed overly bright, and almost too vivid. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a con, however. The display is excellent overall.

The Note 4 is also all about selfies. It has a 3.7-megapixel front camera that lets you take a picture by placing your finger over a sensor on the backside (an optical heart rate sensor that can also send data to its S-Health app). It also has something called wide selfie mode, where you can swivel the phone after snapping a picture of your mug for a wide angle shot of the things around you. The sensor shutter didn’t work very well. I was often unable to actually trigger it. You can also blend a selfie shot by framing where you want to be with the front camera, then flipping it around and taking an even wider angle shot with the rear 16-megapixel camera. The phone beeps when you line it up right. Does all this sound confusing? It is! I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

However, this was a rare miss. Especially given that the cameras themselves—in particular the back one that features optical image stabilization—seem incapable of taking bad photos. Several other Samsung-specific features include a one-handed mode that lets you shrink windows (you have to enable it in settings) and a multi-window view that lets you, say, watch a game live and also tweet about it. The way windows shrink on the Note 4 seems like a better way to use a Big Phone one-handed than the iOS method of just dropping the window to the bottom of the screen. Instead, Samsung actually reduces the size of the window on the device, and brings it to the edge of the screen so you can get at it with your short little stubby thumb.

The S-Pen was particularly great. And, look, I’m a stylus skeptic, but the Note 4 has me semi-convinced. For starters, it hides away perfectly. You could pick up this device, fiddle with it, and never realize that the S-Pen is embedded in it. But I genuinely found it useful…most of the time. The pressure-sensitive pen does a great job of note-taking via an action menu that pops up when you remove it from the body and hold it over the screen. I found it easier to do things like jot down a phone number or email address this way than by firing up the keyboard. You can leave these little notes, which look like Post-Its, on your screen. You can also send the data (like a phone number) to other apps (like your dialer). It’s pretty great. Yet the S-Pen can also be wonkish when you’re using it in apps. It crashed on me a few times, and it’s a pain to go back to the keyboard.

Still, the S-Pen gives this device its real flavor, which is more productivity-oriented than selfie-centric. When you look at it in combination with things like multi-tasking, it’s clearly a working device. This is the boss phablet.

There are other ways this is evident too. Most notably in its amazing battery life. We ran the phone in what was a relatively normal mode—running apps for email, Web browsing, video playback, camera, and social media—for 27 hours before it swapped into Ultra Power Saving Mode. This dims the screen and switches it to monochrome, turns off all non-essential apps, and prevents apps from running in the background. At that point, with 15 percent battery life left, the phone reported that it could run for another two and a half days. (We didn’t have enough time to test that claim.)

The Galaxy Note 4 is a great device. While we’re still mystified by some of Samsung’s software decisions—the way it organizes Settings, which seems designed to prevent you from finding what you’re looking for, or swapping the layout of the buttons for all apps and back from the way they are normally placed on an Android home row—the hardware and overall experience are flagship-worthy. Even more than the 6 Plus, this truly feels like a hybrid of a tablet and a phone. It’s a device for getting things done, in a noteworthy fashion.

Spread the love