Bigger is better.
Even Apple saved the very best components for its iPhone 6 Plus. And the Galaxy Note 4 is a contender for the most super-specced smartphone on the planet. A new 2K screen, that Snapdragon 805 processor, a huge 3220mAh battery.
More importantly, it’s as compact as a phone with a massive screen can be, while making said massive screen as useful and usable as possible.
The verdict is in: Samsung still does big phones best.
Big and (almost) beautiful
Let’s put this into perspective. The Note 4’s screen is a mighty 5.7in on the diagonal. That’s 0.2in bigger than our current superphone recommendation, the LG G3, and Apple’s giant new iPhone, but in terms of actual handset size and ergonomics, it’s somewhere in the middle of the two.
The LG is a lovely bit of smartphone engineering, and is more compact and comfortable to hold than the new Note 4. The iPhone 6 Plus, on the other hand, seems even bigger than it needs to be and doesn’t sit in the hand as well. The flatter sides of the Note 4 combine with a new softer, less tacky faux leather back panel to make the Note 4 pretty comfortable and easy to grip, and while there are still a few lumps and bumps around the camera, headphone jack and microUSB port, the metal band around the entire edge of the device makes the Note 4 feel impressively sturdy and even a bit, premium. And that’s not a word we often use to describe Samsung phones.
At 176g it’s lighter than it looks, too. Don’t misunderstand: this is still very much a two-handed phone and if you’re used to regular-sized phones (whatever that means these days) you’ll be more conscious of the Note 4 in your hand, pocket or against your ear.
Aside from the front of the phone, though, which still looks like every Samsung smartphone ever made and the fact that waterproofing is missing here, the Note series design is definitely on the right track.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
A screen that will stun your retinas
One thing Samsung smartphones have always been able to do is stun your retinas into submission with AMOLED colours and plenty of pixels. And the Note 4 takes this heritage next gen with an LG-matching 2560 x 1440 display, making this the first 2K screen we’ve seen from Samsung.
Plenty of Samsung family traits are in evidence: it’s seriously bright (you’ll keep the slider way below halfway if you don’t want your phone to give you a suntan) and it uses the same Adaptive Display technology found in the Galaxy Tab S range, which means that it automatically adjusts its colours according to the warmness and brightness of ambient light.
Download a hi-res image and, side by side with a lesser pixelled phone such as the iPhone 6 Plus, it’s like you’re looking at two different pictures. There’s bags more detail and so there should be when the Note 4 is 515ppi. And that’s not all. Blacks are lovely and inky thanks to the AMOLED display’s ability to turn off pixels to render black. And colours are eye catching if not accurate - still slightly on the warmer, saturated side but if you want to tweak this manually, head for the AMOLED cinema and Basic settings.
Whether this is the perfect screen for you depends on your habits. Homescreens and games look gorgeous but emails, browsing and ebooks do show up that usual AMOLED problem of contrast. Whites just aren’t as pure as we’d like next to the brilliant iPhone 6 Plus, and it gets worse when you tilt the Note 4 to the side - stream a black and white movie to see the difference instantly. Likewise, if the 16Mp cam and big screen appeals to photography fans, bear in mind that colours are also not as natural as the iPhone or LG.
Still, this is a leap to 2K done very, very right and if you were a fan of Samsung screens before, all those extra pixels will be a welcome treat. As we saw with the Oppo Find 7 and the LG G3, sky high resolutions often arrive with a dip in battery life. Not so on the Note 4.
The best battery life of the 2K smartphones
In fact, not only is this the best battery life of any 2K smartphone we’ve tested, it’s even slightly better than the non-2K Note 3. Well, we’ll be damned.
The removable 3220mAh battery is just a smidgen bigger than the Note 3’s unit and Samsung claim a lot of the extra efficiency is down to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, something Sony also pointed to when explaining the Z3’s insane stamina.
In the week we’ve spent with the Note 4, ending the day with 10-20% still left in the tank has become the norm, with only those days that we’ve specifically hammered it with gaming and photography for testing purposes killing it quicker. It also lasted just over 11 hours in our HD video rundown test (Wi-Fi on, half brightness) which is an hour and a half longer than the LG G3.
It’s no Z3-style battery freak and it won’t last quite as long as an iPhone 6 Plus, but compared to the overwhelming majority of smartphones it’s still a distance runner. And the battery is swappable. And there’s a low power Ultra Power Saving mode that’s handy in emergencies (or festivals as we found with the Galaxy S5). And it has fast charging, with the supplied charger, of up to 50% in 30 minutes. You get the idea.
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A real benchmark beater
Qualcomm’s latest silicon saves the day, then. It also means that together with 3GB of RAM, the Note 4 is every bit the powerhouse you’d expect. Qualcomm's new chip is beefy enough, in fact, to turn the Note 4 into an Oculus Rift-like VR headset, when slotted into the Gear VR. Impressive stuff.
In day to day use the Note 4 tears through Android games and demolishes its rivals in benchmarks such as AnTuTu, where it scores a huge 45111 - higher than any other flagship. Happily, Samsung’s TouchWiz skin is getting more and more fluid with every software update, so the experience is as smooth as you’ll get on a Galaxy. Smoother doesn’t mean perfect - there are still a few more stutters than you’d find on an HTC One (M8) or the almost pure Android Moto X. Samsung has done a good job of tightening things up but there’s still a little bit of work to do.
One small but frustrating characteristic of Samsung phones is that while there’s a teensy bit of lag to be found when you’re getting things done, they can also jump about opening apps you didn’t intend to. That’s a combination of a few issues - the slightly sticky out home button, the easy to catch capacitive buttons and the bigger size leading to more finger slips. It’s happened to us on every single Samsung phone we’ve tested and the Note 4 is no exception. It’s a little niggle but it bears mention.
More after the break...
The S Pen is better than ever
There are a couple of other ways the Note 4 offers better value than the average phablet, and those are also things that mean it simply makes more sense as a big phone. One of those ways is the built-in S Pen and the other is software features such as Multi Window.
Both are iterations on the excellent Note 3, but both have been improved this time around.
The S Pen, which still hides in the lower right-hand corner of the smartphone, is still a bit cheap-feeling and spindly, but the fact that it’s always there makes a much bigger part of your regular smartphone week than, say, a third party stylus and an iPhone 6 Plus.
This time it’s twice as pressure sensitive, which makes a noticeable difference when sketching - the pressure, speed and tilt of the S Pen now all affect the thickness and opacity of the onscreen ink. Samsung has also thrown in fountain pen and calligraphy options.
When you pull out the S Pen you get a modified version of Air Command - apps that you can use with the stylus. These include Action Memo for quick notes, Smart Select for saving text and images to your scrapbook, Image Clip for freeform shaped screenshots and Screen Write for scribbling annotations on screenshots.
We’ve most used Action Memo and Smart Select during our time with the Note 4 - both are simply quicker than the finger-controlled alternatives every smartphone user will be familiar with. The S Pen might spent plenty of time sleeping (according to Samsung) but it’s still a big draw and holding the 5.7in phone in one hand with the S Pen writing in the other feels very natural.
Feature packed: freebies and fingerprint scanning
And then there’s Multi Window, Samsung’s feature for splitscreen multi-tasking. Hold down the back button and you can access the list of Samsung, Google and now a smattering of third party apps that you can run side by side, just as before. But the commands get more sophisticated every time we use it and now you can pop out one window to fullscreen, minimise multiple windows to bubbles, switch the apps around and drag and drop text and screenshots between apps.
The last one of those is still a bit half-baked (it’s tricky to tell what it will drag and what it won’t) and we found ourselves accidentally minimising all our apps in the first few days to pop out windows. Even so it’s the nearest thing to mimicking the ease and speed of using a laptop to simply get things done and Samsung’s clearly continuing to put the effort in.
Elsewhere, the Note 4 packs even more features than pixels - or so it seems from the intimidating settings menu. As on the Galaxy S5, though, Samsung’s at least packaged useful freebies and Samsung apps into Galaxy Essentials and Galaxy Gifts so you get to choose which you download and take advantage of. In Galaxy Gifts there’s six months free of the not-Spotify-but-close streaming service Deezer, 100GB of cloud storage for six months from RealPlayer, plus plenty of other subscriptions and trials.
The Note 4 gets the S5’s fingerprint scanning and heart rate monitoring tricks - both fun, futuristic extras but neither executed quite well enough. Keeping still long enough to swipe a finger over the S5’s home button is painful enough - unlocking the Note 4 screen while walking down the street takes awkward to new levels.
In fact, the fingerprint scanning is the only feature that we’ve struggled to use because of the Note 4’s size. If you have small hands, you might be concerned at the thought of taking this ginormous Galaxy out snapping. Don’t be, it’s a doozy.
READ MORE: The 30 best free apps for Android
More megapixels for a low light hero
First, it’s fast. Outdoors it’s neck and neck with the iPhone 6 Plus, but when you turn the lights down low the Galaxy Note 4 is often the quickest to focus.
Better yet, the 16MP rear camera shoots reliably detailed and accurate images in all conditions. Optical image stabilisation, also seen on the brilliant LG G3, helps in low light situations as we found taking Instagram pics at the moodily lit 2014 What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision Awards. As long as you’re patient enough to hold your arms steady, you can get snaps with less in the way of noise and undersaturation than you get with rivals.
Overall, it’s not a clear phone photography champ. Closer inspection shows that the iPhone 6 Plus’ 8MP camera can take slightly punchier, more balanced photos with a better range of tones. But add a clear and bright 3.7MP f/1.9 front facing camera and smooth video up to 4K, and the Note 4 is still a fantastic all-round smartphone snapper.
The basic camera controls are simple to enough to touch focus and press the shutter button with quick access to HDR, resolution, flash and timer controls in one or two taps. The big 2K display makes for a truly awesome viewfinder, too. There are also manual controls tucked away and all manner of extras and gimmicks if you choose to use them, from the return of the software-based selective focus to the less useful and rather silly dual camera. Speaking of silly, the front camera now has a wide-angle selfie mode, too. For pouts that don’t take up the whole pic.
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Verdict
The Note 4 isn’t better than most smartphones because it’s big. But it is better at being big.
It may be a little overpacked with features, but enough of them make proper use of the extra screen real estate to ensure this is a device that you use differently to a ‘normal’ phone - and isn’t that the point of phablet?
The iPhone 6 Plus seems like simply an embiggened iPhone 6 by comparison, while the just-announced Nexus 6 is going to have its work cut out to justify its 6in screen to quite the same extent.
The design’s unlikely to take anyone to gadget bliss (you still need HTC or Apple for that), but that doesn’t have to matter. The point is that the Note 4 is better made and easier to love than almost any previous Samsung phone, and that’s something to get excited about.