For all the major notable changes in the Note 4 when compared to the Galaxy S5, the software on this phone is nearly identical to that on its smaller cousin. When you set the two side-by-side you do notice subtle differences, and I have to say that they're all for the better.
The notification pane has been cleaned up, with no more "S Finder" and "Quick connect" buttons gumming things up. It also drops the time to now show just the date in a larger font in the top bar, and the full layout of quick settings no longer has tacky line dividers.
The launcher changes are just as subtle, with the "home" indicator changing from the look of a house to just a house-shaped pentagon and the "Apps" shortcut losing its heavy drop shadow. The page indicators in the app drawer also lose their drop shadows, while the still horrendous-looking app folders tone down their swoopy animations.
The leftmost home screen pane is now populated with a view called "Briefing" that replaces the old "My Magazine" branding but keeps much the same functionality. Similarly to Blinkfeed on recent HTC devices, Briefing (which is still powered by Flipboard) is an aggregator of news and content for you to browse through at your leisure. It's basically just like having Flipboard embedded into your launcher for casual reading of news from top sources, and it just isn't as useful as having Google Now over on that left side. It took a few days, but after realizing that I don't use it on a regular basis I turned it off in the settings. If I want to read Flipboard, I'll just open the Flipboard app.
TouchWiz on the Galaxy Note 4 is lighter, brighter and just a little friendlier.
Across the app drawer settings and device settings Samsung has shifted to a much more appealing white background with black text over the previous deep blue with white motif. Though it's a bit more of a power drain on an AMOLED device, I personally like the move to a white background — it's more friendly, easy to read and provides nice contrast to the rest of TouchWiz which is still very heavy on blues and greens throughout. The Settings have also been simplified to only offer a "list" or "tab" view, with the old "grid" view hitting the dust.
At this point you have to think this is just Samsung trying a few different things to tighten up TouchWiz's design as it waits for the big transition to Android L. Considering how many Samsung phones are out there it's no stretch to say that in many markets there are more people who are familiar with Samsung's UI than those who are not, so it's really tough to throw much design snobbery their way at this point.
After a full week with the Note 4 using the stock launcher, keyboard (which is actually a joy to use on this huge screen) and lock screen I wasn't left clawing my eyes out, and I think that says something about how Samsung has refined things. It isn't going to change dramatically — barring some complete 180 with the release of Android L — so we better get used to it. And if you don't really care for Samsung's software no matter what, go ahead and toss your favorite launcher and keyboard on there — I think you'll come out happy in that situation.
The biggest sign of change in the software on the Note 4 is in the arena of the S Pen, Multi Window and One-handed operation. Samsung has always focused on the power of the Note and its additional screen size as a gateway to getting more done, and with the changes this year it's one step closer to realizing that goal.
The Galaxy Note 4 S Pen
The S Pen potentially is the area that has seen the least amount of change, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Samsung's don’t-call-it-a-mere-stylus has always been great, and now just like many other areas of the Note 4 it has been notably — but not substantially — improved.
The pen itself is now ribbed to help you hold onto it better, and the single button still opens the same "Air command" interface for launching into often-used S Pen features. The old "Pen window" feature is gone, but you get the familiar Action memo, Smart select, Image clip and Screen write options. Action memo has been beefed up to let you pin quick notes to your home screen as widgets, but it can still of course launch you directly into S Note if you choose.
S Note has received a big visual makeover, but the functionality is much the same as before. You still get hand/palm rejection when writing intensely, as well as a smattering of brushes, colors and other options.
Samsung hasn't really reinvented the S Pen, but it's beefed it up in a few areas.
The S Pen now also now works more like a traditional mouse cursor when using Samsung's included browser, indicating to you when a link is clickable as you hover over it with the pen. You can also hold down the S Pen's button to drag and select images or text for editing, which is a bonus that reduces the number of times you're swapping between stylus and finger.
I still tend to worry that for many who own a Galaxy Note, the S Pen spends most of its life safely tucked away in its holding slot, and there's nothing introduced on the Note 4 that's going to change that behavior. In many cases the S Pen is used as a fine-pointed implement to do things you could do with your finger anyway, and I think that usage comes up short of what Samsung would hope for when it comes to the Note series.
Multi Window and one-handed operation
The Multi Window feature is now much easier to use and no longer requires a persistent tab on the side of your screen. You can launch apps into a split-screen view with a tap of a button on the app's card in your Recents (multitasking) view, opening that app in the top half of the screen and launches an app picker in the bottom to get things going. You can also long-press the back button to open up a familiar sidebar to get a list of Multi Window capable apps that you drag onto the screen.
These are two huge improvements to the way Multi Window works, but it still comes down to being a relatively niche feature that only works with some apps. Opening up my Recents list right now I have six apps that work with Multi Window, but also nine that do not.
Building on the Multi Window, the Note 4 also includes the ability to run small windowed apps — called "pop-up apps" — on top of other content on your phone. There's also a new gesture that lets you accomplish it — just swipe in diagonally from the top-right corner of the screen to shrink down the current app into a small window. It's a little too easy to accidentally do when you're swiping down the notification shade, but once you know not to go near the top-right corner for notifications you'll be OK.
After resizing, a familiar white circle at the top of the pop-up app lets you move around the small window or access functions, including a new feature that lets you collapse windowed apps into a small persistent bubble that can be recalled into a full app at any time, much like Chat Heads in Facebook Messenger.
I found windowed apps to be more useful than full-on Multi Window mode.
I found windowed apps to be more useful than full-on Multi Window view for quick tasks like checking out a map while recalling an address from a web page, or looking up a phone number and tossing it into a Hangouts message. You can have multiple pop-up apps open at a time, but only up to five concurrently — though considering how quickly it gets confusing I can't understand why you'd want more than five.
But wait, there's more. Samsung has also improved the so-called "one-handed operation" options from the Note 3. "Reduce screen size" is the feature that lets you shrink down the display to a much smaller size, making it reachable with one hand. Simply swipe in from either edge and quickly back out towards the edge to enable it, and your screen will shrink down to the side you swiped on.
You now have just three controls for the shrunken window, letting you return it to full size, adjust its size with a drag on the corner, or move the window around with a long press. You also get a full appointment of on-screen keys, letting you access Recents, Home, Back and volume up/down without moving your thumb nearly as far.
If you want to keep your window large but just making it easier to reach the navigation buttons, Samsung's "Side key panel" is a pop-out bar on the edge of your screen that houses softkey versions of the Recents, Home and Back buttons that save you from reaching down to the bottom of the phone.
Sadly, the "reduce screen size" mode is actually a life saver for using the Note 4 in one hand on a regular basis. I say "sadly" because you're putting to waste over half of that brilliant 2560x1440 display to use your gigantic phone in one hand and not drop it on the sidewalk while sending a text message. But without one-handed operation features enabled, the Note 4 is entirely a two-handed device. If you want to play with a large device, you're going to have to deal with semi-awkward software features that helps you forget the physical size sometimes.
Taken together, the new windowing options and improvements to old mainstays increase the usability of the Note's large screen, but lean towards confusion from time to time. There were situations in which I ended up with a miniaturized screen on the note, with an even smaller windowed app inside it and an additional windowed app shrunken down and pinned to the home screen. That's far too much to handle, even on a 5.7-inch device, and I had to use each feature sparingly as to not get overwhelmed — I can just imagine out how out of control this can get for an average user.
Galaxy Note 4 Performance
My biggest concern going into using the Note 4 was how much of a drain the new 2560x1440 display was going to put on performance. But it turns out the combination of upgraded hardware under the hood and software optimizations on Samsung's part have the Note 4 silky smooth performance right on par with that of the Galaxy S5, even with more pixels to push.
I can't think of a single instance in which the Note 4 stuttered, even with heavy multitasking and graphics-intensive apps in use. I never saw as much as an animation jitter or a dropped frame, let alone a full-scale OS slowdown. It's insanely impressive to see everything running smoothly on such a high-resolution display, particularly after experiencing frequent software slowdowns on the LG G3 with the same QHD resolution. And that’s not always been the case with Samsung’s software, particularly in early release builds on a new device.
The Note 4 continues its positioning as a powerful device with the latest iteration, and there isn't a single reason to think you could push this phone beyond its boundaries with current apps.
Quick odds and ends
At the risk of pushing this review to novel size, I'm going to list a few quick hits to round out the review:
- LTE and Wifi both worked as expected, with data speeds and ping times right on par with other devices on AT&T.
- GPS was also accurate, but seemed a bit slow to relocate me after moving around a lot. This could be something with the way AT&T is handling location with its cell towers, so that will have to be narrowed down after we use other versions.
- The phone maintained a perfect connection to the LG G Watch over Bluetooth and I never noticed it disconnect while in range.
- Phone calls on the AT&T network sounded just like normal phone calls.
- AT&T includes nearly 25 pre-installed apps, of which roughly 20 are of no use to me and were swiftly uninstalled. It also sets your homepage in both the Samsung browser and Chrome to an AT&T page.
- AT&T has baked in its own setup system when you first start the device, and if you skip past it as to not integrate with the AT&T cloud services you're dumped straight to the home screen to set things up on your own manually.