Half a year on, Samsung's most recent Note still ranks among the best Android phones of the moment.
Five months into 2015, and halfway through its shelf life, it's time to take a look back on Samsung's best phone of 2014. The Galaxy Note 4 arrived at a pivotal time for the Korean giant. Along with the Galaxy Alpha, it signaled the beginning of the end for the plasticky, blooping and whistling Samsung phones we'd come to know and eventually tolerate.
It's sometimes said among fans of the series that the only thing that can replace a Note is another Note. And having used the Galaxy Note 4 extensively since its launch, I'm beginning to see why.
These days, as the vast majority of smartphones become good enough, it's easier to characterize the big, important Android phones by what they're bad at. The HTC One M9? Sketchy low-light photos. The Galaxy S6? Worrisome longevity. Sure, no phone is perfect. But in the Android world it seems the really great all-rounders — the ones that rival the iPhone in just being exceptional across the board — are few and far between. The most recent example of such a rare device was the LG G4 — a great device that excels in just about every area.
But the Galaxy Note 4 also falls into this category of great all-rounders, and even as we approach the inevitable launch of a new Note this fall, 2014's Galaxy Note model remains a great buy.
Plastic and metal; removable and expandable
In 2015, just about every smartphone manufacturer worth talking about has taken a confident step towards the use premium materials. That being the case, the Galaxy Note 4 is no longer outstanding in terms of its physical appearance or in-hand fee. It's a mostly plastic phone with a textured faux leather back, framed around a metallic chamfered body. It looks good and feels good, but it's not quite in the same league as the Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9. But there's a silver lining: The Note is significantly easier to hold onto, thanks to its angular sides and faux leather back. By comparison, Samsung's latest flagship is a little slippery.
Over six moths of use, my Note 4 has picked up its fair share of knocks and scrapes. As we discussed two months into my time with the Note, those reflective chamfers are the first part of the phone to lose their luster, picking up scratches after just a couple of weeks, and continuing in that vein as the months progress. From a normal viewing distance the wear and tear isn't immediately noticeable, but look closer and it's plain to see. There isn't a single spot of the metallic trim that hasn't worn at least slightly.
Fortunately, the rest of the Note 4's external hardware has held up pretty well. I've managed not to drop the phone at all, so the screen remains in one piece. The plastic notches cut out of the frame to allow for better reception haven't discolored quite as much as other phones using this setup, like the Nexus 6 and HTC One M9.
The other upside of the Note's more traditional construction is its removable battery and storage, which I've taken advantage of throughout the past few months. I'm one of those weirdos who actually buys second batteries for phones. And while quick charging makes it easier than ever to restore a dead battery to a usable state, nothing's quicker than swapping a depleted cell for a fresh one, especially if you're traveling. What's more, a 64GB microSD is a quick and easy way to ensure I'll never clutter up the 32GB of internal flash with photos or cached music from Google Play. I get the security reasons behind OEMs wishing to ditch insecure removable storage, but for me the advantages trump the pitfalls.
Both are design concessions too. But given the relative rarity of removable batteries in high-end phones right now, I'm willing to put up with a chunkier design in exchange for a phone that offers these features. It's also one of the main reasons why I'm so enamored with the LG G4 these days.
Still one of the best displays
If there's one part of the Note 4 that's still almost unmatched, it's the Quad HD SuperAMOLED display. It's easily as bright, vivid and impressive as the Galaxy S6's screen, and even as the LG G4's "IPS Quantum" display matches the standard set by Samsung, we've yet to see anything on an Android phone that truly exceeds its brilliance.
It's good is what we're saying.
The range of brightness levels on offer is another great but often overlooked feature — the Note 4 can be bright enough to see clearly in the fiercest direct sunlight, or dim enough to allow for easy reading in near darkness. And unlike some earlier AMOLED screens, there's no weird over-sharpening or over-enhancement of vibrance or color levels. By default, contrast levels are boosted somewhat, but Samsung's software lets you choose between a handful of presets to tone this down.
Nearly a Galaxy S6-level camera
A lot of praise has been heaped upon the Galaxy S6's camera this year, but for Note owners this is mostly old news. The Galaxy Note 4 uses the same camera sensor as the GS6 (a Sony IMX 240), only behind a slightly darker f/2.2 lens. That means it's not quite as spectacular in low light, but besides that you're getting around 90 percent of the GS6 camera experience.
Arriving around the end of 2014, the Note 4 was one of the first Android phones to take really awesome photos in just about all conditions with minimal effort. Since then it's only really been surpassed in terms of low light performance, with phones like the GS6 — and more recently the LG G4 — proving more capable in darker conditions. Newer devices also promise high-end features like RAW support that you won't find in Note 4. And it's also true that the phone's camera app is a bit sluggish to launch compared to the GS6. Regardless, it's still an amazing camera, and I wouldn't hesitate to use it as my primary camera when traveling — as I have done over the past few months.
Like a lot of Android phones, the Note's transition to version 5.0 of the OS, Lollipop, wasn't exactly smooth. The first builds started hitting a handful of countries in February, accompanied by a few bugs that eventually held back the rollout in other territories. A wider rollout of a more stable Lollipop build began in March — with the controversial new "interruptions" system removed — almost five months after the initial Android 5.0 code drop.
And it'd be another couple months before Google Fit, a core Google application, worked properly on the Note 4 and other Samsung Lollipop phones.
Lollipop for the Note 4 brings some Material Design-inspired visuals to Samsung's TouchWiz UI, though the changes aren't as sweeping, nor the results as pleasing to the eyes as the GS6's software experience. There's still some persistent and highly annoying lag when opening the recent apps menu, which becomes infuriating when hopping between a couple of apps.
Beyond the visual changes, the Lollipop update doesn't introduce any revolutionary new features for TouchWiz or the S Pen. The Note's WACOM stylus remains a feature that's useful occasionally, but not essential for me in day-to-day use of the device. I'm not a big note-taker, but I have found the stylus a more accurate replacement for stubby human fingers when clicking tiny links on web pages, or precisely highlighting text in a document.
There's nothing really wrong with Lollipop on the Note 4, but it's telling that the software just doesn't feel anywhere near as tuned up as the GS6's — or for that matter the Nexus 6, which uses the same Snapdragon 805 processor. It has the feel of a KitKat phone that's been grudgingly dragged up to Android 5.0, complete with animations that cut off abruptly and fonts that belong in Android's past.
Maybe it'll be brought up to date with a more GS6-like user experience, but Samsung's made no promises to that end.
What's next for Samsung's workhorse
From a power-user's perspective, it's arguable that the Galaxy Note series is the Samsung product line to get excited about, more than the mainstream Galaxy S series. That's because like the best smartphones, there's nothing the past two or three Notes have really been bad at. It's this rock solid foundation I hope Samsung doesn't mess with as it prepares the inevitable Galaxy Note 5.
As much as cutting back on removable components in the Galaxy S6 allowed it to hone a ridiculously thin and attractive chassis, the company must also be aware that the Note series is increasingly the phone of choice for tech enthusiasts. These are the people buying giant phones with built-in styluses and wacky multitasking features — and the ones buying the microSD cards Samsung itself manufactures.
For sure, there's much more Samsung can do to make the Note series feel as premium as the leading phones from other manufacturers. But hopefully it'll be able to strike a balance between the Note's history strengths and its newfound design chops, as witnessed in the GS6. Is it too early to suggest an aluminum-plus-leather combo?
Galaxy Note 4 owners, how are you getting on with the phone six months after its launch? What are your hopes for the Galaxy Note 5? Shout out in the comments!