The Galaxy Note series has always been about productivity, creativity, and functionality. It's about getting things done, about having the power to do so. So the Note line has always tried to maintain top-of-the-line guts to keep up with all of the things it knows you want to do with it. This week, we're getting a few new editions to the Note family. But how well has that legacy held up? We take a look back at the Notes of the past and the newest successor to the Note line.
The original Note sported a 5.3" screen, which seemed ridiculously big at the time, but is now about the standard for Android smartphones. And that ridiculously big screen packed the first HD SuperAMOLED screen, coming in just over 720p at 1280 by 800. Inside was a dual-core processor, either Qualcomm or Exynos, with 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage, which could be doubled with a microSD card. All of this was contained in a massive black slab, which followed the design of the international Galaxy S2, and while it wasn't exceedingly heavy, it was still unwieldy, and nigh impossible to use one-handed.
Also packed in that massive slab was a massive battery that our original review said could last 24 hours on a single charge if you weren't going nuts shooting video with the 8MP camera. As a side note, if you're looking for a few laughs and some perspective on how far we've come in the last few years, read the comments at the end of that review.
The S-Pen suite was nifty, but we kept that pen holstered most of the time and simply used our good old fingers instead. TouchWiz was… TouchWiz, which while we still hadn't gotten bored of yet at that point, it was still hardly perfect for a device that size. The Note came with Gingerbread, but it saw steady (if a bit slow) updates up to Jelly Bean, which is what came on our next Note.
Galaxy Note 2
The Note 2 drew its design from the S3 the way its predecessor had from the S2, which meant it was shiny, glossy, and ever-so-slightly hefty. Samsung had bumped the size up to 5.5 inches within the same surface area, thanks to bezel trimming, yet had actually dropped a few pixels, opting for exactly a 720p resolution rather than the awkward 1280 by 800 of the original Note. Inside, we'd doubled cores again to a quad-core 1.3 GHz processor, again either a Qualcomm or Exynos depending on your variant. We got double the RAM and a choice in on-board storage, which gave us more space for all the creating we were supposed to be doing on the device, and the device used all those bleeding-edge specs (and Project Butter from Jelly Bean) to run like well, butter. NFC and dual-band AC Wi-Fi were buried in the guts of the device, but dual-band wasn't highly used yet (and ac is still getting off the ground now), and with Google Wallet blocked for just about everyone, the NFC was relegated to S-Beam.
And while the S-pen still stayed in its holster a fair bit, when it came out, the device recognized it and brought up resources to better help you utilize it, such as Page Buddy. We also got new features that detected the S-pen as you hovered it over the screen, like a mouse on a desktop, and handwriting on the Note 2 was now accurate enough to warrant actually using it (though it wasn't quite perfect yet).
The real gem on the Note 2 didn't actually come until an OTA, and it was multi-window support, allowing certain apps to take advantage of all that lovely screen space and get more done. We still wish this would come to more devices. But TouchWiz was still TouchWiz, and while we couldn't deny the sheer number of features offered through TouchWiz and the S-Pen suite, it was a mess to look at.
The camera here was almost the same as the S3, which at the time was the best you could find on an Android smartphone. Coupled with the bigger screen and the brilliant HD video one could shoot on it, it's not hard to see why the Note 2 found a sweet spot with soccer moms who could use it to catalog moments in their little ones lives. It was too big for the pockets of their mom jeans, but they carried their phone in their purse, anyway. They could also hand the hulking device over to the tykes like a miniature tablet to watch videos or play games on while Mom pushed them around the grocery store quietly in the shopping cart.
Galaxy Note 3
The next Note gave us another bump to 5.7, just as the flagship it was based on was crossing the 5-inch threshold. The Note 3 wasn't quite as rounded as its predecessor, nor was it quite as shiny. It was more flat, more boxy, more industrial and professional. After all, this was a phone that was there to help you get it done, whatever it was. That said, the industrial look was somewhat betrayed by the faux-metal plastic bezel and the faux-leather back. To some that looked good, to others, it just felt cheap.
And it packed bigger specs and better software into a slightly smaller package, as that 5.7" 1080p screen was crammed into the same size face as the Note 2 (and original Note, for that matter) and a milimeter thinner body. We still had a quad-core processor, but the speed had been bumped to 2.3GHz, and we still had a Snapdragon and Exynos variant depending on your region/carrier variant. We were bumped up to 3GB of RAM, which was good because without it the phone likely would've choked on all the extra software Samsung shoved into TouchWiz trying to make it do everything, even with the enhancements to battery that came with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.
The Note 3 sported a 3200mAh battery, a tiny bump that was not what you'd expect with all of the extra pixels and bytes that they crammed into the phone. It was, however, well up to the task of keeping a charge throughout the day on regular use. It's also the first phone to come with a microUSB 3.0 port, which would give faster transfer times when connected to a computer (say for rooting it), and faster charging times, too.
The multi-window that debuted on the Note 2 was expanded and improved, encompassing more apps and allowing you to save favorite combinations. And while the Note line has never been ideal for one-handed use, the Note 3 looked to change that by offering a one-handed mode that scales the whole screen down, so even those with tiny, delicate hands can easily use the Note 3 one-handed. Some may argue that it's a waste to buy a 5.7-inch device if you're going to have to shrink it down to use it, but let's remember that you don't use your phone one-handed all the time.
Page Buddy has been expanded and renamed Air Command, and the S-Pen suite has been overhauled, refined, given new benefits to each app that I will leave to the original review of the the device we put out last year after IFA. At the end of the day, however it is TouchWiz, and it was still inconsistent, incorrigible to many, and felt incomplete despite the massive number of features crammed into it. The addition of KNOX for business users, which Google would draw on for their own business management utilities announced at Google I/O 2014, was useful for business users and owners who were looking for more controls over the devices and data their employees keep with them, but the bootloader that came with it wrought havoc on many a user who wanted to modify their device.
Galaxy Note 4
And now we come to the present. The Note 4 has kept the 5.7-inch screen size of the 3, but has gone to a QHD resolution of 2560 by 1440, to keep up with other phones like the LG G3. While many expected the Note 4 to sport a 64-bit processor (and the 4 GB of RAM it supports), it did not, sticking instead to a quad-core processor in varying configurations, again defined by region/carrier variant. The storage options, which had given users a choice for the last two models, are now locked at 32 GB, though it's asymmetric cousin the Note Edge should have a 64 GB option. The only option to expand that is the microSD slot, which has lost some of its functionality given the changes to SD card privileges in Android 4.4 Kit Kat, which is what the Note 4 will ship with. Joining the Note 4 from the S5 are a fingerprint reader and heart rate monitor.
The S-Pen suite has once again undergone a refinement and gotten a new smattering of features, but with what little time we've had with it, there hasn't been a whole lot that's stood out. Multi-window is improved and S-Pen can do even more mouse-like thing. Nothing stands head and shoulders over the Note 3, but Kit Kat seems to have helped the Note 4 escape from TouchWiz's typical lag.
What sets the Note 4 apart is the material choices. Gone are the faux-metal trim and fake-stitched leather. We have metal constructions, and while some of the backs still have a leather-type texture, and the texture varies by color, they feel much more at home here, and they go a good ways towards helping put the era of super-shiny chrome plastic behind us.
The Note line has tried - and for the most part succeeded - to exude a premium and productive experience, right down to the faux leather and the new Swarovski-backed versions. They're massive phones - or at least they started that way. Now, we see an iPhone and (probably) a Nexus joining the phablet market that Samsung proudly says it created (and named), and flagships are closing the size gap quickly. And while it may not be as bleeding edge as we'd like now, the Note 4 continues to push the envelope and put more into our phone, so that we can do more.
How do you think the Note 4 holds up to the Note Legacy? Is there anything that you think the new Notes are lacking? Speak up in the comments below.
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