Since Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note line in the fall of 2010, it has stood as the "tock" to the Galaxy S' "tick" in the product cycle year after year. The leading Galaxy S device of the year introduces all of the new software features, a new form factor and a new internal specs, while the Galaxy Note later in the year refines the physical design, enhances the software with new S Pen features and often fixes the pain points introduced with the Galaxy S — all while doing a little something extra with the increased screen real estate.
In many ways you could say the Galaxy Note is the device that Samsung really uses to push its limits. Where it tries things to see what sticks, then integrate it back into the next-generation Galaxy S.
This year is no different, and the Galaxy Note 4 is tocking right along, improving dramatically on the Galaxy S5. With a brand new aluminum exterior that looks and feels great, optical image stabilization on the camera, a new higher-resolution QHD display, top-end internals and small refinements on the software, this is a device any manufacturer would be happy to call its leading flagship.
Despite generally playing second fiddle to the Galaxy S5, it's actually not hard to say that the Galaxy Note 4 contains all of the features we wish were in the GS5 — if not for its larger screen size that's physically too much to handle for many. This is the real 2014 flagship for Samsung, and it's called the Galaxy Note 4. Read along for our full review.
About this review
We're writing this review after a week using a white, AT&T-branded Galaxy Note 4 in the greater Seattle area with great LTE coverage from the carrier. Our Note 4, provided by Samsung, was running software build UCU1ANIE. For the majority of our time with the Note 4 we had an LG G Watch connected over Bluetooth as well.
Galaxy Note 4 hardware
The best-looking, best-feeling Samsung phone yet
Samsung's switch from plastic to metal for its primary smartphone build material has been a long time coming. Although the Galaxy Alpha — which has nearly identical design and materials — may have spoiled the surprise for some by being released first, the Galaxy Note 4 will likely be the first time regular consumers get their hands on a metal phone from Samsung.
The metal — a combination of aluminum and magnesium — curves around the edges of the Note 4 in a solid band, with the flat portions taking on a very slightly textured color that matches the rest of the phone. The shimmery chamfered edges above and below the colored stripe add contrast and give it that "Samsung" kind of bling, showing off that this is indeed a metal phone. The metal runs deep into the device as its frame, adding rigidity as well.
I can't overstate how this build simply puts Samsung devices of the past to shame, with an air of class and beauty you just can't squeeze out of a plastic device. Even though the entire back of the phone is still plastic (and removable, by the way), you don't seem to care so much because the main contact points for your hand and fingers are all metal. The plastic meets up with the metal seamlessly on the back, with nary a gap to be seen.
The inclusion of a plastic back lets Samsung work in its (in)famous faux leather pattern — though it does lose the stitching introduced on the Note 3 — but it also reduces the overall weight of the device to just 176 grams. That's just 10 percent heavier than the HTC One M8 in a much larger size. The plastic also lets Samsung keep its trademark removable battery, as well as stow the SIM (which is a Micro, not Nano, by the way) and SDcard slots underneath so that nothing breaks up that lovely metal band around the edges.
Perhaps most important, the Note 4's plastic back improves usability dramatically by giving you something to hold onto when using it in one hand. The textured material has more grip to it than any all-metal surface, and every little bit helps when you're fighting an uphill battle of one-handed use on a 5.7-inch phone.
For all it does, the plastic back hasn't saved Samsung from needing to inject a little bit of plastic into the metal for antenna reasons, and you'll still notice four small lines — two on top, two on bottom — that ever so slightly show up on the chamfered edges. It actually took me about a day to notice they were even there as they're cleverly disguised, so I can't complain too much.
Volume and power buttons are found in the standard places, as are the headphone and USB ports. The buttons match the metal edges perfectly and are easier to find and press in regular use than previous versions. Samsung has decided to ditch the USB 3.0 port and go back to 2.0 for some reason, but as an added bonus there isn't a flap to be seen over the port here like the Galaxy S5 — the tradeoff being that the Note 4 isn't water resistant.
The front of the Note 4 is distinctly Samsung, with a logo and speaker above the screen balanced out by a large rectangular physical home button on the bottom. A pair of sensors and a new 3.7MP front-facing camera join the speaker on top, while capacitive multitasking and back keys flank the home button on the bottom. The screen glass has a very light lined pattern underneath it on the bezels, while the glass itself flows nicely into the metal edges.
Despite the dramatically improved feel of a metal chassis and the added texture of a plastic back, the Galaxy Note 4 is still a bit of a hassle to handle in daily use. With a 5.7-inch display and notable bezels on the top for sensors and bottom for navigation buttons, the Note 4 is still above the range of "normal" sized phones — even as that definition has changed over the years.
At 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm it comes in a touch taller and thicker, but narrower, than the Note 3, which in itself is still considered quite large. For further reference, that's 7mm taller and 4mm wider than the LG G3. Samsung isn't trying to mislead anyone into thinking this phone is manageable in one hand on a regular basis, and as I'll get to in the software section of this review it has expanded the one-handed use features to act as a crutch when you only have one hand free.
But no matter what you do in the software, the Note 4 is still going to be just too large for many people to handle. These large-format phones aren't getting any smaller, and our hands aren't getting any bigger — the tradeoffs of what you get for the size are just getting more enticing.
Galaxy Note 4 specs
What more could you ask for?
Lurking beneath the beautiful exterior of the Note 4 are internal specs that follow a logical evolution from the Galaxy S5 (but match the Korea-only GS5 LTE-A), keeping the phone on the bleeding edge of what's available in late 2014. A Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor is clocked at 2.7GHz and paired up with an Adreno 420 GPU and 3GB of RAM — all necessary materials to push around a brand new 2560x1440 Super AMOLED display.
The Note 4 ships with 32GB of internal storage by default, which is important because a full 7.78GB is locked up by the system in this AT&T model. Even after getting the Note 4 set up and installing several dozen apps (including games) I still had almost 18GB free — plenty of breathing room for most. If you somehow need more, an SD card slot under the back plate will add up to another 128GB.
Samsung has also brought over two headline features from the Galaxy S5 — the finger scanner in the home button, and the heart rate sensor under the camera on the back. For most people they will basically just be a pair of meaningless one-time use features, but for a small set a finger scanner and heart rate sensor will be worth having.
These are the same parts as the GS5, and for that reason they haven't made their way into my personal life — the finger scanner just isn't good enough (particularly when fumbling this large device) and the heart rate monitoring isn't something I need on a regular basis.
Galaxy Note 4 display and speakers
This display. My oh my, this display.
Rather than increasing the physical size of the display coming from the Note 3, Samsung has just pumped up the pixel count to a rather impressive 2560x1440 and improved many characteristics of the panel. Though they were beaten to this high resolution by the LG G3 it doesn't make the display any less impressive, and it's no stretch at all to say this is the best display Samsung has ever put in a phone.
Even with the notable improvements in outdoor viewing and brightness introduced in the Galaxy S5, the Note 4's display kicks things up another level. There's a reason why DisplayMate said this is the best screen out there, bar none — it's bright, insanely crisp and easy to see in daylight, even with the white model I have that has more reflective bezels.
With Samsung's software adding some adaptive tuning and brightness controls based on the app and content you're looking at, you may not be getting the most accurate picture but you're certainly getting a beautiful one. If you choose to turn off the adaptive software controls it mellows things out a bit, but it's still worthy of praise in either case.
I'm hard pressed to find a single flaw in the Note 4's display, but the one minuscule gripe I have is that in very low light situations when you have the brightness all the way down the screen tends to look a bit blue. That's something that often comes with the territory when you use an AMOLED panel, and thankfully color reproduction is great in all other situations, but it's something you notice in that very specific situation.
But that's like criticizing one subpar brush stroke on a work of art — there's still no reason to say that this display is anything but the absolute pinnacle of what's available in a phone today. I put it right up along the LG G3, with the tiebreaker being your personal choice on LCD versus AMOLED. But even that choice is a tough one, as Samsung is doing some very interesting things with the AMOLED technology that it has refined over the years.
Full disclosure: For the sake of completeness, I also need to mention that my Note 4 came with a group of a couple dead pixels at the top edge of the display. Because of its size and positioning the dead spot didn't change my daily use, but it may be noticeable in some pictures of the display in this review. We've reached out to Samsung for comment, and more information on its dead pixel policy. But as it stands there's no reason to assume this is indicative of an issue with all Note 4s.
For all of the praise I can heap on the Note 4's display, its speaker quality isn't worthy of such kind words. A small, fingernail-sized loudspeaker is found on the back of the phone, and a small bump in its grille keeps it lifted off whatever surface it's on. Despite that clever design choice the Note 4's one small speaker just isn't that loud, and with the huge size of this phone — presumably to be used for media watching — you expect a bit more in terms of audio.
It's more than adequate for ringtones, notifications, speakerphone calls and the like, but you won't want to watch more than a short YouTube video without plugging in some headphones. This isn't HTC's BoomSound — actually, it's not much of any sound.
Software and performance
The design we know, with tighter screws
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.