Is Samsung's big phone a big hit? We reflect on two months with the Note 4.
When Samsung refreshes the Galaxy Note line, people take notice — and the leap this year was as big as any other. After an imperfect Galaxy S5 that didn't exactly blow us away, the Galaxy Note 4 really hit it out of the park. A ridiculously high-quality display is backed up by a new metal design, while the camera brings important improvements and the internals hit new highs.
We're now just two months removed from the launch of the Note 4, and while all of us here at Android Central have spent our fair share of quality time with the phone, two of us are still carrying it on a regular basis. Alex Dobie and myself have been using the Note 4 since launch, more or less, and want to reflect on our experiences — both highs and lows — with the phone. We have plenty to talk about, so join us after the break.
Alex's take on the Note 4 after two months
I've used all three previous Note handsets, but the Galaxy Note 4 is the first one to become my daily driver, and I've been using it as my main device for almost two months now. There are a few reasons I've settled on the Note 4 over the myriad high-end Android phones available right now. Firstly, Samsung's had three generations to refine the Note formula and introduce new features like split-screen multitasking, while making this famously hefty family of devices easier to use with one hand. What's more, the public attitude towards big phones has changed significantly since the first Note emerged in late 2011 — perhaps thanks in part to Samsung's biggest rival, no-one's going to gawp at you for using a 5.7-inch phone in 2014. Most of all, though, the Galaxy Note 4 is probably the best all-round Android phone I've used, regardless of size. It's great at pretty much everything it does, and it excels in a few really important areas.
Just about anything you'd care to view on the Note 4's display looks amazing.
First up, the display is the best I've seen on a mobile device. Unlike the LG G3, Samsung's able to wrangle 2560 by 1440 pixels without sacrificing color quality. Just about anything you'd care to view on the Note 4's display looks amazing. Colors pop just as you'd expect from an AMOLED screen, however this effect isn't as over-the-top as on earlier devices, and there are display options to let you pare this back if you want. I haven't pointed a colorimeter at my Galaxy Note 4, nor am I inclined to do so. But I've used a lot of phones this past year, and in my entirely subjective opinion, the Note 4's screen beats them all.
A gorgeous high-res display also helps show off the Note 4's photographic capabilities, and the phone's 16-megapixel, optically-stabilized camera was another deciding factor in choosing to spend my own cash on this device. Throughout 2014 I've been continually frustrated by Android cameras. Some, like the Galaxy S5 were great in daylight but useless in the dark. Others like the HTC One M8 were just plain mediocre across the board. Eventually I settled on the LG G3 as a decent all-round shooter, but the Note 4 tops them all with exceptional performance in daylight and low light. I've noticed it's a little easier to get blurry night-time shots than on G3, but the ones that come out clearly look phenomenal. And in daylight it's every bit as good as the Galaxy S5, including an extremely capable HDR mode with real-time previews.
The Note 4 does more to justify its enormous size than phones that are *just big*.
The Note 4 also does more to justify its enormous size than rivals like the Nexus 6, and a big part of that is Samsung's expansive — arguably labyrinthine, in fact — multitasking setup. I never really used multiwindow on earlier Samsung phones, but the ease with which you can now transition between full screen, split screen and windowed modes on the Note 4 makes these features much easier to dip in and out of. The various ways of accessing multiwindow and pop-up view are still kind of a mess, although once you've figured out a way that works for you it's fairly straightforward.
The same goes for the S Pen. It's taken Samsung a while to figure out what real people actually use this stylus for, and for me the Wacom-capable pen has been more useful when navigating desktop-sized web pages and emails than taking notes. Note-taking is still a big focus — after all, it's in the name of the product — however the stylus is arguably just as important when you're playing Monument Valley and don't want to crowd up the screen with your fingers.
Samsung's software has been a point of contention for Android purists, but TouchWiz's latest incarnation is relatively benign, if not as attractive or sleek as Google's Material Design. While the transition towards a lighter color scheme definitely helps, there's some work to be done before Samsung's UI is as slick as the latest Nexus or HTC software.
Samsung's build quality takes a huge leap forwards — but you're going to want to watch those chamfers.
I'd be remiss in not mentioning the huge step forward Samsung's industrial design has taken this time around, too. Like the Galaxy Alpha, its display is framed by a metal band — a small change which goes a long way towards making the Note 4 feel a more premium handset. In fact, after using the Note 4 for a few weeks, it's striking just how cheap, unpleasant and generally half-assed the Galaxy S5 feels by comparison.
The squared-off edges and soft-touch battery door (on the black model I've been using) also helps this enormous phone fit more securely in the hand. One-handed use remains a bit of a challenge, but the Note 4's shape and weight makes it more feasible to wrangle when you don't have both hands free. It's actually quite striking how the Note 4 feels more secure in-hand than the smaller, slipperier HTC One M8.
There's a trade-off, though. The metal band, particularly the reflective chamfers around its edges, are prone to picking up scratches and other signs of wear, just from being taken in and out of a pocket over a couple of months. In fact, the first signs of wear on the metal band started to appear within a week and it's progressed steadily since then. It doesn't look terrible, but it's an unwelcome sign of wear I haven't noticed with any other metal phone, including Samsung's own Galaxy Alpha.
Nevertheless, the Note 4 has me excited for the future of Samsung phones for the first time. The Note 4 scores important points in display quality, camera chops, feature set and build quality, and it's earned a place in my pocket for the foreseeable future. If the upcoming Galaxy S6 can build upon this, it could be the major leap forward Samsung's mobile division needs.
Two months with the Note 4 from Andrew's perspective
I used the Galaxy Note 4 throughout October, writing our official review mid-month, and since then have kept it as a primary device off-and-on as I switched between it and the Moto X (2014). Much like Alex, the Note 4 is the first in the Note line that I could actually use on a daily basis without feeling like I was missing something — in many ways I feel like I'm getting the best of what's available today with this device.
There's no longer a hardware tradeoff for using a Samsung phone — the metal is impressive.
No longer do I have to accept the tradeoff of a creaky plastic phone in order to get all Samsung's various features, as the Note 4 boasting a seriously improved metal body. The colored metal frame with shiny chamfered edges looks great, and more importantly feels solid, despite the back of the phone using Samsung's trademark flexible plastic panel. The Note 4 seems to have upped the quality of manufacturing in general, and it's hard to find a flaw with the external hardware here. I'm fine with the fake leather pattern — at least now that the fake stitching is gone — and while I prefer on-screen buttons Samsung's physical-plus-capacitive setup isn't a deal-breaker. I do have to say that the usefulness of the heart rate monitor and finger scanner are lost on me, but at least they're not in the way.
And I'm glad the hardware has improved so dramatically, because the screen it surrounds is worthy of being framed by high-quality materials. As I said in my review, the Note 4 is the first AMOLED device that makes me throw my usual preference of LCDs out the window. The Note 4's display is seemingly off the charts in terms of brightness, vibrancy and of course crispness with its Quad HD resolution. This year you're getting all of the great upsides of AMOLED, without the traditional downsides of glaring color inaccuracy and poor daylight visibility. This display not only bests other AMOLED displays out there (I'm looking at you, Motorola) by a mile, but it also edges out the leading LCDs that we've seen on 2014 flagships — like the LG G3 and HTC One (M8).
The display is hands-down the best out there, and the resolution doesn't impact performance either.
As impressive as the display is, it'd be for nothing if the performance took a hit because of its high resolution. Whether it's because of the high-end hardware inside or good software customization under the hood, the Note 4 doesn't have any of the annoying lag or slow-down we experienced on other QHD devices. Most Note owners won't care what's powering their phone but the Snapdragon 805 inside seems to handle what you throw at it without issue, even while pushing all those pixels. Sure, there's room to improve, but the Note 4 just doesn't feel like a slow phone in any way. And with a Lollipop update expected early in 2015, it's only going to get better with time.
When it comes to imaging, after using the Galaxy S5 for several months I wasn't at all surprised to see that the Note 4 camera's daylight performance was fantastic. What I was surprised about is the huge step forward in low-light capabilities. The new 16MP sensor is much more sensitive to light, and the addition of OIS has obviously helped smooth things out — even with occasionally finicky software. I still think that Samsung has work to do in its interface, and a true manual mode for the photographers among us would be great, but this is finally a well-rounded camera Samsung can be proud of.
But there's still one sore spot for me — Samsung comes up short in the software.
Of course I still have issues with a few aspects of the Note 4, namely its software design. For all of the great innovation and improvements we've seen across the board in hardware here, the software is still a step (or a few) behind what you get on other phones. I'm admittedly fully bought into the Samsung ecosystem, but the software experience doesn't make me want to. The Note 4 has lightened up the interface a tad and removed some of the superfluous animations and 3D effects, but still feels a bit like a child's fourth-grade painting rather than something designed thoughtfully. Using the Google Now Launcher hides the most objectionable areas, to be fair, but I still don't feel a connection to Samsung's software in the way I do with others.
For me, the Note 4 is a phone with several high points with just a single low point. Overall, there are far more highs than lows with this phone, and it's a good enough device for me to use every day without issue. If Samsung keeps iterating at this pace, and if the software can improve as much as the hardware has done, future Samsung handsets will be far closer to offering everything I want out of a phone.
Time has passed, but we're still enjoying this device
It's clear to see that even two months after release, we're both enjoying our time with the Galaxy Note 4. Even though the software may come up a little short of our expectations, the rest of the phone's components have been improved dramatically from earlier Samsung efforts, resulting in a phone that really stands out from the crowd. There are always going to aspects of devices like this that aren't perfect for everyone, but when it comes to the Note 4 we haven't found anything that's a deal breaker, even after two months of daily use.
Using the Note 4 gives you the best screen around right now, along with the best build quality we've seen in a Samsung phone. There's no getting around the physical size of the device — your hands aren't changing size any time soon — but Samsung's doing its best to manage the screen size and make the most of the extra space. Most importantly for many, the impressive rear camera has turned out to be something we can rely on for important pictures.
Both of us have used a whole bunch of phones over the past year, and so it's significant that we've both stuck with the Galaxy Note 4 for as long as we have. We're rapidly approaching new phone season, however, and we'll be watching with interest to see how next year's flagships shape up to what's currently one of the best Android phones out there.
Note 4 owners, how have you found the device over the past couple of months? Hit the comments and let us know!