Galaxy Note 7 and Note 4

Though traditional two-year contracts are all but gone now, the 24-month cycle of upgrading to a new phone is still very much in play. So when we see a huge phone release like the Galaxy Note 7, there are millions using a Galaxy Note 4 who perk up and take notice.

With more powerful internals, an improved camera, better screen, new S Pen features and an amazing leap in design, the Galaxy Note 7 definitely has a lot going for it ... but is it enough to give up a Note 4, which likely still works very well two years on? We're going to tell you all you need to know about this upgrade.

Let's start off by analyzing the most obvious and experience-forming changes: the hardware of these two phones. While the Note 4 was revolutionary at the time for its stark difference in design from the Galaxy S5, it looks downright dated next to the sleek and more compact Note 7. The smooth, curved metal on the Note 7 that perfectly marries up to front and back Gorilla Glass 5 panels feels great and looks fantastic (yes, even with the added fingerprint accumulation), and even though this is an evolution of a design that started with the Galaxy S6 it still looks extremely modern.

The Note 7 shows just how far we've come in smartphone design since 2014

Of course the looks are nice and you should be proud of the high-end phone you buy, but how it actually feels and operates as a large-screened phone is just as important. The changes in design all around, with smooth edges and a subtly-curved screen on the sides, have made the Note 7 even easier to handle and manipulate with just one hand. The dimensions alone start telling the story, with the Note 7 being thinner, but also almost 5 millimeters narrower — a big difference when you want to reach across the 5.7-inch display. The curved display is part of that, of course, but the bezels around the screen have also shrunk — and you shouldn't be immediately worried about the display curve having an effect on how you use your phone.

Then you have waterproofing, which was absent on the Note 4 after being included in the Galaxy S5 but is back on the Note 7. It's hardly a feature you'll take advantage of on a regular basis, but the one time you really need your phone to survive contact with water you'll realize just how important it is. Especially when you pay this much for a phone.

Category Galaxy Note 7 Galaxy Note 4
Operating System Android 6.0 Marshmallow Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Display 5.7-inch 2560x1440
Dual edge screen
Gorilla Glass 5
5.7-inch 2560x1440
Gorilla Glass 4
Processor Quad-core Snapdragon 820 (U.S.)
Octa-core Exynos 8890 (international)
Quad-core Snapdragon 805 (U.S.)
Octa-core Exynos 5433
Storage 64GB
microSD up to 256GB
microSD up to 256GB
Rear Camera 12MP f/1.7
1.4-micron pixels
16MP f/2.2
1.12-micron pixels
Front Camera 5MP f/1.7 3.7MP f/1.9
Charging USB-C
Fast charging
Qi wireless
Powermat wireless
Fast charging
Input S Pen stylus
4096 pts of pressure sensitivity
S Pen stylus
2048 pts of pressure sensitivity
Battery 3500 mAh
3220 mAh
Water resistance IP68 rating No
Security One-touch fingerprint sensor
Iris scanner
Swipe fingerprint scanner
Dimensions 153.5 x 73.9 x 7.9 mm 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5 mm
Weight 169 g 176 g

You could definitely make arguments about losing features or at least not making many advancements when looking at the Note 4 and the Note 5 together, but the Note 7 has brought back much of what was lost last year to have an overall substantial internal update. In what is often an important fact for power users the Note 7 has brought back an SD card slot, while also bumping up internal storage to 64GB over the Note 4's 32. And with it the Note 7 has also increased battery capacity to 280 mAh more than the Note 4, which is also aided by a more efficient screen and processor inside. The battery isn't removable, of course, but you do have built-in wireless charging to help you keep topped up through heavy use days.

A lot of small spec bumps add up to a nice improvement in experience

The rest of the spec bumps aren't revolutionary, but two years of incremental updates are definitely notable. A faster processor will lead you into the future of more intense apps, as will one more gigabyte of RAM and the new USB-C port on the bottom. And we can't forget the dramatic improvement in daily usability that comes with a new one-touch fingerprint sensor, which is preferable in every single way to the old swipe-style scanner. Yes the Note 7 includes an iris scanner as well, but until that proves to be useful every day, we can't say it's a reason to upgrade from any phone.

The next bit of the experience is in the cameras. The Note 4 had a considerably better camera than the Galaxy S5 with its change of sensor and addition of OIS, but that camera was blown away in every aspect by the Galaxy Note 5's in 2015. Now in 2016 the camera setup found in the Galaxy S7, S7 edge and Note 7 is even better than the Note 5's, though not as massively as in previous years. The differences in daylight quality are subtle, but the low-light camera performance on the Note 7 will be a great step up over even the very capable Note 4. You'll also enjoy faster launch, focus and capture speeds on the latest Note, which can't be understated.

And we can't get through this discussion without also talking about the upgrade in the S Pen. Externally it's effectively the same, but the pen is now faster to track on the display, more accurate, and is waterproof just like the phone — you also can't overstate how important having double the pressure sensitivity (now 4096 levels) is for all kinds of stylus work. The software suite has been improved as well, with all of the S Pen functions being pulled into just the Samsung Notes app and Air Command. There are new features like being able to translate text with the stylus and also create GIFs out of any content on the screen — if you're a big S Pen user, this upgrade will be worth considering.

At this point most Note 4 owners have received an update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which brings with it a much improved experience that Note 5 and Galaxy S7 owners have been using for months now. There isn't any individual upgrade in the Note 7's software that would lead you to be clamoring for yet another update, but a handful of fresh features and a new design ethos in much of the interface is indeed an improvement over previous software builds.

More important to consider is the software upgrade cycle for the Note 4 itself, and how many more major updates it stands to receive. We could definitely see it getting a bump up to a newer version of Marshmallow with the Note 7's new S Pen features and interface design, but will the Note 4 receive Android 7.0 Nougat over two years after the phone was released? We certainly wouldn't guarantee it will. As it gets further along in its lifespan the Note 4 will likely fall off in software update priority, we just don't know where the cutoff will be at this point.

Galaxy Note 7 and Note 4

No matter the upgrade potential, thinking about moving from your current phone that cost you several hundred dollars to a new phone that's going to cost you $800+ once again will always be a decision predicated on the cost. The Note 4 has decent resale value and all of the major carriers offer some sort of financing plan, but it's still going to be a big outlay of cash to upgrade to the latest Note.

If you're someone who appreciates the vast improvements in the hardware and design, you're likely already down the path of being sold on the upgrade. You'll be able to see other features like a better fingerprint sensor, USB-C port, upgraded internals, new software, better cameras and an improved S Pen to help justify the cost as well.

But if you think the Note 4's hardware has held up just fine over the last two years, there's a decent chance you're also happy with how the internals and software have performed as well. There's no doubting that even today the Note 4 is a very powerful and capable phone — as it should be considering what it cost — and there's no shame in holding onto it a while longer to see how the software update story plays out. You can always upgrade to a Note 7 in a few months if you change your tune.

You now have the proper tools to make an informed decision, no matter what your choice is in the end.