I have been promising a Note 4 review for a long time now so I thought I should finally sit down and publish it. This was originally supposed to be a video review but due to certain circumstances that could not happen (the circumstances being that I am an exceptionally lazy person). I may still do a video review some time in the future but don’t hold your breath for it. For now, here is a long-ass text review instead.

The Galaxy Note series has been around for three years now. The original Galaxy Note was launched back in 2011 and was nothing more than a big Galaxy S II. Pretty much everyone back then said that the phone was too big, myself included, and we were right; the original Note was an enormous device and especially so back in 2011 when phones used to actually fit in your hand. However, that didn’t stop the Note from being a monumental success and creating an entirely new category of smartphones: the catastrophically named ‘phablet’.

Since then Samsung has been launching one new Note device every year. The Note II was actually a bit narrower than the original phone, dumping the 1280×800 resolution 16:10 display for a lower resolution but narrower 1280×720 display that made it easier to hold. It also discarded the moderately attractive design of the original Note for the Galaxy S III inspired curved glossy nonsense that Samsung was so fond of back in 2011-2012.

The Note 3 thankfully went back to the original squarish design but had this weird faux-leather stitching on the back and ribbed (for your displeasure) sides meant to look like a notebook. But while the designs had their ups and downs, the rest of the specifications were consistently the best that Samsung had to offer that year. The Note 3 in particular was quite a beast, being the first smartphone ever to have 3GB RAM and 4K video recording, which we kinda take for granted in high-end phones today.

Spec-wise, the tradition continues with this year’s Note 4 (well, technically last year now). But there are also some serious improvements going on with the design that we haven’t seen before. It seems then that Samsung has done more than just turn all the dials to eleven and actually paid attention to what the device looks and feels like this year. Let’s take a closer look. 

 

Design

Ever since the design disaster that was the Note II, I’m glad that Samsung went back to its older designs. The squarish design of the Note 4 is more reminiscent of old Samsung phones like the Galaxy S II, which looked pretty decent.

As for the Note 4, I actually like the design a lot. It’s not as stylish as some of the other phones out there, like the HTC One M8, the Moto X, or the iPhone 6, but it looks handsome nonetheless. It has a sophisticated, no-nonsense look to it, which I fancy quite a bit.

The main feature here is the metal frame, which is something of a rarity in Samsung phones. Although Samsung didn’t quite go with a full-metal body on the Note 4, the metal frame makes a huge difference in the build quality and feel of the device. The phone definitely feels sturdy and well-built, which is not a feeling you’d associate with older Samsung devices. The metal has beautifully chamfered edges, which are actually quite sharp. The edges on the bottom feel welcome as they tend to dig into your palm and help grip the phone but the ones on the top around the display seem unnecessary and feel unpleasant when you’re swiping from the edge.

The back cover is made out of the same soft touch plastic as on the Note 3. It’s still made to look and feel like leather but it loses the garish fake leather stitching. The actual feel of the material is still good and although you won’t exactly mistaken it for actual leather it still feels pleasant to touch, and helps improve the grip over the phone.

The overall feel of the Note 4 is remarkably better than any of the previous Note phones, or any of the other recent Samsung phones for that matter. It might not be in the same league as the full-metal bodies of the HTC One or the iPhone 6 but it feels premium nonetheless and that’s important for a phone that costs so much. Samsung finally has a premium device that looks and feels premium, and that itself is a pretty big deal.

As for the size, yes, it’s still too big for most people. I have personally gotten used to handling big phones over the years so it’s less shocking to me now as it was back in 2011. Even back then it honestly didn’t take me too long to get used to that size. But even though it stops bothering you after a while, the size still makes its presence felt when you’re operating your phone with your less dominant hand, or when you’re holding the phone above your face in the bed. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between and there are genuinely more advantages of having a big screen phone than there are the disadvantages.

 

Display

Speaking of big screens, the Note 4 has a stonking 5.7-inch, 2560×1440 resolution Super AMOLED display. The image quality of this display is really fucking good. The colors by default are saturated and the color temperature is a bit low but that can be fixed by changing the color modes from the settings. Once you set it up to your liking, it really does look amazing. QHD resolution seemed like a fad at first but it really looks incredibly sharp, especially while watching native resolution 1440p videos on YouTube. That experience alone is worth having a big screen phone, especially with a resolution like this. The display also does well outdoors and at odd angles. The touch sensitivity is also good and it can be increased from the settings if you want to use the phone with gloves.  Overall, it’s a really amazing display and easily one of the best on any phone right now.

 

Hardware and Performance

It wouldn’t be a Note phone if it wasn’t running whatever is the best chipset available at the moment. As usual, the Note 4 comes in two versions, one running Samsung’s Exynos 7 Octa, a 20nm processor with 8 CPU cores (4x Cortex-A57 clocked at 1.9GHz + 4x Cortex-A53 clocked at 1.3GHz) and the Mali-T760 GPU, and the other being the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 (APQ8084) with 4x Krait 450 CPU cores clocked at 2.7GHz and Adreno 270 GPU. Usually, India would get the Exynos version as we have been seeing since the Galaxy S III but this time Samsung launched the Qualcomm model in India that also has support for the Indian LTE bands.

In addition to the processor, the phone also has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage memory, with a microSD card slot for expanding it further by 128GB.

In terms of hardware, the Note 4 is undoubtedly a beast. While the first generation QHD phones such as the G3 and the Find 7 came with Snapdragon 801, which clearly did not have the horsepower for that kind of resolution, the 805 is more than up to the task. The phone rarely feels lacking for power and chugs along all day effortlessly through every task. Unfortunately, it’s not as perfect as I would have liked and there are the occasional hiccups here and there. Most noticeable is the multitasking menu, with its Lollipop-style stack of windows, which takes a second too long to open after hitting the button. The other thing is the camera app, which also doesn’t feel as snappy, whether it’s opening the gallery after taking a picture or opening the camera app itself. Fortunately, such instances are few and far between and for the most parts the phone works remarkably well. And things will likely improve with the upcoming Lollipop update.

 

Software

The Note 4 runs on Android 4.4.4 KitKat with Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX 3.0 interface on top. In terms of design, TouchWiz has gone through several improvements over the years and in fact, the version on the Note 4 is notably different and better than what even the Galaxy S5 had. Things such as the Lollipop-style multitasking menu and the white Settings app are different and are a definite improvement. I wouldn’t go as far as calling the entire UI attractive, because it isn’t, and I’m still not fond of the color scheme and the icons that Samsung tends to use. But it’s not as jarring as it used to be and after a few days of use you really don’t mind it that much.

In terms of features, TouchWiz never really had any parallel, and in the Note series especially Samsung goes overboard with the sheer number of things you can do on the phone. One new feature on the Note 4 is being able to drag an app from the top corners and turn it into a mini-app of sorts, which sits in a floating window above other apps. This lets you have one app in the background and have another app floating on top of it in a small window the way you can on a PC. The problem is, even though the Note 4 has a big display, with just one floating window you kinda take up most of the space, leaving little room for anything else.

The split-screen multitasking is obviously here, introduced first on the Galaxy S III. It has gotten better since then and now it supports way more apps than before. Still, you kinda hit the same problem as before with two windows, with each window being a bit too small. Also, opening the keyboard pretty much covers the lower window entirely, making it completely useless unless you use the floating keyboard, which is too small. It’s one of those features that sounds good in theory and kinda works but not something you’d actually use a lot.

The rest of the OS is filled with such features. Take the heart rate monitor on the back for example, used in conjunction with the S Health app, which is more or less a gimmick. The fingerprint sensor in the Home button had potential to be useful if Samsung had implemented iPhone-style simple placing of thumb to scan. Instead you have to swipe your fingers on the button, which is extremely awkward to do. Not to mention other than unlocking the phone there is not much to do with the fingerprint sensor, unlike on the iPhone where it is used in several apps for authentication (for the record Samsung had given developers access to the fingerprint sensor way before Apple but nobody bothered to make anything and Apple came with it later and now has so many more Touch ID apps on the App Store).

Now, it’s not all gimmicky and some of the features are genuinely useful, and these aren’t even necessarily big name features. Little things such as the phone vibrating when you pick it up to alert you that there are unattended notifications, or when you get a call a small message on screen that tells you when you last talked to them, what message they last sent to give you a context if it’s an unsaved number, or even tell if it’s their birthday, are honestly useful.

The good thing is that even though there is a lot of fluff in the software, most of the features are disabled by default or can be switched off easily. It doesn’t take long to adjust the phone to your liking and have just the things you want enabled and the rest switched off. Once properly set up, even TouchWiz can be fairly pleasant to use. Just that Samsung tends to overwhelm too much out of the box with buttons and sounds coming out of everywhere, which tends to intimidate or annoy new users.

 

S Pen

One of the main features of the Note series and something that has always set it apart from other big screen phones on the market is the stylus or the S Pen. Although stylii had all but vanished after the advent of capacitive touchscreens, Samsung brought them back with the original Note back in 2011. While not exactly my preferred method of input or something I ever liked using, Samsung deserved credit for not just stacking a plastic stick on the side of the phone but also work on the software side of things. The original Note was the first phone to have a Wacom digitizer in it, which is the same stuff professional tablets used by artists have. It enabled precise input and pressure sensitivity, which actually made stylus usable if you ever wanted to. Add to that some degree of palm rejection and built-in software designed to take advantage of the stylus, Samsung had something very good out of the box for people who still liked using a stylus.

Over the years the S Pen has evolved considerably with improved features and performance. The one on the Note 4 is very good and for the first time I felt the software features were actually relevant and something I’d want to use. Features like being able to just drag the stylus on the screen while holding the button to mark text or multiple items in the gallery, or just marking a portion of the screen to send someone, something I do a lot, instead of taking a screenshot and then cropping to show the relevant portion were quite useful.

Samsung also has done excellent work on the handwriting recognition. Even with my poor handwriting, the phone was able to understand and convert that into legible text rather quickly.

Again it’s not one of those things that you’d necessarily use every day and if it wasn’t there you wouldn’t really miss it much. But it’s there and it works well, so if you’re into that sort of thing you’d appreciate that at least they implemented it properly.

 

Connectivity

The Indian model of the Note 4 does work on our LTE bands. Unfortunately, it’s 2015 and there is still no LTE in Mumbai, even though other

places of India with too many letters in their names and too few people actually there who’d use it have LTE by now. Due to that, I wasn’t able to use the LTE on the phone.

The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth performance didn’t give any issues. The GPS performance, however, was a bit finicky. Sometimes the phone was quick to get a satellite lock whereas other times it would take unusually long. It was kinda odd and the Note Edge I’m using right now, which is basically the same phone, doesn’t have that issue, so I’m guessing it was something to do with my Note 4 rather than the phone in general.

The call quality was excellent, for those still living in 1995.

 

Camera

I have used many, many camera phones over the years, but every time I think of the best ones I’ve used so far, the original Galaxy Note is one of the names that comes to mind. It was “only” an 8 megapixel sensor borrowed from the Galaxy S II but that was a good fucking camera.

Since then Note phones have always had brilliant cameras, with 2013’s Note 3 being one of the all time best. This year Samsung has a new 16 megapixel camera with the now-standard-for-a-flagship 4K video recording. On surface this seems like the same 16 megapixel camera from the Galaxy S5 but while the S5 has a new Samsung-made ISOCELL sensor the Note 4 has a Sony IMX240.

Now, Sony sensors are generally very good (they manufacture sensors for Nikon DSLRs after all, not to mention their own cameras) and the one on the Note 4 is no different. Images taken in daylight look exceptional, with really good detail, colors, white balance, and low noise. The lens is good, too, with no visible fringing around high contrast areas or softening in the corners. There is some sharpening going on in the post processing but it’s not too intrusive. The dynamic range isn’t great but it usually isn’t on phone cameras and there is a pretty capable HDR mode there to take care of that.

Low-light is where things aren’t as rosy. First of all, in very low light the camera software automatically switches over to Night mode, which takes multiple shots at high ISO and combines them. This means if you have any moving subjects they automatically get blurred, which isn’t ideal. If you don’t have moving subjects then images from the Night mode are actually quite clean and have an acceptable amount of detail in them as well.

At times the phone won’t switch to the night mode and instead just try to use a combination of high ISO and long exposure time to get a decent shot. These shots, however, usually turn out very soft and you can see the noise reduction working overtime in the background to keep the noise level low.

So in terms of sheer image quality, I thought the daylight images were exceptional, in fact the best on any Android phone right now and also better than the iPhone 6 because of the sheer resolution advantage. In low-light, however, the iPhone 6 has significantly better image quality, the best on any phone I’ve seen recently.

But that’s image quality. Another important aspect of photography is the autofocus speed and this is where the Note 4 kinda drops the ball. While the ISOCELL sensor on the S5 and the iPhone 6 both have contrast and phase detection autofocus, and LG doing the laser (IR) autofocus on top of contrast detection, the Sony sensor on the Note 4 only does contrast detection. This is fine in daylight conditions where the camera is quick to latch on to the subject. But in low-light there is considerable focus hunting and it’s often impossible to get an automatic lock without manually tapping on the screen to lock focus. Sometimes, it won’t focus even after tapping. This, coupled with the less-than-stellar low-light image quality, really brings down the overall low-light performance of the Note 4.

The rear camera also records glorious 4K video. A lot of phones do 4K video these days but I’ve noticed most of them do at a fairly low bit-rate with high compression, to the point where 4K video looks like 1080p (and 1080p looks like 720p). No such issues on the Note 4, which has a ridiculously sharp 4K video that looks incredible even on a 1080p monitor. It’s one of the best 4K video I’ve seen from a phone and looks straight up fantastic.

The rear camera on the Note 4 is also the first for a Samsung phone to have OIS or optical image stabilization. The system does work well most of the time, smoothing out camera shake in videos and making them significantly more watchable and allowing the camera to use longer shutter speed or take quick burst shots for low-light or HDR mode without blur.

Unfortunately, there is a weird issue with the OIS on the Note 4 where if you move the camera and then suddenly stop, the optical system continues to move for a while. I’ve often noticed the image in the viewfinder slowly move even when the camera was held steady, changing the framing and composition noticeably. This is rather odd and I’ve never seen it happen on any other device with OIS before. It’s also present on the Note Edge, so I know it wasn’t just limited to my Note 4.

Moving over to the front camera, Samsung has a new 3.7 megapixel front facing camera. I suppose the higher resolution over the Note 3 means it is better but really it isn’t. It’s actually quite mediocre regardless of whether it’s daylight or low-light. Samsung has a new panorama selfie mode where you take a picture and move the phone side by side to take multiple shots and form a wide image. It works quite well actually but doesn’t make up for the poor quality. The lens is also ultra wide angle, which means tons of pincushion distortion.

As mentioned before, the camera software is a bit slow and the entire photography experience on the Note 4 isn’t as brisk as you’d expect. The camera software is quite clean though but still has most of the necessary options without any extra fluff.

 

Battery Life

The Note 4 has a 3,220mAh replaceable battery. That’s not phenomenally large but it doesn’t really matter because the Note 4 has excellent battery life. I would see screen on time upwards of 7 hours almost every day and although my use case isn’t all that intensive on battery (I don’t keep notifications on for everything and the phone is usually in one location all day so doesn’t have to switch cell towers often) you should still see over 5 hours of usage with this phone with heavy use, which is great considering the kind of hardware it has.

Samsung has included Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology, which they are calling Fast charging. This is one of my favorite features of this phone (and of any phone that uses this technology). It takes just an hour and a half to charge that battery from 0 to 100%, which is nothing short of astounding. Even if you don’t want to or have time to charge the battery completely, you can get about 50% of the battery in just half an hour of charging, which is amazing.

The phone comes with Samsung’s Fast charger, which when connected is identified as such by the phone but I’ve noticed that even if you connect a standard 2A charger the phone still charges roughly just as quickly. There is no wireless charging on the Note 4, which is a bit unfortunate.

 

Verdict

I usually don’t get to spend a lot of time with review units but I did get a solid two months with the Note 4 and I must say I enjoyed every day of it. There is a lot to like here, from the solid design and build quality, the fantastic display, great overall performance, good camera, and excellent battery life. The software has its downsides but it’s functional and you can get a lot done on it. And that’s the general gist of the phone. It’s just a solid, workhorse of a device that you can depend on to get you through the day and do everything you need to do. Over the course of the two months I have come to like and appreciate it a lot and I’m sure most people would feel the same way about it.

Unfortunately, most people won’t be able to buy it because the price is ridiculously high at Rs. 57,000. The price is really the only major complaint I have with the phone. I don’t think any phone is worth spending that much money on and unless there is some major price drop in the future I wouldn’t recommend buying it. That being said, it is an excellent phone and only the second best phone after the HTC One (M8) to have come out in 2014.

 

Rating

  • Design: 8
  • Display: 9
  • Hardware: 10
  • Software: 7
  • Performance: 8
  • Camera: 8
  • Battery Life: 9
  • Overall: 8.5

 

Pros

  • Good design and solid build quality
  • Excellent display
  • Feature-rich software
  • Good overall performance
  • Good daylight camera performance
  • Excellent 4K video quality
  • Great battery life

 

Cons

  • Exorbitant pricing
  • Unimpressive low-light rear camera performance
  • Unimpressive front camera performance
  • Single loudspeaker at the back
  • No wireless charging
  • Spartan packaging considering the price (no bundled case, no spare stylus)