Is Samsung's latest Galaxy Note the best large smartphone out there?
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Samsung's plus-sized phone family is preparing for battle.
The Galaxy Note has pretty much been the de facto standard for giant phones since its arrival in 2011. Sure, there have been challengers, but none that stood any real chance of knocking the Note from its XL throne.
But with Apple now venturing into big-screen terrain with its iPhone 6 Plus -- and Google rumored to be on the brink of releasing a 5.9-in. Motorola-made Nexus phone -- Samsung seems ready to defend its turf. The company's new Galaxy Note 4, available this month from all major U.S. carriers, sticks with what's worked for Samsung before: The phone maintains the same basic look and feel of last year's model while turning things up a notch with some hardware improvements and subtle design tweaks.
Considering Samsung's position in the plus-sized phone game right now, that might be a sensible strategic move. But is it enough to make the phone worth buying?
(The Note 4 costs $300 with a two-year contract from AT&T, Sprint, U.S. Cellular or Verizon or $750 spread out over a two-year payment plan from T-Mobile.)
This review is based on a full week of living with the new Note.
Body and display
When I say the Note 4 feels familiar, I mean it: If you weren't paying close attention, you'd probably mistake it for last year's Galaxy Note 3. The device is almost the same size as its predecessor -- just a hair taller and a smidge narrower -- and has the same squared-off shape and general appearance.
When you look closely, you do notice some differences. For example, the new Note trades last year's faux-chrome plastic frame for one made of metal -- a subtle but meaningful improvement in terms of design. It still maintains the trademark faux-leather plastic back panel and is nowhere near as premium or thoughtfully designed as other high-end phones, but for Samsung, it's a noteworthy baby step away from the chintzy vibe that's long defined its products.
Like previous Note devices, the Note 4 is not a small phone -- but you probably already know that if you're considering a gadget of this class. It definitely isn't a device you can use single-handedly, and even with two hands, it can be a bit unwieldy. That's a result not only of its size but also of its boxy, flat-backed shape, which doesn't make for the most ergonomic or comfortable form.
Those qualities also make it somewhat awkward to carry around in regular men's jeans -- and as my wife confirmed for me, it's nearly impossible to fit in the pockets of typical women's pants.
Interestingly, at 6.0 x 3.1 x 0.33 in., the Note 4 is actually slightly smaller than Apple's iPhone 6 Plus -- despite the fact that it has a 5.7-in. screen compared to the iPhone's 5.5-in. display. Clearly, bezels make a big difference.
And speaking of the screen, the Note 4's display is among the finest you can feast your eyes on today. This year's model has been upgraded from 1080p to Quad HD resolution, giving it a staggering 515 pixels per inch.
As I've noted before, the difference between 1080p and Quad HD really isn't all that dramatic in the real world -- it's honestly pretty difficult to detect any difference in quality as a result of the added pixels alone -- but the Note 4's display looks absolutely stunning, and at the end of the day, that's all that ultimately matters.
Colors on the Super AMOLED panel are bright and vibrant without being exceptionally oversaturated; blacks are satisfyingly deep and whites are surprisingly pure compared to AMOLED norms; and the screen is easy to view from any angle -- even in glary outdoor conditions.
Buttons, sensors and speaker
Beneath the screen sits Samsung's standard mishmash of buttons -- a large physical Home button flanked by capacitive Recent Apps and Back buttons. Thankfully, the Note 4 follows Samsung's recent (and long overdue) move away from the deprecated Menu button, which was still present in last year's Note and created plenty of awkward usage scenarios.
The mix of physical and capacitive buttons still isn't ideal -- the former requires a fair amount of force to press while the latter takes just a gentle touch, which makes for a jarring experience moving from one to the other -- but all in all, it's a far more tolerable setup than what Samsung has presented before.
Following the lead of the Galaxy S5, this year's Note features a fingerprint sensor within its Home button. And just like on the GS5, the sensor is rather finicky and awkward to use; I've found it frequently takes two or three tries to get the sliding motion right and have my finger be recognized. I suspect most people will grow frustrated with it quickly and move back to a more traditional type of lock screen security (if they use it at all).
The Galaxy Note 4 has a headphone jack on its top edge and a standard micro-USB charging port on its bottom. Curiously, the phone does not support USB 3.0 for faster data transfers -- a feature Samsung had introduced with last year's Note 3.
The back of the phone, meanwhile, houses one tiny speaker grille near its bottom-left edge -- pretty much the same as what we've seen on most recent Samsung phones. Its audio quality is passable but nothing spectacular.
New to this year's Note is a heart rate monitor on the back of the device; in addition to taking heart rate measurements, it can sense your blood oxygen saturation level along with the intensity of ultraviolet light from the sun (yes, really). It's all novel enough, but it's a bit tricky to use -- and with the heart rate, at least, its measurements are pretty hit and miss in accuracy, as is typically the case with these types of sensors.
(It's also worth noting that you can actually take comparable heart rate measurements with any Android phone, whether it has a dedicated sensor or not.)
The Note 4's fitness suite also includes a pedometer, which will automatically track your steps throughout the day and remind you when you've been inactive for too long. The pesky hourly chimes have only inspired me to disable the app's notifications, but your mileage may vary.
Performance, stamina and connectivity
Despite having cutting-edge specs, Samsung's high-end devices always seem to be surprisingly imperfect in the realm of performance -- and with its 2.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM, the Note 4 is no exception.
The new Note is by no means slow, but it's noticeably less smooth and snappy than devices like the HTC One (M8) and Motorola Moto X. There's frequent jerkiness in animations and transitions, for instance, and tasks like switching apps or even just opening the Recent Apps switcher don't happen as instantaneously as they should. It's nothing extreme enough to be a deal-breaker for most people, but it all adds up to make the Note feel less zippy and responsive than what you'd expect from a phone of this caliber.
On the plus side, the major lag I experienced when using the Note 3 -- particularly within Samsung's Gallery app -- isn't present on this device. So there is some improvement within Samsung's own universe, though that only means so much in the big picture.
The Note 4 does impress in the realm of stamina: Like its predecessor, the phone packs a 3220mAh battery (which, as is standard for Samsung, can be removed and swapped out by peeling off the phone's back panel). The device has had no trouble getting me from morning to night on a single charge; even with moderate to heavy use -- as much as three to four hours of screen-on time -- I've always managed to end the day with at least 15% to 20% of battery power remaining.
The Note 4 also includes several power-saving options that allow you to squeeze extra time out of the device by limiting the amount of resources it uses. It's not something you'd need every day, but it could be quite helpful when you want to eke out a few more hours of calling or texting with just a teensy bit of charge in the tank.
How about storage? The new Note comes with 32GB of internal space, about 24GB of which is actually available after you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone has an SD card slot beneath its back panel that allows you to add up to 128GB of external storage space.
The Note 4 doesn't support wireless charging, though Samsung is expected to sell a separate replacement case that can enable that functionality. The phone does charge quickly, however: With the "fast charging" cable included with the device -- and with the phone powered on but the display turned off -- I've seen the phone's power level rise by about one percentage point for every minute it's plugged in.
Call quality on the Note 4 has been fine with the AT&T-connected unit I've been testing; people with whom I've spoken have sounded loud and clear and have reported being able to hear me with zero distortion as well. Data speeds have also been in line with what I typically see from AT&T's LTE network in my area.
One area where the Note 4 enjoys a boost over its predecessor is in the camera department: The new Note has a 16-megapixel primary shooter with optical image stabilization (OIS), up from 13 megapixels and no OIS on the previous Note device.
The higher megapixel count just means images are bigger, which -- at these levels -- won't make much of a meaningful real-world difference for most people. The addition of optical image stabilization, however, brings a noticeable increase in the phone's ability to capture sharp-looking images, especially in low-light conditions. The Note 4 still isn't at the level of a low-light-focused device like the One (M8) in that regard, but it does respectably well and is able to capture a fair amount of detail even in very dim environments.
In general day-to-day use, the Note is capable of capturing some great-looking photos. Many of the Note's pictures are crisp and clear with vivid colors and impressive compositions.
Like most smartphones, though, the phone is inconsistent with its imaging quality. It sometimes oversaturates colors to an unnatural extent and it often struggles with extreme hues -- things like brightly colored flowers or light-colored clouds -- and ends up creating images with areas that are overexposed and lacking in detail.
Zooming into images at their full resolution also reveals a fair amount of noise and detail loss -- a common issue with smartphone cameras, though one that seems more prominent here than on other recent devices I've tested.
The Note 4's HDR mode helps, to a point: With that enabled, problematic areas like washed-out skies come into clearer focus and images with those issues look noticeably better. Unlike other devices, though, the phone doesn't feature any sort of auto-HDR mode, so you'll have to remember to toggle that option on and off manually when needed. And in an HDR-to-HDR comparison, I've found the Note 4's shots tend to be less clear, detailed and true-to-life in coloring than those I captured with the 2014 Moto X.
To the company's credit, Samsung's camera interface has gotten much better over the years: It's now fairly simple and easy to use, with a decent amount of advanced options available if you want them. The phone snaps photos pretty quickly, too, though not quite as instantly as the Moto X or HTC One (M8).
The Note 4 can capture 1080p video as well as Ultra HD (4K) video. The device's front-facing 3.7-megapixel camera, meanwhile, can handle video up to 1080p in quality.
The software and S Pen
I'm not going to spend too much time focusing on the Note 4's core software, as the user interface is essentially the same as what's present on the Galaxy S5. In short, it's better than Samsung's past efforts but still bloated and unnecessarily complex compared to what manufacturers like HTC and Motorola are now producing.
Again, though, it's all relative: If you're used to Samsung's software style, you'll find the Note 4's setup to be in line with and mildly improved from what you've seen on past devices.
And amidst all the clutter and overlapping services, Samsung does provide some genuinely useful features. The company's Multi Window option, which allows you to split the screen in half and view two apps on screen at the same time, seems particularly valuable on a phone of this size. Like before, Multi Window works only with a limited number of apps, but commonly used titles like Gmail, Chrome, YouTube and Hangouts are all supported.
The Note 4 also has a new secondary multitasking option called Pop-Up View. It allows you to drag down from the corner of an app to transform it into a floating window that runs on top of other content. It's a cool idea, though it's limited to the same selection of apps that work with Multi Window -- and with no visual indicator to let you know when it is or isn't available, it's slightly confusing to use.
(And yes, for anyone coming from the Note 3: That's basically a reworked version of the older and even more awkward Pen Window feature, which is not present on this device.)
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