Samsung Galaxy

Galaxy Note 4 deep-dive review: A familiar plus-sized phone with a few new twists

Is Samsung's latest Galaxy Note the best large smartphone out there?

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(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.)

A few quirks from the Note 3 have also been addressed. Remember My Magazine, for instance? It was a news-viewing tool built into the home screen on the Note 3 that felt like a hastily made and half-baked reaction to HTC's BlinkFeed. The feature has now been rebranded as Flipboard Briefing and is far more elegantly implemented into the software instead of seeming like an awkwardly tacked on last-minute addition.

Beyond that, standout Google services like Google Now are no longer buried and difficult to access as they were on the Note 3; you can now get to Google Now simply by long-pressing the phone's Home button. (Samsung is still baking in things like S Voice, which is a vastly inferior version of the native Android Voice Search utility, but most of those elements are far less in your face than they used to be -- and they no longer take the place of Google's services as the default and most easily accessible options.)

The Note's integrated S Pen stylus continues to be a distinguishing part of the device's software experience. While the pen feels about the same in hand as the one on the Note 3, Samsung says it has double the pressure sensitivity, leading to a more natural pen-like effect where pressing harder creates a thicker line on the screen.

galaxy note 4 s pen action memo screen write JR Raphael

The Note's integrated S Pen stylus continues to be a distinguishing part of the device's software experience. 

To be sure, the stylus is incredibly accurate and reminiscent of an ink-based writing experience. The same basic S Pen functions from the Note 3 are present here as well: You can use the pen to write a handwritten memo and then have your writing converted into actionable text ("Action Memo"); to select a specific square-sized or free-form area of the screen and then save it as a screenshot ("Smart Select" and "Image Clip"); and to capture a full-size screenshot and then write or draw on top of it ("Screen Write").

You can also use the S Pen to input text by handwriting on most (but not all) text fields throughout the system. It's a novel idea and one I really liked at first, but over time, I've found myself sticking with the standard keyboard-based input more often than not, as it's just easier and more consistent to use.

If you ask me, the real value of the S Pen is for artists and anyone else who wants to sketch or scribble on a mobile device. With third-party apps like Autodesk Sketchbook for drawing or ezPDF Reader for PDF markup, the stylus can hold serious value for folks interested in those types of tasks. And with its device-level hardware integration, the S Pen provides a level of accuracy and sensitivity you won't find with third-party equivalents.

Last but not least, we have to touch on the topic of upgrades: Samsung's current Note 4 software is based on Google's Android 4.4 (KitKat) operating system. Google is expected to release a major update to the OS, known presently as Android "L," any moment now.

While it's highly likely that the Note 4 will get the updated software eventually, Samsung has yet to make any firm promises -- and the company has a track record of being slow and incommunicative with OS upgrades. If timely upgrades are important to you, that's something you have to consider.

Bottom line

The Galaxy Note 4 takes Samsung's tried-and-true plus-sized phone concept and pushes it forward with updated hardware and a handful of new tricks. It may not be earth shattering or particularly exciting, but it's a solid upgrade to a popular product.

From its design and build quality to its performance and user interface, the Note 4 is by no means the nicest phone or best overall user experience you can get on Android today -- but the device does have a lot of good things going for it. A spectacular display, excellent battery life and superb integrated stylus are certainly no small feats. A removable battery and expandable storage are important features for many users, too, and are increasingly hard to find in flagship phones.

The real question is what's most important to you -- and what kind of overall experience you want. Any comparison between the iPhone 6 Plus and the Galaxy Note 4 would be a case of apples and oranges, so to speak; Apple and Google have very different approaches to mobile software. Which is better ultimately just comes down to which setup and ecosystem you prefer.

The possibility of a 5.9-in. Moto-made Nexus phone, however, presents a more apt comparison -- one that anyone thinking about a plus-sized device would be wise to keep in mind. If the upcoming Nexus pans out as expected, it could provide an interesting alternative for Android users shopping in the plus-sized range.

For now, I'd say this: If you're already sold on Samsung's approach to mobile devices or love the idea of having a stylus, the Note 4 is a fine plus-sized option that's bound to meet your needs. If you don't fall into either of those categories, though, it might be worth waiting a few weeks to see what other options arrive.

[Nexus 6 vs. Galaxy Note 4: Which one's right for you?]

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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