Oh how we laughed when the first Galaxy Note crossed our desks all those years ago. Who in blazes would want a supersized smartphone, we chuckled. When we’re wrong, we’re happy to ‘fess up to it. Now that those holdouts in Cupertino have given in and admitted phablets aren’t a fad, everyone and their horse is making giant handsets and the world is better for it.
So where does that leave Samsung and the original Note range? Is it still the best?
Over the last few years Samsung has clearly begun to position the Galaxy Note series as the flagship smartphone for the brand over the Galaxy S series. It consistently outfits Notes with newer and more powerful hardware, improved design and software enhancements. For Samsung then, the Galaxy Note 4 represents the best smartphone that they could possibly manufacture and we’re going to judge it against some pretty stiff competition as a result of that tag.
We’ve done our fair share of bashing Samsung for its choice of materials that would go into the manufacturing of its high-end smartphones and with good reason too.
Considering the competition in the high end smartphone segment, it was high time that Samsung stopped dicking about with plastic frames that were prone to having their silver paint chipped off over time. Premium smartphones aren’t premium because of the price you pay, but rather because of the quality of design and materials used in their manufacturing.
It seems that we weren’t alone in giving Samsung some run for this and the company has responded by hewing the frame of the Note 4 from a block of aluminium and giving it a lovely chamfered edge that screams premium smartphone.
The back of the Galaxy Note 4 is still a flimsy piece of plastic with a faux leather look and a slippery plastic feel, but at least the fake stitching from the Galaxy Note 3 has been done away with [Hurrah – Skuemorph Ed]. That removable back cover means there a replaceable battery [More hurrahs!] and while we’re not sold on the way it looks or feels it’s a big mark on the positive column for Samsung in general that the company refuses to hermetically seal its phones still.
The front is adorned by Samsung’s now customary oval ‘Home’ button flanked by a pair of capacitive buttons with the new and improved S Pen stylus living in a silo at the bottom of the Note 4 which sits alongside a microUSB 2 port and not a microUSB 3 port as in its predecessor.
As always, Samsung has two variations of hardware for its flagship smartphones one powered by a Qualcomm chip with LTE capabilities and one with Samsung’s homebrewed Exynos processor that tops out at a paltry HSPA speed.
Our test unit came equipped with a Samsung Exynos 5433 which is a 64-bit capable, eight core processor in an ARM big.LITTLE setup. That means there are four low powered 1.3GHz Coretex-A53 cores and four 1.9GHz Cortex-A57 cores which add up to a whole lot of performance.
While the processors and their connection to cellular networks differ the rest of the hardware is identical. There are 3GB of RAM to make sure that multitasking goes off smoothly with 32GB of microSD expandable storage in capacities up to and including 128GB.
The display measures in at 5.7inches diagonally with a QHD resolution (that translates into a whopping 1 440×2 560). It’s coated in Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 for protection against scratches and other such minor instances of damage.
The same fingerprint and heart rate sensors that made their debut in the Galaxy S5 find their way into the Galaxy Note 4 and while they are both perfectly functional neither of them is particularly useful.
The heart rate sensor is as accurate as we could want but with the impending release of several fitness products that allow for 24/7 heart rate monitoring without user initiation the Note 4’s sensor will be a waste.
The fingerprint sensor on the other hand is just plain irritating. While Apple’s phenomenal TouchID sensor seamlessly makes its way into your life cutting away unnecessary time wasted on entering passwords, and Huawei’s takes simplicity and elegance one step further, Samsung’s biometric reader is just broken. Swiping down the sensor in the correct orientation and direction is a slow, two-handed endeavour that doesn’t save time so much as it creates irritation for its users.
Android 4.4.4 is currently the operating system of choice for the Galaxy Note 4 but it will undoubtedly be getting the upgrade to Android 5.0 along with the other high-end members of the Samsung Galaxy Family.
Samsung’s patented TouchWiz interface is splattered across Android and as always it feels like too much. Even with all of the improvements that Samsung has made to TouchWiz over the years it’s still overwhelming to even the most advanced Android user.
Multitasking has been given an overhaul on the Note 4 with the ability to minimise certain apps into small windows that can be moved around the screen to allow for multiple applications to be open, active and used all at the same time. It puts the 3GB of RAM to exceptional use and is a boon for productivity nuts but got on my nerves enough for it to be turned off. To activate the feature you drag from the top left corner towards the middle of the screen the exact movement that I use to bring down the notifications drawer.
Samsung has done solid work on getting the crazy, hyper-saturated oranges and greens out of its Super AMOLED displays and the Galaxy Note 4 is by far the best display that the company has ever made.
The resolution is as high as we could possibly want in a smartphone with pixels having become nearly imperceptible to the human eye. At 5.7 inches it is most definitely a two-handed display or at least in the case of the Note 4 a one hand, one stylus kind of display.
The Galaxy Note 4 is equipped with one of the best cameras available on a mobile phone today. The 16 megapixel module has optical image stabilisation which gives it superb low light performance and allows for brilliant images day and night, indoors and out.
The camera interface has been trimmed down to make it more palatable to the average user with all of Samsung’s normal pomp gone and forgotten it’s the best camera on any Samsung phone we’ve had on review.
With 3 220mAh of battery capacity the Galaxy Note 4 should last the average user the entire day. That said, however, the Galaxy Note 4 is designed to be used by productivity hounds who will notice that the QHD display eats battery life for breakfast and lunch with seldom to spare by dinner time.
Thankfully unlike the other QHD panel equipped smartphone we’ve reviewed, LG’s G3, the Galaxy Note 4 has a removable battery which gives that flimsy plastic back cover a reason for being. Swapping out the old battery for a fresh one takes but a moment and can keep the power hungry smartphone users the capacity they need.
For the rest of us however the Galaxy Note 4 comes with Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 technology built into it and the included charger. It pumped power into the battery at a breakneck pace giving you more charge in less time so long as you’re using the included original Samsung charger.
In years gone by Samsung would have a clear line of sight to the number one phablet ranking but the landscape has changed dramatically. Samsung still has the only stylus worth having in the S Pen but its limited use means that it will only be the difference maker to a select few.
For those nonplussed by Samsung’s software overhaul and looking for something with a large high resolution display with a removable battery there can be no doubt the Galaxy Note 4 is a winner. If any of those things aren’t important however then other options become very viable very quickly.
Price: R10 000
Display: 5.7 inch, 1 40×2 560 resolution Super AMOLED display (515ppi)
Operating System: Android 4.4.4
Processor: 2.7GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor OR 1.3GHz quad core Cotex-A53 + 1.9GHz quad core Cortex-A57 Samsung Exynos 5433 processor
Memory: 3GB of RAM
Storage: 32GB expandable by up to 128GB with a microSD card
Battery: 3 220mAh user-replaceable battery
Camera: 16 megapixel camera with optical image stabilisation
Networking: dual band 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE
Other: S pen stylus