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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 8:52PM EST
Galaxy Note 4 Review
Image: Zach Epstein, BGR

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It’s certainly open to debate, but I would argue that the Galaxy Note 4 is the most important flagship smartphone Samsung has ever launched. It won’t be Samsung’s fastest-selling phone and it definitely won’t ship the most units over its lifespan. The Note 4 doesn’t even necessarily break new ground like the original Galaxy Note did two years ago.

But 2014 marks the first time ever that Samsung will go up against Apple in the phablet space it helped pioneer, and whether or not Samsung’s Note 4 sales show continued growth could be a telling sign of things to come.

Samsung knows all too well how much damage the iPhone 6 Plus can potentially do to its high-end phone sales.

Note series phablets haven’t sold nearly as well as phones like the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5, of course, since the market for gigantic smartphones is much tinier than the market for smaller phones. But Note devices are high-priced phones and tablets, presumably with high margins that help Samsung’s bottom line.

So, for Samsung, the iPhone 6 Plus is a huge deal.

Samsung’s hurried launch of the Galaxy Note 4 in South Korea is hard evidence that Apple’s first phablet is scaring Samsung, as well it should. Every indication suggests that the iPhone 6 Plus is selling as quickly as Apple’s manufacturing partners can build it, and the fact that the 6 Plus launched almost a month ahead of the Note 4’s upcoming October 17th release date will cost Samsung sales, without question.

The shame of it is the Galaxy Note 4 is a fantastic phablet that builds upon last year’s model and improves it in every conceivable way. In fact, while the iPhone 6 Plus is a better all-around phone than the Galaxy Note 4, in my opinion, the Note 4 is a much better phablet than Apple’s king-sized iPhone.

Beginning a product review with a comparison might seem odd, but the simple fact is that the Galaxy Note 4’s ability to compete with the iPhone 6 Plus is the single most important thing about the device. This is a large, powerful, expensive smartphone and nine times out of 10, consumers in most large markets will compare it to Apple’s large, powerful, expensive smartphone when deciding whether or not to buy one.

At 153.5mm tall, the Note 4 is shorter than the iPhone 6 Plus (158.1mm) despite its larger display, which measures 5.7 inches diagonally compared to the 5.5-inch screen on the 6 Plus. The phone is wider and thicker than Apple’s phablet though, measuring 78.6mm wide and 8.5mm thick compared to 77.8mm x 7.1mm for the iPhone.

Samsung’s Note 4 (176g) is also slightly heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus (172g), though I find that the weight is distributed much better. By that, I mean that the iPhone 6 Plus is top-heavy, and it often feels like it’s going to topple over when I hold the phone near the bottom to type. The Galaxy Note 4 does not have that issue.

The display on the Note 4 is Samsung’s best ever, and on paper it crushes the iPhone 6 Plus in every conceivable way. It is Samsung’s first widely available phone with a quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) display, and the pixel density works out to a ridiculous 515 pixels per inch compared to 401 ppi on the iPhone 6 Plus’ full HD display.

In terms of clarity, that dramatic difference doesn’t amount to as much as you might think. I do find that the display on the Note 4 is sharper than the 6 Plus screen, but not to the extent that a 28% discrepancy in pixel density would suggest.

Far more important than ppi counts on paper, the Note 4’s screen is bigger, brighter and more vivid than the panel on the iPhone 6 Plus. As always, Samsung really shines in this area.

Where performance is concerned, both devices can handle just about anything you throw at them in stride. The 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 chipset in the AT&T Galaxy Note 4 that Samsung gave me to review is a monster, and it’s supported by 3GB of RAM. The result is a phone that has yet to stammer or bog at all during everyday use.

Of course, “smooth” is the iPhone 6 Plus’ middle name. Despite its dual-core processor and “only” 1GB of RAM, the 6 Plus crushes many top Android phones in a number of key performance tests.

But the software on these two devices brings us to the Note 4’s most important advantages over the iPhone 6 Plus… and to the 6 Plus’ biggest advantage over the Note 4.

Samsung has spent years creating a phablet experience that has never been more refined than it is on the Galaxy Note 4. The giant screen on the Note 4 isn’t merely a check box, it serves a real purpose.

The huge display on the Note 4 enables a fantastic multitasking experience where apps can be used side by side or dragged around and resized like they can on a desktop platform. Things like text and images can also be dragged back and forth between apps quickly and easily.

Samsung’s supersized smartphone also includes an S Pen stylus and related suite of software, which brings real utility to the Galaxy Note 4. Notes can be pinned to a home screen for reminders that are impossible to miss, images can be marked up for work or play, the S Pen can even quickly select text while holding the on-stylus button, or it can hover over emails and media to pop up a preview of what’s inside.

In the Galaxy Note 4, the Wacom-powered S Pen experience now includes a stylus with 2,000 points of pressure, up from about 1,000 in the Note 3, for precision that is unmatched and a writing experience that is truly pen-like; the thickness of the lines drawn by Samsung’s new S Pen changes with even the slightest variation in pressure.

The bottom line is this: The Galaxy Note 4 is gigantic, but its massive size serves a purpose. It was designed not just to be large, but to make use of all that screen real estate. Samsung’s multitasking and S Pen features are fantastic and they offer tremendous value to the user.

Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus is bigger for the sake of being bigger. The company saw demand for an iPhone with a huge screen, so it built a second version of the iPhone 6 and gave it a huge screen. There is no added value of consequence beyond that.

If you’re looking for a big phone, the iPhone 6 Plus and its unmatched app ecosystem might be the better choice for most people. But if you’re looking for a real phablet — a phone that isn’t just bigger, but also includes valuable software and hardware features that give its gigantic display true value and purpose — Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 is the clear choice.

Pushing past the iPhone 6 Plus and focusing solely on the Galaxy Note 4, we come to an area that every BGR reader knows is near and dear to my heart: Build quality and materials.

We all know Samsung loves plastic, and that doesn’t change on the Galaxy Note 4. As was the case on the Galaxy Alpha, Samsung used an aluminum band with polished, chamfered edges around the perimeter of the device, similar to the one on Apple’s old iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s. There is a color-matched coating of some sort to protect the face of the aluminum part, and it looks and feels quite nice.

The face of the Note 4 is all glass and around back, there’s a soft-touch rubbery plastic with a leather pattern that feels much better than most Samsung phones.

As was the case with the Note 3 last year at the time it launched, the Galaxy Note 4 has the most premium feel of any Samsung smartphone to date.

The oblong home button on the front of the phone hides Samsung’s fingerprint scanner, which can be used for things like unlocking the phone and authenticating PayPal payments. Like the scanner in the Galaxy S5, which likely uses the same hardware, I have found it to be very reliable and quick to read my prints. Also like the scanner in the Galaxy S5, a print will only be read in the same direction it’s initially recorded, so be sure to register the same print multiple times while holding your finger at different angles.

It’s worth noting that my biggest qualm with the Note 4’s design is the fact that the horizontal line pattern on the front of the phone continues across the illuminated capacitive buttons beneath the display, and it looks quite bad (click to enlarge the photo above and see for yourself).

Around back, you’ll find a single LED flash and a heart rate monitor beneath the Galaxy Note 4’s new 16-megapixel camera. Photos captured by the Note 4’s camera are crisp and clear, thanks in part to the built-in optical image stabilization (OIS). Color reproduction is impressive, low-light performance is solid, and the camera software is packed with add-ons and enhanced selfie features, such zero-touch selfie capture capabilities.

The OIS is a tremendous help while recording full HD video on the Note 4 as well. While most videos recorded with a smartphones tend to be shaky, clips captured with Samsung’s new phablet are nice and stable.

Finally, we come to battery life.

As smartphones become more powerful and complex, the issue of battery life becomes even more important since progress with battery technology is so slow. But with its 3,220 mAh battery and Samsung’s power saving modes, the Galaxy Note 4 is a class leader.

Samsung’s new phablet easily lasted a full day while I was testing it, even with above average usage that included almost an hour with my laptop tethered via the phone’s mobile hotspot feature. In fact, unless I was particularly hard on the battery, I would often have 15% of a charge or even more remaining a full 24 hours after charging it.

To compliment the Note 4’s impressive battery life — which is even more impressive when you consider the fact that the phone has a quad HD display — Samsung also included two power-saving modes.

The Galaxy Note 4’s standard power saving mode can be enabled manually or automatically when the remaining charge gets low, and it features added controls for increased effectiveness. For example, users can opt to restrict background data when power saving mode is enabled, they can restrict performance so that the processor doesn’t use up as much juice, and they can enable a grayscale mode to help minimize the draw from Samsung’s quad HD screen.

When all of that isn’t enough, an “ultra power saving mode” cuts off all non-essential functions and allows the Note 4 to last for a full 24 hours of standby time on just a 10% charge.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 also includes a “Fast Charging” feature that fills the battery faster than most devices. Samsung says that the phone will charge from 0% to 50% in just 30 minutes when using the special charger that comes in the box.

Samsung did a tremendous job on the Galaxy Note 4.

Last year’s Galaxy Note 3 was, at the time, the best smartphone Samsung had ever made. The somewhat limited appeal of phablets meant that Samsung sold far fewer Note 3 units than Galaxy S4 units, since phablets are still niche products despite all the buzz they generate on technology blogs.

But shipment figures only tell part of the story. The Galaxy Note 3 was a fantastic phone, and the S Pen stylus gave it compelling, differentiated features that added real value for users.

Now, the Galaxy Note 4 amplifies everything that was great about its predecessor. The giant AMOLED display is better, the stylus experience is better, the features are more refined and the responsiveness is even more impressive.

As a phablet, the Galaxy Note 4 is the best in the business, all things considered. Yes, that means it’s an even better phablet than the iPhone 6 Plus, though the 6 Plus is still a better all-around device thanks to iOS and the surrounding app ecosystem. The Note 4 was designed to be as usable as possible for a device with such a large display, with great weight distribution and a thin housing. The phone also has the best display in the business without compromising battery life.

On top of everything else, the Note 4 touts a sleek design, solid construction and a somewhat premium feel. These are not things you can say about most Samsung phones.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 is already available for pre-order and it will launch this Friday, October 17th, at all four major U.S. carriers. The phone starts at $299.99 with a two-year service contract, or it can be purchased on an installment plan, with a full retail price that ranges from $699.99 to $825.99 depending on the carrier.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.