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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Still an amazing phablet

Our Rating :
£399.99 from
Price when reviewed : £600
inc VAT SIM-free

The Note 4 is still a fantastic phablet with a stunning screen, excellent design and long-lasting battery

The Galaxy Note 4 was released back in September 2014. Following the recall of the Note 7, the Galaxy S6 Edge+ replacing the Note 6, and the Note 5 being a US exclusive, it makes the Note 4 one of the last phablet-sized smartphones Samsung launched in Europe. There are rumours of a Note 8, but until they become a reality, the Note 4 is the last of its kind. So, is now actually the perfect time to buy a Note 4 and save yourself a bit of money in the process?

Possibly. With current SIM-free prices hovering around £390 (originally reviewed at £600), that’s still a lot of money for what’s essentially a two and a half year old phone. It might have a metal frame, but it is starting to look a bit long in the tooth in terms of design compared to its S series stablemates.

However, there’s no denying the Note 4’s excellent build quality. Rather than take its design cues from the Galaxy S5, the Note 4 is essentially a giant Galaxy Alpha, borrowing the metal trim from its smaller cousin. It’s a massive improvement over the plastic phones from Samsung’s past, and helps make it feel much more rigid, without dramatically affecting the weight of the phone.

The Galaxy Note 3 used a USB3 port, which allowed quicker data transfers and quicker charging from an appropriately equipped PC or laptop, however it wasn’t popular apparently, as it looked kind of ugly. The Note 4 returns to a typical USB2 port, though there is support for Quick Charge 2.0 from the Snapdragon chipset. As we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s flagship phones, the Note 4 also comes with a fingerprint scanner built into the home button and an optical heart rate monitor on the back of the handset.

It’s similar to the Alpha then, but not identical, as Samsung’s also added what it calls 2.5D glass to the front of the handset. This gives the front panel a slightly rounded edge, making it look a touch more stylish than the completely flat Alpha and catching the light around the sides, though we wouldn’t say it makes a significant difference to how the screen looks during everyday use.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Display

With a pixel density of 515PPI (pixels-per-inch), the Note 4’s 5.7in screen is visibly more detailed than its peers, the Galaxy S5 or the iPhone 6 Plus, which have PPIs of 432 and 401 respectively. Text in particular was noticeably sharper and darker when we compared them side by side, making desktop sites much easier to read. Since then its been surpassed though, by the Galaxy S6 at 577PPI and the new LG G4 at 538PPI.

This is still a fabulous smartphone display though, as it uses a Super AMOLED panel. These have always scored highly in our screen quality tests, and the Note 4 is no exception. Our colour calibrator showed it was displaying a full 100 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut on its default settings, and its black levels were a perfect 0.00cd/m2, so you can be sure that your videos and photos will always look their best. These results are also much higher than the measurements we got from the iPhone 6 Plus, which only covered 90.5 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut and had blacks of 0.40cd/m2.

Where the Note 4 falls down slightly is its low maximum brightness level. At just 265.71cd/m2, this is much dimmer than both the Galaxy S5, which measured 339.43cd/m2, and the iPhone 6 Plus, which was almost twice as bright at 572.14cd/m2. However, we found the Note 4 was still bright enough to use outside even in bright sunshine, although you’ll need it at maximum brightness to cope. Those who spend a lot of time in deserts and on beaches might want to look elsewhere, but most us poor brits need not worry.

At the other end of the scale, the Note 4’s contrast levels were off the charts, as our colour calibrator couldn’t even give us a score. This means that images will not only have plenty of detail on show, but that they’ll also look great from almost any viewing angle, as we could still see our high contrast test images clearly when looking at the screen side-on. This is particularly useful if you’re using the bundled S Pen stylus to jot down a quick memo while the phone’s on a table in front of you, for example, as you won’t have to pick it up and look at the screen face-on to see what you’re writing.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: S Pen

The S Pen is one of the most distinctive features of Samsung’s Note devices, setting them apart from other Android phablets. With the Note 4, the S Pen has remained largely the same as the Note 3‘s, but now has a new textured surface to help provide a little more grip. It’s a nice touch, but we’ve always found its flat design very comfortable to hold regardless of whether we’re sketching for long periods of time or writing quick notes.

Samsung has also increased the S Pen’s pressure sensitivity to 2,048 different levels, allowing for two new brush types to be added to the S Note app: calligraphy and fountain pen (although to our eyes the latter looks a lot like many of the other available brush effects).

You needn’t worry about resting your hand on the screen either, as S Pen only mode creates its own kind of palm rejection. The only hand actions allowed are pinch-zooming and panning, making it easier to use the stylus like a normal pen. The S Pen’s digitiser also allows the screen to sense where the pen is up to roughly 12mm away, but little practical use for this here, other than letting you see the names of various S Note and Scrapbook options, but browsing the web using the stylus means you can activate roll-over effects like animated buttons and dropdown menus.

Like the Note 3, the S Pen slots into the bottom of the phone when it’s not in use and removing it will automatically launch a small command wheel. The range of options has shrunk since the Note 3, but one of our favourite new additions was Smart Select, which lets you grab any area of the screen as an image or extract the text to share with friends or add to your Scrapbook.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 S Pen hover^ The screen will sense the S Pen up to roughly 12mm away

It’s a similar idea to what you can do with Microsoft’s One Note on the Surface Pro 3; the only problem is that once you’ve started using Smart Select, it will remain onscreen as a floating shortcut with no easy way to get rid of it unless you delete all your cut-outs, which will be deleted forever if you don’t manually save them to your Scrapbook.

If S Note doesn’t quite meet your sketching requirements, the Note 4 also comes with Autodesk’s excellent Sketchbook for Galaxy app. This has dozens more brushes, texture effects, tools and image layers available, making it a great companion for both professional and amateur digital artists like. It also has the same S Pen only mode as S Note, so you can really get into your drawings without accidentally destroying them with your hand. You’ll need to search for it within Samsung’s app store, though, as it’s not pre-installed on the device.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Multi-Window and One-handed mode

The S Pen isn’t the only thing that makes the Note 4 special, though, as Samsung’s Multi Window feature is better than ever. This lets you use two apps simultaneously and takes full advantage of the Note 4’s huge resolution, letting you send a text while looking at Google Maps, for example, or watch a video while browsing the web. Only certain apps support this feature, but it’s a great for multitasking and the extra resolution gives you plenty of space to work with, particularly when you can adjust the size of each app to your liking on the fly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 S Pen

Samsung’s also taken inspiration from Apple’s Reachability feature on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus to make the Note 4 easier to use one-handed. By quickly swiping your thumb from the side of the screen to the middle and back again, the whole screen snaps to either side of the display. This brings everything within comfortable reaching distance and it worked very reliably when we tried it out for ourselves. You can adjust the size of the window to your liking, too, giving you an effective screen size ranging from 4.2in to 5.5in. It takes an obvious motion to activate, so it’s pretty tricky to trigger accidentally.

Admittedly, the large expanses of black around the Note 4’s one-handed window don’t look quite as elegant as Apple’s Reachability, which just shifts everything down to the bottom of the screen with a translucent glass effect revealing the background wallpaper behind the app, but Samsung’s version makes it easier to reach the opposite side of the screen too. It’s also more suited to a larger range of apps, as you still see the full screen instead of just a small portion of it, giving you more space on the keyboard for typing messages and scrolling down web pages.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 one handed mode

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Performance and battery life

The Note 4 is the first phone we’ve seen to be powered by Qualcomm’s latest quad-core Snapdragon 805 chip. Running at a huge 2.7GHz and paired with 3GB of RAM, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface felt beautifully smooth as we flicked through the phone’s home screens and its web browsing performance set a new record in our SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks. Previously, Samsung’s Galaxy S5 was our fastest smartphone, scoring 391ms, but the Note 4 was even quicker, finishing the test in just 349ms when we used Samsung’s default browser. Admittedly, it’s a small improvement that you’re unlikely to notice in everyday use, but scrolling through web pages still felt very slick and it was able to load images on The Guardian’s desktop home page almost instantaneously as we panned around.

There was a noticeable difference when we re-ran the test in Chrome, though, as the Note 4 scored just 1,036ms. This is slower than both the S5 and the Note 3, and The Guardian’s images were noticeably slower to load when we were paning around up close. It’s a small complaint overall, but you may want to stick with Samsung’s default browser if you want the best performance.

The Note 4’s Adreno 420 GPU breezed past its Samsung brethren in our graphics benchmarks, showing it’s more than capable of powering the phone’s massive resolution at the highest quality settings. For instance, it maxed out both our 3DMark Ice Storm and Ice Storm Extreme tests and scored a huge 19,328 (or 77.1fps) in Ice Storm Unlimited. Likewise, its score of 49.9fps in Epic Citadel on Ultra High-quality settings puts the LG G3’s score of 28.9fps to shame.

The GPU can also be put to use powering Samsung’s Gear VR virtual reality headset. We’re still waiting for a UK launch, and you’ll have to spend upwards of £170 on top of the phone itself in order to bag one, but based on the short amount of time we’ve spent with the Gear VR at pre-launch events it’s a brilliant use of all that graphics power.

That power doesn’t come at the expense of battery life either, as the Note 4’s massive 3,220mAh battery lasted a huge 18 hours and 55 minutes in our continuous video playback test with the screen set to half brightness. This is a huge improvement on both the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 6 Plus, and it even surpasses the Sony Xperia Z3, making it the longest-lasting big screen phone we’ve ever seen. Samsung’s included two power saving modes as well, so enabling these will help stretch the battery even further.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Android and Touchwiz

Samsung has now upgraded the Note 4 to Android 5 Lollipop. So you get all the features of Google’s current operating system, albeit with Samsung’s own Touchwiz take. The company has integrated some of Google’s Material-style effects into its launcher, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough for us.

If you really care about how Android looks, with swizzy animations and the like, then the Note 4 isn’t really for you. However, given all the extra functions that Samsung has built into its phablet, it’s not like you’re not getting something in return.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Camera

On the back is the Note 4’s 16-megapixel camera, which produced excellent photos regardless of lighting conditions. Outdoors, our shots showed plenty of detail and the colours were brighter and richer than those we took on the Galaxy S5 at the same time.

Street signs were also noticeably sharper on the Note 4, and we also felt it exposed the sky much more accurately than the S5, showing fewer over-exposed areas in the bright clouds. HDR mode helped brighten our images further, but the decrease in contrast meant we also lost some of the detail.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 camera test^ The Note 4’s camera produced noticeably brighter, more detailed shots than the Galaxy S5

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 camera test01^ Colours were bright and vibrant despite the cloudy weather, but the sky was noticeably overexposed in a few places

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 camera test HDR mode01^ HDR mode didn’t make a huge difference to the appearance of our photos, but we were pleased with how it improved the exposure of the sky

The Note 4 also proved to be the superior camera indoors, as there was much more detail on show in our still life arrangement than the S5. The soft fur of our plush toys was much more prevalent on the Note 4 and each object looked much sharper round the edges. Colours were also a touch warmer, but not so much that they looked oversaturated.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 camera test indoors^ Indoors, our photos showed plenty of detail and we saw hardly any noise

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Verdict

At £390 SIM-free, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is still the reigning champion of phablet phones. The screen and its stylus, smart design and excellent camera help make it a very attractive alternative to the Galaxy S5. Even its size is no longer an obstacle thanks to Samsung’s one-handed mode.

It offers better value for money over the iPhone 6 Plus, and we prefer the Note 4’s AMOLED screen and better battery life. This makes it a better all-round companion for watching videos, TV or films on the go. For now, the Galaxy Note 4 is the best phablet you can buy

ProcessorQuad-core 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805
Screen size5.7in
Screen resolution2,560×1,440
Screen typeSuper AMOLED
Front camera3.7-megapixel
Rear camera16-megapixel
Memory card slot (supplied)microSD
BluetoothBluetooth 4.0
Wireless data3G, 4G
Operating systemAndroid 4.4.4
Battery size3,220mAh
Buying information
WarrantyOne-year RTB
Price SIM-free (inc VAT)£600
Price on contract (inc VAT)£130 on £33-per-month contract
Prepay price (inc VAT)N/A
Part codeSM-N910F

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