Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Hands-on: Refining, Not Redoing

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Today is the closest Samsung’s been to a make-or-break moment in some time. The Korean tech giant isn’t exactly in danger, but its stranglehold on the rest of the smartphone world is loosening with each passing week. On the lower end of the market, a number of increasingly capable Chinese devices are gaining strength. At the higher end, its flagship Galaxy S5 arrived to relatively lukewarm reviews, and the company’s feeling more and more heat from Apple and a smorgasbord of capable Android devices. For the first time in years, Samsung’s mobile empire is starting to show some cracks.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4This makes the success of the Galaxy Note 4 all the more crucial. Introduced by Samsung at an IFA product showcase in Berlin this afternoon, the Note 4 is the latest entry in the series that brought the word “phablet” into the tech world’s vernacular. It marks an opportunity for Samsung to further dominate the product type it popularized and quench the seemingly never-ending thirst for massive smartphone displays. It’s also an area where Samsung has chosen to try something new by also unveiling a long-teased spin-off device, the Galaxy Note Edge. I was able to go hands-on with both the Note 4 and Note Edge at Samsung’s New York unveiling this afternoon. My impressions of the latter can be found here; for now, here’s a look at the Note 4.

It’s apparent right from the get-go that the Galaxy Note 4 isn’t trying to do anything radically different than its predecessor. Samsung’s gave its Big Idea for the year to the Note Edge and its bent display, so the Note 4 is mostly touchups in the areas where the Note 3 was lacking. Based on my short time with the device, this was a wise strategy.

The most immediate improvements of the Note 4 are in its build quality. On the surface, it’s still classic Samsung — there’s a singular Home button with a built-in fingerprint scanner flanked by Back and Menu soft keys on the front, the removable back is adorned with the same faux leather stitching that Samsung’s been pimping for the past couple of years, and the whole thing is neither tremendously thin nor all that thick. There’s still nothing wrong with any of this, but it’s all very familiar.

Get a little more acclimated to the Note 4, though, and it reveals itself to be more premium feeling than you’d expect from the company that was once synonymous with glossy plastic. Most of this is due to the genuine aluminum that adorns the Note 4’s edges, which is sturdy and cool to the touch. It also makes the power button and volume rocker feel good and tight. The front of the phone, meanwhile, now has chamfered edges, allowing your fingers to roll off the display’s sides more naturally. And although that leathery back is still too goofy for my liking, it’s smoother than it was before, removing the dimples and stitching pattern of recent Galaxy phones.

Yes, all of this means that the Note 4 is comprised of three different materials, but the subtle improvements here make for a phablet that looks and feels more worthy of its price tag. It feels sturdy and together, a far cry from the looseness of Galaxy phones past. It is worth noting (sorry) that the aluminum appears to have made the Note a little bit heavier (up from 168 g last year to 176 g now), but that’s not immediately apparent when you hold it in your hand. This being a phablet, however, it’s never going to be easy to use with one hand.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4But the big draw of the Note 4 is its display, and at first glance it doesn’t appear to disappoint. It’s a 5.7-inch AMOLED panel this time around, and it follows in the footsteps of the LG G3 by featuring a “quad HD” resolution of 2560 x 1440. That’s good for a pixel density of about 515 ppi, which is still hilarious overkill. That said, it’s obviously very sharp, and the OLED tech behind it really allows colors to bloom and black to sink. It also can get the whole thing very bright. Viewing angles are still something to keep an eye on, and screens like this can sometimes get too blue, but this screen should be brilliant on the whole.

On the spec sheet, the Note 4 rocks a 2.7 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 chipset with a 600 MHz Adreno 420 GPU, and 3 GB of RAM. It also carries 32 GB of storage, with an extra 64 GB available through a microSD slot. (Samsung’s customary octa-core chipset will replace the Qualcomm SoC in select markets, per usual.) I wasn’t able to push the device too hard during my time with it, but I can say that scrolling through menus and opening apps was a breeze. This kind of power is simply top-of-the line on paper, so I’m interested to see how far it can be pushed with hardcore usage.

One last thing to mention here is the Note 4’s battery, which comes in at a hefty 3,220 mAh. The big deal here is that it features a “fast charging” feature, which supposedly gets the device up to 50% charged in a half hour. This will be tremendously useful if it works as advertised, especially given the (relative) struggles the G3 had sustaining its quad HD display for a whole day. It’d be easy to see some drop-off from the Note 3 here.

Moving around to the back of the device, the Note 4’s main camera has been bumped up to 16-megapixels now. It’s also been made to support an optical image stabilization feature that reduces blurring in photos you take with a shaky hand. Again, there wasn’t much opportunity to test this kind of thing in the confined demo space, but there shouldn’t have much downside to it if it works.

The front camera has gotten some more significant upgrades, though. It’s been bumped up to 3.7 megapixels, which isn’t quite as sharp as some other selfie takers out there but is a boost nonetheless. It also has an f/1.9 aperture, which should improve its quality in darker surroundings. Finally, the widened shooting angles will allow you to fit more of your fellow narcissists in photos alongside you.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4Just about all of this sounds great, and I’m excited to see if the Note 4 can live up to the promise it’s shown here. My one concern, as is usually the case with Samsung, is with the phone’s UI. As best as I can tell, it’s virtually the same TouchWiz skin that was used on the Galaxy S5, which was far too redundant and visually inconsistent for my liking. The improved performance and gorgeous screen should help make up for it, but Samsung seems to holding off on any major software upgrades for now. All of it will run over Android 4.4 regardless.

The big new additions on the software front are made for the S Pen, which itself is said to be more responsive to pressure, speed, and other such metrics. For instance, a new “Smart Select” tool lets you use the pen to select and highlight things like text rather than having long press and drag your finger. Another feature called “Snap Note” converts a picture of a real-life note into a virtual one and lets you edit it as you please.

Samsung says the Galaxy Note 4 will arrive this October, but it hasn’t confirmed a specific release date or price just yet. When it does get here, it’ll come in black, white, pink, and gold.



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