While Apple has only just released its first huge phone, Samsung's gargantuan Note is already on its fourth iteration. In a lot of ways, it's the big phone that started this runaway screen-size race. But even though it's facing an ever-growing army of up-sized competitors, the Note 4 is the only giant phone that gets it right.
A 5.7-inch Android phone with a stunning QHD, 518 PPI Super AMOLED screen. The stylus-equipped flagship "phablet" that made big phones a thing. Samsung's best phone yet.
The Galaxy Note has always been on the bleeding edge of really big, freaking giant, OMG-sized phones, but now the rest of the world is finally starting to catch up. Apple's got a honker, and so does Nokia. LG's flagship is a biggun, and HTC and Motorola are slowly sliding up the scale. But the Note 4 is the only huge phone out there that really embraces its gargantuan size in any meaningful way. It's got a stylus! And split-screen multitasking! It even does windows!
It's not just a size thing either. The Note 4 has a positively insane screen. The best on any smartphone, according to the experts. Throw in the Note line's historically great battery life and the Note 4's unique ability to moonlight as an Oculus-approved VR headset, and the Note 4 has a hell of a lot of things going for it. All apologies to the Galaxy S5, but the Note looks more and more like Samsung's true flagship.
Mostly unchanged from the Galaxy Note 3, except in a few small ways that make it so much better. First off, this sucker is suave. Gone are the shiny, metallic-colored, ribbed plastic edges of the Note 3, replaced by shiny, chamfered edges that are actually made of metal. And while the Note 4 is still clinging to that now-characteristic Samsung pleather back, at least there's no faux-stitching around the edges. The Note 3 always gave me the impression that it was trying to seem more premium than it was. The Note 4 is just plain old premium. It's the first Samsung phone that I'm not embarrassed to hold up next to an iPhone or a HTC One. This is a phone that has its dress clothes on. It looks sharp.
Those new chamfered edges aren't just for show though. They make the damned thing easier to hold. The angles let the massive phone comfortably lock into a nice solid grip, like holding a giant iPhone 5S. It's lovely. When I squeeze down on it, it feels like it's getting more secure instead of feeling like it's at risk of popping out of my hand. That's a kind of security I can never get from phones with more rounded edges, like the iPhone 6 Plus, previous versions of the Note, or even comparatively smaller phones like the 5.2-inch Moto X 2014.
Yeah, the Note 4 is a big phone, but it's worth noting that it's really not that much bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus. The Note 4 as a pretty minimal bezel, which means that even though the Note 4 has a bigger screen than the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, the phone's essentially the same size. It's only two mm wider, two mm thicker, and actually four mm shorter than the 6 Plus. And even with those extra few millimeters, its design helps it manage to feel smaller.
That said, the Note 4 is still bad at plenty of things that big phones are bad at. I found typing with a single hand to be possible but precarious, especially when my thumb had to reach anything in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, which made my (lack of) grip feel downright dangerous. Swiping down the notification menu with a thumb and then trying to do anything at the bottom of the screen requires obnoxious and dangerous grasp-adjusting.
That big body ain't for nothing; it holds the Note 4's screen incredible screen. Bar none the best I have seen, and by a huge margin. That 2560 x 1440 Quad HD Super AMOLED display jumps out in a way that's immediately stunning. It's almost impossibly crisp, with colors that pop like crazy. Bringing the phone up from sleep to a mostly yellow background is like taking that first step outside on a sunny day — every time you turn it on. It's a screen that will make people stop, stare, and ask delightfully ego-boosting questions.
Of course the Note still has its characteristic built-in stylus, which will give you pin-point accuracy when you give up and just use two hands. Unfortunately, the stylus missed out on the design update the rest of the Note 4 got, which is to say it's very plasticy, complete with metallic-looking plastic covering its eraser end. Pulling out that stylus really brings the rest of the Note 4's new digs into stark relief.
The Note 4 is a bright and beautiful speedster. It's one of the first phones out of the gate to run Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 805 processor, and the power is evident. The Note 4 ran everything I could throw at it like a creamy, buttery dream. I played some Dead Trigger 2, Hoplite, Threes, all your standard games, and all performed great — not to mention everyday stuff like swiping between homescreens and navigating the app drawer.
Considering that the Note 4 not only has a bonkers QHD screen full of pixels to push but is also saddled with a layer of TouchWiz—which has a tradition of bogging down Samsung handsets (like the Note 3 and the S5) right out of the gate—that performance is a relief. Who knows what the next version of TouchWiz could do… but for now the Note 4 is fantastically speedy.
Speaking of that QHD screen, it looks great virtually all the time. The one exception is outside in bright sunlight, where it felt like I just couldn't crank the brightness up quite high enough. But indoors, the max brightness seemed almost blinding. At some point the wow factor fades to the background, and not everything I threw up on the display was able to make use of all those pixels; finding wallpaper that was high-res enough to look nice and that would also scale correctly was a challenge. On the other hand, apps and webpages always looked at least good if not mind-blowing. And oh gosh does text look great:
But even with that crazy high-res screen, the Note 4 has solid battery life. The Note 4 has a "mere" 3,200 mAh battery, no larger than the Note 3, but I've yet to have it die on me before the day is out. One day, after pulling the Note off the charger at 8 AM, I must have played like three hours of Hoplite over the course of day (Ugh, that game is so good) and I was still going strong with 15 percent charge by the time 1 AM rolled along. Worst case, I hit the 20 percent mark around 10 PM, the monochrome power-saving mode kicked in, and I cruised on well into the night in black and white.
Thanks to the Note 4's rapid charging (which is a useful if not wholly unique feature) I was also able to pop up to a respectable 45 precent battery with a half-hour charge. Well within "I am just going to loiter at this Starbucks for a little while" territory, and sure to come in handy.
A lot of people hate the cruft that Samsung crams into its phones. I have always been one of them (I think I still am.) But TouchWiz—the interface Samsung layers over the top of Android—has come a long way. It was less offensive than ever on the Galaxy S5, but this is a watershed moment, because for the first time TouchWiz is more of an asset than a liability.
Samsung's skin has always given the over-sized Note its own special superpowers. Split-screen apps have been a feature of the Note line for ages—good for watching a YouTube video on the top of your screen while doing literally anything that is not "reading comments on a YouTube video" on the bottom, or for looking at your email and your calendar at the same time.
But TouchWiz takes it even further. Select apps (all the Samsung and Google apps plus a few randoms like Facebook, in my experience), can be shrunk into windows with a simple gesture, or into little Chat Head-like icons, and moved around the screen. The new Note isn't just a big phone; it's a tiny, Android-powered computer.
On the one hand, this sort of functionality seems like a no-brainer if you've ever used an actual computer, but it's unheard of on a phone. And for good reason! It'd be impossible to pull off even on a large (by pocket standards) 5.7 inch display if not for two other things: A high-resolution panel that lets you read even small text clearly, and a stylus to help you click on tiny things with precision. It's a task the Note 4 is uniquely suited to, and it pulls it off well.
At first it seemed gimmicky. Why would you need multiple windows on a phone? Well, you don't need them, but they're occasionally great. After a few hours tooling around with the Note, I figured out how handy it was to keep a minimized camera window on screen while playing Hoplite, so I could capture quick, cute cat pictures and Snapchat them to my girlfriend. Later on, I used a minimized Gmail on top of Google Maps to double-check the room number of a business meeting without ever blocking my on-screen route. Neither of these things would be impossible by just switching between apps or opening things in splitscreen, but they were better with windows.
The options aren't quite limitless though. I failed when I tried to make a minimized Slack window float over a game of Threes (I was just testing, I swear!) because Slack just wouldn't shrink down. Other big players like Twitter and Spotify refuse as well. For now, anyhow.
And while you can open as many windows as you want—Samsung told me there's no practical limit to how many—the Note 4 started choking under the weight of about five. Also when I tried to open more, for shits and giggles, I just plain ran out of room to manage them all.
If you stick to a more modest two or even three, you can also drag and drop text and pictures from one window to another this way. I did it once or twice, but I ran into the limitations pretty quick. Plenty of Google apps—like Hangouts—don't want to accept images this way. So if you want to take advantage of that, you'll have to relegate yourself mostly to Samsung apps, at least at launch. And who wants to do that?
But maybe the biggest strength of Samsung's software this time around is what it doesn't do: It doesn't shoot the phone in the foot. TouchWiz has always made Note phones better with splitscreen and stylus support, but traditionally it's done more to make them worse with performance-stunting bloat, and ugly menu upon ugly menu. TouchWiz on the Note 3 made me give up and move back to a Nexus before I could appreciate any of its benefits. But now that TouchWiz didn't scare me off on the first date, I was able to stick around long enough to grow fond of its charms.
The Note 4's camera is, for the most part, the same 16MP shooter you'll find in the Galaxy S5 when it comes to image quality. That is to say that its pictures have a tendency to wind up a little oversaturated and a little heavy on the contrast, but still fine—damn good even—for a mobile phone camera. At least so long as the lights are on; like the S5, the Note 4 doesn't do too well under low light conditions. You can read a bit more about how the sensor in the S5 holds up to the competition in our big smartphone camera roundup, which helps put the Note 4 into context.
And here are a few sample shots from the actual Note 4:
The new things that the Note 4 brings to the table are two-fold. First, that 16MP rear-facing shooter is now equipped with Optical Image Stabilization. That isn't new or unique tech, of course—the iPhone 6 Plus also has OIS as an improvement over the iPhone 6's camera. But it's handy to have; most of my shots came out pretty clear. Way clearer than the shoddy Nexus 5 photography I've grown accustomed to.
There's are a few (fairly gimmicky) features on the front-facing side as well. The Note 4's front-facer is a respectable 3.7 megapixels, complete with a wide-angle selfie mode that lets you take panoramas. It's a feature that seems both over the top and suspiciously foreshadowed by that Samsung selfie stunt from the Oscars. Expect to see that horse trotted out again. On top of that, the Note 4's otherwise pretty useless heart sensor can be used a trigger to take selfies with the rear-facing shooter. Or you can engage a setting that will autofire when it detects a face. Nothing utterly revolutionary or totally unique, but features that are handy for the vain.
The Note 4 is a handsome phone. After years of plastic blobs, Samsung has hit its design stride. We saw the potential of this new look in the Galaxy Alpha, but its guts just couldn't follow through. But the Note 4 can. It's a great and great-looking phone.
TouchWiz is not only less horrible than ever, but it has some cool tricks that make toting around a giant 5.7-inch screen actually make sense. Windowed apps are a fun little trick that's also handy, and combined with the Note 4's high-res screen and stylus, the make for an experience that, while not perfect, is way more interesting and useful than just making screens bigger and leaving it at that.
For a phone with an enormous QHD display, the Note 4 gets impressive battery life. Especially considering it's still packing the Note 3's 3,200 mAh battery. Not to mention the power saving modes that the Note's Super AMOLED display enables (like monochrome mode) make it pretty trivial to squeeze a lot of extra life out of just a few percent if it comes down to that.
The Note 4's single back-mounted speaker kind of sucks. It's loud, and has a clever little rib on its grill that keeps it from being muffled by a table, but it's sound quality is tinny and just all around bad. It's no way to listen to music.
TouchWiz is better than it's ever been, and on the Note 4 in particular, I think it's crossed over into being more useful than it is a pain in the ass. It's still not great though. I mean just look at this expanded settings menu. This is still too much stuff.
And while the Note 4 is running great now at launch, all that skin slathered on top is a liability for performance later on if future versions of Android—or more likely, future versions of TouchWiz—start gobbling up more processing power.
The camera won't work if your battery is low. My kitten was doing something particularly cute, but since my battery was at three percent, I couldn't take a picture and I got this instead.
Some of the features the Note 4 has picked up from the Galaxy S5 aren't good for much of anything. The heart-rate monitor doesn't offer any real practical value besides being a trigger for selfies, and the fingerprint reader is so finicky as to be basically useless. In a world where the iPhone's TouchID seamlessly integrates fingerprint reading into a button-press you're already used to making, slowly dragging your finger over a sensor (often to have the reading ultimately fail) feels stone-age.
Do you want a big phone? If so, you should get this big phone because it is the best big phone. Windowed multitasking, split screen options, and drag and drop stylus features turn the Note 4 into a device that actually has a reason to be as big as it is. Where giant phones like the OnePlus One, Nokia 1520, iPhone 6 Plus, and presumably the 5.9-inch Nexus 6 are just bigger versions of their smaller predecessors, the Note 4 actually offers something more.
And even if you never use any of that, the Note 4 is good-looking, easy to hold, has an amazing screen and battery life, and runs like a dream. It's a best-in-class big phone even without the extras. The god-awful TouchWiz skin and poor design used to be the dealbreakers, but they're not anymore. And without those handicaps, the Note 4 is free to be truly great.
• Network: Most major U.S. carriers
• OS: Android 4.4 with TouchWiz
• CPU: Snapdragon 805
• Screen: 5.7-inch 2560 x 1440 Quad HD Super AMOLED (518 PPI)
• RAM: 3GB
• Storage: 32GB or 64GB plus micro SD up to 64GB
• Camera: 16MP rear / 3.7 MP front
• Battery: 3200 mAh Li-Ion
• Price: $300 - $350 (with a two-year contract, generally), $855 unlocked