Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review

Big phones are a big deal these days, and Samsung has just unveiled its next big-deal instalment in the Note series: the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Pocket-lint handled the new phablet ahead of its official unveil at Samsung Unpacked in Berlin - and boy oh boy it's a beaut.

Building from the existing Note series, the Note 4 continues the phablet-with-stylus product line, but pushes much of its upgrade kudos into the screen department. For the Note 4 comes with a 5.7-inch Quad HD screen that's a definite stunner.

Significant screen

That doesn't mean a bigger screen than the earlier Note 3, but a more resolute one - now touting a whopping 2560 x 1440 pixels to deliver a 550ppi pixel density.

When we were first shown the phone playing back a video on screen it was less the significant resolution and more the way the image "pops" from the screen that impressed - a feature derived from the 2.5D glass panel which, despite being flat in the hand, is ever so slightly curved within to deliver this effect. It's subtle, but unlike any phone we've seen before it.

That resolution delivers a great looking image in use too. We were initially worried that some virtual icons within apps would begin to get so small they would cease to be practical, but that didn't feel to be the case. Even with Chrome open the experience felt familiar and much like the Note 3.

Powerful inside and out

After an initial intro with the phone from the Samsung team we got some extra time to play with the device proper and explore its new features.

Under the hood things haven't moved along a huge degree - an Exynos octa-core 1.9GHz chip is most likely to make it to the UK - but in other territories where Cat 6 LTE is possible a 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 will see it be the first handset to sport such a chipset. Final details of chipset by region are yet to be finalised. But what we do know is that the Galaxy Note 4 still has plenty of power to see it swim along.

There's also 3GB RAM and a minimum 32GB internal storage too. Pull the back off and there's space for a microSD card to further expand the storage by up to 128GB, and given the falling prices of such cards it's cost effective to do so.

Overall there's as much power on offer in the Note 4 as you'll get from any current top-tier device. It paves the way for fluid multi-tasking whether for work or play - although, at this stage, we've not been able to dig into heavyweight applications given our limited time with the handset.

S Pen modifications

The Galaxy Note's calling card has always been its included stylus, better known by its S Pen moniker by Samsung. It's tucked inside the body and easily extracted for handwriting tasks or for using it as an almost PC-mouse-like alternative.

Even though the stylus looks and feels largely similar to that of the Note 3, in the Note 4 it can do that much more. There are now 2,048 pressure levels for a more refined "real pen" feel, plus virtual calligraphy and fountain pen nibs have been added for more creative uses when writing notes directly onto the screen. You'll probably stick with the standard pen more often than not for the functional stuff.

On the S Pen is a button positioned to its side that can now be utilised in that left-mouse-click way (that Windows users will be familiar with) for a simple click-and-drag process to capture text. No longer do you need to press-and-hold a finger (or the stylus nib) onto the screen and slowly drag those beginning and end quote points around to select text. For stylus users this will speed things up a lot.

Multi-tasking, Air Command adjustments

This concept is further extended in what Samsung is calling Smart Select - a selective screen-grab concept - which has been added to the Air Command quick-select floating menu (which appears when hovering the S Pen close to the screen).

With the Smart Select option in play it's possible to use the S Pen to draw an area around the current screen and this specific area will be saved. But rather than it vanishing into a gallery a small floating widget will remain open so this grab can be easily dragged into a current email, Messenger conversation and such like. It's a fluid experience.

Air Command has seen a rework too, with Smart Select arriving alongside a trimmed-back additional three options - Action Memo, Image Clip, Screen Write. The Scrap Booker, S Finder, and Pen Window options of old have dissolved, while a homepage widget for quick access to pen, snap, text, voice and S Note options is available.

Another nifty feature is Snap Note. This can be used to import a camera snap into the phone, auto-adjust any skew and then and convert it into "pen strokes" for further manipulation. Say you shoot some sketched illustrations on a sheet of paper, for example, these can then be imported, selectively deleted and edited, or selected and enlarged/shrunk as you would a vector image in much of Adobe's high-end software. The only downer here is that text won't be converted into actual text, so there's no way of auto-converting written notes off-device into written ones on it. Instead you're limited to share as an image or PDF for the time being.

Fun though these features are it's the core functionality of the user interface that prevails. Samsung has been refining its Android-overlay interface and in the Note 4 that's led by enhanced multi-window options. In addition to running two applications in an above-and-below fashion if you so wish, it's now possible to drag a full-screen app down to a smaller, more manageable size and have a number of layers of apps active at once. There's enough screen resolution to handle the smaller scale while keeping text and images legible.

If you then need to move onto another task then an open app can be further reduced to a floating icon - a bit like a Facebook Messenger Chat Head - anywhere on the home screen. These can even overlay existing key apps to avoid them looking like rigid Android app icons. And because they're always on top, when you're done being distracted with your first task you can tap the small icon and pick up where you left off. Cool.

"Signature design": The faux leather returns

If there's one thing that always gets us about Samsung smartphones it's the choice of faux leather that dominates the rear panel. It's the same deal on the Note 4, although it's a more subtle visual than some earlier Samsung devices.

Clearly the Korean company has established this look as its own distinctive style. Whether you like it or not, it can't be called uncomfortable: the Note 4's new finish has a soft kind of feel to it and there's ample grip in the hand - essential for a 5.7-inch phone.

As we've got increasingly used to larger phones over recent years, we don't think the Note 4 feels too big for a day-to-day phone, as it's not much larger than our current LG G3.

It's not all soft fake leather, though, with the slim metal frame being a crucial part of the design. Indeed it's this quality aspect that brings everything together and makes the Note 4 feel like a quality product. We would, however, really like to see Samsung take the plunge and elevate material choices to an HTC One M8 level of quality. More of that please and we'll have few complaints overall.

Cameras

Cameras are a big deal in smartphones and companies know it. There's no mucking about with the Note 4 in this department, as it employs a 16-megapixel rear camera with f/2.4 maximum aperture and 3.7-megapixel f/1.9 front-facing unit to the top right corner.

Perhaps the biggest news of all is that the rear unit employs optical image stabilisation, upping the ante for the Microsoft Devices and LGs of this world. In our pre-brief area was a small scene set-up to show this off to best effect (admittedly the scene was better lit than the rest of the room we shot these hands-on pictures in) which seemed to work well - but it's something we need to dig into in greater depth to see how effective it is.

Jumping on the group selfie bandwagon the 90-degree angle of the front-facing camera can be extended to a 120-degree equivalent by taking three snaps and auto-stitching them together. We tried it twice and found the resulting shots were distorted, wonky and not ideal - but at least the mode is far easier to use than Huawei's tricky "groufie" mode on the Ascend P7. Even Samsung used the word "groufie" at the Unpacked conference... ugh.

That ultra-high screen resolution doesn't come to waste when playing back video capture either as, and just like the earlier Note 3, the Note 4 boasts 4K UHD capture.

S Health, battery and more

One specification that caught our attention is the Note 4's 3220mAh battery - because it's a mere 20mAh more capacious than the earlier Note 3. Now the earlier model doesn't have bad battery life by any means, but how much that increased resolution will impact the life per charge we're yet to know.

But if it does drain the juice fast then Samsung has - finally - opted for Fast Charging in the Note 4. That means a 30-minute plug-in will recharge 50 per cent battery life, while the device is also said to charge 30 per cent faster than the previous generation model overall too. There's also the same Ultra Power Saving mode as found in the flagship Galaxy S5.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review

And it's with S Health and fitness tracking that the Note 4 continues to take its cues from the S5. There's a heart-rate monitor on the rear and the usual S Health step tracking and so forth. There's a lot to say about S Health, so for the breakdown read our explanation article below.

READ: What is S Health 3.0 and why should you care?

There's also a trio of microphones on board the Note 4 for more effective noise-cancelling when recording. Ideal for "bypassing" surrounding noise and focusing on one-directional source sound but, and again, it's something we'll need to use in proper situations to see just how well it works in the real world.

In addition to the black model we've been exploring, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 will also come in Frosted White, Bronze Gold and Blossom Pink finishes.

No final word on UK chipset spec, price or release date just yet - but we'll bring you the updates as and when we know more.



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