When Samsung first unveiled the Note 4 a lot was made about its use of stainless steel in the handset design — a huge departure from the cheap-feeling plastic handsets Samsung has released over the past few years. Here now, with the Note 4 in my hands, I’m not entirely sure what all the fuss was about. The Note 4 is still primarily a plastic phone, albeit one with a metal trim.
Not that I mind this so much. I happen to like the look and feel of a number of plastic phones; the soft-touch plastic on a Moto X and Nexus 5, for example. I’m less enthusiastic about the faux-leather plastic on the back on the Note 3 and, now, Note 4, but not enough for it to sway my opinion.
In fact, the best way to describe the look and feel of the Note 4 is to point you to last year’s Note 3: there really isn’t too much different. The buttons and switches are in the same locations, the stylus is holstered in the same place on the bottom of the phone. There may be big changes for Note fans this year, but they are not in its aesthetic.
Still, the Note 4 is pleasantly lightweight, for a phone of its size, and not as big as other phablets — including Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus. It feels sturdy and assuredly put together.
The big difference between the Note 3 and the Note 4 is in the most important part of any modern phone — the touchscreen. Samsung keeps the 5.7-inch screen size the same but manages to nearly double the number of pixels in the display panel. The Quad HD resolution screen (1440 x 2560 pixels) packs in 515 pixels per inch of screen, making it one of the sharpest displays in market.
It looks fantastic too, with crisp edges to onscreen elements, brilliant colours and great viewing angles. This is one amazing smartphone screen.
But, it does come with a number of drawbacks. A sharper screen always means a heavier toll on battery life. We’ve seen manufacturers play an interesting balance game between increasing screen resolutions, bigger batteries and the never-ending quest for slimmer, lighter devices. Samsung opts for the sharper screen and slimmer phone, so it is battery life which takes the hit.
This will be a sour pill for many phone users, and if you’d prefer a lower spec phone with several days of battery life, then the Note 4 isn’t for you.
We also question what we, as users, gain from a screen with this many pixels. Side-by-side with the Note 3, and its Full HD screen (1080 x 1920 pixels) it is hard to spot the advantage. Web pages are as easy to read, games and videos looks as good, and it certainly doesn’t help with everyday tasks, like emails and text messages. At the end of the day, it is this screen which means that the Note 4 is one of the most expensive phones in market, and it doesn’t seem to justify its existence.
While we might feel there are too many pixels in the screen, we think Samsung has pretty much nailed the camera — pixels and all. The 16-megapixel sensor in the Note 4 is fast as lightning, and with a shortcut to the camera on the lock screen, it takes mere seconds to jump in and start shooting.
The photos we’ve taken are all pretty great — even those taken on dreary, wintery looking afternoons. Gradients of colour look smooth, and the level of detail we’ve seen in our shots is astounding.
Performance and battery
One area where we cannot fault Samsung is in the Note 4’s everyday performance. Even with the full weight of the TouchWiz software leaning on these processors, the Note 4 feels as fast and smooth as any phone on the market.
Which processor powers your Note will depend on which part of the world you are living in and the network requirements in your region, but it will either be a quad-core Qualcomm chip or an octa-core Samsung Exynos chipset. Our review unit makes use of the quad-core processor and it is blindingly fast.
The Note 4 isn’t best and baddest which it comes to battery life though. As we mentioned earlier, the Quad HD resolution screen takes a huge toll on its huge 3220mAh capacity battery. While you’ll comfortably get through a day-plus between charges, we can’t help but wonder whether a more power-efficient Note 4 would mean a better device overall — even if that meant reducing the pixel count.
The Adaptive Fast Charger in the box suggest Samsung was aware battery life would not be the Note’s strongest suit. This wall charger looks exactly like every other Samsung charger, but it is capable of speeding up the time it takes to recharge your phone significantly. From zero to 100, we noticed it took the fast charger about 90-minutes to rejuice the Note 4 — a significant feat for a phone with a battery this size.
Samsung’s Note 4 demands you know what you want in a phone more than any other device this year. It’s high price and trade-offs in battery life mean you really have to want a super dense screen resolution, a stylus, a fingerprint scanner, etc, because you are paying for all of these extras in performance and out of pocket.
The Note is easily recognisable as one of the year’s best made phones, but it is hard not to compare it unfavorably to slightly smaller, simpler and much cheaper smartphones. It is still the other smartphone that comes with a stylus — an excellent stylus at that — but if you can’t imagine using the stylus regularly, should you pay for one? Even then, are you better off saving a bunch of money and buying the Note 3 instead?
If money is no object, especially if you plan on buying a subsidized phone on contract, then these are matters you needn’t mull over for too long. We just can’t help feeling that while the Note 4 is a great phone, it is not great value.