Saturday, October 18, 2014

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review: Far More To Offer Than Apple's iPhone 6 Plus


The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has been my phone of choice for the last year. I’ve used a lot of others, like the LG G3, which I’ve also loved. But I’ve ended up back on the Note 3 every time. That, to me, is the best indication that the Note range is perfectly designed for my needs.

So who should consider a Note 4? Well, my first advice would be that if you have a Note 3, the upgrade is going to be small for you. You’ll get a better screen, nicer design and some nice health and fitness tools, but it’s not a revolution – more an evolution. So those on two-year contracts shouldn’t fret if they’re going to have to stick with the Note 3 for another year.

But for those looking to go down a new route, switch from an iPhone or smaller Android, is the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 worth it?

Spoiler: yes, without doubt.

I picked up my Note 4 last Friday, and had an initial look at it. The first thing I noticed was that the design is a modest update, but it does leave the phone looking fresh. My Note 3 is the same colour – white – so the comparison between both is easy to make. I had no problem with the style of the Note 3, in my mind it was a significant upgrade from the cheaper, less interesting looking Note 2. But the Note 4 takes things to a new level, with its new shape, better materials and a much toned-down “leather” effect on the rear case.

Better than the iPhone 6 Plus, really?

Honestly, I’m not a believer in “better” when it comes to different devices, from different manufacturers running different operating systems. Even so, the Note has some features that clearly make it more attractive for some than Apple’s latest iPhone. For example, the screen resolution is higher and there’s built in monitoring for blood saturation, heart rate and even UV light.
Heart rate, oxygen saturation and UV are all monitored via this sensor

Heart rate, oxygen saturation and UV are all monitored via this sensor – photo: Ian Morris

Also, an important part of the Note range has always been the S Pen. This device allows you to interact with the phone in a way that is unique to Samsung. It’s actually very good and when used right a really handy tool, especially for business users. I use it for handwriting recognition, and with every new device this gets better and better. Many of the early problems have been fixed now, and the recognition is very usable. With practice, it could even be faster than typing if you invest some time into learning how to use it.

Also, there’s a really important thing to remember when it comes to storage. The Samsung Galaxy Note has just 32GB of storage, which sounds weak next to the iPhone which can go up to 128GB. However, the Note can accept MicroSD cards that offer as much as 128GB of additional storage for about $100 – generic cards can be had for a fraction of that price, but I’d advise avoiding them for intensive video capture, though they would be fine for just music.

And, of course, the replaceable battery in the Note 4 means you can carry a spare for when your power runs out, or you can just replace the cell when it reaches the point where it no longer lasts as long as it did when new.

The screen

There is just no denying that the 1440×2560 resolution screen on the Note 4 is amazing, it’s one of the highest resolutions of any phone, and really does look amazing. Because it’s an AMOLED, it’s very bright and very colourful. Does it trade accuracy a bit for that, yes, possibly, but for a phone it’s a great choice. Sometimes I found it too bright inside, and the problems with Samsung’s slow-to-respond ambient light sensor persist. I do also have some reservations, because a higher resolution screen has a huge impact on two areas of a smartphone: it puts a strain on the processor and it increases battery drain.

To be fair, processor usage isn’t an issue on the Note, there’s loads of power here, and I didn’t notice any lag at all when using the device. In fact, it feels a lot snappier than my Note 3, and Samsung seems to have tweaked its TouchWiz UI to make it less laggy too – this is well overdue.
The screen is absolutely amazing

The screen is absolutely amazing – photo: Ian Morris

Battery life is a problem still. I didn’t find the Note 4 to be disastrous though. What I noticed mirrors the Note 3, and that’s using the display for long periods will destroy your battery life at a rate of 10-20 per cent per hour in daylight conditions. The Note 4 has a larger power pack than the previous phone, but this is really just to keep pace with the screen. I’d quite like to see Samsung expand the battery in these devices. As it stands, I never leave the house without a backup charger now anyway.

Samsung does, however, do one very useful thing with the Note 4. That’s the Ultra Power Saver mode it has brought over from the Galaxy S5. Here power is saved by shutting down Wi-Fi, stopping most background apps and turning the screen black and white. This allows you to get about 24 hours out of 10 per cent charge. So, when I turned it on at 21 per cent, the phone suggested I would get 3.5 days out of the phone.
Ultra power saving is a handy feature, and one that can get a lot of juice out of the last of your battery power

Ultra power saving is a handy feature, and one that can get a lot of juice out of the last of your battery power – image: Ian Morris

And, it has to be said that the Ultra Power Saver isn’t as limiting as I expected. You can still use data, and a few select apps. You’re allowed to pick and chose, so I asked it to let me use Facebook and Twitter, and the choice is fairly limited. What you do get are the Samsung web browser – Chrome, though installed, is not an option. You can also add WhatsApp and the phone and text messaging services remain in place.

There’s also a lot of value in the fast charging mode, which puts 50 per cent charge into the battery in as little as 30 minutes. One missing feature though is wireless charging out of the box. The phone is capable of doing it, but Samsung opts not to send the right back out with the phone. This is stupid as LG, Nokia and others all have their phones shipping, ready to be wirelessly charged.


Samsung deserves credit for taking security on its devices seriously. Perhaps it’s the desire to beat Apple at corporate sales, where the iPhone has taken a large chunk of Blackberry’s market.

To help keep your data secure, there are several features that you can use. Samsung’s own Knox allows you to keep work and personal apps apart. This means that if, by some chance, there is malware on your personal handset, it should be kept away from your work files.

In addition to that, there’s also the standard Android feature of device encryption, which means that if your phone gets stolen, the files on it will be unreadable by a third party. For those of us that have enormous amounts of personal data stored on our phones, that’s a reassuring move.
The fingerprint scanner on the Note 4 is dreadful

The fingerprint scanner on the Note 4 is dreadful – photo: Ian Morris

Sadly, the attempt at using biometrics for security, namely the fingerprint scanner, are as dismal now as they have been on every other Samsung device I’ve tested. The problem here is that the fingerprint reader on the iPhone is more sensitive, doesn’t need you to “swipe” across its surface to scan an image, and it works – for me at least – pretty much every time. Samsung’s scanner is so bad that on every device I’ve used, I’ve needed to disable it, because it’s just too frustrating. Some people have told me that you need to enroll your fingerprint sideways, so you can unlock the phone as you hold it, but for me that never worked.

If Samsung can’t get fingerprint scanning as accurately as Apple, then honestly I think it should just stop it all together.


As with the Note 3, 4K video recording is present and correct here. As with the previous model, it’s a nice thing to have but it eats a lot of space up if you use it for much more than short clips. Now though, the recorded video more closely matches the display resolution, which kind of makes sense if you’re showing people clips on the screen. While 4K isn’t essential on a phone, it is yet another thing that separates the Note 4 from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
The camera is excellent, and 4K video beats the iPhone hands down, although the Note lacks good slow-motion modes

The camera is excellent, and 4K video beats the iPhone hands down, although the Note lacks good slow-motion modes – photo: Ian Morris

The stills camera is improved too. I’ve grown to love the camera on the Note 3, it’s capable of some great quality results. The Note 4 improves things again by tweaking the resolution from 13- to 16-megapixels. The front-facing camera gets a boost too, with a new resolution of 3.7-megapixels, it’s still awful though and while I’m sure it’s fine for “selfies” it looks awful for anything actually photographic in nature. Still, its main purpose is for video calls, and for that it is fine.

Health and fitness

Samsung has now added a heart rate monitor, blood oxygen saturation monitor and even a way to see how much UV radiation there is outside. All of this is built into the newly revised S Health, and I have to admit I sort of like it.

As a hub, it works well. The pedometer now counts steps without any wearable like the Gear needed. This means that you get to see some rough numbers about how far you’ve walked, and how many calories you’ve burnt. You can add in foods, track your heart rate over time and generally keep an eye on your health.
Health tracking points to a whole new world for mobiles

Health tracking points to a whole new world for mobiles – photo: Ian Morris

While I don’t think these measurement tools are accurate enough to be much use to medical professionals, they do give you a comparative way to track your stats at home. The design is great too, and the whole thing feels like a nice piece of software.

I have some problems with the heart rate monitor though. These are much less severe than for the fingerprint scanner, but there are still times when it just refuses to measure properly. On the whole though, I still feel like it’s a good feature and these measurements are becoming more useful with each year as more and more of our lives are folded into our phones.

Data and voice

LTE on the Qualcomm version of the Note 4 can download at speeds as high as 300mbps where supported by your phone company. Along with 802.11ac wireless, this is a phone that should offer some impressive internet connectivity.

Samsung also employs some nice tricks, like smarter Wi-Fi switching to get the best possible connection and speeds to the internet. There’s also its download booster, which allows you to speed up transfers by using both 4G and Wi-Fi at the same time.

Happily though, there’s no problem with voice either. I have spoken with people on both standard and HD calls and both are crisp and clear. HD calling, where supported, is just amazing and I’m always thrilled to have conversations with people on the same network as me.


There isn’t really any doubt here, but the Note 4 is one of the best phones on the market.


This is an area that Samsung can claim to be the leader of. Many, many people laughed at the Note when it launched, and a lot of them – including some of my friends – were still laughing when I used my Note 3 to make calls – it still looks ridiculous. But Apple entering the market will shut a lot of those people up quite nicely. The larger phablets have become a real segment, and a lot of that – most of it – is thanks to Samsung’s Note.

The Note 4 improves significantly on the last generation, there are some great features here and the screen, in particular, is stunning. LTE users should find this phone to be blazing fast, if their service provider supports Cat 6 4G and I really like the call quality – where supported, HD calling is just amazing.

If I had to pick a phone right now, the Note 4 would be top of the list. That’s impressive, given that it is a great time for phones right now with the new Nexus 6 from Motorola and devices like the iPhone, Nokia Lumia 830, and the LG G3.

It is, however, worth noting that we’re only weeks away from Android 5.0 being launched, and Samsung has launched this device with KitKat. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that version of the OS, but with Android Lollipop so close, I wonder if it wouldn’t have made more sense to wait.

NOTE: As always with my reviews, there’s plenty left to explore beyond the first week. Is there something that the Note 4 does that you’re interested to know about? Put a comment below, and I’ll do my best to test and get an update on the page.

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