28 September 2014

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 - first impressions

Back in 2011, Samsung decided that bigger was better and launched the Samsung Galaxy Note range which came with a 5.3-inch screen. At the time, this screen was a massive talking point: many thought it was too large to be a phone, others thought it was too compact to be a tablet.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Skip three years and that 5.3-inch screen no longer looks out of place in the phone market. Given that the Samsung Galaxy S5 comes with a 5.1-inch screen, it's clear to see the line between what was once classed as a phablet and what is now expected as a phone has well and truly blurred.

While this hasn't stopped Samsung pushing out the size boat - the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 came equipped with a 5.7-inch screen - it seems Samsung has finally put on hold the size creep.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 comes with the same-sized 5.7-inch screen as the Note 3, with Samsung instead deciding to improve on the quality of the screen rather than its size.

You can now pre-order the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 from Samsung Experience Stores, with other retailers taking pre-orders from 26 September, before its release on Friday 10 October.

Screen quality

The screen now boasts Quad HD Super AMOLED (2,560 x 1,440 resolution) technology that stretches to 500 pixels per inch. Couple this with what Samsung is calling an adaptive display - one that changes depending on the light of the place you are viewing the screen - and on paper you have the optimum viewing no matter what situation you are in.

To test the quality of the screen I watched a video that was shot in UHD on the device and it was stunning.

Colours were vivid and detail popped out with the clarity you would expect from a 500ppi screen. Even zooming in there were no jagged edges and playback was smooth - no judder from the demo I viewed.

But the screen isn't the first thing that hits you when you get the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in your hands, it's the build quality.


Samsung has definitely listened about its latest line-up feeling plastic-y in the hand and has decided to give the Note 4 more of a premium finish, with a metal rim surrounding the handset, shielding the rest of the chassis like a velvet rope protecting celebs from real people in a club.

I loved the way the Note 4 felt in the hand and being a regular user of the Note 3, it definitely felt different enough and it's light too, just a touch over the weight of the Note 3 at 176g.

It's obvious but the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 does come equipped with some of the features that we saw on the S5.

The most notable is the heartrate monitor on the back (which also has a neat camera functionality I will explain shortly) and the back has been improved somewhat too, but is still a little too faux leather for my liking.

There is a lot of similarity between the Note 3 and its successor. Size difference between the two chassis is definitely negligible - the Note 4 comes it at 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm, compared to the Note 3's 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3mm size.

It's clear Samsung hasn't re-invented the Note range but refined it with clever software updates and slight tweaks here and there.

S Pen

One of the most impressive is to do with the S Pen. It surprised me that the stylus (sorry Samsung, I know you hate that word) made a comeback with the Note range but four devices in and the S Pen finally makes a lot more sense.

For a start there are two new pen options: fountain and caligraphy. Of these, fountain is the most interesting as it shows off how far the S Pen has come in terms of usability. Until now, using the S Pen has felt a lot like gliding a piece of plastic over a glass screen.

The "feel" of writing on paper just hasn't been there. With the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 this has changed.

The fountain pen works best when you sweep the S Pen across the screen as you would ink on paper and because of extra sensitivity (which has doubled) it is now a joy to write on the Note 4's screen. Signatures look like signatures and your handwriting actually really looks like your true handwriting.

I'm left handed and the S Pen was still a joy to use. Considering I have never been able to use a fountain pen in real life, because of smudging, it was great fun.

And the innovations don't end there. Now you can use the S Pen much like you would use a mouse. Click the button on the side of the S Pen and you are in Smart Select mode, where you can highlight whole passages of text from a website, or even clip out sections of a site and put it into your own clippings archive.

Instead of being an added extra, the S Pen finally feels like a necessary part of the Note 4, rather than a "this is fun but I have no use for it" accessory.

Snap mode has also been improved on the Note 4. While you used to just be able to snap two separate services to the top and the bottom of the screen, you can now "resize" an app much like you would a widget.

So, if you are using the camera and want to send an image via text but stay in camera mode, a quick diagonal down swipe from the top right of the screen will shrink the camera function and show the rest of the phone screen for you. It's a nice feature that could replace using the left multi-tab hot key for many.

You can also make use of the new 'floating UI' which offers Facebook Chat Heads style pop ups on the screen for certain apps.


One other big improvement is with the camera. When it comes to megapixels it's gone from 13MP to 16MP but the innovations don't lie in the meaningless megapixel chase but also in the front camera's f stop (megapixel wise this is 3.7MP), which now clocks in at f1.9. In old money that means that the camera now lets in 60% more light and makes for better quality images.

This also comes with the added bonus of optical image stabilisation.

You can also use the camera in unison with the S Pen. A new feature called Snap Note allows you to take a picture of a piece of paper (or whiteboard) and change what's in the picture.

Although I didn't try this out myself, the demo I was shown consisted of a piece of paper with a number of images and text on it.

A picture was taken of this, put through Snap Note and then the colour and size of the images could be changed, text could be deleted and the size of objects could be increased. It's a niche new feature but one that could come in useful in a creative environment.

The way you can take pictures has changed too. With the whole world going selfie mad, it was inevitable that Samsung (and plenty more manufacturers) would want to cash in on this. It has done it twofold with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

First there is a selfie panorama mode. Much like the panorama mode seen on the Note 3, where a picture is stitched from images taken from a pan of a scene, the same thing happens in this mode - except it is in portrait and uses the front-facing camera.

Samsung is quoting 120 degrees spatial awareness and after having a go with it I am not going to argue about such a figure.

Samsung has also recognised that if you want to take a selfie, then it is a little difficult to get your thumb around to the front of the device to take the picture. So it has utilised its heartrate monitor functionality as a back trigger button.

One tap on this and your selfie is preserved. It's not a feature I will be using much but given the sudden popularity of taking pictures of your own face in different places it will be a feature that is used a lot.

Performance and battery

Samsung's improved the Note 4's mic performance too. Voice recording is something that won't be used for all but the Note is a device built for business and this feature will be welcomed.

There are now three mics on the handset (two at the bottom and one on the top), these are used well when recording voices.

In a crowded room you can zoom into one voice and cut the rest out. This journalist is already salivating at the prospect of interviewing someone and playing back the interview without hearing his own voice. It's a clever feature but one that may be overlooked by many.

As for the speed of the device, it was fast. I managed to zip between apps and internet with no lag at all and it didn't break a sweat when loading up a movie. But that's exactly what you'd expect with a 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM under the hood.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is a premium-looking device that will be familiar to anyone who has used a Note. Don't expect huge changes here - you still get a ribbed plastic back, although it's more in keeping with the S5's style.

That was the phone that propelled Samsung into the AAA league of smartphone manufacturers and the Note 4 on first hands on feels like it will be a worthy addition to the Note range.

When it comes to the all-important battery, Samsung has given the Note 4 the same battery as the Note 3 (3200mAh) but it has improved charging times. You can now charge 50% of the battery in just 30 minutes and it has the same ultra-power saving technology that was built into the S5.

Early verdict

It is big and it is clever: the Galaxy Note 4 looks to be Samsung's best Note yet, toning down the gimmick and adding real innovation to what is becoming one of the best phone ranges around.

The biggest relief is that the software changes are innovations rather than annoying bloatware. Samsung does have a habit of adding gimmickry to its handsets but the big changes here are actually beneficial to how you use the Note.

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