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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Still an amazing phablet

Christopher Minasians Katharine Byrne
21 Apr 2017
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
600
inc VAT SIM-free

The Note 4 is still a fantastic phablet with a stunning screen, excellent design and long-lasting battery

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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: S Pen

The S Pen is one of the most distinctive features of Samsung's Note devices, setting them apart from other Android phablets. With the Note 4, the S Pen has remained largely the same as the Note 3's, but now has a new textured surface to help provide a little more grip. It's a nice touch, but we've always found its flat design very comfortable to hold regardless of whether we're sketching for long periods of time or writing quick notes. 

Samsung has also increased the S Pen's pressure sensitivity to 2,048 different levels, allowing for two new brush types to be added to the S Note app: calligraphy and fountain pen (although to our eyes the latter looks a lot like many of the other available brush effects).

You needn't worry about resting your hand on the screen either, as S Pen only mode creates its own kind of palm rejection. The only hand actions allowed are pinch-zooming and panning, making it easier to use the stylus like a normal pen. The S Pen's digitiser also allows the screen to sense where the pen is up to roughly 12mm away, but little practical use for this here, other than letting you see the names of various S Note and Scrapbook options, but browsing the web using the stylus means you can activate roll-over effects like animated buttons and dropdown menus.

Like the Note 3, the S Pen slots into the bottom of the phone when it's not in use and removing it will automatically launch a small command wheel. The range of options has shrunk since the Note 3, but one of our favourite new additions was Smart Select, which lets you grab any area of the screen as an image or extract the text to share with friends or add to your Scrapbook.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 S Pen hover

^ The screen will sense the S Pen up to roughly 12mm away

It's a similar idea to what you can do with Microsoft's One Note on the Surface Pro 3; the only problem is that once you've started using Smart Select, it will remain onscreen as a floating shortcut with no easy way to get rid of it unless you delete all your cut-outs, which will be deleted forever if you don't manually save them to your Scrapbook.

If S Note doesn't quite meet your sketching requirements, the Note 4 also comes with Autodesk's excellent Sketchbook for Galaxy app. This has dozens more brushes, texture effects, tools and image layers available, making it a great companion for both professional and amateur digital artists like. It also has the same S Pen only mode as S Note, so you can really get into your drawings without accidentally destroying them with your hand. You'll need to search for it within Samsung's app store, though, as it's not pre-installed on the device.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Multi-Window and One-handed mode

The S Pen isn't the only thing that makes the Note 4 special, though, as Samsung's Multi Window feature is better than ever. This lets you use two apps simultaneously and takes full advantage of the Note 4's huge resolution, letting you send a text while looking at Google Maps, for example, or watch a video while browsing the web. Only certain apps support this feature, but it's a great for multitasking and the extra resolution gives you plenty of space to work with, particularly when you can adjust the size of each app to your liking on the fly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 S Pen

Samsung's also taken inspiration from Apple's Reachability feature on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus to make the Note 4 easier to use one-handed. By quickly swiping your thumb from the side of the screen to the middle and back again, the whole screen snaps to either side of the display. This brings everything within comfortable reaching distance and it worked very reliably when we tried it out for ourselves. You can adjust the size of the window to your liking, too, giving you an effective screen size ranging from 4.2in to 5.5in. It takes an obvious motion to activate, so it's pretty tricky to trigger accidentally.

Admittedly, the large expanses of black around the Note 4's one-handed window don't look quite as elegant as Apple's Reachability, which just shifts everything down to the bottom of the screen with a translucent glass effect revealing the background wallpaper behind the app, but Samsung's version makes it easier to reach the opposite side of the screen too. It's also more suited to a larger range of apps, as you still see the full screen instead of just a small portion of it, giving you more space on the keyboard for typing messages and scrolling down web pages.  

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 one handed mode

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Performance and battery life

The Note 4 is the first phone we've seen to be powered by Qualcomm's latest quad-core Snapdragon 805 chip. Running at a huge 2.7GHz and paired with 3GB of RAM, Samsung's TouchWiz interface felt beautifully smooth as we flicked through the phone's home screens and its web browsing performance set a new record in our SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks. Previously, Samsung's Galaxy S5 was our fastest smartphone, scoring 391ms, but the Note 4 was even quicker, finishing the test in just 349ms when we used Samsung's default browser. Admittedly, it's a small improvement that you're unlikely to notice in everyday use, but scrolling through web pages still felt very slick and it was able to load images on The Guardian's desktop home page almost instantaneously as we panned around.

There was a noticeable difference when we re-ran the test in Chrome, though, as the Note 4 scored just 1,036ms. This is slower than both the S5 and the Note 3, and The Guardian's images were noticeably slower to load when we were paning around up close. It's a small complaint overall, but you may want to stick with Samsung's default browser if you want the best performance.

The Note 4's Adreno 420 GPU breezed past its Samsung brethren in our graphics benchmarks, showing it's more than capable of powering the phone's massive resolution at the highest quality settings. For instance, it maxed out both our 3DMark Ice Storm and Ice Storm Extreme tests and scored a huge 19,328 (or 77.1fps) in Ice Storm Unlimited. Likewise, its score of 49.9fps in Epic Citadel on Ultra High-quality settings puts the LG G3's score of 28.9fps to shame.

The GPU can also be put to use powering Samsung's Gear VR virtual reality headset. We're still waiting for a UK launch, and you'll have to spend upwards of £170 on top of the phone itself in order to bag one, but based on the short amount of time we've spent with the Gear VR at pre-launch events it's a brilliant use of all that graphics power.

That power doesn't come at the expense of battery life either, as the Note 4's massive 3,220mAh battery lasted a huge 18 hours and 55 minutes in our continuous video playback test with the screen set to half brightness. This is a huge improvement on both the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 6 Plus, and it even surpasses the Sony Xperia Z3, making it the longest-lasting big screen phone we've ever seen. Samsung's included two power saving modes as well, so enabling these will help stretch the battery even further. Continues on Page 3


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