Review: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 is a fantastic choice for power users

Big screen and stylus both provide productivity boosts

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

(Peter Nowak)

It was only a few short years ago when the idea of a giant phone seemed like a freak show absurdity. With Apple leading the market, most people were used to smartphones with 4-inch screens and anything bigger seemed… wrong somehow.

Times have changed and Apple is no longer leading, at least in terms of what sizes consumers want. Even Apple is now selling iPhones at sizes that people used to laugh at.

The trend was really kickstarted in 2011 by Samsung’s Galaxy Note. Its 5.3-inch screen pushed the size limit and forced the birthing of the word “phablet,” the unfortunate description of something halfway between a phone and a tablet. It was a big success nevertheless, selling 10 million units in its first year. People evidently came to see the value of having more display space in the palm of their hand.

Several iterations later and we’ve arrived at the Galaxy Note 4, launching this fall—on Oct. 24 in Canada through Bell and likely other carriers.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the Note 4 is Samsung’s best phone yet. I’ve been using it for the past week and the large screen—now up to 5.7 inches—is far from an awkward hindrance. Quite the opposite; I’ve found it a welcome development that I’ll be hard pressed to back off from.

The screen itself is fantastic. It features Quad HD resolution, which has four times as many pixels as 720p high-definition and is the next step up from the 1080p full HD that we’re used to on most modern TVs and phone screens. As such, the Note 4 packs a pixel density of 515, one of the highest on the market. The iPhone 6 Plus, Apple’s own “phablet,” comes in at only 401, although the Note 4 is a shade short of the 534 found on the LG G3.

What this means in real terms is that everything looks amazing. I try not to gush in reviews, but I found that the brilliance of photos and videos actually made me want to use the Note 4 more. I can’t really say that about any other device.

The other bonus to the big size is that it finally makes typing on a touch screen a good experience. Forget the physical buttons that BlackBerry continues to push—having plenty of display real estate allows for keys to be spaced sufficiently apart so that even people with chubby fingers can type comfortably. Size looks to be the amazingly simple solution to the scourge of touch screens.

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The phone itself also feels good in the hand, with a metal frame giving it a more solid weight than many recent Samsung devices, many of which suffer from plastic-itis (that’s where something feels like a Fisher Price toy). I still feel a little goofy holding its girth up to my head for calls, but fortunately those are fewer and farther between these days.

Both cameras have received a slight bump up in megapixels, with the Note 4 having 16 on its back and 3.7 in the front, compared with 13 and 2 respectively on last year’s Note 3. Photos taken in good lighting, like the ones in this review, look good as a result – and great when viewed on the phone’s own stellar screen. Photos taken in dimmer light… well, it’s safe to say no phone has successfully cracked that particular barrier yet.

Doodle of Captain America, using the stylus on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The included stylus allows finer-grained control over the screen when you need it. (Peter Nowak)

The Note series’ other claim to fame is the included stylus, or S-Pen as Samsung calls it. Note owners have always been able to doodle with it, take notes and mark up photos and documents, but its functionality has been expanded with the Note 4. It now acts much like a mouse, where it can be used to flip between screens, scroll up and down and move things around on the screen.

In that way, Samsung has covered all the bases. The big display works for people with chunkier or clumsier fingers while the stylus adds a further element of pinpoint precision. Plus, it’s also great for anyone who wants to express their artistic side (see my Captain America drawing above).

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While the Note 4 is Samsung’s best device yet, there are some things it doesn’t get right. One of the potential trouble spots is the battery. There were a few days where it performed well, lasting out the full day—a surprise given how much juice the big screen demands. On other days, however, it sapped quickly. There was even one night where I didn’t plug the phone in, only to discover it completely drained in the morning.

That sort of performance fluctuation is probably the result of something I did, where I left a particularly power-greedy function running, but it’s also not something I’ve experienced with other devices. At the very least, it highlights the need for anyone considering the Note 4 to get to know its functions intimately. This is also a device that necessitates a backup battery or external charger, perhaps moreso than others.

The Note 4’s bigger letdown is with its S-Health applications. Just as with the Galaxy S5 phone earlier this year, the functions here just aren’t accurate. The step counter, for one, somehow tracked me taking 600 steps over the course of a (Canadian) Thanksgiving dinner this past weekend. I can assure everyone reading that my actual step count, after loading up on turkey, potatoes and everything else, was closer to the low double-digits.

Similarly, the new ultraviolet light monitor—which prompts you to point the phone directly at the sun—returned low-risk readings despite The Weather Network suggesting more moderate risks in the same locations. Perhaps The Weather Network is more cautious, but I’m more inclined to believe its results.

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The health-monitoring functions on the Note 4 seem extraneous and they inevitably beef up the cost of the device itself. Therein lies the biggest problem with the Note 4—it’s simply too expensive.

Selling in Canada for $299 on a two-year plan or $699 outright, it’s as premium as premium gets (only Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus costs more). The Note 4’s big screen and handy stylus are ideal for power workers and artists, but it’s unfortunately priced for only that first group and their corporate expense accounts. That’s too bad because the Note 4 is a great phone that should be more accessible.

Price aside, the Note 4 stands to make a big impact on the market. Just as the first Note ushered in the idea of the “phablet,” so too could this one—in an era where smartphone users are increasingly getting used to larger screens—make that terrible descriptor obsolete. When all phones are relatively big, there’s no real for the intermediate word anymore, is there? We can only hope.

Samsung supplied a loan unit for the purposes of this review.