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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review: The Best Big-Screen Phone?

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech

When it comes to supersized smartphones, Samsung’s Galaxy Note reigns supreme. Since it launched its first Note in 2011, Samsung’s massive handsets have been the best big-screen phones on the market.

Which brings us to the Galaxy Note 4. Available for $299 with a two-year contract through each of the four major U.S. carriers, the Note 4 is an improvement over its predecessors in every conceivable way. Its camera is sharper, its battery lasts longer, and its S Pen stylus offers a better writing experience. It also includes a new multitasking feature that lets you open multiple apps in individual windows at once. But the Note isn’t the only game in town anymore.

Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus is here. It’s also huge and gorgeous, and people are buying a lot of them. There are also impressive Gigantor phones from Nokia and LG. So is the Note still the king of the king-size phones?

Form and function
The Galaxy Note 4 is massive. Measuring 6.0 × 3.1 × 0.33 inches, the Note 4 would look large even in Shaq’s hand. The Note owes its large dimensions to its enormous 5.7-inch display.

Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

But today, in the big-screen phone category, that’s not all that big. In fact, Apple’s 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus stands a bit taller than the Note 4, at 6.2 inches. Yet the iPhone 6 Plus is thinner than the Note 4, just 0.28 inches thick. LG’s G3, which packs a 5.5-inch screen, measures at 5.8 inches tall and 0.35 inches thick.

Samsung has long been criticized for the relatively low-rent look of its smartphones. Compared with Apple’s iPhone and the HTC’s One M7 and M8, which offer aluminum chassis, Samsung’s plastic phones looked downright cheap.

The Note 4 fixes this. Unlike its predecessors, the Note 4 uses an aluminum frame that wraps around the handset. It’s a high-class look, and it makes the device sturdier. Like the previous Note 3, the Note 4 also gets a removable faux leather rear panel.

Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

Still, big is big, and as such, the Note 4 is nearly impossible to use comfortably with one hand. Samsung included a special one-handed onscreen tool that gives you a movable Back, Home, and Recent Apps bar. But that doesn’t help with the overall size of the phone, which is just difficult to hold with one hand.

Oh, and if you’re a skinny-jeans-wearing hipster, don’t even think of putting the Note 4 in your pocket.

The best display around
The Note 4’s 5.7-inch screen isn’t just one of the biggest on the market; it’s also one of the most gorgeous. That’s largely thanks to the fact that Samsung uses a screen technology known as Super AMOLED, or active matrix organic light-emitting diodes, which produces incredibly vibrant colors and endlessly deep blacks.

Next to the iPhone 6 Plus, colors on the Note 4 look bold and lively. That said, the Note 4’s screen, as with most Samsung phones, exaggerates blues and greens. As a result, the iPhone 6 Plus’ display provides you with more realistic colors.

iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4 smartphones

One of the big things Samsung is pushing with the Note 4’s screen is its 2560 × 1440 QHD resolution. The iPhone 6 Plus’ Retina HD display offers a resolution of 1920 × 1080. That means the Galaxy Note 4’s display should be sharper than the iPhone 6 Plus’. But in reality, the pixel densities of both screens are so high that your eyes can’t perceive any difference between the two. We’ve reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to adding pixels to smartphone screens.

Here’s the other thing about QHD screens: There are no apps, videos, or websites that take advantage of them. They all top out at 1080p.

Still, the Note 4’s display is undeniably gorgeous, and even though its colors aren’t as spot-on as the iPhone 6 Plus’, I find the Note 4’s screen more appealing.

Multitasking like a boss
Samsung’s smartphones have offered multitasking capabilities for a while, with the company’s Multi Window mode, which lets you open two apps onscreen at once. But with the Note 4, Samsung is going for broke. Not only do you get Multi Window mode, but you also get something called Pop-up View.

Pop-up view on a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

Using the real estate afforded by the Note 4’s large display, Pop-up View lets you open multiple apps in individual windows onscreen at once. To use Pop-up View, you simply have to drag your finger from just above the top left corner of the screen to the middle of the screen.

Pop-up View on a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

Your supported app will then shrink down to a window that you can resize and move anywhere you want; you can even minimize it to a movable app icon. The thing is, not all apps support Pop-up View. Even Samsung’s own S Health and Milk streaming music app don’t offer Pop-up View, which limits its usefulness.

S Pen stylus
As with previous generations of the Note, the Note 4 comes with Samsung’s S Pen stylus. It nests along the phone’s bottom edge. When you pop it out, the phone automatically opens the Note 4’s Air Command control panel.

Air Command control panel on a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

From here you can use the stylus to take handwritten Action Memos, Post-it style notes that you can pin to the Note 4’s home screen. You can also outline images and edit them using Image Clip, select and copy text from photos, and take a screenshot and take notes on it.

Perhaps the best thing about S Pen is how well the Note 4 is able to read what you write. For example, I was able to write an appointment into the Calendar app, and the phone not only recognized what I had written but also managed to put it into context: The time I wrote down was set as the start time for the meeting, the location was saved as the location, and the topic was saved as the description. When I tapped the location, the Note 4 opened it in Google Maps.

Note on a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

Unfortunately, you have to follow a specific template to get these results, and doing so will undoubtedly take longer than simply entering your meeting using the phone’s onscreen keyboard, but it’s still a nice option to have.

Interface and apps
The Galaxy Note 4 runs on the latest version of Google’s Android KitKat operating system and features Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. To be honest, I’d prefer it if Samsung just left Android alone, rather than putting its software on top of it.

Galaxy Note 4 smartphone screenshot

That’s because TouchWiz can be a bit confusing. It’s not nearly as elegant as standard Android, and it offers far too many settings. If you’re a power user, you’ll either appreciate it or simply install a different Android interface, or skin, on top of it.

Samsung also loads the Note 4 with a variety of out-of-the-box apps, including Facebook, Flipboard, Instagram, the Lookout security app, and Uber. Unfortunately, AT&T also throws in a bunch of bloatware apps like AT&T Mail, AT&T Navigator, DriveMode, and a host of others.

Galaxy Note 4 smartphone apps

The worst offender of the lot is AT&T Navigator, which charges you $9.99 a month — after a 30-day trial — for features that are available free with Google Maps.

S Health
Samsung’s S Health app suite makes its return with the Note 4, and it’s brought some new features with it. In addition to being able to check your heart rate, thanks to the heart-rate monitor on the Note 4’s back, and count your steps, S Health can now measure your blood-oxygen levels, stress levels, and UV light levels.

S Health app on a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

To check your heart rate, blood-oxygen level, or stress level, you simply have to place your finger over the heart-rate monitor and start the appropriate test. If you move too much, though, or don’t have your finger placed just right on the sensor, the test will fail, which seemed to happen way more often than not. I also noticed that my readings tended to be all over the place, which made me question the accuracy of these tests.

Stress measurement on a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone

Measuring UV levels was easier, as I only had to start the test and point the back of the Note 4 toward the sun. To be perfectly honest, though, I can’t imagine many people relying on their smartphone to check their blood-oxygen or stress levels.

Camera
The Galaxy Note 4’s 16-megapixel camera is easily one of the best you’ll find on a smartphone today. Images captured with the Note 4 were consistently sharp. What’s more, the camera’s auto HDR, high dynamic range, ensures that your photos look their best in nearly any lighting situation.

But the camera’s standout feature is its optical image stabilization (OIS). The feature, which physically adjusts the camera’s lens to compensate for hand shake, allows you to not only take clearer photos in low-light situations, but it also makes digital worthwhile for once.

Comparison of photos taken on iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4 smartphones

Generally, when you try to zoom in on a subject using your smartphone camera, the image comes out blurred or grainy. With most smartphones, the blurring effect is so bad that digital zoom just isn’t worth the hassle. But with OIS, zoomed images look nearly as clear as those shot with no zoom. Pictures shot while zoomed in with the Note 4 tended to look sharper than those taken with the iPhone 6 Plus.

OIS also helps when shooting video with the Note 4 by reducing the amount of shaking and bouncing that occurs while walking with the camera. The iPhone 6 Plus also sports OIS, but when I shot videos using both phones at the same time, the Note 4 seemed to minimize image bounce better than the 6 Plus. Video taken with Samsung’s phone looked far smoother.

Still, like Samsung’s Galaxy S5, the Note 4’s camera tends to exaggerate blues, causing colors to look less realistic than those taken with the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone also captures low-light images better than the Note 4, something that’s always been a problem for Samsung’s phones.

Battery life
Samsung’s Note series is known for its long-lasting batteries, and the Note 4 is no different. The Note’s 3,220-mAh battery lasted longer than a day even with moderate use, so you can leave your charger at home without having to worry about your Note 4 calling it quits on you halfway through the workday.

Power Saving Mode on the Galaxy Note 4

Usually, charging such a large battery would take quite a while. But Samsung has included a fast charging adapter that fills the Note 4’s battery up to 50 percent in just 30 minutes. Topping off the handset takes just 90 minutes. That’s seriously fast.

Motorola’s second-generation Moto X also features fast charging capabilities, but to take advantage of them, you have to purchase a dedicated charger.

Is the Note for you?
The Note 4 is an incredible smartphone and easily one of the best Android phones in the world. Its gorgeous display, handsome design, and impressive multitasking features put it head and shoulders above its predecessor. In fact, with its long-lasting battery and excellent OIS, the Note 4 is an excellent competitor to Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus.

If you’re looking for a big-screen smartphone that will last you all day and packs wonderful multitasking tools, the Note 4 is well worth your cash.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+ here.