Let’s rewind things shall we. Just a few short years ago, Samsung was a big name in the smart phone scene. Their Galaxy S and Note lineup unanimously helped pave the way for modern android smartphones and our expectations of them (regardless of good or bad). They have been the vanguard when it comes to pushing on the best displays with processors that were second to none, while pioneering other key features as well, like multi-tasking. It’s easy for me to say that regardless of your stance on the company as a whole, one has to admit that their influence on the market has been nothing short of massive.
Fast forward to 2015, and latest reports show that Samsung isn’t exactly sailing in clear waters. They have been forced to dial down their offerings (which I see as a good thing) and at the same time, try and meet the expectations of their brand name. Their main rival at the moment as well isn’t even Apple. No, rather it’s the companies that are fast rising that are offering very competitively performing devices to Samsung’s top end, but at a fraction of the cost. You can blame companies like Xiaomi, Asus, OnePlus and even Oppo for this, with plenty more Chinese manufacturers lining up behind, just waiting to eat a little bit of that Samsung market share pie as well.
The thing is though, that while their competitors have sought to make similarly well-built and performing phones at a fraction of the price, instead of competing on the same level, Samsung has opted to refine their line-up instead, and keep their pricing the same as ever.
This is where it gets interesting for me. As a mobile phone user, you have to ask yourself this: In this day and age, is there’s any point in paying 690 USD (RM 2400), which is no small sum, to get Samsung’s latest and greatest, or are you just better off getting a lesser known but emerging brand, that gives you almost the same things, for less than half the cost?
Anyone who’s ever owned a Samsung device before will find nothing unfamiliar here from the packaging. It comes in a small rectangular box, not much wider or higher than the actual phone inside it. The box itself is pale tan in colour with a slightly darker 4 logo on top of it, with smaller branding text above that.
Even though nothing much has changed in the way that Samsung has been packaging devices through these years, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it. The smaller form factor means it takes up less space and material, and of course its contents fit more snugly in the box as well, with little ratting around when shaken. While it’s also not the most minimalist designed box out there, it certainly isn’t busy either. There’s also something I quite like about the inner box being a darker shade of blue that gives the box a nice dual tone look.
Cutting the seals and lifting up the top lid, inside you get:
USB Wall charger that is rated at 5v, 2A or 9v, 1.67A
Samsung White In-Ear Monitor earphones with in line volume and call control
Replacement White In-Ear buds for different ear sizes
S-Pen replacement nibs and removal tool
The USB cable isn’t the most stylish looking cable; in fact I’d best describe it as above average, but regardless, its build quality is top notch, and hooking it into the phone and into the wall charger had a very solid tactile feel to it, one of the best that I’ve ever handled.
Speaking of wall charger, the same could be said for the wall charger. In the case of the UK head charger that I have with this unit, the Earth prong is made out of plastic, and collapsible back into the main body itself, making for a much easier and compact form factor. Moving on to that though, while it’s not really the smallest wall charger that I’ve seen and handled, it’s not ugly or bulky either, and besides, the USB port is really nice and solid. For that I am pleased with it. Another key difference here is that it’s also got a second rating, 9v at 1.67A. This is for the adaptive quick charging which is Samsung’s take at fast charging that we will get to in the later part of the review.
The provided in ear monitors aren’t actually too bad in terms of sound quality, though I feel that they did benefit a lot from an amp put in between. Bass was low, tight and punchy and highs were nice and clear. I do feel that the sound separation was average though, as for the most part, it felt a bit one directional, and everything sounded jumbled when things got busy. Pressing the volume buttons does just as the name says, increases and decreases the volume, while pressing the call button once starts the music player and plays your last track, while long pressing it jumps you to your choice of Google Now or S-Voice. I do however wish that they had an option to skip tracks right on the earphones itself, rather than having to fish the phone back out to do so. For those with non “standard” sizes ears, Samsung provides replacement larger or smaller silicon buds too.
Just like the previous generations of the note series, I also like how they provided the tool to replace the nibs on the S-Pen, just in case they get flattened out over the months of usage. It’s also nice to see that they gave not just one extra nib, but 5. Kudos to you Samsung.
Let’s dive into the phablet in question.
OS: Android 4.4.4 Kitkat
Processor: Exynos 5433/7410 64-bit Octa Core Processor w/ 4 Cortex A57 Cores @ 1.9GHz and 4 Cortex A53 Cores @ 1.3 GHz in big.LITTLE with GTS configuration
GPU: ARM Mali T760 MP6 (Hexa Core) @ 700MHz
Internal Memory: 32GB Expandable via MicroSD
Camera: 16MP f/2.2 Sony Exmor RS IMX240 Rear Camera w/ OIS & LED Flash, 3.7MP f/1.9 Front Camera
It’s hard not to notice the stunning display at the front of the device. Samsung is not the first to stick a 1440p display onto a smartphone, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less impressive. The Super AMOLED display just jumps out right at you with its brilliant colours and saturation, and not only that, because it’s an AMOLED display, the contrast levels are amazing as well. I didn’t have any issue with outdoor visibility and legibility as well, as even when sunlight got harsh, the phone’s adaptive sensors kicked in, and the screen’s contrast levels get kicked up significantly to improve readability.
Now, I understand as well that there were a lot of concerns in regards to #gapgate, or the gap in the screen in between the display and the edges of the phone. There are even claims online that you can squeeze a whole business card in between the displays. I’m not sure whether this issue was an isolated issue or not, or something that affects the non Exynos models, but my model in particular, the N910C, didn’t have any of these issues. Forget about business cards, I couldn’t even fit a thin slice of A4 paper in between the gap surrounding the display.
The screen takes up most of the front of the phone, but shifting the focus down below it, you’ll find the home button that is present in almost every other Samsung device on the market. I’m pleased to say that an issue that irked me a lot in the Note 3, in which the home button could be shifted and moved around, and even tilted, isn’t present in the Note 4. Just like the Galaxy S5 however, the home button on the Note 4 also hides the fingerprint scanner, though just like the S5, it only works if you swipe your registered finger down the home button. While this isn’t really a problem per se, it’s not really as elegant as holding your finger on a spot of course. I also found that unlocking the phone using fingerprints took quite a while, and just wasn’t as fast or as swift as using other methods, so I don’t really see myself using it. Because of this, I’m divided on my opinion of it. Holding the home button down brings up ‘Google Now’ and pressing on it twice launches S-Voice.
As android phones move forward as well, more of them lose the ‘Options’ key, in favour of a ‘Recent Apps’ key. This buttons makes it easier to switch between active applications, but in case you still miss the ‘Options’ key, long holding brings up the options menu; not the most elegant of solutions, but one none the less. Aside from that, flanking the right of the home button is the ‘Back’ key that hasn’t changed. Of course, both the keys are backlit, though they seem to take the pattern from the glass itself, and have a striped look to them. I don’t mind this as it gives the buttons an interesting look.
Finally, shifting focus this time to the top of the display, starting from the far left, you’ll find the Notification light, the earpiece down centre, two round slots for the sensors of the phone, and to the far right, the front facing wide angle 3.7MP camera that has an impressive aperture size of f/1.9.
The rear cover of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 was a big new step in a good direction for the company, away from all the glossy finishes that are fingerprint and grease magnets, which felt disgusting the longer you used it until you wiped it down. The Note 4 has further refined this, with the rear cover of the Galaxy Note 4 feeling and looking absolutely beautiful. The unit that I have in particular just looks classy and refined with the ‘Charcoal Black’ finish, and though I am perfectly aware that it isn’t real leather, it has never once bothered me, as I honestly feel that real leather wouldn’t work very well with the amount of heat a modern smartphone dissipates.
Coupled with the all new metal frame that has a two tone look to it; a darker tone with a matte finish on top of what looks and feels like it was sandblasted with fine grains of sand, with a metallic chrome finish on the chamfered edges that is precisely machined that both come together to give the phone a very stunning look, something I’m not used to seeing in a Samsung device admittedly. This new frame of theirs also gives the phone a very sturdy and strong new foundation that is very resistant to flex and bends while at the same time lending a very premium look that just feels really solid in the hands.
As you can tell I’m in love with the body of the phone, but enough about that, let’s talk about the other things you’ll find at the rear. Extruding off the body of the phone is the 16MP Sony made Exmor RS IMX240 camera sensor at f/2.0 that has Optical Image Stabilisation built in at as well, and below that, the LED flash and the heartrate sensor. As usual, you’ll find the Samsung branding in a metallic chrome finish, and down the very bottom of the rear, a 4G logo and the speaker grill that has a notch on it to prevent it from being muffled from lying flat.
While the Note 3 went for the bottom facing speaker grills, the Note 4 went back to the rear facing speaker. I don’t find this an issue in particular as I do find that the Note 4’s speaker to be multitudes better than the Note 3 anyway, but we’ll get to that in the later sections.
Of course, the rear cover is removable as per Samsung norm, via a small notch on the top left of the phone, where it peels off easily but securely to reveal the insides. After removing the rear cover, you gain access to the MicroSD slot, the MicroSIM slot and the battery. Take note (pun unintended) as when replacing the phone’s battery that the battery itself contains the NFC chip, so make sure that replacement batteries carry the NFC chip as well.
Finally, as per note usual, you’ll find the notch for the S-Pen to be pulled out at the bottom left of the rear. The pen itself is firmly in place, though pulling it out isn’t difficult as it gives a little resistance at first, but after a while just slides out of the phone. In terms of physicality, the pen itself isn’t that much different from the pen on the Note 3. The only changes seem to the be ringed texture of the pen itself, that makes it feel nicer in the hand, and the length of the pen itself, being slightly longer than the one found on the Note 3, making for a much more comfortable hold.
The metal sides of the phone are designed in such a way that it angularly sinks into the phone giving it an interesting look. On the right is where you’ll find the power button that is similarly made out of metal with chrome chamfered edges. The button itself has quite a slim profile, but protrudes a fair bit from the body, making it easy to locate, and doesn’t wobble around with a very nice tactile click. I like.
The same said about the right could be applied to the left, except of course this time it’s the volume button. Instead of a straight flat piece of aluminium, the volume rocker has the ends protruding a lot more than the middle, making the top and bottom buttons easy to find and also gives the button a more refined look. Just like the power button, feedback is wonderful when pressed.
Switching up to the top, you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack, a pinhole with a microphone and the Infrared sensor. Plugging in a 3.5mm jack gave very little resistance, and while I’ve had headphone jacks that were a lot more solid, I think is good enough. What was more of importance however was any wobbling of the jack when hooked in, and when I tried to shift the jack around, there wasn’t any wobble whatsoever, with the plug refusing to give way in any direction. Lovely.
Finally, shifting to the bottom, the micro USB port that Samsung has decided to roll back from a Micro USB 3.0 to a Micro USB 2.0 and two pinholes for two microphones flanking each side. Just like the headphone jack, the USB port has a nice discernible click to it when plugged in, and while my cable was able to wobble around a little when plugged in (something I attribute more to cable), the port didn’t give any leeway whatsoever.
Let’s talk summary of the outer body of the phone then. As you may have gathered from the above, I am nothing short of impressed by the Note 4. I say this as someone who has owned many Samsung phones in the past, and just like many others, it has always bugged me a little how they always went with a full plastic build, and not only that, their choice in really glossy, smooth, fingerprint bait bodies for the phone. Not only that, a lot of the phones had build quality issues and flaws with them that just left a very sour after taste, especially since you know that you’re putting so much money down onto the phone (my disappointment when my note 3 home button wobbled around and the edges of the phone looked… cheap). This is not the case with the Note 4.
Perhaps it’s fairer to say that it started with the Galaxy Alpha, but regardless, this new direction that Samsung is taking with their devices has been long overdue. I feel that for once in the timeline of Samsung devices do I really feel that I am really getting what I paid for, especially when I picked up and held the phone for the first time. The new metal body and magnesium bracket just feels so solid and premium, I’m digging the new design as it gives the phones a much more classy look as opposed to their predecessors, and everything is built so well in the Note 4 that I’m really hard pressed to find flaws with the phone, and trust me, I am trying.
In short, I think the phone is an absolute stunner in looks, and is rock solid in terms of build quality and design, but of course that’s just half the story. Samsung’s TouchWiz has always come into fire as an over-packed, over-bloated variation of android, and I have felt very similarly about this. Let’s dive in deeper to see if beauty… is only skin deep.
Hands on and Benchmarks
Starting up the phone has the Note 4 logo and branding with the all too common by now “Powered by Android” below. The phone then displayed a very minimal but colourful Samsung logo with a soft chime, before it quickly snapped to the lockscreen, taking only 17 seconds to fully start up. Impressive.
The Note 4 does away with the ripple effects when swiping on the screen to unlock for a popping colours effect, a change that I welcome as I wasn’t really a fan of the previous unlock. Swiping anywhere on the display will unlock the phone, while swiping on the camera icon will, surprise surprise, unlock the camera. Should you choose, you could even set up the finger print unlock, where you would have to swipe downwards your registered finger (preferably your thumb) on the home button to unlock the phone. In practice, I found that while it worked quite well, without any noticeable problems in unlocking the device, it’s still not as elegant a solution as say placing your finger there and having the device unlock itself, like how most other fingerprint scanners do it.
Of course this is not much of a surprise, but with music playing on the background, the lockscreen background changes to the album art of the track in question, and the track title and album as well as music controls as well as scrubbing bar appears.
The Note 4 runs on Samsung’s infamous TouchWiz layer. Needless to say, you either hate or love TouchWiz, though I have yet to find anyone who has actually professed love for it. Put up with it maybe, but not love. With that and objectivity in mind, I am glad to say that compared to where TouchWiz was years ago, or even with the Note 3, TouchWiz on the Note 4 has undergone some pretty major changes and transformations, the most important of which is that it’s gotten much lighter with less bloatware and more useful features, a wonderful thing seeing as how that has always been the bane of TouchWiz’s existence. With that out of the way, it’ll then be noted that the TouchWiz layer sits on top of Android 4.4.4 with and Android 5.0 update slated to be released not too long from now.
The default launcher is TouchWiz launcher, and nothing has really changed here over the previous iterations. Swiping to the left on the home screen brings up Flipboard, where you get a feed of latest news and articles, while swiping to the right just shows additional home screens. Long pressing on an empty spot on the home screen gives you an overview of all the screens to quickly arrange and manage your icons and widgets, with additional options to set the main page, change the wallpaper, add more widgets and change the home screen settings where you can switch out the screen transitioning effects and opt to remove Flipboard from the home screen altogether.
Long holding on an icon then allows you to remove the icon, create a folder as part of it, or send it to one of the other home screens. The one thing however that did disappoint me was the inability to drag icons onto one another to create a folder, as doing so just swaps their positions. You would have to drag it to the top of the screen on to the create folder area instead.
Moving into the App Drawer, long holding on any of the icons allows you to position them onto the home screen, or the option to create a folder with it (creates a folder on the home screen and not the App Drawer), access the app info, uninstall it or cancel the interaction. Tapping on the options key on the top right corner is where you’ll find the additional options to Edit the App Drawer along with other commands below them like creating and removing folders and sorting, though these commands are rendered quite redundant by the first button, which is edit that already does allow you to create and remove folders. Aside from that, there’s nothing really spectacular to say about the App Drawer and the launcher, as you do not get extra options to change the grid, layout and size of icons, but as much is expected of a stock launcher.
I’m pleased to say that within the app drawer itself, by default it takes up two pages in a 5×5 grid, to which the majority of things are taken up by the standard required applications and Google applications. The rest are mostly Note and Galaxy Specific applications like S Note, Scrapbook, Galaxy Apps, Smart Remote, S Health, S Voice, Pen Up and Samsung Galaxy Life. The remaining apps then that I consider to be third party and perhaps unnecessary for a fresh phone are Flipboard, Dropbox, Evernote WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Pages Manager (part of Facebook), Instagram and Line. If we look at things in this manner, then it’s perhaps easy to see that almost all Samsung specific applications have been reduced to just 8, which is a laudable number. It’s a bit of a shame though that these 3rd party applications can’t be uninstalled as for me personally I do not use Instagram, Evernote or Flipboard but I suppose that most people who know what they’re doing will understand that root is an option and they can just as easily uninstall them after.
Pulling down the notifications bar, one of my major complaints when I saw this was how the toggles, brightness control and an absolutely unnecessary S Finder and Quick Connect button took up more than half of the Notifications tray already. Things like the Brightness control should have been placed in the expanded toggles menu in my opinion, and the inclusion of the S Finder and Quick Connect button are absolutely unnecessary as they just add additional clutter to the notifications drawer. Moving on from these points, only 5 quick toggles are shown at any given time, though you can scroll through this list by dragging it to the left, to reveal 5 more quick toggles. Thankfully these toggles are customisable, so you can decide what you would like to be shown on the quick toggles bar. Tapping on the top right corner gives you a full view of all the toggles and almost as a standard now, long holding on some of the toggles brings you do their respective full settings.
Let’s get a little into Galaxy and Note specific features. One of the features that I quite like yet find difficult to invoke is the new Multi Window mode. Enabling multi window, you’re now able to resize certain apps into windows by dragging from the top right or top left corner down diagonally. When you can get it right it works nicely, but in practice, I found it difficult to use, such that I wish Samsung had a different way to get this working rather than dragging the top corners, as half the time this just brings down the notifications tray instead.
When you do get it working however, it becomes a smaller sized window that you can interact with, and drag it around the screen with the white dot at the top of the window. Tapping on this dot brings up extra options for the window, with the first option allowing you to drag the contents of this window into something else, which allows for scrapbooking or quickly sharing links and contents. The second option minimises the window into a small Facebook-esque bubble that can be dragged around the screen, and maximised at any given time, the third maximises the window back into a full sized application, and the last one, to no surprise closes it.
Enabling Ultra Power Saving sends your phone into a noire look, with only a selection of apps being available. Mobile data and Bluetooth is only enabled when the screen is turned on, but the benefits are clear as having 10% remaining on my phone still allowed it to last for an additional 1.5 days.
It’s not part of the Note family without an S-Pen and so I thought I’d like to talk a little about this one as well. In short, the S-Pen is a much needed improvement over the S-Pen from the Note 3. Sensitivity and pressure levels have been boosted from 1024 levels to 2048 levels, making writing on the Note 4 feel so natural, almost as if I’m writing on a smooth piece of paper itself. I’ve touched on this before as well but the pen itself has been made a bit longer thus increasing its ergonomics quite substantially.
Detaching the S-Pen brings up Air Command that gives you quick access to S-Pen tools. Pressing the side button on the stylus does the same. The first option brings up Action Memo that allows you to quickly jot down notes to the pen, with the Note being able to detect content like handwriting, and the ability to import those into things like memo, or perhaps phone numbers into the dialer. Just like the resizable windows, you can minimise the Action Memos into little square note icons that can be expanded on later.
Smart Select is interesting as it allows you to quickly highlight and select part of your display to share with others, and if it contains text, you can extract the text and share that instantly. Of course, the option also exists to collect and share these cropped images directly to things like Facebook and Whatsapp, making it quite an interesting and useful feature to have if let’s say you saw a certain piece of information on the net and you do not wish to share the full page but rather a snippet of it.
Image Clip works very similarly to Smart Select as mentioned above, though it is primarily focused on image sharing quickly by cropped a screenshot of whatever you have on your display.
Finally, Screen Write is quite self explanatory as it takes a screenshot of your current screen and then allows you to doodle onto it, whether it’d be a map and adding useful directions and information for someone, or as mundane as someone’s photo and doodling on their face.
Before we cap this section off, it’s only fair to note (yet more note puns) that the performance and interaction with the phone was smooth at all times. The octacore processor in my N910C didn’t hitch or lag at any given time, and my experience with the Note 4 was butter smooth and quite an enjoyable one.
The Note 4 comes in one flavour and it comes with 32GB of internal storage. Of that 32GB, about 8 is taken up by the system and misc files and so right out of the box, I had 24.33GB to play with; a number that I find sufficient for all intents and purposes, but if you’re someone like me who likes to shove more media into your phone, then there’s the option of a MicroSD card of up to 128GB to store additional files, music, and even some game files. Long story short, storage shouldn’t be an issue.
With the help of the octacore Exynos 5433 running it’s A53 and A57 Cores, the Note 4 scored a blistering 50,093 in Antutu Benchmarks, the fastest that I’ve ever recorded. It should also be noted that while it’s a 64-bit processor, it’s still running in 32-bit mode due to KitKat being 32-bit in nature. While Lollipop does have 64-bit support, it’s unclear at this point whether Samsung will be unlocking the processor to run at its full 64-bit. Interesting to note (I did it again) as well is that the Note 4 is one of the first few chips to run on the ARM v8-A instruction set, that is capable of 64-bit.
3dMark Benchmarks show that the Exynos processor is not slouch either in this department as it managed to pull off a very impressive 20,070, which is again the highest score that I’ve ever recorded for this benchmark. This proves that the hexacore ARM Mali T760MP6 @ 700MHz does indeed lift, and more.
To no surprise, when it comes to running at the full 1440p, under Ultra High Quality, the phone scored and average of 46.7 fps, and in High Quality, 58.3 fps. Keep in mind of course that the Note 4 has to push nearly 1.8 times more pixels than a 1080p display, so with that in mind, I feel that the 46.7 fps was plenty impressive, given that the slowdowns only occurred during load points, with other parts of the benchmark being silky smooth.
In GFX Bench’s T-Rex, the phone scored a good 25 fps on full 1440p and 37.5fps in 1080p offscreen. The Manhattan test is still too taxing for devices to handle, and as such to no surprise it only scored 10.7fps onscreen and 17.4fps at 1080p offscreen.
If the Note 4 at this point got touch screen issues I would be honestly very disappointed, but of course to no surprise no hiccups here as it managed to do 10 touches moving around without any issues.
Sound, Speakers and Media Playback
Taking and making calls goes on without a hitch on the Note 4 as both the loudspeaker and microphone are equally loud on both ends.
The loudspeaker on the Note 4 was actually a lot of a pleasant surprise. Not only did the loudspeaker sound loud, it sounded quite good as well, in smartphone speaker relative terms of course. There was a lack of bass in the music played, but that’s of course to be expected. Vibrations made by the motor are strong enough as well and easily felt, even when left on the table.
For my subjective music listening tests, I hook the phone up to my Denon AH-D1100, and compare the output to a Cowon J3. Both devices are not using equalisers.
The first track that I tested was Apart (Album Mix) by Orjan Nilsen feat. Jonathan Mendelsohn. Initial listening showed that while sound stage, positioning and separation were really good, they weren’t cream of the crop level as spaciousness was a bit stifled and the channels sounded a bit mixed on top one another. When the vocals came in, I was a bit disappointed as they didn’t exhibit the same amount of crisp clearness as an audiophile level device, with the vocals sounding a bit muffled at times. Mids and Bass however were both really good with the mids being nicely audible and clear, and the bass being actually being of audiophile quality as it was nicely tight and solid without any leakage.
For the next track, I went with The Space Track (Andrew Rayel Stadium Mix) by Bobina. The bass beats at the start once again demonstrate how the Note 4 was capable of outputting nice, solid and tight bass. It was only when the piano notes hit that the façade faded a little as once again the high notes of the piano keys didn’t exhibit the kind of crisp clear ringing that I was expecting, and it was after, during the main electro beat that the sound stage and separation didn’t quite hold up to audiophile levels, missing that airy, spacious, almost dreamy feeling.
I would usually jump to my usual acoustic track right about now, but I decided to test one more track before, Surrender (Album Mix) by Sunlounger feat. Chase. Sound separation issues become a bit more apparent here, but some parts of the song sounding quite busy, mixed and mashed with each other, missing that clear fidelity, and becomes a bit more apparent when the vocals kick in. On that topic of vocals as well, the voices didn’t exhibit the same amount of crisp clearness I was looking for, which again is attributed to the highs. This is especially apparent when Chase was singing words that had a lot of “s” sounds, as they came out a bit muffled.
Moving into the final track which has always been a more acoustic track, White Sand (Chill Out Mix) by Sunlounger. This track made the lacking of sound stage a bit more apparent as the subtle lapping of the waves on the shore in the background didn’t have a distinctive separation and clarity over the electric guitar playing in the foreground. The really high notes made by the electric guitar again lacked that really crisp high as well, as some parts of the song where the guitarist starts playing a slew of high notes ended sounding very similar, without any distinct differences between the really high trebles and the slightly lower trebles. Aside from that the mids and the bass were nice though.
After all said and done above, the only thing that I’m trying to put out is that the audio output isn’t that of audiophile quality. For all intents and purposes, perhaps if I had not done a direct comparison with my audiophile level Cowon J3, I may not have noticed the differences. Still, as part of the review, I feel inclined to scrutinise every detail of the phone, to give an accurate representation of what it’s capable of. That said though, the Note 4’s audio output isn’t the pinnacle of HiFi fidelity, but it’s still one of the better ones out there.
The default video player on the Note 4 managed to play my copy of Captain America: Winter Soldier that was encoded in H264 that had a bitrate of 2,059kbps in 1080p and AAC encoded audio in an MP4 container. Of course to no surprise, there wasn’t any issues with playback, with everything running smoothly.
Camera, Photo Quality & Video Recordings
Camera UI on the Note 4 is actually quite similar to that of the Galaxy S5, but in my opinion, has lightened up even more than its smaller counterpart. Gone are the 4 buttons on the left of the screen, now replaced with just three; swap to front facing camera, HDR mode (that has live preview too) and the settings button.
The right side remains the same as the Galaxy S5 though, with the video record button, the shutter button, the mode button and a button to jump straight into the gallery to review your taken photos. This one is understandable of course, as the buttons on this side are already stripped to the essentials.
Surprisingly for a Samsung device, the amount of extra options and modes that you get are kept to a minimum, and I mean this in a good way, a very good way. Tapping the setting button once brings you a small vertical menu with a button with ellipses on it, a button to quickly change the shooting resolution, filters, timer and flash settings.
Tapping the ellipses button brings up the other options in a 4×4 Grid, and this is again surprising as unlike the S5, this list isn’t scrollable, meaning that you only get 16 extra options, unlike that of the S5 which gives you even more effects that you probably would not ever touch. Here’s a short list of the extra options available
Tap to take pics
The volume key
Moving a step backwards and going into modes also yields a very similar result, reflecting Samsung’s intention to trim down and lighten their OS, so instead of a plethora of options, you’re down to Auto, Rear-cam selfie, Selective focus and Panorama.
So far It’s quite evident that Samsung is hearing what the masses are saying in terms of TouchWiz, and are taking the appropriate steps to remedy this. Kudos to them.
Before we get started on quality of stills and record, I’d like to mention as well that when recording in UHD or WQHD, Dual camera mode, HDR, Video effects, Video stabilisation (yes, the OIS) and taking pictures while recording videos are disabled. When filming in 1080p mode as well, it’s one or the other, so something like HDR and Video Stabilisation cannot be enabled both at a time.
I’m very pleased with the photo output quality on the Note 4. I believe that it’s one of the first camera phones that I’ve used that actually gets things right about 95% of the time, without the need for any post production of any sort. Colour balancing is spot on almost all the time, except when things get a little darker, colours and vibrancies are great, exposure is handled really well, without being too under or overexposed, and noise levels are kept to a good low, though I do feel that the noise processing filters are just a little bit too aggressive at times. Bokeh from macro shots looked beautiful as well, and a lot of the photos taken actually have me in shock as they look quite similar to that of a DSLR. I do believe that a lot of this has to do of course, with Samsung’s choice of sticking into the phone a Sony Exmor RS IMX240 sensor, so no, unlike the S5 which has Samsung’s own home-grown ISOCELL camera, this one is actually made by Sony. This was actually the biggest surprise for me as being an ex Note 3 user, I was EXTREMELY disappointed by the camera performance, and I can’t stress enough the word extreme.
This phone is probably the first phone that I’ve used to ever get HDR mode right as well, as high contrast dusk situations get lit up very nice and evenly, low light night situations with bright lights sees the darker spots lit up a bit better with the brighter spots toned down a bit, and overall, aside from perhaps twilight situations where it doesn’t make a difference, HDR mode on the Note 4 actually does what HDR should: Take multiple photos at different exposures to try and get a more evenly exposed photo without any blown out highlights or shadows, and I think the best part is that the Note 4 does it WITHOUT the photos looking unnaturally exposed or surreal, well that is again about 95% of the time.
It absolutely helps as well that the Note 4 is Samsung’s first mobile phone that packs hardware based Optical Image Stabilisation, which absolutely helps photo taking, especially in darker scenarios. While walking around and taking photos, I found that the OIS helped greatly, as admittedly there are some stances when taking photos that are hardly comfortable, leading to a lot of shakes in the hands, yet the Note 4 was able to comfortably counter this to a great amount.
Moving on to low light photography, I think I found myself again quite decently surprised as the Note 4 is probably the first smartphone that I’ve used that has allowed me to take a photo with flash and HDR enabled, and this is interesting because the aforementioned yielded possibly the best photo quality. Photos without flash both shared the same characteristics of having noise levels starting to creep in, that are quite noticeable in the darker spots of the photos. While the colours on HDR were less muted, and closer to their real life counterpart, the dynamic range still left a bit more to be desired with bits of the photos still coming out a bit dark.
As per normal then, photos with flash enabled with HDR off, while exposing my foreground subject well without over exposure, led to the background very underexposed, and colours were a bit on the colder side of things. This is where I get to flash with HDR enabled, where I found it to have the best of all worlds. The sample photo taken had reduced noise levels, the foreground subject was nicely exposed because of the flash, the background was also quite well exposed, and not only that, the colour balancing was no longer colder, but back to being closer to the item itself.
Onto full night photography aka twilight photography, HDR made absolutely no difference here, except from perhaps making the photos look a little bit greenish. That doesn’t mean however that auto mode is terrible though, rather on the contrary, for an Auto mode, I got pretty good results with twilight photography. While of course it’s needless to say that I got better results from cameras where I could manually set the exposure time and the ISO, for an auto mode, it was certainly very commendable. Photos were very well exposed and illuminated, colours were great and not muted, noise levels, while present, were very controlled while not being too over processed and OIS helped here to achieve a sharp image.
Tapping on the video button instantly starts a video recording. I took two video samples, one in 1080p with OIS and HDR enabled, and the other in full 4K, without OIS and HDR. Based on my observations, in terms of video record quality, there was actually more usefulness in filming at 1080p with OIS and HDR as opposed to the full 4K. In outdoor filming samples in a car, the OIS and HDR proved invaluable as there was a lot more colour information, and less blown out highlights and shadows, while the OIS helped to counter the car’s shakiness and movement very well.
That aside, in both modes, video quality was sharp and looked great, with colours looking quite spot on as well. 1080p videos were taken with a 17,022kbps bitrate while 4K was done at 47,296kbps bitrate. While audio record quality was great, I felt that it was a bit too sensitive, as it was overeager to pick up even the sounds of a small water outlet, leading to quite a bit of noise, though vocals although a bit loud, seemed fine without sounding over booming. It’s above average for sure, but that’s all I’ll give it.
Front Camera on the OnePlus One
Front camera on the Note 4
Samsung talks a lot of their front facing camera, and for a good reason. The front facing camera on the Note 4, has a wide angle, enabling you to capture more without needing to use something like a selfie stick and look ridiculous, while having an aperture size of f/1.9, ensuring that you capture plenty of light in your selfies.
If the wide angle wasn’t enough however, you could always opt to do a Wide Angle Panorama Selfie, which in practice was pretty cool as it allows you to take a massive selfie of probably your whole (mid-sized) office and it’s staff at the same time.
Connectivity signal strength wasn’t really the highest of the bunch. I think that maybe it has something to do with the new full aluminium body. It’s not bad, but perhaps just not what I’m expecting.
The same could be said for the GSM signal strength.
Luckily, GPS lock came very quickly, at 3 seconds. It however only settled at an accuracy of 6 meters, which was again below what I was expecting.
I ran some applications, collected their battery usage, and based on that, extrapolated the results to bring you these estimates on battery life:
– 14 hours 10 minutes of video playback
– 10 days 23 hours 15 minutes of pure standby (GSM, Wifi)
– 31 hours 36 minutes of normal usage
Note: I updated the calculation for normal usage to give a better true to life indication of battery usage.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting this score when I did the video playback score. Throughout the entire time, Samsung’s new Exynos chip was just sipping on juice, and surprisingly so was the display, as the display was on the entire time, so you can imagine my surprise when it would go all the way to 14 hours and a bit.
The standby results weren’t slouches either, as it managed to pull just 45 minutes short of 11 days, which was very impressive. Overall, that gave it a score of 31 hours and 36 minutes of normal usage that should bring you through a day and a half.
I think that while there were a lot of doubts as to what Samsung’s new Exynos chip was capable of, the Galaxy Note 4 has certainly set things straight, as honestly, even in my opinion, everything that came after the Exynos 4412 in the Galaxy Note 2 was a disappointment, hence Samsung’s decision instead to go with Qualcomm’s offerings for the past few generations of devices.
If the Exynos 5433/7410 is any indication however, Samsung’s back on the right track with its processors, as it is capable of not just powerful chart topping performance, but also long battery life that shouldn’t disappoint.
On the topic of battery life, let’s dive a little into one of the additional features of the phone, fast charging. Below are the stats that I collected:
2 Hours 31 minutes to full charge from empty – Standard 2A Charger
1 Hour 35 minutes to full charge from empty – Adaptive Fast Charging
To me, the standard 2A charging was fast enough, though Adaptive Fast Charging took it a step further. It’s not the 60% in 30 minutes that Samsung advertised during their launch conference however, but I believe that applies more to the Snapdragon variant with Quick Charge 2.0.
Zero to a hundred is nothing in one and a half hours is nothing to scoff at however, as it’s still a really fast charge regardless. It seems like the only two difference between Samsung’s Adaptive Fast Charging and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 is that Samsung does it at 9v @ 1.67A and Qualcomm’s offering can go up to 12v @ 1.67A.
As a device, the Galaxy Note 4 is a big investment. With the advent of cheaper capable devices that are sub RM2000 (560 USD), it becomes evident that the days of paying a hefty price of a good phone is over. The Note 4 sits above this threshold however, and while it feels like a lot of money to pay for a phone these days, I feel that the Note 4 isn’t really the same phone as its predecessors. No, while it still carries the name of a successor, the phone itself is not so much of an incremental upgrade as much as an evolution step for Samsung, albeit not an extremely big one.
Going into the phone, I was very surprisingly pleased with the build quality and the design of the phone, something that I didn’t really think would be able to surprise me. The phone, with its metal body, is solidly built, with a beautiful, sophisticated looking design. The software end of things still run Samsung’s TouchWiz, and as much as I may not really be a fan of it, I am more than willing to acknowledge that it has made big strides from where it was years ago, distancing itself from the common bloated, slow and packed perception. Operation of the phone was smooth, performance was top notch, in both the GPU and CPU departments, the camera performed extremely well compared to the Note 3, and the pen gets boosted to double the pressure sensitivity levels from its predecessor as well. On top of that, the battery life of the phone is stellar, even given the fact that it has to push a 2k display.
With all that said above, I think the only drawback of this phone could very well be the pricing, which is again, debatable, the average connectivity strengths and perhaps the size, which may not be for everyone. A lot of the cons I mentioned above about the phone as well could be classed as nitpicking, like a very good but not audiophile level audio output quality, no full manual controls over the amazing camera, audio record quality in videos and perhaps if you want to go that way, the use of TouchWiz, which is again, debatable. With a price tag of RM 2,400 (675 USD) however, I think that I am allowed to be picky with these details.
All in all, I think that if you were to go out and pick up a Note 4, aside from perhaps a much lighter wallet after that, there’s really not much to be disappointed by. Sure, there are a lot of other much cheaper phones that you could purchase that perform very similarly, but even for someone like myself, pitting it against something like the OnePlus One, albeit much cheaper, I much prefer the stunning 2K Super AMOLED display, the really solid and beautiful looking aluminium body (sorry OnePlus, Samsung takes this one) and the camera, that shoots really good 16MP photos, and natively so at a 16:9 ratio.
Needless to say, in light of having done this review, I will be shifting my personal device over to the Galaxy Note 4.
Design is beautiful, premium and classy
Build quality is very solid and sturdy
5.7” Super AMOLED display is a beauty.
Octacore Exynos with 3GB of RAM handles everything with ease
Camera is excellent for almost all scenarios
Wide angle front facing camera means no more selfie sticks (yes!)
Video Recording in HDR is great
Excellent battery life at either screen on or standby
Heart rate sensor
Improved S-Pen feels almost like natural writing on the screen.
Very much trimmed TouchWiz
Audio output quality while really good, is still a little bit shy of audiophile levels
No manual controls for camera
Swiping for the fingerprint sensor is far from ideal