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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Hands-On Review: King of the Phablets

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Price: $300; $700-$750 off-contract (depending on carrier)
On Sale Date: Now

When Samsung introduced the original Note in 2011 with its ridiculously large 5.3-inch display, it was mocked. Fast forward to 2014 and large phones are in style. Samsung, inventor of the phablet category, packs the new Note 4 with a striking 5.7-inch quad-HD display, Qualcomm's monster Snapdragon 805 CPU and, for the first time in the Note’s history, a sleek metal frame. So does the Note 4 have everything you'd expect in a flagship phablet?

Design
The debate on whether metal or plastic is better is over. The Note 4 is built with a combination of both. Samsung classed up the Note 4 by replacing the 2013 Note 3's and S5's garish chrome plastic trim with a handsome half-painted and half-polished metal frame complete with chamfered edges.

The physical buttons also received the same painted/polished look and are located roughly in the same areas as its older brother. The power button is on the right, the volume rocker is on the left and Samsung added a heart rate monitor on the back. The headphone jack and IR blaster are on the top of the device and the rapid-charging USB port is on the bottom next to the neatly tucked away S-Pen.

The Note 4 copied the Home button from the S5 and it doubles as a fingerprint reader. The flanking twin capacitive buttons have been updated to match Google’s menu system. Like its predecessors, the Note 4 retains its signature removable rear cover. The polycarbonate panel loses the stitching in the Note 4 and has a slightly better texture than the Note 3. Hopefully Samsung will ditch the leather look altogether in favor of something like hard rubber to provide a more secure grip. With the cover off, I had access to the removable battery, SIM card, and the memory card slot.

The Note 4 measures 6.04 x 3.09 x 0.33 inches, similar to the previous version yet a tad heavier, weighing in 6.2 ounces. My guess is that the aluminum frame added some heft. The Note 4 is a two-handed device in the beginning, but once I figured out the hand dexterity needed with most larger smartphones the Note 4 felt right at home in the palm of my hand.

Performance
The star of the show is the 5.7-inch display. The QHD Super AMOLED screen delivers a fantastic combination of sharpness, saturated colors and ultra deep blacks. Currently it’s the highest resolution on a smartphone at 2560x1440 with 515 pixels per inch. Just to put that in perspective, my 55-inch livingroom TV is only 1080p, which means it is 1920x1080. The Display menu shows 3 modes to help regulate color: Adaptive, Photo, and Basic. The display might seem like overkill for just a smartphone, but Samsung will also use the Note 4 to power its Gear VR virtual reality headset due out later this year (hopefully) which I’m impatiently waiting for.

I feared that despite the massive 3220 mAh battery the Note 4 wouldn't last half a day because of the power hungry screen. Surprisingly, I got around 12 and a half to 15 hours of extreme use, meaning I'm running a standard workday on a single charge. Not too bad. The Note 4 also has "Power Saver" and "Extreme Power Saver" modes. Extreme Power Saver mode works when the battery life is less than 10%. It puts the screen into a grayscale mode and shuts down all non-essential apps, giving the battery a standby time of up to 24 hours.

The Note 4 is the first smartphone to pack Qualcomm's beastly Snapdragon 805 processor, running at 2.7 gigahertz. Along for the ride is 3GB of ram and 32GB of storage, expandable to an additional 128GB through the micro SD slot. The phone is fast while running multiple screens and showed no signs of stutter or lag with graphics-intensive games like The House Of The Dead: Overkill or Dead Trigger 2. In fact the the speed and graphics got me hooked playing HOTD:O while I was reviewing the phone because I was having so much fun.

The main reason to even consider Samsung's Note line is the S-Pen. The S-pen is a sophisticated stylus built on Wacom's tablet technology. Samsung doubled the Note 4's S-Pen’s pressure sensitivity from 1024 levels to 2048 levels, the same sensitivity professional graphic designers use. Pulling the S-Pen from its holster activates the reconfigured Air Command menu that includes Action Memo, Smart Select, Image Clip, and Screen Write. But to take full advantage of the S-Pen download third party software like Sketchbook for Galaxy or ArtFlow.

Navigation is faster and more precise using a combination of the pen and Multi-Window. The traditional split screen functionality has evolved to include resizable mini pop-up windows that turn into floating bubbles on the screen when not in use. Once I got the hang of the new features I haven't returned to the legacy system.

As with the Note 3 the Note 4 camera is incredible.The selfie front camera now uses a 3.7-megapixel sensor with a wide f/1.9 aperture lens. The rear-facing camera gets a slight bump from 13- to 16-megapixels and adds the much needed Optical Image Stabilization. Samsung adopted so many features from the S5 including HDR, Voice Controls and Rear-Cam Selfie that users will never need a point-and-shoot again.

Unfortunately it's not all sunshine and rainbows for the Note 4. The speaker takes a slight hit on performance. The Note 3’s speaker is located on the bottom and provides warm, clean sound. The Note 4’s speaker is located on the back of the device, similar to the Note II. The speaker produces sounds that are slightly metallic and sometimes gets muffled when the device is held horizontally; however it is still loud enough to handle gaming, multimedia and an occasional conference call. On the other hand, call quality sounds spectacular thanks to a combination of 3 noise canceling microphones and some customizable internal settings.

This brings us to TouchWiz, Samsung's proprietary front-end user interface. Many users prefer stock over Samsung's Android skin, but hear me out--TouchWiz is not all bad, sporting a modern redesigned look and smoother controls. It still can't match the speed and customization of third party launchers such as Nova, Go or Apex but it has some fantastic hidden features you’ll find when you dig inside the Settings menu. For example go into One-handed Operation > Side Key panel. Magically you have on-screen keys that neatly tuck away under your thumb. Samsung keeps trying to innovate like replacing the Magazine UX with Briefing, an unnecessary Flipboard widget. But it is still a step in the right direction. Give me the bells and whistles and I’ll strip it back to customize. Anything is better than plain vanilla Android. Feel free to flame me in the comments below.

The Bottom Line
Is it for you? Let me give you my responses to the most common questions people ask me about the Note 4. Should you buy it? Yes, it's Samsung's best smartphone. Should I upgrade from the Note 3? Yes, it's Samsung's best smartphone. Is it too big? Nope, you’ll get use to it. Are you sure? Yes.

All kidding aside the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has the premium look and feel of a flagship smartphone. It's a multitasking beast with a 2k screen, powerhouse CPU, versatile S-Pen, a variety of health monitoring apps and a 4k video camera. Nothing is perfect but Samsung's Next Big Thing certainly comes close.

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