|Quick Summary: As the most recent flagship Note smartphone from Samsung, the Galaxy Note 4 provides some of the most powerful Android device hardware combined with the unique stylus pen, and a significantly more solid build. This combination of large screen smartphone and stylus pen appeals to a vocal, but smaller community of smartphone users.
Review Length: Four Months (about 125 days).
Carrier Variants: AT&T and T-Mobile (2 devices total)
Intended Market: Technology hobbyists, Google afficionados, or Android developers who desire some of the most powerful Android-based, larger screened hardware on the market, along with access to Samsung’s unique features and stylus.
Sub-optimal market: Those persons who would prefer to use a device that integrates with Microsoft or Apple services and devices. Those persons who prefer to have a device that “hides” technical complexity, removing access to less-used features to gain a more streamlines and efficient experience. Users who desire smaller screens due to having a smaller hand size or a penchant for using their devices one-handed would have their needs met more readily by the Galaxy S line of phones. In addition, users for whom the included S-pen stylus is not needed for their lifestyle may find that this device is overkill when compared with less expensive versions of the Galaxy S, such as the S4 or S5. Finally, as this is the most recent member of the Galaxy Note family of smartphones, it is also the most expensive, making this phone a difficult choice for the price sensitive user.
Approximate Retail Price: ~$500 (used off contract). ~$900 new off contract.
Purchase Link: To purchase our specific review unit, please see this Amazon page: (UNAVAILABLE) Note, if the auction is unavailable, our review unit has already been purchased.
Unboxing Experience and First Impressions
On first glance, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is very similar to its immediate predecessor, the Galaxy Note 3, but with a greatly increased build quality that makes greater use of metal and glass, as opposed to plastic. It has front and back cameras, light sensors, UV sensors, several health sensors, and a rectangular home button, which now disguises an improved fingerprint reader, with a back button and a menu button.
Although the Note 4 retains the removable back plate, to allow for a user replaceable battery and the use of a micro-SD card, the back plate in the Note 4 does away with the faux leather stitching that accompanied the Note 3, but does retain a textured feel, allowing for greater grip control. In combination with the more premium metal and glass construction surrounding the rest of the device, the Note 4 achieves a much more upscale look and feel.
The SIM card and micro-SD card slots have been repositioned internally to allow for greater ease of access to the SIM and micro-SD, as compared to the previous design where the two were stacked upon each other.
Unfortunately the Note 4 removes the high speed USB 3 port and downgrades that to the slower, older USB 2 standard. The converse benefit is that the phone now supports adaptive charging to allow the user to dramatically increase the rate at which their phone recharges. In our testing, we were able to go from just over 1-2% charge back up to 50% in slightly over 30 minutes, a significant improvement over the previous 50-60 minutes for such recharges. Unfortunately, this greater speed can only be accomplished with specific, high-power (i.e. high amp) USB adaptors. I.e. your old 1A iPhone USB adaptor will not charge this phone quickly.
Included in the box is a set of in-ear, noise isolation headphones (standard with all recent Samsung phones), a USB 2 charging and sync cable and the adaptive charging adaptor. Also included is a removable, 3220 mAh battery that can be replaced with even larger, expanded batteries, resulting in run times approaching 3-4 days of constant use at full power.
In Daily Life
As with the Note 3, set up of the device took some time, as the Google and Samsung mechanisms to restore my account login information for email and calendaring were somewhat ineffectual. In addition, I needed to enter the extremely large 30+ character password for our NetWise Life Google account into the phone twice to make it work with our Google account. This is mostly due to our use of two factor authentication security to prevent the “bad guys” from being able to access our account even with that password (highly recommended – please see a forthcoming article from our friends at NetDefend Consulting for more information). That said, it would have been nice to only need to enter that password once. Fortunately, after the Android 5.0 Lollipop update, which was released for our AT&T device about a month ago, the setup process now allows for the entry of the Google password once, followed by the two factor code. This does improve the ease and rapidity of our set up process.
However, even with those changes, there were multiple steps and screens that needed to be passed through, including ones for AT&T’s (or T-Mobile’s) own proprietary services that are pre-installed on the phone, such as AT&T contact backup and T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling. Some of these built-in capabilities and apps, especially those encountered by AT&T and Verizon users, are often called “bloatware” by fans of a more clean Android experience. This lack of acceptance stems from the confusion that these built-in apps, which are not removable, cause users, along with their additional memory and performance impact. That said, many users do find them to be valuable, especially services such as T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling which can extend cell phone use well into areas of poor cell phone reception, such as underground basements. T-Mobile does not escape the “bloatware” accusation entirely: with the prominent presence of pre-installed security, entertainment, and diagnostic apps that, while beneficial to some users, can be unwelcome by those who are more technically astute.
Once set up, I was able to install my apps to the phone fairly easily through the Google Play store. In fact, the ease with which I installed apps was greater than on the Apple iPhone, if only because I could set the store to NOT require a password every time I purchased an app. This can become tiresome on iOS devices, so having the ability on Android to avoid extra step was pleasant. As I did not share my phone with others who enjoying purchasing apps with abandon, this was not a concern to me. For those of you with children who share your devices, you may wish to keep the option active to require a password to purchase apps from the Google Play Store.
I kept the phone with me as my primary phone for over six months, using it for everything from tap-to-pay purchases through Google Wallet, to standard emails and calendaring, to playing light games such as Solitare and Minecraft, to web browsing, and note taking, using Evernote, OneNote, and S-Note with the included stylus pen. Even a few phone calls and texts were made every now and then.
My daily routine looked like this:
- At 7am, I would remove the phone from the wireless QI charging stand that was placed on my nightstand and check the weather forecast for the day, using either the built-in weather app or Accuweather.
- After that, I would proceed through my morning routine and then go to work.
- The phone would stay synchronized with my car’s Bluetooth radio on the way to work, enabling me to receive phone calls if necessary.
- After arriving at work, the phone would be set aside, on another QI charging dock, until I took a 10 minute break to review emails, Facebook, or the news.
- Later in the day, during lunch, I would often bring the phone with me, purchasing my meal at a local BP Station deli with Tap to Pay with Google Wallet. Fortunately, Google Wallet is now supported on the Note 4, while it did not function properly on the Note 3. Unfortunately, in order to enable Tap to Pay on these phones, Google had to abandon the more secure method of Tap to Pay on previous phones, known as “Secure Element”, and replace it with the less secure “Host Card Emulation”. This was and is no fault of Google’s, but rather of the mobile carriers (other than Sprint) who restricted Google’s ability to use the secure element on the phone needed for Tap and Pay purchases with the phone. This is obviously due to a desire on their part to force users to make use of SoftCard, which is partially owned by the carriers, allowing the carriers to gain their cut of each transaction, thus driving their revenues. Unfortunately, I found SoftCard, which I only used on the Note 3, to be an unfriendly, slow app that restricted credit cards to being used on only one phone at a time, which is problematic for my specific use case where I have multiple phones active at once. Ironically, Google has now purchased Softcard (nee ISIS), which renders the entire control discussion around the phone’s previously existing Secure Element moot. As such, from a security perspective, it would now be ideal for Google to reintroduce the concept of the Secure Element, so that card details need not be stored on either the phone’s more insecure main OS installation or in the cloud.
- In the afternoons, I would sometimes stream music through Pandora or Spotify through headphones for around an hour or two when I needed to focus.
- At the end of the work day, I would check commute times through Google Now and then head home.
- After reaching home and having dinner, I would sometimes use the phone to write notes and bits of various articles for NetWise Life.
- After getting into bed at 11pm, I would place the phone on the QI charging stand on my nightstand, usually with around 40% charge remaining. This greater level of charge is due to the fact that after using the Note 3 extensively, and purchasing a QI S-View cover for the Note 4, I also purchased another QI dock for work, allowing the phone to remain consistently topped off (with no wear and tear to the USB port) throughout the day.
During this time, it became apparent that the phone was a capable phone, but when pushed hard, especially through music streaming or a significant number of apps updating, the battery life would suffer, going down below 5 hours under heavy use. At this time, it was appreciated that the phone has user replaceable batteries that can be replaced with extended batteries with up to 10,000mah of capacity, enabling around 2-3 days of hard use with the obvious trade-off of substantially increase weight and thickness.
Another item to note is that after implementing device encryption on the AT&T variant running 5.0 Lollipop, the phone’s speed and battery life suffered significantly. Stuttering increased noticably, and CPU utilization would jump to 100% for extended time periods. Battery life would drop down to under two hours. After significant troubleshooting, it became obvious that the culprit was the security sub-system, burdened under the strain of a fully encrypted device. Once encryption was removed, performance and battery life shot back up. For those of you with a desire to protect your data in the event of the loss of your device, you should carefully consider the impact to your battery life and device’s performance once you turn on encryption. In the event that encryption is a must-have, you may need to consider other smartphone solutions, at least until this issue is corrected. This issue will hopefully be fixed by Samsung or Google with an update in the next 6 months.
Speed and Performance – What’s It Like Under The Hood?
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4, as the most advanced Note series phone, remains one of the more powerful handsets currently available on the market: easily capable of running applications that run the gamut from demanding interactive games to professional line of business applications. For those readers who are interested in technical specifications, the Galaxy Note 4 uses a Quad-core 2.7 GHz Krait 450 CPU, with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chipset, along with 3 GB of RAM. Effectively, this means that, for the next 2-3 years, those who prefer an Android / Samsung combination, will find the performance of this phone, compared to other Android phones, to be more than sufficient.
On the other hand, as with all Android phones, I found the differences in function placement between apps from different manufacturers to be somewhat jarring, increasing the difficulty with which I was able to become familiar with new apps. From time to time, I was impacted by performance issues, and stuttering of the UI. This was especially pronounced with Android 4.4 KitKat when it was installed on our devices. Once our AT&T variant was upgraded to Android 5.0 L (Lollipop) and Lollipop designed apps, the UI seemed to gain some consistency due to the use of Google’s new Material Design standard. That said, apps still adhere to a less stringent set of UI design standards than do iOS and Windows Phone apps, meaning that while on Android it is often necessary to relearn each app without making assumptions as to where specific areas (such as settings) are located, on iOS and Windows Phone, common types of functionality are conversly often located in common areas.
Performance quirks are common to many Android implementations and are mostly related to the underlying foundations of the Android OS itself; foundations that can cause any Android device to exhibit certain erratic performance tendencies. These issues may include erratic, temporary slowdowns, sporadic “jerkiness” in the user interface, and more. Thus, those people who are not familiar with these oddities of Android may find these performance hitches to be unexpected and jarring. This was corrected to a certain extent with the release of Android “L” (a.k.a. “Lollipop”), which uses a more modern, streamlined, and powerful engine, called “ART”, to run the Android OS and applications. As such, while sporadic “jerkiness” still occurs, it is now much more rare and usually only happens under load (such as when running multiple applications at once). Unfortunately, with full device encryption turned on, the performance of the device suffered significantly, with many more instances of slowdowns than noticed previously.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 supports a wide range of connectivity options to push information in and out of the phone, including USB 2, micro-SD card support, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, 802.11n/ac, and cellular network connectivity via 2G/3G/4G/LTE. Now, what do all of those technical buzzwords mean to you? Here’s a quick run-down:
- USB 2: an unfortunate downgrade, which eliminates USB 3 as an option to connect to the phone. USB 3 is a much faster means of sending information, such as movies, TV shows, music, and more back and forth between your computer and phones. Most modern computers support this standard, enabling large files, such as the aforementioned video and music files, to be sent to the previous model Note 3 (with USB3) up to 3-5 times faster in real world testing than with phones that use a USB 2 connection. The only reason that I could see for Samsung to make such as decision would be if they determined that most people do not use connections with their computers any more to transfer data, instead relying on the phone itself to receive movies, TV shows, and music from a standard store (e.g. Google Play). This would enable them to save cost, use adaptive charging and shrink the space on the device needed for the larger USB 3 connector.
- Micro-SD support: for when the size of stored music, videos, and apps becomes so large that the phone cannot save any additional content, the user can use a small, removable storage chip to add up to 3 times the previous storage capacity present out of the box in the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
- NFC: a very short range, wireless communication standard capable of sending and receiving small amounts of information between either devices or devices and small tags that may be placed on other physical objects. By using this standard, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 enables convenience features, such as tapping the phone on a small sticker on your car’s dashboard to activate in car mode and a navigation app, or perhaps tapping the back of one phone to another to enable the transfer of business card information. In addition, support for Tap-and-Pay mobile payments for Google Wallet is accomplished using NFC.
- Bluetooth 4.0 LE: many people are familiar with the advantages of Bluetooth, such as connecting to in car stereos to allow for hands-free operation or working with an ear-based Bluetooth headset. However, in the case of the most recent version of Bluetooth, version 4.0 “Low Energy”, even more uses may be found. For example, phones with Bluetooth 4.0 LE may connect to fitness devices and smartwatches, such as the FitBit One, or smart tags (e.g. “Tile”) enabling people to locate lost items such as key rings.
- 802.11ac: This wireless networking standard enables devices to communicate with the broader internet, or your computer at home much more rapidly than older, slower standards, such as 802.11b or 802.11g, or even the most previous speed champion, 802.11n. This can enable the much faster download of music, apps, and videos to your phone from your computer, or just a more stable connection.
- CDMA/3G/4G LTE or 2/3/4G/LTE Cellular Connectivity: By supporting a wide range of cell phone connectivity, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has the ability to communicate in a broad range of areas that remain on older, slower cell phone standards. Similarly, by supporting the much newer LTE standard, in areas where your cell phone carrier, such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint, have implemented “4G LTE”, the Note 4 is able to stream videos and music, while downloading apps rapidly. In tests that were performed throughout the four month period that this phone was in use, we found that the Note 4 performed well in speed tests, averaging similar speeds to other LTE devices on the same carrier network (T-Mobile and AT&T). The phone’s ability to pull in marginal signals was similar to other phones, such as the Nokia Lumia 1520, the iPhone 6+, and the Galaxy S5. That said, when comparing this same phone on AT&T and T-Mobile, there were expected differences in each carrier’s speed and signal quality. For more information about carrier comparisons, please check back with us for our forthcoming carrier comparison, where we exhaustively use multiple devices with multiple OS versions with multiple carriers in a cross country trip.
There are several new features that Samsung added in to this generation of their Galaxy Note series of phones, including:
- Moderate processor upgrade, going from a quad core 2.3 Ghz Krait processor to a 2.7 Ghz quad core Krait. Technical terms aside, the performance of this phone is approximately 10-20% faster depending on the task at hand, when compared to the most previous version 3 of the Note series.
- The screen has a higher pixel density, increasing to 515ppi. This produces text and pictures that are somewhat more clear and crisp than the already excellent Note 3. Covered in the newer, and stronger Gorilla Glass 3, the screen of the Note 4 is resistant to scratches and impacts. That said, we still do recommend a resilient screen protector, such as those by BodyGuardz or Tech21 and/or a flip screen case to cover this valuable screen.
- Additional Health Features: including heart rate and blood Oxygen content sensors on the rear of the phone near the flash, as well as a front-facing UV light sensor. In combination with the redesigned S-Health app, Samsung’s Note 4 now gives users the ability to track not only physical activity through steps taken, but some aspects of their overall baseline health.
- Improved rear-facing main camera with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). This results in 16MP pictures and 4K video recording at 30 fps, with 1080p video available at 60 and 120fps.
- Improved front-facing (selfie”) camera. This allows for wider angle selfies and recording of higher quality video.
- Streamlined and improved S-Pen experience, improving S-pen feel with enhanced pressure sensitivity, as well as photo notes and smart text select.
Other Major Features
Samsung has always been well known as a phone manufacturer that adds a lot of additional hardware and software functions into their devices to make themselves stand out amongst strenuous competition in the Android handset market. The Galaxy Note 4 is no exception to this rule. In addition to its new features mentioned previously, the Note 4 comes with a number of software and hardware features that are common to all of Samsung’s Galaxy series of Android-powered phones. Here are a few of those capabilities:
- QI wireless charging: This is an optional feature that is enabled by purchasing a replacement back cover for the phone or a wireless S-View case. These QI wireless charging covers contain a metal coil that reacts with another coil in a charging plate, causing electricity to be delivered to the phone without the need to connect any cables. While charging with the QI wireless charging system is only about half as fast as charging with a cable, the phone was able to reach full charge within 4-6 hours overnight. Two key benefits of course are the speed and convenience of not needing to attach and detach the device from a cable while using the phone. Another significant positive is the reduction in repetitive wear on the micro-USB connector on the phone and cable; micro-USB connectors are quite fragile, lasting for many fewer insertions and removals as compared to more solidly designed connectors, such as Apple’s lightning connector.
|Animated QI Graphic||Charging Still Pic|
The above animated GIF is of the NOTE 3 using a QI charging dock. The same charging dock, by TYLT, was used for our Note 4, resulting in the same appearance and process for charging wirelessly.
- S-View Folio Cases: Most Samsung phones offer the option of using a style of folio case with a clear, plastic window on the front, exposing a portion of the front screen. The plastic window is conductive, allowing for keypress interactions through a closed folio cover. This has advantages in both screen protection, allowing a user to keep their phone’s cover closed more often, while allowing for interaction, such as answering phone calls, to occur in a more rapid fashion than might occur if the user needed to manually open the phone’s cover each time.
- SmartStay and other Software UI Features: Over the past few years, Samsung has continued to refine their TouchWiz proprietary layer that sits on top of Android: a layer that not only changes the look and feel of the interface of their devices, but also provides a number of additional features. Included in these features are items such as these:
- SmartStay, which detects the user glancing at the screen and keeps the device from timing out while the user is actively looking at the device’s screen.
- Automatic dial, which dials the displayed contact if the user takes their phone and places it to their ear.
- SmartSwipe: which allows the user to perform a screen capture by swiping their hand above the screen from one side to the other.
Please note that there are a number of other additional features that TouchWiz provides, features that are too numerous to list in this article.
Google Wallet Tap to Pay
S-View Case with Wireless Charging
High Cost Compared to Other Android Vendors
Erratic Performance Using Device Encryption with Lollipop
Chaotic UI Standards
Slow, restricted, and convoluted access to updates
- Is above 5’4 – 5’6″ in height, with a thumb length of greater than 2.3-2.5″, or who does not mind holding the device with two hands.
- Is a technology hobbyist or programmer desiring access to the deep internals of the handset to perform significant levels of customization.
- Is tied to the Google ecosystem of services and apps, such as Gmail, Google Now, and Google Voice.
- Desires access to heart rate monitoring and step tracking which, although limited, can provide a window into the general health level of the user.
- Is not particularly price sensitive.
- Users who are under 5’4″ in height with a thumb length of less than 2.3″ and who do not desire to hold their device with two hands.
- Users who desire a streamlined, consistent user experience more than access to deep levels of customization. These are users who value stability and simplicity, even at the cost of eliminating less commonly used settings and features.
- Users who either work in security-focused organizations, or who are concerned about the timeliness of security patches that must make their way through the multiple layers of the Android OS update process.