Over time, Samsung's Galaxy Note line has transformed from a curious also-ran to a flagship series every bit as respected as the company's Galaxy S smartphones. With screens that toe the line between phone and tablet – hence the "phablet" moniker – the Note series offers big viewing spaces and powerful components in a device you can still carry in a purse or coat pocket. The Galaxy Note 4 is the latest and greatest in Samsung's oversized series. It still struggles in some areas – its plastic housing, for example, continues to disappoint next to the aluminum chasses of the iPhone or HTC One – but it excels thoroughly in others. As one of the finest smartphones you can buy right now, the Note 4 earns our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award.
The Galaxy Note 4's biggest weakness is its size. At 6.21 ounces, it's heavier than almost every other smartphone or phablet on the market, and that's despite a plastic chassis and rear cover. We don't particularly mind the weight – you tend to expect it with a phone this big, after all – but it's still noticeable.
Samsung made the decision to switch out its historically plastic rims for aluminum trim. While the changes are an aesthetic improvement, they're also uncomfortably sharp in your hand. The rear cover, meanwhile, remains as flimsy as ever. It's not as creaky as prior models, which we attribute to the sturdier trim and glass face, but it remains chunky, its shoulders a bit too broad for comfort.
Like many Android flagships these days, the Note 4's screen is full QHD: 2560 by 1440 pixels, giving you four times the real estate of a 720p screen. At 5.7 inches from corner to corner, it's quite spacious, and those pixels are tiny enough that you'll never see them without a magnifying glass. In fact, the screen is excellent, bright and vivid from every angle, but the display's glass is recessed within the phone's plastic trim. This creates a rough, uncomfortable edge whenever you're swiping from side to side.
Its physical construction may be a low point for the phone, but the Note 4's design includes something unique to the smartphone landscape: the S Pen. A stylus that fits snugly inside the phone when not in use, the S Pen turns your Note 4 into a handwriting-recognizing machine, much like the Palm Pilots that predated smartphones. It's not just for jotting down notes, though; you can use the pen to draw multitasking windows on the screen. Need to open up the calculator? Draw a rectangle on the screen, select the Calculator app from the menu that appears, and it will fill the rectangle. You can move your newly opened window, minimize it, maximize it or overlay other windows that you've drawn. The feature seems small at first, but it can transform how you think of multitasking on your phone.
We took the Galaxy Note 4 out for a direct camera comparison with the Motorola Droid Turbo and the Sony Xperia Z3, and were delighted by the Note 4's performance. Between its consistently lifelike color reproduction, its phenomenally crisp focus, and the QHD display serving as an excellent viewfinder, we're ready to call it the best smartphone camera you'll find in an Android device.
By the numbers, it seems like any other smartphone camera: a 16-megapixel sensor, an ƒ/2.2 aperture and a classic single-LED flash. But as Apple has proved time and again, better numbers don't always mean better pictures, and the same holds true for Samsung's latest. Where other phones tended to overexpose sun-drenched landscapes, the Note 4 kept tones even. Where other phones shifted too far into warm colors, the Note 4 kept them neutral, better echoing the true palette of each scene. We photographed running water on default settings with all three phones, and only the Note 4 managed to capture the scene crisply.
The Note 4's front-facing camera is also impressive, though not as much as its specs might proclaim. Its 3.7-megapixel lens is significantly better than your average front-facing camera, and is able to take 1440p video. However, the shots it takes are noticeably grainy next to the superb photos that the rear camera manages to capture.
The Galaxy Note 4 has a screaming-fast processor. It's not quite the speed of a 64-bit CPU – the iPhone still has the edge in that department, as is clearly reflected in our benchmark tests – but it's the next best thing. The chip is a 2.7Ghz quad-core and is mated with a full 3GB of RAM, which is why the Note 4 can multitask so well without slowing down. Unfortunately, of its 32GB of internal storage, only about 24GB is usable space; the rest is taken up by the Android operating system and Samsung's graphically heavy TouchWiz interface. Of course, like most Android devices, the phone has an expandable storage slot if you need more space for your music, photos and videos.
As long as a smartphone's battery is big enough to last a full day of even the heaviest use, it doesn't really matter how big it is. The Galaxy Note 4's battery easily surpasses the one-day usage mark, and often makes it past two days. At 3220mAh, it's truly massive, able to handle any task you can throw at it. It might not be the biggest battery we've seen in our smartphone reviews, but it's big enough.
The Note 4 has all the technology features you'd expect from a top smartphone, and a few you might not. Its compass, accelerometer and gyroscope work together so the phone always knows where it is and how it's oriented, which can be invaluable in certain apps. Communications technologies such as Bluetooth 4.1 and 4G LTE connectivity come standard. You'll also be able to enjoy growing technologies like near field communication: The Note 4's NFC chip can talk with special scanners at extremely close ranges, so you can pay for a meal by waving your phone over a compatible pad. You can even control your TV with your Note 4 thanks to its integrated infrared blaster.
One feature we continue to leave unused is the phone's fingerprint scanner. Fingerprint scanners in general are fun to have – you can quickly unlock your phone or make purchases without typing in long passwords or fearing a loss of security. In the case of the Note 4, however, Samsung's scanner continues to be a nuisance, failing as often as it succeeds and making the phone unlock process more of a chore than a pleasure.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is an excellent smartphone that any phablet fan would love to own. Its stylus works perfectly, its screen is gorgeous, its camera is powerful, and its processor blazes. Were its build quality higher, we'd be inclined to herald it as our top pick; as it is, it remains an excellent device that shines on its own merits.
A spectacular camera, a huge battery, a solid processor and a stylus to boot – the Note 4 has just every feature a smartphone fanatic would want.
The phone is big and clunky and can be rather uncomfortable to hold, thanks to its hard edges and a bezel that's distinctly separate from its screen.
With a battery that seems to live forever and a screen that's sharper than you'll ever need, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is a phablet for phablet lovers. We wish it were machined from metal instead of rickety plastic, but its internal components are as beautiful as ever.