Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: Premium design finally matches industry-leading specifications

Samsung's Note line always sets the bar for Android specifications and after spending a week with the Note 4, Matthew Miller is about ready to visit his carrier store.
1 of 42 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The Galaxy Note 3 is an excellent device, but the chrome-plated plastic frame made it feel a bit cheap. I noted previously that all Samsung had to do was make the edges out of metal or high quality plastic, similar to what Nokia does with plastics, to give it the high-class design deserving of its high price. Samsung did just that with the Galaxy Note 4.

Samsung's Note line always sets the bar for Android smartphones and the Galaxy Note 4 does so again with a refined exterior design to match industry-leading specifications.

Samsung toned down the TouchWiz UI, beefed up the S Pen functionality, improved the camera, and knocked it out of the park with the display. The only trouble I have now with the Galaxy Note 4 is trying to figure out if I can afford to add one to my collection.


  • Processors: Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 2.7 GHz quad-core CPU
  • Display: 5.7-inch quad HD Super AMOLED screen with 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution (518 pixels-per-inch)
  • RAM: 3GB, the iPhone 6/6 Plus have just 1 GB
  • Storage capacity: 32 GB internal with microSD card slot
  • Cameras: 16-megapixel rear with optical image stabilization (OIS), and 3.7 megapixel front facing
  • Radios: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2x2 MIMO)Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 LE, near-field communications (NFC), ANT+, infrared, GPS
  • Battery capacity: 3,220 mAh with ability to fast charge to 50 percent in 30 minutes
  • Dimensions: 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm, and 176 grams (6.21 ounces)

The Note line continues to set the specifications bar with the processor and camera standing above the BlackBerry Passport, the other leader in smartphone specifications.

On the hardware

The Note 4 looks much like the Note 3 and Galaxy S5 so there is nothing earth-shattering about the form factor and layout. You will find the physical home button centered below the display, with the fingerprint scanner that I can only get to work when programming it and never again, the camera and flash centered on the back with the questionable heart rate monitor, the typical Samsung power button on the right, and both the headset jack and IR port on the top.

The back panel is removable so you can access your nanoSIM card, microSD memory expansion card, and large capacity 3,220 mAh battery.

Samsung went back to a more traditional microUSB port on the bottom that also doubles as the microHDMI port. The Note 3 and Galaxy S5 had a USB 3.0 port on the bottom that may have confused customers more than helped. USB 3.0 is useful for file transfers, but I haven't heard of much demand for that so moving to a more standard port with fast charging capability makes more sense.

The Note 3 supports Samsung Fast Charge and Qualcomm Quick Charge so you can get up to 50 percent of the battery capacity in 30 minutes. Samsung also includes advanced power saving modes that lets you keep going for a much longer period of time.

Design: The very first thing I noticed when I took the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 out of the box was the metal frame. The chamfered metal edges are reminiscent of what HTC did with the One M7 and Apple with the iPhone 5. My review unit is the black model, but I found the white one at the Samsung meeting to be particularly striking.

Samsung didn't just add a metal frame, it designed a metal frame with reinforced corners to provide additional device drop protection. You can see the beveled metal edges transition into each of the four corners so the frame protrudes just a bit with more metal in the corners. I haven't drop-tested the Note 4, but corner landings are usually the worst for a phone and these look to help.

There is a bit of a sharp edge on the top of the sides that you can feel when you hold the Note 4 in your hand, but it indicates to me that the Note 4 is different than previous models and hasn't affected my usage in any way.

Display: I thought the LG G3 quad HD display was great, but admit to the error in my judgement. After a bit more time with it, I found the fonts to look "off" and the display to lack the brilliance I initially felt it had. Honestly, I think 1080p displays on other leading smartphones are actually better and don't require as much power. LG was the first to try out such a high-resolution display, but the implementation just isn't quite there yet.

This is not the case on the Galaxy Note 4. Samsung also went with a high resolution quad HD display, but knocked it out of the park. DisplayMate tested the latest smartphone screens and awarded the Galaxy Note 4 the best performing smartphone display it has ever tested. The Apple iPhone 6 Plus is the best smartphone LCD display ever tested, but the Note 4 beats even that device.

It is a Super AMOLED type display and, in addition to having colors that pop like nothing you have seen before, the fonts are crisp and clear. You won't find another display this good today, which is the way it should be for a Samsung product.

S Pen: Samsung created the "phablet" large display market with its first Note which sold much better than expected. The defining feature of the Note line over other large screen smartphones is the stylus. The upgrades made to the S Pen for the Note 3 S Pen were fantastic and Samsung takes the S Pen even further in the Note 4.

One major improvement is in regard to text selection. The S Pen now functions like a mouse cursor which makes text selection a breeze. S Pen sensitivity has been doubled to over 2,000 levels of pressure to give you paper performance right on your display.

The ability to create a calendar appointment with the S Pen, including a time and location, was slick and something I could see myself using regularly.

Camera: The Galaxy Note 4 gets an upgraded camera that even exceeds the one found on the Galaxy S 5. The addition of optical image stabilization significantly improves photo and video quality, especially when you zoom in on images. Auto HDR is present, as well as a number of fun shooting modes and voice control.

The front-facing camera gets bumped up to 3.7 megapixels with a wider f/1.9 aperture lens. There is a "wide selfie" mode that captures selfies in a panoramic manner to capture more than just you. The heart rate monitor button on the back can actually be used as a selfie shutter button too.

If you want higher quality selfies, Samsung includes a new "rear-cam selfie" mode. Select this mode, move the box on the display to where you want to appear in the image, then turn the phone around and aim it at yourself. The software will identify a person in the photo, start the countdown, and then capture your image.

Pros Cons
Gorgeous, industry-leading Super AMOLED quad HD display Non-functional fingerprint scanner
Premium metal frame with reinforced corners No water resistant rating
High-quality camera and useful front-facing camera software Overpopulated notification area
Advanced S Pen functionality  
Removable battery and microSD storage expansion  

 Look at the software, conclusions, and rating


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Back of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4

On the software

Like the Galaxy S5, TouchWiz is scaled down on the Galaxy Note 4. All the duplicate service options and needless Samsung bloatware is gone. In addition, Samsung listened to users and finally combined Action Memos and S Note. Notes you jot down from the Air Command menu are part of S Note. They can even be pinned to a home screen panel so virtual yellow stickies work as you want them to.

Unfortunately, the AT&T version is loaded with more AT&T junk than I have seen on a phone in a long time, and you can't remove it from Android devices like you can on the iPhone and Windows Phone devices. AT&T apps include AT&T Locker, AT&T Mail, AT&T Mobile Locate, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Ready2Go, AT&T Smart Wi-Fi, Caller Name ID, Device Help, DriveMode, Mobile Hotspot, Mobile TV, myAT&T, and YP. 

A feature that distinguishes the Note line is the multi-window support that makes the Note act like a small tablet. The multi-window experience is improved on the Note 4. You can tap on the circle between the panes and switch windows, expand or minimize a window, close a window, and move content between windows.

Pop-up view, small windows, has also been improved so you can have a number of compatible apps open all over the display. Within a compatible app, say the dialer, you simply drag down from the upper-left corner to resize the pop-up and move it around the display.

Remote control software, S Health, Milk Music, Scrapbook, S Voice, and more are included by Samsung. You can also visit the Samsung Galaxy Apps store front for more apps and free gifts from Samsung. There are some good offers available so I do recommend you at least visit the store once to check out the deals.

I hated the My Magazine feature on the Note 3 because it regularly crashed and slowed the device down. Samsung now has Flipboard present when you swipe all the way from left to right beyond the last home screen panel.

The Note 4 is a rather large device and at times it can be a bit awkward to reach down to the home button and two capacitive keys on either side of the button. You can enable a side key panel that you can move around the edges of the screen. This side key panel gives you the task switcher, home, and back buttons by default. Other keys can be added in the settings too.

In regard to the task switcher, note there is a small icon in the upper-right corner of some apps. This is an indicator for a compatible multi-window app. Tapping the icon opens that app in one panel with a prompt to select another app for the second panel.

The Settings area has been vastly improved with related specific settings all now having the same color icon. I still cannot believe they were so random on the Note 3 in the first place. It is now quite easy to find settings with this new organization, but there are still several pages of settings available for customizing your phone.

While there are not duplicate service offerings, there are still 19 quick settings available. You can choose which are active in the notification panel settings, but I still would like to see a cleaner notifications area on the Note 4.

Pricing and availability

The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is up for pre-order on most carriers and will be launching within the next week. The full retail price ranges from $700 (Verizon) to $826 (AT&T) with subsidized pricing starting at $300 with a 2-year agreement. This is the same price as the 16GB Apple iPhone 6 Plus, but you get more internal storage and a microSD expansion card option.

The competition

Large screen smartphones are popular today with even Apple joining the party. No other manufacturer has quite the stylus support as Samsung though so if using your smartphone as a mini tablet with inking capability is important to you, then the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 stands alone.

Looking at phones with displays greater than 5.2 inches, we have the LG G3, Apple iPhone 6 Plus, Nokia Lumia 1520, Xperia Z3, new Moto X, and more. They are all excellent smartphones, but the Note 4 stands out with the top specs and S Pen functionality.


Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 launches after the Apple iPhone 6 Plus and just before the rumored large screen Google Nexus device, so competition is fierce at the moment. If you plan to use the S Pen functionality, then go order your Note 4 now, you will be very pleased with the device.

Some fans also like the ability to expand their storage capacity and swap out batteries so the Note 4 is the natural choice there too. Very few manufacturers allow you to swap batteries today so long-term usage and the ability to pop in a spare is a major benefit to the Note line.

If I did not have the Apple iPhone 6 Plus, then I would likely purchase a Note 4. However, after performing a side-by-side usage comparison, I prefer the email, calendar, media, and application experiences on the iPhone 6 Plus over the Note 4. I never used the S Pen enough to justify keeping the Note 3 and doubt my behavior has changed a year later.

I previously awarded the Note 3 a 9.5 rating and you might think that the better Note 4 deserves at least that same rating. However, the available options in the large screen smartphone space are extensive and there are some things Samsung can still do to improve the device.

I don't think I have ever given a phone a perfect 10 rating before and to get that the Note 4 would have to be water resistant, have wireless charging out of the box, and have a fingerprint scanner that actually works.

Contributor's rating: 9 out of 10

Galaxy Note 4 from every angle: Browse the gallery

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Note the chamfered edges

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The metal frame fits nicely around the 3.5mm headset jack

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Mono speaker on the back of the Note 4

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S Pen silo on the bottom of the Note 4

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microUSB on the bottom of the Note 4

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Note the transition to the beefed up corner frame

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Galaxy Note 4 in hand

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Volume buttons on the upper left side

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Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S5

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Back of the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S5

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This image clearly shows the improved frame design of the Note 4 over the S5

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HTC One M8, Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 4, and Nokia Lumia 1520

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Back of the HTC One M8, Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 4, and Nokia Lumia 1520

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Air Command menu on the home screen

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Look at all the AT&T junk

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Samsung essentials and gifts appear as widgets out of the box

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The settings are finally properly color coordinated

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Another view showing sensible settings organization

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Side Key Panel in action on the right

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Flipboard available all the way to the left of the home screen panels

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Menu options in the app launcher

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Task switcher on the Note 4

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Organizing pop-up views on the Note 4

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There are plenty of ways to use pop-up views

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Heart rate monitor on the back

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Samsung provides some perspective on what your heart rate means

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Press and hold the back button to launch the multi-window manager

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Viewing two apps in landscape orientation

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Viewing two apps in portrait

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You can setup regular views for quick viewing in the future

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Write an appointment using the S Pen

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Time, date, and location are recognized by the Note 4 software

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Several options exist for the front facing camera

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Quick options also appear by default to clean up the camera UI

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Wide-selfie capture in action

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Wide selfie results

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Samsung minimized the default rear camera interface too

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You can always choose to access the full camera options

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Simple access to camera modes

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Rear-camera selfie launch notice

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