- 1 Hardware
- 1.1 Design and build quality
- 1.2 Display
- 1.3 Battery life and charging
- 1.4 Storage, wireless, & performance
- 1.5 Audio, speaker, and call quality
- 1.6 Camera
- 1.7 Software
- 2 Conclusion
When the Galaxy Note 3 was released one year ago, it marked a substantial step forward not just because it was new, but was arguably the big generational "tock" in Samsung's handset lifecycle. It had a brand-new bright, vivid (even accurate, in the right mode) 1080p Super AMOLED display, more modern design language that later influenced the Galaxy S5, excellent LTE support, a Snapdragon 800 (remember, the S4 had the lowly 600), an up-to-date 13MP camera, and launched with Android 4.3, which had been announced just around two months prior (even if KitKat did launch four weeks later on the Nexus 5). Most, if not all, Note 3 devices now have the Android 4.4 update, too.
A year later, what does the Note 4 bring to the table? Let's get right down to it: aluminum (and magnesium, apparently) - this is the first Note device I'd say that feels genuinely premium, like a $700+ phone should feel. Sure, the back is plastic, but the frame is extremely rigid and I absolutely love the Galaxy Alpha-sourced design cues. QHD - if you think more pixels really matter at this point. A Snapdragon 805 (the real benefits of which are, at best, questionable in my book). A fingerprint scanner. Optical image stabilization. An improved front-facing camera with a lens aperture of f/1.9.
Everything else about the Note 4, I'd argue, is of less importance. Its software is unsurprising and its performance generally unremarkable. New features are occasionally interesting, but there really isn't anything here to knock your socks off. All in all, the Note 4 is the phone Samsung had to build, and not much more than that. That's not to say it's bad, but if you were hoping for a major evolution (other than the aluminum), it's not happening. The Note 4 is better than the Note 3 in most measurable ways, and that's exactly what Samsung is hoping you'll notice.
- Display: Does it even need to be said? Samsung is building the best smartphone displays around. The Note 4's QHD Super AMOLED is bright, vivid, and bold. I love it. The higher resolution doesn't seem to make a difference to me, though.
- Build quality: On a Samsung phone? Yep - an aluminum chassis with magnesium elements and some Galaxy Alpha-sourced design language makes the Note 4 the best-looking, best-built Note (and possibly Samsung phone) ever.
- Fast charging: See the battery life section, but the Note 4 does indeed charge with considerable velocity.
- Big, but narrow: The Note 4 is the narrowest Note yet, making it even easier to handle than its predecessor, despite small height and weight gains.
- Battery life: The 3220mAh battery isn't as jaw-dropping as it used to be, but the Note 4 is easily getting me through a day of use and then some (YMMV).
The Not So Good
- Camera issues: I had real problems with image blur on the new rear camera, which is a shame considering how excited everyone was for optical image stabilization. Check out the camera section for examples.
- Not that fast: The Note 4 feels no faster than a Note 3, to me, not in any really significant way. The benchmarks say otherwise, but in day-to-day use, the Note 4 is just average, which is a bit disappointing considering it has a Snapdragon 805.
- Launches with KitKat: When will the Note 4 get Android "L"? Who knows! This should set off your Android enthusiast #material alarm, because honestly, I want me some L.
- TouchWiz: It's still TouchWiz and it's still crammed full of stuff you'll never use, to the tune of 10GB of storage being used right out the gate on my AT&T model.
Design and build quality
The design and build quality are, far and away, my favorite things about the Note 4. The Note 4 is essentially the love child of a Galaxy Alpha and a Note 3. It retains the relatively low mass (it's heavier than the Note 3, but still lighter than the Note 2) for its size, but has advanced in quality and sturdiness by leaps and bounds. The outer edge "band" of the Note 4, which is aesthetically identical in most ways to the Galaxy Alpha, is 100% aluminum. Some of it is painted (so don't be fooled by that) for texture, but dig even further, and the Note 4 has a chassis supported by magnesium for high rigidity and light weight. Sure, there's a lot of plastic in there (such as the rear cover), too, but this is the nicest high-end phone Samsung has ever produced by a wide margin - I really think they nailed it.
Down to the chamfered accents on the metal power button and volume rocker, the Note 4 is the Note you've always wanted your Note to be, in terms of a physical object. It is nice. Oddly, the S Pen seems to have been passed over for anything resembling premium treatment, though, and remains a flimsy, plastichrome-trim stick of woefulness.
As for people whining about gaps between the frame edge and the display glass, please do us all a favor and politely ignore them - they're the sort of people who wouldn't buy an iPhone 6 because of the bending situation, or an HTC One because of gaps between the plastic and aluminum. It's a fringe complaint, and it should be dismissed as such. I also quite like Samsung's design here - the glass is beveled around the edges, but the frame sits slightly above this dip, giving the display a refined, premium look.
I would argue strongly that the shift in material quality and focus on design in the Note 4 is no basic evolution, either. The Note's premium pricing has more and more relegated it to upmarket buyers than enthusiastic early adopters, and in a world that is filling up quickly with less expensive big but well-equipped phones (OnePlus One, Ascend Mate 7, likely the Nexus 6), Samsung is competing against companies willing to survive on more aggressive margins. Pushing the Note into a premium material and design category puts it out of reach for many of Samsung's competitors, for now, who simply don't have the production scale or R&D cash to focus on the minutia Samsung can currently afford to. Additionally, it only makes sense in light of the iPhone 6 Plus - without a doubt the Note 4's biggest (no pun intended) rival.
Samsung has even relented on the clunky microUSB 3.0 type B dual-port connector that debuted on the Note 3 and featured on the Galaxy S5, allegedly in the name of simplicity, opting for a standard interface instead. Personally, I found the type B port incredibly aggravating, especially in tandem with the S5's waterproofing cover, another feature the Note 3 eschews for the sake of practicality. While I'm sure some of Samsung's no-wet-know-how has made it in here, the Note 4 advertises no environmental resistances, and the rear cover does not even have a waterproofing gasket. Speaking of which, the new rear cover is fit extremely tight to the chassis - getting it back on is a bit tedious, though it's a chore I'd happily take on in the name of the increased build quality and general fit and finish.
This isn't the end of the design rewind, either. The bottom-firing speaker from last year's phone is gone, replaced by the same rear speaker placement that's been on Galaxy devices for years now.
The texture of the rear cover on my black model is similar to the Note 3, slightly rubberized, though a little less so, I'd say. The white Note 4, like the white Note 3, doesn't possess this "grippy" material, allegedly because of its propensity for discoloration and griminess over time, something the black finish better disguises. Pop the cover off, and you'll see Samsung has ditched the annoying stacked SIM / microSD layout on the Note 3 and S5 in favor of two discrete locations for each slot. The SIM slot also seems easier to work a chopped-down and adapted nano-SIM into (Samsung still uses microSIM), and has plenty of room for your finger to dislodge it should things get stuck in there (you do still have to remove the battery to get to it). The notion of amped-up build quality seems reinforced by a growing number of exposed screws on the back of the chassis, up to 16 versus 12 on last year's model.
Finally, the home button has been slightly revamped. I feel like the press action is a bit deeper and "clickier" than last year's phone, and the button itself is also substantially larger. I'm not sure why that's the case, but I don't have any real feelings on it either way - it's fine.
As for the size of the Note 4, well, it's taller than last year's device (significantly), but it's also narrower - and that's really the important dimension. Your ability to hold a phone is largely contingent upon its width, not height. A longer phone can be cumbersome if the weight isn't distributed properly, but the Note 4 (and Note 3) passes my totally not-scientific balancing-on-a-sharpie test with near 50:50 distribution. To see how that Note has grown and changed over the years, here's a to-scale side by side.
If you're more interested in the numbers, I have some of those, as well, breaking down the height, width, and weight of the Note phones.
The Galaxy Note 4's display is directly comparable to the Galaxy S5's, which is absolutely a good thing. The Galaxy S5 had my favorite smartphone display to date, and so making it bigger and slightly more dense will get no complaints from me. At maximum manual brightness, they're virtually indistinguishable. If anything, my Note 4 may have a slightly cooler white balance, with the S5 being a bit more yellowed, though the difference is so close that it's only really visible in a scrutinizing side-by-side comparison. Both have very good white points, I'd say, with the Note 4's cooler balance giving its greens and blues a bit more richness and, as a result, its reds a bit less.
Of course, switch the Note 4's display mode and this all changes. The Note 4 has three new modes - AMOLED cinema (ultra-high contrast), AMOLED photo (lower contrast), and basic (the most accurate mode). Basic mode is much more conservative than even the cinema mode (the least contrast-y) on the Galaxy S5, and lines up significantly better with the colors on my calibrated LCD monitor. Personally, I'll admit it, I love the standard adaptive mode - the vibrance and color of AMOLED are a big consumer draw, the contrast is absolutely beautiful at times. If you want to take it even further, AMOLED cinema will give you full contrast and saturation at all times, whereas adapt mode adjusts based on the content on the screen in certain apps, and is generally a little less intense.
In bright sunlight, the Note 4 becomes very clearly different from both the S5 and Note 3, though, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. In direct sunlight, the Note 4 will go into an ultra-high-contrast display mode that seems to crank the saturation way up, turning everything to near-neon levels of blown-out color. This only happens when auto brightness is enabled. Does it actually help? I'm really not able to be definitive on that point. It's different, for sure, but I don't know if it's better. The effective level of display brightness is probably increased, but contrast seems lower, so I'm not sure it's really helping.
The Note 4, also like the S5, has a display capable of becoming incredibly dim in manual brightness mode. Set the slider to the lowest level, and no other device can come close. I absolutely love the S5 for its usability in very dark situations without searing my retinas or disturbing those around me, particularly when I'm in bed.
As for the QHD resolution? Extremely small text (like, really, really small) is noticeably clearer, but I've not discerned any other benefit, the same thing I said of the LG G3. To be frank, QHD resolution on a phone is only important to two groups for the time being: people who read content in Chinese or Japanese characters regularly, and people who want a QHD display. To me, it confers no practical benefit.
Battery life and charging
Battery life on the Note 4 has been entirely respectable in my experience. I am easily making it through a whole day of what, for me, is normal usage, and then a good portion of a second day after that, often into the early afternoon. This typically means about 4 hours of screen-on time over a period of 36 hours or so off the charger, with most of that time (around 70%) connected to a Wi-Fi network. I have all Google services, including location, turned on, as well as Bluetooth and NFC. Screen brightness I leave set to automatic. That is all to say I am in no way trying to conserve the battery. Your mileage, of course, may vary. The Note 4's 3220mAh battery is large but by no means insane in today's world - the G3 has 3000mAh, and even the smaller S5 has a 2800mAh pack. The Note's major battery capacity advantage has dwindled in the last year, to be sure, but it still gets considerably better life than my S5.
Samsung's power saving and ultra power saving modes from the Galaxy S5 are present on the Note 4, too, so if you need extreme longevity, you can get it at the cost of functionality and, in the case of the latter ultra mode, colors. Battery life, though, is very subjective, and I won't subject you to my anecdotes longer than is strictly necessary. But how about some objective battery stats?
One of Samsung's big advertisement points for the Note 4 has been its quick-charge technology, not to be confused with Qualcomm Quick Charge (though it will take advantage of faster charging speeds when using Quick Charge chargers, which is a mouthful). Samsung says you can go from 0-50% in about 30 minutes when using the new wall wart included with your Note 4, though that figure is based on the device being turned off.
In my own testing, the Note 4 from 13% to 51% in exactly 30 minutes in "adaptive fast charging" mode (you can disable it in the settings, too) using the included charger while the phone was powered on. This is still very fast, though obviously the 0-50% figure relies on the phone being turned off more than Samsung alludes to. 30 minutes later, it was at 86%. That means in 60 minutes, a powered-on Note 4 was able to fill an additional 73% of its battery gauge, and that's not even under fully optimal conditions (0% start charge, power off). Not bad.
I did the same test with a Galaxy S5 and a Note 3, using the Note 4's fast charger, to see how far Samsung's come with this tech, and the Note 4 does come out significantly ahead of the older devices. See the chart for a full breakdown. All devices have stock batteries and used the same charger and cable (the microUSB 3.0 type B connector does not deliver additional power to the S5 or Note 3, and isn't necessary for quick charging).
This second graph is corrected based on the rated capacity of the battery in each device (% of charge X rated watt-hours of capacity, a bit better than mAh in this case since not all the devices have the same battery voltage) - purely for illustrative purposes - so you get a better idea of how fast the Note 4 charges in a more absolute sense. As you can see, it pulls even further ahead, largely because of the Galaxy S5's smaller 2800mAh battery. The S5, though, does still charge more quickly than the Note 3, which is interesting.
How does it charge so quickly? Samsung, Qualcomm, and Motorola have been tight-lipped about the exact technology, but most likely, using a specialized PMIC interface, you can shunt much more wattage to the battery by splitting up the voltage to individual cells for a limited duration to achieve a complete "stage 1" charge of the battery quickly. Lithium-ion batteries charge in two stages - peak voltage charge and saturation charge. For many lithium-ion (or polymer) batteries, peak voltage (around 3.8-3.9V in phones) provides around 60-70% of the total capacity of the battery - the remaining 30%-40%, the saturation charge, takes significantly longer to achieve, because the input current has to scale down as the battery saturates, and voltage must remain constant. Saturation charging also doesn't benefit from increased power input - a lithium-ion battery will actually saturate more slowly the more quickly peak voltage is reached.
This brings us to why Samsung would also maybe give users an option to disable fast charging - cell life. When shunting so much power into the battery so quickly, heat is going to be generated. Lithium-ion and polymer batteries are sensitive to heat, and the cooler they operate (within reason - you shouldn't freeze your batteries!), the less charging capacity they'll lose over time. Granted, replacement batteries aren't super expensive anyway, so I personally don't find this to be a super big concern, but it's probably worth noting.
Storage, wireless, & performance
As was the case with the Note 3 last year, US Note 4s will ship with 32GB on onboard storage, with no alternate storage models available. It does not even seem at this point that Samsung is producing 16 or 64GB versions internationally for the Note 4, though I'd expect a Korean 64GB variant at some point because, well, Korea. Unsurprisingly, Samsung is taking up ever-more of this space with its operating system's various bits and pieces - the AT&T Note 4 ships with a little over 22GB of available space, versus 24GB on an AT&T Note 3 running the latest OTA. For those of you playing at home, that makes around a third of the device's advertised storage unavailable as soon as you take it out of the box.
Wireless performance seems to be improved over last year's Qualcomm-powered model considerably in my experience, particularly with Wi-Fi. My Note 4 review unit pegs the needle on my ISP's available speed on 5GHz Wi-Fi, with 110Mbps down and 11Mbps up, and manages around 65 down and the same 11 up on 2.4Ghz. Compare that to the Note 3, which managed around 40/9Mbps on 5GHz and 22/9Mbps on 2.4Ghz. Both devices achieve similar latency. The Note 4's Wi-Fi performance also seems basically comparable with the Galaxy S5.
Taking things to the benchmark... bench, the Note 4's Snapdragon 805 really doesn't seem all that much more impressive, if I'm honest (something I tend to agree manifests in regular use, too). Here are four benchmarks - one holistic (AnTuTu), one for GPU (3DMark), and two for web performance (Vellamo and Octane 2, both run in Chrome). Vellamo is more visual-operation (GPU) intensive, while Octane is pretty much about raw CPU power.
Higher is better in all tests.
My guess as a major factor for the fairly unremarkably performance compared to the Note 3 and S5 is the QHD resolution. Its higher scores in the storage and CPU-heavy AnTuTu, as well as the CPU-only Octane test, bear out the expected results for its 2.7Ghz Krait 450 processors, which are clocked considerably quicker than the those in the Note 3 or S5. And while its Adreno 420 does win in the 3DMark comparison, it's not by a whole lot - especially considering Qualcomm is calling this its "next-gen" mobile GPU. Anandtech's early benchmarks for the chip on a reference platform seem a little optimistic compared to the results we see here. Using that test (GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen), the results are much different, though, with the Note 4 having a considerable advantage. This test is also specifically designed to take advantage of OpenGL ES 3.0 features.
Again, higher is better.
Observing these speed differences in practical usage is a murky enterprise. The Note 4 can be slower to open Gmail, the Play Store, Chrome, web pages, and pretty much any app that is not published by Samsung when compared side by side with a Note 3. The difference isn't huge, but it is noticeable. When it isn't slower, the Note 4 is rarely quicker (oftentimes, load times are indistinguishable between the two). I have to wonder if this is simply Samsung deciding that its phones are now "fast enough" as a way to get some extra battery life in order to compensate for that QHD resolution. This is somewhat upsetting, because as most of us know the answer to the speed question is not, and will not for a while yet be, "yes, smartphones are as fast as they need to be." If you've used a Nexus 5, you start to realize that hardware really isn't what makes a phone super quick, it's optimizing the OS around it that makes the difference, which is why the Nexus 5 remains one of the fastest Android handsets around (and by a wide margin for the most part) despite being a year old.
With the Note 4, I'm left a bit annoyed by the same multitasking slowness and hiccups that I found on the S5, too. Bringing up the multitasking UI often only occurs after a significant delay, and switching apps can be a slow process, too. Meanwhile, HTC, LG, and Motorola seem able to iron out many of these wrinkles, while Samsung is content shipping what is basically the same experience from a performance standpoint as it did on the last Note phone. If the Note 3 was fast enough for you, great! The Note 4 will be fast enough, too, because the speed is almost indistinguishable from the Note 3 in seemingly everything but benchmarks.
This is a significant consideration for me personally. There is no way I would hand over $700 for a phone that still isn't as fast as one Google put out a year ago. Especially when it probably won't see the newest version of Android, particularly in the US, for a good 4-6 months. Sorry. This is like Ford coming out with a new Mustang and saying "it's got 30 more horsepower!" then neglecting to mention they also made it 200 pounds heavier. I realize this isn't a huge deal for everyone, but as a consumer concerned about real-world performance, the Note 4 is kind of a drag. It's fast, but it's not considerably faster than anything else that's come out this year on the high-end phone spectrum, and it's arguably slower than some of those devices, too.
If you're coming from an older phone, such as a Note 2, you won't care as much, of course. Because the Note 3 was a significant jump in terms of performance over many phones at the time, the Note 4 will still feel fast if you're coming from a device that's a year and a half-plus old.
The key issue here is whether or not the Note 4 will get faster with OTA updates. I don't know, and Samsung, of course, will not talk about it, at least not yet. It might get faster at some point. In fact, it may even be likely - the Galaxy S5 became considerably quicker after a sizeable software update several months after it was released. But there is no guarantee here, so you either trust Samsung to try and make things better, or you don't - that's your prerogative as a consumer.
Audio, speaker, and call quality
Audio from the headphone jack is very solid, just as good as any of the Qualcomm-powered top-tier devices we've seen in the last year or so. I noticed no abnormal behavior, distortion, or noise. Maximum volume output seems pretty strong.
The rear-facing speaker is a big improvement over both the Note 3 and S5, winning out on volume, clarity, and dynamic range. The Note 4's speaker has much better treble (still absolutely no bass, though), and the improved dynamic range makes it sound more alive and clear. The fact that it's on the back is the biggest complaint anyone will have about it, but as rear-facing speakers go, it's a very good one.
Compared to what I'd argue is currently one of the best rear speakers available on a phone right now, on the LG G3, it's tougher to call. The G3 seems to have a bit less dynamic range, and so sounds slightly more muddled, but also does seem to get louder. It also has better mid-range response, to my ears, whereas the Note 4 is a bit emptier. For voices, the Note 4 is probably the better speaker, because the dynamic range helps separate out sound sources more clearly, though the G3's slightly better volume could obviously be beneficial in certain situations. Both are very good, though, as such things go.
Call quality is decent, and seems basically comparable to the Galaxy S5. The Note 4's earpiece speaker isn't quite as loud, I'd say, as the S5, but the difference is nominal - it still gets plenty loud, something Samsung has generally gotten right on its phones over the years. Clarity also seems a bit improved, if you ask me, but again, I'd say it's minor in the grand scheme of things. Until voice over LTE is standard across all networks, it's kind of hard to be definitive about call / speaker quality. As networks make the switch to super high quality voice connections, I'm willing to bet the difference in earpiece speakers and microphones will become much more apparent to phone reviewers.
The Note 3 is using what Samsung claims is the same sensor as the Galaxy S5, with the addition of optical image stabilization. OIS, as opposed to digital stabilization, should provide steadier video and reduce blurring in low light photos. Does it work?
On the current firmware? No. It's kind of terrible. The Note 4's camera has been set up out of the box so badly that in anything but bright daylight it is prone to blurring every single photo you'll take. The problem is simply one of calibration, because someone at Samsung has set up the ISO/shutter speed algorithm very poorly.
Instead of cranking the ISO in low light, Samsung first drops the shutter speed as low as possible, often to 1/20 or 1/10 of a second. At 1/20, even optical stabilization is not going to save you from motion blur in many situations - you have to consciously make yourself as still as possible. At 1/10 of a second, it's just a straight-up gamble - either your hand moves while the shutter is open (very likely), or it doesn't (very lucky). This is, frankly, unacceptable from a company I have generally come to know for very good mobile cameras.
Here, look at all these blurred photos that range anywhere from "bad pair of glasses" to "am I on drugs" because the shutter speed was too low. And please note, in all of them I was trying to be still - they still got screwed up.
The primary reason for this, so far as I can tell, is that the phone very actively avoids going above ISO 400 unless it absolutely has to, in which case it engages a special night processing mode that appears to strip much of the metadata from the image anyway. If Samsung would simply allow the camera to go to ISO 800, 1200, or even 1600, the motion blur issue would disappear because the shutter speed could be increased substantially. And because images are so aggressively processed for smoothness, the noise probably wouldn't be noticeable unless the picture was fully blown up. If you're thinking you can just set the ISO manually to avoid this, well, sort of. The maximum manual ISO setting on the Galaxy Note 4 (and S5) is - wait for it - 800. So there's not exactly a lot you can do there other than set it to 800 and hope.
Here's one of those processed night images, by the way. It was very dark in this room (laser tag), so take it for what it's worth. Not bad, considering the ambient light, but not any better than what I'd expect of say, the G3.
Daylight images have also been hit or miss, particularly because of color. On the Note 4, your daylight pictures look great - bright, vivid, and colorful. Take them to a PC monitor, and disillusionment can come on quickly.
This image is colorful, but the green on the hedges is blown out in a way that does not resemble reality - it is simply too saturated, and looks very unnatural. The level of detail on the photo, though, is strong.
Oftentimes, I would take the same photo twice only to end up with images that looked considerably different from one another, particularly in regard to white balance. The Note 4 regularly had issues achieving a white balance that was realistic in anything but direct sunlight, and even then, sometimes struggled.
There were some good moments, though - this shot of some very fancy-looking donuts came out great. The white balance is perfect, the focus is great, and the camera even managed not to blur despite being set to a shutter speed of 1/20.
Overall, though, the Note 4's camera would seem to be in rather serious need of a firmware update. It can capture some pretty good images in the kind of environments most smartphone cameras can, but when it's crunch time (nighttime), the Note 4 leaves a lot of potential on the table because of the blurring issues. Let's hope a firmware update resolves them.
The front-facing camera has been improved, too, according to Samsung, switching to a larger f/1.9 aperture lens for enhanced low-light performance. There's also a new panorama selfie feature, and it works like you'd expect - just enter the panorama selfie mode, start capturing, and tilt back and fourth. I tried to do one in the dark, it didn't work.
I'm going to evaluate the Note 4's software from both the perspective of the Galaxy S5 and the Note 3, just as a disclaimer here. Because the software has changed noticeably from even the S5 in some ways, I think it's warranted. It's also just kind of silly to compare the software aesthetics to last year's Note when so many of these changes actually debuted six months ago on another phone. If you want to read about those changes in detail, see the S5 review. So, what's new with TouchWiz? Let's start at the homescreen.
Homescreen / launcher
For the first time in a figurative eon, Samsung has changed the look of the weather widget. It's much, much nicer. You'll probably toss it in the trash anyway because it's a huge space waster, but it is far less of an eyesore than on older Samsung phones. The app drawer is basically like the one on the Galaxy S5, though it has a rather useless "Apps" header at the top of the screen because apparently there are people out there who were confused as to what exactly is inside the icon labeled "Apps" on bottom of their homescreen. I definitely prefer the S5's cleaner, header-less drawer design, but toss on a new launcher and it really doesn't matter anyway.
The homescreen editing UI is totally unchanged from the S5, using a nice, clean layout that is a little more than vaguely Google Now Launcher-esque. You'll also notice more 3-dot menu overflows coming from the Note 3, because the Note 4 doesn't have the dreaded hardware menu button anymore. In its place is a multitasking button, which reveals a brand-new card-stack multitasking UI. It has its advantages - you can more easily see where you were in a given app, and the stack animation is, dare I say, kind of pretty.
You also have to scroll more if you want to get to an app that isn't one of the last three you used, though, whereas the old style on the Note 3 and S4 gave you immediate access to four. As multitasking UIs go, though, I'd say this is the best one this side of Android L - I find HTC's grid layout too cluttered and hard to read (same with LG's), and the current KitKat UI in stock Android is looking dated. So good on Samsung for that. As on the S5, holding the home button immediately launches Google Now (there is no more shortcut in the multitask UI), rather than multitasking as on the Note 3.
Samsung's never-ending tweaking of the notification bar marches on, and it just keeps getting cleaner. The brightness slider is now blended with the same color as the quick control toggles, and the "Notifications" text with the background color of the notification area. It's a small change over the S5, though compared to the Note 3 it's a significant re-skin. The clock also no longer appears when the notification bar is pulled down, only the date. That's an interesting choice.
Samsung claims the fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy Note 4 is significantly improved from the one on the S5. The reason? You now swipe up to 20 times per registered finger - 10 straight up and down, and 10 additional optional swipes at an angle, if you'd like. Samsung says this will allow you to register your thumb in a way that is actually usable. Having tested it a fair bit, it does work. The scanner itself seems no more reliable than the one on the S5, but it was much easier to register my thumbprint swiping at an angle (you can do it on S5, it's just a pain in the butt).
Still, the angle of approach for my thumb while using the phone one-handed made it difficult and risky to unlock this way - it's just too much to reach all the way down the phone like that, maybe even a little painful. After having used Huawei's implementation on the Mate 7, in particular, I just find Samsung's (and frankly, anyone else's) fingerprint scanner to be a dud. It works, it's just not a very good experience.
Admittedly, this is another hardware-software mashup section. Samsung says they've "improved" the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 4. One of the improvements is a more "paper-like" feeling to writing with the S Pen. In fact, this has nothing to do with the pen, merely the display (at least as far as I can tell) - it seems Samsung has treated or textured the Note 4's display so that it has a higher effective coefficient of friction than the Note 3. As such, the S Pen provides more resistance when you write with it, more like paper. Granted, it still doesn't feel like paper, so I'm not entirely sure what Samsung was going for there.
The S Pen is also more sensitive, with over 2000 levels of pressure able to be detected, versus over 1000 on the Note 3. The more significant changes, though, are software-related. People who actually use the S Pen will delight in knowing that text and image selection now work much more like you'd expect on a desktop PC - simply hold the S Pen button and drag to select text, then copy, share, initiate a search, or look up a word in the dictionary using the pop-up shortcuts.
Is this quicker than just using your finger, if you have to pull out the S Pen to do it? Probably not, but if you're constantly copying and pasting large amounts of text on a daily basis, this could be a handy tool, no doubt.
Another new, less notable S Pen feature allows you to pin action memos directly to your homescreen using the pin button in the upper-right hand corner, as a handy way to save things like phone numbers or addresses for transcription or whatever purpose later.
On a more random point, the Note 3's S Pen does fit into the Note 4 S Pen slot, though it's rather snug and I'd probably advise against. The pen itself is fully cross-compatible, and does not appear to have been changed in any significant way apart from some minor changes to the pen's texture. It is also ever-so-slightly shorter (maybe a little over a millimeter).
The Note 4 has two new hardware-based abilities in S Health aided by a couple of fresh sensors on the device, allowing it to measure ambient UV radiation as well as your blood oxygen levels.
Blood oxygen saturation is measured just like your heart rate, simply put your finger on the rear sensor and wait for a readout. The O2 stats do take a good bit longer to read out, and if I'm honest, results aren't super consistent (my measurements went between 92 and 98 over the course of a few minutes, just sitting at my desk breathing and acting normally).
UV levels aren't as precise, and simply display on a scale of low to high (aka good to bad), and then advise on whether or not you should wear sunscreen. It's not a bad thing to have, of course.
S Health also now tracks the number of steps you take at all times unless you explicitly go in and pause it (this was, I think, in an update to the app that also went out to the S5). Battery impacts aside, the Note 4's pedometer is, like every Samsung pedometer, exceptionally inaccurate and generally not useful for anything but a very, very ballpark figure of how much you walked when you had your phone with you. Oh, and when it's not paused, it sends you annoying messages every hour to remind you that you haven't moved, and that maybe you should do that.
The camera app on the Note 4 is basically like the one you'll find on the S5 in most ways, though a handful of the default modes are now disabled by default (beauty face, shot & more, virtual tour, and dual camera have to be manually enabled). Adjusting settings is made more difficult by the fact that tapping the settings icon now just brings up a smaller list four settings and an overflow button, which you must then tap to get the full list of settings, which take a solid 2-4 seconds to appear.
New features like the panorama selfie mode and rear selfie mode are available, and I'm sure they'll get used a fair bit. Rear selfie is pretty neat - enable it, choose where you want your face framed in the shot, then hold the phone in front of you. When the face-detection system sees your face in the frame strike zone, a countdown will start, and you'll get audible cues to let you know when the photo has been taken. This is a pretty nice feature, though I'm not sure if Samsung is the first one to implement it.
Otherwise, the camera app has the same features you'd expect. 4K and 2K video, 240FPS and 120FPS 720p slow-mo (in GIF form below), 60FPS 1080p, HDR (with real-time previewing), voice control, ISO, white balance, EV adjustment, tap-to-capture, volume key settings, and more. There is also a video stabilization toggle, though I'm not sure if that's for the OIS or a secondary digital stabilization mode.
The Note 4 also also has "advanced digital zoom," so that when you zoom in between 4X and 8X, the level of pixelation is reduced. Samsung says this is especially useful for capturing text. I tried it out, and I wasn't especially impressed with the results. The amount of noise versus the viewfinder preview was reduced, and the text is actually quite clear. It doesn't seem to work as well on objects, though. The following image is at 8x digital zoom.
New multitasking features
The only new multitasking feature I'm aware of is a shortcut that allows you to put any compatible app in pop-up view mode by swiping down from the top-left or top-right corner of the screen. It works. You could use this as a way to keep the dialer or camera viewfinder up while doing other tasks, so there are potential use cases here. I personally found it a bit too easy to accidentally pull down the notification bar with this feature enabled (on my AT&T phone, multiwindow was totally disabled by default).
It's kind of interesting, but not anything groundbreaking. There are a few other multitasking changes like an improved one-handed layout with volume keys and the ability to drag images or text across apps in multi-window mode. Dragging images only works in the Gallery and then to other select Samsung apps, as far as I can tell, and text only from Samsung apps to the mail, messaging, or built-in productivity suite. So that's mostly useless junk.
As for multi-window support, it seems to have expended by a basically insignificant amount since I reviewed the Note 3. The fact that it is now disabled by default on one of America's largest carriers says enough there, I think - it confuses people more than it helps. I'd expect it to end up on Samsung's list of "not gone but not getting updated" innovations eventually.
Stock apps and other things
The dialer is very slightly different from the S5, and compared to the Note 4, has been flattened down. Functionally, it doesn't seem noticeably different.
The calendar has some very small UI tweaks, but is basically the same app you'll find on the S5. Compared to the Note 3, you obviously get hamburger navigation as opposed to the date views on the right edge of the phone, and the UI is, you guessed it, flatter.
A good number of apps, like settings, calculator, clock, the file manager, and more, have had their themes changed from dark to light, as have most settings menus and overflow drop-downs.
S Voice seems largely unchanged from the Galaxy S5, aside from some minor UI adjustments.
Smart Remote has the same UI, as it's now updated via the Play Store.
The Galaxy Apps version and the Play Store version of PayPal will still fight over which is more up to date, which is a good reason to disable Galaxy Apps' auto-update feature entirely, since the Samsung version of PayPal requires you to log out of the app every time you use it unless you want a persistent notification saying you're logged in, presumably because Samsung wants to piss you off.
As you've likely noticed, this review is considerably shorter than my past reviews of Samsung phones. That's largely because, perhaps thankfully, Samsung has slowed its roll just a bit on adding tons and tons of new software features. There are changes, but many of them are so minor or relegated to such obscure stock apps that they're not worth discussing. Much of the other new stuff (compared to the Note3) isn't actually new, too, but comes from the Galaxy S5, as you'd rightly expect.
So, when it comes down to it, what exactly is the Galaxy Note 4 supposed to be over the Note 3? It's supposed to charge faster, last longer, have more pixels, more premium materials, better wireless performance, a fingerprint scanner, and improved cameras. It also has a better speaker, a narrower chassis, and some aesthetic software updates that give it a more modern look. This is not, though, the clear market-leader that the Note 3 was when it came out.
The 5.9" Nexus 6 is on the way, and at 5.7" the Note 4 isn't exactly unusually large these days. The LG G3 and iPhone 6 Plus both have 5.5" displays, and while still smaller, they're clearly in the same basic target demographic. The Note has the trustworthy S Pen (I personally have zero use for it, but some people love it) and a stunning Super AMOLED display, but its main advantage in the marketplace has long been its size. That advantage is quickly shrinking, and Samsung's opaque stance on software updates and the occasionally laggy TouchWiz UI turn off more and more enthusiasts by the day, it would seem. How long until the Note 4 in the US gets an Android "L" update? 3 months? 4? 5? More? We don't know, but it's generally been safe to assume of any Samsung phone that it's going to be "a while."
And what does Samsung have to offer the big-phone buyer at this point that no one else does? This is the question I have a hard time answering in a compelling way. While the Note undoubtedly still has its niche, the competition in this segment has heated up quickly in the last year, and the Note 4 doesn't feel like it has the clear "total package" lead anymore. As an enthusiast who has long enjoyed the Note phones, I don't have an axe to grind here, either - I loved the Note 3. But the times are changing, and for all its improvements, the Note 4 will have a harder time than ever standing out from the crowd.