Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 holds its own in the 'phablet' arena against ...


It's the most elegant Galaxy Note ever. And just in time for its biggest challenge.

Samsung is no longer alone in the phablet market. The company that pioneered the big, big smartphone and proved that the phablet could work faces a big, big challenge this holiday season.

Apple essentially admitted that big smartphones are in, delivering the iPhone 6 Plus, and naturally, that phone was terrifically refined and easy-to-use.

So Samsung had to bring its best with the Galaxy Note 4. But here's the kicker -- that's exactly what it did. The newest Note smartphone is the company's most elegant yet. In a way, the Note 4 is a relatively incremental update, not explosively pushing the phablet forward, but improving on last year's design, making it more beautiful and more premium. And that still makes for the best Android smartphone so far this year, a slick device that anyone will love. The price tag ($300 on contract) remains steep, although it's hardly out of character for a high-end smartphone.

The focus this year is on aesthetics. Following in the footsteps of the all-metal Galaxy Alpha of a few months ago, the Note 4 sports a metal frame, and the result is a brand new, premium feel. Even the removable faux-leather back feels soft and comfortable, and it looks polished. That back seals more closely to the frame, too, combining with the smooth metal and hard black finish of the sides to bring greater refinement to a sharp-looking smartphone.

At 6.2 ounces, this is a heavy smartphone, slightly heavier than the 6 Plus, but it wears that weight well, feeling comfortably solid and sturdy in your hands. It still fits easily into your back jeans pocket, and, size-wise, it's ever-so-slightly smaller than the 6 Plus.

The S-Pen stylus, a critical part of the Note package, returns as well, and it slips into a slightly tighter space, feeling just a little bit more secure. It's a hair shorter but slightly thicker than last year's stylus. Samsung actually beefs up its S-Pen specs, with 2,000 levels of sensitivity this year, and the result is a slightly more fluid writing experience. It's still a bit too easy to accidentally tap the button built onto the S-Pen's side, though; it would be nice if Samsung tweaked the location of that button just slightly.

Still, all of this lets the Note 4 make its best first impression in years, and the screen continues that. HD is so 2013; the Note 4's AMOLED display jumps from 1080p to 2,560x1,440 resolution, quad HD, with potent, eye-popping brightness. In 2014, we've gotten to the point where just about every display features easily readable text, but the Note 4 looks so good that you can actually work through a graphic novel on the Kindle app, if you truly want to.

Video, as you might imagine, also looks terrific on the Note 4, although you'll encounter some oversaturation of colors at times. I found 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' looked cleaner and more natural on the iPhone 6 Plus display, especially in the darker scenes of the X-Men's future.

Overall, it's a quality display that's neck-and-neck with the 6 Plus for the finest one I've witnessed this year.

This framework is solid and well thought-out, although the jutting camera can annoy. It's a catch-22 for Samsung, which packs a very powerful, 16-megapixel camera in here. It's a powerful camera that takes some fantastic shots, although, like most smartphone cams, you'll find it best in ideally lit situations. Even then, in dark situations, you can still capture an impressive amount of detail for a smartphone camera. The camera can take HDR shots, and the video camera can go up to 4K or scale as low as VGA if you're trying to save storage.

Impressive, right? The downside is that the Note 4 once again does not sit fully flat, due to the slight ridge of the camera lens, making it ever-so-slightly uncomfortable to, say, take notes with the S-Pen while you have the smartphone on a desk. The Note 3 had the same issue, of course; once again, you'll want a case that minimizes the ridge just a bit.

Samsung completes the package with potent internals; you get a hefty 2.7 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, and 3 GB of RAM, all more than enough to keep the smartphone running snappily with just about any program. The battery, 3,220 mAh, is more than adequate; with regular usage, I routinely got over a day out of it.

It all adds up to Samsung's best Note yet, and the slightest of conundrums for owners of last year's Note 3. Truth be told, the Note 3 was such a good phone that it holds its own a year later, solid and competent and sturdy in its own right, a testament to the longevity of Samsung's 2013 line.

For all other Android owners, though, the Note 4 should be high on your list if you're ready to take the plunge into the world of oversized smartphones. It's as slick and beautiful (oh, and useful) as a phablet comes.


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