BERLIN: Samsung claims it created the plus-sized "phablet" market in 2011 when it unveiled its first Galaxy Note. While technically this was actually Dell with its Streak 5 in 2010, Samsung is without a doubt the first smartphone manufacturer to successfully push big handsets to the masses and, in many buyers' minds, the Galaxy Note range is still the first anyone thinks of when shopping for a big-screen device.
As a result, at the Galaxy Note 4's unveiling at Samsung's IFA Unpacked 2014 keynote in Berlin, we couldn't resist the chance to get some hands on time with the gargantuan handset.
Design and build
Visually the Galaxy Note 4 doesn't stray too far from its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 3 and has the same fake leather backplate and metallic sides. The Galaxy Note 4's button placement is also the same and the Galaxy Note 4 has a physical front-facing home button and volume and power controls on its right side. Under the hood, though, Samsung has made a few changes, one of the biggest of which is the inclusion of the custom fingerprint scanner debuted on Samsung's regular-sized Galaxy S5 handset.
The scanner is a bonus for enterprise customers as it lets them lock the Galaxy Note 4 to only unlock once they have proven their identity, making it much harder for criminals to access corporate data stored on the phone should it be lost or stolen.
While the Galaxy Note 4 is fairly thin by phablet standards, despite years of wielding the plus-sized handsets, we still found the phone's 154x79x8.5mm dimensions and 176g weight slightly cumbersome when trying to use the device one handed.
Luckily these issues are heavily countermanded by the inclusion of the Galaxy Note 4's reworded S Pen. The S Pen digital stylus docks into the bottom edge of the Galaxy Note's rear, and helps make the Galaxy Note 4 more comfortable to use, despite it's advanced size, for a variety of reasons. More on this later.
While we didn't get to drop test the Galaxy Note 4 during our hands on we were reasonably impressed with its build quality. The handset felt solidly built and left us feeling suitably assured it could survive the odd accidental drop chip and scratch free.
As we've seen in past Samsung handsets, the Galaxy Note 4's 5.7in QHD 2560x1440 Super Amoled display is one of its best features. While we only got to test the display in the controlled showroom floor lighting conditions we found the Galaxy Note 4's display is not only crisp, but also features great colour balance and brightness levels – so much so that we had to turn the demo unit's brightness setting down.
This is likely a consequence of Samsung's custom Super Amoled technology. Super Amoled is good as not only does it offer all the benefits of normal Amoled screens, which are designed to display deeper and richer blacks by electrically charging each individual pixel to generate colours, it also reduces the screen's power consumption.
The technology reduces power consumption by integrating the capacitive touchscreen layer directly into the display instead of overlaying it on top, as with regular Amoled screens. The practice removes the need to charge two components at once, thus reducing the display's power consumption.
Operating system and software
The Galaxy Note 4 runs using a heavily customised version of Android 4.4.4 KitKat. In the past we've not been massive fans of Samsung's software additions as they, generally, add a wealth of needless services and make handsets' user interfaces (UIs) feel busy and slightly unpleasant to use.
But we were fairly impressed by how much work Samsung has put in to fix these issues. As well as featuring significantly fewer bloatware applications than the Galaxy Note 3, the Galaxy Note 4's main UI also looks noticeably cleaner.
We were also happy to see Samsung has developed some of the more pleasant and useful software additions it has made over the years, loading the Galaxy Note 4 with a wealth of applications designed to help users take advantage of its S Pen Stylus, for example.
Key positive additions we noticed are the Galaxy Note 4's enhanced multi-window support and new Smart Select and S Pen Mouse features.
The reworked multi-window feature lets users swipe using the S Pen to minimise open windows and pull up new apps, while Smart Select is an innovative feature that lets users select several pieces of content in a row and simultaneously share them as attachments in messages. S Pen Mouse is designed to make it easier to select and edit text using the S Pen and lets users instruct the stylus to highlight text simply by holding down the pen's side button.
During our time with the Galaxy Note 4 we were very impressed by how well the features worked and found they made key productivity tasks, such as document-editing, note-taking and altering images, significantly easier to do than they are on most competing handsets.
There is some truth to Samsung's claims that the Galaxy Note 4's S Pen stylus is twice as pressure sensitive as the Note 3's and felt it was significantly more accurate and reactive than its predecessor.
On paper the Galaxy Note 4 is one of the most powerful handsets out there and runs using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM. We didn't get a chance to properly benchmark the Galaxy Note 4, or see how it coped with demanding tasks such as 3D gaming during our hands on, but found for general purposes it is very quick.
The Galaxy Note 4 opened applications and webpages in milliseconds and ran chug and stutter free, even when we had multiple apps running using the handset's multi-window support.
Samsung made a big deal about the Galaxy Note 4's 16MP, 3456x4608 rear camera with optical image stabilisation, and 3.7MP front camera, claiming they will offer users "industry-leading" imaging quality.
Testing them on the show floor, while still not of the same quality as images taken on the Nokia Lumia 1020, images taken on the Galaxy Note 4 were very crisp and featured great contrast and brightness levels.
Running through the camera app's options, it is reasonably well stocked and supports all the modes you'd expect, including Dual Shot, panorama and HDR (high dynamic range).
While we're still not convinced many executives would use the Galaxy Note 4's 3.7MP front camera for anything but video calling, we were also reasonably impressed with its imaging quality and found it is reasonably good at taking photos.
The Galaxy Note 4 we tested came with 32GB of internal storage. Luckily for those looking for more space, a further 64GB can be added using the Galaxy Note 4's micro SD card slot.
Featuring a large, but crisp display and offering what appears to be top-end performance and a reworked more sensitive S Pen stylus, our opening impressions of the Galaxy Note 4 are very positive and the device certainly has the potential to be one of 2014's best handsets.
However, with Samsung yet to reveal the Galaxy Note 4's UK release date and price, it's currently difficult to gauge whether it will make good on this promise.
Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
By V3's Alastair Stevneson
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