Classy plastic build
We can all breathe a sigh of relief. This is the first time in the history of the Note line that Samsung hasn't increased the size of its supersize phone. The black, white, gold, or pink Note 4 holds steady at 5.7 inches, which is plenty big for both viewing and writing.
We never thought we'd say this, but compared to phones in the 6-inch to 6.4-inch range, it's also "small" enough to wield and pocket without things getting silly. To be exact, that's 6 inches tall by 3.1 inches wide by 0.34 inch thick (153.5 by 78.6 by 8.5mm) and 6.2 ounces (176g).
Chromelike spines give the Note 4 a little upscale polish.Sarah Tew/CNET
Samsung also keeps the Note 4 shooting for a classier look. It's built better and looks better than last year's Note 3. Gone is the fake stitching mold around the Note 4's plastic back plate (applause), though Note fans will recognize the lightly textured naugahyde vibe and metallic rim. This year's chrome seems a little sturdier and less plastic-y than in models past.
Flip over the Note 4 and you'll find a heart-rate monitor that tracks your ticker; the S5's fingerprint scanner integrates into the home button as well. You'll be able to peel off the back cover to access the battery and microSD card slot. Surprisingly, though, the Note 4 lacks the Galaxy S5's water-resistant promise.
Still, from the added metal frame to its crisper higher-res display, the phone feels zippier, crisper, and better to use.
Quad HD display
What makes Samsung's 5.7-inch screen important is that it's Samsung's first to feature a Super AMOLED display with a "quad HD" resolution, meaning 2,560x1,440 pixels (four times as many as regular HD). The jump from 1,920x1,080 full HD was inevitable; Samsung isn't the first phone-maker to trot out the newest gold standard, but now that it's joined the ranks, we can expect 1440p resolutions going forward on its high-end phones.
Pixel density skyrockets in the boost from 1080p to quad HD resolution. Just how meaningful that figure is depends somewhat on how sensitive you are to fine lines and graphical movements, like with gaming. We'll of course take a much closer look in some side-by-side tests as we spend more time with the phone.
New S Pen
The S Pen stylus was already good last year, and this year's tweaks are subtle but welcome. Samsung says that its stylus is more sensitive than previous versions, and more attuned to natural handwriting. We didn't get very long to test this claim, but in our brief time with the device it did feel comfy and usable. In previous versions, the S Pen gets the job done, but certainly isn't as good as pen and paper.
A more sensitive stylus seeks to mimic your handwriting.Sarah Tew /CNET
In addition to finding its sensitive side, the Note 4's S Pen -- which snugly holsters in the phone's bottom edge -- adds a few more functions inspired by your computer mouse. These include minimizing app windows and dragging them around to multitask, copy/paste, and help define words you see on the screen.
The new drag-and-drop window design, however, takes getting used to. It's interesting how app windows are treated more like standard PC windows on the Note 4, but the windows don't always scale the way you'd like, and they can clutter space too quickly. Even for a multitasking phablet, it might be a step too far.
We just hope that the stylus' button along the stem has somehow become less easy to accidentally press.
OS and apps
As far as we can tell, the Note 4 runs the same version of Samsung's TouchWiz interface on top ofAndroid 4.4 KitKat as the Galaxy S5 does. For instance, pulling down the notifications bar gets you quick access to system toggles, and other shortcuts, and a trip to the involved and options-packed Settings menu can help you pick and choose extra gestures and modes to your heart's content (here's a list of helpful tips and tricks). Since this is the Note 4, you'll find S Pen settings besides.
Individual carriers will also add their own management apps and partner installations.
Camera and video
Happily, the Note 4 has the Galaxy S5's 16-megapixel camera, and adds optical image stabilization, which makes a big difference in steady shots while holding a big phablet in one hand.
This recent version of TouchWiz means there are a mountain of settings that are easier to access than in the Note 3. HDR preview mode is a recent benefit, as is improved low-light performance, though if this is anything like the Galaxy S5, outdoor shots are still going to look better than photos taken inside.
Optical image stabilization could make all the difference in nabbing shots on a hard-to-hold phablet.Sarah Tew/CNET
Here's something all-new to the Note 4: a 3.7-megapixel wide-angle front-facing camera that's been made to really maximize selfies. Samsung says this puppy has improved low-light performance by 60 percent, which is a big deal because we've yet to see a dedicated front-facing camera that comes with its own flash. That translates into better-balanced photos taken in darker environments.
It's nothing new to phones, but with the Note 4, Samsung is emphasizing gestures and voice commands to trigger the shutter and take a front-facing shot. You can also turn on a front-facing camera timer, which, incidentally, HTC's One M8 uses by default. Interestingly, you can also tap the heart-rate monitor to take a photo of yourself with the rear camera instead.
Performance and speeds: 0 to 50
Ask any device-maker for one of the biggest pain points and the answer is battery life. The 3,220mAh battery should be no slouch on its own (though the screen will be a power-hungry monster) and the Note 4 has power-saving modes aplenty, like the ultra power-saving mode found in the GS5, which grants 24 hours more life with 10 percent of the battery left. Still, Samsung took the time to point out that the Note 4's battery will charge to 50 percent of its capacity in half an hour.
Power users and gamers have scored a good one in the Note 4's 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, which is even faster than the S5's 801 chipset. Here's a peek into some of the extended powers Qualcomm has poured into this iteration. Some markets will get a 1.9GHz octa-core chipset, comprised of 1.9GHz and 1.3GHz quad-core processors.
LTE is on-board, too, of course. The Note 4 has 32GB internal storage, with an option to expand by 64GB more. It has 3GB RAM.
Pricing and availability
Samsung will launch the Note 4 globally in October, with market dates depending on the region and the carrier. Typically, Samsung leaves it up to carriers and retailers to announce their own pricing, but the cost should come in at the same retail price point as last year's model, about $300 on-contract in the US and $600 off-contract; £600 or £650 in the UK.
The Note 4 will, like the two versions before it, sell on five US carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon. In the UK, O2 is the first network to announce it will offer the Note 4, from "late September." In Australia, only Telstra has confirmed it will stock the Note 4, but the other major carrier are anticipated to be on board as well.
US carriers will start selling the Note 4 on October 17, with preorders beginning on September 19 (aka iPhone 6 and 6 Plus sale day). AT&T's Note 4 will sell for $300 on-contract. Next 18 pricing is $34.42 a month, with Next 12 pricing at $41.30 per month. Off-contract, it'll cost $825.99.
T-Mobile will sell it for $749.76, or $31.24 per month for 24 months. Sprint's pricing is $350 with a new, two-year service agreement, or $30 a month for 24 months, or $720 all told.
For its part, Verizon pricing comes down to $300 on contract, $35 per month over 20 months, or $700 full retail.
The Note 4 advances the expected specs in terms of processing power, screen resolution, optical image stabilization, and the stylus -- without ballooning to ever-larger proportions. While the Note 4's features should continue to keep Samsung sales strong, large-phone fans who don't want a stylus will have other top-tier options in phones like the 5.5-inch LG G3 and Sony's Xperia Z line.