To stylus or not to stylus, that is the question.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4's S-Pen -- the narrow stylus tucked handily inside Samsung's surprisingly successful, giant 5.7-inch Galaxy Note phone -- stands out in a crowd. No other popular phone comes with a stylus, and this one makes the most of its mouselike properties, and an ability to write and draw on the screen. Every day, I've used it instinctively to jot a list or note, and to keep the screen clean from finger smudges.
The Note 4's specs also earn outstanding marks across the board, including its eye-poppingly vibrant display and a mostly-excellent 16-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization. Rapid LTE data speeds and a robust processor join a host of other specs and features that easily make the metal-rimmed, Android-powered Note 4 easily equal to other top-rated handsets -- and often better. The phone's drawbacks, though present, are minor and few.
As someone who enjoys the physical act of writing, I love the Note 4's stylus skills. However, if the act of putting digital pen to paper baffles you, skip this handset in favor of other big-screen phones that potentially cost less and perform core tasks just as well. This year's Galaxy Note makes only incremental improvements over last year's runaway Note 3, and if you don't use the S-Pen heavily, the Note "phablet" costs too much compared to competing large-screen phones like the LG G3.
The Note 4 sells for $300 on-contract and $600 off-contract in the US; £600 or £650 in the UK; and AU$940 in Australia. Scroll to the end for price comparisons.
Design and build: Metal over plastic
Achieving the zenith of premium design has long eluded Samsung, whose polycarbonate handsets are usually attractive if not drool-worthy. Earlier this year, Samsung broke the all-plastic mold with its metal-rimmed Galaxy Alpha, a move repeated on the Note 4. Silver accents around the rim and buttons look sharp on both the white and black versions we saw; they should class up the gold and pink tones as well.
So how does it all look? Very good, and a lot better than pretty much every other Samsung phone you can buy, except perhaps for the Alpha. The backing is slightly more textured (and thankfully free of last year's cheesy, chintzy faux stitching). The straight sides are comfortable to grasp and easy to hold onto. You can easily find physical buttons with your fingertips.
Despite the improvements, though, the Note 4 still falls short of the LG G3 and HTC One M8's luxe metal contouring and finishes, and the Sony Xperia Z3's modern edges. Metal also structures the iPhone 6 Plus, which maintains a more seamless build quality than the Note 4 (although you can't remove the iPhone's backplate.)
Size and portability
There's big and then there's big, and the definition seems to swell by the day. You'll find the Note 4's exact dimensions and weight in the chart below, but what I think you really want to know is what it's like to hold and carry around, especially compared to other supersize phones.
Size-wise, it's a hair taller and thicker than the Note 3 and almost identical to the iPhone 6 Plus. The LG G3 feels much more compact by comparison, even though its screen size is just 0.2-inch smaller.
As a relatively short person with smaller hands, the Note 4 technically squeezes into my back pocket, though it looks comical sticking out of it. The same scenario goes for its palm-stretching effects: I find one-handed use pretty much pointless and almost impossible, even with Samsung's software modes turned on. However, several CNET editors with larger mitts and pockets didn't have much trouble with the Note 4's size, commenting on how nice it feels to grip.
Size and weight
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
iPhone 6 Plus
Sony Xperia Z3
6 x 3.1 x 0.34 inches (153.5 by 78.6 by 8.5mm)
6.2 x 3.1 x 0.28 inches (158.1 x 77.8 x 7.1 mm)
5.76 x 2.94 x 0.35 inches (146.3 x 74.6 x 8.9mm)
5.75 x 2.83 x 0.29 inches (146 x 72 x 7.3mm)
6.2 ounces (176g)
6.07 ounces (172g)
5.26 ounces (149g)
5.36 ounces (152g)
Ultra HD display
Although it's got the same 5.7-inch display as last year's model, the Note 4 has jumped in display resolution, from 1080p HD up to a 2,650 x 1,440p quad HD AMOLED display. Its pixel density of 515 ppi soars over the Note 3's 386 ppi and the iPhone 6 Plus' density of 401 ppi (but is less pixel-packed than the slightly smaller LG G3's at 538 ppi).
These are big, impressive numbers on a big, impressive display that is undoubtedly clear and sharp. I spent a lot of time scrutinizing the Note 4's presentation of many HD images, Web sites, and even 4K video against the iPhone 6 Plus and LG G3, all of them with brightness cranked to the max. I also threw in the Note 3 for good measure. Apart from predictable differences in color temperature and tone between the LCD iPhone and G3 versus the AMOLED Notes, differences in lettering and image quality were minor, if visible at all.
Display resolutions, compared
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
iPhone 6 Plus
Sony Xperia Z3
5.7-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED (2,560x1,440)
5.5-inch 1080p HD LCD (1,920x1,080)
5.5-inch Quad HD LCD (2,560x1,440)
5.2-inch 1080p HD LCD (1,920x1,080)
I will say, though, that the G3 looks noticeably dimmer at full brightness than the rest, and that the Note 4 exhibited smooth color gradients and strong contrast. It was perhaps just ever so slightly better than the rest, but not nearly enough to warrant a rowdy debate. Even when viewing 4K video, hawk-eyed CNET editors and photographers gathered around the phones could only tell slight differences in the amount of detail on display.
Other external features
If you're familiar with Samsung's Galaxy S5, you pretty much know what you're getting with the Note 4. A physical home button and two capacitive soft keys rest below the screen, each with a secondary function when you press them down. The power/lock button decorates the right spine, with the volume rocker on the left. A rapid-charging port at the bottom edge balances out the 3.5 millimeter headset jack and IR blaster up top.
Below the camera lens, an LED flash module combines with the heart-rate sensor that is rapidly becoming another Samsung hallmark. The back cover pulls off to access the battery and microSD card slot, which you can fill with an up-to-64GB card (but not the 128GB you see on some other phones). The S-Pen holster bores into the back as well.
One thing you won't notice is a rubber gasket surrounding the internal parts to help keep them free of water, unlike on the Galaxy S5. This isn't a deal-breaker by any means, though some folks find that "waterproof" phones (also like the Xperia Z3) are a little more convenient for their hydrophilic lives.
Music plays nice and loud out of the speakers, though its certainly passable audio quality is a little tinny and thin, not quite the rich, rounded audio of the HTC One M8, for example. Behind the scenes, the Note 4 supports Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC.
OS and apps
Android 4.4 KitKat is practically a given on this phone, as is Samsung's custom TouchWiz layer. If anything, Samsung seems to have scaled back from the Galaxy S5 rather than piling more on top like it usually does.
My Magazine, the newsfeed that lives to the let of your home screen, has morphed into Flipboard (which powered it anyway). The Toolbox feature that was introduced with the S5 is also gone. I also enjoyed color-coding app folders on the home screen, which is another relatively tiny Note 4 omission. Google Search's always-listening ear is off by default, but you can turn it on in the app's settings menu under "Voice."
Otherwise, you'll find a slew of ways to customize things from motion control to the notification panel. Blocking mode and private mode are present, and those who find the UI a little too frenetic can switch to a simpler Easy mode. As a security measure, the biometrically-minded can set up the fingerprint scanner as well (though its time-saving property is dubious).
Large phones like this one often come with settings to turn on one-handed operations. New in the Note 4 is a persistent panel hosting icons for your home-button functions, plus one to shrink down the application window for theoretically better one-handed use. You can expand or hide it on any screen, and of course, customize the icons.
Features that would help me use the phone one-handed are some I'd like to like, but in order for it to work, you have to be able to comfortably grip the phone and navigate with a thumb, something I had problems with while grabbing a pole on the bus and giving blood, both activities that really test these claims by taking an arm out of commission. Also, though it's meant to be temporary, shrinking the app window defeats the purpose of having such a large display in the first place.
Just two more notes on apps before we move on. You may notice a few tiny changes to S Health. In the US at least, S Health gets a new optional "coach" you can use that's sourced by healthcare provider Cigna. In addition to checking your heart-rate, the app can also monitor your blood-oxygen level (SpO2).
You might also notice fewer bundled Samsung apps in general, like the Kid's Mode that came pre-installed in the S5. These haven't disappeared, they're just packaged into Galaxy Apps and include partner apps (many that comes with deals) like Dropbox and Kindle for Samsung. Any other bloatware you find on your phone is most likely courtesy of your carrier.
Multitasking and more
The Note 4 still supports a split-screen mode that lets you resize two app windows from a list of supported programs. You can now launch it several ways, including from the Recents tab, and can also create smaller pop-up windows to drag around the screen.
Even more, you can shrink the size of a popup to float it around the screen as a persistent bubble -- a lot like a chathead in the Facebook Messenger lexicon, or like the Toolbox bubble found in the Galaxy S5.
(Watch the video below for examples.)
This year's Note adds the ability to select text (as in a website) and multiple Gallery images by clicking the S-Pen button and dragging. Further, you can pull these items from select apps to others when in multi-window or popup mode. I was able to drag images from the gallery to the Messaging app, for instance, but not into Facebook or Gmail, two places where the shortcut would make a huge difference.