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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review: This Android phablet rules with a pen

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.

One 2014 addition I did glom onto is the sticky Post-It style of the Note 4's Action Memo. Now, after writing a note, you can also pin it to the home screen as a visual reminder. Here's another beneficial change: being able to share and annotate photos after hovering over them in the gallery.

As with all the phone's multitasking efforts, I'm not sold on the overall efficacy of all these time-saving conveniences; I'm not convinced they all work.

Writing with the new S-Pen

It may look like a little plastic toy, but the roughly 4-inch plastic S-Pen stylus is the crux of what makes the Note series what it is. The Note 4's square-sided S-Pen is almost the exact same design and dimension as the Note 3's, only a touch shorter.

What's different is the tech within the wand, which makes the Note 4's S-Pen a smoother, more responsive writer than last year's model. To test it, I wrote the same sentence several times with both S-Pens, first on the Note 3 and then on the Note 4. Text handwritten with the Note 4's S-Pen consistently came out heavier and darker than with the Note 3's pen, even at different ink thicknesses. This is because the new S-Pen has more than 2,000 levels of sensitivity versus 1,000 levels on last year's model.

(Watch the video below for examples.)

As before, you can select from a number of writing implements and colors, building your favorite combinations into presets to use on different backgrounds and templates. A calligraphy tip is the newest addition to the bunch, imparting dramatic edges and smoothing out my otherwise inelegant penmanship into something readable and semi-stylized.

The S-Pen is great for navigation when you use it more like an extension of your finger and mouse -- and that also helps keep the screen clean from grime. I find it easier to use when I'm stationary rather than mobile.

Cameras and video

Bottom line: the Note 4's 16-megapixel takes some great photos. You probably won't actively notice its best new feature, optical image stabilization. Instead, you'll notice that flowers swaying gently in the breeze look well-defined despite the motion, and that your jittery espresso hands might not muck up as many shots. Colors can be a little oversaturated, but the end result is a collection of images, especially taken outdoors, that I'd want to share and possibly print.

samsung-galaxy-note-4-product-photos06.jpg
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You'll snap photos to your heart's delight on the 16-megapixel shooter.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As I said, that assessment applies most to photos taken with ample natural light. Like a lot of other phone cameras, the Note 4's indoor and low light shots often processed with less detail and sometimes with a quality I can only describe as a mask over the scene -- and this is after taking the time to set up a photo on a stationary object. Low-light shots also tend to kick in Samsung's automatic night mode, which often asks you to hold still for several seconds while it processes the image. Most rival phones aren't that demanding.

The front-facing 3.7-megapixel took nice self-portraits, though beware of the automatic Beauty Face mode that artificially sheds years from your age. You can dial that up or down depending on your tastes. A new wide-angle selfie mode takes a three-part panorama, though it takes a lot more time and effort to get right than is worth it. Better is the rear-cam selfie mode you launch from the main camera. A series of beeps (or vibrations) tell you you're on track, and then automatically takes the photo. The image quality is infinitely better and the scene much more natural.

(Watch the video below for examples.)

Samsung has really pulled back on default camera modes. The HDR toggle remains on the screen, while selective focus and panorama are still tucked into Modes by default. You can click Manage Modes to surface more, like dual camera and action shot modes, and you'll also be able to download more from the camera app.

Video capture is excellent and is one area where optical image stabilization makes a difference. Videos capture in 1080p HD by default (with a 16:9 aspect ratio), but can go up to Ultra HD 3,840 x 2,160-pixel resolution for 4K video. These will be gargantuan files. If you're into saving space or need to shoot in lower-resolution, 720p HD and VGA are other options.

Both the camera and video recorder let you adjust exposure values and metering, ISO and white balance, and both HDR and grid lines. Slow motion and fast motion return as tools for more adventurous producers.

Stick around for a more detailed camera-versus-camera shootout. In the meantime, enjoy these photos below. Click to enlarge to full resolution.

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There's a lot of rich detail and color in the flower bud at right, and I got the depth effect I wanted.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
note4cameratestflowerclump.jpg

I feel the same way about the leaf detail here, but would like a little more defintion on the petals.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
note4cameratestflower1.jpg

Colors are as rich and full here as they are in real life, but not oversaturated.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
note4cameratestcheese.jpg

Keeping the phone steady and focusing up close still didn't get the garnish in focus.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
note4cameratestfish.jpg

Night mode kicks in in low light, which means you had better hold still while it processes.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Performance: Data, processor, battery life

Performance is nothing short of impressive for any category, and that's when looking at diagnostic test scores as well as real-world usage. LTE-A Category 6 means you can theoretically get speeds as high as 300Mbps down and 50Mbps up. In San Francisco, the Note 4 consistently yielded double-digit downlink speeds in the 20s and 30s; 16Mbps was the low and 50 the high. Uplink speeds ranged from 11 to 15Mbps, with one outlier at 0.92.

In real-world tests, uploads and downloads were equally zippy. Music and YouTube videos also streamed reliably, even when demanding higher-load HD content. Consult the chart below for a few more details.

3D Mark Ice Storm -- Unlimited

Samsung Galaxy Note 4
20,286
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
17,565
Sony Xperia Z3 (global)
18,243
LG G3
16,187

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

On the processing side of things, you'll either get a 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chipset (with an Adreno 420 GPU) like I did, or a 1.9GHz octa-core Exynos 5433. I had no complaints with the speeds at which tasks complete, like loading up S Notes, for example. you'll get 3GB of RAM.

A phone like this was made for taking photos and viewing the screen at length, which is why its 32GB of internal storage is crucial. If you need more, you can buy a microSD card that holds up to 64GB more.

Geekbench 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 4
1,105
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
1,619
Sony Xperia Z3 (global)
968
LG G3
906

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Those of you fretting over battery life should be eased by the way the phone seems to sip power from its 3,220mAh juice pack. Rated for up to 20 hours talk time, I was able to go a full day on a single charge with more to spare, and that's doing normal tasks like streaming music, using Wi-Fi, and taking photos.

Even when you do tax the battery with resource-draining activities like navigating long trips, the fast-acting charger that comes in the box hops to it, charging up to 50 percent of the battery's capacity in half an hour. Note, of course, that battery efficiency tends to flag over time on any phone, and that out-of-the-box tests will outshine those down the road. We'll update this section with results from our in-house battery run testing.

Call quality

Call quality was pretty good when I tested the Note 4 in San Francisco using AT&T's network. I found volume nice and loud at medium and medium-high levels, without any background noise. I did notice, though, that my caller's voice, while natural, sounded a little off, with a little artificially breathy quality.

On his side, my testing partner noted that I sounded a little tinny and scratchy, though volume was fine. I also sounded slightly flat to his ears.

Speakerphone was good on both sides. My calling partner noted that I sounded almost the same through the speaker as I did through the standard ear pierce. He only heard a slight echo. On my side, volume was surprisingly loud and clear, though he sound a bit muffled.

Buy it or skip it?

If you intend to use the Note 4's stylus daily, the phone will serve you well in every capacity and is worth the price.

Comparison pricing


Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (32GB) iPhone 6 Plus (16, 64, 128GB) LG G3 (16GB) Sony Xperia Z3 (32GB)
Full retail price US $700-$825, depending on carrier $750; $850; $950 $600 $600
On-contract price (US) $300 $300; $400; $500 $100-$200 $200 (Verizon); N/A (T-Mobile)
SIM-free retail price UK £600-£650 £620; £700; £790 £375-£480 £550
Full retail price Australia AU$950 AU$900; $1,130; $1,250 AU$800 AU$850

Its specs and design undeniably put the Note 4 near the top of the food chain, though some rival phones have sexier builds and competitive performance, and often take cleaner, more reliable low-light and indoor shots. While the hardware is a step up from the Note 3, changes aren't dramatic enough to warrant an immediate upgrade.

If you want to see how the Note 4's size, design camera and more stack up to its predecessor and Apple's phablet-sized iPhone 6 Plus, check out CNET's initial comparison and final impressions.

Buy the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 if you:
-Intend to write notes or draw often
-Like the idea of navigating without using your fingers
-Crave a large-screen phone
-Seek a top-tier Android device
-Have a flexible budget

Skip the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 if you:
-Don't plan to use the stylus
-Prioritize an all-metal smartphone
-Don't require an extra-large screen
-Have a more limited budget
-Already own a Samsung Galaxy Note 3

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