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Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review: Drawing Level

15/10/2014 15:52 BST | Updated 15/10/2014 16:59 BST

The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is out on October 17th 2014 at a variety of high-end price points, depending on your contract.

Key Features:

  • 5.7-inch Super AMOLED, 2560x1440 pixels display
  • Metal frame and fluid design
  • 16-megapixels rear facing camera
  • Fast charging (50% in 30 minutes)
  • Enhanced S-Pen
  • 2.7 GHz quad core processor
  • 32GB memory
  • 3220 mAh battery

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The Verdict:

The Galaxy Note was already Samsung's best phone.

By taking everything that was good about the 'S' series - great screens, decent cameras, ace processors, straightforward sleek design, excellent and replaceable batteries, SD card slots and everything else you expect from a top-class, non-Apple phone - and putting it in a larger form factor, with a really amazing stylus and some sensibly designed note-taking software, it managed to achieve, by last year's iteration, something remarkable, for Samsung.

Efficient, confident, excellence.

The Note 4 takes that same formula forward into 2014, and does it brilliantly well. It upgrades everything you'd expect, swaps the rickety old plastic frame for a metal design with rigid edges and reassuring strength, and doesn't add too much in the way of bloatware.

And yes, it is the best phone Samsung has ever made. It's not perfect, and it's not for everyone. But it's just a couple of tweaks and a couple of big, corporate decisions, away from being my favourite device on the market.

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To cover the basics - pointlessly, perhaps, as they will be covered in more detail elsewhere (see above) - this is a very strong performance phone. It's fast, smooth, and capable of completing any task you need it to. The camera is very high quality, also fast with improved focusing and low-light performance, and while it doesn't match the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus for sheer gorgeous images, it's right up there.

The screen, too, is incredible. It's very bright, the colours pop magically off the Super AMOLED panel, and there seems to be some kind of new resistance built in to the surface which makes using the super-accurate S-Pen for note taking even better than it was before. Which was very, very good. The resolution, it goes without saying, is ludicrous, and entertainment content looks spectacular. The screen does seem to suffer from relatively poor viewing angle colour shifts, but it's really not anything you'd notice in day-to-day use.

Elsewhere the phone does everything you'd expect very well, running a full version of Android and coming with a traditional mixed bag of bloatware, free trials, 'gifts' and other stuff you'll take off the home screen immediately if you have any sense. It also has some nice hardware surprises, like the fast charging mode which sends the battery up to 50% in 30 minutes, and some really well-made front microphones for recording interviews and making calls. It also has Samsung's only-okay fingerprint scanner, which you'll never use. What it lacks, like front-facing speakers or waterproofing it lacks by design.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

But the Galaxy Note 4 isn't about the specs or the hardware. It's about the experience. It's about being that guy in the office who takes notes with a pen on his phone in meetings, but loves it because the performance of the pen is so good, so natural and so enjoyable that you'll write things down just to fiddle with the S-Pen some more. It's about the core features of the Stylus - handwriting actionable notes, writing on screenshots, selecting text like on a PC, multitasking with several windows at once - all being really good and well thought-out. It's about holding a device in your hand which is strong, sleek, defiantly 'executive' and yet just as beautiful, in a utilitarian sort of way, as an iPhone (especially if you're into leather).

Ah, the iPhone. Specifically the iPhone 6 Plus. That's the ghost at the feast here, because while Samsung has been making great Very Big phones for a while, Apple's recent entry into the space has cast something of a shadow on the Note 4.

So how do the phones compare? Well, the key thing to say is that their points of difference are the same as on any Samsung/iPhone debate over the last few years. Apple's devices are better looking, have more and better apps, and a refined software interface which means anyone can use them and get the most out of them, whereas the Note still needs something of an expert-level of knowledge to wield. The Note, by contrast, can do more, is more ambitious, has a built-in stylus which actually works, and is more directly aimed at Getting Stuff Done rather than just having a big screen because, you know, whatever.

As such it's impossible to recommend one definitively over the other. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are dramatically great phones, but the Note 4 is its own, wonderful, beast.

It's not without problems, though - and these problems are even more irritating than last year because they hold the device back from true magnificence. The first and most obvious is Samsung's software. Everything about its Android additions and its own bloatware apps (S-Note aside, maybe, and the S-Pen's actions menu) is clunky, complex, dull-looking and annoying to use. The Settings page is still full of junk that no one uses or likes, there are still browsers, calendars and App Stores you don't need, and there's a sense of futility about the entire experience - like Samsung just refuses to know when it's onto a loser. Luckily this is Android, and almost everything is a launcher app away from oblivion.

There are also a few remaining hardware gripes. The pen functions really well, but it now feels cheap compared to the phone itself. The leather-like back is still divisive. And a giant phone is a giant phone - again this isn't for everyone.

But the overall effect isn't ruined by these problems. In fact they mainly serve to throw what's so good about it into light relief. To reiterate, this is an amazingly powerful, well designed and useful phone which for the right user - by which I mean me - is virtually level with the iPhone 6 as the best mobile device on the planet. With a few tough choices and cuts, by this time next year it could be the undisputed champ.

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