Armed with an incredible Quad HD AMOLED display, cutting-edge Snapdragon 805 processor, and Samsung's newfound premium design, the Galaxy Note 4 ($299.99 with contract) is easily one of the most impressive smartphones of the year. It's a phablet that can convince entrenched one-handers that maybe the extra manual gymnastics might actually be worth it. Useful software tweaks and stylus features continue to offer advantages beyond pure size, which can't be said for the iPhone 6 Plus quite yet. The Note 4 requires a bit more legwork on the part of users, but the rewards can be great. It's the big-screen phone to get, earning our Editors' Choice for phablets.
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Design, Features, and Call Quality
Along with the Galaxy Alpha, the Note 4 represents a new, premium breed of Samsung devices. The back is still plastic with a leather-like texture, but the cringe-worthy stitching and cheesy faux-chrome band are gone. In its place is a handsome metal band, complete with blingy chamfered edges and subtly pronounced corners. The density and rigidity evoke a sense of luxury and craftsmanship that eluded Galaxy devices past.
It's a beautiful device to behold, but still not comfortable to actually hold. Beyond its sheer size (6.04 by 3.09 by 0.33 inches and 6.21 ounces), the Note 4 lacks the generously arched back of big-screen phones like the LG G3. And those beveled edges look great, but give the Note 4 a cold, sharp feel in the hand. The slight bulges at each corner help secure a firm grip, but this is clearly a case of form over function. Still, I much prefer the in-hand feel of the Note 4 to the iPhone 6 Plus, which feels precariously perched above my palm between my thumb and fingers, ready to slip to the floor with a slight miscalculation.
Yes, there is a razor-thin gap between the frame and display glass, but that concern has been greatly overblown. It's easy to clean away any debris, and that imperceptible space might be the difference between a cracked display and just a dented frame in the case of a drop. Our review unit picked up a handful of visible nicks along the polished edges, though, even without any drops. Get a case if you care about these things.
Small details like firm button feedback add to the premium feel, and Samsung ditches the unconventional micro USB 3 port for a more recognizable standard micro USB port. The back peels off to reveal SIM and microSD card slots, as well as a removable 3,220mAh battery, all must-haves for longtime Samsung loyalists.
In a battery rundown test, where we streamed a YouTube video over LTE with screen brightness set to max, the Note 4 lasted for an astounding 7 hours, 56 minutes. That's over two hours more than last year's Note 3 (5 hours, 46 minutes) and three hours more than the iPhone 6 Plus (4 hours, 46 minutes) in the same test. On top of that, the same Ultra Power Saving Mode that we saw on the GS5 is featured here, promising over a day of standby battery life on the last 10 percent of battery. The Note 4 is also compatible with Qualcomm's Quick Charge technology, meaning speedy topoffs with the right accessory.
The 5.7-inch, Quad HD (2,560 by 1,440 pixel) display is one you'll have to see firsthand to really appreciate. I admit I'm a sucker for saturated colors, but even when you ramp down the intensity, the display quality is impressive. Everything we loved about the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Tab S displays is true for the Note 4's display. There's virtually no aliasing to be found and everything pops to the surface, like it was printed on the glass itself. Inky blacks and a retina-frying maximum brightness make for incredible contrast and readability. I have two minor complaints with AMOLED displays, and they apply here: Off-angle viewing produces a bluish tint, and there's a subtle trailing effect at times. For instance, black text against a white background leaves a slight, blurred trail when scrolling, which can be jarring for those coming from LCDs. Neither of these would be a deal breaker for me, though, and I still think this is the best display on any smartphone I've seen.
The Note 4 supports all of AT&T's 3G GSM/HSPA and 4G LTE frequencies. AT&T had another strong showing this year in our annual Fastest Mobile Networks tests, and I saw as good or faster speeds with the Note 4 than an iPhone 6 Plus with an AT&T SIM installed. Reception and call quality are good, if not class leading. The earpiece gets loud enough to hear over noisy streets, with good depth and natural tones, even at maximum volume. Transmissions through the mic are a bit distant and lack richness in the low end, but overall sound true to life. Noise cancellation was also only average, struggling on a particularly windy day and indoors in a crowded coffee shop.
Rounding out some of the connectivity features are dual-band 802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS, and NFC. The Note 4 had no issue connecting to our 5GHz Wi-Fi network or an Era by Jawbone Bluetooth headset. Wi-Fi performance is also excellent here: In side-by-side tests, from about 50 feet away from a router in a crowded office, the Note 4 averaged 14.08Mbps down and 3.6Mbps up versus the iPhone 6 Plus's 8.01Mbps down and 1.75Mbps up.