Editor’s note: This review is part of our series on the top 10 smartphones released this year. The series was designed to explore how business users can be productive with these devices, and how they can take advantage of the devices’ features during the workday. 

The original Samsung Galaxy Note can be credited as the first phablet, and while many people dislike the term describing a smartphone with a screen larger than 5″, it is the most apt. The Note and the large phones that came after it are truly hybrids of a smartphone and a tablet. In fact, for many users phablet-sized phones have replaced their tablets. Why carry two devices when one will do the job?

However, over the past few years regular smartphones have also grown in size, and the line between phablets and smartphones has become increasingly blurred. Samsung’s latest phablet, the Galaxy Note 4, finds itself in the position of no longer being the biggest flagship phone on the block – that honour goes to the new Nexus 6. Despite that, the Note 4 still has one unique differentiator that that the other big phones do not – the S Pen. This is a pressure-sensitive stylus for handwritten notes, drawing diagrams and for more precise input.

The Galaxy Note 4 is powered by the latest and greatest Snapdragon 805 system-on-a-chip (SoC). It has one of the highest resolution screens of any smartphone and a new metal design. Last year’s model, the Note 3, was one of our favourite Android phones for business, and Note 4 carries this legacy on. Read on to see why.

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SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 4 SPECIFICATIONS
Screen5.7-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED @ 2560 x 1440 (515 PPI)
SoC2.7 GHz Quad-core Snapdragon 805 (APQ8084)
RAM3 GB
Storage32 GB with microSD expansion slot for up to 128 GB
Battery3,220 mAh (removable)
SpeakersMono (rear-facing)
Rear Camera16 MP Sony IMX240 Exmor RS sensor w/OIS, f/2.2, 31 mm, LED flash, 4K UHD video
Front Camera3.7 MP, f/1.9 up to 120-degree wide angle, WQHD (1440p) video
LTE Bands700(B12)/700(B17)/800/850/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 MHz
(Cat. 4 LTE up to 150 Mbps on Bell and Rogers,
75 Mbps on Telus)
Connectivity & SensorsWi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2.4G + 5GHz (2×2 MIMO), Bluetooth 4.1, microUSB 2.0, NFC, IR LED, heart rate sensor, UV sensor, SpO2 sensor
Build Materials & ColourMetal frame with removable back cover,
available in Charcoal Black and Frost White
Element ProtectionNone
Dimensions & Weight153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5 mm (6.04 x 3.09 x 0.33 in), 176 g (6.21 oz)
OSAndroid 4.4.4 (KitKat) with Samsung TouchWIZ UX
Availability & PricingBell, Eastlink, MTS, Rogers, SaskTel, Tbaytel, Telus, Videotron and Wind Mobile. $300 on a 2-year term, $800 outright.

Hardware and design

Along with the new Galaxy Alpha, the Galaxy Note 4 is one of the first Samsung smartphones to incorporate metal into its construction. The metal sides of the Note 4 are finished in the same colour, black or white, as the front and back of the phone, and have attractive bare-metal bevelled edges.

The addition of this premium material enhances the look of the Note 4, making it one of the best looking Samsung phones. It also makes it feel a lot more solid and durable than previous Galaxy devices. The back remains plastic, allowing it to be removable for access to the 3,220 mAh battery, SIM card, and microSD slot

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With its 5.7-inch screen, the Note 4 is a large phone, and at 153.5 mm high and 78.6 mm wide it is certainly a stretch to use with one hand. Because of this, Samsung has added some software features to assist with one-handed use, which we detail later. Nonetheless, the Note 4 is now one of the most compact phablets, with reasonably slim bezels around the screen. In fact, it is a tad narrower than its predecessor, the Note 3. It is also quite a bit smaller than some other new large-screened phones, such as the iPhone 6 Plus and Google Nexus 6.

The Note 4 has a standard selection of buttons, now made from metal, with the Samsung layout of power on the right side and volume on the left.  There is a physical home button, which also acts as a fingerprint reader, below the screen, and capacitive Android navigation controls on each side of it.

The Note 4 has a microUSB 2.0 port on the bottom, and an IR blaster up top so it can be used as a universal remote. On the back of the phone next to the LED flash, there is a heart rate sensor and on the front a UV sensor and a SpO2 sensor (which allows you to measure how well you’re absorbing oxygen). These are all designed to be used with the included S Health app.

Strangely, unlike Samsung’s previous flagship launched this past summer, the Galaxy S5, the Note 4 does not have any element (water and dust) resistance. This is likely due to the new metal design which made it more challenging to design a way to seal up the USB port.

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Along with the metal construction, one of the other stand-out hardware features of the Note 4 is its gorgeous Quad HD (2560 x 1440) Super AMOLED screen. At 515 PPI (pixels per inch), it is incredibly crisp, being much sharper than the iPhone 6 Plus’s 401 PPI and its predecessor’s 386 PPI. It is also very bright – we measured it to have a maximum brightness of 500 nits, allowing the Note 4 to be comfortably used outdoors under bright light. The screen is also very colour accurate when set to the ‘basic’ screen mode.

As for the rest of the Note 4’s hardware, it uses the latest quad-core Qualcomm SoC, the Snapdragon 805, running at 2.7 GHz. The SD805 is, along with Apple’s A8 chip, the most powerful smartphone mobile processor currently available. The Note 4 has 32 GB of internal storage, expandable using its microSD slot and 3 GB of RAM.

Performance

Benchmark Results
 Galaxy Note 4iPhone 6Xperia Z2Galaxy S5Nexus 5
Overall System: Basemark OS II1,215 1,2641,1951,0861,170
CPU: Geekbench 3 Pro Multi-Core3,180 2,88827592,9422,863
GPU: 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited20,01617,33318,87318,18816,404
GPU: GFX Bench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen18 fps17.7 fps11.5 fps11 fps9.2 fps
BatteryXPRT 2014 (Network mode)18.8 hoursN/A16.3 hours18.1 hours13.5 hours

As you can see from the benchmark results above, the Note 4 is one of the most powerful smartphones currently available. Its overall system score is the second fastest, after the iPhone 6, and its CPU and GPU performance is the best. This means that the Note 4 has more than enough performance to power through any task a business user may throw at it.

As for battery life, when compared to the other Android phones, the Note 4 comes out on top, despite the fact that its QHD screen drains more power. We, unfortunately, were not able to use the BatteryXPRT tool to test the iPhone 6. From our experience with it, we could only get about half a day of use, which is quite a bit less than the Note 4. While we have not tested the iPhone 6 Plus, reports show that it does have comparable battery life to the Note 4.

The Note 4 comes with Samsung’s new Adaptive Fast Charger in the box that can charge it to 50 per cent battery in about 30 minutes. To fully charge the phone though it takes almost two hours, still faster than every other phone we’ve tested.

Audio quality and connectivity

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The Note 4 supports nine bands of LTE connectivity to make it compatible on networks worldwide. As for speed, it can download as fast as 150 Mbps on Bell and Roger’s 2600 MHz band, however in real-world conditions, the fastest you’ll ever reach is around 100 Mbps. On Telus, its speed is limited to a maximum of 75 Mbps.

The Note 4 also has excellent Wi-Fi connectivity. It supports the fastest wireless-AC standard and has a 2X2 MIMO antenna for additional bandwidth. There is also a Download Booster mode that speeds up downloading larger files on a poor Wi-Fi connection by aggregating it with your LTE data connection.

As for call quality, we tested the Note 4 on both the Bell and Telus networks and were pleased with the results. Unfortunately, the rear-facing speaker, while loud, doesn’t sound particularly good but should still suffice for conference calls. It would, however, be nice to see Samsung improve in this area and includes front-facing stereo speakers on the next Note.

S Pen and fingerprint reader

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The S Pen stylus is the halo feature of Note 4 and what makes a Note a Note. It has two primary functions — to capture handwriting and as a more precise selection tool for copying and pasting. In addition, it can also be used by digital artists and designers to sketch with. The S Pen uses the same Wacom technology found in graphics tablets for precise pressure-sensitive input, and the pen in the Note 4 has double the sensitivity of last year’s model.

For note taking, Samsung’s S Note is the key application to use with the S Pen. With it, you can sync your notes to Evernote and if you take a handwritten note or draw a mathematical formula S Note can convert it into typewritten text. There is also a new Photo Note feature to capture data from whiteboards and insert it as editable text in a note.

The S Pen also works great with other pen-enabled apps such as Autodesk Sketchbook, and in Samsung’s Galaxy app store there is a section dedicated to applications specifically designed work with it.

Along with using it in applications, the S Pen can be used throughout the Note 4’s OS to select text, files, images and more. Also, when you remove the S Pen from its slot, the handy Air Command menu pops up (shown in the picture above), that gives you quick access to additional S Pen features. One of these is being able to annotate a screenshot, which you can then share.

While the S Pen is still an optional method of input, and you may not find yourself using it too often, for certain kinds of users it will quickly become indispensable. Creative professionals will be able to sketch out their latest idea and an engineer can easily input complex formulas with it.

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Samsung’s fingerprint reader was introduced with the Galaxy S5, which is also one of our Top 10 Smartphones for Business. Unlike Apple’s TouchID fingerprint reader, that just requires you to hold your finger over the scanner for a second, Samsung’s solution requires you to swipe your finger or thumb across it, which does make it a little harder to use. The Note 4’s reader does seem to be a little more forgiving of partial finger swipes, making it little less finicky.

While the fingerprint reader is primarily used to unlock the phone, it can also be used for two-factor authentication when logging in the Note 4’s Knox mode (which we will detail later). It also works with various third-party apps such as the Last Pass password manager. For business users, the addition of biometric security to the latest Note is a welcome addition.

Camera

The Galaxy Note 4’s camera has been upgraded to 16 MP from the 13 MP of last year’s model. While it does have the same MP count as Samsung’s other 2014 flagship phone, the Galaxy S5, the Note 4 does use a different sensor, the new Sony IMX240 Exmor RS. Practically speaking the difference in sensor type between these two devices doesn’t impact image quality – both are capable of taking excellent pictures in all kinds of light. One additional feature that the Note 4’s camera does have is optical image stabilization (OIS), which helps stabilize the lens when taken pictures in low-light, or when the camera is in motion.

Camera_UI_1

Samsung’s camera UI is a model of simplicity, and defaults to an excellent automatic mode that 99 per cent of the time makes the correct decisions as to what settings are needed to take a good photograph. The only adjustable setting presented on the main screen is the ability to turn HDR on or off. Samsung’s implementation of HDR is also one of the best of any smartphone, leveraging the Snapdragon 805 ISP (image sensor processor) to create superior HDR images in real-time.

Camera_UI_2

At the same time if you want to dive deeper, you can bring up a menu (shown above) to manual control exposure, ISO, white balance and more. As for additional shooting modes, out of the box Samsung has wisely only included a small selection so as not to overwhelm users with options. There is a Selective Focus mode to create DSLR-like photos with a blurred background and a panorama mode. For users looking for more options, there are six more modes that can be downloaded.

The sample images below show the Note 4’s camera performance in daylight, indoors and at night.

Note 4 Camera Sample daytime

Note 4 Camera Sample indoors

Note 4 Camera Sample night

When compared to some of the other leading smartphone cameras, such as the iPhone 6 Plus or Xperia Z3, the Note 4’s camera produces comparable and often superior results. Its 16 MP sensor captures a lot of detail, it reproduces accurate and natural-looking colours, and it performs well in almost every lighting situation. Its shot-to-shot performance and focus speed is also very good, being one of the fastest smartphone cameras we’ve used. The Note 4’s excellent camera UI, superior automatic mode and smart selection of user configurable options makes its camera perfect for business users looking to take great photos for work with a minimal amount of fuss.

The Note 4 is capable of shooting 4K UHD video. Interestingly, it has a WQHD (1440p) video mode too, which is an unusual video resolution that matches the Note 4’s screen resolution. The camera’s OIS helps keep things steady when shooting video.

User interface & general software

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The Note 4 runs Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) with Samsung’s TouchWIZ UX on top. TouchWIZ has historically not been that well received when compared to stock Android or even the custom software found on phones from other OEMs like HTC. However, this year Samsung offers a scaled-back and streamlined software experience that is a vast improvement over previous versions. Unfortunately, the Note 4 is now no longer running the latest version of Android. Lollipop (Android 5.0) is already available for select devices. Hopefully, the wait for Samsung to upgrade won’t be too long.

The Note 4 features Samsung’s Multi-Window Mode (shown in the right-most screenshot above) that enhances multitasking by allowing you to have two applications displayed at the same time. New for this year is an additional multitasking feature that allows you to shrink an application into a resizable ‘pop-up’ windowed mode that can be positioned anywhere on the screen. Unfortunately, not every application works with these modes, but core apps like Google Maps, Gmail and S Note do.

Note_4_screenshot_2

While the Note 4 is primarily designed to be used with two hands, whether you use the S Pen or not, Samsung has included some smart features to make one-handed use easier on such a large device. The first option lets you use a gesture to shrink the entire screen in size as can be seen in the first screenshot above. Another feature allows you to change the size and position of the dialer, keyboard and unlock pattern making them easier to use with one-hand.

Samsung has really dialed back on the number of additional apps it pre-loads on its phones, and on the Note 4 there is only a minimal amount beyond the core Google apps and apps needed for the S Pen like S Note. Of course, all the additional Samsung Galaxy apps, many of them useful, like WatchON, Kids Mode, S Translator, etc. are downloadable from the Samsung Galaxy app store.

Security and business software features

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For business productivity, the Note 4 comes with the usual suite of email, calendar and contact management applications. For document creation, you can use the pre-installed and excellent Hancom Office app (show in the first two screenshots above) to view and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps. Strangely, Microsoft Office Mobile is not available for the Note 4, even though it is for other Android devices. We are not sure if this is a compatibility issue that will be addressed with an update, or a conscious decision to keep this app from the Note.

In our review of the Galaxy S5 we detailed Samsung’s Knox 2.0 security and device management features it has added to Android, and the Note 4 has the same features. However, one new security feature that launched with the Note 4 (which also works with the Galaxy S5) is the new My Knox application. My Knox is perfect for small businesses that want to leverage the additional security for work information Knox adds to BYOD devices, without the need to invest the money and manpower into a full-blown mobile device management (MDM) solution.

My Knox is free and adds the same containerized separate Knox environment to the Note 4, but it is up to the individual user to enroll and manage Knox themselves. You need separate password to log into My Knox, or you can use your fingerprint. You can even setup two-factor authentication to login, using your fingerprint and a password. Like the full version of Knox, any documents you create and data you enter in My Knox cannot be accessed from the personal mode, you cannot copy and paste between modes, and you can’t take screenshots.

Users manage their phone themselves by logging into the My Knox web-portal. There they can locate a device if it is lost, remote lock and wipe the entire device or just the Knox partition. Lastly, you can un-enroll the phone from Knox, useful if you leave your company and want to remove all your work info from your personal device without having to wipe it.

One limitation of My Knox though, when compared to the full version, if that its manageability it a lot more limited. Using an MDM tool, like Samsung’s EMM, AirWatch or MobileIron allows device administrators a lot more control over the Knox container.

Conclusion

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After testing out both the Bell and Telus version of Note 4, we’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of the best smartphones available for business today. It is very well-made, extremely powerful, has a gorgeous large display, an excellent camera and long battery life. It also has the unique S Pen that adds a lot more functionality to the smartphone user experience, elevating the Note 4 above many of its peers. From a business productivity and security standpoint, the Note 4’s fingerprint scanner and Samsung Knox security features make one of the best choices for a corporate BYOD or COPE device.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is available from Bell, Eastlink, MTS, Rogers, SaskTel, Tbaytel, Telus, Videotron and Wind Mobile. It is $300 on a two-year term, $800 outright.

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