The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 looks and feels like a premium device!
When Samsung launched the very first Galaxy Note at IFA 2011, the device — a 5.3-inch behemoth that came with a stylus – seemed absurdly large. But the idea was crazy enough to work: It was the beginning of a brand-new phone genre adopted by nearly every handset maker around the world and beloved by millions. Three years later, we’re being introduced to the fourth smartphone in the series, known as the Galaxy Note 4. As you might expect, the device comes with new and improved specs in both hardware and software, but the design of the 5.7-inch phone itself has made a huge step in the right direction: It comes with an aluminum frame, and based on my first impression, it’s the best looking of the bunch. It’s time to explore Samsung’s latest large-screened device.
When it comes to design language, Samsung likes to be consistent across most of the devices in its repertoire. Often, it’ll choose a specific style and use that in multiple devices over the course of several months (last year’s faux leather and skeuomorphic stitching; the “inspired by nature” design of two years ago) before changing its focus. Starting with theGalaxy Alpha and now continuing on with the Note 4, it appears that Samsung recently began a new and improved style that features aluminum sides, chamfered edges and the company’s signature “leather-like” back. Yes, the Note 4’s frame is made of actual, honest-to-goodness aluminum, not the usual faux-chrome plastic that’s supposed to look like it’s metal (but ends up appearing a bit cheap in the end). It’s something I’ve hounded Samsung about for years, and I’ll give the company credit for finally finding a way to make it work. The Note 4 looks — and feels — like an elegant, premium phone as a result.
I shouldn’t sing so much praise over just one aspect of the phone’s design. After all, it’s entirely possible to make a phone with metal sides look ugly and/or cheap, right? Fortunately, Samsung kept that in mind, because in my first impressions, it’s hard to find fault with any aspect of the Note 4’s hardware. The sides use chamfered edges to meet the front and back (similar to the iPhone 5s or HTC One M7); the removable back is still made of the same “leather-like” polycarbonate build as the last Note, but Samsung got rid of the distracting stitches that went around the perimeter of the phone. The glass is 2.5D, which means it’s not entirely flat — like many Nokia Lumias (and even the Galaxy S3), there’s a very subtle bend along the edges of the screen.
Compared to the previous model, the Note 4 uses the same screen size and is about as thin (8.3mm), but it’s 2.3mm taller, 0.6mm wider and eight grams heavier. It seems odd because the first two Note sequels were smaller than their predecessors, despite coming with a larger display. I don’t think Samsung needed to make the screen any larger this time, as it’s done in the past, but I would’ve preferred to see the chassis trimmed down, at least. That said, this additional width may simply be taking into account the fact that the sides bulge out slightly at the top and bottom, because I didn’t immediately feel any noticeable difference in comfort level.
Just as you’d expect in any incremental device in a given phone series, the new phone comes with plenty of improvements over the last. The Super AMOLED screen got a bump from 1080p resolution to Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440); the rear-facing camera is now 16MP (up from 13); and the battery gets a marginal increase from 3,200mAh to 3,220mAh. The Note 4 also marks the first time in a long time that Samsung has improved the front-facing camera: It’s blessed with a 3.7MP sensor and an aperture of f/1.9 for theoretically better low-light selfies. The Korean Note 4 will feature an octa-core Exynos 5433 chipset, which is split up into a 1.9GHz quad-core processor for bigger activities and a 1.3GHz quad-core for the menial tasks; everywhere else, the Note 4 will boast a 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 with a 600MHz Adreno 420 GPU. Both versions will feature 3GB of RAM, the same amount as the Note 3. For internal memory, you can choose between 32 and 64GB, and you can add up to a 64GB microSD card (not 128GB, oddly). Lastly, just like the Galaxy S5, you’ll get a fingerprint scanner on the front and a heart rate monitor on the back underneath the camera and next to the flash; Samsung’s added a UV light sensor to the back as well.
If you recall, the Note 3 came with an unsightly USB 3.0 connector port, which Samsung added for the sake of faster data speeds. This year, the phone maker went back to USB 2.0; the product managers said that not many people were using the 3.0 port for data transfers, so they didn’t see the point in taking up room inside the phone for that purpose. The charger at least comes with fast-charging capability and the phone maker claims that the battery will charge 30 percent faster when you use the charger that comes in the box. I clarified with Samsung that it chose a proprietary solution instead of licensing Qualcomm’s QuickCharge tech, but it insisted that you could still use QuickCharge 2.0-compatible chargers to achieve the same results.
As I mentioned earlier, the front-facing camera is supposed to be better in low-light scenarios, thanks to its f/1.9 aperture, and Samsung has added a “Smart Optical Image Stabilization” feature to the rear camera to minimize shaking and allow more light in dark situations. It feels as though there’s more of a focus on the front cam, however, since so much attention is being put on the selfie experience; on the Note 4, it comes with a 90-degree shooting angle by default that can be extended to 120 degrees through a special “wide selfie” mode that takes three photos and stitches them together — just like a panorama shot. The Note also comes equipped with three mics to help with directional noise cancellation. This has been featured on other phones (some devices even have four mics, in fact), but Samsung has given the device the ability to automatically adjust the recording volume depending on how much noise is around you; the voice recorder also comes with the opportunity to tag and select up to eight directions you want to pick up voices from — if you only want to pick up the interviewer’s voice, for instance, you can do so.
The Note 4 uses Android 4.4 KitKat and keeps to the same overall UI as the Galaxy S5. But since this is a Note product, there are plenty of enhancements to the S Pen experience, both in hardware and software. First, Samsung has doubled the pen’s pressure sensitivity. It was already pretty good, but making it even more sensitive allows the pen to detect when you’re drawing and writing at an angle, so you can have the same experience as a regular pen. As a bonus, there’s also a new pen mode specifically for calligraphy that takes advantage of the extra sensitivity as well; Samsung reps were proud of the fact that all of the lines still look incredibly smooth when you zoom in on them.
As for software improvements, there are a few features worth pointing out. Snap Note is the most impressive: You can take a picture of any analog note (a regular notepad, signs, pieces of paper) and within a couple minutes, the Note 4 can convert it into digital, which means you can erase and edit that information to your heart’s content. There’s also a new Smart Select mode, which lets you select multiple images in a gallery with your pen, or multiple lines of text without having to long-press the screen and highlight it manually. Samsung’s added a new way to float apps and web pages by dragging your finger toward the center of the screen from the top-right corner; you can then resize the app, as well as minimize or maximize it. You can even convert it into a multi-window screen by dragging it to the top or bottom of the display.
Samsung says the Note 4 will be available starting in October and will come in four color options: white, black, gold and pink. Some of the colors, like black and gold, feature different color accents on the metal sides, which go well with the rest of the device. No price has been set yet, but this will largely depend on the region and carrier; I’d expect the price to remain about the same as last year’s Note. (The Note Edge, which I discuss here, will come out later in the fall and at a higher cost.) I’m excited to spend more time with the phone as we get closer to launch.
The Galaxy Note Edge: Samsung’s first smartphone with a bent display
It’s been over a year and a half since Samsung briefly (and from a distance) showed off theYoum, a prototype of a smartphone with a curved display that wrapped around the right-hand side. While it seemed like a far-off reality at the time, Samsung announced today that the Youm’s spiritual successor — aptly named the Galaxy Note Edge — would be coming out this fall. Sure, mass-producing a phone with a bent screen is a tremendous display of manufacturing prowess, not to mention something to show off at parties, but is there more to this unique handset than eye candy?
The Galaxy Note Edge is, in almost every respect, a Note 4. Almost all of the hardware and software enhancements that I outline in my Note 4 preview are present and accounted for in the Edge. The primary difference, obviously, is the 5.6-inch Quad HD+ bent display (the “plus” in Quad HD+ refers to the 160 rows of extra pixels used on the side display), and any variance in hardware here is to account for the phone’s unique design: It’s 3.8mm wider and 2.2mm shorter than the Note 4, and comes with a smaller 3,000mAh battery. If your hands already experience fatigue with the Note 3 or similarly large phones, the Edge likely isn’t a good choice for you — not only because it’s so much wider (though that’s a significant factor), but also because the right side of the phone, where the screen meets the back, is actually quite sharp and an uncomfortable place to grip the phone. (Insert obvious “cutting edge” or “bleeding edge” joke here.)
There’s a special kind of beauty to the Note Edge that comes as a result of its brand-new form factor. Aside from a very brief encounter with the Youm prototype phone at CES 2013, we’ve never actually seen a device with a bent display. Despite the fact that it’s not as comfortable as the Note 4, Samsung did a great job of blending its counterpart’s design language with the form factor. It’s a very sleek-looking device, and I found it hard to stop staring at it — even when trying to play with some of Samsung’s other products. The phone maker will definitely be charging a premium for the Edge, but it will at least come with some serious bragging rights and a whole lot of people suddenly paying attention to you (or your phone, at least).
But the edge display isn’t just a pretty face. Since the whole point of the phone’s very existence is the screen, Samsung made sure to add enough functionality to put it to good use. In fact, it serves many different purposes, and once developers have access to the SDK (which Samsung says should come out very soon), there will be plenty more ways to take advantage of it. That is, as long as you’re a right-handed user. Since the display bends only on one side, it isn’t quite as convenient for left-handed users; Samsung believes this shouldn’t come as a deterrent because it’s easy enough to just flip the phone around and use it upside-down instead. This would be fine in theory, but it’s still a huge inconvenience if you plan on using the home button or making phone calls at all.
The UI of the bar is straightforward and basic, since there isn’t much you can do with a narrow strip of display space. Often, what’s shown here will depend on the app: If you’re in the camera or watching videos, this strip becomes a sidebar containing all of your shortcuts and settings so they don’t take up other valuable screen space or get in the way. However, you can still access a plethora of different types of bars, whether in or out of the app; notifications, weather info, stock tickers, clocks, news feeds, quick shortcuts and even games are available from nearly every screen. There’s only one game — a Simon-like memory game — available right now, but I’ll be interested to see what else developers can come up with. Swipe up on the bar to reveal a settings button that lets you manage which types of bars are displayed and in which order. If you swipe down on the bar instead, a toolbar pops up. Here you’ll find options like a timer, stopwatch, flashlight and a ruler (the latter is actually a really clever use case).
The settings menu is your key for adding your own customized stuff. You can take any image and crop out a narrow, 160-pixel strip; although I didn’t see much functional value in this, having the ability to show off pictures of the family or your pets can be a neat touch. However, as developers start adding the edge display SDK to their apps, I’ll be interested to see what kinds of stuff they come up with. I’d love to have to-do lists show up here, as well as incoming tweet mentions, Facebook messages and any custom notes, among other things. Basically, any type of viewable information could find a home here.
One of the handiest use cases for me is the night clock, which does exactly what it sounds like — a black-and-white digital clock will appear while the screen is dark. So whether you’re sleeping in bed and your phone is on the nightstand, or if you’re just at your desk and want to see the time, the bent display makes this a rather ideal option. It’s probably not enough to justify spending the extra money for a new phone, but it’s just one example of the flourishes Samsung has added to give the edge screen enough functional value, instead of being just another way for the company to show off its manufacturing talents.
I couldn’t help but feel as though this is a work in progress (and very much a niche product for now), but this shouldn’t come as a surprise because it’s the very first of its kind to hit the market. A year from now, provided there’s enough excitement and developer interest, it could be a very different story.
Samsung Gear S preview: What’s it like to type emails on a 2-inch screen?
That’s how many smartwatches Samsung has unveiled in the past 12 months. If these devices were Friends episodes, there’d be the original Galaxy Gear (“The one announced last year at this time”), the Gear 2 (“The one with fewer bugs”), the Gear Fit (“The one designed for fitness tracking”), the Gear 2 Neo (“The one that didn’t cost as much”) and theGear Live (“The one that ran Android apps”). If nothing else, it shows that Samsung is willing to experiment — and maybe even listen to feedback from users, and reviewers like us. Now, as the original Gear turns one, Samsung is showing off its sixth watch, the Gear S: the one that can run without a smartphone. Thanks to its very own nano-SIM card, the Gear S can make calls, as well as show you emails in full, with the option to reply directly from the device using a tiny on-screen keyboard. To Samsung’s credit, it’s unlike any other device it’s made before. But the age-old question still remains: Was anybody asking for this?
Six. That’s how many smartwatches Samsung has unveiled in the past 12 months. If these devices were Friends episodes, there’d be the original Galaxy Gear (“The one announced last year at this time”), the Gear 2 (“The one with fewer bugs”), the Gear Fit (“The one designed for fitness tracking”), the Gear 2 Neo (“The one that didn’t cost as much”) and theGear Live (“The one that ran Android apps”). If nothing else, it shows that Samsung is willing to experiment — and maybe even listen to feedback from users, and reviewers like us. Now, as the original Gear turns one, Samsung is showing off its sixth watch, the Gear S: the one that can run without a smartphone. Thanks to its very own nano-SIM card, the Gear S can make calls, as well as show you emails in full, with the option to reply directly from the device using a tiny on-screen keyboard. To Samsung’s credit, it’s unlike any other device it’s made before. But the age-old question still remains: Was anybody asking for this?
In addition to being the first of the company’s watches that you can use without a smartphone, this is also Samsung’s biggest wearable to date. With a curved screen that measures two inches diagonally, it absolutely dwarfs my (admittedly dainty) wrists, as you can see in the above hands-on photos. Even so, some of my bigger-boned male colleagues also tried on the watch, and they too found it rather bulky. Not that style was a top priority here. The key selling points — making calls and responding to emails — require extra space, and frankly, even two inches is pushing it. The kind of 1.63-inch display used on the Gear 2 and Gear Live (a big, honking watch face in its own right) wouldn’t have cut it here.
Other than the fact that it’s not very conspicuous, the design isn’t what I’d call fancy. Certainly, it’s no Pebble Steel, nor even a Moto 360. True, it’s marked by metal accents around the clasp and edges, but my guess is that you’re more likely to notice the removable plastic band, available in white and black. It’s comfortable on the wrists, no doubt thanks to the curved screen shape, but ultimately, it feels more functional than it does stylish. When you’re ready to swap bands, for instance, you basically just pop out the watch face like a piece of Fruit Roll-Up. The design feels functional, but also like an afterthought.
Although Samsung recently came out with its first Android Wear watch, the Gear S runs Tizen OS, just like the Galaxy Gear, Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo. That means getting around is much the same as it is on those older devices. If you want to navigate backward out of a page, for instance, you swipe down from the top. Likewise, you can swipe up from the bottom of the Super AMOLED display to see a full menu of apps, including the settings menu. Otherwise, the watch only allows up to five home screen widgets. In addition to notifications, the defaults include things like calendar appointments and news headlines, but you can, of course, customize all that to your liking. Ditto for watch faces: There are around a dozen preloaded watch faces, with a mix of new ones, as well as some that were included on older models.
Because things like emails and calls are a big part of the story here, they’re always within easy reach: Just swipe to the left of the main home screen to see a list of your messages, emails and fitness stats from Samsung’s S Health app. Once you’re in the emails page, you can read the full text of a message, as well as see the rest of the conversation listed below it. From there, you can reply using an on-screen keyboard. As it happens, the keyboard allows for both traditional pecking, as well as Swype for dragging lines between letters.
I had the chance to test the feature on multiple test units in various stages of development, none of them final. In some cases, I had an easy time both typing and swiping out letters, with very few typos to speak of. With certain cruder devices, I had trouble getting it to register an “H” instead of a “J.” Either way, the word prediction is hit-or-miss: Sometimes it was spot-on; other times it served up the most unhelpful word possible (“My name is…’included'”?) Obviously, then, the precision here is something we’ll have to revisit in our full review. Until then, I’m quite sure it would have been easier for me to just pull out my phone and type out “My name is Dana” with two thumbs.
Another thing we’ll have to save for our eventual review: the whole phone call thing. Samsung wasn’t demonstrating this feature when we saw the watch in its non-final state. Sorry, folks.
Elsewhere on the device, there’s a heart rate sensor built into the watch’s underbelly. So, in addition to tracking your steps and recording workouts, the device can give you a beats-per-minute rating. Of course, some older Samsung devices like the Galaxy S5, Gear Fit and Gear 2 had similar capabilities, and none of them gave particularly accurate readouts. So I don’t have super-high hopes for the Gear S when we eventually try out a more polished unit, but I’m ever hopeful that Samsung has continued to tweak its algorithm.
As you can see, there are all sorts of things we can’t fairly test until we take home a final unit, like the kind you’d buy in stores. That won’t happen until sometime in October, when the Gear S becomes available. No word on price yet, or whether any mobile carriers will be selling it, but all will be revealed eventually. For now, check out our video walk-through if you haven’t already — it might be the closest you get to the device for a couple months yet.