While it’s fully possible to focus purely on hardware and ignore software in some cases, the smartphone in general is proving that such a focus tends to be a bit short-sighted as even when there is a vibrant custom ROM community AOSP-based ROMs aren’t quite as polished as what the OEM produces. In the case of the Galaxy Note 4, Samsung’s additions to the UI become even more important as Android doesn’t have much of the native framework that one might expect, especially when it comes to making use of the Wacom stylus.

As the S-Pen/Wacom stylus is so critical to the Galaxy Note, I want to address this area first. When it comes to the stylus, it’s relatively hard to justify the existence of the stylus for simple navigation, but to this end the stylus is surprisingly useful when it comes to tapping extremely small touch targets on desktop websites.

However, the real functionality of the S-Pen actually comes in the form of taking notes. These use cases include quickly taking down a phone number or writing up a task list, which are conveniently translated into actual tasks or phone numbers to be stored in the calendar or contacts list. Unfortunately, those with poor handwriting will likely find that they cannot write as quickly as one may prefer in order to have accurate transcription, but when these features work they really are quite useful and cool.

While the ability to quickly jot notes down is nice, the S-Pen features really excel when we start looking at anything that involves graphing or writing complex equations. S-Note is surprisingly useful in this regard, and while I suspect that OneNote on Windows is more effective in this use case a full Windows tablet isn’t quite a mobile device the way the Galaxy Note is.

Outside of the S-Pen, TouchWiz continues to be quite acceptable in comparison to previous variants. While multi-window has been around for a long time on TouchWiz devices, I found it quite clunky in previous variations as it required long-pressing the back button in order to activate it. This made for a pretty poor experience as this basically meant that a lot of conscious thought was needed in order to make good use of this functionality. Fortunately, Samsung has also added a multi-window button into the multitasking menu which shows up on the top right of any app that supports multi-window. This is a massive improvement in user experience when compared to previous implementations of this feature. Unfortunately, the use of this function continues to be a bit clunky as it doesn’t seem to be aware of whether the previous application supported multi-window. As a result, opening another app in multi-window when one was already using a multi-window app won’t open the two applications side by side as one might expect. This feature is also dependent upon developer support, so this requires some thinking on the part of the user to check for multi-window support. While Samsung undoubtedly has a good vision for what they want from the phablet experience, the implementation isn’t quite there.

Samsung has also implemented dual-pane landscape views for certain applications, but it seems a bit strange that this wasn’t implemented in the settings menu either. While implementing such views is certainly dependent upon developer support, there is a level of inconsistency that comes from stock Samsung applications that affects the overall polish of the experience. There are also floating windows for some applications, which can help with one-handed usability but are mostly a way of improving multitasking functionality.

In terms of overall design, TouchWiz’s aesthetics are no longer a real issue for most, although this is definitely a matter of personal preference. There really isn’t much lag in most places but I have noticed that the multitasking menu has a rather long latency when compared to most other phones. This causes a noticeable drop in the speed at which I can multitask on a phone. Most people shouldn’t have any issues with TouchWiz at this point, although I suspect that the “option overload” in some parts of the UI will confuse users in general. Samsung is likely in a bind here as they once again have to try and keep features and behavior that upgrading users will expect while also accommodating for users new to Samsung devices. Samsung in general continues to ship TouchWiz with a massive number of software features that might be of use, such as the one-handed usability gesture that automatically shrinks the display to keep content within reach of one thumb.

On the verge of hardware and software, the fingerprint scanner is noticeably improved when compared to what we first saw with the Galaxy S5, and the experience associated with the fingerprint scanner is noticeably less painful when it comes to partial matches and similar behavior. I still think that the fingerprint scanner should be moved to the back of the phone for ergonomic reasons but the implementation is workable as-is.

Overall, the software experience that the Galaxy Note 4 ships with is surprisingly functional, even if there are rough edges that need a bit of polishing. Most people should find themselves quite content with the TouchWiz UX even if there are odd bugs here and there. While the Note 4's software is definitely more functional, Apple ships a more polished software stack with the iPhone 6 Plus.

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  • theduckofdeath - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    I think this is a US centric site and the Exynos variant will probably never be on sale in the US.
  • gunsman - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    Will you guys be getting the international version of this as well? Would love to see performance of A57/A53 compared to the 805. Would also love to see comparison of ARMv7 A57/A53 to (when it comes out) ARMv8 enabled A57/A53 to see benefits of new instruction sets and 64 bit
  • mayankleoboy1 - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    Most important think about the Note4 is the Exynos 5433 SOC, which is on the 20nm node. Snapdragon 805 is a known entity.
  • mpokwsths - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    @JoshHo: You do know that the NAND performance measurements and comparisons between different OS and benchmark programs is not accurate, right? I own a Nexus 5 which, with Android L preview, achieves more than double the performance figures than with Kitkat. That same has been observed with other Android L devices:

    I'm saying this because of the misleading graphs you provide, showing the iphones miles ahead of Kitkat android devices. Well, they are NOT. They are just on a different OS / benchmark. Iphones should be removed from the graph ASAP, or include some Android L preview measurements as well. Otherwise, the NAND performance graphs are highly misleading.
  • JoshHo - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    I don't have any particular reason to suspect Androbench pre-Android L, but I would expect some sort of compatibility issue with Androbench and Android L dev preview.

    NAND performance is generally not OS-dependent.
  • mpokwsths - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    OS AND bench program

    I would expect a great amount of optimizations in the fs layer / kernel i/o scheduler and caching departments, together with newer controller device drivers of Android L. To make things simple: What if the compatibility issue of Androbench is with Kitkat and only with Android L will the true performance numbers show?

    We will know soon enough...
  • Ortanon - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    LOL What are you talking about? The Galaxy Note 4 is a package of hardware and software. Your Nexus 5 has Android L Preview on it; The Galaxy Note 4 does not. It gets the benchmark rating that it gets, and the iPhone gets the rating that it gets.
  • mpokwsths - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

  • uhuznaa - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    What's wrong with testing devices with the OS that they're actually delivered with? After all it's the performance you'll see in actual use.
  • KPOM - Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - link

    We all know that the first thing the average consumer does is root the phone and install a bootleg version of the OS.

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