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Refined, but Not Radical: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4

When Samsung launched its Galaxy Note about two years ago, the smartphone became the butt of many jokes. It was a good idea, in theory — a new style of handset designed to combine a big, tablet-size display with a more portable, smartphone-like form factor — but it was generally dismissed because of its comically large size.

Fast-forward to 2014, and no one is laughing now. Well, except maybe Samsung. The Galaxy Note series has done quite well for the company, and this week it will launch its fourth-generation "phablet," the Galaxy Note 4.

It will be available from all four major U.S. carriers, and while pricing and payment options vary by provider, the phone will cost, on average, $300 with a two-year service agreement, or between $750 and $850 off-contract.

The Galaxy Note 4 isn't a radical change from last year's model, the Galaxy Note 3. (Those looking for more excitement should take a look at the Galaxy Note Edge.) But it does improve on its predecessor with a sharper screen, more advanced cameras, and a better stylus experience, among other things. It also delivers smooth performance and solid battery life. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to any Android user who is due for an upgrade.

But if you're not due for an upgrade, I don't see much reason to pay full price for the Galaxy Note 4. And if you're not married to a specific platform, the iPhone 6 Plus offers a cleaner and more intuitive user experience.

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Samsung may have pioneered the phablet craze, but it will need to try even harder to remain the leader of the category.

I was particularly happy to see a higher-quality design on the Galaxy Note 4. If I'm paying $200 or $300 for a phone, I want something that feels like a premium device, so it has always bothered me that Samsung phones felt so … plasticky. And it looks like Samsung is finally getting the message.

The Galaxy Note 4 now features an aluminum band that wraps around the frame of the phone to give it a more solid feel. And, yes, I gave it the ol' back-pocket-sit down test — so far, the smartphone has not bent under the pressure. I also like that Samsung did away with the stitching on the leatherette back cover. The phone looks neater and more streamlined now. Overall, it's a huge improvement over the Galaxy Note 3.< /p>

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That said, I preferred the rounded edges of the iPhone 6 Plus. It makes the phone more comfortable to hold, compared to the sharp edges on the Galaxy Note 4.

In terms of dimensions, the Galaxy Note 4 isn't dramatically different from the previous version. At 6.04 inches tall by 3.09 inches wide by 0.33-inch thick and 0.39 pounds, it's a bit longer but narrower than the Galaxy Note 3, and shorter and thicker than the iPhone 6 Plus.

Samsung has included features to make one-handed operation easier. There's a Side Key Panel, which displays a small bar along the right or left side of the screen that you can customize with three shortcuts (Home screen, recent apps, back button, apps menu, reduce screen, or more options). You can also enable features from the Setting menu that let you minimize the size of your current screen and the keyboard or dial pad.

The latter was particularly helpful when I wanted to compose a quick text message. But the Reduce screen feature didn't always work. It requires you to quickly swipe in from the right or left side of the screen to the middle of the display, and then back again. But I had to repeat the action in order to minimize the screen on numerous occasions. It's easier and more reliable on the iPhone 6 Plus, where you simply have to double-touch the Home button.

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Watch a side-by-side comparison of the newly released Galaxy Alpha from Samsung, and the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus from Apple.

The display size of the Galaxy Note 4 remains the same as its predecessor, at 5.7 inches, but it has a higher (2,560 by 1,440) pixel resolution. Both the Galaxy Note 3 and iPhone 6 Plus's 5.5-inch touchscreen have a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. I didn't notice much of a difference when reading text, but when looking closely at images and video, I found that the Galaxy Note 4 showed sharper details and produced warmer colors. It's truly a beautiful screen, and outdoor visibility was also good.

The Galaxy Note 4 runs the latest version of Google's Android operating system (KitKat 4.4.4), along with Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. While general navigation is easy enough, the Galaxy Note 4 is bogged down with extra software and services from Samsung and, in my review unit, AT&T. I didn't find a majority of them to be useful, and I have other apps that I prefer to carry out the same functions, so it was frustrating to have them cluttering my screen with no way to uninstall them.

As with previous models, the Galaxy Note 4 includes an S Pen stylus. Samsung said it increased the sensitivity of the stylus to make it feel more like writing on paper. I wouldn't go that far, but I found that taking handwritten notes on the phone was smoother and more fluid than what I experienced on the Galaxy Note 3.

On the back, you'll find a 16-megapixel camera (up from 13 megapixels) with optical image stabilization, which helps reduce blur caused by shaky hands, and improves low-light performance. Picture quality was impressive, even when I shooting photos in a dimly lit concert hall. The front-facing 3.7-megapixel camera also has a wider lens, so I was able to capture more background scenery when shooting selfies, compared to the iPhone 6 Plus's front-facing camera.

General performance by the Galaxy Note 4 was smooth and swift, thanks to a 2.7GHz quad-core processor from Qualcomm. I didn't experience any hiccups while working in multiple apps, streaming videos or playing games. I also made several calls in the San Francisco Bay Area using AT&T service, and call quality was clear.

While I didn't run a formal battery test, I easily got more than 24 hours with moderate to heavy usage. It's also worth mentioning that the smartphone uses Adaptive Fast Charging technology that helps speed up the charging process. Samsung says the Galaxy Note 4 can go from zero to 50 percent battery life with just 30 minutes of charging, which was accurate in my testing.

The Galaxy Note 4 builds on an already strong product with improvements to key features like design and display. But with competitors knocking on the door, Samsung will need to make some bolder moves.

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