Galaxy Note 4 gives glimpse of computings future

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 17 2014, 06:49am hrs
In 2011 Samsung unveiled a smartphone so big it looked as if it must have been a joke, a mistake or a turn toward conceptual art.

With a screen measuring 5.3 inches diagonally, the device, the Galaxy Note, was met with instant and slightly unhinged criticism.

A writer for the Boy Genius Report, an industry blog, called the Note the most useless phone Ive ever used, adding, You will look stupid talking on it, people will laugh at you, and youll be unhappy if you buy it.

The critics were wrong.

Samsung went on to sell millions of the huge Note; and its successors, the even larger Note 2 and Note 3, became some of the best-selling smartphones of the last few years. The Note also spawned dozens of copycats, making for an entire new category: phablets, or smartphones almost big enough to be considered tablets.

Today, just about every smartphone manufacturer including, at long last, Apple makes a phone as big as the Note, and plus-size phones are threatening to overrun both the smartphone and tablet business.

So the Note has become a watershed device; along with the original iPhone and iPad, Samsungs phone is one of the most important and influential digital inventions of the last decade.

Now theres a new Note, and it is better than ever.

The Galaxy Note 4, which goes on sale this week, is superior to just about every other phablet on the market. Its only real competition is Apples iPhone 6 Plus, which has a more intuitive interface. But the Note 4 has at least a half-dozen clever features that should prompt even the most die-hard Apple fan to begin salivating.

Among them: The Note 4 has a sharper, larger display; the ability to charge its battery to half-full in just 30 minutes; and a series of on-screen features that make it easier to use in one hand.

Also, like previous versions, the Note 4 has a stylus, which Apple fans have long argued was proof of its inferiority. Theyre wrong; despite Steve Jobss objections, the stylus is a handy tool for manipulating such a big phone, and after using the Note, I often found myself missing it when I went back to the iPhone.

With the Note, Samsung is aiming for something transformative, a device that is more than just a big phone: The Note 4 feels like an ambitious effort to reach for the future of computing, in which our phones are more useful and powerful than PCs, and in which we barely bother with any other kinds of computers.

Granted, the Note 4 is far from perfect; in true Samsung fashion, a lot of gimmickry can be found in it, and several features seem half-baked. The heart-rate monitor is pointless, and the fingerprint scanner isnt nearly as good as Apples. But if you can overlook the rough edges, youre left with a truly useful machine.

Any assessment of the Note 4 must begin with its stunning display.

Even though the Note 4 is just about the same size, over all, as the iPhone 6 Plus its about 5 millimeters shorter than Apples device, but a millimeter wider and thicker Samsung has packed a slightly larger display into the Note than Apple does into its giant phone. Even though the screen is only about 6% larger than the iPhones, its a noticeable pleasure, like an extra inch of legroom in coach.

And the Notes display is not just bigger; it is also better. DisplayMate, a company that performs technical tests on digital displays, recently called the Note 4s screen the best performing smartphone display that we have ever tested.

Though DisplayMate also found the iPhone 6 Pluss display to be very impressive, it gave the Note 4 the edge because of a couple of technical advances, including what Raymond Soneira, DisplayMates president, called significantly better colour accuracy.

To my eyes, the Note 4s screen did look better than Apples sharper, more vivid and just generally delicious, the kind of screen you dont mind staring at.

The Note 4 runs Android, Googles mobile operating system, but like most Samsung phones, it has been dolled up by TouchWiz, the companys horrendous homegrown user interface.

For the most part, TouchWiz isnt pretty; it is a mess of garish colors and unintuitive gestures, and until you get accustomed to its quirks, it will seem to add unnecessary steps to just about every common task.

The surprise, then, is that for the Note 4 Samsung has built several useful features into TouchWiz that collectively recognize an important truth about phablets: We use them in different modes.

Sometimes, we use them as phones, or quick-hit devices to use on the go, when we need to scan email or look up directions. Other times, we use them in deeper ways, to go through morning mail, plan a day in a calendar, take notes while on a phone call or watch a show.

Samsung has smartly built its interface to facilitate either of these ways of using a phablet. Apples big iPhone, by contrast, does not appreciate these two modes; you use the iPhone 6 Plus pretty much as you would any other phone.

For use as a smartphone, Samsung has come up with a few tricks that make the phone easier to use in one hand.

The best of these is the side-key panel, a pop-up menu of useful icons that sits on the left or right side of the screen, right under your thumb.

Samsung has spent most of its effort improving the phablets second mode, its capacity for deep, two-handed tasks. Previous Note versions allowed you to place multiple apps on the screen at the same time. The Note 4 expands this feature, letting you place apps in small pop-up windows of any size you wish, pretty much like on a desktop PC.

I admit I had to go through a lot of trial-and-error to figure out where the stylus and multiple windows would be useful, and at first blush, they both feel like pointless gimmickry. Eventually I did find some interesting uses. Managing my calendar and email at the same time, on the same screen, was far easier than popping back and forth between the two.

Samsungs labyrinthine interface does not make the Note 4s utility obvious, and even if it did, there would be a learning curve to grasping its unusual powers. Thats why Apples phablet is far easier to use. But if youre patient, and you want a glimpse of the phone of tomorrow, you should take a look at the Note 4.