Want the best business phone there is? Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 is it. It's far from perfect, but no other smartphone offers such a standout combination of powerful hardware and unique, productivity-boosting software features. For starters, the Note 4 offers a huge 5.7-inch display, an attractive metal frame and good battery life. And it wouldn't be a Note without the built-in stylus, which turns your phablet into a serious note-taking machine. It's not cheap, starting at $299 with a two-year contract. But for productivity-minded business users, it's hard to beat this phone.
Samsung isn't known for making the sleekest smartphones, but the Galaxy Note 4 is a step in the right direction. Unlike its all-plastic predecessors, the Note 4 sports a sturdy aluminum frame around all four sides, which goes a long way toward making this pricey handset feel like a premium device. The back is still made of plastic, but its textured, faux-leather surface looks good and actually helps you hold on to the device.
Of course, what really stands out about the Note 4 is its size. With a huge 5.7-inch display and a weight of about 6.2 ounces, it's a handful. The phone is about the same size as its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 3, but a hair heavier due to the metal frame. In comparison, Apple's iPhone 6 Plus offers a smaller 5.5-inch display and is a bit thinner and lighter than the Note 4, though it's slightly taller.
For the most part, you can forget about using the Note 4 with one hand. When I held the phone in my right hand, my thumb didn't even come close to reaching the device's left side, let alone its top edge. Even tapping out a simple message with one hand was frustrating, since I couldn't easily reach all the keys. The Galaxy Note 4 was meant to be a two-handed device, and feels great when you're holding it in one hand and navigating with the other.
Fortunately, a software feature called One-Handed Mode makes it easier to use the Note 4 when you really don't have a second hand free. To use the feature, place your thumb at the midpoint of either the left or right side of the display; then swipe in and out in one fluid motion. It shrinks the phone's interface down into a smaller window that you can resize and reposition, letting you reach the far corners with ease. Just repeat the swipe gesture to reset the display when you're done using One-Handed Mode. It's a really useful feature for those times when your second hand is full, even though the gesture is a bit cumbersome. I much prefer the iPhone 6 Plus' Reachability feature, which lets you double-touch the home button to temporarily move the active portion of the screen down halfway, without shrinking anything.
But does anyone actually need a smartphone with a screen this huge in the first place? Most people don't, but it's a terrific asset if you want to actually get things done on your smartphone. The Note 4's 5.7-inch, 560 x 1440-pixel panel is sharp, colorful and beautiful to look at. Text is sharp and readable, and images really pop.
But try editing a spreadsheet on the Note 4 if you really want to see the value of a smartphone with such a large, pixel-dense display. Being able to view such a large portion of your document at once on your smartphone is a real luxury. And the extra accuracy afforded by the S Pen stylus makes editing documents and spreadsheets even easier.
Lots of other smartphones have big, sharp displays, but not many have a built-in stylus. And no other phone offers such a deep set of pen-focused features.
Compared to last year's model, the S Pen stylus itself has been redesigned with a new springy tip that makes writing on the screen feel like you're using a ballpoint pen on paper. It also detects twice as many levels of pressure sensitivity as the Note 3's pen, so writing and navigating with the stylus feels smoother and more accurate.
I enjoyed zipping around the Note 4's interface with extra accuracy, but the real value of the stylus is that it actually makes note-taking apps feel relevant and useful. On other phones, launching an app and hammering out a note on a tiny touch-screen keyboard is often more trouble than it's worth, but the process is quick and seamless on the Note 4. I especially liked pinning a note to my home screen, so I could tap it at any time to quickly add an idea.
When you pull the stylus out of its slot on the phone's bottom edge, it automatically turns on the screen and activates the Air Command menu, which gives you quick access to four handy pen applications for saving notes, capturing snippets of your smartphone's screen and more. You can also access the Air Command menu at any time by hovering your pen tip near the screen and pressing the single button on its side.
The Galaxy Note 4 runs on Touch Wiz, a modified version of Google's Android operating system. It's packed with extra features, but it's not half as pretty as stock Android, let alone the iPhone 6 Plus' sophisticated interface. Still, Samsung has made some design improvements from previous iterations of Touch Wiz, starting with flatter, cleaner app icons and fewer cheesy drop shadows and visual effects. It's a definite improvement of Samsung's mobile interface.
The Note 4 is the first phone in the Note line to feature a fingerprint scanner, giving business users a nice security boost. The scanner lets you unlock your device by sliding your finger down over the home button, so you can keep your work phone locked down without fussing with passwords.
Unfortunately, the fingerprint scanner isn't half as reliable or easy to use as Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner, found in newer iPhone models. It works, but the Note 4's scanner requires that you slide your finger down over the home button slowly and deliberately, and it isn't very forgiving if your finger's orientation is slightly off. Having to swipe multiple times to unlock your phone can be frustrating, but the fingerprint scanner is still a nice perk for security-minded business users.
In addition to unlocking your phone, you can use the fingerprint scanner to activate Private Mode, a hidden folder for your most sensitive work files. But although I love the idea, its implementation is clunky and inconsistent at best. The first issue is that the process of moving a file to Private Mode varies from app to app. Worse, there's no way to view all your private files in a single location. Instead, you must navigate to the Private Mode screen inside the Options menu to turn it on and then locate your desired file inside its corresponding app, mixed in with all your other files. New users will have a tough time figuring out how to use Private Mode at all without consulting the Note 4's user manual, making the feature feel like a big missed opportunity.
Finally, the Note 4 supports Samsung's Knox Workspace, a security suite that lets you run business apps in a secure profile, ensuring that other apps can't access your work data. It also adds IT features like the ability to remotely wipe company phones and control which apps can be downloaded on company-owned devices. It's a great feature for businesses, but your company must purchase a Knox Workspace license to use it.
Like other Galaxy smartphones and tablets, the Note 4 features Multi Window mode, which lets you run two apps at once in a split-screen view. To use the feature, just long-press the Back button to reveal the Multi Window drawer; then drag some apps onto the screen. In split-screen mode, you can easily change the size of the windows by dragging the border between them. You can also launch an app in a persistent floating window on top of your main app, and then resize or minimize it to access it later.
Multi Window is useful for multitasking on the Note 4's large, high-resolution display. For example, I appreciated the ability to use the calculator app for quick calculations while composing an email. I also enjoyed attaching a photo to an email just by dragging it from the gallery to my email client. Not every app works in split-screen mode, but there are about two dozen compatible apps, including the Web browser, Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps, as well as your contacts list and photo gallery.
The Galaxy Note 4 is about as fast as smartphones get right now. It's powered by a blazing-fast quad-core processor and packs 3GB of RAM, so business users can expect smoother performance and snappy multitasking. I opened and closed apps quickly, and switched between apps without a hint of slowdown.
Given its fast performance and slim profile, the Note 4 offers pretty good endurance to get you through the workday. On our battery test, which involves continuous Web browsing over 4G, the phone lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes. That's about 21 minutes more than the category average, but it's way behind the iPhone 6 Plus, which ran for 9 hours and 42 minutes.
Samsung did pack in a few software features to help you squeeze a few extra hours out of your device. Power-Saving Mode can throttle the phone's processor and turns off background updates, to help your Note 4 last a bit longer when the battery is running low. In an emergency, it can restrict the phone's screen to gray-scale to save even more battery life.
The Galaxy Note 4 isn't perfect. It's not as pretty as other flagship phones, and many of its best features suffer from clunky implementation. And starting at $299, it's far from cheap. Still, the Note 4 delivers great performance, good security features and the best stylus integration of any smartphone. Those features help make the Note 4 the best overall business phone on the market right now.