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Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 is the phablet, refined

This is Samsung's best bet against a big-screened iPhone

Today, Samsung is announcing the latest in its line of flagship phablet-style devices, the predictably-named Galaxy Note 4. The Note 4 is a refinement on last year's Note 3, an iterative update that improves upon the Note 3's shortcomings, without drastically changing the look or function of the device. It will be available across the world and on all four major carriers here in the US this fall.

Samsung's other big smartphone announcement today, the Galaxy Note Edge, will likely get the lion's share of attention over the next couple of weeks. But the Note 4 is an important device for the company, the phablet that more people are likely to buy than any other. It's a flagship that offers the best of Samsung's hardware, display, and design capabilities in one package. It's also Samsung's best chance at standing its ground against the big-screened iPhone that is expected to debut this fall.

If you've been following the leak train (or even if you haven't), Samsung's updates to the Note 4 are rather predictable: the display is now quad HD (though it's the same 5.7-inch size), the processor is faster, the camera has more megapixels, and the software is newer. The Galaxy S5's fingerprint scanner and heart-rate monitor have made their way upstream to the Note line, and the S Pen has been upgraded with better sensitivity and tracking capabilities and improved software. The new, 16-megapixel camera features optical image stabilization, a first for Samsung, and the front-facing camera has been upgraded to a higher-resolution with improved low-light capabilities.

The biggest update to the Note 4 comes in the new metal band that wraps around the frame of the phone. First seen on the Galaxy Alpha announced a few weeks ago, the metal band replaces the cheesy, chromed plastic used on the Note 3. The band has sculpted, chamfered edges and greatly improves both the look and feel of the Note 4 over its predecessor. It seems like a minor change on paper, but in person, the Note 4 feels much more substantial and nicer in your hand, even though it doesn't weigh appreciably more than the Note 3. For the first time ever, I can't say a Samsung smartphone is plasticky, and that's a wonderful thing.

The back of the phone is largely the same, with a textured, soft-touch leather-like finish. Mercifully, Samsung has ditched the faux stitching that was on the Note 3. Overall, the Note 4 feels like a better Note 3, which isn't really a bad thing. And if you look at it straight on from the front, it's hard to tell it apart from last year's model.

For the first time ever, you can't call this Samsung phone 'plasticky'

The new, quad HD Super AMOLED display is predictably stunning, with vibrant colors, exceptionally wide viewing angles, and no visible pixels. In my brief time with the Note 4, the display appeared brighter and more vibrant than the LG G3's screen, which has the same 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution. We'll have to wait until we have a review unit to determine how well it fares in sunlight or how accurate the colors on it actually are.

Inside, the Note 4 has either a quad-core or octa-core processor, depending on market. It's paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. There's a microSD slot for expansion, and the 3,220mAh battery can charge from zero to 50 percent capacity in just 30 minutes. Samsung has dropped the clunky USB 3.0 charging port in favor of a more traditional, and much more streamlined, MicroUSB 2.0 port.

The Note 4 comes with Android 4.4.4 KitKat with Samsung's familiar interface on top of it. Samsung has borrowed a couple of ideas from Android L for the Note 4's interface, including the stacked card multitasking view. Dual-window multitasking has been improved with the ability to have various apps open in smaller windows at the same time. Among the S Pen improvements is the ability to quickly pin short notes to your homescreen. Samsung also says the S Health fitness app has been improved and enhanced for the Note 4.

By all accounts, it appears that Samsung took the right approach with the Note 4: it didn't rock the boat of a successful formula, but still addressed some of its biggest critiques. With the impending threat of Apple entering the big-screened, phablet smartphone market, Samsung needed to put its best foot forward, and it may have done just that with the Note 4.

Photography by Sean O'Kane.

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