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iPhone 6 Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy Notes: Final impressions

Place your bets, folks. Which of these phablets will reign supreme in the battle of design, usability and productivity?

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The Galaxy Note 4 vs. the iPhone 6 Plus Sarah Tew/CNET

It's just about time to put this series to bed. Again. It's been my pleasure to provide in-depth impressions of what it's like to actually live with the iPhone 6 Plus, the Galaxy Note 4 and its predecessor, to take things a little beyond the scope that a given review can provide.

But, there are new phablets on the horizon and, frankly, lugging both of these around every day is getting a little old. So let's take a final pass at some remaining items between these two, including a look at relative optics between the latest Note and the biggest iPhone. I'll give my take on some interface enhancements in the Note 4 that, for me, make it even more productivity-focused than before, and recount a terrible incident involving a crepe and some concrete.

Cameras compared

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I won't spend much time here, as our own Aloysius Low already did a very thorough job of comparing the Note 4 camera to that of the iPhone 6 Plus -- with the LG G3 mixed in for good measure. I definitely echo his sentiment that it's a close call between the Note and the iPhone, and the fact that I can say that must necessarily mean that the shooting capabilities of Samsung's phone have made a huge leap from the Note 3.

And indeed it has. I expressed my frustration in the earlier shootout with the quality of the Note 3's camera. The Note 4 is a major improvement in every way, but for me the iPhone 6 Plus is still the one I'd reach for when it comes to photography, for a few reasons.

First, and perhaps most crucially, the camera app launches more quickly. It's only a small difference -- the iPhone ready to shoot after about 0.8 seconds, the Note 4 taking roughly 1.5 seconds -- but it's noticeable. When you're trying to get that shot, every fraction counts. Additionally, hopping into the gallery and gliding through photos is snappier on the iPhone, too.

Apple's shooter also does a better job getting the white balance and exposure correct. That's not always true, and white balance at least is easy enough to fix in post, but for shots coming out of the camera, Apple's phone was usually superior.

That said, I've taken plenty of shots with the Note 4 that I'm plenty pleased with, and where the Note 3 made me want to carry around an iPhone too just because the camera was so poor, now I don't feel that I'm missing out nearly as much.

Interview improvements

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Samsung's simple voice recorder. Screenshot by Tim Stevens

Though I still refuse to call it an "S Pen," I am unashamed in my affinity for the stylus on the Note series. For me, the Note 4 is a very productivity-focused machine, and a vital part of my job is conducting interviews. On the Note 3, I relied on an app called Easy Voice Recorder to capture audio, while I furiously scribbled notes in the Samsung S Note app.

With the Note 4, Samsung has bundled an audio capture app that not only is easy to use but has some very impressive noise cancellation abilities. I've since conducted interviews in some very busy rooms and the app does a compelling job of drowning out the droning. While the processing does induce a fair amount of pitch distortion into the voices (not quite T-Pain levels, but close), the result is much easier to scan quickly while pulling out quotes.

This was one of the features Samsung trumpeted at the launch of the Note 4, inspiring many yawns among the assembled press at the time. But it legitimately works, and makes my job easier. That's what counts.

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The S Note image capture dialog. Tim Stevens/CNET

Surprisingly, the S Note app has also seen a few significant upgrades. Most interesting to me is the ability to capture and embed images from whiteboards or projectors. The app auto-adjusts their perspective, so if you're sitting to one side the resulting image will be square, and will even cut the image apart into elements that you can drag around and resize within the note.

The resulting import in S Note. Tim Stevens/CNET

Individual elements are separated and can be moved or resized. Tim Stevens/CNET

The resulting quality isn't great, as you can see, but it's more than good enough for grabbing important details from a PowerPoint and integrating them cleanly into a note. Hopefully this isn't the kind of thing you need to do on a daily basis, but it's surprised me by coming in handy a few times already.

Again, niche features that don't apply to everybody, but these are the sorts of things that really make the Note 4 a productivity standout in my book.

Ultimate durability test

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The slight scuffs on the back of the Note 4 after a four-foot drop to concrete. Tim Stevens/CNET

I mentioned earlier how I felt that, compared to the iPhone 6 Plus, the Note 4 was probably the more durable of the two. I got something of an unintentional demonstration of that this week. While standing on the sidewalk, casually grazing on an apple-stuffed crepe held in one hand, I grabbed the Note out of my pocket with the other.

Somehow, and I still don't know exactly what caused it, the phone slipped out of my hand. It did so while I was still pulling it out, so instead of simply falling to the ground the Note began a journey on an upward trajectory. A tumbling, slow-motion, agonizing trajectory. I, and those nearby, watched as the phone completed its arc on the concrete below.

Thankfully, it landed flat on its back, the best of a bad situation. The damage? A slight scuff in the textured plastic on the back and nothing more. Had it landed on-edge I'm guessing things would have been worse, but honestly, surviving a four-foot fall onto concrete regardless of orientation is quite impressive.

That said, it's not all roses. I've noticed a series of very subtle scratches in the glass. They're very small and I've no idea how they were caused, but given they're in numerous different directions and locations makes me think it wasn't a single incident. As much as I hate to say it, you'll likely want to think about a screen protector -- just make sure you spend extra to get a glass one.

For the record, my year-old Note 3, which hasn't been treated nearly as nicely, still sports a scratch-free screen.

The winner

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While the iPhone 6 Plus has been gifted a series of improvements since its initial review -- Swiftkey getting better and a raft of new widgets, among other things -- so too has Samsung improved the Note. While I reluctantly chose the Note 3 over the iPhone 6 Plus in the earlier series, it's with rather less reservation that I give the nod to the Note 4 in this round.

The camera improvement is significant, as is the improved physical design. The performance boost is welcome, and while the new software features and functionality Samsung has added certainly do pile on the bloat, in most cases the added functionality is worth it.

I still long for the snappier responsiveness, more polished experience and higher-quality app selection on iOS, and there's no doubting the iPhone 6 Plus is the more pleasant of these two devices to hold and admire, but for me functionality and productivity reign supreme. The Note is still the one.