iPhone 6 Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy Notes: Phablet shootout redux

Now that the Note 4 is out, it's time to revisit our multi-part phablet shootout to see how the new Note compares to Apple's biggest phone ever.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
5 min read

The Galaxy Note 4 and the Apple iPhone 6 Plus Sarah Tew/CNET

When I mentioned I was a long-time Note user in my review of the iPhone 6 Plus, a lot of folks asked me about how I thought the two devices compared. So, I wrote a series of articles covering that very topic. Then, everyone wanted to know why I wasn't comparing the new, economy-sized iPhone to the Note 4 instead of the older Note 3. Conspiracy to make the Android device look bad? No, it's simply that the Note 4 wasn't yet available, and the Note 3 was my daily driver.

Fast forward to the present. I've been carrying a Note 4 around for the past few weeks, and an iPhone 6 Plus... and a Note 3 as well. Yes, I've been lugging three phablets with me almost every day, for the exclusive purpose of seeing how they stack up. My pockets bulging, my pants drooping, all so that I can bring you some further perspective on this uber segment of the smartphone market, the one I consider to be the most useful.

If you haven't already, make sure to check out our comprehensive review of the Galaxy Note 4. And now, let's dive in to what it's like to live with these things.

Note 3 vs. Note 4

The Note 3 (left) vs the Note 4 Sarah Tew/CNET

With every iteration of the Note (and I've been through three now) I tend to think the same thing: "Wow, this is so much better than the last generation." I thought that about the Note 2, the Note 3 and that is indeed what came to mind when I first held the Note 4.

Mind, I didn't love everything about the Note 3. While I did enjoy the tactility of the faux leather back, I thought the stitching was taking things a bit too far. Also, the chromed plastic frame around the edges of my phone has sadly cracked, down where the stylus slots in, and is chipped and scratched in multiple other places -- despite my near-constant use of a case.

Fine scratches appearing on the polished edges of the Note 4 Sarah Tew/CNET

With the Note 4, Samsung has addressed almost all of those complaints, though the result isn't perfect. A proper metal chassis replaces the chromed plastic, dark and matte for the most part but highlighted with polished chamfered edges. I confess I'm not a big fan of polished metal on phones, but it works here. At least, I thought it worked, until those edges started getting scratched up. A series of fine nicks and scrapes has appeared despite my treating this phone with kid gloves. The matte portions, thankfully, show no sign of wear thus far.

This new metal frame means a big boost in rigidity over the Note 3, and for whatever reason the coolness of metal inspires more of a "premium" feel than the warmth of plastic. That said, the back is still made of the stuff. It has a similar leatherette texture to before, but the stitching has been deleted. Somehow, Samsung made the back even harder to remove and replace than before, but it's worth it for that replaceable battery pack.

Note 4 vs. iPhone 6 Plus

The iPhone 6 Plus is slightly thinner, and has a more organic shape. Sarah Tew/CNET

So the Note 4 feels more premium than its predecessor. Does that mean it stands up to the iPhone 6 in terms of look and feel? No, sadly not. Note in one hand, iPhone in the other, one feels svelte and polished, the other chunky and square. Mind you, I do like the aesthetic of the Note. It has the look of an imposing, professional device in much the same way that a BlackBerry Bold 9900 does.

That said, of these two phablets, the Note is certainly less comfortable in the hand. The rounded shapes of the iPhone of course are a better fit for your fleshy mitts. At least, it settles more gently into mine. In particular, the transition between the metal and the plastic on the back of the Note is rough, but worse is the transition from metal to glass.

Both the iPhone and the Note feature glass with rounded edges. However, where the glass on Apple's phone transitions smoothly into the chassis of the device, the edge of the glass on the Note is actually recessed beneath the frame. So, instead of creating a lovely termination of the device for your fingers to enjoy, it becomes something of a trench. This, as it turns out, is a perfect place for storing pocket lint. Good luck keeping that clean.

In Samsung's favor, I don't worry about dropping the Note, both because it feels like the more durable of the two, and because it's easier to hold securely. That smooth matte aluminum on the iPhone sure is nice, but doesn't offer much in the way of grip.

Fingerprint scanning

The Galaxy Note 4's fingerprint-scanning Home button James Martin/CNET

I'm breaking this out as a separate section as fingerprint recognition has become an increasingly important feature of a smartphone since the iPhone 5S introduced Touch ID. After I reviewed that phone, going back to punching in a PIN to unlock my Note felt like an abrupt return to the stone age. Thankfully, Samsung was quick to add fingerprint scanners onto its own phones, but the one on the Note 4 simply doesn't work as well.

With Touch ID, you just hold your finger on the Home button for an extra moment and you're good to go. It doesn't matter the orientation. It works the vast majority of the time, and if it doesn't, you just press again. The only time I've had issues is when I had wet fingers -- or when wearing gloves, of course.

With the Note's sensor you need to drag your finger along the narrow Home button, which is a bit tricky to do one-handed on a phone this size. That's especially true given you need to swipe straight down. I'd say I get roughly 50 percent recognition when trying to unlock the phone one-handed, and annoyingly, if the phone misreads your print, it pops up a modal dialog. You must hit "OK" before trying again. Update: As alrock pointed out in comments, this dialog is tied to the option to wipe the phone after 15 unsuccessful attempts at logging in. If you disable that option in the Lock Screen settings, this dialog will not appear.

This is, simply, infuriating, but it gets worse. If, for some reason, you can't scan your fingerprint, or if you get sick of trying, the only fallback is an alphanumeric password of at least six digits. On the iPhone, it's a four-digit PIN. Again, far easier to knock out one-handed if you need to.

Finally, there's one seemingly arbitrary and annoying limitation: just three fingerprints can be stored on the Note. Granted, the iPhone can only manage five, which isn't a huge difference, but that's enough for me to store the index and thumb on both of my hands. The Note comes up one short.

More to come

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is just the beginning. Going forward I'll be setting aside the Note 3 to focus on the Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus, seeing whether the updates in the Note 4 push it further ahead for my use, or pull it back. You may recall, when forced to choose last time, I said I'd stick with the Note 3. Has that changed over the past month?

Look for a few more installments comparing these kings of phablets, and if there's a particular notion or aspect you'd like for me to investigate, drop me a note in the comments. I'll do my best.