You could easily argue that the Galaxy Note 4 is the best all-around smartphone of 2014. It's big without feeling ridiculously oversized, has a higher-end build than we're used to seeing from Samsung, and a responsive stylus that handles like pen on paper. Its long battery life, good camera and ultra-sharp Quad HD display only sweeten the pot.
The Nexus 6 is also an outstanding phone, but its size is going to make it a little more polarizing. Its 6-in screen is 9 percent bigger than the Note's already huge display. It doesn't use a stylus like the Note does, but it too has a mesmerizing Quad HD screen and a pretty premium-feeling build.
While the Note is like a modern evolution of the PDA, the Nexus is more like a mini-tablet that you can squeeze into your pocket (well, as long as you aren't wearing skinny jeans).
We find both phablets to be fairly comfortable in hand, but you'll need to stretch your fingers a bit more for the Nexus. On the Note, my fingers stretch behind its back and around again to the front with room to spare, but for the wider and thicker Nexus (it has a rounded back), it's better to sort of cup the phone against more outstretched fingers.
Both phones have metal bands running around their edges, with plastic backs. This helps them to feel more high-end than all-plastic phones, but without adding the extra weight (and manufacturing costs) that's sometimes associated with full-metal bodies. The Nexus' plastic back feels like a faux metal material (like the 2014 Moto X, and similar to the LG G3), while the Note's is a faux leather. I personally prefer the soft feel of the Note's pleather, but neither build feels cheap or flimsy.
We'd recommend using a case with the Nexus 6; this is less necessary with the Note. The Nexus is not only bigger (4 percent taller and 5 percent wider), but its finish is smooth enough that it almost feels slick in hand. If you aren't careful, this bad boy could go flying.
We find the Note to have the superior camera. The Nexus 6's camera quality is roughly middle-of-the-pack for a 2014 flagship (great shots outdoors, tolerable shooting speed). The Note 4, though, is noticeably better in low-lit conditions:
The Note also has a cool feature that actually makes zooming worthwhile on a smartphone camera. When you zoom between 4x and 8x, the camera automatically splices together multiple shots, to give you a crisper result than you'd see from zoomed-in shots on other phone cameras (on other phones, zooming equals cropping).
Both phones have good battery life, but the Note lasts a bit longer. In our benchmark, where we stream video over Wi-Fi (with brightness at 75 percent), it only dropped 10 percent per hour. The Nexus dropped 12 percent per hour. That isn't a huge difference, though, and with regular use we haven't had a problem with either phone lasting a full day.
Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0 technology makes its way to both phones too. With the default chargers, you can juice up quickly from a low battery (0 to 50 percent in a little over half an hour). The more juice you have, the less of a boost you'll see. Samsung and Motorola/Google are marketing their fast charging times slightly differently, but the underlying Qualcomm tech is the same – you can even swap their chargers and get the same result.
If you're still on the fence, then it's possible pricing will push you towards the Nexus. It retails for US$250 on-contract, or $650 full retail, while the Note rings up for $300 on-contract, $700 full. Depending on what you're looking for, the Note's stylus, superior camera and more compact build could easily justify that extra $50. But the Nexus does give you a bigger screen and the latest version of stock Android, along with an extra $50 in your pocket.