iPhone 6 Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 4: A closer look

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Gizmag goes hands-on to help you decide between the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Before this year, comparing the Galaxy Note to the iPhone was kinda like comparing Shaquille O'Neal to Rhea Perlman. But with Apple's first phablet arriving this year, the iPhone and Note are fighting in the same weight class. Join Gizmag, as we take a hands-on look at the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4.

No matter what else we say in this comparison, the most important thing to ask yourself is which platform you prefer. Both phones are outstanding, and if you already know what you like, I see no reason why either of these phablets should make you switch sides.

If you own an older iPhone, then the 6 Plus is going to feel less like an upgrade, and more like a completely new device. It feels as much like a tiny iPad mini as it does an iPhone on steroids.

... and though the Galaxy Note 4 doesn't, at first glance, look like a huge upgrade over the Note 3, I found that first impression to be deceptive. The Note 4 shows us Samsung at its best: worrying less about the wow factor, and simply making a better phone.

One of the most obvious differences between these two is the Note's stylus. The S Pen gives the Note more of a PDA feel, like a modern-day evolution of the Palm Pilot. There's a sense of precision there that your fingers just can't replicate – and it's a great fit for the phablet form factor.

The Note 4's S Pen is a big step forward from older Notes. No longer do you have to press down hard with the pen; now the lightest of brushes against the screen registers as a swipe. And don't worry, it isn't too sensitive – it just lends a more natural feel to the stylus experience.

Samsung also did a terrific job of refining the software that goes along with the S Pen. The stylus features, for things like jotting handwritten notes and saving content on your screen, have subtle improvements this year (details like dragging a box around your target, rather than having to draw a shape around it, or dropping your notes on your home screen as little post-it-note widgets).

The biggest improvement, though, is S Pen text selection. I'm not sure why Samsung didn't add this to the Note years ago, but you can finally use the stylus to select text, much like you'd do with a mouse on a desktop PC.

The phones are both, of course, huge. Their sizes are also similar, with the iPhone coming in slightly taller (by 3 percent) and about 17 percent thinner. Their weights are also nearly identical. I don't see any reason for these minor differences to sway you one way or the other.

The iPhone has a higher-end build, with its aluminum unibody design, but the Note doesn't feel cheap at all. It has a metal band running around its edge that gives it more of a premium aesthetic than we saw in older Notes. And its back is that same soft-touch pleather material that we saw on the Note 3.

Despite the phones' similar sizes, the Note 4 gives you a 7 percent bigger screen. Both displays are enormous, mind you, but Samsung's gives you a better screen-size-to-phone-size ratio.

There is one area where the Note uses its huge screen better than the iPhone does: Samsung's Multi Window and Pop-up Window let you run apps in split-screen or pop-up windows, much like you would on a desktop PC. They're easy to activate, and you can even drag and drop content between certain apps.

The only real downside to Samsung's multitasking is that it's only compatible with select apps. It's a great feature in theory, but since many third-party apps don't play nicely with it, you might find it easier to just switch apps like you would on any other phone.

Screen quality is top-notch in both devices. The Note's Quad HD screen is noticeably sharper, but the iPhone's display still looks crisp. Both have eye-popping and accurate colors with wide viewing angles. The Note's extra pixels give it the overall advantage, but you can't go wrong with either.

Neither phone is designed to be used with one hand, but for those times when you only have one paw free, both have one-handed modes. Samsung's feels a bit clunkier, shrinking the entire screen into a window the size of a smaller phone's display. The iPhone's one-handed mode ("Reachability") slides the screen down so you can reach high-level targets. It's easier to activate (lightly double-tap the Touch ID sensor), but it doesn't shrink the keyboard like Samsung's does.

Speaking of Touch ID, Apple's awesome sensor is an advantage for the iPhone. The Note 4 also has a fingerprint sensor, and it's quite good: a bit more accurate than it was in older Samsung devices. But since you have to swipe it from one angle, as opposed to just touching it from any angle, like on the iPhone, Apple's is the better choice.

Touch ID also has more third-party app support than Samsung's sensor does. Password managers like 1Password and Dashlane are an especially great fit.

Both cameras are among the best you'll find in smartphones. I find the Note to take better shots in low-lit conditions (even more so if you turn on its Night Mode setting), while the iPhone takes more colorful flash shots. The Note is also better for zooming, where it merges several shots and combines them automatically into one clearer image.

I can't say selfies are a big part of my life, but if you're one of the many who regularly takes them, the Note 4 has a couple of tricks that could come in handy. Selfie panorama mode lets you squeeze more friends into your shot: just pan the phone back and forth, as it prompts you. There's also a rear-facing selfie mode, that lets you use the Note's higher-resolution rear camera for better self-portraits. Since you can't see the screen, you just hold the phone up, wait for the beep to let you know that it detected your face, and say cheese.

Battery life isn't a concern on either phone, but the Note should last a little longer. In our test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, the Note dropped around 10 percent per hour, while the iPhone dropped about 12 percent per hour.

If your Note 4 does run out of juice, it has a fast-charging feature that can juice it up from 0 to 50 percent in around 37 minutes. It also has Samsung's Ultra Power Saving Mode, that keeps your Note on the grid when it's almost out of juice (it turns your screen black & white and limits available apps). UPS Mode can stretch 10 percent battery into an extra day of uptime.

You could say that the Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6 Plus are the two best phablets ever made, but I'd take that a step farther: these just might be the two best smartphones ever made.

There are only a handful of things that I'd change about each device:

So far most iPhone 6 Plus apps are like regular iPhone apps that just happen to use more space. I'd like to see developers embrace the phone as more of an iPad mini-mini. With this huge screen, apps can get away with using landscape orientation and side-by-side panels. There isn't much of that right now.

The biggest thing I'd change about the Note 4 is the build quality of the S Pen. The phone itself has a more premium aura this year, and the pen's functionality is better than ever. But the stylus' cheap-feeling plastic just doesn't fit. I would have loved to see an S Pen made of, say, aluminum.

We aren't here to declare hard-and-fast winners, but know that both devices are sitting at the head of the 2014 phablet class. If I had to pick one right now, I'd go with the Note: for its stylus, note-centric software features and unique build. But I'd be just about as happy with the iPhone. Flip a coin.

The most important thing is that you figure out which handset is the better fit for you. If you're still on the fence, you can check out our features/specs comparison from back in September, and our individual reviews of the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4.

... and if you want to cast your net wider, you can check out our 2014 Smartphone Comparison Guide.

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