Battle of the big screens
A few years ago, you had little choice if you were looking for a phone with a bigger than big screen. Phones were gradually getting larger, but until Samsung pulled the original Galaxy Note out of their hat there just wasn't a phone that bucked any and every trend and had an extra-large screen, and didn't try to hide the fact that it was a big phone for all the people who wanted and needed a big phone. There was ridicule, there was disbelief, and there were predictions that Samsung would fail. Every one of them were wrong.
In 2014 we saw extra-large phones from all the major players. This includes Google and Apple, and is a testament to Samsung's vision and early market research. It also means more competition for Samsung, and that's always better for us consumers. We want Google to borrow from Samsung, and we want Samsung to take what Google has created and make it better. This endless circle means we all have better devices from both companies to choose from.
The Nexus 6 is Google's first trip into the land of giant phones, and they have a difficult road to travel to try and make their big phone as desirable as Samsung's, who currently owns this space. Let's see how their first effort matches up with he current big phone king, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
Alex Dobie: The Nexus 6 and Galaxy Note 4 both have great looking displays, but the Note's is the clear winner for me. Samsung's clearly saving the really top-notch Quad HD SuperAMOLED panels for itself, as the Note 4 boasts better daylight visibility — including a super-high brightness mode only activated in bright direct sunllight — and the ability to display darker images without colors becoming distorted. The Nexus 6's screen — the same QHD resolution stretched out a little to 6 inches — looks pretty good most of the time, but it's beset by weirdness in darker conditions. Turning the brightness down below around 20 percent gives colors a red-ish hue, while lower brightness levels have a tendency to black out details in shadows — less than ideal when using the camera.
That said, I haven't noticed any of the burn-in issues reported by some in the Nexus 6's display after about three weeks of use. Maybe I'm lucky, maybe that's waiting further down the line. Either way I'm pretty happy with the screens of both devices. That said, this one's a clear win for Samsung.
Phil Nickinson: Wow. That's pretty much all that needs to be said for the Note 4 display. I'm typically pretty forgiving about displays (don't mistake that for not recognizing the difference between a good one and a bad one) because once it's in your hand there's usually not a whole hell of a lot you can do about it. But the Note 4's display is just gorgeous. Having that many pixels certainly helps. But Samsung's struck a pretty good balance for me in real-life use. I don't much worry about the technical precision of color calibration and what not — I worry about how things work when I'm using them. The Nexus 6? A lot like the Moto X. It works fine. It's just not as good.
Jerry Hildenbrand: Samsung makes some of the best displays in the business. When you're talking AMOLED, they are hands-down the industry leader and consistently provide beautiful panels that deliver an excellent experience. The display on the Note 4 shows this, and to me it's simply the best screen on any mobile phone you can buy today. Rich colors, excellent visibility, and even some user controls to tune things more to your liking make it the clear winner.
That's not saying the screen on the Nexus 6 is bad, because it's not. It's a great display in its own right, and chances are you'll be pleased with the way it looks in most every situation. But it's not quite as good as what we see on the Note 4.
Andrew Martonik: Both phones may have the same resolution, but I stand by my feeling that the Note 4 seriously has the best display out there right now. It's the first AMOLED display that has won me over enough to drop my general preference of LCD, and I have yet to find a flaw with it. The Note 4's display offers incredible brightness (making it viewable outdoors), while also providing great contrast in colors and not washing out whites like a typical AMOLED panel. Samsung's display tuning can sometimes go overboard, which plays to the strengths of the panel type, but that's easy enough to tune back in the settings if you prefer.
The Nexus 6 has high resolution going for it, but the display leans more towards the quality of the Moto X, which I don't rank highly, than that of the Note 4. It still has noticeable discoloration when viewing off-axis, and while it steps above the Moto X some across the board I still just can't rank it highly with other options out there.
Alex Dobie: We're looking at two very different approaches to smartphone battery life here, despite both devices having the same battery capacity on paper. Samsung has its swappable battery, and the option to add Qi wireless charging with an accessory. The Nexus has wireless charging out of the box, but the battery's fixed inside the chassis. While Qi charging lets you top up the Nexus easily throughout the day, nothing beats being able to swap a fresh battery in and instantly jump back to 100 percent.
As for my daily experiences with both phones, I've found them to be pretty close in terms of longevity, at least on current firmware. If I had to choose one or the other, I'd say Samsung perhaps pushes ahead slightly — heavy use seems to tax the Nexus a bit harder than the Note. One thing both devices benefit from is faster charging — Samsung through its Adaptive Fast Charging system, the Nexus through Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0. In both cases this means it's way easier to translate just a few minutes on the charger into a meaningful boost in power levels, which is useful on longer days.
Phil Nickinson: Fast charging changes everything. I've pretty much gotten used to having sealed batteries that can't be swapped out for new ones, and that's very much affected the way I plan my usage and charging. But Fast Charging (or Quick Charging, if you prefer) means I have to worry about carrying around a second battery even less. It's nice having the option, of course. And Samsung's always managed to strike that balance between design and engineering necessity. The Moto X does it with a sealed battery, and I've been OK with that, too, since I can charge it up that much more quickly. I've taken to leaving the Samsung charger in my bag, though, as it's a little more portable than the bulkier Motorola wart.
Jerry Hildenbrand: Both the Nexus 6 and the Note 4 are winners here. I can make their batteries die early if I try, but either phone easily lasts me through a day of work and play. Neither will last me two full days of work and play, so they both require nightly charging. If anything, I'll give a slight edge to the Nexus 6 because it's Qi-ready out of the box, and it's easy to drop it on a charger whenever I sit at my desk. But it's also pretty easy to do the same thing with the Note 4 by using a new backplate, or you could just buy a second battery and swap it out.
If you need a phone that wont die on you during dinner, both the Note 4 and the Nexus 6 are great choices.
Andrew Martonik: With similar specs, screen sizes and battery sizes, I expected the Note 4 and Nexus 6 to come out on about level terms in the battery life department. After some initial worries in the first software builds on the Note 4, its ended up being just fine in my use. I always get to the end of the day without any worry on battery life, and I can say the same on the Nexus 6. Neither one is going to be a two-day battery champion without serious tweaking of what you do on the phone and what features you leave on, but in terms of consistency and full-day longevity, there's nothing to worry about on either device.
Alex Dobie: This one's a pretty clear win for the Nexus 6 in my opinion. I've disabled the forced encryption on my device, but even before doing so the N6 is noticeably quicker than the Note 4, and that's all about the software. Android 5.0 Lollipop brings the new ART runtime, and a general slickness and smoothness typical of Nexus devices over the past couple of years. The Note 4 isn't a slow phone by any means, and I haven't really noticed any performance hiccups in the traditional sense. But certain areas of the software, such as the keyboard and recent apps menu, are noticeably less responsive than on the Nexus.
Jerry Hildenbrand: There are some spots where the Note 4 seems a bit sluggish to me, but I'll be the first person to say it's still one of the smoothest Android experiences you'll find today. While the Nexus 6 has less stutter in less places, the performance gap is much smaller that it was in years past. I'm pleased with the performance of both devices, but will also have to say the Nexus 6 is a bit smoother and faster. This is a competition and we have to pick a winner.
But don't go on thinking the Note 4 is laggy or a bad experience, because it's really not.
Andrew Martonik: With comparable internals, both of these devices are quite quick on the draw for anything you need to do with them. While the Nexus 6 seems faster overall, I think Samsung has done a pretty good job of keeping the Note 4's performance consistent across the experience. What I mean by that is that the Note 4 does take a couple extra milliseconds to open some apps or switch between windows, but it's the same speed all the time. Conversely the Nexus 6 suffers from minor hiccups here and there — but if you've ever used a Nexus on its first software iteration you know what that's all about.
In terms of stability I have to say the Note 4 takes the cake, though, as I can't ever recall having bouts of big slowdowns or crashing apps. Conversely the Nexus 6's camera app tends to crash at inopportune moments, and sometimes you just get some apps that get angry at you from time to time.
Phil Nickinson: Let's be perfectly honest here. Alex, Jerry and Andrew are picking nits. After using the lagtastic encrypted builds of Android 5.0 Lollipop on the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9, everything — as in every single device ever — feels just fine to me. We could split hairs over the Note 4 all day long. But I've used much, much worse. And much more recently.
The software and features
Alex Dobie: There's software design and UI, and then there's features. And which one is more important for you is a major factor in the decision between these two phones. In my mind, stock Android 5.0 Lollipop is the fastest, most attractive version of the OS yet, and a big reason for me to use the Nexus 6 despite its flaws in other areas. But Samsung, as always, wins on features. The company finally got its multitasking system figured out on the Note 4, to the point where it's easy to swap between split-screen view, fullscreen and windowed modes in supported apps. This isn't just a gimmick, it's a big part of what how the Note 4 justifies its enormous size.
The Nexus 6, on the other hand, is pretty much just a big Nexus. The software is virtually identical to what you'd find on a smaller stock Android phone, and there's no single feature by which a 6-inch Nexus suddenly makes sense. Whereas Samsung has multiwindow, pop-up view and the S Pen, Google just has a big-ass phone.
Phil Nickinson: Samsung is still overkill for me in terms of software. That's not to say all those bells and whistles aren't good — they mostly are. But there's just so much I don't use. Probably my favorite improvement, however, is in the camera app. It gets better and easier to use every year. And pair that with the great image quality of the Note 4 and one of my most-used features is better than ever. I don't do much multiwindow stuff, and I'm probably missing out there. And I still don't use the S-Pen very often — two things I attribute to bouncing between phones so often. I prefer the lighter-weight "stock" Android. But Samsung's certainly come a long way.
Jerry Hildenbrand: Touchwiz is so much better than it used to be. And even then, the only people complaining were the people who weren't going to be buying a phone with Touchwiz on it anyway. Internetz are so fun. It's still not for me, but I certainly understand why so many people love it. I can't argue with those people.
Software features are great, and the Note 4 is filled with them. Some of them are features I want and use, some are not. And that's where the Nexus 6 wins it for me. I don't mind seeking out the features I want from Google Play and installing them one by one.
On the other hand, the Note 4 uses the extra screen real estate better than the Nexus 6 does. While the Nexus 6 is just a giant nexus, the Note 4 delivers an experience tailored for a bigger screen. Add in the S Pen (amazing tech that never gets as much love as it deserves) and the Note 4 takes the win here in my opinion.
Andrew Martonik: This is where the Nexus 6 can pull back out ahead for me. While I still am not a fan of every feature and design decision made in Lollipop, I have to say what's available on the Nexus 6 is far ahead of what Samsung is doing on the Note 4. Not only does it look better, for the most part it's also smoother, easier to understand and simpler to manage. The TouchWiz iteration found on the Note 4 isn't as eye-scarring as previous versions, but I still am not the biggest fan of what Samsung's done. You're still on KitKat for the time being with the Note 4 as well, leaving out neat features like Smart Lock, notification priorities and the like.
Of course the one shortcoming on the Nexus 6 is that unlike Samsung, Google isn't doing a whole lot with Lollipop to make it take advantage of the larger screen size — it runs just the same as it does on the Nexus 5 even though the screens sizes are dramatically different. You get the standard improvements of more room to view videos or to play games, but I like to applaud Samsung for at least trying something with the larger screen on the Note 4.
Alex Dobie: Here in the UK, you can walk into just about any carrier store or independent phone retailer and walk out with a Note 4. Samsung's got the retail side of things down — though stock shortages in the early days meant SIM-free Notes were difficult to track down. The Nexus 6 doesn't have such a significant high street presence, and buyers in the UK had to wait upwards of an extra month for their version of the device compared to our American cousins.
Regardless, both phones are pretty widely available, on and off-contract, as were the Nexus 5 and Nexus 4 over here. At the time of writing, the Note is still the more expensive handset, going for around £60 more than the Nexus when bought outright. So this year's Nexus is no longer a Google-subsidized device, but it's still not as pricey as the tip-top level of flagship phones.
Phil Nickinson: I tripped over a Note 4 on the way to work today. True story. (Point is you can buy them anywhere.) Haven't seen another Nexus 6 in the wild yet, though. I wouldn't be surprised if I never do, outside of tech events.
Jerry Hildenbrand: I can walk into any AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon store (or any Radio Shack, Walmart or Best Buy) and get a brand new Note 4 off the shelf. I can then spend $20 to unlock it and it works almost anywhere I would ever go.
To get a Nexus 6 I have to go through Google Play or Motorola's online store. This means I can't pick it up and look at it before I send money to someone. Google is getting better, and I can take a bit of a drive and check out a Nexus 6 in a Sprint or AT&T store, but for now the Note 4 is more accessible and makes for a more stress-free buying experience.
Andrew Martonik: Whether you think that Google sold its soul to the carrier devils on the Nexus 6 or not, I have to say that the wider availability of this generation of Nexus phone is an improvement in the grand scheme of things. While I — and many of the enthusiasts out there — may have preferred the model of the Nexus 5 where you simply pick it up from the Play Store (and later T-Mobile) and reaped the pricing benefits, the average person out there still wants the ability to go into their local carrier store and have their hand held. Sure the Nexus 6 may be a bit more expensive for it, and it is slightly different on each carrier, but this was probably the right move for Google.
Now on the other side of things of course Samsung is doing what it does best, launching the Note 4 in who-knows-how-many countries and carriers in relatively quick order. It's hard to find a carrier that doesn't carry the Note 4, and when you go to each one the phone is roughly the same physically. That's a nice thing to be able to do, and you won't be faced with any weird issues of stock running out on this device. That being said, it sort of stinks that there's no easily-attainable unlocked or developer edition model at this time… something that's a tiny leg up for the Nexus 6 for those who want it.
Alex Dobie: Overall, the Galaxy Note 4's camera is the best on any Android phone in my opinion. I've gotten some great shots from the Note's 16-megapixel, optically stabilized shooter over the past few months, shots I would've missed had I been using a less capable camera. It's easy to take good photos with the Note, and with a little time and effort, you can produce some really stunning images in daylight and low light. What's more, if you're inclined to go digging through Samsung's various shooting options, you'll find a wealth of different modes suited for various situations.
The Nexus 6's shooter, as we've already discussed is decent, but finicky. As comparatively simple as Google's camera app is, you still need to do far too much tweaking to get universally good images from the N6's camera. HDR+ mode is a must in most situations, and like the Nexus 5, the camera is generally slow to shoot, and slower to focus. The Nexus's camera hardware is solid — LG's using the same sensor in its G3, with great results. But it feels like this is being let down by software that's just not quite there yet.
Phil Nickinson: There is no contest here. While I can manage decent shots with the Nexus 6, I'll get great shots much more frequently with the Note 4. And the camera apps are night and day. I've never been much of a fan of Google's camera app.
Jerry Hildenbrand: I'll freely admit I'm not the authority here. I carry a "real" camera with me when I am headed somewhere there might be something I want a picture of. But for those times when I see something that needs a quick snap, the Note 4 does it better almost every time. It takes pictures that are good enough to share with anyone, under most all conditions, without any fiddling with settings. The same can't be said about the Nexus 6.
Andrew Martonik: When I first reviewed the Note 4's camera I was impressed by its improved low-light performance over anything else Samsung has done, adding to the fact that its daytime shots are absolutely superb. I think on the whole it's a better camera than the Nexus 6, mostly because of its quick shutter speeds, near-flawless HDR and ability to tweak settings when needed.
The Nexus 6 is still very much a "point and pray" situation, and while it can produce fantastic shots with HDR+ (just like the Nexus 5) it just doesn't do it for me on a shot-by-shot basis like the Note 4 can.
As you can see, there is really no clear winner here. Seriously. We're not trying to find a way out of making a judgement call, and each phone has strong points and weak points.
The Nexus 6 is a winner for people who want a more subdued look and more control over how things work. The Note 4 takes more advantage of the big screen and has a better camera. The Nexus 6 will get more frequent and more timely operating system updates, but you'll likely encounter less bugs with the Note 4. Like a second-grade gym class race, everyone is a winner.
Decide what features are the most important for you, and look back at what we have to say about them. That's what we did, and we each made a choice:
- Andrew Martonik: Note 4
- Jerry Hildenbrand: Note 4
- Phil Nickinson: Note 4
- Alex Dobie: Note 4
We all agree that things like features designed for a big screen and a great camera put the Note 4 over the top here, and is the phone we would pick if we were forced to choose which one is the best. It gets our recommendation, and wins this big screen showdown.