Samsung runs two distinct flagship lines, the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note, each offering different qualities to appeal to different kinds of users. The Galaxy S series is the phone for a broader base of users, with a more average-sized screen, a few leading features and a neat design, while the Galaxy Note series turns all of the knobs to 11 with a huge screen, S Pen input, cutting-edge features for the large screen and tons of power.
The phones are released on a staggered cycle, outdoing each other in some areas as they're released about six months apart each year — and that makes the decision a bit fuzzy on whether it's at all worth an upgrade. The phones are in different classes in terms of features and sizes, but we still want to explore the idea of upgrading from a Note 4 to a Galaxy S6 — let's talk about it.
Metal, done two different ways
The Galaxy Note 4 (along with the Galaxy Alpha) marked a transition for Samsung of moving from completely plastic phones to ones that integrate metal into the design. It was a move worthy of praise — we said as much in our review — and something that really raised the ceiling for what we knew Samsung could do with its phones. Then Samsung went all-in with this premium material philosophy on the Galaxy S6, one-upping itself just six months later with an even nicer looking and feeling metal frame and adding in a solid glass back.
The Galaxy S6's construction and materials may not force you to upgrade, but they will spark a little envy.
Though both phones are based on a metal frame, the Galaxy S6 is clearly a step higher on the quality ladder. The Note 4 still retains its flimsy plastic back while the Galaxy S6 goes with a solid glass affair (and integrates wireless charging), and there's just more metal to look at and grab onto on the newer phone. Of course the Note 4 is also physically larger, which makes it tougher to hold in one hand than the Galaxy S6, but with a few one-handed software features that can be somewhat mitigated. The hardware looks and feel alone won't be enough to draw someone from the Note 4 down to a smaller Galaxy S6, but it sure will spark a little envy.
Flipping the phones over to the front, the screens on the Note 4 and Galaxy S6 are almost identical aside from their size. The QHD AMOLED panels offer fantastic colors, brightness, viewing angles and of course resolution, with the only benefit on the GS6 being the power savings of a smaller size and a newer version of the panel. You're going to get a fantastic viewing experience on either phone.
It's also worth quickly mentioning the new fingerprint scanner, which works for all of the same things as the Note 4 — phone unlocking, web sign-in and app authentication — but does it with a single touch rather than an annoying swipe (which is extra difficult on a large phone). It registers fingers much faster and with a lower error rate — you may actually use it this time around.
Performance and battery life
Every Note phone has been known for its power, and the Note 4 is still an absolute beast. You'd be crazy to say that a Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM aren't enough to handle anything you want it to do, and with the latest update to Lollipop the Note 4 is plenty snappy for all tasks. When you set it side-by-side with the Galaxy S6 you may notice the newer phone opening apps a tad faster, but in all practical applications you can't notice the difference between the two. This shouldn't come as any surprise to those who use the Note 4 now, but the phone is still speedy and over-qualified to handle whatever you throw at it.
The only noticeable performance difference is in app launching, but even then the difference is negligible.
Where things start to diverge is when we compare battery life between the phones. The Note 4 is larger in every dimension than the Galaxy S6, and therefore has room for a much bigger battery — 3220 mAh versus the GS6's 2550 mAh. The battery is also removable, which is a bonus for those who like that sort of thing, but the more important point here is that the Note 4's battery lasts so long you won't have to worry about replacing it with a fresh cell during the day. The 25 percent larger battery itself definitely helps, but the battery life is easily more than 25 percent longer — despite the fact that the larger screen drains more battery.
The Galaxy Note line has always offered solid battery life, and the Note 4 didn't disappoint in that regard. You'll be taking a big jump down in battery life if you choose to go to the Galaxy S6, and that might be a deal-breaker for some people.
Software and features
Though the Note 4 and Galaxy S6 are both running Lollipop, there are differences to be observed between the two operating systems. Samsung has made positive changes to its design and features on the Galaxy S6, improving many of the pre-installed apps, trimming down the settings and removing superfluous features. The end result is a smoother and more streamlined experience, which is immediately apparent when you start to scroll through the settings or check out Samsung's freshly-designed apps.
The GS6 adds a little bit of polish to TouchWiz and removes unnecessary features, but there's hardly enough to change to force an upgrade.
The Note 4 still uses the older Multi Window system that isn't as sleek on the Galaxy S6, and is generally bogged down by the massive pile of settings, options and toggles that were present on earlier TouchWiz software versions. Of course the Note 4 has more power, you could say, with all of the built-in software to handle the S Pen as well as one-handed operation modes to help you deal with the 5.7-inch screen size — none of that is available on the Galaxy S6.
In order for software to be a big driving factor in your move to the Galaxy S6, you'd really have to be someone who isn't currently using the Note 4's specialized software — like S Note and one-handed operation —and prefers a more streamlined experience. Even then, the Galaxy S6 isn't offering a transformative software build — you're still getting TouchWiz through and through.
Comparing very similar cameras
The Galaxy Note 4 came out roughly six months after the Galaxy S5, and apparently that was enough time for Samsung to go from a camera with serious compromises to one that was really best-in-class. The 16MP camera on the Note 4, backed up by an f/2.2 lens and OIS, takes great photos in a variety of lighting conditions, and offers shake-free high-resolution video to boot. Images are great in just about any situation, and even today you there's no issue with calling the Note 4's camera one of the best out there.
The better camera lens will bring in just a bit more light, but the real improvement is the new camera interface experience.
The Note 4's camera is so good in fact that Samsung didn't see a need to update much going to the Galaxy S6, which takes the same sensor and OIS and simply pairs it up with a slightly faster f/1.9 lens. The faster lens brings in just a bit more light in tough lighting situations, providing smoother pictures and less blur — but the difference in quality isn't dramatic between the two phones. You'll find the new camera software experience on the GS6 to be a bigger differentiator, with a new interface that's easier to handle for beginners while still being powerful for enthusiasts.
You won't make an upgrade to the Galaxy S6 just for the camera, honestly — know that you still have one of the best available smartphone cameras today with the Note 4 in your pocket.
Bottom line: It's tough to recommend an upgrade
Unlike the same comparison involving the Galaxy S5, a recommendation to upgrade from the Galaxy Note 4 to the Galaxy S6 isn't nearly as clear. The Galaxy Note 4 came out just six months before the Galaxy S6, and is nearly identical in terms of display, camera, performance and software. The Note 4 offers an S Pen, a large screen and longer battery life — likely big selling points for those who picked one up in the first place.
The Galaxy S6 goes a small step further in camera performance with its faster f/1.9 lens and has a better fingerprint sensor, while also offering a more compact design that also uses higher-end materials. Those couple of improvements probably aren't worth losing the aforementioned upsides of the Note 4, particularly considering that most people who bought a Note 4 have only had it for a handful of months.
Unless you've developed a distaste for the sheer size of your Note 4, there shouldn't be much in the Galaxy S6 that's drawing you to drop your relatively new phone and make the move. The phone is still extremely capable, powerful and offers some features that you can't get in any other phone — that's still a very appealing package, even if the Galaxy S6 is a bit nicer to look at.