Call it the sumo wrestling battle of the smartphone world -- two gigantic devices competing for our attention and our buying dollar. Oh, yes, amigos: It's the battle between Google's Nexus 6 and Samsung's Galaxy Note 4.
The Nexus 6 and Note 4 are both big and brimming with power, but make no mistake about it: While the phones may share a shelf in the "plus-sized Android" aisle, they're very different devices that offer dramatically different types of user experiences.
So which plus-sized Android phone is right for you? After living with both phones for a fair amount of time, I thought I'd share a little real-world perspective to help you figure that out.
Let's start by breaking down the key differences -- practically speaking -- between the two devices:
1. Style and design
The Nexus 6 is basically like a giant Moto X: It has a gently curved back, soft-touch plastic material, and an aluminum frame around its perimeter. It's simple yet elegant and really an attractive phone.
The Note 4, on the other hand, is -- well, a Samsung device. It's boxy and flat, with a thin and removable faux-leather plastic back. It does have a metal frame instead of the faux-chrome plastic usually favored by Samsung, but it still errs on the side of chintzy and isn't exactly what you'd describe as a sophisticated design.
Looks aside, the Nexus's curved form makes it the far more ergonomic and comfortable-to-hold phone of the pair. As I noted in my review, although it's slightly larger than the Note, it feels like it's designed to fit into your hand. It's a sharp contrast to the Note's boxy nature, which feels awkward in comparison.
The Nexus 6 runs a pure, unmodified version of Google's new Android 5.0 Lollipop software. The Note 4 runs Samsung's TouchWiz software on top of the Android 4.4 KitKat OS; Sammy has yet to divulge any details about when an upgrade might be delivered.
On that note, the Nexus is guaranteed to get fast and frequent ongoing software upgrades from Google moving forward; the Note is likely to get upgrades eventually, but it's dependent on Samsung to roll them out -- and Samsung tends to be one of the pokier and less communicative manufacturers when it comes to the realm of upgrades.
As far as user interface, it's no contest: The Nexus's pure Lollipop software is clean, modern, cohesive, and all around just a joy to use. Samsung's TouchWiz UI has gotten less bad over the years, but it's still a bloated and inconsistent mess compared to the stock Android setup.
The one area where TouchWiz has an advantage is in the realm of features: While Samsung does cram its software full of gimmicky silliness you'll likely never touch, it also provides a few genuinely useful additions you won't find on the Nexus 6 -- namely the options for viewing multiple apps on the screen at the same time, which can be particularly valuable on larger-screened devices like these.
If you want to watch a video while answering a text or reference a document while composing an email, the Note has the upper hand; you can use its split-screen or floating app functions to accomplish those things. On the Nexus, meanwhile, your only real option is to toggle back and forth between the two processes.
The Note has an integrated stylus; the Nexus does not. If you're someone who likes the idea of drawing or scribbling on your smartphone's screen, that's something significant to consider; the Note 4's stylus is top-notch and in a completely different league from any third-party accessory you could purchase.
The Nexus 6 has front-facing stereo speakers that sound fantastic; the Note 4 has a single small speaker on its back that sounds pretty bad. Not much more to say about that.
On paper, both phones are perfectly equipped in terms of horsepower -- but in the real world, the Note 4 is noticeably less smooth and snappy than the Nexus. There's frequent jerkiness in animations and transitions, for instance, and tasks like switching apps or even just opening the Recent Apps switcher don't happen as instantaneously as they should.
The phone is by no means slow; it's just less zippy and responsive than what you'd expect from a device of this caliber -- and than what you'll experience on the Nexus 6.
The Nexus 6 comes with a choice of 32GB or 64GB of internal space and no SD card; the Note 4 comes with 32GB of internal space and an SD card that allows you to add up to 128GB of external storage. For most people, 32 to 64GB should be more than sufficient -- but if you need a lot of local space, the Note 4's opportunity for expansion obviously has added appeal.
I found the Nexus 6 to be a small but noticeable step ahead of the Note 4 in terms of real-world stamina, but both phones do respectably well. If you're among the minority of users who values being able to swap out a phone's battery on the fly, meanwhile, the Note 4's battery is removable while the Nexus's is not.
In terms of charging, the Nexus supports standard Qi wireless charging out of the box; the Note 4 doesn't. Both phones offer a USB-based fast-charging option.
The Nexus 6 uses the standard virtual on-screen buttons for Android's Back, Home, and Recent Apps functions while the Note 4 sticks with Samsung's typical mishmash of physical and capacitive buttons for those functions.
As I've said before, the physical-capacitive mix isn't ideal -- the physical button requires a fair amount of force to press while the capacitive ones take just a gentle touch, which makes for a jarring and somewhat awkward experience moving between them -- but if you've used mainly Samsung devices in the past, you're probably used to it and might even prefer it.
There is the argument that having the buttons below the screen instead of on it makes the display seem bigger -- but on the other hand, the non-virtual buttons don't rotate with the screen and don't change or disappear based on context, as their virtual counterparts do. (Also, the Nexus's screen is 5% bigger than the Note's, which might counterbalance the "more screen space" argument to some degree.) With Lollipop, too, the Note 4's buttons are going to look especially dated, as that release introduces a revamped appearance for them that can't be applied to permanent keys.
The Nexus 6 costs $649 for an unlocked 32GB model; the 32GB unlocked Note 4 is usually around $815 to $825, depending on where you look. On contract, the Nexus ranges from $200 to $300 in the U.S. while the Note 4 is most often priced at $300.
A few final footnotes
- Aside from the aforementioned difference in size, the two phones' Quad HD screens are pretty similar. Both look great, and you'd be hard-pressed to say either is meaningfully better than the other in terms of perceptible real-world quality.
- The two phones are also pretty evenly matched in the camera department (you can see my side-by-side shootout if you want to judge for yourself). I give a slight edge to the Nexus overall, but it's a very close race -- and by and large, both phones do admirably well.
- The Note 4 has a heart rate monitor; the Nexus doesn't. If you really need a heart rate monitor, though, you're going to want one that's more reliable than what's on that phone.
Putting it all together...
All right -- so which device is right for you? If you still aren't sure, I'd say this:
- If you want a stylus, get the Note 4.
- If a removable battery or SD card slot is important to you, get the Note 4.
- If being able to have multiple apps open on-screen at the same time is a top priority to you, get the Note 4.
- If you just love Samsung's style and the company's approach to smartphones, get the freakin' Note 4.
If those conditions don't apply to you, I'd recommend the Nexus 6. From its design and ergonomics to its user interface, speakers, performance, and button setup, it's just generally the nicer and more pleasant-to-use device. It does lack the ability to view multiple apps on screen at the same time -- which is a bummer -- but the phone's overall user experience is so much stronger that for the typical consumer, I think it'll be the preferable option. (Not to mention that it's less expensive, which is a nice side perk.)
As I've said countless times before, it all comes down to your own priorities and what tradeoffs you're willing to make to get them. The Note 4 excels in a few specialty areas -- and if those areas are important to you, then it's the way to go. But if you just want a large phone that's comfortable to hold and pleasant to use, the Nexus 6 is going to give you the better all-around experience.
Still on the fence? Check out my in-depth reviews of both phones for a comprehensive look at what they're like to use in the real world:
- Nexus 6 deep-dive review: A supersized smartphone that shines
- Note 4 deep-dive review: A familiar phone with a few new twists
And remember: This level of choice and diversity is what makes the Android ecosystem as interesting as it is. Something for everyone, right? A difficult decision is a wonderful kind of problem to have.
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