With Apple's release of larger-screen iPhones last month, Samsung's flagship Galaxy phones no longer have the distinction of being "the next big thing," as Samsung's ads like to tout. But there's still plenty to like in Samsung's phones, including the new Galaxy Note 4 phone out this week.
Sharper resolution, better cameras and battery life give the Note 4 a stronger edge than the phone's previous incarnation. However, just like the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-inch Note 4 will be too big for a lot of customers, unless you want to watch lots of video but not carry around a large tablet. Many people will be happier holding and carrying the 5.1-inch Galaxy S5 or the 4.7-inch iPhone 6.
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The Note 4 will cost $300 with a two-year service contract. Contract-free prices range from $700 with Verizon to $826 with AT&T. The Note comes with 32 gigabytes of storage, which is starting to become the standard starting point.
The Note's screen resolution is sharper than most other phones, though it doesn't make a lot of difference when viewing video, as the quality of streaming video is often poorer than what the screen can display. What matters more is Samsung's use of AMOLED display technology, which produces richer colors than conventional LCD screens.
The better resolution does help with smaller text, but with such a large screen, you rarely need to read text that small.
Like the iPhone 6 Plus, the Note has a rear camera with optical image stabilization, which is a technology to counter shaky hands. Beyond reducing blur, it allows the camera's shutter to open a tad longer, so the camera can avoid a technique that introduces distortion in photos.
All photos benefit, but this is particularly important in low light and at higher zoom, when the camera is more sensitive to shake and distortion.
In fairly good light, small text on a no parking sign was still readable at the maximum, eight-fold zoom on the Note. Samsung's S5 phone maxes out at four times, and even then, text is fuzzy. A ladybug shot on the Note at four-fold zoom looked as though it hadn't been magnified at all.
Low-light shots also work better. On previous Samsung cameras, I've had trouble getting the focus right at night and indoors. The iPhone's cameras have been good in this area, and Samsung catches up with the Note 4.
The front camera is improved, producing shots at 3.7 megapixels, compared with about 1 or 2 megapixels on the typical smartphone. You can snap a shot by tapping a heart-rate sensor or saying "cheese." A "wide selfie" feature stitches together three side-by-side shots so you can fit in more people.
For even better shots, you can use the 16-megapixel rear camera, but you lose the screen to position yourself. The phone uses face-detection technology to guide you with beeps, but I found that hard to follow. One attempt got the corner of a painting on my wall. Several attempts produced nothing. When the beeping stopped, I couldn't tell which way I was supposed to move the phone to get in the shot.
That's why selfies are easier with the front camera, but those shots were often out of focus, with colors distorted. That anti-shake technology I mentioned works only with rear-camera shots.
I got at least 12.5 hours of streaming video on Hulu, about two hours longer than with the Note 3 and an hour better than with the iPhone 6 Plus. Using the included charger, a drained Note 4 got to 50 percent in just 35 minutes. That's impressive and great when you need a quick charge on the go.
Samsung continues to innovate by letting you run multiple apps side by side on the same screen. That's one of the things I miss most when switching from traditional computers. The capability isn't new, but the Note 4 makes it easier to start up.
Sadly, it's cumbersome to use. The keyboard I need for one app sometimes gets hidden behind another. To fix it, I need to swipe from the upper left corner to switch that first app from a Multi Window mode to a Pop-Up mode. And Netflix video pauses when I try to write email or texts, but Hulu works fine.
The Note offers more multitasking options than other phones, but it's not where it needs to be yet.
NOTE 4 OR IPHONE 6 PLUS?
The Note's screen is larger, but the iPhone has a larger frame and is taller overall. The iPhone is lighter and thinner, and its curved edge makes it more comfortable to grip.
The iPhone has friendlier features for one-handed use. Gently tap the home button twice for the top of the screen to slide down, so you can reach buttons and other controls more easily. The Note lets you shrink the content on the screen or move controls such as the keyboard closer to the side, but it takes more effort to set up than to simply use my second hand.
However, unlike the iPhone, the Note comes with a stylus. With improved handwriting recognition, the Note managed to make out much of my chicken-scratch writing, including cursive script.
They are both good phones, now that iPhones have gotten bigger and Samsung's cameras have gotten better. You're no longer sacrificing much in choosing one or the other.