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It's 2014 and we still don't have a real Note alternative

Samsung has had great success with the Note series and popularized the phablet, so why is no one competing with it? Is the iPhone 6 Plus a real threat? Where are the Android OEMs in this form factor?
October 2, 2014
samsung galaxy note 4 first impressions (9 of 20)

When the original Galaxy Note was released by Samsung in October 2011 it was widely criticized for being too big. Questions about whether it was a tablet or a phone gave rise to the universally hated word “phablet”. The vast majority of reviewers wrote it off as another failed offshoot of Samsung’s scattergun approach to form factors. But they were wrong.

The Samsung Galaxy Note sold more than 10 million units in under a year. Samsung evolved the idea with the Galaxy Note 2 which sold 5 million units in its first two months on sale and went on to rack up sales of 30 million in a year. The Note 3 broke the 10 million sales barrier in two months. And the Galaxy Note 4 is starting to roll out now.

Going large

The general trend in smartphones over the last few years has been towards larger touchscreens. We’ve gone from an average around 3 inches up to 5 inches and beyond. No company is bucking this trend, but only Samsung has had any real success with phablets so far.

galaxy note 3 oppo n1 xperia z1 ultra phablets aa 2

Sony, HTC, LG, Huawei, Nokia and a few others have released phablets, even Apple has weighed in now with the iPhone 6 Plus. There are signs that phablets are beginning to eat into tablet sales. Why bother with two devices when you can have one that fulfils both needs?

The main difference between the rest of the phablet field and Samsung’s Galaxy Note series is that Samsung hasn’t just enlarged a smartphone; it has created software features and a souped-up stylus to exploit the extra size.

Where’s the innovation?

Samsung is often criticized for copying. It didn’t create the phablet form factor, whether you want to cite the Dell Streak, or argue about how phablets are spiritual successors to the PDA. What it did do was make the form factor work and build on the unique elements, honing them with each release, to push the Note into serious flagship contention.

So what really makes the Galaxy Note line stand out? Taking advantage of extra screen real estate with Multi-Window to enable two apps at once was a smart move, but all the major Android OEMs have some variant of this option now.

The screen is market-leading. Samsung really knows how to deliver on displays and in a device where size is an important factor, the Note series surely attracts a lot of buyers because of the superior screen. But can that really explain the sales?

Maybe you can put the secret of its success down to a combination of productivity factors. You could argue the latest Galaxy Note release has been the best phone for business for the last three years. A really solid typing experience, plenty of business-focused apps, and the S Pen.

Super stylus

The one real standout feature that sets the Note apart from everything else is the S Pen. Some owners may not use it, but you can bet that those who do will cite it as a major reason why they love their Note.

samsung galaxy note 4 s pen stylus 5

Alcatel, Asus, and LG have released phablets with styli. But we haven’t seen anyone at the premium end doing it, other than Samsung. LG is probably the OEM that has come closest to competing directly with the Note series, and it’s about to release the LG G3 Stylus, but it seems committed to a mid-range approach for specs and pricing.

You could buy a stylus to use with any smartphone, but if you’ve ever used the S Pen then you’ll know there’s a big difference. The S Pen is tailor-made for the Note series. The shortcut functionality is solid, there’s a whole range of apps to take advantage, and you can sketch, annotate, and takes notes with ease.

Back when Steve Jobs said “God gave us 10 styluses—let’s not invent another” the general standard was rubbish. Samsung has added functionality and pushed the stylus forward with the S Pen. Meanwhile, the LG G3 Stylus sports a basic version with no buttons or special features.

If you want something that can compete with the flagships and has a stylus then the Note series is really your only choice.

Will the iPhone 6 Plus compete?

Samsung and Apple have been locked in battle for years now and they still overwhelmingly dominate the smartphone market, so you’ve got to take notice when Apple swallows its pride and accepts that big phones are here to stay. Samsung has been quick to gloat, but how secure is its position?

iphone 6 plus vs samsung galaxy note 3 quick look aa (12 of 20)

It’s difficult to say. Samsung has effectively had a three year head start in this category. The iPhone 6 Plus is liable to sell a lot of units, but will it suck in prospective Note 4 buyers? There’s still a fundamental difference in approach. Samsung isn’t selling the Note as a big phone; it’s a genuine hybrid device that does a few things differently. It’s not just a super-sized Galaxy S5. Is the iPhone 6 Plus just a super-sized iPhone 6?

The Nexus 6 (render) is rumored to bring stock Android to a phablet form factor

Phablets as the new flagships

One of the interesting things about the iPhone 6 Plus is that it is genuinely the best iPhone you can get. It has a higher resolution screen with a higher pixel density than the iPhone 6, it has superior battery life, and the camera has optical image stabilization. There’s nothing that’s better about the smaller iPhone 6.

When you put the Galaxy S5 up against the newer Note 4, you can see the Note 4 has a better processor and longer battery life, a better camera, a higher resolution screen, but it’s coming six months later, not at the same time. The S5 is more rugged with water resistance that’s lacking in the Note 4, but otherwise it’s a straight win for the Note 4. Would Samsung have done that if the S5 came out alongside the Note 4? Probably not. Maybe the S6 will be a fairer comparison.

The iPhone 6 Plus will be the biggest test yet for the Note series. It lacks the stylus and the split-screen multitasking, but there is a nod to this being a bigger device with split-screen functionality inside some apps and the “Reachability” feature which slides down the top of the screen. If people really aren’t interested in the extra features that set the Note 4 apart then we could see a lot of defections, at least in the U.S., to the 6 Plus.

Of course, a lot of people are invested in Android and won’t consider switching to iOS and for them it’s tough to find a viable alternative to the Note 4. We’re still surprised at the lack of competition for the Note series from the Android OEMs. Why is no one making a real competitor for the Note 4?