iPhone 4S vs Samsung Galaxy Note: Six months on

*With additional reporting by Stuart Thomas

Six months on, the flagship smartphones of Apple and Samsung, the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note continue to amaze us.

Both phones are powerful, crammed with features and built to endure the stress of modern, graphic-heavy apps. Which is the clear winner, which phone would we rather have after six months of intense testing? Steven Norris covers the iPhone, and Stuart Thomas has the Note. Gearburn weighs in.

overall design


Immaculate. Apple hasn’t changed a damn thing since the iPhone 4. Much like how Sony’s PlayStation controller has remained in stasis since the nineties, Apple knows that it’s on to a winning formula with the sandwich of glass and steel it created in 2010.

The 4S is 140grams of pure erotic smartphone design. I’ve refused to encase the 4S and lo, infinitesimally small scratches are the only marks of shame. The Gorilla glass has kept the 4S beautifully preserved.

There is no waste, no slack in any part of the design. From top to bottom, this phone is future-proof. The volume buttons and mute switch are practically iconic at this point. It’s art, pure and simple.

Six months ago, we looked at a phone with a five inch screen for the first time. When I saw the adverts, I laughed. Then I held it in my hands. It looked astonishing. Granted it is an overgrown Galaxy S II — itself a very pretty phone. Bear in mind though that doesn’t always work. The same tapered edges that work so well on Nokia’s Lumia 800 just look daft on the 900. It’s phenomenally thin too. I still haven’t found a pair of pants it doesn’t fit comfortably into.

Oh and where most smartphone cases look like they were designed by the type of people whose idea of fun is clinging to a mountainside for a weekend, the Galaxy case I was presented with was, quite simply, bespoke. It replaces the back panel and folds around the front. When it’s closed it looks like the kind of notebook important people who do important things carry around with them. Now that’s cool. I bet if Ryan Gosling owned a Galaxy Note, he’d have a case like that.


In a word, buttery. The dual-core 1Ghz CPU, combined with the PowerVR GPU is a smartphone dream come true. Sure, the Note surpasses the 4S is speed but it’s the way the 4S handles its hardware that makes all the difference.

My phone became my laptop/tablet replacement. I browse full websites, download large files, video chat, play mind-blowing games and generally enjoyed the power the 4S afforded me. I jumped from a 3GS to this model, so the speed differential was staggering. Six months’ worth of clutter refuses to slow the 4S down.

If it is speed you want, it’s the iPhone 4S that you need.

As near flawless as you could hope to get from anything on the market today. The 4S’ CPU might be fine most of the time, but come on, why wouldn’t you want that little bit of extra power? No one ever looked at two supercars and said “you know what, that one has too much power for me, I’ll take the slower one”.

The Note, can actually do pretty much anything. I’ve typed whole articles on it before (Something made a hell of a lot easier by the full office suite). Yes, people will still come up to you and mock you for having a device with a stylus pen. Let them play with it for a few minutes though and you can see their minds changing. The S-pen goes from being a ridiculous throwback to the PDA’s of the late 90s to a tool that makes even the most mundane experiences on the Note fun. And that’s something that’s sorely missing from most smartphones.


Over the months, I’ve come across a litany of phones boasting “crystal-clear, HD screens.” But nothing seems to beat the 330PPI display of the 4S. With a higher resolution than the new iPad, the 4S is nothing if not pure liquid metal, poured into a crystalline display of untainted glass.

I can’t bemoan the screen because it’s a benchmark other phones have failed to meet. There are larger screens, but there is hardly anything to beat the 4S’. For video, HD content, gaming or whatever, this screen is top shelf. Bonus: the oleophobic coating makes it a piece of pie to wipe off fingerprints.

Let’s just describe the Note’s screen as factually as we can, shall we? It’s 5.3-inch Super HD AMOLED. Enough said. Actually it’s not, because that doesn’t do it justice. Out of all the things we do on mobile devices, browsing the web is probably the one that takes up most of our time. The Note’s display makes the efforts of much bigger HD screens looks childish in comparison.

The display also responds phenomenally well to touch. So well that I still get a slight tingle down the spine every time I think of how far we’ve come in just a very short space of time with the technology. Oh man, the future’s going to be awesome.


Not the best effort, but it is the best iOS can offer. In landscape, the keyboard is too wide and in vertical, the keyboard is too cramped. Word recognition is excellent though and six months in, the 4S easily picks up my chubby-fingered mistakes. But screw the keyboard, it’s all about Siri.

What started as a brief affair turned into a full-blown romance. Siri knows me. She wakes me up at night whispering gently into my ear, “it’s time to wake up.” I sent emails, messages, make notes and generally enjoy a keyboard free life with Siri. My digital, personal assistant uses roughly 15-30Mb per day, so it’s not really a hardship on my mobile bandwidth account. Siri, don’t you ever leave me.

As is the case with a number of Android devices, the Note’s keyboard comes standard with haptic feedback. If you’re a heavy typist, this does use a little extra battery but for people used to physical keyboards it’s reassuring, In portrait mode, the keyboard’s as wide as it is on landscape on most other devices. Swype is always an option, and a very cool one at that.



The 4S comes in a few memory flavours, I have the 16GB version which has ample room for games, music, film, what have you. Copying files to and from the 4S is a chore (when it’s mounted as a USB drive via a third-party app) and wireless file transfer is even worse. One hour to copy a 1GB file? Fail Apple, fail.

The external memory issue doesn’t hamper internal memory performance, and apps load at a lightening pace.

The memory on my Note came in the shape of 2GB onboard and a 16GB micro SD card. The SD is upgradable to 32GB. Oh, and because you’re not working on a closed ecosystem you can just plug it in and copy files to and from it. You know, because micro USB adaptors were actually invented for a reason.


Camera resolution is a beefy 8MP, with hardware extras such as autofocus and LED flash. And it’s nippy, thanks to iOS 5.1 which activates the camera from a quick swipe on the lockscreen. The front-facing camera is still throwaway crap though, a VGA monster which refuses to get the patented Apple upgrade. Perhaps something to do with video call bandwidth restrictions? Regardless, It’s terrible, the front-facing camera.

The 1080p video recording is fantastic, and combined with the iMovie app is a treat for any amateur cinematographer. More often than not, I’ve chosen to use the 4S as my replacement camera/video recorder. I’ve got a Flip camera (RIP) and a Nikon point-and-shoot. I leave them at home now. Of course, the 4S can’t beat the Nikon but it gives its all. What more can I ask for, besides a life-time supply of nachos.

The Note goes toe-to-toe with the 4S when it comes to the rear camera. The lens and flash work well in combination to ensure that even in poor lighting conditions noise is minimal. The S-pen also joins the party when it comes to photo-editing. Used skilfully, it make you look like an artist. Used less skilfully, it can make you look like a different kind of artist: one that listens to too much Pink Floyd and who’s room perpetually smells of very strong incense. Either way you’ll have tremendous fun.

It shoots video in full 1080p, but I haven’t seen any annoying hipsters waving Notes around on arms filming everything in sight, so I expect we’ll be spared any “creative visions” filmed on them for the moment. Thank heaven for small mercies. Unlike the 4S, the Note’s front-facing camera is measured in megapixels, two of them and you can make video calls on Skype with your hard-earned data if you wish.


The 4S is fine as a phone, hardly drops calls and maintains crystal clear signal quality. I can’t talk about this anymore. If I wanted a phone only, I’d get a Nokia 3310. It’s more than a phone to me, it’s a life-replacement.

As its advertising campaign demonstrated, even Samsung isn’t quite sure whether the Note is a phone or a tablet (my personal favourite term is Phablet). It works fine as a phone, but it makes all the other things we’ve tried to import from our PCs onto phones – email, instant messaging, video-calling – that much more pleasant. People still stare when you hold it you your ear, but if you’re the kind of person who owns a Note, you’re either very used to people staring or have got to where you are in life by be being able to stare back in a much more intimidating fashion.


As I said, the 4S is a complete replacement for the arbitrary tech gadgets in my life. It’s beautiful to hold, incredible to look at and at 6 months, I’m still in awe of it. Until the iPhone 5, this is my favourite phone so far.

You hear a lot people bandying about terms like “the one device” in much the same, mystified way as physicists talk about a “general unified theory of everything”. Well the Note is probably the closest we’ve ever come to the one device. Samsung’s sold in excess of the things. Imagine the possibilities for its successors once the projector technology on its sibling, the Galaxy Beam, ramps up to full power.

Steven Norris: grumpy curmudgeon


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