They say the best camera is the one you have on you, and that truism also works for video game systems. The best portable gaming experience is the one you always carry in your pocket.
The industry is moving towards larger phones with bigger screens, and that's an interesting development when it comes to gaming devices. The larger iPhones are already incredibly popular, and we thought it would be interesting to spend some time with one of the largest cell phones on the market and treat it as a gaming console.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is a great device for this experiment, as it seems particularly well-suited to gaming, and it offers a few things that Apple can't, or won't, offer in its line of phones and tablets. It's this sort of differentiation that's such a powerful weapon in a crowded market.
So I contacted Samsung and asked if they'd be willing to loan me one of their phones to carry it around as a pure gaming device. The hardware and basic features have been reviewed by the Verge, and well, but I wanted to look at the hardware and compare it to other portable gaming systems in my collection.
This is one the biggest selling points of the device, and it's rumored to be the reason that Oculus paired with Samsung for Gear VR. The Note 4 ships with a 5.7-inch, 2560-by-1440 AMOLED display, offering 518 pixels per inch.
For reference, the 3DS XL offers a 4.8 inch 800 by 240 resolution screen, while the Vita screen is 5 inches with a 960 by 544 resolution. Even the Apple iPhone 6 plus is "only" a 5.5 inch screen running at a 1920 by 1080 resolution. The screen is complete overkill.
"Honestly, I don’t know that the screen even needs to be quite this good — 518ppi is not just beyond the point where your eye can’t distinguish individual pixels, it’s miles beyond it — but I’m certainly not going to complain," the Verge said in their overall review of the device.
The screen is amazing; it's bright and large and even fine detail is easy to pick out when playing a game. Video content looks amazing, although you'll notice some color distortion if you look at it from an angle. The resolution and size of the screen allowed me to do things I normally wouldn't consider on a phone, such as reading plain text on the Kindle app or reading comics via Marvel Unlimited.
The 5.7 inch screen is in the weird middle ground between phone and tablet, and some games suffer for it. The recent South Park pinball game looks and runs great on the device, and even small details are easy to pick out due to the screens quality and resolution, but holding the phone with your thumbs to use both bumpers is awkward.
Bartosz Brzostek is the CTO at 11 bit studios, who created Anomaly Defenders, one of the games that really take advantage of the screen. He talked about the double-edged sword of that resolution in detail.
"On one hand it theoretically allows for better visual quality, on the other more pixels simply means more powerful GPU is required. It sometimes happens that the bump in GPU processing power is lower than the increase in pixel count," he explained.
"When the game is pixel or bandwidth limited, and most advanced games are, this results in a lower frame rate. Such issue arose with the release of iPad 3; the device featured 4 times more pixels, however the GPU was not four times faster than the previous one."
The tension between resolution and frame rate is well known in gaming, and in some circumstances the resolution of the Note 4's screen could actually be a weakness, especially in games that stress the system's GPU.
One of the most surprising things is that while the screen obviously benefits the more graphically intensive games, playing even graphically basic games like Retry or Marvel Puzzle Quest were noticeably improved by the size, quality and resolution of the screen.
My eyes felt less tired, text was easy to read, and the colors were much more vibrant than what you saw in previous hardware models. There is no aspect of gaming that isn't improved by the larger screen with a denser pixel density.
Of course a screen that large means the device itself is massive, which brings us to...
Game developer Bennet Foddy tackled this head-on when the larger sizes of the iPhone 6 were announced.
"The phones are too big to play in portrait mode, one-handed. If you look on the Android charts, there are almost no portrait mode games in the top 50," he explained.
"On the iPhone charts, there are many. Portrait mode means you can play on the train, standing in line, walking down the street, but you can't do that on a big phone, where you're gripping it hard just to make sure you don't drop it. So this is the end of that format of games, a format which many of my favorites — including Flappy Bird, Threes and Spelltower — used."
This is what you may give up with a phone this large, and again the Note 4 is one of the largest on the market. I have what I consider to be "regular" sized hands for a 5'10" man, and I found it all but impossible to use the device for gaming with one hand.
You have to be willing to move on from those games, or at least adapt how you use the phone and risk dropping it if you're a fan of games like Spelltower and Flappy Bird.
There is a software solution for this, which basically shrinks down the size of the usable screen to make it reachable with your thumb, so that's an option as well. The motion to turn this mode on, a quick back and forth swipe from the edge of the screen, can be tricky, but it works. You can see what this mode looks like in the image to the right.
But you gain other advantages with a system this large. There are piles of great first-person shooters and racing games for Android devices, and holding the phone in portrait mode gives you that big beautiful screen, and when you place your thumbs on the virtual controls they don't block your view of the action.
Being able to use virtual controls while still having the main view completely unobstructed is a wonderful thing, and directly aided in my enjoyment of games like Dead Trigger 2.
The size is an interesting thing, whether you like or not is going to come down to personal preference. It fits in my pocket just fine, games like the Room 2 which I usually play on tablets operate very well on the large screen, and there's more room for virtual controls. I would never want to play Hearthstone on anything smaller, for instance, but the idea of being able to enjoy the Android version of the game on a screen of this size is very exciting.
The size for gaming is more of a plus than a minus, but you have to deal with the fact you're carrying around something this large as your primary device. If you don't mind, it's wonderful. If that bothers you, there are plenty of smaller options. I was annoyed by it for the first few days, and now can't stand looking at my iPhone 5S with its much-smaller screen.
It's anecdotal evidence, but the real-world takeaway from using the device is that once I send back my review loaner I'll likely pick up either one of these phones as my personal daily-use device. I'm not willing to give up the big screen.
Ultra power-saving mode
This is one of the best things the Note 4 offers over other phones, and I hope other smart phone manufacturers steal this idea tomorrow.
Gaming is incredibly hard on the battery of any device, and it's a simple thing to run down most devices with a few hours of playing a complex 3D game. Any GPU you put to work is going to suck battery, and gaming kills the batteries of mobile devices quickly.
When I run down the battery on my phone, I'm unreachable
Which provides a sort of ongoing tension whenever you leave the house knowing you're going to play games on your phone. I often take my kids to amusement parks during the summer, thrill rides are one of my personal weaknesses, and it's important that my phone works for the entire 10-hour trip, if not longer.
That means that not only do you have to watch your battery life carefully, you have to shut down the gaming while you have at least 20 percent or more of life left to get you through the rest of the day. It's a balancing act that forces you to constantly ask yourself if you're leaving enough battery to be able to use your phone as a communications device for the rest of the day.
It doesn't matter if I run down the battery on my 3DS, I just put in my pocket. When I run down the battery on my phone, I'm unreachable. That's no good with five kids.
So the Note 4 offers an "ultra power saving" mode that turns off all non-essential functions and limits what you can do with the phone to calls and texts, while turning everything grayscale. It turns your smart phone into a "dumb phone," but even 5 percent of the battery left I had a full day's worth of charge. At 80 percent I had a stunning 14 days of operation in the battery.
This removes almost all the stress about the battery life, and it's been great when I take the device out for a full day with the kids. If I'm in line for a roller coaster I can play games to my hearts content, and nearly down the battery completely.
When the phone is on its last legs I can flip over to ultra power saving mode and have more than enough juice to stay in touch and get home. It's an amazing feature, and incredibly useful when you're trying to wring the most play time out of your device.
Having this mode makes one much more comfortable about running down the battery while gaming, and then gives you a way to get through the rest of your day with a functional phone once you do so
The odds and ends
It all comes back to battery life in the end, and the Note 4's 3,220 mAh battery will give you a good day of use as long as you don't play hours of 3D games, but the ability to carry an additional battery and swap out on the fly is very welcome.
Combine that fact with the ultra power-saving mode and the rapid charging feature that gets you from dead to 50 percent charge in around a half an hour and you have a phone that's uniquely suited to handling GPU-intensive games.
The ability to upgrade the storage of the device with micro-SD cards also helps the phone stand apart from Apple's entries, and mobile games aren't exactly getting smaller. Your smart phone is your camera, music player, gaming device, and damned near everything else, so the ability to quickly and inexpensively upgrade the storage is helpful.
Phones are getting bigger, and in many ways the Note 4 is one of the most ridiculous devices on the market, especially if you have smaller hands or don't want to have to carry a large, nearly tablet-sized device in your pocket.
The features you get with the phone however, from the ability to play games with virtual controls without your fingers getting in the way or features that help maintain battery life and the phone functions themselves, and you have a killer device for portable gaming, one that has a few advantages over Apple's offerings.
This is the device that's ultimately going to slide into the Gear VR, and the quality of the screen is one of its main selling points. It's the power aspects of the phone, however, from its ability to charge quickly to the inexpensive replacement or secondary batteries you can carry with you that were most impressive.
Your pocket computer is a personal choice, and if you want something small there are great options. For people who don't mind giving up some pocketspace for visuals, the Note 4 proves it's a worthy, interesting gaming device.