Introduction and design
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is either a game changer or deal breaker for longtime fans of the Android phablet, now that it has a premium look and feel.
Its 5.7-inch display, super-fast processor, improved camera and S Pen stylus are joined by a new, glass-and-metal design that reflects the solid construction of the Samsung Galaxy S6.
That makes it a huge leap over last year’s Galaxy Note 4, which backed the phone in cheap, textured plastic. Samsung’s build quality is finally fit to compete with the aluminum iPhone 6 Plus and the Huawei Ascend Mate 7.
All of this comes at a cost, however. There’s no microSD card slot for expandable storage or removable battery to swap out, like on the Note 4 and LG G4, and the new sealed-shut design is slippery.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is certainly a contender for best phone in the world, but it isn’t for everyone who can’t grip a two-handed phone, or its compromises in the name of style.
Release date and price
The Note 5 may not be for everyone simply because it’s currently only available in the US in the western world. It launched on AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular on August 21.
That means it’s not coming to the UK or the rest of Europe, at least not this year, as Samsung is instead focusing on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+. Anyone there who wants a phone with a stylus is out of luck.
Its price remains competitive, even with its fancy new design. It costs $250 through a two-year contract in the US and as low as $696 at full retail price through Verizon. It’d likely cost £600 in the UK and AU$940 in Australia, the same as the Note 4 price.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has the same basic shape as the Note 4, but the construction of the two phones couldn’t be any more different.
Gone is the faux leather back that was made of plastic but felt more like cheap snakeskin. It’s been replaced by a glass sheet that’s infused into a metal frame, just like on the Galaxy S6.
At 153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6mm, the Note 5 dimensions are certainly bigger than Samsung’s 5.1-inch flagship, but it’s actually a hair smaller and noticeably thinner than the Note 4. It’s lighter too, at 171g, shedding 5g even with its metal-and-glass construction.
Its back glass also curves inward on the right and left sides. This smaller footprint and curved back made it easier to hold in my palm, despite its phablet size.
Glass does make gripping this 5.7-inch phone more of a challenge, breakable and a fingerprint magnet compared to its faux leather predecessor. There’s less traction, but it’s nowhere near as slippery as a super smooth aluminum iPhone 6 with rounded corners.
Cases will help with the grip and prevent my overarching palm from interfering with the touchscreen, due to its thin bezel. This happens more often as bezels wane, phone sizes increase and my hands get fat. But I don’t suggest Samsung’s default case offering. I know from my time with the Galaxy S6 – it makes the phone even more slippery.
The Galaxy Note 5 colors include Sapphire Black and White Pearl in the US, with options of Titanium Silver and Gold Platinum on offer elsewhere. The aluminum frame is silver in all cases, with a color-matching power button on the right and volume rocker on the left. These buttons are thin, but feel strong when pressed and, importantly, are situated in the upper portion of the frame, exactly where my fingers clutch the phone.
Samsung Pay, Display and S Pen
The unchanged, oval-shaped home button is the only other physical button on the Note 5, and thankfully its fingerprint sensor technology works much better than it did on the Note 4. I no longer have to slide my finger up, then down the button in order to unlock the screen.
It works exactly like the iPhone’s Touch ID sensor, and now, “it just works.” It unlocked the phone in the same amount of time, is just as accurate as Apple’s biometric fingerprint sensor and can be used to log into a web sign-in for certain sites. The only issue I had was that is saves four fingerprints instead the five that Touch ID supports.
The enhanced fingerprint sensor is perfectly timed for the Samsung Pay launch on September 28 in the US, and the UK, Spain and China thereafter. The tech behind it is promising, with support for both NFC and MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission).
The MST protocol effectively mimics a card swipe at the non-NFC terminal, so that Samsung reaches 90% of retail locations, while Apple Pay and Google Pay struggle with a lower adoption rate. We’ll update this portion of the Galaxy Note 5 review on September 28, when Samsung Pay launches in the US.
The Galaxy Note 5 has already been heralded as the best smartphone display ever tested. It retains that 5.7-inch screen size and quad HD resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels. There are 518 pixels per inch behind the Gorilla Glass 4 – fewer than the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6. But don’t be fooled by the on-paper specs. The Note 5 just spreads out those same pixels on its larger screen.
Where the Super AMOLED technology differs is in color accuracy, peak brightness and contrast ratio, according to the experts at DisplayMate. I found the brightness level to be more important than Samsung’s over-the-top pixel density. Being able to see what’s on the screen while outdoors is far more rewarding than seeing marginally crisper text through a microscope.
S Pen stylus
The bright and colorful display packs some more neat tricks, thanks to the returning S Pen that really differentiates the Galaxy Note 5 from the Galaxy S6 Edge+. This plastic stylus now slides out from the bottom of the phone’s frame after clicking it in. There’s no other functionality from this clickable head, except perhaps inviting you to begin a bad OCD habit.
The new functionality comes when you enable “Screen off memo” in settings. This allows you to write on the display while it’s in its “off,” or at least in a nearly black state. This is really handy for jotting down everything from quick thoughts, to last-second grocery lists. It’s all saved in Samsung’s S Notes app, which returns with white or yellow legal pad backgrounds.
S Pen Air Commands pop up as soon as the pen is ejected from its internal holster, or when the stylus’ tiny side button is clicked while hovering over the display. These commands act as a shortcut to the Memos app as well as screen-cropping Smart Select and full screenshot Screen Write. There’s a special option in Screen Write that lets you capture an entire page, so piecing together multiple screenshots for web pages or text conversations is a thing of the past.
Writing on any of these with a variety of calligraphy and color options is fun and engaging, but the .PNG files can’t be sent via text message. I transferred three images to Dropbox, converted them to .JPG on my computer and sent them back to the phone to transmit to someone via SMS. The result? They couldn’t read my handwriting. It’s fun to use the S Pen, but not always as rewarding as it should be with extra steps like this.
I was able to understand my own stylus scribbling after jotting down notes while listening to a speaker at a conference, all without ever having to carry around a notebook. But this sort of S Pen functionality is going to be useful to a minority amount of phone owners out there and never as good as the real thing – either a computer or notebook in hand.
Most Galaxy Note 5 owners will seldom get use out of the otherwise gimmicky S Pen after the novelty wears thin in the first week. Tricks like Air View aren’t all that compelling. By hovering over the screen with the S Pen, it lets you scrub through the video player timeline, enlarge a gallery thumbnail photo, or preview an email. All of this seems less productive than the S Pen’s intended usage.
There is a extension pack that Samsung didn’t install by default, and it’s much more compelling than the Air View functionality. It enables handwriting transformation, sketch recordings and importing of notes from Google Drive. Luckily, it’s free through the Galaxy Apps Store.
Specs and performance
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is a beast of a phone in size and performance, since it inherits the chart-topping Galaxy S6 internal specs, then tweaks them a bit for even better results.
The company is really giving Qualcomm a run for its fleeting money, because its Exynos 7420 octa-core chip continues to outpace every other System on a Chip in multicore processing. And it does it while not getting hot or bogged down, like the troubled Snapdragon 810.
The Note 5’s octa-core chip is the same, with a combination of a 2.1GHz quad-core chip and a 1.5GHz quad-core chip and a Mali-T760 MP8 GPU. What’s different here is that Samsung added to the memory, with 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, instead of the 3GB found in S6 And S6 Edge.
Samsung fitting an extra 1GB of RAM in this phone – meaning it can handle more tasks at once – really shows through our best GeekBench 3 scores to date. While the Samsung Galaxy S6 topped the charts at an average score of 4,849, our three most recent Note 5 benchmarks averaged 4,975. One of the tests even surpassed the 5,000 mark.
That is a decisive blow to other phablets out there, too. The 6-inch Google Nexus 6 managed to score 3,294 in the same benchmarking test, while the iPhone 6 Plus took a snooze at 2,911. That may be plenty fast enough for even iOS 9, but this Android phone is able to handle way more at once.
Samsung’s Exynos 7420 processor, combined with 4GB, seems like an unstoppable force, and is a specs trend that should continue with next year’s Samsung Galaxy S7. By then, Qualcomm will have launched its Snapdragon 820 processor, maybe in the Nexus 5 2015 or Nexus 6 2015. But for right now, Samsung is setting and then beating its own benchmarks.
The only reason you may see slowdown from the Note 5 is if Samsung’s improved, but still imperfect, TouchWiz interface takes a few extra seconds to jam in another menu animation.
Local storage, the other type of memory, is more of an issue for power users, with 32GB and 64GB configurations. You won’t find a 128GB Samsung Galaxy Note 5.
That’s problematic for three reasons. First, there’s no microSD card slot, something that a vocal portion of Note fans have flipped out over. (Just look at the comments on our launch coverage.) Second, new RAW photo options and returning 4K video capture settings can eat up space. A 32GB drive isn’t what it used to be, with 30MB uncompressed photos and 2160p video files. Third, actual user-accessible storage is 24.85GB on my 32GB Galaxy Note 5 review unit. The system memory takes up 7.15GB on its own.
What’s shocking is that the SIM card tray finally switched from a micro SIM in the back cover on the Note 4 to a smaller nano SIM in the frame of the Note 5. Yet Samsung kept this ejectable tray fairly big – what looks to be the same size as micro SIM tray with huge borders.
I get why the battery is sealed with this airtight design, and I get why the Galaxy Note 5 isn’t waterproof, like last year’s Galaxy S5 and this year’s Galaxy S6 Active. But Samsung could have easily added an microSD card slot here instead of a larger-than-necessary SIM tray.
Call quality, reception and boot times
Phones are sometimes used to make phone calls, believe it or not, so we still evaluate that, too. The Note 5, does just fine with both call quality and reception.
Testing out the Samsung phone through the T-Mobile network in an area with good coverage, I was able to hear the caller loud and clear. It gets even louder when pressing the on-screen extra volume button, just in case your caller is a low talker and every word is important. The speaker phone accomplishes the same, even if the speaker shouts out the wrong direction, from the bottom of the phone’s frame.
Boot times on this phone are always acceptable, taking 28 seconds to startup on average. The even bigger Google Nexus 6 still requires about a minute and a half when first pressing the power button. Samsung packs more into the Galaxy Note 5 and takes a third of the time.
Android 5.1.1 and apps
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 comes pre-loaded with Android 5.1.1, meaning it has the latest update to Google’s operating system, not counting the Android 6.0 Marshmallow beta.
Lockscreen notifications are here from the get-go (they arrived on the Note 4 in a software update), and Samsung has its own, less intricate version of Do Not Disturb. It’s more of a system-wide virtual silencer, without the app-by-app level of detail we’ve seen in pure Android devices.
Samsung has refined its TouchWiz software overlay to a point where it’s actually good, even if it includes a number of apps you’ll never use. The spacious 5.7-inch display fits five apps across, instead of the normal four, and the quick settings swipe-from-the-top menu is still customizable. Google’s pure software doesn’t give Nexus 6 owners this quick setting re-sorting option.
New to 2016 Samsung phones is a settings menu laid out on one page, with the most important functions at the top in larger icons. It’s all-around much easier to get to where you want. What’s more, the TouchWiz interface finally rids the Note series of that “water droplet” lockscreen and its *bleeping* bleep-and-bloop sound effects. While these grating tones are still present in the Galaxy S6 Active, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge escaped these awful sound effects.
It’s now easier to load and offload files to a PC, Mac or tablet, thanks to the new SideSync. This app replaces the poor user interface of Samsung Kies and actually works, unlike the error-prone Android File Transfer app. Without a microSD card on the Note 5, this is more vital than ever.
Less important are Samsung’s pre-installed apps like Internet, Email, S Planner and S Voice. There’s no reason to ever use them when Google does a much better job with Chrome, Gmail, Calendar and Google Now. Neither company has a good health app. The generic Music, Video and Gallery do a good job of loading up multimedia files faster than the heavier-weight Google Music and Google Photos, so those are keepers.
Sneakily, the Note 5 includes normal-looking Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp apps, but these are really homescreen shortcuts to “Galaxy Apps,” Samsung’s Google Play Store alternative. The South Korean electronics giant is slowly trying to rope you into its account and ecosystem.
While S Voice takes a backseat, Samsung’s cleaned-up camera app is front-row-center. Double clicking the home button now leads to the camera app instead of S Voice, while holding it down acts as a Google Now shortcut. These are apps people actually use, so it’s a great move by Samsung.
Movies and Music
There are two main movie apps pre-installed and two more for music, and all of them prove that the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is more of a visual titan. Its audio prowess leaves room for improvement.
The comic book characters of X-Men really popped on this best-in-class display as soon as I loaded up the 2000 film through Google Play Movies. Playing back video I recorded via the default movies app revealed a basic media player with useless Air View gestures thrown in. Both apps ace the look.
Where movies and music let me down on this device was in the speaker department. Just like the speakerphone call quality, the audio here shoots out of Galaxy Note 5’s side frame. It’s very noticeable that it points in the wrong direction when trying to enjoy a movie or song through the built-in speakers.
This is something that the HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z3 Compact and even the new Moto G 2015 get right with front-facing speakers. With a large, cinema-friendly display, Samsung nearly has a multimedia juggernaut.
Without the hint of slowdown in benchmarking tests, I didn’t find any performance issues when playing games. Everything from the simple Jetpack Joyride to the more advanced Asphalt 8: Airborne was efficiently handled by the Mali-T760 MP8 GPU.
Battery life took a hit when running through these game apps, as expected, but I surprisingly didn’t run into any problems with the lack of bezel, like I did when typing sometimes. This is because almost all of today’s games are played in landscape mode, and there’s a bit more to hold onto in that orientation.
Samsung’s 5.7-inch display is nearly a tablet gaming experience at this point, and with many of the best Android game available for free, this “work” device easily doubles as your new Game Boy
Megapixels don’t always mean everything when it comes to the best camera phones, so some 13MP, 16MP, 20MP snappers can’t compare to the 8MP iPhone 6 camera.
That’s not the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 camera, because it’s 16MP and actually lives up to that Apple-doubling number. With the same Sony Exmor RS IMX240 sensor that’s in the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and S6 Active, it gives shooters a wide f/1.9 aperture.
All of that translates into the Note 5 camera snapping brighter photos with more on-point color accuracy compared to last year’s Galaxy Note 4. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a photo come out the first time you hit the virtual shutter button.
Even though I saw roughly the same amount of fine detail between the two Notes, I found that the iPhone 6 camera to literally pale in comparison. The differences between Samsung’s 5,312 x 2,988 photos and Apple’s 3,264 x 2,448 pictures are more apparent than ever. The Note 5 provided punchier colors, without becoming oversaturated – something Samsung has been known for in years past. It also handled low-light better than the iPhone. Apple’s really got to step it up with the iPhone 6S.
Capturing that fleeting Kodak moment on the Note 5 is also aided by the fact that I only needed to double tap the home button to open the camera app. It takes 0.7 seconds with this method, a worthy replacement of the S-Voice shortcut that no one ever used.
The front-facing 5MP camera is a different story. It provides those same wider selfie photos with a f/1.9 aperture and more vibrant colors, but doesn’t do nearly as well in low-light conditions. The iPhone produces more realistic skin tones, while Samsung applies a “beauty mode” slider that makes people look waxy. It can be turned off, but the results aren’t much better.
The Note 5’s rear camera shoots 4K video at 30 frames per second and 1080p video at 60 frames per second, though the limited storage space is a key concern if you’re capturing 2160p video files. The good news is that footage in either resolution looks great. I only had a problem with the abrupt jerking of the camera lens when zooming in and out.
The Galaxy Note 5 inherits the S6 camera with a few new additions. This gives us a cleaner, easier-to-use interface with modes of Auto, Pro (manual), Selective Focus, Panorama, Video Collage, Slow Motion, Fast Motion and Virtual Shot returning to the rear camera. It’s all about making selfies easier with the front camera, with modes of Selfie, Wide Selfie and Interval Shot. Video Collage and Virtual Shot also work with this 5MP camera.
The newest mode to Samsung’s camera is Live Broadcast. It streams video, captured from the front or rear camera, to YouTube in an invite-only or public environment, your choice. Although the similar YouTube Live app is starting to make its way to more devices, having it integrated right into the default camera app does make it easy to sign in and start recording.
Buried in the Note 5 camera settings menu is an option to save RAW files when in Pro mode. This gives camera enthusiasts a chance to capture uncompressed photos and tinker with finer editing details in post. Right now, both Live broadcast and RAW files are exclusive to the Note 5, even though there’s no reason I can see that Samsung’s other top camera phones can’t handle them.
Camera comparison samples
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 battery life was controversial, even before the phone was officially announced. Rumors that it had no removable battery turned out to be true.
This is a deal breaker for power users who routinely swap out their battery at will, and carry around a spare. After all, the Note series has always appealed to enterprise clients.
Everyone else shouldn’t have a problem, though. Yes, the battery capacity is pared down, from 3,220mAh in the Note 4 to 3,020mAh in the Note 5, but Samsung’s hardware and software optimizations more than make up for that.
I was able to eek out more than a full day of battery with heavy use in real-world tests, and our lab tests proved that the Note 5 drained 14% when running our looped 90-minute HD video. The Galaxy S6, with its smaller 2,550mAh battery but also smaller display, dropped 16% in the same amount of time.
These aren’t on the level of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Active, which boasts a 3,500mAh battery and drained only 7% running the same 90-minute video. That’s the one you want to go with if you really want an ever-lasting battery. However, everyone’s concerns for the Note 5 battery are a little overblown.
Battery recharging is even less of an issue, because the Galaxy Note 5 charges faster than previous Samsung phones. The company’s Fast Charging standard can fully replenish dead the battery in 1 hour and 20 minutes. Plug the same Note 5 in a normal USB charger and it takes 4 hours and 20 minutes.
That’s a huge advantage to carrying around Samsung’s slightly bulkier charger. Through tests, I found that Qualcomm-backed QuickCharge 2.0 chargers from Motorola, LG and Google Nexus phones also do the trick.
The Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ also support “fast” wireless charging in addition to the slower wireless charging standard. Samsung says this new method takes just 50 minutes to fully charge the new phones, but requires its awkwardly named “Fast Charge Wireless Charging Pad.” What’s more inconvenient than saying that name? Paying its $70 (likely £70, AU$120) asking price.
Everyone who wanted the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 to be a “more premium” device that leaves behind its plastic origins finally has the device they’ve been asking for. But, it does leave behind some Note series staples.
The sacrifices Samsung felt it needed to make to get to that premium Note 5 design have turned off some longtime users. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to like about this phone upgrade than dislike.
The Galaxy Note 5 combines productivity and polish for the first time for anyone who wants to wield and S Pen and a giant, glass-backed smartphone simultaneously. It has a large 5.7-inch display, yet feels less slippery than the iPhone 6 Plus. This phablet also outpaces Apple with record-breaking processor and 4GB of RAM, which make it the fastest phone in our tests.
Speaking of performance, the camera produced similar results in side-by-side photo comparisons. It’s the best phone with an S Pen and, frankly, one of the best without it, too.
You’re going to pay top dollar for this category-leading phablet. And yet, at no price will you be able to simply pop in a microSD card for extra storage or pony up for the 128GB version. There is none. The same goes for changing out the battery, like you could with the Note 4. To some users, this is going to be a major downgrade, with the better alternative being the LG G4.
Yes, the Note 5 has an S Pen in a world where phones that comes with a stylus are rare, but a majority of consumers will love its features for a week, and then tire of its novelty. I’m also still wary about Samsung thinning out the left and right bezel so much that my hands begin to mistype words on the otherwise excellent display.
The Galaxy Note series has never been inexpensive. And now its aesthetics match the price, thanks to a glass back that feels excellent in two hands. Be careful of what you wish for, though. There’s no microSD card slot or removable battery anymore. Power users can blame everyone who complained about the company’s plastic-clad phones.
As long as you can live without those two features, the Note 5 is still worth your upgrade. It has top-of-the-line specs that set new records, a 5.7-inch display that’s rightfully considered the best – even outdoors – and a camera takes the best photos compared to other phones I’ve tested. This S Pen-compatible phablet is mightier, and is the one Google Nexus 6 2015 and iPhone 6S Plus need to beat.
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