When you get to the fifth generation of anything, odds are it’s been successful. That has definitely been the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note series. This lineup of smartphones has been around since 2010, and helped usher in the era of giant phones with huge displays. Over the last couple of years however, the market has caught up; even Apple has rolled out a big iPhone. With the Galaxy Note5 though, Samsung has set a new high for what a big smartphone should be.
[section label=”Hardware and Design” anchor=”Hardware and Design”]
Hardware and Design
The Galaxy Note5 keeps plenty of what’s made previous generations successful and addressed some shortcomings as well. It’s moved beyond a couple of fan favorite features to make the look of the device more appealing to those that haven’t tried it. The Note5 hasn’t reinvented the big smartphone wheel, but it is a more refined and polished product. Following its Galaxy S6 design strategy, Samsung has done away with pretty much all the plastic on the device and replaced it with glass and metal throughout – a move that gives it a very high-end feel. The Note5 isn’t too heavy either. Weighing in at 171g, it’s actually lighter the iPhone 6 Plus, so it won’t tire out your hand from holding it over long periods of time.
The front of the Note5 features that beautiful 5.7-inch display that made the Note 4 so irresistible with a few added improvements (more on that below). The back of the phone is a single tone, and its edges have been curved – it feels like the S6 edge+’s front was its inspiration. This design change certainly helps when holding the phone in your hand which is appreciated because it tends to be a little slippery too. Overall, the Note5 is not only a beautiful phone to look at, but it’s not bad to hold either. Unfortunately, like any other glossy finish, you’ll be constantly wiping smudges off of its back – it’s a fingerprint magnet.
The Note5 is obviously still a phablet. We’ve become more accustomed to these larger devices over the years, so it doesn’t feel as unwieldy as it did once a upon a time. This series will never feature a one-handed device unless you have really big hands. For most of us however, we’ll have to use the Note5 with two hands which can be a pain if we need a free hand or we’re laying down in bed. Of course, if you’re looking at the Galaxy Note5 for your next device, none of this should surprise you. It’s made for a specific audience that wants a larger phone. Even though the competition has done a pretty good job at matching Samsung’s offerings, the Galaxy Note5 still edges out most devices when it comes to real estate and size.
For example, the iPhone 6 Plus, which features a smaller 5.5-inch display, is actually a bigger phone than the Note5 (it’s longer and wider). Samsung does a pretty good job at keeping its bezel to a minimum so users can enjoy more of its screen.
Speaking of the iPhone, the similarities between Samsung and Apple’s latest device continue when they get bigger as well. Like with the S6, the Note5 features the similar headphone jack, charger, and speaker position at the bottom of the phone just screams “iPhone.”
No phone is perfect, and the Note5 does have some hardware changes that we didn’t love. The biggest one of these is the removal of a microSD slot for expandable storage. This decision, along with the choice to make the battery non-removable, will surely rub a lot of Note fans the wrong way who picked the device for those two specific reasons. Like with the S6, the company’s research has said that Samsung device owners didn’t rank the microSD slot and removable batteries as priorities in their smartphone needs and put overall design and look near the top. Based on that, they determined they could make this alteration and not affect the overall sales numbers. We’ll see if that ends up being true or not though.
Samsung is opting to go with the Apple approach by making different internal storage tiers available for purchase. Unlike Apple though, Samsung is not making a 128GB variant which could have at least helped relieve the annoyance of no microSD card support.
Samsung is making the Note5 available in four different colors around the world: Black Sapphire, Gold Platinum, Silver Titan, and White Pearl. Some of these colors, like the Gold Platinum, are not available everywhere so check out your local wireless carrier to double check which versions they will carry.
[section label=”Display and Sound” anchor=”Display and Sound”]
Display and Sound
Samsung is a world leader is screen technology, so it’s expected that its high-end devices would feature the best of the best in terms of displays. After last year’s Note 4 display, it was hard to imagine Samsung could do much better, but somehow they have. I fell in love with the Galaxy Note5’s 5.7-inch QHD AMOLED display (1440 x 2560 pixels – 518ppi) after using it for the last week, and I’m putting it above everyone else’s, regardless of size or shape. It may sound like hyperbole, but the Samsung Galaxy Note5 has the best screen on any phone ever made. In terms of actual resolution and size, the Note5’s display is the same as the Note 4, but Samsung has tweaked its saturation and brightness making this screen the clear winner.
On the negative side, Samsung’s Note5 display can be a little oversaturated sometimes – even a tad warm where cool colors should prevail – but it’s a compromise that’s needed with any AMOLED screen really. Unless you’re really, really looking for it, you probably won’t even notice the slight discoloration that can occur.
For the most part though, everything looks good on this device. It really doesn’t matter what you’re doing with it. You could be looking at pictures, watching a movie, or simply browsing Twitter, the Note5 will give you the best visual experience possible every time. Even in direct sunlight, boosting up the brightness keeps the screen looking as good as it always does.
Like with its S6, the Note5 features a single speaker on the bottom of the device. It’s loud, but it pales in comparison to device with great sound like the HTC One M9 or BlackBerry Passport.
[section label=”Software and S-Pen” anchor=”Software and S-Pen”]
Software and S-Pen
The Samsung Galaxy Note5 comes preloaded with Android Lollipop 5.1.1 skinned by their in-house TouchWiz. If you’ve gotten a chance to play around with an S6, you know pretty much what to expect here. Samsung has improved TouchWiz for its 2015 flagships, but it’s still somewhat of a hot mess. Menus are still confusing, and the drop down menu is always overcrowded with settings and options. It feels like Samsung tries to do so much in its software when it should really dial it down a notch, and Android be Android.
The good thing about TouchWiz on the Note5 is it’s a much more organic experience on a bigger screen. It’s almost like a lot of these features were designed to be used on a giant display versus on the smaller S6 and S6 edge. Multi Window mode looks better on the Note5 and shows more information than on these other devices for example.
Samsung has also made great use of the Note5’s resolution to make its app icons smaller, and more rounded. The result is cleaner visuals, and home screen that doesn’t look like it has jumbo icons all over the place. It doesn’t hurt to also have more real estate to show off your cool wallpapers either.
Over the year, one of the biggest distinguishing features of the Note series has been the inclusion of the S-Pen. Its fifth generation device added a couple of nifty improvements to how the S-Pen functions and feels overall when you’re using it. The new S-Pen’s holster has a spring-action eject function that brings it out about a quarter of an inch for easy retrieval. The same pressure has to be applied to get it to click back into place, but it can take more than a couple of tries to get it right when you’re in a rush. The actual S-Pen itself has a stronger, sturdier tip, but it’s still all plastic and feels pretty cheap when compared to the rest of the device.
Once you pop the S-Pen out, Air Command pops up on-screen with the four features: Action memo, Smart select, Screen write, and S Note. You can add two more app shortcuts to Air Command, and substitute S Note for a third customizable option if you want.
Instant Memos on Note5 is probably one of the features I used the most in my time reviewing it. When the screen is off, taking out the S-Pen will wake up it and launch S-Note in dark mode instantly for easy note-taking. It’s quick, and convenient if you need to take down a number, or any other details on the fly. It can also be fun if you just wanna doodle for a little bit – no judgment here. There’s no need to unlock your device or open any apps, just take out the pen and start writing. If you’re wondering about this feature as a security issue, don’t worry. Existing memos or notes can’t be viewed unless you unlock the device itself.
[section label=”Camera” anchor=”Camera”]
The Note5 comes equipped with a bad ass 16-megapixel camera with OIS on the back and a 5-megapixel camera on the front. On the exterior, the camera bump on the Note5 isn’t too drastic. It’s slightly less of a bump than the S6 edge+, but this is more than likely due to it being a thicker device overall.
Samsung’s camera tech continues to dominate the Android world, and can easily go toe-to-toe with Apple’s iPhone shooter. Samsung has packed the Note5’s camera app with tons of features to go along with its already impressive shooting capabilities. Accessing it quickly is also possibly on the new Note – a simple double-tap of the home button and the camera app will automatically launch without even needing to unlock the device.
Auto-focus on the Note5 is lightning quick. Images come out sharp and crystal clear without any editing. Like with its display, the Note5’s pictures tend to be a little on the warm side in color contrast specially in low-light environments. Its lens’ wide aperture will let you take great shots up close and even better selfies without needing to stretch out your arms too far. Samsung’s Selective Focus feature lets you get that cool DSLR effect that blurs the background when shooting a subject up close. They’re also including nifty panorama and slow-motion video features to round out pretty much everything you could want to do with its camera. Both have worked as well as advertised, so no complaints here.
Both the Note5 and S6 edge+ feature the same camera, so the examples below apply to both:
My favorite new camera feature has to be the ability to livestream directly to YouTube without needing to sign up for a separate app. I’ve never been much a livestreamer, but I feel like this feature could really end up being useful to a lot of people in different work or fun cases. Samsung and YouTube have partnered up to make this possible, and they did a pretty good job of it so far. Setting it up takes about two minutes – you have to sign in to YouTube via a little pop up window and then confirm your identity as well. You can start a livestream directly on your device and share the link in real time with your friends and family so they can experience what you’re seeing right then and there.
Barring the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus blowing us away, the Note5’s camera should go down as the best smartphone camera in 2015. Samsung features by far and away the best shooters on any Android device, and the Note5 is the prime example of that.
The Galaxy Note5 features the same 2.1GHz Exynos 7420 processor that its smaller counterpart, the Galaxy S6, has. Samsung decided to forgo Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 and in favor of their in-house chip and I believe that was the right call to make. Coupled with 4GB of RAM, the Note5 actually does a pretty good job with Samsung’s bloated TouchWiz Android skin, and handles multitasking sufficiently well. At the end of the day, while performance is good, I can’t help but wonder how much faster a Samsung device running stock Android would be.
Also, on more than a few occasions, my Note5 review unit just wouldn’t turn on right away when the power key, or home buttons were pressed. A couple of times it would be a second or two, but other times the screen would stay off for 10 to 15 seconds. It was a weird glitch that didn’t occur on the S6 edge+ but did on the Note5. Hopefully a software update can fix that in the near future.
[section label=”Battery life and price” anchor=”Battery life and price”]
Battery life and price
Performance-wise, the only real difference I could tell between the S6 Edge+ and the Note5 is in the battery life department. The Galaxy Note5 features a non-removable 3,000mAh battery that performs admirably but doesn’t make up for the lack of a removable power source on the device. In our testing, the Galaxy Note5 gave me around 12 hours of battery life on a day with very heavy usage. On lighter days, the Note5 could easily power through over 20 hours. The Galaxy S6 Edge+ outlasted the Note5 by about 3 hours in both aspects.
The Note5’s display isn’t the only thing that’s super sized. In the U.S., the very pricey Samsung Galaxy Note5 is between $700 to $740 off-contract. True, this isn’t much of a change from previous years’ pricing, but unfortunately for Samsung, competitors from all over are delivering similar specs on devices and offering them for a lower cost. Motorola’s Moto X Play which features a gigantic battery and a 5.5-inch QHD display will be priced between $300-$400 depending on where you get it. The Note5 is probably a better device than the Moto X Play, but I’m not sure it’s an extra $300 better.
[section label=”Wrap Up” anchor=”Wrap Up”]
If you’re a fan of big phones, the Samsung Galaxy Note5 should be first on your list to check out. It’s an absolute beauty that combines the best screen technology out there with Samsung’s top tier camera. It’s great to hold, and doesn’t feel as big as it actually is.
It’s not all perfect though. Samsung did away with microSD support and the Note’s removable battery, so it may take a little getting use to if you’re upgrading from a previous Note. TouchWiz has improved, but it still has a long way to go before it can be considered a challenger to stock Android.
Overall, if you pick up a Galaxy Note5 you won’t be disappointed. It might be a rough transition for those that love that removable hardware, but once you get past that, it’s smooth sailing. With all the competition in the phablet space, Samsung had to reestablish its self as the biggest player in the world, and the Galaxy Note5 has done just that.