Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review: the best big phone just got better
For a while there, companies like Palm and Microsoft insisted that the mark of a serious smartphone was the ability to write on it with a stylus. The industry seemingly changed its mind with the advent of capacitive touchscreens, and the stylus became something to scoff at, a holdover from antiquated operating systems like Windows Mobile and Palm OS. But then there’s Samsung, which has been trying for years now to keep the idea alive with several versions of the Galaxy Note, a phablet that never quite felt or looked as nice as it should. Well, those days are over. The new Note 5 is the best big phone Samsung has made yet, and it just might make a believer out of a few naysayers.Slideshow-314235
(Note: I’ve been testing an unlocked, international version of the Galaxy Note 5 with a “gold platinum” finish that won’t be available in the US. I’ll update this review with impressions of the US models as I receive them.)
Let’s cut to the chase: This is the most attractive, most comfortable-feeling Galaxy Note that Samsung has ever made. Considering what the company’s churned out in the past, this probably isn’t a shock to hear. The Gorilla Glass-and-metal design language carried over from the rest of the Galaxy S6 line means the Galaxy Note finally has the premium feel it always deserved (and without any tacky faux-leather, either). Of course, you’re going to pay for that privilege: The Note 5 is available from all five major US wireless carriers with no-contract prices starting at $720.
The generous curve of the backplate and the trimmed-down bezels surrounding the 5.7-inch, Quad HD, Super AMOLED screen make the Note 5 much easier to hold than any of the previous-gen Notes, a serious feat when you consider how beastly that screen actually is. Of course, not everyone’s a fan of glass-clad phones; a banged-up metal or plastic cover doesn’t look nearly as bad as a pane of shattered glass. After a week and a half of throwing the device in and out of my bag, though, the glass on my unit still looks immaculate. As for the front? Not so much. There are already a few indelible nicks on the screen and on the fingerprint sensor/home button. Thankfully, the button continues to work, even if it does look a little worse for wear.
And of course, there’s the S Pen. I’ll revisit this in a moment, but suffice to say, it’s leaner and lighter this year, and now has a clicky end you’ll use to unlock it from the garage located on the Note’s bottom edge. There’s plenty of fun to be had obnoxiously clicking it like your old ballpoints, but otherwise, it adds a superfluous step when you want to whip the Pen out, which sucks if you need to jot something down in a jiffy.
Under the hood, we once again have one of Samsung’s own octa-core Exynos 7420 chipsets, with four cores clocked at 2.1GHz and another four thrumming away at 1.5GHz. Pair that with 4GB of RAM and you’ve got the makings of a serious powerhouse. If all this sounds familiar (you’ve been paying attention), that’s because it is: These are the exact same components in the Galaxy S6 Edge+, which amounted to a pretty modest upgrade over what we got in the original S6 series. Seriously, the biggest change here is the extra RAM; the Galaxy S6 had three gigs, not four.
For some of you, though, another change might make all the difference. It’s no secret that Samsung has it out for microSD, but things are made more complicated by the Note 5’s lack of more spacious storage options. You can plunk down cash for a 32GB or 64GB version, but the 128GB model Samsung initially hinted at isn’t coming after all. Cloud storage is useful, sure, but I still wouldn’t try to squeeze my entire mobile life into a device with only 32GB of space. Oh, and the Note 5’s design also means you can’t touch the 3,000mAh battery inside, a blow to power users who enjoyed the ability to swap out the cells on the Note 4 and Note Edge.
Display and sound
If there’s one thing Samsung really gets, it’s how to make a seriously good-looking screen. The Note 5’s QHD, Super AMOLED display isn’t a huge leap over the Note 4’s screen (which was the same size and ran at the same resolution), but there’s enough of a boost in saturation and overall brightness to make the sequel a clear winner.
Colors are vivid and vibrant in that typically AMOLED-y way, so while these oversaturated colors aren’t always accurate, per se, they’re still a treat to look at. Whites are appropriately crisp (if a touch on the warm side); blacks are deep; and you can easily view the screen even from off-kilter angles. More importantly, the screen is an absolute champ under the sweltering summer sun. With brightness cranked up all the way, I had no trouble thumbing through some Haruki Murakami short stories and various photo sets on Flickr. Peer closely enough at the screen in direct sunlight and you might notice it sort of… pulsate (especially when you’re looking at apps or websites with a white background), but it’s well worth the ability to actually use the phone outdoors. Some will argue that Quad HD displays aren’t necessary, and indeed, your eyes don’t stand a chance of picking out the 518 pixels packed into any given linear inch. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results here. Well done, Sammy.
Too bad, then, that the screen is paired with a wimpy single speaker on the phone’s bottom edge. Crank it all the way up and your tunes will play forcefully enough, but with a hollow, unsatisfying sound; there’s a distinct lack of oomph here that’s unfortunately pretty common in high-end phones. In any case, you’d do well to save the speaker for the occasional web video. Samsung hasn’t completely neglected the audio, though: It built in support for 24-bit audio and a way to “upscale” your low-res MP3s and restore detail that was lost in the compression process. I’m no acoustician and my ears have been damaged from years of blasting show tunes, but the audio software here doesn’t seem to make any discernible difference. Maybe I just have bad taste? Or perhaps some of my songs just can’t be saved. Either way, keep your expectations in check and you’ll be fine.
If you’ve fiddled with a Galaxy S6, you know exactly what to expect here. The Note 5 comes with a TouchWiz-ified version of Android 5.1.1, and once again, I appreciate the lighter touch Samsung has been taking with its software. It’s not my favorite skin and I still think it pales in comparison to the stock Google Now Launcher, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much less obnoxious TouchWiz is these days.
All of Samsung’s mainstay features are here, and they all work as well as you’d expect them to. If anything, the Note 5’s huge screen makes a few of them feel more natural; you can see a lot more of the two apps you have running in Multi Window mode, and the Flipboard Briefing window to the left of the home screen is more spacious and satisfying when stretched out on a larger display. In the past, all that extra real estate meant earlier Notes had gigantic app icons, but here they’re noticeably smaller (and slightly rounder). That will take a bit of getting used to. I’m glad, though, that Samsung finally figured out that people want room to spread out their stuff, instead of just having everything scaled up to fill the bigger screen.Slideshow-314563
My review unit came with 32GB of built-in storage, about 24GB of which is available to users out of the box. Aside from Samsung’s usual add-ons like S Health and S Voice (which works great, but still went mostly unused), apps like Instagram, Facebook and OneDrive come preloaded, but can be uninstalled. Not so bad, right? Then again, my tester phone is also an unlocked international model that’s completely free of carrier bloat. That almost certainly won’t be the case for US variants, although I haven’t gotten to test any of the American models just yet. Samsung also promises that the Note 5 is in line for an Android 6.0 Marshmallow update whenever Google officially releases it, but we’ll see how long it actually takes before the new software hits your handset.
Using the S Pen
Right, now we’re getting down to business. Most of the Note 5’s software changes try to make the S Pen more functional, and in general Samsung did a fine job of making it feel less like a gimmick and more like a tool. First things first: that clicky end. I’ve always hated how the S Pen is stuck in the Note’s bottom; removing it feels so unlike a normal pad and paper, and it’s made more complex by the clicking mechanism that keeps the pen completely locked inside its holster. Sure, it’s fun to play with, but it’s an extra step that was added purely for style points. Feh.
What happens after you pull the pen out depends on what the display’s doing. If it’s on, the screen blurs and the Air Command menu floats into view. From there, you can jot down Action Memos (think of them as quick Post-it notes) or write/draw right inside S Note. You also have the option of capturing screenshots or selections with the Pen to annotate, including full-length pics of webpages or lists. You can still access this palette by clicking on the S Pen’s button while its cursor is visible onscreen, but you now have the option to just tap a floating button that can be tossed and positioned where you like.
If the screen is off and the Instant Memo feature is enabled, you can whip out the pen and just start writing. Whatever you jot down automatically gets sucked into S Note when you’re done, making it so much faster to just start writing. Over my week and a half of testing, I found myself using Instant Memo more than just about anything else on the phone. Taking down a startup founder’s email address? Instant Memo. Getting directions from someone? Memo time. It’s great.
There are also some less obvious changes that help make the S Pen feel smoother in practice. S Note automatically saves your progress from time to time, so your latest work of art won’t accidentally disappear. You can mark up PDFs in a jiffy. Samsung also says it reduced the friction between the pen’s nib and the screen itself, and the work seems to have paid off. Swiping and doodling on the display feels a little smoother than it did on the Galaxy Note Edge, though friction was never really a problem in the first place. Speaking of doodling, there’s still no stylus/phone combo that’s as fluid and accurate as the Note 5. It still doesn’t feel quite as immediate as drawing on paper, but the speed at which lines follow the Pen’s nib feels almost natural, and the settings (fountain pen, calligraphy pen, pencil, brush, et cetera) add a level of accessibility that make the Note handy as a sketchbook. You can add “artist” to the long list of things I’ll never be, but I was still strangely, fiercely proud of the rough Guy Fieri drawing above (total drawing time: 20 minutes). That’s what’s great about the Note: It’ll never truly replace a pen and sketchpad, but it mimics the experience better than you’d expect.
The camera in the original S6 was one of the greats, and it’s just as capable now that it’s been transplanted into the Note 5. Samsung’s 16-megapixel sensor, an f/1.9 lens covering it and some sophisticated optical image stabilization work together to produce some of the prettiest photos I’ve ever seen come out of a smartphone. That’s no faint praise, especially considering the Note 4 also raised the bar for Samsung when it first came out. Each shot is inundated with detail, while colors are bright, yet accurate. What’s more, they look lovely on the Note 5’s AMOLED screen (firing up the Auto HDR setting only helps). To no one’s shock, things went a little awry when I started snapping shots in a strangely lit bar, but the sensor still captured a surprising amount of depth despite the kooky red lanterns. There’s the standard Pro mode here too in case you want to muck around with shutter speed and ISO, but most of the time you’ll do just fine leaving everything on Auto.Slideshow-314570
The lens’s wide aperture also means some of your tighter shots will show off a hint of pleasing bokeh, with blurred backgrounds you can artificially pump up via the Selective Focus feature. Speaking of software, Samsung fleshed out the camera app with a few new tricks if you’re getting tired of shooting panoramas or slow-motion videos. Video Collage lets you craft a, well, video collage, where four six-second clips you shoot appear in a grid and play on a loop (complete with background music, if that’s your thing). You can now livestream your lunch straight to YouTube too, though my experience was mixed. Our own Devindra Hardawar was able to get his streaming working just fine with the S6 Edge+, but I initially could not, for the life of me, make the damn thing work. The feature requires you to sign into YouTube via a pop-up window (fine) and verify your account with a little two-step authorization magic (done). Every time I tried to stream after that, the phone would cheerfully admit I already enabled the feature… and then show me videos to watch in that teensy YouTube viewer. I mean, what? I eventually had to reset the phone entirely to get it working. After that, though, things were peachy.
Some of these features — as technically nifty as they are — are ultimately distractions, things Samsung just tossed in for laughs. Since the age of carrying around a separate camera is all but over, you can travel easy knowing you’ll be able to near-instantly start snapping handsome photos. Just a double-tap on the home button and you’re on your way.
Performance and battery life
With near-identical components, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Note 5 runs almost exactly like the S6 and S6 Edge that came before it. Good thing those handsets were two of the snappiest smartphones I’ve tested this year. Again, the only real difference is the fact that the Note 5 packs an extra gigabyte of RAM, and it’s just enough to give it a distinct edge in multitasking. I used to be able to coax the S6 into sputtering by opening random apps all willy-nilly and quickly switching among them. That teensy bit of slowdown has all but evaporated in the Note 5 thanks to the extra RAM (and presumably a few low-level software tweaks). It’s still a solid performer when it comes to games, and graphically rich titles like The Talos Principle ran smoothly for hours. Samsung’s 14nm Exynos processors are delivering on their promises of greater horsepower, but we’ll see how this package fares over time.
|Samsung Galaxy Note 5||Samsung Galaxy S6/Edge||Samsung Galaxy Note Edge||LG G4|
|3DMark IS Unlimited||21,316||21,632||19,912||18,572|
|SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms)||706||674||788||725|
|GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps)||25||25||18.4||15|
|SunSpider 1.0.2: Android devices tested in Chrome; lower scores are better.|
I was far less hopeful about the sealed, 3,000mAh battery. After all, it’s smaller than the Note 4’s battery and there’s no way to swap it out. Thankfully, runtime was never an issue. My weird workdays are well-chronicled in my phone reviews, filled with incoming Slack messages, Spotify playlists, responding to email, tethering and ducking off to the bathroom for a few YouTube videos in between stories. I’d unplug the Note 5 from its charger in the morning, do all of that for about 18 hours and still have about 10 or 15 percent charge left so my Audible books could lull me to sleep. And what about the wringer that is the standard Engadget rundown test (looping video with an active WiFi connection and screen brightness locked at 50 percent)? Well, it hung in there for just under 14 hours, up from 13 hours on the Note 4.
Rivals have tried to unseat the Galaxy Note line, but one thing is clear: If you want a stylus, go with Samsung. Nothing even comes close. That would normally be a tiny segment to pigeonhole yourself into, but the Note 5 is attractive enough that I could see Note naysayers plunking down cash for its comfortable design and great screen. Still, LG has a stylus-friendly phone too, and it’s much easier on the wallet. The G Stylo isn’t as widely available as the Note 5 (it’s only offered by a handful of carriers, including T-Mobile and Boost Mobile), but it too has an enormous 5.7-inch screen, even if it only runs at 720p. Alas, its stylus is a simple capacitive one and the phone only rocks a 1.2GHz quad-core chipset. Good thing it’ll only cost you around $330 without a contract.
If you like most of what the Note 5 has to offer, but can’t see yourself ever using the S Pen, there’s also the Galaxy S6 Edge+. It’s a near-copy of the Note 5 with a striking (if mostly useless) dual-edge display, and should scratch your big-screen Samsung itch — so long as you’re willing to pay the price. Just like the original Edge, this super-sized version costs more than its standard-screen counterpart: Contract-free prices in the US range from $720 to $790 depending on the carrier, compared to $620 to $720 for the Note 5. Alternatively, you could also spend considerably less on the original S6 or S6 Edge since the internals are so similar.
Samsung has another world-class performer in the Note 5, and unlike its cousin, the S6 Edge+, it has more going for it than just looks. The Note still can’t completely mimic the feel of pen and paper, but it’s getting closer than you might expect. Throw in some high-powered internals and a tremendous screen and you’ve got a Note that refines the phablet formula in almost all the right ways. Your mileage may vary of course; I don’t need a removable battery or a memory card slot (though a 128GB version would really help make up for the lack of expandable storage). If you can live with these shortcomings, have some extra cash to burn and want to see what this stylus business is about, there’s no better place to start than with the Note 5.
Pretty specific conclusion, no? Well, let’s throw away the S Pen for a moment. What Samsung did here was take a bloated phone and pare it down to something elegant, and a little exciting. Even if you never pull the S Pen out of its slot, the Note 5 is still the best big phone Samsung has ever made, and that puts it near the very top of the entire smartphone heap.
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