The original smartphone-with-a-stylus is all grown up. It’s easily the best smartphone Samsung has ever made, and it looks and feels the part.
This is the US review for the Galaxy Note 5. As we're sure you are aware, at time of publish the phone is not confirmed for sale in the UK, though every Galaxy Note device prior to this has gone on sale here. Once we have more information about the when and where it will be sold, we shall update the article. But rather than leave you in the dark, we thought we would share the US team's verdict ahead of time (just to wind you up, like).
The Galaxy Note has been through five years of changes. Better screens, better processors, better software. And like any new smartphone, the Note 5 represents the very best of what’s come before. But despite being a fantastic phone — even foreseeing the big smartphone way of life — the Note 5 is mired in the overpriced premium past. You’ll definitely be shelling out for the very best.
What is It?
The Note 5 is Samsung’s big, 5.7-inch smartphone built for productivity. Translation: it has a tactile stylus. It combines the look and feel of the latest Galaxy S6 with the software extras that make that stylus worthwhile. It’s arguably the best phone at being a big phone.
Why Does it Matter?
The Note 5 is the first Note series smartphone that adopts Samsung’s new philosophy of premium design first and utility second by adding glass and metal, and removing access to a removable battery or MicroSD card. It’s a weird move for phone that’s supposed to be all about getting work done. But as Samsung argued with the S6, you don’t really need that stuff.
Look, see how pretty it is?
Yeah, I’ll give it to ‘em. This is one good-looking piece of phone, just like the Galaxy S6 before itand the iPhone 6 before that. The combination of Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back along with aluminum edges easily makes for one of the best constructed Samsung phones ever made.
I refrain from saying the best only because the big size combined with the glass back creates a few issues. Because of the larger slick surface area, the Note 5 feels much more slippery than the Galaxy S6. Where you could palm the S6 comfortably, the Note 5 has a little more weight and is definitely more unwieldy. It forces me to do a delicate balancing act when reaching for the far corners of the display.
Note 4 (left) next to slimmer Note 5
I’ve always felt and continue to feel that 5 to 5.5 inches is the sweet spot smartphone size and like most Notes before it, the Note 5 pushes that comfort zone. I understand that I don’t have the most massive man hands on the planet, so I might be in the minority, but after spending a week with the Note 5, picking up a nearby S6 was just so much nicer.
Slippage issues aside, the glass can feel mighty nice. The rear glass back actually has curves on both edges, much like the Xiaomi Mi Note. Or, if you’ve never seen a Mi Note, exactly like placing the curved screen of a Galaxy S6 Edge into your hand. It also makes for significantly thinner bezels compared to last year’s Note 4. Samsung is getting good at making phones with big screens feel as small as possible. And the Note 5 uses that screen real estate with side-by-side multitasking and picture-in-picture features prominent on last year’s Note 4.
Plus, a friend of mine recently called my champagne gold (international) version “hot”.
So yeah, it’s definitely a looker.
Using and (being happy with) the Galaxy Note 5 comes with a few prerequisites:
- You have at least some need for a stylus on a smartphone
- You are not famously known as a destroyer of smartphones
- You don’t mind spending more than $700 on a phone
If you answered yes to all those questions, then you just might be in the market for the 5.7-inch pen-toting smartphone Samsung is trying to sell.
From a strict hardware and software standpoint, the Note 5 isn’t much different from the Galaxy S6 that came before it. Of course, it’s running the Lollipop version of TouchWiz and will almost definitely get all the Android Marshmallow extras that will be incoming shortly (if it doesn’t have them already). This is also the least offensive that Samsung’s TouchWiz skin on top of Android has ever been. Which I realise is a backhanded compliment, but it’s a compliment nonetheless.
Unlike Samsung’s other big phone — the newly released Galaxy S6 Edge+ — the software additions for the Note 5 aren’t completely useless or meant to be some kind of half-arsed reason to sell you a phone with a pen. The S-pen on the Note 5 is just all-round better. Instead of the plastic-y pen we were stuck with on the Note 5, this version matches the bling-bling metal of the Note 5’s exterior. Add to that a new spring-loaded mechanism that pops out the pen with a simple, satisfying push, and the Note 5 does a much better job trying to get you to take out that pen more often.
During my time with the Note 5, I noticed my smartphone habits morphing in order to make room for a capacitive pen. My favourite feature, which also happens to be new, is the Note 5’s ability to launch into a passive note-taking application as soon as you take out the pen. This feature is actually turned off by default, but I hunted for it and switched it on as soon as possible. When I’d pull my phone out to read comics or do some quick Duolingo training (Las Tortugas comen manzanas), I’d often pull out the pen first and make a quick note of what I needed to accomplish for the day. Like so (my handwriting is atrocious):
Granted, people have been using the Note series to do these types of things forever, but by making the barrier of entry easier (pop out pen and write, instead of having to unlock the phone first and launch an app) I’m much more likely to use it. I do wish I could launch Evernote with the pen instead of relying on S Note. I tend to dislike most Samsung apps. But as usual, the pen is closely tied to proprietary apps. Such is our fate.
Notetaking isn’t the only thing you can launch with your Note 5’s screen off, either. You can also double tap the oblong home button for quick access to the camera (a feature we loved to death on the S6 and S6 Edge) and soon you’ll be able to swipe up on the screen to bring up Samsung Pay, Samsung’s tap-to-pay competitor to Apple and Android Pay.
Oh, and you can click the pen like a normal pen. The catharsis is real.
Another neat software perk, most likely making its way to all current generation Galaxy flagships, is YouTube livestreaming baked right into the camera app. Much like note-taking, Samsung puts live-streaming as near to your camera as possible to help you take advantage of the stellar 16MP camera on the front of the Note 5. The best part? Streaming with the YouTube app is incredibly simple. Set up your account, and that’s it. You can send invites to friends in your contact list or blast out a URL to your social media followers.
We’ve found in our tests that the stream lags a good 10 seconds behind, though that may be dependent on your internet connection. It also seems to cut your stream short equal to whatever your stream delay is, so you’ll lose anywhere from a few seconds to a full 10 seconds on the end of your stream.
Why would you want YouTube integration when you could just stream to Periscope? Two reasons: The first one is simple — you can shoot in landscape. (Maybe sometimes I don’t want to shoot in portrait, OK? Is a 90 degree rotation so much to ask?!?)
Second, when your friends and family click on that URL, they’re whisked away to a video interface they’ve most likely actually used before if they’re a human and have a pulse.
What makes the livestream thing doubly great is the camera it’s attached to. The Galaxy Note 5 inherits the stellar camera seen on the Galaxy S6, and looks even better on that bigger screen. For example, I went to an undisclosed wilderness location in New York City and captured this stunning, impromptu nature documentary of a squirrel transforming into a pigeon.
I shot this miraculous doc in ultra-high definition (3840x2160), and while that absolutely nommed on my 32GB internal storage (some expandable storage would be great right now), it looks absolutely gorgeous on the Note 5 display. Which is no surprise, considering it was meticulously tested as the best smartphone display ever. With YouTube also supporting higher and higher resolutions for more pixel dense displays that are now standard in many laptops, you can actually start taking advantage of these features, which is great because my eyes love them.
Also, this thing takes stellar daylight photos and its low-light isn’t too terrible either with the help of optical image stabilisation. Here are a few test shots:
(Note: We were unable to test the much-anticipated Samsung Pay app, which uses MST and NFC technology to have what could be the most accessible tap-to-pay system out there. The beta for Samsung Pay should be rolling out in the coming weeks with the full application launching in September. We’ll do a full hands on ASAP.)
The S-Pen feels more like a must-have feature than a needless gimmick designed to sell you yet another phone. I haven’t really felt that way about the Note series until now.
The display on this is. Absolutely. Ridiculously. Awesome. It’s not the resolution, which is the same as the Note 4, but everything else, including contrast, colour accuracy, and performance in ambient light. Comparing colours from the Note 5 to the Nexus 6 (my previous daily driver) the Samsung phone makes the Google phone look like a heap of garbage.
Even despite the amazing display, Samsung’s still able to push out a respectable day-long battery life. If you’re a hardcore power user (so, you’re on your phone more than your computer) you might be employing some battery-saving measure toward the end of your day. But for most of us, you can expect a day and some change. No problem.
Even more so than the S6, the Note 5 has every smartphone technology baked in that you could want: a capacitive pen, NFC, MST, Qi and PMA wireless charging, a quad HD Super AMOLED display, a heart rate sensor, fingerprint sensor, and on and on and on...
….but it doesn’t have a removable battery or expandable storage, which is even more of a crime in a device that’s more for work and less for play like the S6.
(Don’t put the stylus in the wrong way. Just don’t.)
Also, while the phone certainly looks nice, it’s also a little plain and its iPhone similarity is undeniable. That’s not to say the overall design isn’t great, but there are many other phones out there that are a little more personal and eye-catching at about half the price.
And price is a real issue here. I’m not saying you don’t get what you pay for: the Note 5 is one hell of a smartphone, destined to replace the Note 4 as the best big Android you can buy, but many makers are in the race to the bottom, so to speak. Really great phones like the upcoming Moto X Pure edition or the new OnePlus 2 can do a lot of great stuff without many compromises. Samsung is the only one that seems unwilling to sacrifice for any kind of price competition. It’s unapologetically Android’s crème de la crème — sticker shock be damned.
Should You Buy It?
If you refuse to settle for something that’s not absolutely the best in terms of just the sheer amount of tech packed into a pocket computer – then yep, you certainly should. But if you’re a more reasonable smartphone connoisseur and can get by with something more inexpensive, then you can find something really great for cheap in comparison somewhere else.
The Note 5 is Android’s iPhone, in both looks and ambition to be the best. But in that pursuit of being the best, it ignored that “great” and “cheap” are quickly becoming synonymous. That doesn’t mean a $720 unlocked device doesn’t have its place, it does. I just feel like it’s not as justified as it once was with great cheap alternatives and no more smartphone subsidies. But make no mistake, this is the best Android smartphone out there—just maybe not at the best price.
Images by Michael Hession
Galaxy Note 5 Specs
- OS: Android 5.1(Lollipop)
- CPU: Exynos 7420 processor, 64-bit octo-core
- Screen: 5.7-inch 2560x1440 Super AMOLED (518 PPI)
- RAM: 4GB
- Storage: 32GB/64GB
- Camera: 16 megapixel rear camera / 5 megapixel front camera
- Battery: 3,000 mAh
- Dimensions: 13.7 x 6.8 x 0.68 centimetres
- Weight: 170 grams
- Colors: Black Sapphire and White Pearl in the US (our silver version is international only)
- Price and Availability: All five major carriers starting at $720 (UK price and availability TBC)