The original Samsung Galaxy Note was the subject of criticism and jokes when it debuted in 2011. Its 5.3-inch display was substantially larger than most phones at the time — especially the popular iPhone and its 3.5-inch screen. In the time since, though, phones have caught up with the Note line and Samsung’s phablet is no longer seems to be the gargantuan phablet that we once thought it to be.
Now most every company has a phablet of its own, and Samsung is still churning out Note devices. This year we got the Galaxy Note 5, and while it has high-end specs and an S Pen stylus like its predecessors, it’s also undergone some dramatic changes. Do they make the Galaxy Note 5 the best big phone yet or is the Note 5 worse off for them? Let’s find out.
One of the biggest changes that Samsung made with the Galaxy Note 5 is its design and the materials used to construct it. While previous Galaxy Note phones were mostly plastic with an occasional touch of metal (and sometimes some faux leather, too), the Galaxy Note 5 is all glass and metal. It’s basically a bigger Galaxy S6, but Samsung curved the sides of the Note 5’s rear to make it more comfortable to hold. Make no mistake that any phone with a 5.7-inch screen like the one on the Note 5 is going to be big, but thanks to the curved sides on its rear and the slim side bezels on the screen, the Note 5 is actually pretty comfortable to hold.
Just like the Galaxy S6 before it, the Galaxy Note 5’s glass and metal body is very attractive. It’s kind of crazy to think that the Note 5 is part of the same family of phones as something like the Note 3, which caught a lot of flak for the faux leather and stitching on its rear. There’s no question that the Galaxy Note 5 is the best-looking Note yet, but there are a couple of details about that design that aren’t so great. Because the back is glass, it can be a bit slippery at times. That glass back can also be a fingerprint magnet. That wasn’t a huge problem on my White Pearl model, but it could be more bothersome if you opt for the darker Black Sapphire version.
Speaking of fingerprints, the home button on the Galaxy Note 5 includes a fingerprint reader that can store several of your fingerprints. You can then use them for unlocking the phone, making payments, and more. After storing a couple of my fingerprints in the Note 5’s memory, I found that the reader works pretty well. There were a couple of instances in which it took the phone a couple of times to recognize my finger at extreme angles, but typically it worked on the first try and unlocked the phone quickly.
Moving back to the Note 5’s refreshed design, there were two casualties in the move this glass and metal exterior. Samsung’s Galaxy Note phones have always featured microSD slots and removable batteries, which helped to make them more appealing to “power users.” The Galaxy Note 5 lacks both, though, which has resulted in a lot of heated debate ever since the phone was made official. One or both missing features are sure to cause some folks to skip the Note 5, but I have no issue with either. Lots of entertainment can be streamed these days, and if you do end up storing so much content that your device starts to get a bit cramped, you can always offload some to a computer. Cloud storage is another option that’ll free up space on your phone but still let you access your content anywhere that you can get an Internet connection. I will say that it’d be nice to see Samsung offer a 128GB version of the Note 5 like it does with the Galaxy S6, but at least for now, buyers will choose between 32GB and 64GB of storage.
As for the non-removable battery, I’ll cover that in the dedicated “Battery” section.
One other notable change with the design of the Galaxy Note 5 is its speaker placement. On the Galaxy Note 4, the speaker was placed on the back of the phone, which could make it sound a bit muffled when laying on its back and could easily be covered by a hand when you’re holding the device. The Note 5’s speaker is on the bottom of the phone, which solves the whole muffled-while-on-its-back issue, but the speaker can still easily be covered by your hand when you’re gaming or doing something else while holding the phone horizontally. The bottom-firing speaker isn’t quite as ideal a placement as front-facing speakers, but it’s an improvement over the rear-firing speaker of the Note 4.
The displays in the Galaxy Note line have typically been one of their major features, not only because of their size, but also because Samsung often includes a high-resolution display with its flagship phone. The Galaxy Note 5 has a 5.7-inch 2560×1440 Super AMOLED display, which is the same size and resolution of the Note 4’s screen. That’s not a bad thing, though, because the Note 5’s display is fantastic. Its bright, has colors that pop, and its super sharp. Viewing angles are great, too, allowing you to tilt the device pretty much all the way on its side and still be able to read what’s on the display.
The Galaxy Note 5’s display is the best I’ve seen on a mobile device, and it’s great to look at if you’re watching a video — especially high-quality 1440p content — playing a game, or just flipping around your home screen.
Before I dive into the Galaxy Note 5’s performance, here’s a quick refresher on its spec list:
- 5.7-inch 2560×1440 Super AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass 4
- 64-bit octa-core Exynos 7420 processor
- 16-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization, fast motion and slow motion capture, 4K Ultra HD video recording
- 5-megapixel wide angle front-facing camera
- 32/64GB of internal storage
- 4GB of RAM
- 3000mAh battery with Fast Charging, Fast Wireless Charging, Qi and PMA wireless charging
- Android 5.1.1 running beneath Samsung’s custom user interface
Now to see just how features like that Exynos 7420 processor and 4GB of RAM handle. I saw no slowdown in day-to-day usage, even with multiple apps running in the background, including a game. That’s not entirely surprising given how beefed up the Note 5’s spec list is, but it’s still good to see. I played games that were higher-end and a bit less demanding, like Asphalt 8 and Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Note 5 handled them with aplomb.
If you’re the type that’s into benchmarks and lots of big numbers, I also ran a few tests on Samsung’s new flagship phone:
- AnTuTu: 66491
- Quadrant Standard: 35872
- Geekbench 3: Single-core 1474, multi-core 4871
Samsung has caught a lot of flak for its custom Android user interface in the past, both for giving Android a totally different look and for loading it up with features of sometimes questionable necessity. And while you won’t be mistaking the software on the Galaxy Note 5 for pure Android, I found it to be pretty inoffensive. The notification shade includes a handy list of quick toggles for things like Wi-Fi, Airplane Mode, Flashlight, Bluetooth, Mobile Hotspot, and more that you can customize, and there’s a brightness slider there as well. Meanwhile, the Settings app is a list of the Note 5’s different features and tweakable options, and there’s a search feature for those times that you know what you want to change but you don’t know exactly which category it’s in.
If you’re still not a fan of the look of Samsung’s custom UI, the company has included a theme store that’ll let you easily change the look of the Note 5’s software. Samsung gives you a few different themes to start and there are lots more available, including a “Material” theme that makes the Samsung’s UI look close to Google’s untouched version of Android Lollipop. Some themes will cost you money — the aforementioned Material theme that I bought was around $1.50 — but most prices are extremely reasonable given that that totally change the look of the software that you’re going to be staring at every day.
Another notable feature of Samsung’s custom UI is the ability to run two apps simultaneously. With it, you can do things like use your web browser while also viewing a YouTube clip. Each app will take up half of the Note 5’s display by default, but you can easily adjust that by sliding the divider up and down the screen.
As I mentioned before, the Note 5 is a large phone, even if Samsung has slimmed down the side bezels of the screen and curved the back edges to make it more comfortable to hold. That means that the Note 5 is going to be difficult for a lot of folks to use one-handed. To address this, Samsung has included a couple of one-handed operation features to make it easier to use the Note 5 when you’ve only got one hand free. There’s the option of triple-tapping the home button to shrink the entire UI down and stick it in a corner, which includes a “Return To Full Screen” button to quick make the UI go back to normal when your second hand becomes free. You can also enable one-handed input, which will only shrink things like the keyboard and dial pad.
There are a handful of other apps from Samsung included with the Note 5, like the S Voice digital assistant, Milk Music streaming, S Health activity tracking, and S Note for the S Pen. Some of these apps likely won’t get a second look for folks that are already invested in Google Now or a streaming service like Spotify or Google Play Music, but there are a couple of them that are worth a look. That includes S Note, which is the app that lets you do all of the note-taking and drawing with the S Pen and includes different pen and pencil styles and adjustments for point thickness and color. There’s also SideSync, which works in tandem with an app on your PC or Mac to show alerts from your phone on your computer, use your computer make calls and send texts, and share files between your phone and computer.
One other software detail that’s worth pointing out is bloatware. I tested the Verizon version of the Galaxy Note 5, and my device came preloaded a handful of Verizon apps like Verizon Messages and My Verizon as well as NFL Mobile, Amazon, IMDb, Slacker Radio, and more. There were also a handful of games, such as Cookie Jam and Panda Pop. The good news is that most of these apps can be disabled to clean up your app drawer or flat-out uninstalled to free up a bit of internal storage.
One of the hallmark features of the Galaxy Note line of devices is the S Pen, a stylus that slots into the body of the phone when not in use. The S Pen on the Note 5 is a solid little thing, and its even got a clicky end like a retractable ink pen that you might end up absentmindedly clicking while the S Pen is in your hand.
When you pull the S Pen out of his home in the Note 5, the phone will pop up an Air Command menu with shortcuts to features like Action Memo, Smart Select, Screen Write, and the S Note app. Action Memo will let you take a note and then create an action from it, like writing down a phone number and then saving it to your contacts or sending a message to it, while Smart Select will allow you to take a screenshot of a particular part of your screen. Then there’s Screen White, which will not only let you capture a screenshot and write on it, but it’ll also allow you to take a tall vertical screenshot like a full web page.
Air Command also lets you add a couple of shortcuts to apps of your own choosing, and they don’t necessarily have to be ones that you draw on. For example, in my testing, I added Instagram and the Fenix app for Twitter.
One S Pen feature that’s new to the Note 5 is the ability to quickly jot down some info without having to turn on the screen. All that you need to do is pop out the S Pen with the screen off and you’ll be able to write down a note on a black screen that’ll then be saved to your device. It’s an awesome feature that makes the Note 5 more viable as a note-taking device since it eliminates all of the steps of turning the phone on and launching the S Note app, which you don’t need to do when you’ve got a plain ol’ piece of paper and a pen.
The Note 5’s battery is one of the hottest topics surrounding the flagship phone. Not only is the Note 5 the first in the Note smartphone family to have a non-removable battery, but its battery pack is actually a bit smaller than the one found on the Note 4, measuring 3000mAh vs the Note 4’s 3220mAh battery.
In my time with the Note 5, I found the 3000mAh battery to be adequate enough to get me through a full day of use. During one day of use I took the Note 5 off of the charger at 7:30 am and proceeded to listen to podcasts most of the day, stream some audio to a Bluetooth speaker, do some social media, RSS, and email, engage in some light gaming, and make a call or two. When my bedtime rolled around at approximately 11:45 pm, the Note 5 had 17 percent of its charge left. I plug my phone in while I sleep every night, so as long as it can get me through a full day of use without dying, I’m happy. That was the case with the Note 5, so I’ve got no complaints here.
If you’re concerned that the Note 5’s battery might stand up to a full day of your own usage, there are plenty of quick ways for you to juice it back up in the middle of your day. The Note 5 supports Adaptive Fast Charging, which promised to juice up my totally dead Note 5 from 0 percent to 100 percent in 1 hour and 20 minutes. If wires aren’t your thing, Samsung also offers a Fast Charge Wireless Charging Pad that will charge the Note 5 1.4x faster than regular wireless charging, which Samsung says will knock 50 minutes off the time it takes to wirelessly charge the Note 5 from 0 to 100 percent.
The Note 5 is also compatible with standard wireless chargers, so you needn’t buy that Fast Charge Wireless Charging Pad if you’ve already got a wireless charging pad that you want to plop the phone onto. What’s notable is that the Note 5 includes support for both Qi and PMA wireless charging, which broadens the number of wireless charging pads that the Note 5 will work with.
When Sean reviewed the Galaxy S6 earlier this year, he found the device’s 16-megapixel camera to be an extremely solid shooter. The Note 5 uses the same 16-megapixel camera, so it should come as no surprise that its camera is just as impressive.
For most of my testing, I opted to leave the Note 5’s camera in auto mode, including its HDR feature. The Note 5 performed admirably when left on its own, capturing indoor and outdoor photos that have vivid colors and are nice and sharp. Low-light photos are also solid, and while those shots might look noisy in the viewfinder when you’re preparing to capture them, they turn out just fine. I was also impressed with the macro shots that the Note 5 produced. In the close-up photo of the Subaru logo on front of my ’03 WRX, you can make out tons of little scratches and other marks that the emblem has accrued in its years on the road.
If you’re a more experienced photographer, you can utilize the manual mode that’s also included with the Note 5. This feature will let you tweak all kinds of settings, including white balance, ISO, and shutter speed. You can also save photos in RAW format. If you’re unsure about what most of those terms mean, don’t worry, because the Note 5 is extremely capable in its full auto mode.
Full resolution versions of these photos can be found right here.
Turning the video, the Note 5 can capture 4K Ultra HD video as well as fast motion and slow motion. Also included is a YouTube live streaming feature that’ll let you pump video straight from the Note 5 to YouTube. That content will be sent out at 1080p, which may not be the phone’s highest supported video resolution, but it’s still respectable for a phone beaming video to YouTube in real time. Plus, I imagine that higher-res video live streaming would put a hurt on both your phone’s battery life and your data cap.
The front-facing camera on the Note 5 has a 5-megapixel resolution, a wide angle lens, and auto HDR. Also included are Beauty toggles to touch up your face. Included are sliders for skin tone, large eyes, slim face, and shape correction. I’m not huge taker of selfies, but the Note 5’s camera worked well in my testing, and it’ll likely please folks for whom selfies are a way of life.
Finally, I want to mention the Note 5’s camera launch shortcuts. As with many other devices, you can jump to the Note 5’s camera from its lock screen by sliding up the camera icon in the corner of the display. The feature that I particularly enjoyed, though, was the ability to launch the Note 5’s camera by double-tapping the home button. The camera launches extremely fast, and during my time with the Note 5, this became my preferred way to get a shot no matter where I was in the OS.
As I mentioned before, I tested the Verizon version of the Galaxy Note 5. In my week and a half of usage, I found the Note 5’s networking capabilities to be solid, mostly sticking to 4G LTE save for a few instances when I was in on the interstate in rural parts of Iowa. Calls sounded good, and if you’re calling another recently released Verizon phone, you can utilize Verizon’s Advanced Calling 1.0 for clearer Voice over LTE calls. Data was also solid on the Note 5, loading my feeds and uploading images to social networks without an issue.
Samsung’s Galaxy phones are often some of the most anticipated smartphones of the year, and Samsung delivered with the Galaxy Note 5. The new Note has a great design with premium materials, and while it’s a big phone, its curved back sides and slim side bezels actually make it pretty manageable. The Note 5’s lack of a microSD slot and removable battery will likely turn off some longtime Note fans, but it also has possibly the best smartphone display around, an awesome camera, and other high-end features to make up for it. And while those components make the Note 5 one of the pricier smartphones on the market, if what you want is one of the best phones that money can buy, the Note 5 is worth the investment.