Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review: The best got even better

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Back again for a release to finish out the year is the Galaxy Note 5. What started with a then-gargantuan 5.3-inch display and much skepticism turned into a highly profitable series for Samsung, selling millions of units monthly. Consumers and critics never thought that the Galaxy Note series could actually be successful. The Galaxy Note 5 has grown both literally and metaphorically since the Galaxy Note debuted in 2011. The display is larger and sharper, the camera is versatile, and the S Pen is much more than a gimmick. Samsung has shaped the perception of the Galaxy Note into a phone that is high-end and a catalyst for productivity.

Each year, Samsung has two flagships. The Galaxy S series represents Samsung for spring and summer while the Galaxy Note series handles fall and winter. Recently, it has become apparent that the better phone comes later in the year with Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. People were disappointed with the Galaxy S5 but the company strongly rebounded with the Galaxy Note 4, a phone considered Samsung’s best at the time. And then Samsung’s design language was overhauled earlier this year when the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge debuted. The Galaxy Note 5 is very similar to those phones yet maintains its own identity with a large display and the (perhaps infamous) S Pen.

Design

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Samsung somehow managed to make the overall size of the Galaxy Note 5 smaller than its predecessor despite keeping the display at 5.7 inches. The Galaxy Note 4’s measurements — 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm — have been brought down to cozy 153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6mm. Even the weight has been reduced from 176g to 171g, a number larger than devices with displays closer to 5 inches. Thankfully, Samsung has done an excellent job dissipating the weight throughout the body of the Galaxy Note 5 — it’s not a top- or bottom-heavy phone. This all means that the Galaxy Note 5 is thinner and lighter to carry around. In use, even for someone with smaller hands like myself, the Galaxy Note 5 is easily manageable in one hand because the side bezels are super-thin and the height of the phone isn’t all that different from other devices like the LG G4.

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The most noticeable physical change for Samsung’s newest Galaxy Note device is the build quality. Completely gone from the Galaxy Note 5 is any trace of plastic and faux leather. Metal, which was used in some capacity with the Galaxy Note 4, and glass rule the day here. The front and back of this phone features smooth scratch-resistant glass, being met with sharp metal at every edge. Where there is not metal, there is glass. And where there is not glass, there is metal.

What contributes to the phone being so comfortable to hold is the rear’s edges that are curved just a tiny bit. Samsung basically took the curved display idea from its other devices and applied it less dramatically to the Galaxy Note 5’s backside. Rather than having edges that poke your hands, the rear of the Galaxy Note 5 is similar to that of the Moto G (2015) by contouring to the shape of your hand. The glass curves lead to the chamfered metal edges. It seems that companies are moving quickly to incorporate curves with their devices due to improve comfort. Consider that a huge win for consumers.

Pick up the phone and you’re met with a cold, solid piece of hardware that sits perfectly in the hand. The Galaxy Note 5 screams premium.

Regarding buttons, ports, and visible components, this doesn’t differ very much from any Samsung phone you’ve seen within the last eighteen months. Below the display is a narrower-but-taller home button (which is also a fingerprint scanner) with Samsung’s capacitive buttons that illuminate when used. Sadly, Samsung still believes that the Recents button belongs on the left and the Back button belongs on the right. Who knows if this will ever change. Spin around to the back of the Galaxy Note 5 and you’ll see a cutout to the right of the camera that houses the LED flash and heart rate monitor. On the top of the phone, the SIM card tray is accessible. The bottom of the Galaxy Note 5, though, is busier than any other part of the phone. It has the audio jack, micro-USB port, speaker, and S Pen port.

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What’s missing that buyers of Samsung devices have come to expect? A removable battery and a microSD card slot. The new design of the the Galaxy Note 5 limits users to the battery and internal storage that ships with the phone.

You can pick up the Galaxy Note 5 in Black Sapphire, Gold Platinum, Silver Titan, and White Pearl. Color options may depend on your carrier.

Hardware

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The Galaxy Note 5 features a 5.7-inch Quad HD (2560×1440) Super AMOLED display, Exynos 7420 octa-core processor, Mali T760MP8, 4GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, a 16MP rear camera, a 5MP front camera, a 3000mAh battery (non-removable), a fingerprint scanner, Samsung’s S Pen stylus, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and Bluetooth 4.2.

Bands:

4G LTE (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 27, 20)
HSDPA (850, 900, 1800, 1900)
GSM (850, 900, 1800, 1900)

Performance

Both display size and display resolution have not changed from last year’s model. Samsung is continuing to go with 5.7 inches and Quad HD (2560×1440) resolution for the Galaxy Note 5’s display, with the amount of pixels per inch somehow sneaking up to 518. From afar, the crispness can be matched by phones that have Full HD (1920×1080) resolution, but bring the Galaxy Note 5 closer to your face and that Quad HD resolution never gives away a single pixel. The 5.7 inches gives a lot to look at, especially if you want to run multiple apps simultaneously with Multi Window.

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The display, which is of the Super AMOLED variety, is also vibrant. It offers incredible viewing angles and impressive color reproduction. Looking at the display from almost any angle does not mean that quality is lost. Whites shine and blacks are deep while other colors pop, giving the Galaxy Note 5 a display with depth. Items on the home screen — app icons and text — looks as if it is lifting off of the display, for example.

Samsung clearly benefits from designing its own displays because this one is awing at all times. I’ve shown the phone to many people within the last few weeks and almost everyone has commented on the depth or vibrancy of the display.

The only thing odd about using the Galaxy Note 5 as a multimedia beast is that the speaker on the bottom is pretty weak. If it gets covered, the sound is essentially muted. Samsung should have put another speaker on the other end of the bottom.

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Once again, Samsung is using its very own processor after Qualcomm sent the mobile industry into panic mode, causing many companies to look at other options. Samsung, like it does with displays, makes processors; therefore, abandoning Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 series was easy. The Galaxy Note 5 uses Samsung’s go-to processor for 2015, the Exynos 7420. This time the strongest Exynos processor to date has been paired with 4GB of RAM.

The Galaxy S6 started to change the perception of Samsung’s devices being sluggish. The Galaxy Note 5 proves that slowdowns are a thing of the past for Samsung flagships. An octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and software optimization puts this phone as one that performs with speed, avoiding speed bumps or hiccups in the process. I was jumping between Hangouts (with multiple accounts) conversations and Minecraft: Pocket Edition as Samsung’s Milk Music streamed in the background; to my surprise, the Galaxy Note 5 was not batting an eye. I even called upon Air Command to quickly draw with the S Pen on a screenshot to share but no lag appeared. Then I put Hangouts and YouTube on the screen at the same time with Multi Window and the Galaxy Note 5 held its ground.

It really satisfies me that performance on Samsung devices is finally where it should have been years ago. Do what you want with the Galaxy Note 5 because it probably won’t slow down.

Battery

Let’s just get it out of the way: the battery encased within the Galaxy Note 5 cannot be removed. Samsung’s faithful were upset when the company made the same decision for the Galaxy S6. But if you want to have beautiful phone made of high-end materials rather than cheap plastic and awkward faux leather, you have sacrifice something. So the 3000mAh battery inside is all you get to work with.

Perhaps the inclusion of Fast Wireless Charging makes up for the smaller, non-removable battery. Samsung’s Fast Wireless Charging Pad powers the Galaxy Note 5 up to the top of its capacity in about 120 minutes. With the included wired charger, the Galaxy Note 5 charges to completion in less than 90 minutes. Using another charger means that the Galaxy Note 5 will take hours to charge.

What really matters, though, is how long the battery lasts. Don’t fret about the battery being a tad smaller than the Galaxy Note 4’s 3220mAh battery. The Galaxy Note 5 is fine-tuned to carry you during the day. A typical day for me includes sending and receiving many emails, chatting on Hangouts, tweeting a lot, playing a lighter game like Threes or Game Dev Story once or twice, and maybe watching videos on YouTube for a few minutes. I would start my day with 100% 8:30AM and start to get antsy for a charger by 10:00PM. It makes me doubt that there is such a concern among consumers about non-removable batteries. If the hardware manufacturer does the proper software optimizations, a device can get by with respectable battery life.

Software

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Very little has changed on the software side compared to other Samsung device released this year. Here, Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay is based on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. Although still not as attractive as stock Android or HTC’s Sense, TouchWiz is better than ever before. It now feels like a mature user experience instead of looking so rough and technical. Samsung flattened everything to basically move closer to (but not match) Google’s Material Design guidelines. This translates to Samsung-made apps such as Calendar, S Health, S Note, Milk Music, Samsung Pay, and Voice Recorder being aesthetically pleasing.

Note: Read our review of the Galaxy S6 for in-depth analysis of the software due to the Galaxy Note 5 being practically identical in this area.

S Pen

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The big difference for the software comes from the stylus, the tool stored within the Galaxy Note 5 that unlocks its true value. Samsung’s Galaxy Note series has always separated itself from the pack with the S Pen. No other company has been able to put a stylus to work on a phone or tablet quite like Samsung. And now the S Pen ejects from its port almost automatically. The S Pen has a ‘click’ that indicates its status in the port. When secured, press the S Pen in and it will pop out. When jutting out, press the S Pen in and it will stay in. During use, the S Pen still clicks at the top like an actual pen.

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The central hub for S Pen-related activities — Air Command — starts when you eject the stylus from its port. Already have the S Pen ejected? Then use the only physical button on the stylus while holding it close the device and Air Command will appear. You can also set a floating on-screen icon to be available for quick access. The focus here continues to be on productivity through Action Memo, Smart Select, Screen Write, and S Note.

Need to jot something down on a virtual sticky note? Action Memo is your best option. It launches a sticky note anywhere so that you can still use view items in the background. Action Memo allows you to change the pen’s color and take create multiple sticky notes at a single time. And you can also minimize sticky notes if items in the background are needed to be analyzed.

What I really liked was that you can still use Action Memo when the screen is off. Just eject the S Pen from its port and start scribbling notes; Samsung then stores them within the S Note app.

Action Memo may be the most limited option for taking notes on the Galaxy Note 5, but it is also the quickest.

The more professional way to take notes on the Galaxy Note 5 is by using S Note, a glorified Action Memo. Options are vast in S Note as you can change the type of writing utensil, the thickness, and the color. This is in addition to inserting text with the usual formatting tools. It’s very eas to make pages of notes with S Note considering both drawing and text is supported.

Forget about taking a screenshot with by pressing the home and power buttons at the same time. Samsung has Smart Select and Screen Write to take things further. The former is for cropping screenshots with rectangular, oval, and lasso tools. Smart Select is similar Photoshop’s selection tools. Screen Write, however, is akin to a traditional screenshot in that it takes what is being shown on the display. The advantage is that you can take a Scroll Capture to see and share a page in its entirety. Both Smart Select and Screen Write also allow for instant annotating and sharing.

Screen Select

Screen Write

Using the S Pen (or a has never felt this good. The tip of the S Pen glides across the giant display with the perfect amount of resistance and pressure sensitivity, equating to the feeling of writing with pen on paper.

Camera

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A flagship phone deserves a flagship camera. Both rear and front-facing cameras from the Galaxy S6 return months later for the Galaxy Note 5. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as the Galaxy S6 takes decent pictures. When taking pictures with the 16MP rear camera, you’re able to choose between Auto and Pro modes. I kept the Galaxy Note 5 on Auto because I’m not one to delve into camera settings and become a Master of Photography. Unsurprisingly, the Galaxy Note 5 takes amazing pictures that are always sharp due to optical image stabilization (OIS). The camera also proved to be impressive under low-light conditions.

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No one questions the quality of Samsung’s cameras anymore. It’s only a matter of stacking them up against Apple, LG, and Sony’s cameras to see where Samsung places. I compared the Galaxy Note 5 with a friend’s iPhone 6S Plus and found that the latter was more accurate and less washed out. But compared to other Android phones this phone only has the LG G4 to truly worry about.

And those of you who record a lot of video on mobile devices will appreciate that the Galaxy Note 5 can record in 4K. Keep in mind that there is no way to expand internal storage and 4K content takes up a tremendous amount of space.

Closing

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The fall season is dominated by Apple introducing the new iPhone and its larger companion. This year is different as Samsung hosted an Unpacked event a few weeks before Apple’s newest handsets were made public, and then released the Galaxy Note 5 right around the same time that the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus hit the market. So Samsung is now going against Apple at a time when Tim Cook & Co. are not accustomed to fierce competition early on. Samsung has executed in many areas with the Galaxy Note 5. The design and build quality are first-class and every component is as high-end as possible. Samsung has created an absolute monster that will likely remain the best Android phone until next spring….. when Samsung releases the Galaxy S7. Until another company steps forward, Samsung will be the sole dominant force year-round to face Apple.

[Samsung]


About the Author: Justin Herrick

Born and raised in New Jersey, Justin is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University where he studied marketing with a focus on digital marketing. He's very talkative and enjoys discussing anything from technology and sports to video games and television. As for Justin's current device rotation, he carries around the Google Pixel and Nexus 9. In the rare case that his phone or tablet is not in his hand, he is either flicking through cards on his Moto 360 (2015) or typing away on the Microsoft Surface Book. Justin is patiently waiting for the day that Google replicates the Galaxy Nexus with modern day specifications.


  • shojus

    So you must have mistaken that microphone for an IR blaster? Cause unless yours has grown one, mine does not have that capability any longer! Who knows why Samsung took that away!? Very stupid move!

    • Justin_Herrick

      That should have been removed… Sorry!

      I do find it odd that Samsung got rid of the IR blaster. It’s not like the component took up a lot of space.

      • shojus

        Literally that’s the only thing that really irks me about the changes that they made. I don’t give a damn about a removable battery cause this phone can be charged with a fast charge battery pack, in about 45 mins, and if anyone tells me that they can’t bother to lug around a battery pack then they certainly can’t lug around a battery either… And as far as the microsd goes, I can guarantee that goes back in next year. There really is no reason not to give people that option when it can be put in the phone without an issue and without much extra cost. I don’t really care about it that much but it is still a nice option to have, and just because it’s a unibody design does NOT mean they can’t make it with one (HTC M8, M9). Overall still a good article though, just thought you knew something I didn’t know about it having a secret IR blaster… ;)

    • Armyvet74

      And here I thought I’d be the first one to catch that. Oh well, correction made, even if only by admission of typo.

  • heatfan

    I love my note 5, to bad mine has the same Bluetooth problem others are having. Connection keeps on dropping off and on. Just glad is under warranty.

  • chorgox

    “But if you want to have beautiful phone made of high-end materials rather than cheap plastic and awkward faux leather, you have sacrifice something” since when a power user is concerned of hampering the device, just for “questionable” good looks. If you started using a mammoth phone when everyone was using puny 3.5″ handsets, IM sure you could not give a rat arse in the first place right?