Samsung's Galaxy Note 5 has been on my radar for a few months now. It was leaked several times, sure, but I'm always curious with what Samsung has planned for its Galaxy Note smartphones.
The Note series usually pushes the boundaries in a lot of ways, whether it's new screen technology, incredible camera sensors, fingerprint readers, virtual reality (last year, with the Note 4, for example), or new S Pen technology. It is, typically, an example of Samsung's best foot forward in the mobile space.
This year we were introduced to the Galaxy Note 5. Jon Rettinger and I have been using it for the past couple of weeks, and there's a lot to love. In fact, I think this is the Samsung flagship you should buy right now, even though it does have a few shortcomings.
There's no question about it, the Galaxy Note 5 has the absolute best-looking hardware of any Galaxy Note that came before it. I use the term "best-looking," however, because there's some contention around the functionality of the design choices Samsung made.
It's hard not to love the glass and metal design, which was carried over from the Galaxy S6 that first introduced this design language earlier this year. However, you'll no longer get expandable storage through a microSD card slot, which means you're limited to 32GB or 64GB of storage. Fans of the Galaxy Note have long expected this feature, and we've seen plenty of comments suggesting that many fans prefer the Galaxy Note 4 since it still offers a microSD card slot and another feature: the removable battery.
Additionally, there's been a lot of concern about Samsung's design of the S Pen which, if inserted backward, can completely bork your phone. Insert it the wrong way once and you have a chance of ruining a sensor, insert it too far, and you may actually get it stuck in there permanently. Samsung expects users to insert it properly each time, though there are plenty of consumers that probably aren't aware that this is an issue and, since the pen actually does fit if inserted improperly, might not know about the problem until it's too late.
Those concerns aside, every other aspect of the hardware is first class. The phone runs on an Octa-core Exynos 7420 chip, the same in the Galaxy S6, though Samsung padded the phone with an extra GB of RAM, providing users with 4GB total. In my experience using the phone daily for gaming, e-mail, phone calls and more, I never once saw it stutter. Sometimes we see phones start to slow down after a few months, but something tells me the Note 5 has enough power to avoid that situation.
Additionally, the aforementioned S Pen is much better than previous generations. It's more premium looking and feeling, no longer looking like a skinny plastic stick, and functionally it works very well on the display for taking notes, signing documents and cropping photos.
The speakers get nice and loud, too, which is great for conference calls or just listening to music, and I never had any issue with clarity. If you're linking up Bluetooth headphones, Samsung has special software to upscale the audio so that it sounds as good as possible, too. I found I generally preferred the default settings, maybe I'm not much of an audiophile, but the option is there if you want it.
And finally, the gorgeous display. You'll find a Quad HD AMOLED panel that's bright and crisp in all conditions, even when I used it outdoors. It's incredible to look back and read how I used to drool over Samsung's earlier AMOLED displays, which weren't nearly as sharp, and realize just how far Samsung has pushed the boundaries in this arena. I don't think you'll find a better display on any other smartphone.
Samsung uses TouchWiz on the Galaxy Note 5, painted atop Android Lollipop. It's still too bulky and cumbersome for me, but I used it during the review just to make sure I got the full experience. When it comes to skins, I much prefer Sense to TouchWiz, but TouchWiz does offer some features that are required for the Note 5.
After my review, however, I plan to move to a custom launcher so that I can maximize the screen real estate. The screen is so sharp that there's no need for Samsung's huge icons, and a custom launcher will allow me to slim those down to fit more on the display without fear of squinting. Maybe it's just me, but I really dislike the standard icon pack that Samsung uses. Thankfully, however, if you want to stick with TouchWiz you can install a number of free themes that Samsung provides through its store. Let's get back to the key features, though, like the S Pen software.
You'll finally be able to save huge screenshots of entire websites, sign PDF documents with the S Pen and more. Functionally, it's the best software ever on a Galaxy Note 5, and totally opens the door to new experiences with the S Pen, again creating a strong argument for why one might actually want a "stylus" with his or her smartphone.
One new experience Samsung created involves the Air Command function. While you can still quickly access the various note-taking options, you can also now add your favorite apps. Remove the S Pen and the launcher opens with shortcuts whatever you please — in my case, I added Instagram and GroupMe, because I use them so often, but you might also add something like Evernote or another app of your choice.
Another new feature I really like is the ability to quickly jot a note when the phone is idle. Just remove the S Pen and start writing on the screen — it sort of looks like a blackboard, since the ink is white on the idle display's black background; your note will save into S Note automatically when you're finished. This is a perfect option for grabbing a quick phone number without having to fully unlock your device.
Finally, Samsung launched SideSync 4.0 with the Galaxy Note 5, which allows you to manage your phone entirely from your PC (Mac software support is coming soon, Samsung tells us.) That means answering texts, taking phone calls, quickly transferring files and more. It's not the prettiest software in the world, and I haven't always loved SideSync on other devices, such as Samsung Android tablets, but it works pretty well. For most folks, PushBullet might be preferred for notifications and texts since it's a bit more minimalistic.
Samsung's camera on the Galaxy S6 blew us away, and the Galaxy Note 5, which features the same sensor and some software improvements, is one of my favorite features of the phone. I found it a rare occurrence to snap a photo that I didn't like or appreciate. That's a huge compliment to the phone against its competitors, which sometimes require multiple shots to get the photo I really want. Lowlight shots, in a restaurant for example, came out excellent. Shots in daylight were always more impressive.
Samsung added a unique new feature that lets you livestream right from the camera app to YouTube. It's sort of like what one might do with Meerkat or Periscope. I don't have any followers on YouTube so I didn't find this particularly up my alley, but it opens up the door for amazing possibilities for people who love to live broadcast their lives — just open the camera, select that shooting mode, and off you go.
The 5-megapixel camera up front worked well for wide-angle shots in my tests, but I always find that it softens my face too much for my liking, even without the face effects fully applied. It's nice, however, that you can just tap the heart-rate sensor on the back of the phone to quickly grab a selfie, without reaching for the on-screen button and potentially blocking the front-facing camera. It's a good selfie camera, for sure, but doesn't nearly come close to the quality of the rear shooter.
Battery Life and Charging
The Galaxy Note 5 supports Samsung's proprietary Adaptive Fast Charging, which provides as much juice as possible in little time. Samsung promises a 50 percent charge in just 30 minutes, which I found to generally be true. Usually I'd have a full charge in about an hour and a half or so, which is pretty incredible. Note, however, that you need an Adaptive Fast Charging plug, which is signified by the lightning bolt on one side of it. This standard is different than Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0, which is supported by a variety of Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.
I was able to get through a full day with the 3,000mAh battery most of the time. Keep in mind, however, that I was testing an international unit without access to 4G LTE, which might change the battery life situation. In general, though, I woke up at 7 a.m. and hit the sack at around 10 p.m. with some juice left.
Thankfully, you can use the aforementioned Fast Charging feature to top off during the day very quickly, or Qi/PMA wireless charging. I have an older wireless charger that doesn't support the Galaxy Note 5's new fast wireless charging feature, so I wasn't able to test that, but it should be another feature in the phone's cap.
TechnoBuffalo reviews the Galaxy Note 5.
The Galaxy Note 5, for me, covers nearly every feature that I'm looking for in a smartphone. The display will knock your socks off. The camera is so incredible that you'll get great photos in almost every condition — at least good enough for sharing with your friends, which is what matters most. The phone charges quickly, has pretty solid battery life, and the design is incredible. It seems pretty much perfect.
Except, I know and I respect the opinions of folks who still want a bit more. They want the removable microSD card slots, they want swappable batteries and more. And I get it. But at some point, it seems, Samsung decided that cloud storage is good enough and that industrial design trumps those features. I get that, too.
There are a lot of great phones out right now, but the Galaxy Note 5 is the Android smartphone I think you should buy, and it's the one that's going to be in my pocket for the foreseeable future.
Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo was provided with two international Galaxy Note 5 review units for testing. Jon and Todd both tested the phone for more than two weeks before writing this review.