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Samsung’s best phone yet: the Galaxy Note 5 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 11:59 am 26/08/2015

Samsung announced two big phones in August, with a phablet for every purpose: style and substance. We’ve done style, so let’s find out what Samsung’s answer to substance is really like, the Galaxy Note 5.

Features

The latest iteration of Samsung’s other major smartphone series (the other being the regular “Galaxy” phones) is here with a faster belly, more solid skeleton, and a brighter view on the world.

First off, there’s what inside that counts, and here on the Note 5, you’ll find an eight-core Samsung processor made up of one quad-core section clocked at 1.5GHz and another quad-core section sitting at 2.1GHz, bringing the total speed to 3.6GHz.

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Samsung is pairing this processor with 4GB RAM, and in Australia providing a total of 32GB of storage on the unit, with no microSD slot in case you wanted to upgrade it.

Google’s Android 5.1 “Lollipop” runs on the Galaxy Note 5 out of the box, complete with the latest incarnation of Samsung’s TouchWiz Android overlay.

Connections are next, and for that you’ll find quite an array of support for a flagship phone, complete with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2 with support for A2DP, Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, and 4G modem support running on the new high-speed Category 9 technology, one of only two phones released in Australia (at the time of publishing) to support this new high-speed connectivity.

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Cameras are also here, too, with Samsung equipping the Galaxy Note 5 with a 16 megapixel rear shooter with flash, while the front-facing camera gets a 5 megapixel camera module.

The rear camera can also capture video at 4K Ultra HD if need be.

A fair amount of sensors can also be found here, too, with a barometer and heart-rate monitor complimenting the typical assortment of an accelerometer and proximity sensor, and Samsung has even seen fit to throw in a fingerprint sensor underneath the home button.

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Also a little different in this smartphone from other smartphones is the inclusion of a stylus.

This is the S-Pen, Samsung’s magnetic external input device that works in tandem with the special screen the Note series of devices relies on, allowing you to scrawl and scribble notes on the device and save them. The tip of the S-Pen is much finer than that of capacitive stylus pens, helping the S-Pen to feel more like that of a regular pen for writing.

And this works in conjunction with the screen, which is also a little different from what other companies may offer.

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For the Galaxy Note 5, you’ll find a 5.7 inch Super AMOLED display running at the Quad HD resolution of 2560×1440, providing a pixel clarity of roughly 515 pixels per inch. Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 4 protects this display, which should prevent the odd key from cutting deep into the screen if left together in the same baggage.

Buttons on this handset are your typical Samsung variety, with two volume buttons on the left edge, one power button on the right, and three buttons below the display, offering a soft button for multitasking, the physical home button with a fingerprint sensor beneath it, and a soft button for back. Both of the bottom soft buttons are backlit.

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Ports are few, however, with only a 3.5mm headset jack and microUSB charge and data transfer port down below, while a nanoSIM slot sits up top ejected through a pin ejector tool.

The battery in the Galaxy Note 5 sits at 3000mAh and is not removable, however Samsung does include a wired fast charger in the box. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 includes support for wireless fast charging which can be found through an optional accessory.

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Performance

If you’ve ever wondered how a tablet could improve a smartphone, you’ve never played with a Galaxy Note.

The concept is one Samsung came up all by its lonesome, and is a combination of the two areas, as a big phone is created with functionality found in both categories, but with extra use from a stylus, allowing the written and scribbled word to be used, also.

Back in 2011 when Samsung first unveiled this concept in the Galaxy Note, the idea was panned, with some saying it would never work, and that it would never reach critical success. Four years on and with Apple joining the area, the phablet has been a huge win, and is now one of those devices to be considered when you’re not sure what you need, and when you can’t live without a big phone ever again.

That’s just what it’s like for some people: once you go with a big phone, you’ll never go back to something small again. Your hands just won’t adjust.

For the fifth generation product, Samsung isn’t interested in a minor touch up, though. It’s not here to gloss over the excellence that you could find in the Note 4 and just add in a new processor. Rather, this is about tightening up the world’s main phablet, and about making it a showpiece for all to admire.

Does it succeed?

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First things first, you need to look at the body, because this is something Samsung has changed over time.

We’ve gone from plastic and glass to metal, plastic, and glass, and now we’re finally on something that makes more sense for a flagship phone to have, for a premium device that Samsung markets this as, which it is: metal and glass, and only metal and glass.

Forget the plastic back from the previous body with its fake leather texturing because that is gone, replaced with the smooth soft glass on the front and back, and a metal frame, not just metal-coloured plastic, which is something Samsung has thrown out in the past.

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That makes the Note 5 feel stronger and more durable, and in many ways is reminiscent of the more expensive Galaxy S6 Edge+, which is hardly a surprise since the two are practical carbon copies of each other, except for one subtle difference: they curve in different places.

On the Galaxy S6 Edge+, you still get a 5.7 inch display, but this is curved along each edge, almost appearing to bend the edges of the display, while the back of the phone is totally flat.

The backs of the new Galaxy phones: on the left is the Galaxy Note 5, on the right is the Galaxy Edge S6+.

The backs of the new Galaxy phones: on the left is the Galaxy Note 5, on the right is the Galaxy Edge S6+.

But on the Note 5, Samsung reverses things, providing a totally flat front screen, and yet a curved glass back.

Similar, sure, but not the same, and it is in these differences that we think Samsung has nailed the design better in the Galaxy Note 5 for one basic reason: they make more sense.

Don’t get us wrong, the Edge has a lovely and elegant look to it, like a model walking down a fashion runway in a dress that makes all the heads turn, even though no one is quite sure how they’ll wear it in real life. In comparison, the Note 5 is the same beautiful model, but wearing something elegant and yet practical, where we all figure out what day or night we could wear that garment because hey, it actually makes sense.

That’s the Note 5: it makes more sense.

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The back of the Note 5 presents this logic in top form, with curved edges that gently curve into the sides of your hand, complete with a slick glass material that feels substantial enough that you won’t want to drop it. Make sure to hold tight, mind you, as glass can be slippery, and the Note 5 is that plus a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but the curve makes more sense to us on the back where it can conform to your hand.

Then we have the front screen which is totally flat, and again, this is much more useful in this design.

Granted, the Edge screen is nothing if not interesting from a design point of view, but getting much use out of it with the curved edges isn’t the easiest thing to do.

Instead, the flat screen on the Note 5 is sharp, clear, and suitably high end.

Front differences on the Galaxy Note 5 (left) and the Galaxy S6 Edge+ (right).

Front differences on the Galaxy Note 5 (left) and the Galaxy S6 Edge+ (right).

In fact, it is without doubt the most impressive smartphone display we’ve ever set our eyes on, with the same razor sharp text and imagery, and brilliant brightness and colour, but flatter and easier to use because, again, there is no curved edge.

You might love that curved edge in the S6 Edge and S6 Edge+, but give us the extraordinary flat one in the Note 5 any day of the week. It’s not just eye catching and sexy, but useful altogether.

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It’s even useful out there in the Australian sun, a place where smartphones need not venture out towards, where the light is usually so harsh that you can’t see a thing, and so the average Joe is often relegated to taking cover in shade, at the bus stop, or the nearest cafe if they want to read that email or SMS they just received.

Not so with the Note 5 display which can pump out enough brightness to let you see what you’re doing even in broad daylight.

Seriously, you’d be hard pressed finding a better screen out there, and this is helped by the 2560×1440 resolution and pixel clarity of 515 pixels per inch, a set of numbers that turns the Galaxy Note 5 display into one of those things your eye will love you for. It even manages to trounce Apple’s “Retina” resolution, which kicks in at around 326 pixels per inch.

Technically, the Note 5 offers an identical screen res and pixel clarity to the previous Note, the Note 4, but the screen still seems like it performs better here regardless, and this is one display you won’t want to take your eyes off.

The Galaxy Note 4 (left) and Note 5 (right) share similar screens and form-factors, but other than that, they are different.

The Galaxy Note 4 (left) and Note 5 (right) share similar screens and form-factors, but other than that, they are different.

Performance isn’t bad either, which doesn’t surprise us tremendously after seeing what it’s like-minded mostly-twin sibling can do, the Galaxy S6 Edge+.

Remember, the two are so close to being similar that outside of the pen and the slight design changes, you could easily think they were the same phone, and for the most part they are.

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As such, the eight-core processor and 4GB RAM hums along in this phone, providing some of the quickest and snappiest smartphone experiences we’ve ever seen, and rarely raising an eyelid at the sign of problems.

The operating system and experience is also the same, with Samsung’s recent incarnation of a reduced overlay, or a lightened load, in any case.

samsung-galaxy-note-5-review-2015-screenshot-home-menu

Like on the S6 Edge, you’ll find this feels a little more like stock Android and a light version of TouchWiz, with several widgetised home screens, a drop down and customisable notification bar, and an app menu, and with this slightly lighter take on Android, as well as the previously mentioned combination of technology, the phone generally handles itself well.

There were a few, truth be told, with the occasional hiccup from the phone refusing to wake after a long charge, or jumping into the camera using the double-tap of the home button, but these hiccups appeared to be random, and it didn’t take long for the Note 5 to get back on track delivering one of the best and most stable smartphone experiences we’ve ever seen.

Bugs and hiccups, usually when we tried to wake the phone after a sleep where it had been charged. Random.

Bugs and hiccups, usually when we tried to wake the phone after a sleep where it had been charged. Random.

Mobile performance is on par with this, and that’s because Samsung has brought in the big guns for the 2015 phablets.

Just like we saw on the Galaxy S6 Edge+ — of which this phone has an awful lot in common with — you’ll find a Category 9 modem inside the handset, one of the first in the world, making it possible to download at speeds as high as 450Mbps if the network will allow you.

To put that in terms everyone can understand, this is a good 40 times what the average Australian can download at when connected on ADSL2+ (provided most Australians are connected at the average 8 to 12Mbps on that connection).

That 450Mbps is a maximum, and also translates to around 50 megabytes per second, though you probably won’t find too many persistent 450Mbps connections.

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In fact, in our test around Sydney’s CBD on Telstra’s 4GX network, we found speeds situated mostly in the 70 to 150Mbps area, which is definitely fast enough for us, even if it didn’t quite touch the Category 9 hint of higher than 300Mbps speeds.

Still, you’d be hard pressed to be disappointed by these speeds, which could end up losing you data very quickly, so make sure you have plenty of that if you’re into your mobile data.

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Battery, on the other hand, isn’t quite as strong as we were hoping, but manages to fit the expectation of one day of life, as is the case these days with flagship smartphones.

We’re still going to give top marks for phones that manage to go beyond a day and venture into the second without problems, and that’s definitely not the Galaxy Note 5, which will last your regular work day, but not too much beyond it.

Battery testing without Bluetooth.

Battery testing without Bluetooth.

Our test had us listening to music, making and receiving phone calls, surfing the web, social networking, taking photos, reading and writing emails, and generally using the phone over the course of a day, with one test with Bluetooth off and another with Bluetooth on, and in each situation, the battery hit roughly a day.

That’s not a full 24 hours, though it could manage that if Bluetooth were switched on, but you wouldn’t have too much life left at the 24 hour mark if we’re being honest, and you would definitely want to run — not walk — to your nearest fast charging plug, of which there is one left in the box.

Battery testing with Bluetooth switched on.

Battery testing with Bluetooth switched on.

Samsung has also thrown in support for fast wireless charging, a technology based on the QI wireless charging we’ve seen for a while now but that is a little faster, hence the name, so if you have one of these optional charge bays, you’ll charge super speedy and without cables.

We still haven’t been able to grab one yet, but Samsung Australia has told GadgetGuy that they are definitely coming to stores locally, it’s just a matter of when.

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The camera has been one area where Samsung is definitely playing to win, and we’re seeing the same excellent camera from the S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge+ pop up here, providing a 16 megapixel camera on the camera with flash, while a 5 megapixel shooter sits up front.

That rear camera is very, very capable, with excellent colours and exposure control, now with a light adjustment in a controller similar to what the iPhone relies on.

Image sample from the Galaxy Note 5 camera

Image sample from the Galaxy Note 5 camera

In daylight, you’ll find clear colours with a fair amount of clarity, just as you will up close with macro images, while night photos work well, too, just make sure you’re not moving too much when you’re capturing them.

Image sample from the Galaxy Note 5 camera

Image sample from the Galaxy Note 5 camera

On the front camera, you’ll find decent images are possible too, complete with the heart-rate sensor next to the camera being used for something useful, allowing you to fire off a selfie when your finger is lifted from this section.

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Samsung’s front camera does arrive with some interesting software, though, enhancing the already common “beautification” modes that soften skin and allowing you to slim your head and enlarge your eyes, often to almost alien-like results.

It won’t be for everyone, and you can easily switch it off, but it’s just another example of how Samsung is working hard on making the camera more than just another “me-too” bit of the phone.

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Samsung’s attention is evident in the stylus, too, and this is without doubt the best implementation of the S-Pen yet.

For the past four years as Samsung has pushed the phablet category, it has taken its stylus along for the ride, allowing people to replace the good old fashioned pen and paper that they might decide to keep with them, and coupling it into a phone.

And it worked, for the most part, providing a place to jot down notes and scribble down thoughts when they needed them in a hurry.

But the pen was always a little flaky, feeling at times like the cheapest and weakest pen you could find while standing in line at the bank or post office.

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This year, that’s where Samsung has spent its time honing and improving things, taking last year’s S-Pen and tightening the design ever so slightly, allowing it to feel more natural on the 5.7 inch Note 5 display, with the overall feeling coming off more like a too thin ballpoint pen.

That at least caters for a more natural handhold even if the thickness of the stylus still leaves something to be desired.

Samsung has also been adding to what the pen can do, with a magnet in the barrel triggering actions on the phone when it is both on standby and in use.

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Now you may have to set these up in settings, but you’ll find that removing the pen when the phone is on and in use kicks on the “Air Command” controller, providing a small pen-specific shortcut dock of apps to let you get your pen and scribbling on, while removing it while on standby brings you into a quick black notepad making it possible to take a note without thinking and generally letting you leave that ageing notepad at home from here on in.

Both of these are super handy, and we really love being able to jot down notes and ideas quickly, but Air Command is interesting for two other reasons:

One is that you can modify this short list of apps very easily, adding apps that may or may not be useful with the pen.

samsung-galaxy-note-5-review-2015-screenshot-pen-settings

The other reason is that it can’t be touched by your fingers, so it exists as a tiny shortcut dock for a small set of apps only you know about. If you can hide apps from the main app menu, this would even be great for anyone who doesn’t want someone to go snooping through their phone.

The S-Pen works with this extra pen activated dock.

The S-Pen works with this extra pen activated dock.

Using your finger does not.

Using your finger does not.

Regardless of how you use the S-Pen, however, you’ll find one if the best and easiest phablet pen experiences around, and in this at iteration of the Note smartphone, the pen really adds to the overall experience.

Samsung has even improved the way you get the pen out, with a push eject mech aims on the back of the pen that lets you get the S-Pen out with no effort whatsoever, which itself comes with a bonus improvement: the back of the pen now works with a clicking mechanism, sort of like with a ballpoint pen.

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Feel free to irritate people with the sound of endless clicking during meetings and bus trips as you try to figure out what to write next. We sure will!

MWAHAHAHAHA! Meetings will be ruined by this!

MWAHAHAHAHA! Meetings will be ruined by this!

For an interesting fact, the S-Pen from the previous Galaxy Note phone will work on this one, allowing you an extra stylus if you end up losing the one from the Note 5. You shouldn’t, because if you keep it open too long and try to do something else, the phone alerts you to this issue to get you to put it back in the slot.

(You also shouldn’t try putting the pen in the wrong way in the Note 5, tip first, because as some have found out overseas, this can backfire remarkably and break the pen, but we digress.)

Still, the S-Pen 4 does work with this phone, but we wouldn’t try doing this again, and you shouldn’t try it, either.

The S-Pen from the Note 5 (top) isn't the same as the S-Pen from the Note 4 (bottom).

The S-Pen from the Note 5 (top) isn’t the same as the S-Pen from the Note 4 (bottom).

In one of those “don’t try this at home” sort of scenarios, our Note 5 picked up light scratches from the Note 4’s S-Pen, though we’re not sure why. Perhaps it’s because our model might have been preproduction (we don’t think so) or it’s something else altogether.

Whatever the reason, we tested this to see how the pens had changed and if they had changed due to pen design or screen design (mostly the former, it seems), but what we did find out was if you use an old S-Pen on the Note 5 screen, you do so at the risk of weird light almost chemical scratches, which can make you generally unhappy, especially if you didn’t use a screen protector (these usually don’t exist at the time we’re reviewing products).

A scratched Galaxy Note 5 is a sad Galaxy Note 5.

A scratched Galaxy Note 5 is a sad Galaxy Note 5.

But that’s not a real issue to complain of, or not a super important one. Rather, the real issue with the Galaxy Note 5 is its lack of storage.

Simply put, 32GB isn’t enough, and only making this phone in a 32GB model — which in turn only provides 24GB of space once you switch on the phone — makes you wonder what exactly Samsung was thinking when it decided to make a business-grade phone in such a small storage footprint.

We could handle the small amount when there was a microSD slot to back things up, but that’s missing this time around, and Samsung has only said that a 32GB Note 5 model will be appearing in Australia for the moment.

We’re not sure we agree with this, because while you can always back up your storage to a microUSB drive or a cloud storage solution like Dropbox or Google Drive, you shouldn’t have to, at least not very quickly, and after playing with the Note 5 for a week, we killed almost 5GB.

That’s 5GB in a week, and we weren’t even trying.

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It needs to be put into perspective that photos out of the Note 5 camera range from 4 to 8MB, with videos tipping the scales at a more meaty size.

The Note 5 also supports high-resolution audio FLAC files, which can get quite sizeable too, and given that this is made with business in mind, we’re sure you could find your own ways to kill the storage size on this phone in a heartbeat, say maybe with some oversized PDFs and presentation files.

What this spells out is a storage amount that doesn’t match the handset it was spec’d for, and it’s more confusing when you take out the SIM card slot, because while the S6 Edge+ slot holder is sized to match the nanoSIM you’re dropping in, the Note 5’s SIM card slot feels like it has a little extra room, surprising us greatly that Samsung didn’t take the opportunity to provide the extra hardware needed and put that microSD slot in like other companies have.

Galaxy Note 5 tray on the left, Galaxy S6 Edge+ tray on the right.

Galaxy Note 5 tray on the left, Galaxy S6 Edge+ tray on the right.

Seriously, Samsung can suggest the S6 Edge and Edge+ are built in a way whereby memory expansions make things impossible — actually, Samsung has never suggested or claimed why the microSD slots have disappeared, but we suspect the official response (if it ever turns up) will be something to do with design — but the reality is a phone meant for business should have an option of more than 32GB.

In the case of the Note 5 and Australia, 32GB is all we get, while the equally-sized and sexy Galaxy S6 Edge+ grabs a 64GB variant, though with less use since the screen can’t pick up on pen interaction and just curves for the sake of curving.

This makes the Galaxy Note 5 confusing, because it is easily the best out of the two simply because of what the phone can do, but it has the least impressive use of storage, which is a genuine shame.

We can even live without the replaceable battery, a feature that drove phablet owners of the past few years. These days, it’s far easier to plug in a portable battery bank or battery-equipped case than switch out the battery altogether, so that’s not a deal breaker for us.

But a lack of storage? Come on, Samsung. Give us more credit, and give the Galaxy Note 5 more to work with. Your customers will thank you for it. They might even stick with the phone.

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Conclusion

Even with the pointlessly low storage number, Samsung’s 2015 Note 5 phablet is easily the best phone the company has produced this year, as it just makes this long-running device perfect, except for that lack of space inside.

It’s probably the best phone Samsung has ever made. It’s definitely the best phablet you can buy today.

All we need now is for Samsung to increase the storage size to something more substantial and return that microSD slot, because then we’d have reached perfection, and not just something nearby.

Price (RRP)

$1099; Available on plans from Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Feels fantastic in the hand; Beautifully built; One of the best and brightest screens ever; The pen feels better than ever, with a tip that feels more like you’re using a pen; S-Pen clicks at the back, allowing you to annoy people during a meeting (!); Excellent cameras; Blazingly fast mobile broadband performance;

Product Cons

Only 32GB of storage, and it isn’t expandable;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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