Samsung Galaxy Note5 Review: Great, Big, & Pricey

by Reads (4,804)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Service, Warranty & Support
      • 9
      • Ease of Use
      • 9
      • Design
      • 9
      • Performance
      • 9
      • Value
      • 9
      • Total Score:
      • 9.00
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Excellent design, the Note5 looks great
    • Superb display
    • S Pen features useful and well implemented
    • Powerful and stable performance
  • Cons

    • Pricey at launch
    • It’s time to move on from USB 2.0
    • Samsung should have kept the removable battery and microSD card slot

Quick Take

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 looks great and excels at just about everything it does. It has the most polished and well-implemented S Pen features of any Note to date. Power users will love it, even if it’s too pricey at launch.


Once upon a time, the large-screen smartphone category was dominated by one device: the Samsung Galaxy Note. It was literally the original phablet (not counting the ill-received Dell Streak), and it was the only smartphone north of five inches worth considering.

Samsung Galaxy Note5

Samsung Galaxy Note5

Fast forward five generations of smartphone, and nearly all Android smartphones have at least five-inch displays, and even Apple entered the segment in 2014 with the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus.

In 2015, Samsung can no longer count on display size to contrast it against rivals. Instead, it has to innovate and push its other differentiator, the S Pen. With the Samsung Galaxy Note5, it does just that with a revised Air command launch, new blank-screen note mode, and PDF annotation. It pushes things further with Galaxy-specific features like YouTube Live Streaming, Samsung Pay, and SideSync.

Of course, it also helps that the Samsung Galaxy Note5 is hitting the market before Apple refreshes its iPhablet for 2015.

All that being said, does the Samsung Galaxy Note5 do enough to stand out from a market awash in large-screen options? Does it have enough to stave off competition from Samsung’s single biggest rival, Apple? Read on to find out.

Build & Design

Samsung embraced a new design philosophy with the S6, and that carries over to the Note5. Gone are the faux-leather and cheesy stitching, in its place are a sloped Gorilla Glass 4 back with aluminum frame.

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has no removable battery.

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has no removable battery.

Gone too, unfortunately, are the removable back panel and battery, and the microSD card slot. While we can understand the need to make the Galaxy S6, S6 edge, and new Galaxy S6 edge+ as slick as possible, the Note5 is built for productivity. Losing utility in the name of style betrays its core focus, and probably turns off a few enterprise customers to boot.

That the Note5 looks as good as it does make this a bit easier to swallow. There’s no doubt this is a premium smartphone.

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 measures 6.03 x 3 x .3 inches, making it slightly smaller than the Note 4. At .37 pounds, it feels solid and finely built, with absolutely no creek or flex. This thing will likely survive a few drops before cracking, but we still suggest a protective case.

The slightly sloped back aids in ergonomics, but the glass is a bit too slick for our liking. Say what you will about the faux leather, but it was easy to grip. Overall, it resists fingerprints and smudging about as well as a glass back can, but they are visible in the right light.

Taking a look at the Note5, the power button rests on the right side, while a separated volume rocker rests on the left. There is a SIM card slot on the top, next to a microphone. The bottom houses a 3.5mm audio jack, microUSB 2.0 port, speaker, microphone, and S Pen slot.

The S Pen slots in the bottom, next to the speaker.

The S Pen slots in the bottom, next to the speaker.

The 5.7-inch display dominates the front, with an ultra-thin bezel on each side. The top has space for sensors, ear speaker, and the 5-megapixel front-facing shooter. The bottom has a physical home button that doubles as a fingerprint senor, resting between “all apps” and “back” capacitive softkeys.

The back houses the 16-megapixel rear shooter, flash, and heart-rate sensor

It’s nice to see Samsung eschew the trend toward on-screen nav button in favor of a physical home key, even if it’s only because Samsung needs a place to put the fingerprint sensor. The button is easy to find by touch alone, and a press is always more satisfying than a screen tap.

Samsung also redesigned the S Pen, giving it a clickable bottom knob that doubles as a release trigger. It also feels more solid than the plastic sticks of Notes past, though it still retains the rubber tip and single button.

Display

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has a thin bezel and sloped back.

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has a thin bezel and sloped back.

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has a stunning display. It’s one of the best we’ve seen on a smartphone to date. Of course, we’ve been saying that about Samsung smartphones for some time, and it’s obvious Samsung knows what it’s doing with OLED.

This Android smartphone has a 5.7-inch display with a 2560 x 1440 resolution. That’s the same as the 5.1-inch S6 and Galaxy S6 edge, meaning the Note5 has a lesser pixel-per-inch count, 518 to 577. You’d be hard pressed to tell looking at them though. We’re way past the point where the human eye can discern individual pixels on the display.

Just like most other Galaxies, the display features Super AMOLED, protected by Gorilla Glass 4. As expected, colors are sharp and accurate, and contrast deep and effective. The Galaxy Note5 does exceptionally well in direct sunlight (better than just about any other smartphone we’ve tested, really), and is easy to see in all situations.

Performance

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 sports an octa-core Exynos 7420 chipset (64-bit, 2.1GHz Quad + 1.5GHz Quad), which is similar to the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge. What sets the Note5 apart, is its 4GB of RAM (the previous Galaxies had 3GB).

Asus, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Elephone, and OnePlus have all launched smartphone with similar RAM, and it will likely be the flagship standard going forward.

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 performs great out of the box, as any flagship at launch should. It’s proved stable in testing, and zippy, even with Samsung’s relatively-heavy TouchWiz tweaks. The Note5 scored 1465 on the Geekbench 3 single-core benchmark, and 4610 on the multi-core benchmark, easily besting some of the more powerful devices from 2014.

Galaxy Note5 Geekbench Single Core Galaxy Note5 Geekbench Multi Core

The Note5 ships with either 32GB or 64GB capacity, and Samsung reps did not dismiss the possibility of a 128GB version during conversations at the launch event. On our 32GB review unit, about 23GB are available out of the box.

The Note5 supports 802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth v4.2 LE, and LTE Cat. 6 and 9, and it’s a global phone.

Battery

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 has a 3,000mAh battery, which is larger than the batteries found on the S6 and S6 edge, but charges just as fast, according to Samsung. Unfortunately, our review unit came with an international power adapter, so we weren’t able to test out the fast-charging feature.

For its part, Samsung claims the Note5 will hit 50% power with about 30 minutes of charging. The S6 and S6 edge have the same ability, and it works well. We have every reason to believe it will on the Note5 too.

The Note5 also supports both PMA and WPC wireless charging technologies.

As for battery life, the Note5 lasted 7 hours and 10 minutes in our strenuous battery drain test in which we streamed Netflix over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness maxed out. This is about the bare minimum users can expect from the device, and it translates to about a day and a half of average use.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 TouchWiz

Samsung Galaxy Note5 TouchWiz

That’s a good number, but far from the best. The Motorola Droid Turbo from late 2014 lasted 11 hours and 20 minutes with the same test, and the Samsung Galaxy S6 active lasted 9 hours and 25 minutes. Still, those devices are built for longevity, and the Note5 number is good for a phone with its power, display, and features.

Software

The Note5 ships with Android 5.1.1, and Samsung’s TouchWiz customizations. Thankfully, Samsung borrowed the less-is-more approach from the S6 and S6 edge, making TouchWiz on the Note5 one of the lightest on a Samsung device in recent years. TouchWiz still alters Android to a greater degree than most other smartphone skins, especially cosmetically. But it doesn’t look bad, and those familiar with Android will have no trouble getting around.

Our review unit did ship with some bloatware, but nothing egregiously useless, mostly just Samsung and Google apps, along with some popular Facebook apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. There is also a Galaxy Apps shortcut to download any Samsung apps that previously shipped on the device, include S Translator and PEEL Smart Remote.

Of course, the preinstalled apps can’t be deleted, just disabled. And you can bet the carriers will add to the bunch. But at least the Note5 is starting from a better place than previous Galaxy smartphones.

S Pen

The S Pen is the Note’s defining characteristic, so we are happy to see Samsung worked to make it less clunky on the software end.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 S Pen

Samsung Galaxy Note5 S Pen

Air command returns with the Note5, providing shortcuts to the various pen functions. On previous Notes, this took the form of a medium-sized icon with figuratively opaque symbols for functions like Screen write and Smart select. It was sluggish, annoying, sometimes hard to see, and confusing.

With the Note5 Air command now overtakes the entire display, blurring the screen behind it, and actually labeling the functions: Action memo, Smart select, Screen write, and S Note. There’s even room for the user to set two additional app shortcuts.

The new Air command launches whenever the S Pen button is pushed, via a small translucent icon on the edge of the Note5 display, or when the S Pen is undocked.

We can’t understate what a positive difference this makes. What used to feel intrusive, now feels organic and baked into Android. Users will get a lot more use out of the S Pen because of it.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 Air command

Samsung Galaxy Note5 Air command

A new feature added to Screen write is the ability to snap screenshots of scrollable content in its entirety, as one long JPEG. This proves useful for securing hard copies of directions, or even long website articles for emailing and reading while offline.

The Note5 also can also double as a quick scratchpad. Simply ejecting the S Pen while the display is off but the phone is one will essentially turn the display into a simple notepad for scribbling info like phone numbers and addresses. The scribbles are saved in S Note. The simplicity is what makes this great, and we can see us getting a lot of utility out of it.

The S Pen itself feels great on the display, and even more like actual pen on paper than past Notes. The latency is also a nonfactor, and barely perceptible.

Galaxy Features

Most familiar Galaxy features like Multi Mode, Smart Scroll, and the gesture controls return, while Samsung adds a few new things to the mix. Business users will likely love the ability to annotate PDFs directly on the device via the S Pen. Previous Notes enabled users to mark up PDFs by essentially drawing over them, but with the Note 5, users can input text and sign directly. Though managing a large PDF can be awkward on a smartphone, it worked well enough during testing that we want to see it on other devices.

Business and power users will also like SideSync 4.0, which pairs with a PC or Mac and actually virtualizes the smartphone display on the computer. Here, users can drag and drop files to and from the smartphone, check email, send/receive messages, and access any app. You can even make and receive phone calls. The phone can also act as a screen extension, and supports both the mouse and keyboard. This program is not new, but Samsung has gussied it up for version 4.0 with wireless connectivity and better performance. There is still plenty of lag, even with a wired USB connection, meaning smartphone gaming on the PC is out of the question, but it works as intended, and users will likely come to rely on it.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 notepad feature

Samsung Galaxy Note5 notepad feature

The Note5 also has some of the most granular audio controls found on any smartphone we’ve tested to date, including an equalizer and various sound enhancements. Samsung touted its UHQ Upscaler at the Note5 launch, which the company claims brings streaming audio up to CD-level quality.

Testing the various settings wired to both studio-quality and consumer-grade headsets, we found the upscaler has a noticeable, but negligible effect, on streaming media, producing a slightly fuller sound. More pronounced are the effects from the Adapt Sound feature, which guides users through a series of barely audible beeps to determine the best personal configuration.

Some of the other sound effects had similarly negligible result with streaming media, while the equalizer and custom settings (rock, pop, etc) had no effect at all.

With local media (downloaded songs), the sound effects and equalizer all had a profound effect. UHQ Upscaler and Adapt Sound combined made for an excellent listening experience over headphones. In fact, it’s the best we’ve had on a smartphone to date.

Most of these results were similar over Bluetooth, with the exception of upscaling. That’s exclusive to certain Samsung-branded wireless headphones and speakers, as of this writing.

Fingerprint Scanner

The Note5 home button doubles as a fingerprint scanner, which is mainly there for Samsung Pay security. It can be used to access websites and unlock the device. We used it in lieu of a PIN code, and it was dependable and quick, unlocking the device on the first try about 70% of the time. Inputting more fingerprints, or rather, the same fingerprint from multiple angles, increased that number.

The fingerprint scanner will be key to Samsung Pay, which uses it to authenticate purchases. In order for us to ditch the wallet, we’ll need it to be a bit more reliable on the first try.

We’ll update this review after we get a chance to test out Samsung Pay in the wild.

Camera

The Note5 has a 16-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing shooter. With its f1.9 lens and optical image stabilization, it’s the same as the S6 and S6 edge, and a bit wider than the f2.2 found on the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge. That means it should be better in low-light, which is an area smartphone cameras have progressively been improving upon through the generations.

The camera ships preloaded with a handful of basic modes and effects, with more available for download. It also includes tap to focus, and a quick exposure control slider for lighter or darker photos. There’s a new Pro mode that enables more granular picture controls and snaps RAW image files. These are pics before they are processed into JPEGs, and are favored by pro photographers because they enable a greater level of tweaking. They also make for very large files.

The front-facing camera has plenty of selfie modes, including wide-angle, beauty (virtual air-brushing and facial tweaks), and interval shot (four timed selfies in a row).

Other modes include an animated GIF maker, and a photo annotater, for use with the S Pen.

On the video front, the Note5 shoots 4k UHD video (3,840 x 2,160), video collages, and supports YouTube live streaming.

YouTube live streaming on the desktop is a cumbersome process as of this writing, so it’s impressive Samsung and Google managed to cram it into the Note5 camera app. For now, it’s exclusive to the Samsung Galaxy Note5 and Samsung S6 edge+, but given Google’s ownership of Android and YouTube, it’ll likely be baked into future versions of Android.

YouTube Live streams can be set to private (invites only) or public. Users can send an invite with a link to their contact list, or share it via email, message, or social media.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 YouTube Live Streaming

Samsung Galaxy Note5 YouTube Live Streaming

Sending out the link to the public is a bit cumbersome, and requires the user to start the stream, pause it to get the link and send it out, and then resume.

The YouTube Live Stream page on the desktop includes a chatroom function and like/dislike buttons, though streamers on the Note5 can only see likes and dislikes, not comments.

The live stream operates on a 30-second delay, and includes audio and video. Quality is what you’d expect from YouTube, and it proved very stable in our testing. Overall, it’s a wonderful feature in theory that requires a bit more polish in practice. For example, getting a link to your stream to invite the public needs to be less awkward, and streamers should be able to see comments through the app during broadcasts.

Image Quality

The Note5 takes great pics, as any flagship should. Software processing has progressed to the point where low-light photos rival point and shoot camera output (though mirrorless and DSLRs are still better by a large degree), and OIS helps keep away the blur. Comparing the output from any high-end flagship released in the last year is going to come down to personal preference.

Looking at the pics below, the macro of the spider shows impressive details (that was one tiny spider), though it was hard to focus given the lack of an on-screen guide. That it came out so clear is an example of the great stabilization.

Galaxy Note5 sample shot

The dog picture shows off the low-light capabilities, particularly the software’s ability to smooth out the image. It looks decent, with even some color appearing in the shot, but it’s still a bit blurry for our liking.

Galaxy Note5 sample shot

The Note5 captured great color and details on the sunset image, creating a very balanced pic.

Galaxy Note5 sample shot

The train track picture also shows off the sharp detail and attractive HDR capabilities of the Note5.

Galaxy Note5 sample shot

Pricing and Availability

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 is available for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and US Cellular, and it is expensive at launch. Since the major carriers have ditched the 2-year contract, many will have to pay full retail, which the carriers are happy to break up into monthly payments.

AT&T charges $740 for the 32GB Note5, and $840 for the 64GB. Sprint charges $720 and $816, respectively; T-Mobile charges $700 and $780; Verizon charges $696 and $792; and US Cellular charges $670 and $770.

Conclusion

Samsung Galaxy Note5

Samsung Galaxy Note5

Note fans will not be disappointed in the Note5. It’s big and powerful, with a top-notch design and one of the best displays on the market. It excels at just about everything, and is a leading contender for the best overall smartphone to date.

Those still holding on to a Note 3, Galaxy S5 or earlier device, will certainly benefit from an upgrade. Note 4 and S6 users can wait for the Note 6, given those are still excellent devices by today’s standards. We would also choose the Note5 over the iPhone 6 Plus for those coming in clean (but mostly because the iPhone 6 Plus is due for a refresh) and iOS devotees in love with the big screen should check out the Note5’s S Pen to see what mobile productivity is all about.

Of course, this advice excludes the Note5’s high price tag. Smartphones like the $329 OnePlus 2 and new Moto X devices, which start at $400, are shipping with respectable, though slightly lesser, specs. For power users, the Note5 might be a no-brainer in comparison. But for everyone else, the price difference could be enough to sway the decision.

Pros:

  • Excellent design, the Note5 looks great
  • Superb display
  • S Pen features useful and well implemented
  • Powerful and stable performance

Cons:

  • Pricey at launch
  • It’s time to move on from USB 2.0
  • Samsung should have kept the removable battery and microSD card slot

 



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2 Comments

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  1. djsandhu

    Removable battery, microSD and sim card slots missing holds back from buying?

  2. kenmasonguest

    Now here is the stupid part—-my Note 2(that I was thinking about upgrading) has more memory than the Note 5 can ever have. (just with a 64GB microSD and internal 16GB). Plus my 3spare batteries means that I can go for 6 days without charging which is so important to me when away on business trips where my time is planned out for me and I don’t have the freedom to just recharge whenever I want to. Come on Samsung—-you are losing the plot here.