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Featured Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 5

August 25, 2015 - Written By Alexander Maxham

For years, many of us had been asking for Samsung to start using more “premium” materials in their smartphones. Instead of the shiny, glossy plastic that they were using on the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S5, and earlier devices. At the end of 2014 we started seeing more premium smartphones, but in 2015 the company really stepped it up. With the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and the Note 5. However, with the company using premium materials, they also got rid of a few features that hardcore Samsung users loved. that was the microSD card slot and removable battery. So is the Galaxy Note 5 really an upgrade for Galaxy Note 3 or 4 users? Well let’s find out in the full review!

Specs

Inside the Galaxy Note 5, we have the Samsung Exynos 7420 processor (that is the same processor as was in the Galaxy S6/S6 Edge earlier in the year) paired with 4GB of RAM. There’s also a non-removable 3,000mAh battery and the choice of 32GB or 64GB of storage. Internal storage is important this time around, as there is no expandable storage. Around back is the 16MP ISOCELL sensor. We have a 5MP front-facing camera as well. We also have a 5.66-inch 2560 x 1440 resolution Quad HD Super AMOLED display, which DisplayMate has rated as the best display on a mobile device ever. We also have the physical home button with the built-in fingerprint reader, and capacitive buttons for recents and back.

Other connectivity includes WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2, A-GPS, and GLONASS. As well as featuring NFC, which although is not needed for Samsung Pay, will be needed for Android Pay.

Hardware

Samsung-Galaxy-Note-5-AH-6First glance at the Galaxy Note 5 and it’ll look pretty familiar to you. It has a very similar design to the Galaxy S6, but slightly different. We’re looking at aluminum chassis here with Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back. While the design looks really nice – I especially like it in the titanium silver, which ironically isn’t coming Stateside – there is one issue. Actually there’s a few. But the bigger issue is that it’s fragile. I know of a few people who have already dropped their Galaxy Note 5 and have shattered the back or the front of the device. A good selling point for case manufacturers, but then you do not get to show off the beauty that is the Galaxy Note 5. Another issue with the Glass back and front, albeit not that big of an issue, is fingerprints. As you can probably tell from the pictures throughout this review, the black sapphire version really picks up fingerprints like crazy. The Gold and White versions aren’t as bad however.

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One of the changes that Samsung did with the design of the Galaxy Note 5 over the Galaxy S6, was the curved edges on the back. If you look closely, you’ll see that the left and right sides are curved, almost like a backwards Galaxy S6 Edge+. My first thought when I picked up the Galaxy Note 5, was that it felt a lot like the Xiaomi Mi Note or Mi Note Pro. Xiaomi had used a glass back with curved edges which is almost identical to the Note 5 on both of those devices. They both also have the same screen size. The curved edges on the back, actually make the device feel even more comfortable in the hand. It also makes the device feel smaller. Samsung also has smaller side bezels on the Galaxy Note 5, which makes this “big” phone actually feel smaller. Samsung-Galaxy-Note-5-AH-8

If you look on the bottom of the Galaxy Note 5, you’ll see something that looks familiar. Yes the design for the speaker, headphone jack, microUSB and S Pen slot, all look strikingly similar to the iPhone. Of course, the iPhone doesn’t have an S Pen. But on the bottom is your microUSB port. Nope, Samsung did not follow the crowd and go with USB Type-C this time around. Although, I’d venture to guess that it will be coming with the Galaxy Note 6 next year, if not with the Galaxy S7 in March of next year.

The camera does still stick out a bit on the Galaxy Note 5. A lot of people believe that is due to them trying to copy Apple, but actually there’s more too it than that. For those familiar with the Nexus 4 and its glass back, they will remember how it used to slide off of tables all the time. So Google and LG made a slight change where they included small dimples at the bottom of the back side of the Nexus 4. This kept it from sliding off of tables. The camera does the same thing on the Galaxy Note 5. Keeps it from sliding around. And I know this, because I put the Galaxy Note 5 down face first on a table and it slid all over the place. But place it on its back and it does not move at all. While many don’t like the camera sticking out, it does serve a purpose. Hopefully the glass over the camera is a bit more solid this time around. As many with the Galaxy S6 did have issues with it getting cracked before.

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This year, Samsung updated the S Pen and it’s arguably the biggest hardware update so far for the stylus. Usually the S Pen just gets lighter or thinner, but this year Samsung went for the click. Now the S Pen sits flush in the bottom of the device, and most people won’t even notice it. Just press in on the S Pen and it pops out. However, you don’t need to worry about pressing it by mistake, as it doesn’t come all the way out without pulling it out. A great idea from Samsung, there. Otherwise the S Pen looks and acts just as normal. We’ll talk more about the software changes with the S Pen a bit later on in the software section.

Display

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You’ve probably already seen the review from DisplayMate rating this display as the best on a smartphone (the Galaxy S6 Edge+ as well). So don’t expect me to come along and say it’s terrible. It’s really, really good. I was really impressed with the Galaxy S6’s display earlier in the year, but I think the Galaxy Note 5’s is even better, somehow. Even though it’s the same resolution but at a lower PPI due to the screen-size. I’ve been watching plenty of YouTube videos on the Galaxy Note 5, and they look quite stunning and very crisp on the Super AMOLED display.

I don’t think it needs to be said, but since this is an AMOLED display, the blacks are much deeper, and some times the screen is a bit saturated. However, you are able to adjust the color temperature of the display in the settings. Nice touch by Samsung there.

Speakers

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Everyone probably knows how I feel about these bottom facing speakers by now. I really wish more manufacturers would put them on the front like Motorola, HTC and Alcatel OneTouch. In this generation of smartphones, Samsung has chosen to put theirs on the bottom. Not terrible. Could be on the back which would be worse. But the issue with having a bottom-facing speaker, is that when gaming, your hand is covering the speaker. Making for muffled sound, and sometimes you can’t hear it at all. Not a great experience.

With that said, when holding the device or listening to it on a table, the speaker is pretty good. It gets loud, but not extra loud like BoomSound. And it also doesn’t get distorted when watching videos. Now that’s equally important, in my book.

Performance

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This part of my review will probably read pretty similar to this section in the Galaxy S6 review from earlier in the year. Seeing as the Galaxy Note 5 has the same specs as the Galaxy S6, aside from the extra RAM. We still have the Exynos 7420 processor inside, which is quite powerful, and more importantly it doesn’t get overly hot. Now that’s not to say that it doesn’t get hot, because it does. While in China and roaming on T-Mobile USA, switching from China Mobile to China Unicom and back and forth, it did get pretty hot. Although it was also trying to download my emails and such over EDGE. Otherwise, it has not really gotten hot, except when playing games and such. A pretty smooth ride on the Exynos 7420, and that’s great news.

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On the RAM side, we’re looking at an extra gig of RAM over the Galaxy S6. That’s 4GB of RAM. Now before I say how much RAM is normally used by the system, it’s important to reiterate that unused RAM is wasted RAM. Typically the system would use around 1.5GB of RAM with the apps adding on about 600-800MB depending on what’s open. So normally I’d still have around 1+ gigabytes of RAM free. Now those with the Galaxy S6 may remember that RAM management issue that Samsung had. Well that doesn’t appear to be a problem here. I haven’t had any issues with apps needing to redraw or anything like that. Looks all good, hopefully that doesn’t change with an update though.

Fingerprint Reader

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Samsung has brought back the fingerprint reader again, and at this point I don’t see it going away in the future on other devices from Samsung. At least not their high-end flagships. Especially with Android M having baked-in support when it launches this fall. I will say, that Samsung has continued to improve the speed of the sensor, and on the Galaxy Note 5, I’d say it’s the fastest yet. One of the things that Samsung does well with the fingerprint sensor compared to its competitors, is the ability to record your entire thumb-print or whatever finger you use. So that way you can unlock it in many different angles. Additionally you can use multiple fingerprints. Very useful, and something not everyone else does.

Now you can also use your fingerprint to sign into websites, as well as your Samsung account. Very helpful. However I won’t give anyone five stars on their fingerprint sensor until I can do just about everything on my phone and not have to type in a password. Making the experience seamless no matter what apps, websites or services you use.

Call Quality and Network

Before we get started here, it’s important to note that we are not using a US variant for this review. We are using model number SM-N920C. Which is destined for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). We have been using it on the T-Mobile network with the SIM provided by Samsung.

Having said that, calls seem to be really crisp and clear. Even though many are not making phone calls these days, still pretty important info there. As far as data speeds go, I was mostly on HSPA+, and the speeds mirrored what I would get on T-Mobile-branded smartphones on HSPA+. So the T-Mobile branded Galaxy Note 5 should work great as well.

Samsung Pay

At Unpacked in August, Samsung announced that Samsung Pay would be available soon and on this years’ models. That includes the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+. Now the service has launched in Korea – Samsung’s home turf – but it’s not launching in the US until mid-September. So obviously we haven’t had a chance to test it out. But the great thing about Samsung Pay is that you are able to use it just about any terminal in the world. They don’t even need NFC, because Samsung doesn’t use NFC. Thanks to their LoopPay purchase, it uses the magnetic strip reader to make the payment.

Storage

Continuing the trend that started with the Galaxy S6, Samsung is not offering a microSD card slot on the Galaxy Note 5. Which means you are stuck with whatever storage version you pick up, whether that’s 32GB or 64GB. While there was a 128GB variant of the Galaxy S6, there won’t be one of the Galaxy Note 5. At least not yet. Our best guess for this is because it didn’t sell that well. Considering the 128GB version was $200 more than the 32GB.

For those wondering, on our 32GB version, we got about 25GB out of the box available. That’s right on par with other 32GB smartphones like the Nexus 6. So not too much to complain about here.

Battery Life

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Samsung has built in wireless charging, again. However, this time we have even faster Wireless Charging. Samsung touted during Unpacked that you can charge the Galaxy Note 5 wirelessly in about 2 hours. That’s a pretty big deal considering this is a 3000mAh battery. Again, Samsung has packed both Qi and PMA wireless charging standards. So no matter what wireless chargers you have at home, it’ll work.

Additionally, we have Quick Charge available here. While it’s not Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0, seeing as this is an Exynos processor and not a Snapdragon, it is still Quick Charge. And can charge the device pretty quickly. Quick Charge is actually my favorite feature when it comes to power. Being able to do a quick top up at the airport, and getting much more battery, is definitely a great thing. Especially these days where our batteries can’t really keep up with the specs, or our usage.

Software

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Earlier in the year, with the Galaxy S6 announcement, Samsung stated that they had slimmed down TouchWiz quite a bit. And removed a ton of features which most of us just never used anyways. When it comes to the Galaxy Note 5, not much is different from the TouchWiz we saw earlier this year. However we do have some new icons. And they look pretty nice. And those icons didn’t even change all that much. We’re still looking at an orange icon for Contacts and a green one for the phone. But, they are now flat, and not 3D, fitting in with the new look of TouchWiz quite nicely. While Samsung did slim down TouchWiz, they did not get rid of many of the S Pen features. Many of which are very useful.

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When it comes to what’s pre-installed, there is still quite a bit here. And a few apps are merely shortcuts to the Play Store to download the app. Thus taking up very little space. One thing that’s a bit surprising, however, is that all of the Microsoft apps available on the Galaxy S6 Edge+ are not on the Galaxy Note 5. We only have the Microsoft OneDrive app. OneDrive is still a great app to have, considering Samsung’s partnership with Microsoft nets you 100GB of OneDrive storage. Microsoft’s OneDrive app has really stepped up in the past year as well. With Auto-backup for photos and a material design.

This is probably the first time in a few years, that I haven’t disliked using Samsung’s skin. Which is a big thing to say, honestly. For so long it was super bloated and heavy on the internals. Now it appears that Samsung has figured out how to make the device fast, efficient and still have all of these great features. I could actually see myself using the Galaxy Note 5 long-term, as my daily driver. The last Samsung phone I bought was the Galaxy S3, so it’s been a little while.

The S Pen and its Software

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One of my favorites features with the S Pen is Screen Write. Where you can take a quick screenshot and then write on it using the S Pen. This is useful for pointing something out. Using Screen Write, you can also take a full page screenshot. Now what I mean by this is, you could go to AndroidHeadlines.com and screenshot the entire webpage, so it’ll be a scrolling one. not sure how often it would be used, but still a really cool feature. Another one of my favorites is the handwritten notes in S Note, and being able to sync those with Evernote is a pretty big deal as well. As many of us use Evernote, and to be able to sync those over is a big help. Another cool feature, but one I hardly used, was the ability to handwrite in apps. For instance, I could handwrite a tweet with the S Pen. Now I hardly used this, because it was slower than just typing out the tweet. Also, sometimes TouchWiz wasn’t always on point with what I wrote.

I noted this on Twitter last week, but I feel as if this is the first Galaxy Note in which I’ve actually used the S Pen, without having to force myself too, so I could write about it. It feels like Samsung’s Stylus software has finally matured, without being over the top. Definitely a nice thing. It took a few years, but I think Samsung’s finally nailed it perfectly with the S Pen.

S Health

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Samsung’s attempt at trying to get us to exercise and be more active is alive and well. Along with counting your steps, it can also measure your heart rate, and much much more. It’s a great app for those looking to get moving a bit more and not buy a Fitbit, or Jawbone UP right now.

S Note

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We touched on this Briefly in the S Pen section with its software, but S Note is still here and it works just as well as it always has. With S Note you can still write action memos. So you can do things like, write a phone number then take action on it (for instance, save it to your contacts or call it). A really nifty feature that most people don’t talk about these days. You can also share these notes anywhere you want. S Note uses the Android share menu to share them. So you can literally share them anywhere on the web.

Camera

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Similar to the performance section at the beginning of this review, this section is going to be pretty similar to the Galaxy S6 review. As it is the same camera from the Galaxy S6. Now, sometimes that’d be an issue, we’ve complained about Sony doing that with the Z2, Z3, and Z4. But the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5’s cameras are just amazing. Samsung has a ton of different modes here for you to try out. Of course there’s the highly favored “Pro” mode. In the Pro mode you can change the exposure, shutter, ISO, White balance and much more. What’s even better is that this is done in real time. So you can actually see the affects before you take the picture. Other modes include Selective Focus, Panorama, Video Vollage, YouTube Live Broadcast, Slow Motion, Fast Motion, Virtual shot and many others you can download from the Galaxy Apps Store, as we’ve seen with previous versions of Samsung flagships.

The YouTube Live Broadcast is probably the most popular new feature. It is a brand new feature and Samsung was really proud of it when they announced it on stage at Unpacked in mid-August. It was immediately dubbed as a “Periscope Killer” by the press and media. And there’s a big reason why. You’re going Live on YouTube straight from your camera. No additional app needed, and users don’t need to sign into Twitter to watch. Simply watch from YouTube. Which you also do not need to be signed in to. We did a test Live Broadcast, which you can watch below. As you can probably tell, it appears to cut out pretty quickly. It would seem that as soon as your signal changes (if you’re streaming on LTE) it drops off. Hopefully that’s something that Samsung and Google can work together to fix in the near future.

Enough about the camera app, what about the gallery? The gallery app looks really nice. And unlike in older Samsung Galaxy smartphones, it loads up pretty fast. There’s also another feature that I really like, and that’s the video highlights. The Galaxy Note 5 will put photos from a certain place and time together into a video highlight that looks really cool. There’s even some music added for you. You can see a sample one down below.

The pictures and video from the Galaxy Note 5 look amazing, as expected. We took a ton of pictures, and you can find them all down in the gallery below. The full-resolution versions can be found at this Google Photos link.

The Good

  • The display is still one of the best on a mobile device and Samsung may have that crown for some time.
  • The Galaxy Note 5 is a big phone, but doesn’t look or feel like a big phone anymore.
  • No longer a niche. For the past four years, the Galaxy Note line was a niche. For those that liked big phones and a stylus. Now that it’s almost the same size as most other regular sized phones, it’s great for everyone.
  • The camera still outperforms just about every other competitor out there. Stands toe-to-toe with the LG G4.

The Bad

  • The non-removable battery might be a no-go for some users. However, we have had pretty great battery life in our time with the device.
  • Lack of expandable storage might also be a no-go for some. As they are used to Samsung offering that.
  • This is a fragile device, seeing as both the back and front are glass. So you’ll definitely want to put a case on it. That way if you drop it, it doesn’t shatter. That’s the last thing you want after shelling out $700+ for the Galaxy Note 5.

Final Thoughts

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The Galaxy Note 5 has gone from being just a big phone, to being a mainstream phone that’s for everyone. Instead of just filling a niche. Which is important for Samsung, as it opens up the device to more and more users to buy it. The Galaxy Note 5 is the first Note smartphone that I would buy and use as my daily driver. There was always something keeping me from using the previous four models full time. But the Galaxy Note 5 has fixed all of my issues. I think in terms of a perfect smartphone, this is about as close as you can get.

Samsung refined the Galaxy Note 5 this year. In previous years the company would throw in every high-end spec out there and pack it to the gills with features. While the specs are still pretty high-end, they are essentially the same as the Galaxy S6, for the most part. Typically, the Galaxy Note would get a jump on specs over its little brother the Galaxy S. What this tells us is that Samsung knows they can make a great smartphone and a great upgrade, without going overboard. Definitely a nice route to take.

Despite the trade-offs here, I think the Galaxy Note 5 is still a great upgrade for most people. If you’re coming from the Galaxy Note 3, it’s definitely time to upgrade. However if you are on the Galaxy Note 4, it may or may not be worth the upgrade. Especially if you prefer the removable battery and expandable storage.