Samsung Galaxy Note5 review: Better in every single way, but one

Once again, Samsung makes the best phablet money can buy

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Samsung Galaxy Note5
  • Samsung Galaxy Note5
  • Samsung Galaxy Note5
  • Samsung Galaxy Note5
  • Expert Rating

    4.50 / 5

Pros

  • Excellent 5.7-inch Super-AMOLED display
  • Extended functionality with improved S-Pen stylus
  • Made from glass and aluminium
  • Improved ergonomics with curved back
  • Competitive 16MP and 5MP cameras
  • Fast wireless charging and support for Cat9 LTE

Cons

  • No support for expandable microSD memory
  • Only offered as a 32GB variant

Would you buy this?

A lot of the Note5’s DNA comes from the Galaxy S6 range released earlier this year. Some of these changes might come off as familiar, but compared to its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 4, the Note5 represents a complete overhaul.

Note smartphones have always been powerful, but the liberal use of plastic made them less desirable. This isn’t the case with the Note5. Its list of ingredients include an aluminium chassis and Corning’s Gorilla Glass. Bevelled edging and precision drilled ports on the smartphone read like a craftsman’s signature. Then there’s the colour, which will change depending on how the light falls as it bounces between multiple nanocoatings. “Black Sapphire” is what our Note5 box reads, although the phone itself glows every shade from navy blue to deep black.

Using these materials is one thing; beating them into a shape that is accommodating is another. The hallmark of a Note smartphone is its large screen, and subsequently, a body that is often too big. This is why the next achievement is all the more commendable.

Samsung has managed to make the Note5 more powerful and yet smaller. Measuring the bezel from the screen to the utmost point of the chassis puts the bezel at 2mm. Place the phablet alongside its predecessor and, even though it has the same sized screen, the Note5 manages to take up less space.

Samsung has managed to shave the bezel down between its old (left) and its new (right) Note smartphone
Samsung has managed to shave the bezel down between its old (left) and its new (right) Note smartphone

Another design trait makes it more comfortable to use. The back of the smartphone wears the kind of curves found on the Galaxy S6 Egde. They aren’t being used for some novelty display; in this instance, they make the large smartphone easier to hold.

These small tweaks in design give Samsung a leg up over Apple. The Note5 has a larger, richer screen than the iPhone 6 Plus, and yet its body is lighter, shorter and not as wide.

The Note formula is a two-fold experience. The first pertains to its screen, which in this case spans 5.7-inches and has a 2560x1440 resolution. It has an astounding 529 pixel-per-inch (ppi) density, in a market where the iPhone 6 Plus has a 401 ppi.

The screen on the Note5 highlights Samsung’s strength as a hardware manufacturer. The display is based on a Super-AMOLED panel, and this is a critical point of difference between it and the majority of smartphones, which settle for an LED-backlit LCD display. Every one of its pixels can be switched on and off as they cycle through 16-million colours, from bright whites to true blacks. Here’s the bottom line: the Note5 has the best display on a smartphone to date.

The Note5 is one of the first smartphones to support Telstra’s 4GX Cat 9 network, which advertises a theoretical download speeds of 450Mbps.
The Note5 is one of the first smartphones to support Telstra’s 4GX Cat 9 network, which advertises a theoretical download speeds of 450Mbps.

Complementing the stellar screen is the S-Pen Stylus. It has played a core role in the identity of the Note experience, but this year marks its first major upgrade, and it comes in the guise of an age-old trick. Samsung has ingeniously given the S-Pen a spring loaded clicky top, similar to those found on pens housing a retractable ink cartridge. The small move makes the stylus easier to slide out of the smartphone, as a press of the button causes its head to poke out, while giving a subtle nod to its ancestor, the humble pen.

The dynamic screen-and-stylus duo provides a layer of additional functionality that eludes other smartphones. The screen has enough real-estate to display more than one application at a time. Couple it with the stylus, which can be used to illustrate diagrams, jot notes or for precise navigation, and the Note5 will appeal to a select few professionals in need of the versatility afforded by pen and paper.

A new software perk makes this phablet all the more attractive. Yesterday you needed to print PDFs, sign them, scan them and then send them off. The Note5 streamlines this process by making it possible to sign PDFs right from the smartphone. The process now goes: open, sign, save, send. No need to waste paper, no need to waste time.

1. The S-Pen's air menu; 2. It's now possible to sign a PDF document; 3. Using the split-screen mode on the Note5
1. The S-Pen's air menu; 2. It's now possible to sign a PDF document; 3. Using the split-screen mode on the Note5

Writing on the smartphone does involve a learning curve. The large screen is still smaller than a piece of paper, and at first some apprehension stops your palm from resting on the screen, even though it is smart enough to not interpret your palm print as an input. A week or so later and the nuances that make up the Note experience become second nature.

There is but one shortcoming. The back of the Note5 has the same fantastic camera as the Galaxy S6. It bulges from the body and this makes it hard to write on the phablet when it is laying flat against a desk. It waddles from side to side, much like a table at a cafe that has one leg shorter than the others. This irk ultimately discounts the note taking experience.

An innovation introduced by this phablet is wireless fast charging. The convenience of charging a smartphone wirelessly is marred by long charging times. Take the Galaxy S6, for instance. Charging its 2550 milliamp-hour battery wirelessly from flat to full takes a whopping three-and-a-half hours.

Integrated into the Note5 is a larger 3000 milliamp-hour battery. A fast wireless charging pad will replenish the battery in two hours, although we couldn’t test the claim — the fast wireless charger is an $89 optional accessory. Charging the smartphone from Samsung’s micro-USB fast charger will replenish its battery in 90 minutes.

Overall battery life fares well. We used the Note5 as our primary smartphone for the better part of a week and found it would last longer than a day on average. Our most consistent result was 26 hours, though we did record an outlier of 32 hours.

The rest of the smartphone benefits from innovations introduced by the Galaxy S6. It has a 16MP rear camera and a 5MP front camera, both of which can compete against the best in the market.

A photo taken with the Note5's rear camera
A photo taken with the Note5's rear camera
A 100 per cent crop of the photo above
A 100 per cent crop of the photo above

The woeful finger scanner of yesteryear has been ditched for one that works well. It’ll read fingers quickly and from any angle, making it the preferred method of unlocking this smartphone.

An underrated change has to do with the Android 5.1 operating system, which is no longer bogged down by its TouchWiz overlay. Parts of the software is stock and many unwanted applications can be uninstalled. Only a handful of applications separate this smartphone from its Galaxy siblings and most of them support the S-Pen stylus.

1. The dialer is now stock; 2. The messaging application is now stock; 3. The task manager is mostly stock.
1. The dialer is now stock; 2. The messaging application is now stock; 3. The task manager is mostly stock.

Powering the Note5 is the Exynos 7420 processor, a 64-bit chipset that couples a 2.1GHz quad-core CPU with a 1.5GHz quad-core CPU. It works with a Mali-T760 GPU and 4-gigabytes of RAM. Altogether, this is one of the most powerful hardware combinations, scoring 24,638 in 3DMark’s ice storm unlimited benchmarking test, which is greater than the results of the Galaxy S6 Edge (22,123), HTC One (M9) (21,123) and LG G4 (18,662).

Letting the Note5 down is the fact it is only offered with 32GB of internal storage. Take into consideration the operating system and you’re left with 24.5GB. This wouldn’t be a problem if the phablet supported microSD cards, but that versatile feature fell victim to a revamped design.

People would gravitate to the Note range because it was one smartphone that could meet all needs. Limiting the internal memory of the Note5 pigeon-holes it as a productivity tool destined for suit pockets, laying waste to the display’s multimedia promise. Sure, customers can buy the 64GB S6 edge+, but that doesn’t have an S-Pen stylus. That too doesn't meet all needs.


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Read more on these topics: galaxy, samsung, Note5, S6 edge+, 5.0 Lollipop, S-Pen, Android
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