Samsung releases two high-end smartphones every year – a Galaxy S devices and a Galaxy Note device – with a gap of six months between them in a bid to stay relevant in the fast-moving smartphone market.
A Galaxy S device is for people who like compact and handy devices with a good camera and powerful specifications. A Galaxy Note series device, on the other hand, is targeted towards people who can sacrifice compactness for a bigger screen, better productivity tools, and a long battery life.
Starting this year, the South Korean smartphone giant doubled the number of high-end devices to four – the Galaxy S6, the Galaxy S6 edge, the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 edge+ – and took a 180-degree turn with its design strategy, both in terms of hardware and software. The boring plastic design is long gone, making a way for a sleek and beautiful design constructed using a combination of tough metal and Gorilla Glass 4. The idea is to offer something for everyone.
After the launch of the Galaxy S6 duo, which lacked a removable battery and a microSD card slot, long-time Galaxy Note series lovers hoped that Samsung would not do so with them, after all they are the 'power users'. However, Samsung continued with its brand new design strategy with the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 edge+. There is no microSD card slot and the battery is non-removable. What Samsung did with the Galaxy Note 5 is that it retained and improved an already brilliant, large display and the versatile S Pen.
Will a beautiful cosmetic design, a large display, proven cameras, and a brand new software be good enough to make 'power users' stay in Samsung's camp when LG is offering most of these features along with a dual-SIM card slot at a lower price with the G4? Let's find out in my long-term review of the Galaxy Note 5. I’ve been using the device since the launch day of the device.
Note to readers: I would like to thank Samsung India for offering me the device on the launch day, and letting me use the device over a period of two months, which helped me write a long-term review of the the device. However, this hasn’t influenced me in writing a positive review of the device. This is an unbiased review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.
- Attractive design and excellent build quality.
- Absolutely the best screen in the smartphone industry right now.
- Hugely improved UI design and fast software.
- Themes is a good addition for customisation.
- Private Mode is a very useful feature for hiding sensitive information.
- Amazing cameras with idiot-proof image and video quality, an easy-to-use interface, Auto Live HDR mode, and a Pro mode.
- Good audio quality through headphones as well as the loudspeaker.
- S Pen, as usual, is a must-have for pro users.
- Screen Off Memo is surprisingly easy and useful feature.
- Fingerprint sensor is a boon for sensitive information and device security in general.
- Good battery life as it easily lasts a whole day (24 hours) if you don't play heavy games often.
- Maddeningly fast charging with supplied charger and effortless wireless charging.
- Glass and metal design looks exceedingly attractive, but makes the device slippery, prone to fingerprints and shattering.
- Strict RAM management means only recently used 4-5 apps are actively running in the background.
- Camera's ‘Pro' mode not as pro as the Pro mode on the LG G4.
- No removable battery or a microSD card slot.
Design and build quality
As I said earlier, and showcased in my hands-on and first impressions article about the Galaxy Note 5, the device follows the refreshed design guidelines debuted with the Galaxy S6. It is constructed using metal and Gorilla Glass 4 on both the sides. The home button stays where Samsung has always placed it, but it hides in itself a new touch-based fingerprint sensor, similar to the iPhones and the Galaxy S6 duo. Also, the famous S Pen now comes with a click mechanism to remove it from its enclosure.
The 3.5 mm headphone jack and the loudspeaker, which were earlier placed (Galaxy Note 4) on the top and the back respectively, are now moved to the bottom. Only the camera, the LED flash, and the heart-rate sensor are placed at the back, which is now curved upwards on both the sides, so that it becomes easier to hold in the hands despite its large physical size. The power button is perfectly placed where a user's thumb would rest, and it gives a satisfying click-y feeling when pressed. This is similar to the design of every clickable thing on this device.
Overall, the new design is refreshing and attractive, but the choice of materials makes the device slippery, and the use of two little fingers of both the hands are necessary to firmly grip the device while using it. The build and construction are solid, and Samsung has improved a lot in this regard. However, it should still learn to improve the design in terms of ergonomics. One problem that I noticed with the new design, similar to other smartphones with ultra-thin bezels, is that you tend to accidentally press the UI elements on the edge of the screen even when you don’t mean to.
It's astonishing as to how the South Korean smartphone giant, which was often criticised for bad design and build quality, has been able to quickly retaliate from the position and renounced itself as one of the best in the industry. If you can remember the iPhone 6 Plus ‘bendgate' fiasco, you should know that just designing a metal device isn't enough. The Galaxy Note 5's glass protection might, and most probably, will shatter if you drop the device from a considerable height. So I would advise you to use a case or a cover with the device if you are someone who doesn’t handle your devices with care.
The Galaxy Note 5 uses a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 pixels, resulting in a pixel density of ~518 ppi. It is protected using the tough Gorilla Glass 4 by Corning. It features a diamond pixel arrangement of sub-pixels for saving it from the graininess that was earlier associated with AMOLED displays, but with pixel density this high, you can't see that problem anyways. Samsung has always used one of the indstry's best displays in its high-end smartphones, and it did so with the Galaxy Note 5 as well.
This display is sharp, bright, and colourful, but not over-saturated at the same time. When used with Basic Colour Mode, the Galaxy Note 5 displays accurate colours. The blacks are as black as it can get and the whites are whiter than any previous generation AMOLED panels. Moreover, the display can rival, or even defeat, most smartphones with an LCD panel in terms of brightness (when set in auto mode). It can go as high as 620 nits in outdoor conditions.
The viewing angles are perfect, with very less colour shift and low reflectivity, even when viewed from the sides. Most of the times, I used the Adaptive Display mode, as it can adapt as per the type of content that is being displayed on the screen. However, you can use AMOLED Photo and AMOLED Cinema modes if you want to. Samsung didn't provide screen calibration tool with the Note 5 though. Overall, the Galaxy Note 5 has the best display in the whole smartphone market right now, as it is perfect for consuming any type of content.
The 16-megapixel 1/2.6-inch sensor used for the primary camera on the Note 5 is the same as what was used with the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 edge, and has an aspect ratio of 16:9. Even the LG G4, which is known for its camera quality, uses the same camera sensor. The camera is accompanied with an optically stabilised (OIS) lens with an aperture of ƒ/1.9 and a single-LED flash. It can record 4K (3,840 x 2,160 pixels) videos at 30fps and 1080p videos at 60fps. There's a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with a wide-angle lens, an aperture of ƒ/1.9, and QHD (2,560 x 1,440 pixels) video recording.
The new camera app from Samsung is simple and easy to use, with most of the elements and options placed on the right and left side of the viewfinder. One can easily access options – Effect, HDR, Self Timer, Flash, Image Resolution, and Settings – from the left hand side. On the other hand, the large shutter button is on the right hand side along with an option to choose modes, access video recording mode, accessing gallery, and switching to the front-facing camera. Apart from bundled camera modes, you can download additional modes from the Samsung Apps Store.
The Pro Mode, which debuted with the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 edge+, was also delivered to the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 edge users through a software update. It allows changing focus length, white balance, ISO, shutter speed, metering, and exposure values. A slider, which you can use to change values – that appears when you click these options. However, it’s not as versatile as the Pro mode in the LG G4 camera app. A combination of specific settings that you use regularly can be saved as custom settings. There's a special YouTube Live Broadcasting mode that can be used to live broadcast anything through on YouTube (obviously).
You should note that Samsung uses two camera sensors – the Sony IMX240 and the Samsung ISOCELL S5K2P2 – in the Galaxy Note 5 due to supply shortages, but both the sensors provide almost similar image quality. Speaking of quality, the camera captures excellent images and videos without a need to interfere much. The results show accurate colours, exposure, white balance, and a good dynamic range, especially in daylight conditions. In lowly-lit conditions, the images come out bright with good details, but the whole image appears a bit yellowish.
In scenes with tricky lighting conditions (such as when there are some areas with bright light and some areas under shadows), the Galaxy Note 5's Auto Live HDR mode helps a lot. It activates automatically, so you don't need to think whether the HDR mode should be turned on or off. It also shows the resulting image quality in live view even before an image is clicked. Moreover, as both the front and back cameras have wide angles lenses, you can capture most of the scenes in a single image. If you want to capture even wider images, you can switch to the excellent Panorama mode, which lets you capture 180 degree images just by swiping across.
The recorded 4K videos have great amount of details and the dynamic range is good. The audio is surprisingly good, thanks to dual microphones. Thanks to OIS, the videos come out smooth, and Samsung has even added VDIS (their EIS – Electronic Image Stabilisation) in the Note 5 for 4K videos. It's worth noting that VDIS isn't available in the Galaxy S6 trio. You can also record 1080p videos in 60fps for extremely smooth frame rates. The selfies are mostly bright and good, thanks to ƒ/1.9 aperture, but don't expect them to be similarly good in low light conditions.
Overall, the Galaxy Note 5 can serve as a primary camera for most customers who will be sharing images and videos on social networks or through IM apps. Just don't expect it to replace your DSLR, but it can definitely do a better job than most point-and-shoot cameras, except that it doesn't have an optical zoom lens. Thanks to ƒ/1.9 aperture, there's a good amount of 'bokeh' effect – the seperation between the subject and the background – in the images, offering an immersive experience. I can say that the Galaxy Note 5's camera is better than the LG G4's camera in auto mode, and its faster too.
User interface and software
The Galaxy Note 5 was launched with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop onboard, with Samsung's latest version of TouchWiz UX running on top of it. The new TouchWiz is simpler, lighter, more efficient, and better designed. Also, you can disable most of the things such as the S Voice, the Flipboard Briefings screen on the home screen, the S Finder, and the Quick Connect features. Samsung has stripped out a lot of features from the main package, and made them downloadable as apps from the Samsung Apps Store.
The Theme Store, where Samsung has been releasing a lot of themes lately, is bundled with the Galaxy Note 5. One can download some good themes from there, which not only changes wallpapers, backgrounds, but also icons of inbuilt apps and the UI colour scheme. Themes also affect screen unlock animations, dialer, messaging app, quick setting togges, the Settings menu, and Samsung's keyboard. I mostly use the Material Light or Samsung's default theme on the Galaxy Note 5.
The S Pen, which is always a part of the Galaxy Note series, comes with a renewed design and a new click mechanism. The S Pen can be removed from its enclosure using a click mechanism, which is remniscent of a retractable ball pen. As soon as you take out the S Pen, an Air Command menu appears on the screen. It contains shortcuts to four options, and you can add shortcuts to two apps of your choice in that menu. You can do the following things with the S Pen:
- Select the text even when it isn't selectable text, and then copy/share/define it. You can even select text on the buttons, menus, or other UI elements.
- Action Memo: Write things and convert them to actionable things. For instance, you can write a phone number or an email ID, then click on the 'Link to action' option, which will present you with an option of calling that number or sending an email to that ID. You can minimise it, pin to home screen, set a reminder, or save it in the versatile S Note app.
- Smart Select: Select a rectangular, oval, or even lasso area, and then write/jot on it and save it. Scrolling screenshot can also be saved with the new option.
- Screen Write: Take a screenshot and write/jot it with a wide range of colours and pen types, and then save it in the scrapbook or the S Note app.
- Screen Off Memo: When the device is locked, you can simply take out the S Pen from its enclosure, and you can write any information on the screen, then put the S Pen back in its enclosure, and the information will be saved in the memo app.
Coming to the software experience, I have never seen a Samsung Galaxy smartphone this fast. This is not only due to high-end processor and 4GB RAM, but also due to a redesigned software, more thought out animations and animation speeds. The Galaxy Note 5 almost never gave up on me. Never did I saw the software stuck in a menu on this device. It is all fast and fluid, and the multitasking was is very smooth. Unlike most other Samsung smartphones from last year, I never saw icons disappearing and redrawing after clicking the home button.
I used to hate Samsung's software, but starting with the Galaxy Note 5, I've grown to love TouchWiz. Some people think that stock Android offers the best UI experience, but it's simply not true. Some options and customisations added to Android by brands like Samsung, HTC, Sony, and Cyanogen OS, improve a lot of things. Take for example the short overlay, which showsn an option to save, call, or message that person, that appears after disconnecting a call isn't a part of stock Android, and it's quite handy. Overall, the software experience on the Galaxy Note 5 is very good.
Every year, Samsung used to equip the Galaxy Note series device with a slightly better processor than the Galaxy S device from the same generation, but it did not this time though. When I asked about this to Samsung India's Asim Warsi (Vice President, IT & Mobile) during a round table conference that happened after the launch of the Galaxy Note 5 in India, he explained that the company thinks the Exynos 7420 to be powerful enough to handle any task that a customer would hope from the device. It also come with 4GB of LP-DDR4 RAM and 32/64GB of internal storage space.
The Exynos 7420 is the first mobile processor that's built using Samsung's 14nm FinFET process, which means that it should theoretically use less power while performing similar tasks when compared to processors that are manufactured using 16nm, 20nm or 28nm processes. It features eight CPU cores – 4 x ARM Cortex-A57 and 4 x ARM Cortex-A53 – along with an eight-core ARM Mali-T760MP8 GPU. Samsung has even used its own Shannon 333 modem that supports all the 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE bands that are used in India.
No matter what task I did on the Galaxy Note 5, the phone handled it with ease except when apps were being installed. When apps are being installed in the background, the phone will pause for 2-3 seconds, and then resume its task, but that's nothing to be worried about as all Android devices suffer from this issue. Multitasking, web browsing, and gaming can be smoothly accomplished on this device. I could see signal strength even in the most tricky areas like the stairs to my apartment, for instance, where most phones struggle to connect to the network.
The loudspeaker is not as loud as the HTC One M8's but it's clear and you can notice some amount of bass when the music or ringtones are played back through it. The voice calls were clear most of the times, and when I asked, people were able to hear me clearly and vice versa, except when the network was at fault. The phone did warm up during wired charging, playing heavy games, and while recording 4K videos for more than 5 minutes, but not to a point where it felt uncomfortable in the hands. It did heat up to an uncomfortable level while I was recording a video continuously in hot weather directly under the sun.
In terms of connectivity, the Note 5 comes with a nano-SIM card slot, and supports 2G, 3G, and 4G networks used in India. I was using an Airtel 4G 128k SIM when reviewing this device. Other wireless connectivity standards supported by this smartphone are dual-band Wi-Fi ac/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Miracast (screen mirroring), Wi-Fi Hotspot, Bluetooth v4.1 (with A2DP, HS, LE, and apt-X), A-GPS (with A-GPS, GLONASS, and BeiDou), and NFC.
I could see the download speeds of upto 25Mbps and upload speeds of upto 8Mbps when using Airtel's 4G network around my home. On the other hand, 3G (HSPA+) speeds were around 3.62Mbps for download and 0.83Mbps for uploads. I listen to music through Bluetooth and through Chromecast as well as Chromecast Audio regularly, and I didn't encounter any issue while using these features with the Galaxy Note 5.
For wired data transfer, you can use the bundled microUSB cable witht the microUSB v2.0 port that also supports USB Host and USB OTG connectivity. I used my Corsair Voyager Flash with USB v3.0 standard with this device and it worked perfectly. I use USB OTG on a day-to-day basis to transfer multimedia files from my smartphone to my MacBook Pro Retina, and I am yet to encounter an issue with it. As soon as a USB OTG device is detected, the My Files file manager app opens automatically so that you can transfer files around. There's a 3.5 mm headphone jack that supports inline mic and a remote control.
Many hardcore and long-time Galaxy Note series fans must be heartbroken to see that Samsung has left them with a device that doesn't feature a removable battery. I can understand that it gave them an option of carrying a fully topped-up additional battery and use it when the device runs out of charge. I know that wireless charging doesn't make up for a removable battery, but I have to say that quick charging is a boon. I could charge the Note 5 for half an hour when having my lunch and get back almost 50 percent of the battery power.
The Galaxy Note 5 comes with a non-removable 3,000 mAh battery and it generally lasted me more than 24 hours with a screen-on time of more than 3 hours, especially after the latest software update. Lasting 24 hours with a screen-on time of 3 hours might not seem that great at first, but you should know that I am a heavy smartphone user. I have six emails accounts on sync, actively pushing and pulling emails. I have 110 third-party apps installed apart from eight games that I play sometimes. I use two wearable devices, my LG Watch Urbane and my Misfit Flash, which are always connected to my smartphone. When I used the device without turning on Bluetooth, I could see the screen-on time jump to somewhere around 4 hours and 30 minutes.
I have Airtel's 4G SIM, and I never turn off Wi-Fi even when I am outside my home or office. The batery drained faster while I was using GPS with Google Maps for navigation. I can say that it lasts longer than any flagship smartphone that I've used this year, except the Apple iPhone 6 Plus. Yes, it definitely lasts longer than the LG G4, HTC One M9+, and Samsung's own Galaxy S6 edge+.
To me, the Galaxy Note 5 is the best smartphone of the year, even though I've seen some excellent devices this year including the OnePlus 2, the iPhone 6s Plus, the Huawei Nexus 6P, the Sony Xperia Z5, and the LG G4. This is because the Galaxy Note 5 has the best mix of features, design, performance, and battery life. It has an attractive and well-built device (with some ergonomic issues), the best camera and screen in the industry right now, great performance with Exynos 7420 and 4GB RAM, 4G LTE, good voice call quality, great software features, and a long battery life with insanely fast charging times.
However, that doens't mean that it couldn't have been any better. I certainly have some qualms with the device as my hunt for the perfect smartphone continues. Samsung could have added in a hybrid SIM card slot so that people could use a microSD card slot or a secondary SIM card if they desire. If you don't like the Galax Note 5, the LG G4 is your next best choice. LG G4 provides all these features – two SIM card slots, a microSD card slot, and a removable battery – but it falls short when it comes to battery life, software features, and software design and quality.