What is the Samsung Galaxy Note 5?

The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is the 5.7-inch smartphone successor to the Note 4, arguably one of the standout phones of 2014. So it’s somewhat surprising that Samsung has taken the decision not to bring its new phablet to the UK.

Instead, it’s hoping the S6 Edge Plus, along with the S6 and S6 Edge will fly the flag and battle against the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. But it still seems like a strange decision considering how well received last year’s Note was.

Was it the wrong decision? I’m not so sure. Having lived with the new Note and the Note 4 before it, I can see why Samsung may have decided to leave its latest phablet on the sidelines in the UK, as there are a few design changes that may alienate diehard fans of the series. But, even with these issues the Note 5 remains one of the best phablets on the market.

Watch our Samsung Galaxy Note 5 hands-on video

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Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Design

I didn't think there was a great deal wrong with the Note 4's look, but as is custom with Samsung, it does like to make some improvements where it can. In the case of the Note 5, it's quite a dramatic design overhaul. It's basically a Samsung Galaxy S6 blown up. There's glass on the front and back, the cool silver anodised aluminium metal trim and a rear camera sensor that protrudes even more than it does on the Note 4. It also takes the curved edges on the S6 Edge and Edge Plus and puts them on the back. In my opinion, it makes more sense ergonomically than having them up front and as a result makes it a much more comfortable to hold.

The most noticeable difference when you get it in your hand is that it's not as wide as last year's phone. Samsung were more successful than most at making its big _phone_ easier to use in one hand, and it's more of the same with the Note 5. In fact it's better. The screen bezel has been reduced significantly down the sides of the 5.7-inch screen and it's better-looking _phone_ as a result.

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Samsung has waved goodbye to the textured plastic back and replaced it with a glass panel, similar to that seen on the Galaxy S6. The bad news is the back is no longer removable. That means no micro SD card support or removable battery. Personally, I'm not disheartened by the fact Samsung has taken this option to follow Apple's approach, but I can see why micro SD card support would be beneficial to loyal Note users who don't want to rely on cloud services.

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Note 4 next to the Note 5

The headphone jack has moved to the bottom of the phone alongside the micro USB charging port and single speaker. In its place is the Nano-SIM card slot, which will mean a change for Note 4 users. There's now even more sensors above the screen and both multitasking and back buttons are more prominent alongside a smaller home button with the improved built-in fingerprint sensor. It’s the same one as the S6, so you can tap instead of swipe to unlock your phone. It’ll also support Samsung Pay when it launches outside of the US. IR blaster fans will be disappointed to find out that this is missing in action, so you’lll have to look elsewhere for a backup remote control.

The standby buttons and volume rocker are in an identical place and I've not forgotten about the S Pen. It's still tucked away at the bottom of the phone but you no longer have to dig your finger into the gap behind it to remove it. Now you simply press the top of the stylus in and it'll pop out thanks to the spring loaded mechanism. Apart from a change in colour and finish, it's not a dramatically new experience holding it. It does now have a ball point-style button up top that doesn't have any function apart from making it feel more like a pen. The grippy texture on the Note 4's one is now replaced with a flat light grey surface and there’s just a single button on the side. Samsung still packs a set of additional nibs in the box along with a tool to easily remove them. The nibs let you choose between two pressure sensitivities.

Using it day to day, the Note 5 manages to retain that great big screen in a smaller body that's easier to stretch your fingers across. It's noticeably heavier than the S6 Edge Plus, but less so than the Note 4 (there's a 6g difference). Having a big glass back worries me especially having dropped the S6 and seen the back crack. But I can't question that the Note 5 looks the part and the changes on the whole are welcome ones.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Screen

The Note 5 has the same 5.7-inch screen with Gorilla Glass 4 as its predecessor, which means you get all the benefits of the 1440x2560 QHD resolution display. It also has the same Wacom digitized layer to help sense the pressure when you pop out the S Pen from its little compartment.

The display has the same punchy colours and exceptional black levels as the Note 4's. Get up close though and the slight increase in PPI pixel density pays off. It looks sharper and you can notice it especially on the home screen where app icons look cleaner and clearer.

The Note's Super AMOLED screen is built for watching videos and that's inevitably where the Note 5 excels. You still get those deep blacks and the bump in PPI and brightness helps things feel all that more vivid. Brightness has been cranked up notch, not that things were dull on the Note 4, but it’s a notable improvement.

If there’s one criticism it’s that out of the box screen colours look a little oversaturated. Samsung does still offer screen mode options to turn things down a notch. Opt for the basic mode and it doesn't feel as bad. But I'm nitpicking here.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Software

Samsung's approach to Android has never been universally loved. But it feels like it's finally taking a step in the right direction and has started cutting the amount of bloatware it loads onto smartphones.

With the Note 5, you’re getting Android 5.1.1 Lollipop with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI overlaid on top. With Samsung’s track record of getting new Android updates rolled out, I wouldn’t hold my breath that Android Marshmallow will arrive on the Note 5 before the end of 2015.

As it stands though, the Note 5 follows in the footsteps of Samsung’s other flagships. Take that bloatware situation for instance. Aside from the generally very polished native apps Galaxy Life (Think Xperia Lounge on Sony phones) and the Galaxy App store are the only Samsung apps that make their way onto the Note 5. Generally, the Note 5 does a good job of packing things in folders like tools and Google apps. Microsoft's suite apps including Word, OneDrive and Skype are also organised keeping the app drawer clutter-free.

Outside of the app drawer, you do still have the Flipboard support by swiping all the way right. Samsung clearly can't resist at least having on home screen widget in the attempt to lure you into the Galaxy realms, but it's a bin dumping away. Aside from that, there's the shortcuts to the core S Pen features as well. Again, you can dump that as well. Aside from that, there's not really much new. The app icons have a curvier look and all the same settings and options are largely in tow.

Aside from that, there’s nothing really out of the ordinary. Google Now is still activated from the home button and the notification tray combines the best elements of Samsung’s own TouchWiz UI and Android Lollipop. You still get the multitasking feature that was present on the Note 4 and there’s some modes that simplify the UI. I have to confess I am a big fan of the new background themes as well, especially the Space one. But that’s not a feature that’s unique to the Note 5.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – S Pen software and apps

As for the S Pen, it doesn’t feel like a radically different writing experience than it was on the Note 4. Samsung claims the Wacom-powered S Pen is more accurate and offers improved response but that’s not something I noticed. It’s still built for small note-taking and making annotations, not writing full blown articles or diary entries – largely because there’s not enough room to make that comfortable to do.

There’s some changes in the UI and the features department though that should come as welcome additions for S Pen users. When you pop the S Pen out of its compartment and press down on the S Pen’s solitary button just above the screen, you’ll activate the new Air Command. This is a redesigned menu system, that groups together optimized Note features. These include Action memo, Smart select, Screen write and a slightly redesigned S Note. There’s also a few settings tucked away in the bottom corner that let you add a floating icon that sits permanently on the screen, but I found it a nuisance more than anything.

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Another new feature is the ability to take notes on the screen when it’s turned off. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any luck getting it to work. It has to be activated in the S Pen section in the main phone settings, but despite numerous attempts, it just didn’t happen.

Other useful additions include the ability to write, edit and annotate PDF files. Taking screenshots has improved as well letting you capture the entire page of an email instead of the section currently in view.

While changes are not wholesale, I’m sure S Pen fans will appreciate the changes and the Note 5 remains the phone to use if you want to break away from typing with your fingers.

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Note 5 – Performance

If there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about it’s the Note 5’s overall performance. Samsung employs the same custom-built Exynos 7420 octa-core processor with the new 14nm manufacturing process to improve efficiency. There’s also a 4GB RAM, which is 1GB more than the S6 and the S6 Edge is packing. Bottom line, the Note runs slick, speedy and I didn’t encounter any issues using it.

From swiping through homescreens, launching apps and more intensive tasks like gaming, it’s up there with the best. That extra 1GB of RAM also helps on the multitasking front.

On the graphics front, the Note 5 packs a Mali-T760 MP8 GPU. Running our go-to game Real Racing 3, it handles the graphically demanding title with ease. There’s no lag or framerate issues, just like the rest of the Samsung flagship family.

The benchmark scores back up the impressive performance putting it on par with the S6, S6 Edge and Edge Plus, which you can see below. In the Geekbench 3 multi-core score it's on parity with the S6 Edge Plus (5,014). It also scores an impressive 6,3485 in AnTuTu's Benchmark v5.7.1 test.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Camera

The Note 4 had a great camera and it’s more of the same with the Note 5. Again, it’s modelled on the setup used on the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge Plus with key features like Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and the ability to capture RAW images included. The latter means you can now have more control with editing images without sacrificing detail. There’s an improved 16-megapixel main camera on the back with a new wider f1.9 aperture lens that should in improve low-light shooting and generally capture brighter images. If you want to know how it fares against its predecessor, you can check out our Note 5 vs Note 4 in-depth comparison.

Up front is a 5-megapixel camera sensor with a wide angle selfie option to help you badly mimic that famous Oscar selfie. On the video front, there’s still 4K video restricted to five minutes of recording but you do still of course have the ability to shoot more without restrictions at Full HD 1080p video at 60fps. The on board optical image stabilization will also help reduce the blur and keep things steady.

It remains one of the best smartphone cameras for overall image quality and ease of use. Though be warned, low-light photography is still by no means perfect.

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The camera app is a familiar place and puts a big emphasis on shooting in Auto mode. Though there’s a pretty comprehensive Pro mode, which offers a raft of manual features like white balance, ISO sensitivity and exposure if you really want to tinker around with the settings. It wouldn’t be a Samsung phone if it didn’t come packed with camera modes as well. There’s a Selective Focus, Panorama, Slow Motion, Fast Motion, Virtual Shot and a Video collage mode. So there’s plenty here if you want to be more playful with your images and video.

One of the notable new modes is Live Broadcast to YouTube. Think Periscope but with the ability to shoot in higher resolution and in both landscape and portrait orientation. Yes, this one is for the Vloggers. It works with both front and rear-facing cameras and is very easy to setup, although there’s a little delay initially when the broadcast is being set up.

Overall image quality is solid across the board. In bright, natural light, the Note 5 produces the most rewarding results for both landscape and macro-style images. There’s plenty of colour and vibrancy but at times Samsung can overdo it with the saturation. Samsung’s HDR mode is a saviour in many situations but it can have a tendency to add more sharpening than you need. This can adversally affect the natural feel of images.

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Up close, the Note 5 does a great job of capturing great levels of detail

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It's a similar story from afar where colours are punchy and vibrant but can at times look a little oversaturated

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Indoors with good light, it manages to capture a good blend of natural tones and rich colours

So what about when it gets dark? Image noise doesn’t disappear altogether and you have the same 16-megapixel sensor to play with as the Note 4. The wider aperture does help brighten up images, particularly outdoors with a some light source.

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Under artificial lighting, the Note 5's optical image stabilization comes in handy

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There's still some image noise present, but this image taken at around 10pm does still offer some decent detail

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Again, even with some lighting, you can capture some really great images in low light

For shooting video, the Note 5 is a solid performer as well. Footage is vibrant and colourful with good audio capture. 4K video inevitably requires a 4K monitor or TV to take real advantage of the higher resolution video quality.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Battery Life

The Note 5 has a smaller battery than the Note 4. Now there’s a 3,000mAh battery down from the 3,200mAh on in the Note 4. It’s also enclosed in that glass back giving loyal Note users another reason to shake their collective fists at the Korean company for dropping one of the Note’s key features. Samsung's worked to make up for this via wireless charging and improved turbo charging.

I found the Note 5’s battery performance is very similar to the S6's. It will get you a day and a half on average with general use, which is about the same as the Note 4 and about the same as the iPhone 6S Plus. That’s without tapping into one of the two power saving modes now available on the Note 5. The Ultra Power Saving mode has been moved to the Battery section in the settings menu. A new Power Saving mode takes its place in the Toolbar in the notification tray. It doesn’t offer the same greyscale mode, instead focusing on elements like limiting maximum CPU performance, reducing screen brightness and disabling Vibration feedback.

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There’s more though. An abnormal battery usage feature detects apps that are using an unusual amount of power when the phone is turned off. In my case it was Runkeeper. The gave me a percentage how much battery the battery was consuming and the option to force stop the application.

When you’re watching video, the battery drop-off is not as severe as you’d imagine it would be. I streamed an episode of House of Cards on Netflix with the battery at 100% and the screen brightness at about 75% of the maximum setting. That’s what I consider an acceptable viewing brightness on the Note 5. By the time the episode finished, the battery reading was 90%, which is impressive when you consider there’s a hulking power-sapping QHD screen involved here.

It was a similar story when I took it out running making use of the GPS. As the screenshot from the Battery HD illustrates, I went out running for a couple of hours using the Runkeeper app and Spotify playing music in offline mode and the battery drop off wasn’t severe as I anticipated.

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Battery HD screenshot shows the impact of using GPS for a couple of hours running

It’s a slightly different story for more routine tasks like simply checking in on Twitter or browsing where the drop-off appears more apparent. So what’s the explanation for such an impressive battery performance even with the drop in capacity? I can only think that it has something to do with Samsung’s own custom-built processor. The Korean company now uses a 14nm Exynos processor, down from the 20nm in last year’s models. The changes in design aim to create a more power efficient performance and it clearly helps with more intensive tasks.

When you do run out battery life, you do have a pretty impressive turbo charging mode. This only works with the charger Samsung supplies in the box and will power your phone up noticeably quicker than it does from a standard micro USB charger or wireless charging. When my Note 5 died, after 10 minutes of charge it was back up to 20%. After 25 minutes, it was just below 50%. After just over an hour it was back to 100%. It’s clear the initial stage of the charge is much quicker than the end part. That means it’s the ideal solution when you need a quick charge in the morning.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Call Quality and Speakers

Don’t expect marvels from call quality on the Note 5. Having lived with a Note 4 for a while now, there’s not a massive upsurge in overall performance. It’s loud, clarity is strong but not best in class. I’d still say that Sony and HTC’s flagships continue to shine in this department. I didn’t experience any drop outs during conversations and the other person on the line didn’t have any issues hearing my side of the conversation.

It employs the same secondary microphone setup as its predecessor to help noise cancelling in loud environments and it works as advertised. There’s also an additional volume mode if calls are sounding a little on the quiet side. But that does mean you sacrifice some of the finesse and the detail in the calls.

Unfortunately, it’s a similar story with the speaker. The solitary speaker has moved from the back of the phone to the bottom edge next to the micro USB charging port just as it is on the Galaxy S6. It’s not the worst offender when you’re listening out loud, but it could be so much better. It’s offers about the same volume as the Note 4, but has a similar sound profile. There’s just enough warmth breaking out with enough detail and finesse to sit through a YouTube video or two. If you’re watching a film though, I’d suggest plugging in a pair of headphones.

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On the subject of headphones, Samsung includes a pair of its clearly Apple-inspired in-ears. They have the same white hue but do include two pairs of silicone rubber ear cushions for a comfortable fit. You won’t want to go running with them but they’re not a terrible sounding pair of in-ears. You don’t get exceptional levels of detail and bass response is adequate. But they’re not so muddy sounding that you wouldn’t want to wear them.

Samsung includes a handful of modes to improve sound quality and give you more control of how video and music sounds like through a pair of headphones. The Adapt Sound let’s you create a sound profile that’s better suited to your ears. It uses a series of beeping tests where you need to confirm whether you can hear them or not. This then creates a sound profile. In my case my left ear was apparently used more frequently. I can’t say I really noticed a major difference.

It was a similar story with the UHQ Upscaler mode, which apparently enhances the sound resolution increasing the clarity and detail through wired and wireless Bluetooth headphone listening. I didn't notice a discernible upsurge in sound quality. I did however have more luck with the SoundAlive+ and Tube Amp Pro features that do add a nice touch of warmth and widen the soundstage a little to offer a richer experience. It certainly works better with more expensive headphones than the ones slung into the box with the Note 5.

Should I buy the Note 5?

This is a difficult one. If you live in the UK, then you’re not going to go into a shop and pick one up because Samsung is pushing the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus as the bigger alternative to the S6 and the S6 Edge. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t other means to get hold of one.

If you’re a loyal Note fan and already own the Note 4, then I would personally wait until the next instalment unless you really like the look of the sleeker, S6-inspired design. You will have to live without the microSD card slot and non-removable battery – two key features that made the Note series so desirable. Along with the S Pen of course.

Note 3 users might find more reason to upgrade, particularly in the screen, camera and performance department. The battery performance is vastly improved in comparison to the older Note as well. But again, it really depends on how much you value those core Note features Samsung has decided to ditch.

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So how does it compare in price with Samsung’s other flagships? Well, it’s not as expensive as the Note 4 at launch, which cost £619 SIM-free. A 32GB Note 5 can be picked up online for around £450. To put that into perspective, the Galaxy S6 (32GB) is currently available SIM-free at Carphone Warehouse for £450. The Note 5 is basically a bigger S6 with a larger battery, more RAM and the S Pen. A 32GB Galaxy S6 Edge will cost you £529 SIM-free and the S6 Edge Plus (32GB) is a massive £600.

Its nearest non-Samsung competitors are the LG G4, Sony Xperia Z5 Premium and the iPhone 6S Plus. The two Android phablets are more competitively priced with the Note 5 while the 6S Plus starts at £619 for the 16GB model. While I can’t comment on the Z5 Premium as I’ve had no time to use it, I have lived with the G4 and the 6S Plus, and the Note 5 is definitely an equal if not better big phone.

Verdict

The Note 5 is one of the best phablets on the market, but it’s lost of some its uniqueness.

Thanks to Mobile Fun for providing us with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 used in this review

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