Remember when we used to laugh at phablets and the people using them?
“It’s too big and clumsy”, they used to say. “It’s ridiculous”, said others. Odds are, many of these people are now using phablets themselves, because smartphone sales over the years have shown us that larger phones are in. Heck, even Apple got in on it with the iPhone 6 Plus. And it all started with the Samsung Galaxy Note series.
Much like Neville Longbottom, the Samsung Galaxy Note has turned out to be quite the hero indeed, morphing from a chubby kid nerd into a tall, strapping young man. But is the Note 5 a fab enough phablet to top the big leagues?
Bend it like Back-ham
With it being on shelves mere days after we saw it announced at Samsung Unpacked 2015 in New York, the Note 5 is probably one of the fastest-released flagship products ever. That also explains the copious amount of leaks, where we pretty much knew everything about the phone before the event, but we still like what we saw way back then.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 indeed comes with full metal and glass construction for a seriously slick, premium device that’s very much in line with Samsung’s new design language found in the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge.
Besides being made of glass instead of its predecessor’s faux leather, the Note 5’s rear end is subtly curved at the sides, letting the phone sit very comfortably indeed when held. That also means it feels significantly thinner, lighter, and more expensive than the Note 4 at just 7.6mm thin and 171g.
While the feel of the phone has been improved, so has the possibility of a micro heart attack when the phone slips from your hands. With the prospect of having two glass panels to replace instead of one, that hit to the wallet could be very real. The fact that the rear glass panel is a fingerprint magnet actually works in the phone’s favour in this case, seemingly adding grip.
However, if you were to polish it in a bid to see that gorgeous shiny surface, be prepared for it to feel as slick as it looks. Nothing a quick triple-press of the home button can’t solve though, as that brings up the Note 5’s one-handed mode, eliminating the need for finger gymnastics.
Other decidedly S6-esque features include a rear heart rate sensor and LED flash that have moved to the side of the centre camera module, and the same array of microphone, microUSB port, and speaker grille on the bottom. There’s one notable addition though – an all-important slot in the corner for the S Pen, which we’ll talk more about below.
However, as with the S6 edge+, Samsung has sneakily removed the IR Blaster previously found on the top of the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, so no more universal remote control capability for you.
However, as with the Samsung Galaxy S6, this upgrade in material construction has come at a cost – the Note 5 doesn’t have a microSD slot, and you can no longer remove the new 3000mAh battery.
You will however, have a selection of two large internal memory sizes. Samsung has equipped the Note 5 with a starting memory size of 32GB, with a larger 64GB option. The fact that they’ve done away with the 128GB version won’t sit well with power users, but the free 100GB of Microsoft OneDrive Cloud storage should soften the blow.
Everything comes down to market demand, and the fact that Samsung has made all these changes probably reflects the fact that people just aren’t all that into these features or options. Think about it: if there’s really money to be made here, you can bet they’d want it.
On the battery front, Samsung’s additions might mean you won’t miss being able to swap the battery to a fresh spare either. The Note 5 comes with Ultra Fast Charging, with built-in support for Fast Wireless Charging via a separate pad.
Both options are indeed faster than those found on the Galaxy S6 – wired charging takes as little as 90 minutes for a full charge, and going wireless is twice as fast than a regular wireless pad. After 12 hours of real extensive usage, the Note 5 still had about 10% of battery left.
If we’d taken the many chances to re-juice instead of skipping them for the purposes of this test, there’s probably no real risk of running dry at all.
While it shares the same resolution as the Galaxy S6, S6 edge, and LG G4 with a QHD (2K) display, the Note 5’s display is not quite as crisp. Due to its larger 5.7in size, it comes in with a pixel density of just 518ppi, which falls short of the Galaxy S6’s mammoth 577ppi and LG G4’s 538ppi. Not that you’d be able to tell without using a loupe.
There’s no cause for complaint either way, because it’s still a scorcher in terms of screen quality. Everything from text to graphics are sharp enough to shave with, with the Super AMOLED display delivering outstanding colour, vibrancy, and contrast, accompanied nicely by blacks that are deeper than your ex’s heart.
The screen does tend to oversaturate and seemingly blow out in bright sunlight, but it’s actually intentional on the part of Samsung to aid visibility in outdoor conditions, which it does admirably.
The larger screen is also great when paired with Samsung’s Multi-Window function, which lets you run two apps side-by-side for more effective multi-tasking. Fine control on the now-halved screen space is then made possible by the S Pen, proving how well everything works together on the device.
Another welcome addition on the Note 5 is the same touch-based fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S6. We’re getting pretty tired of writing about all these features that have made the transition from Samsung’s smaller flagship, but there’s no getting round it seeing as it’s true.
Simply resting your finger on the home button unlocks the phone in almost no time at all, with functionality extending to other applications such as the new and improved Samsung Pay (which we won't get here). No more awkward swiping.
Sitting in the corner, encased in aluminium, is the new S Pen, which sadly does not come with a magnetic self-ejecting feature as speculated. Instead, you press the exposed end, which pops the stylus out a little so you can manually pull it free. More handy than plain sliding it out, but decidedly not as cool as it could have been.
The Note 5’s S Pen is now more pressure sensitive, a welcome improvement over its predecessor. Lines become thicker as you press harder while drawing, which really does make doodling a lot easier. Latency has also been shortened, leading to handwriting that’s a lot smoother and more natural. Given how smoothly the S Pen glides across the screen, it actually even feels better than writing on paper.
Pulling out the S Pen itself activates features too. When unlocked, the phone automatically brings you to the new enhanced Air Command menu, with shortcuts to bring you straight into a variety of aps. More handily, even when the screen is off, you can start writing on the screen right away on the black screen, which is great for times you have to take quick notes and don’t want to waste time unlocking.
Other added functionality includes being able to write directly on PDFs, and a Scroll Capture feature that lets you screenshot long web pages up to 22 screens long. That’s worth at least a +2 to work productivity in our role-playing books.
I found myself using the S Pen quite a bit during everyday use, which might just be a case of me trying to explore its usage more thoroughly, but I can definitely say that it’s more ergonomic, even if it does require two hands at all times.
Plus, if you need to pick out a paragraph from a wall of text, there’s no more awkward poking around with the cursor, and waiting for that magnifying glass to pop up. The S Pen will have you zeroing in on what you need in no time.
If you think about it, it’s better to have an S Pen and not need it, rather than encounter a situation where it’d be handy but not have it. Yes, we’d totally bring a lightsaber into a tree-cave infested with the Dark Side of the Force no matter what you say, Yoda.
Here’s a funny story: I was probably the first person in the world to find out that inserting the S Pen backwards into it’s slot can break a lot of the Note 5’s functionality, achieving this dubious feat by pure accident days before the international story broke. I just didn’t know it at the time, dismissing it as just a faulty unit. In any case, I can personally attest that it’s true.
However, now that you’re aware of it, it’s safe to say you’ll never make the same mistake.
With Samsung’s very own 14nm 64-bit Exynos Octa Core processor and a massive 4GB of RAM under the hood powering Android Lollipop 5.1.1, the Note 5 is now the world’s most powerful smartphone on paper.
Operating the Note 5 was one of the smoothest experiences we’ve ever had on a smartphone, with creamy performance all-round. There are no issues with lag whatsoever; everything is silky smooth, even when switching between resource-intensive apps. You can pull up an app from ages ago and it’s almost instant in recalling what it was doing.
This could also be due to the very much-pared down Samsung Touchwiz user interface. There’s significantly less bloatware, giving way to a crisp user experience not unlike stock Android 5.1.
They’re not all that reliable, but benchmark tests on the Note 5 blow all other phones out of the water. Except for the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge of course, which achieved similar results as they all share much of the same internal hardware, with the exception of the additional 1GB of RAM on the Note 5.
In all our hours of intensive usage, the Note 5 never became more than slightly warm either, which more than justifies Samsung’s decision to use its own processor instead of a Qualcomm, which has encountered heat issues of late.
Due to the fact the Galaxy S6’s camera taking our crown as the best smartphone camera in the world – both in our own comparison and reader-voted blind test – the Note 5 had a lot to live up to in the imaging department.
We’re glad to say, from what we’ve seen, Samsung has delivered. You can’t go wrong if you’re sporting the same f1.9 16MP rear camera with OIS and 5MP selfie snapper, after all.
The app itself is mostly unchanged, with one notable exception. The Note 5’s camera is able to shoot in RAW in Pro Mode right off the bat, which is great for those looking to take their images to the next level with post-processing. I never had cause to use it though. Previously, you had to use a third-party app, even though Android Lollipop supports RAW shooting. This also marks the first time a Samsung phone is able to shoot in this format.
Photos are crisp and clear in almost all situations, and that’s with me shooting pretty much everything in Auto Mode. The OIS and Auto HDR also help to ensure everything’s perfectly balanced, although the Note 5 does tend to over-compensate in low-light situations. In fact, it’s one of the few cameras where pulling down the exposure slider at night actually provides better results.
The amount of detail is also stunning, which can be seen in one shot in particular where I photographed a tiny spider on the windshield of my car. The spider itself is probably under 5mm in size, but I was still able to snap it without the aid of an added macro lens or going into a different mode. Zooming in more than a 100% crop, you can even see the spider’s individual eyes, which is frankly quite impressive.
On the video front, the Note 5 can go all the way up to UHD (3840 x 2160), providing you with native 4K content that you can actually use. Samsung’s also included a Video Collage mode where you can have four videos in one playing at the same time, and an option for you to broadcast live from the camera directly to YouTube.
You won’t have much cause to use either of these functions, but it’ll at least provide you with the ability to do so if a situation ever crops up, I suppose.
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Verdict
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 delivers on almost every front: looks, feel, quality, features, and performance. Sure, it has its shortcomings, but they’re not deal breakers, and are more than made up for by how well everything comes together in one stunning package.
The fact that its closest competitor is probably the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+ says a lot, with both delivering screens and cameras that are likely to stun you into spending.
With prices starting from S$1088 for the 32GB Note 5, it’s also the most expensive Android option around. It’s still less than the iPhone 6 Plus’ 16GB S$1148 option though, but faced with the likes of the upcoming OnePlus Two, it could all come down to price in the eyes of the consumer in the end.