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Samsung Galaxy Note5 review: the best Android smartphone you can buy, with a couple of caveats

|October 23 2015 |Android Phones, Samsung, Reviews, 4G, 4G LTE

“Samsung’s latest offering in its Note range rightfully carries over the title of king of phablets from its predecessor”

Samsung’s latest flagship, the Galaxy Note5 (unboxing | first impressions) looks like the best smartphone your money can buy, at least on paper, but is that all there’s to it? For one, it now faces competition from its fierce rival Apple, which has joined the bigger-is-better club just last year with the iPhone 6 Plus (review) and has now revealed its successor in the form of the iPhone 6s Plus (first impressions). The Galaxy Note5 also doesn’t bring significant upgrades to the table when compared to its predecessor, the Note 4 (review | FAQs), especially when you consider the trade-offs like the sealed battery and fixed storage.

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So, is the Samsung Galaxy Note5 really worth your money? And should you upgrade if you already own a Galaxy Note 4? Let's find out the answers to all these questions in our review.

Specs at a glance

  • Measures 153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6mm
  • Weighs 171g
  • 5.7-inch display, with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels
  • Exynos 7420 octa-core processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32 / 64GB storage
  • 16-megapixel primary camera with LED flash
  • 5MP secondary camera
  • 3,000mAh battery
  • Android 5.1 Lollipop with TouchWiz customisation

Design: the Galaxy S6, enlarged

The Korean brand isn’t known for its design ingenuity, and hence its Note series mostly follows the design language siblings in the Galaxy S series. The original Note was inspired by the Galaxy S2 released early that year and the same is true for the Galaxy Note 2, which was simply a larger version of the S3. That’s not to say that Samsung hasn’t tried to innovate, since to lend premiumness to the Galaxy Note 3, it added faux leather to the back panel of the phablet, and thus deviated from the design ethos of company’s flagship in 2013, the Galaxy S4. Last year too, the Note 4 tried to look premium with a metallic rim running along its edges, instead of the plastic-bodied Galaxy S5 (review | FAQs).

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However, the Chaebol shook things up in terms of its design ideology earlier this year with the Galaxy S6 duo (first impressions), and the same has been carried over to the Galaxy Note5. Simply put, the phablet is an enlarged version of the S6, complete with a curved glass rear and metallic edges. Thanks to the use of 7000 series aluminium for the construction of the device, it’s quite robust.

What’s interesting though is that the Galaxy Note5 features the same display panel of 5.7-inches as its predecessor, yet to Samsung’s credit, the phone is thinner (7.6mm) and slightly smaller in comparison. It also is lighter than the Note 4 and tips the scales at 171g. Of course, one-hand usage isn’t an easy task considering its dimensions, but it’s not entirely impossible.

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Up front, you’d find the display panel surrounded by extremely narrow bezels on the sides, with the space above being occupied by an earpiece, a front-facing shooter, a couple of sensors and a notification LED along with Samsung branding. Below the screen, the phablet sports a physical home key that also doubles up as a fingerprint scanner, sandwiched between two capacitive keys. Following Android guidelines, the first button lets you access recently-opened apps and the last one allows you to return to the previous screen.

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Metal isn’t  a choice of material for just the edges on the phone, but for the buttons too. The power toggle is available on the right, while the distinct volume keys are placed on the left spine. The ejectable SIM card tray can be found on the top along with a noise-cancellation microphone. The bottom is quite busy with a 3.5mm audio interface, a micro-USB port, precision-grilled speaker holes and last but not the least, Note5’s mainstay, the slot that holds the S Pen. Samsung has added smarts to its stylus as well, since instead of pulling it out, which you needed to do with the previous Notes, now it has a spring-loaded ejection mechanism... akin to a conventional ballpoint pen.

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Flip to the back of the Samsung Galaxy Note5, and you’d be greeted by a shiny reflective glass panel. Sadly due to its intrinsic properties, the glass rear is extremely slippery once your hands are sweaty. The unit we received for review came in titanium grey, and it looked quite pleasing, though you can also opt for gold or white editions. The rear holds a primary camera sensor that juts out from the body and is accompanied by an LED flash module along with an heart-rate monitor and SpO2 sensor. Similar to the Galaxy S6 edge (review | FAQs), the glassy panel reflects the light falling upon its surface, which adds to its charm, even though the glass acts as a fingerprint magnet.

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While we have praised Samsung’s new design ethos till now, power users might not appreciate some of the changes. Due to the use of glass and metal, the new flagships from the Korean giant sport a unibody construction, and the Note5 is no different. This means that a couple of aspects widely considered as the biggest advantages of the Note series has gone – expandable storage and the removable battery.

Display: a larger-than-life experience

For a long time, the idea of a next-gen smartphone meant that the size of the display panel would increase in comparison to its previous iteration. However, now it seems that most device ranges have hit a plateau and screen sizes can’t be extended further to ensure ease of handling. The same is the case with Samsung’s Galaxy Note series, as the company has kept the screen size the same for last three generations. Similar to the Galaxy Note 4 and Note 3, the latest phablet sports a 5.7-inch display panel. The Super AMOLED panel packs a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, resulting in a dense pixel density of 518ppi.

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Colours really pop out on the screen and text appears to be extremely sharp. Viewing multimedia content or reading eBooks is a delightful experience on the screen, which is certainly among the best in the market. The brightness levels are also impressive and you can easily use the phone under direct sunlight. In case you don’t like the visuals, then you can change the screen mode to AMOLED cinema, photo or even basic instead of the default adaptive option. As the name suggests, the modes can also be turned on when you’re watching a video or viewing a lot of images, since they are optimised for the same. The phone also has a feature referred to as Smart Stay, that keeps the screen on till the time the front camera detects your face.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 screenshot (74) Samsung Galaxy Note5 screenshot (75)

Covering the display panel is a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 4, which protects it against scuffs and minor knocks.  

Software: drooling over the TouchWiz-flavoured Lollipop

We’re loving the new Samsung, as it has reworked on a lot of things – design obviously grabs the attention first, but another important aspect is software. Unlike previously, where its customisation on top of Android was infamous for feature spam, the interface now gels well with the Android guidelines and doesn’t offer too much bloatware. We have already appreciated this change with the brand’s devices this year, be it the mid-range Galaxy A5 (review), the flagship S6 edge or the affordable Galaxy J5 (review).

Samsung Galaxy Note5 screenshot (3) Samsung Galaxy Note5 screenshot (4)

The Samsung Galaxy Note5 offers the same combination in terms of the user interface – Android 5.1 Lollipop overlaid with TouchWiz. Design-wise, the interface keeps up with the Material Design aspects largely, though there are some subtle changes in the lock screen and the notification panel. There’s also a dedicated screen to bring news from the chosen categories in a visual manner dubbed Briefing, powered by popular news-reading app Flipboard. With the recent devices, Samsung has also started offering users the ability to change the look of the device with the Themes app.

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To exploit the full potential of the large screen at your disposal, Samsung offers a split-screen view, with which you can open two apps simultaneously. The best part is that most apps can be opened in this view. To open apps in this format, you can access the recently-opened apps and click on the three-row button. You can also long-press the overview button from any app to open another app in the split screen. Not only can you resize the app windows and drag and drop content between compatible apps, but also open a pop-up view, which is also quite useful.

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The device also offers a one-hand mode, enabled by triple-pressing the home button. It shrinks down the screen and docks to either left or right sides so that you can easily use the handset with a single hand. 

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Being a premium offering from Samsung, the Note5 also comes with Galaxy Gifts, which include limited-time premium subscriptions to apps such as Scibd, The Economist, and Kindle for Samsung among others.

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We’ve already taken a comprehensive look at the new interface changes quite a few times, and hence we won’t go into the details again, but needless to say that the UI is responsive and offers useful features.

S Pen: pens its way to glory

The Galaxy Note series gets its name for two reasons – the large screen, and the other is its cornerstone, the S Pen. The capacitive stylus unlocks immense potential, and adds a lot to the productivity quotient. Samsung has tried to upgrade the S Pen with each avatar of the Galaxy Note, but this iteration brings the biggest improvements, both physically and in terms of software.

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With the Galaxy Note5, instead of pulling out the S Pen, you simply need to push it and it’ll be ejected instantly thanks to the new spring-loaded mechanism. Otherwise, the S Pen is largely similar to the previous versions and features a polycarbonate body.

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The phablet senses when the stylus is detached, and even if the phone is locked, you can use the S Pen to quickly jot down anything. It’s a new feature, and the one that would be extremely useful as you can use the device as a notepad without unlocking the phone and opening a particular note-taking app. Of course, if the phone is awake and you remove the S Pen, you’ll be able to access a semi-circular menu of apps that can be used with the stylus. Dubbed as Air Command, it allows you to access Action memo, Smart select, and Screen write. The menu is similar to the one on the Note 4, but this time, you can also add up to three of your favourite apps for accessing them directly.

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The Action memo option lets you quickly write anything and link to any action, which is a great option for jotting someone’s contact number or email address. With Smart select, you can select a part of the screen, while Screen write gives you the option to annotate on the screenshot of the screen you’re in.

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Other features remain the same with the new S Pen, such as the ability to hover with the stylus in certain apps to get a peek. For example, you can read messages, view images, or preview a link, without even opening them. One nifty addition though, is the write on PDF app, which allows you to annotate PDF documents.

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Sadly, with the new design of the phone and spring-loaded mechanism of the S Pen, there’s a high chance of damaging the stylus. Infamous as the SPenGate, the issue arises if you insert it into the handset the wrong way. If you do so, the stylus can stuck inside and removing it forcibly can affect its functioning. Some users have reported that by doing so, the S Pen still works with the Samsung Galaxy Note5, but the phablet doesn’t detect the ejection of the stylus to bring up the Air Command menu automatically, and similarly you won’t be able to write on it in case it’s asleep.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 SPen gate

It’s odd to see such a premium device affected by such a design flaw, and infuriating the matters further is the company’s response to the issue – users should read the manual carefully. Hence, make sure you don’t try this, even for the sake of fun.

Camera: consistent quality, stunning detail

Unveiled early this year, the Samsung Galaxy S6 duo delivered impressive results when it came to the camera quality, so much so that we said that they raised the bar for smartphone shooting. The Samsung Galaxy Note5 also packs the same camera combination, and does manages to offer superb images. At the back, it has a 16-megapixel shooter with a wide aperture of f/1.9, which is supplemented by a dual-LED flash. For selfies, it’s equipped with a 5MP camera.

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The camera app is loaded to the brim when it comes to the modes and options on offer. If the phone is held vertically, then at the bottom, you get options to capture the photo or record a video, switch to the front-facing camera, preview images clicked and choose between various modes. These modes range from Pro (ability to control ISO and exposure levels) to Selective focus, from Live broadcast to fast motion. The interface also allows you to download more modes such as Sports shot, Dual camera, etc. Up top, you get the ability to enable various effects such as Retro, Film, and Delicious among many more along with the ability to download several others. You can also toggle HDR capabilities, LED flash and set the self timer. With the picture size option, you can change the aspect ratio and the megapixel resolution of the images. Lastly, camera settings allow you to change the video size, enable tracking focus, enable voice commands, etc. You can also open the camera app from anywhere, even when the device is in sleep state, by double-pressing the home button.

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When it comes to the image quality, simply put, the Galaxy Note5 captures stunning detail irrespective of the situation. It consistently offered great images, be it for landscape images or close-up shots. Even in low-light environments, it was able to do a decent job thanks to its wide aperture which can accept more light. It also did a first-rate job in reproducing natural colours. If you want more details about the camera performance of the Samsung Galaxy Note5, then you can read our camera eview, but here’s a peek at the camera quality of the smartphone with a few sample images.

Samsung Galaxy Note5 camera samples - long shot Samsung Galaxy Note5 camera samples (1) Samsung Galaxy Note5 camera test - close up

Not just the images, the Galaxy Note 5’s primary camera also amazed us with its video quality. The videos had good amount of detail and colours. You can also choose various video sizes going from full HD and all the way to 4K (limited to 5 minutes of recording). There’s also a slow-mo mode that can record videos in 1080p resolution at 60fps. One of the biggest highlights of the video capabilities of the device is that you can broadcast video live via YouTube. Setting it up is an extremely easy and seamless process.

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Selfies too, offer amazing results that score high on detail and colour vibrancy. In terms of video, you can record full HD videos with the front shooter.

Overall, the Samsung Galaxy Note5 is among the best in the business when it comes to the photography experience.

Performance: packs a mean punch

With the Galaxy S6 duo, Samsung took a huge bet to opt for its in-house Exynos chipset, instead of the popular Snapdragon processors. Its bet surely paid off considering that the handsets ranked among the best-performing devices, and add to it the fact that the Qualcomm’s top-tier chip was infamous for heating issues. Hence, it’s not a surprise to see that the Galaxy Note5 continues with the same processor. the Exynos 7420, ticking under its hood. The SoC is made up of two quad-core chipsets running at 2.1GHz and 1.5GHz respectively. For rendering graphics, the processor comes with Mali-T760 GPU. While the processing unit remains the same, upping the productivity and multitasking quotient in the Note5 is its 4GB of RAM, instead of 3 gigs in the Galaxy S6 twins.

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The meaty combination delivers a smooth experience, be it while navigating between different screens or opening multiple apps together. High-end games were no problem either, as it delivered impressive graphics without breaking into sweat with titles like Unkilled. However, everything wasn’t a rosy affair as there were times when device went unresponsive for a few seconds. Although this could be attributed to the software rather than the hardware.

As with most devices these days, the Galaxy Note5 is unable to dissipate heat efficiently and becomes hot when stressed for long durations. This is noticeable even more due to the fact that glass is a good conductor of heat. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often and more importantly, performance isn’t affected.

While you can’t extend the storage of the Samsung Galaxy Note5, its 32GB storage should be able to suffice for most users, as they get about 23.3GB for their personal use. If not, then the mobile can also be purchased in a 64GB edition. There’s also support for USB OTG, which allows you to plug in your flash drives.

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In the connectivity department, the phone is fully loaded with support for 4G connectivity, dual-band Wi-Fi (along with supporting the latest ac standard), Bluetooth, NFC and GPS. There’s also a useful option called Download Booster, which allows you to use both the cellular data and Wi-Fi at the same time to download files larger than 30MB quickly. While call quality was fine in most cases, what’s strange is that the device showed low signal strength even in the areas with strong signal reception.

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Both the heart-rate monitor and SpO2 sensor work really well, in conjunction with the S Health app. The sensors can also help you measure your stress levels.

Battery: the Achilles’ Heel

In almost all the aspects, the Galaxy Note5 has been upgraded or features the same specs as its predecessor. However, battery capacity is a glaring exception, since the newer model features a lower capacity 3,000mAh battery, instead of a 3,220mAh unit found in the predecessor. The non-removable battery only manages to last a day with moderate usage. Start battery-draining tasks such as heavy games, and the battery percentage drops quite fast.

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What’s surprising however, is that our battery drain test didn’t match our real-life usage. The device was able to go on for more than 12 hours while playing an HD video on loop.

You also get a variety of battery-saving modes, with the most popular being the ultra power saving mode. The feature made its way to Samsung offerings with the Galaxy S5, and is a nifty option to extend the battery life in a crunch, as it shuts down all the non-essential functionalities barring calling and messaging.

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Another respite for the battery is support for fast charging, which allows the Galaxy Note5 to charge in a jiffy. Further, not just the bundled adapter, the handset also supports fast charging with wireless chargers (which need to be purchased separately).

Verdict

Carrying the sticker price of Rs 53,900, the Samsung Galaxy Note5 sits in the high-end spectrum of the smartphone market. However, it’s not the lone warrior in this segment, as it’s competing against its very own siblings, Apple’s offerings along with a few other options.

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Instead of just one flagship phablet, Samsung adopted a two-pronged strategy with the Note 4 last year (remember the Note Edge?), and the Korean bellwether is continuing with the same strategy this year as well. Along with the Galaxy Note5, you can also take a look at the Galaxy S6 edge+ (first impressions) which flaunts a display panel that cascades to both its left and right edges. However, the latter is slightly pricier and we believe that the S Pen in the Note5 adds more utility rather than the brag quotient offered by the dual-curved screen of the S6 edge+. If budget is a constraint, then the Note 4, which is now available for around Rs 35,000, also seems a compelling option considering it offers the same display, powerful hardware (though not as loaded as the Note5), superb snappers and not to mention, better battery life. The Note 4’s S Pen also offers similar set of features, and we believe that other functionality can be rolled out to the phone via software update.

If you’re simply looking for a top-notch phablet, then across the bridge you’ll find a couple of offerings from the Cupertino giant. While last year’s iPhone 6 Plus (review) is available around the same price point as the Note5, the latest iPhone 6s Plus isn’t for the faint-hearted as it will set you back by Rs 72,000, that too for the base model of 16GB. The space offered by the default model is far too low, and we don’t think that Apple is exploiting the true potential of the large screen. The Note series not only offers the advantages of the S Pen, but also comes with useful features such as split screen.

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Other alternatives include LG’s latest flagship, the G4 (first impressions | camera review) and the Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P (first impressions). While the former falls behind when it comes to the battery life and poorly-optimised software, the latter makes a strong case for itself. It has a premium unibody design, comes with top-tier specifications and the biggest draw is its pure and latest iteration of Android, which will always be on the front line for future updates as well. The phone is also available at a more affordable price tag of Rs 39,990.

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The S Pen remains the standout feature of the Galaxy Note5, and if you don’t see yourself using it, then we think you can look for other options. For some, the non-expandable storage might be a deal breaker, but otherwise, the phablet scores high on all counts, except for the battery life. So if you can stomach the price, the Note5 is a solid blend of stylish, flaunt-worthy design, smooth performance, useful hardware and software features, capable snappers, and above all, the S Pen that can really take productivity and convenience to a new level.

Price: Rs 53,900

Rating: 8 / 10

Pros

  • Premium looks
  • Great display
  • Improved S Pen capabilities
  • Impressive snappers
  • Loaded innards

Cons

  • Slippery design
  • Non-expandable storage
  • Average battery life

Photos by Raj Rout



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