Release Date: 8/21/2015
MSRP: $749.99 (T-Mobile version reviewed)
Colors: Sapphire Black, Pearl White
The Good: Beautiful new face lift, smoothest running phone I have ever used, one of the best phone cameras around, fantastic S-Pen experience, gorgeous screen
The Bad: Closed in battery means not the greatest battery life, no expandable memory — the biggest hit the phone is taking, S-Pen software could have used more updates
Here we are, fifth and sixth generation of long running phones and showing just how far technology has come. Phones are probably some of the most advanced pieces of technology on the planet and each generation shows it. The Samsung Galaxy Note series has been one of the most popular smartphones ever created. The S Pen — its staple feature — and the large gorgeous screens are what people come to the Note series for. The Note 5 doesn’t disappoint, and it improves immensely on the Note 4 in many ways. What exactly has a year done for the Note series? From the outside it may not seem like much, but the Note 5 proves that the little things matter the most for a better long term experience.
The Note 5 may look nearly the same from the front. The iconic physical home button, the Samsung logo at the top, the round edges, and the chrome speaker a the top all look familiar. The silhouette of the Note series has never changed; one good look at the phone and you know what it is. However, turn the phone around and on its side and you will notice a stark difference. No longer does the phone look like cheap plastic and aluminum. The Note 5 now has a glass back with rounded edges and brushed aluminum sides. This makes it one of the sleekest smartphones to ever be created. The top comes out a little and is a tad thicker than the rest of the body. This is so the phone fits better in your hand and looks prettier. The Note 5 is a looker, with the Sapphire Black looking almost navy blue in certain light and is quite eye catching.
The bottom of the Note 5 is also a new change. The speaker is now located next to the S-Pen (with improved quality) and the S Pen is now completely surrounded by the inside of the phone and clicks out. The power button is smaller and has a more satisfying click to it; same goes for the volume buttons. For the first time the volume buttons are no longer a rocker. Each button is the size of the power button and are separated. This allows you to easily feel which button you are on. It helps the phone feel less cheap with smaller more subtle buttons that have a better clicking feeling to them. The Note 5’s screen is also made of Gorilla Glass 4 so it feels sleeker than ever and is less prone to having fingerprints stick to it which is a first for any smartphone I have used.
Fast Just Got Faster
The Note 4 was an extremely fast phone; the fastest for its generation. The Note 5 is now one of the first octa core smartphones. What does this mean? Two sets of four cores running at two different speed for various multi-tasking purposes. While the Note 4 was a quad-core running at 2.7 GHz, the Note 5 uses Samsung’s own Exynos chipset rather than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipset. The 7420 set has a 2.1 GHz quad-core set running alongside a 1.5 GHz quad-core set. The Exynos chipset is also more battery efficient than the Snapdragon chipsets Samsung has been using for the longest time.
The Note 5 is also the first smartphone to have a whopping 4GB of RAM. This is one of the phone’s secret weapons as it allows a massive amount of apps to stay loaded into the RAM for ultra fast speeds. The RAM is also LPDDR4 which is the fastest available right now running at 1600 MHz. Want to put this into perspective? The iPhone 6 Plus has only 1GB of RAM. The Note 5 also switches over from Adreno GPUs to Mali GPUs. The Mali T760 MP8 performs much faster than the Adreno 430 that was in the Note 4. With double the frame rate during benchmark tests and higher clock speeds, the Note 5 is the best choice for gamers who want to run the latest and greatest.
One of the biggest decisions for phone buyers is the camera. Don’t worry. The Note 5 has one of the best cameras on the market. While it’s still 16MP it has better technology inside to allow more control and speed. With an exposure of f/1.9, 4K video at 30FPS, 1080p video at 60FPS, and 720p video at 120FPS, video stabilization, auto HDR, manual focus, tracking focus, and various other features, the Note 5 becomes an extremely powerful camera. The Note 5 is also one of the first phones to save in RAW format for complete manual editing in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. The Note 5 also has various other features like video collages and faster editing thanks to the more powerful hardware. It can’t be said how beautiful the pictures turn out. Even low light images are pretty impressive for a phone camera.
What about installing apps, downloading, and writing to the internal memory? The Note 5 uses UFS 2.0 flash memory so read/write speeds are nearly double that of the Note 4. Games load faster, apps install quicker, and everything is just lightning quick. This is honestly the fastest phone I have ever used. Never have I used a phone before where everything just happens instantly or near instant. No slowdown, no loading, no freezing. From swiping up on the camera app from the lock screen to taking a photo it took all of two seconds. Yes, just two.
Just like PCs, high end phones are bench marked for their performance from CPU and GPU load to physics tests. 3DMark has an extensive bench marking software just for these reasons and allow you to compare your phone to pretty much every device in existence. The Note 5 stands as the most powerful phone available with only tablets beating it (which is expected). Below are the various benchmarks including the brand new Open ES 3.1 and 3.0 graphics tests which are the most demanding in the world (for phones). Remember, the Slingshot tests are meant to be too powerful for phones to run at a high frame rate. FutureMark benchmarks are designed to be too much for devices to handle to truly push them to their limits.
Open ES 3.1 Slingshot
The Slingshot 3.1 benchmark shows that the Galaxy Note 5 is one of the most powerful devices available with only four tablets outperforming it (The Nvidia Shield TV is at the top of the list). This is extremely impressive and shows that the Note 5 is ready for the latest and greatest in gaming.
The Slingshot 3.1 test includes three: Test 1 uses particles and post-processing effects that are very GPU heavy. Test 2 consists of volumetric illumination, and then Test 3 is a physics test for the CPU. All of this is rendered in 1440p which is higher than your standard 1080p; quite impressive. The iPhone 6 Plus in comparison is about 70 down the list with a score below 1,000.
IceStorm Unlimited shows the Note 5 is extremely powerful when it comes to Open ES 2.0 rendering at 720p. IceStorm is a benchmark that can give a more even and balanced test over nearly every device that has been released in the past 3 years. The Note 5 actually outperforms some tablets and laptops which is extremely impressive. The IceStorm Unlimited test consists of three: Test 1 stresses the GPU with vertices while Test 2 uses a lot of pixels on screen. Test 3 is a physics test to stress the CPU. The iPhone 6 Plus about 100 down the list with a score of around 17,000.
PCMark is actually a benchmark for everyday use of the phone from video streaming, read/write access speed, web browsing, photo editing, and typing. This benchmark shows that the Galaxy Note 5 outperforms tablets and laptops which is once again very impressive. The buttery smooth operation of the Note 5 just can’t be stressed enough. This is the fastest and smoothest phone I have ever used, and that’s not just because the phone is new. The PCMark app is not available for the iPhone so a comparison can’t be done.
Samsung continues to improve on the iconic S-Pen that the Note series is famous for. How could they improve on the excellent Note 4 S-Pen? Well, they found a way, by making the S-Pen more sturdy using thicker plastic making it less like a toothpick. The button is much smaller, but more responsive, and the pen also has a new metallic look. Ideally the best thing would be to make it out of metal, but maybe another time. For now we have a fantastic new pen that is more responsive and more sensitive than ever before. The bottom of the pen clicks in (think a clicky pen) so it lays flush with the phone.
What’s a stylus without good software? The S-Pen software suite has actually been improved in many ways I didn’t think would happen. My favorite new feature is the lock screen write. Just eject the pen and start writing on the black screen with white ink. You can save your note or delete to go straight to the standard lock screen. This is great for taking quick notes when launching the suite isn’t an option.
Outside of the lock screen writing is a more advanced and much faster suite of options. The usual four apps are back that we are familiar with, but with new features. The most notable is the scroll capture in the screen capture app. This allows you to save large sections of texts or an entire webpage. However, a huge feature has been removed and I don’t understand why. The smart select does not detect what kind of content you are selecting anymore and rather just lets you save the content as only an image. Why this was taken out is unknown, but it’s a slight setback that may annoy some people.
Air Command now lets you add two of your own shortcuts to the list of four which is a nice touch. The air command icon is also always on screen so you actually don’t always have to click the pen button. Thanks to the buttery smooth operation speeds everything comes up instantly with no lag, and my S-Pen experience has never been better. I would have liked to see more features or a new Air Command app, but don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.
A Bigger Bite of Lollipop
Android 5.0 Lollipop has been around for a while but 5.01 broke the Note 4. The Note 5 uses 5.1.1 and and I couldn’t be happier. Lollipop is just a fantastically streamlined OS and is Google’s best yet. Samsung skin on top of Lollipop is actually better as well with their awful TouchWiz home launcher being redone and improved. Samsung now offers themes which changes everything on the phone and can be quite fun. Even if you use a third party home launcher, anything system wise will be changed via the theme. This is a nice step up and makes it that much easier to customize your phone which has always been a pain up until now.
One of my favorite additions in Lollipop were the lock screen notifications. No longer do you have to unlock your phone or swipe your drawer down. Just swipe away on the lock screen or double tap to open the notification in the app. The same goes for when you are using your phone; you now get a nice pop up at the top of your screen instead of the entire notification scrolling in the home bar at the top. Outside of this Samsung toned down the various hand waving gestures you can do. They are now no longer the front running features like when the Galaxy S4 was released. Using your hand to hang up, put someone on hold, and various other features using the Smart Stay are now on the back burner and that’s a good thing. These features no longer drain your battery, but if you don’t mind press one extra button you can just turn them off.
One major addition to the Note series that is built in is the Samsung SideSync app. This allows you to mirror your phone on your computer and easily transfer files back and forth. I used it a lot on my Note 4 and it works great with the Note 5. Samsung is one of the first phone makers who has a good working proprietary software to use your phone on your computer.
Thanks to the faster running software, tap to pay has never been easier. I could never get it to really work on the Note 4 due to the Lollipop update slowing the phone down. However, Samsung Pay and Google Wallet are both available to use for tap to pay. It’s never been easier, just link your bank accounts or cards, set a pin, tap your phone to the card reader, and you’re done. Naysayers and paranoid users aside, tap to pay is the future of electronic payments. However, I still suggest carrying your cards with you in case it some how doesn’t work.
Sacrifices Must Be Made
The Note 5 isn’t perfect, there were a few key design choices that Samsung had to sacrifice. One of those being the battery and expandable memory. To make the Note 5 look as sleek as it does it had to enclose the battery and that means the expandable memory as well. The Note 5 also has a slightly smaller battery over the Note 4, 3000 mAh, despite being a little thicker. However, Samsung has their power management down pretty well, so the battery won’t drain as fast as you think if you optimize your phone correctly. The Note 5 comes in 32 and 64GB variants, and I highly recommend the 64GB. This has been the biggest gripe over the phone, but honestly you can transfer your files to a computer or use cloud storage. These are probably the biggest hit to the phone, but after using it for some time it feels not as big of a deal.
The Little Things Matter
Wireless charging is another huge addition to the Note series. Using a Qi wireless charger allows you to charge your phone without the cables, and it charges just as fast. While wireless chargers are a little expensive right now, it’s worth the investment.
I can’t stress enough now much these little changes make the phone feel better. The new buttons, glass back, better S-Pen, and the overall design tweaks really mean a lot once you have the phone in your hand. The Note 5 represents subtly and elegance and proves that you don’t need a rebooted design to make a phone have a huge impact on the market. Some times a minor adjustment can make that much of a difference. However, the question comes to mind as to were there so many little adjustments that Samsung really felt the smaller battery and lack of expandable storage were worth it? Only the sales will tell. I for one, think they are and maybe the Note 6 will have expandable memory again. Could this be a field test to see just how much people care about expandable memory? Who knows, but there are other solutions available that are easy from cloud storage to portable hard drives and even your computer.
As is stands, the Galaxy Note 5 is truly a beautiful piece of hardware and proves that evolution of phones is heading in an all new direction. With phones becoming, and replacing, computers more and more, a fast OS and operating speeds are becoming paramount — maybe even the most important thing a phone can have.