The Samsung Galaxy Note series started with a controversy: that "phablet" debate, and the Note prevailed. Now there's a hint of controversy in the air thanks to a major redesign that matches the Samsung Galaxy S6. Yes, it's perhaps the first gorgeous Note Android smartphone, but as with the S6, that beauty comes at a price. In return for a stunning and compact design executed in Gorilla Glass 4 and metal, you'll give up the removable battery and microSD card slot. For power users, that might seem like heresy, and Note folks tend to be power users. Why? The Galaxy Note is more pocket computer than phone thanks to its huge 5.7" QHD display, S Pen and fast CPU. But once you see the Note 5 in photos and in person, I think you'll want one.
Samsung's updated fingerprint scanner is here, and it works just as well as the iPhone 6's scanner. You'll rest your finger on the mechanical home button to use it (no need to swipe your finger as with the Note 4). Samsung Pay is coming soon, the company's Apple Pay competitor that uses magnetic secure transmission rather than NFC for mobile point of sale payments. Gone are the IR blaster and AV remote control, but the heart rate scanner under the LED flash and S Health are here.
Design and Ergonomics
The Galaxy Note 5 looks like a larger version of the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge mixed together. The front face looks like the standard S6 while the back sides are curved, mirroring the Edge's front face. Samsung reduced the side bezels to make the Note 5 narrower--it's easier to hold and the curves feel good in the hand. That said, the ultra-thin bezels invite accidental screen input, at least if your hands are large enough to wrap around the sides. The phone's look is stunning and the S6 design transfers nicely to the bigger chassis. The phone is available in black or white glass (gold is an option overseas) with an aluminum frame on the sides. The metal isn't slippery but glass is, so beware dropping it, particularly when pushing on the new spring-loaded S Pen.
The standard micro USB port, 3.5mm audio jack and speaker are on the bottom edge, and this is the loudest and fullest Note speaker we've heard yet. It can't compete with HTC BoomSound stereo speakers, but volume is more than adequate. Volume controls are on the left and the power button is on the upper right. There's a nano SIM card slot up top but no SD card slot. The unibody design means there's no removable back cover and thus no removable battery. The phone supports Qi wireless charging out of the box--there's no need to buy a special back, though you will need a wireless charger to use that feature.
Horsepower and Performance
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 runs Android 5.1 Lollipop with Samsung's TouchWiz software on the same Exynos 7420 2.1 GHz octa-core 64 bit CPU as the Galaxy S6 family. That's fine with us since the Note 5, Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ are some of the fastest smartphones on the market. Unsurprisingly, the Note 5 benchmarks similarly to those phones, and even better it doesn't feel the least bit laggy. That's high praise since Samsung's TouchWiz overlay, lightened though it is, still adds quite a bit of overhead.
The phone is available with 32 or 64 gigs of fast UFS 2.0 flash storage and as mentioned there's no SD card slot. I know some of you would like to see a 128 gig version since you can't use a microSD card, and I'd have loved that too (I'd love an SD card slot even more!). Given the high retail price of the 64 gig model (~$800), I suspect Samsung thought a 128 gig would be more expensive than the market would bear.
The Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and Note 5.
||3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
|Samsung Galaxy Note 5
||351 (Webkit)/688 (Chrome)
|Samsung Galaxy Note 4
|Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+
||349 (Webkit)/692 (Chrome)
|Samsung Galaxy S6
||420 (webkit)/1025 (Chrome)
|HTC One M9
|LG G Flex 2
|Motorola Droid Turbo
|Moto X Pure Edition 2015
|HTC One M8
|Sony Xperia Z3
|Samsung Galaxy S4
Geekbench 3: 1403/4713
Fantastic! The 5.7" QHD 2560 x 1440 Super AMOLED display is one of the best if not the best currently available on the market. It vastly surpasses the sRGB color gamut and is the brightest Note display yet. This is the first Note where I can see the display easily outdoors in the bright Texas summer sun. As per usual for Samsung's higher end Galaxy models, you can choose from several color presets. The default is adaptive display mode that alters various colors' saturation, brightness and contrast to suit the content being displayed. There's a %100 sRGB mode for those who don't like those Super AMOLED intense colors that are pretty but unnatural. The display has relatively low reflectance (as glossy touch screens go), so glare isn't maddening. Of course, if you don't mind carrying a large phone, your reward is a huge screen for watching movies, viewing photos and it acts as an immense viewfinder for the camera.
Calling and Data
Samsung's high end Galaxy models often have superb voice quality. We have AT&T and Verizon Wireless models in for review, and the AT&T model's voice quality is impeccable while the Verizon version sounded good but not great. We'll chalk that up to differences in coverage here in the Dallas metroplex where AT&T and T-Mobile have the strongest coverage. The phone's earpiece is quite loud and there's an "extra volume" on-screen button when in call that really boosts earpiece volume.
The phone has 4G LTE and it uses a Shannon wireless modem (geek trivia). Data speeds are excellent and honestly we rarely see significant variance between coeval phones marketed by a given carrier on that carrier's network. The Note 5 supports HD Voice and WiFi calling (WiFi calling is a carrier-dependent feature).
Samsung uses the same excellent 16MP rear and 5MP wide angle front cameras as on the Galaxy S6 models. They've tweaked it a bit, and the result is one of the best camera phones on the market. The extremely large and colorful viewfinder is a treat, and photos look that much better when you view them in Gallery or Photos. The camera uses Samsung's usual UI that we actually like: there are a plethora of features, manual settings and effects but somehow the interface isn't cluttered or confusing. You can direct record video to YouTube, use auto HDR, take photos while also recording video and there's a 4K video mode. The camera has OIS (optical image stabilization) to ameliorate the shaky hand dilemma, though it won't help with jumpy or fidgety subjects (the camera is stabilized, not the world around it). The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge + give the LG G4 serious competition and surpass the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus for photo and video quality.
The front camera is relatively sharp and colorful with little of the usual front camera blocky noise when using video chat. Given the popularity of selfies, I'm sure no one minds having higher quality 5MP stills of themselves and surrounding friends.
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