Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 marked the turning point of the South Korean company, when it decided to finally embrace the use of better materials and design on its smartphones. Looking back, the Note 4 doesn’t look quite as handsome as it used to be, but it was nonetheless an important moment.
One year ahead, things could not get any more different. Samsung boldly moved ahead with a stunning new design language clad in metal and glass on the Galaxy S6, and that design is heading into the new Galaxy Note 5 as well. Both the S6 and Note 4 hit many of the right notes, so it is only logical to assume that the Note 5 continues this trend of Samsung’s resurgence in the mobile space.
DESIGN & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Samsung’s past missteps with its phone design is fast being forgotten. The Note 5 continues where the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge left off, featuring a combination of metal, glass and a series of colours that shimmer in different hues when viewed in different angles. Colours like Gold Platinum delightfully transform from champagne gold to sleek silver as you move the phone around, and our Sapphire Black review unit shifts from a dark navy hue to a brilliant metallic blue. The metal and glass body adds heft and a solid feeling, but the Note 5 still feels not too heavy – just right for a device of its size.
It says a lot that when the six Malaysian media present at a closed door briefing were asked if we preferred the Note 5 or the curvy S6 edge+, every one of us agreed that the Note 5 not only looked better, but felt better in the hand. The curved glass back is reminiscent of Xiaomi’s Mi Note and Mi Note Pro from earlier this year, and both have a similarly comfortable feel as the gentle curve sits better in the hand.
The S Pen, too, has had a few design changes. The most significant is the introduction of a spring release mechanism at the back, just like a clicky ballpoint pen. It is also slightly heavier than before, giving it a more substantial feel as a writing instrument. The S Pen incidentally also has a painful design flaw (though you should never be so careless as to slot the S Pen in backwards in the first place).
Overall, though, it is really difficult not to be impressed with what Samsung has delivered on the Note 5. There is a level of sophistication in design and in the software that really left me thinking, “where was all of this two years ago?”
The Note 5 has a largely similar set of hardware as the S6 that was announced earlier this year, but with a few significant changes. While the processor remains the same Exynos 7420 octa-core chip, Samsung bumped the RAM to 4GB, equalling the current flagship devices this year. This being the Note series, the display is also a larger 5.7-inch one, though with a similar 2K (2,560 x 1,440) resolution as the S6.
Another area Samsung had been hard at work to revamp is on its TouchWiz Android skin. On the S6 and S6 edge, TouchWiz was impressively toned down, with many of its unnecessary default apps either not activated by default or were not there at all. On the Note 5, the software experience is largely similar, but of course with the addition of the S Pen software suite.
On top of that, there are some new tricks on the Android 5.1.1 update on TouchWiz which is debuting on the Note 5 and S6 edge+. The first is the ability to resize the display for one-handed operation; while this feature has always been available in past Note models, Samsung created a better shortcut to enable this, by a triple-press of the Home button.
Speaking of which, the camera has received a few noticeable updates, with the biggest part of it in the Pro mode. Many will agree that since the S6, Samsung finally has a smartphone camera that is just as great as the iPhone in Auto Mode. In the 5.1.1 update, Samsung has greatly expanded the Pro Mode to rival that of the LG G4, which had the most comprehensive manual control in its smartphone camera – we’ll talk more about it in the Camera section below.
By far the most revamped software section on the Note 5 is on the S Pen suite. Air Command now not only blurs out the entire screen, the five shortcut buttons can now also be configured by the user, and they do not necessarily need to be S Pen apps anymore – you can add any 3 apps in addition to the three S Pen apps that pops up on Air Command.
Besides that, Samsung has done well to improve the S Pen’s usability in ways that different types of users can definitely appreciate. You can now write on PDF documents, letting you sign documents without having to print, sign, and then scan the same document. It’s faster, more efficient and environmentally friendly too. Besides that, Screen Write gets a new feature called Scroll Capture, which lets you easily do a “long screenshot” – particularly useful when you need to capture an entire webpage that needs to be scrolled.
Finally, there’s Screen Off Memo. Quite possibly the most useful feature of the lot, Screen Off Memo lets you quickly jot down notes on the screen when you take the S Pen out while the phone is locked. Once you’re done with the note, simply press the power button and the note is safely stored (but not yet saved) in the S Note app, ready to be edited when you unlock the phone. The experience is seamless, and one I believe exemplifies how Samsung strongly differentiates itself from the competition with the S Pen.
Despite the generally positive reviews, one aspect where the Galaxy S6 performed very poorly is with its memory management. Some parties have claimed that despite boasting 4GB of RAM, TouchWiz is aggressively killing background apps, resulting in poor multitasking performance. For a power-user smartphone like the Note series, this is definitely worrying.
In my time using the Note 5, I noticed that while multitasking isn’t a big issue for me (since I prefer killing tasks I don’t use), there were apps that, when opened, “triggers” the aggressive background app killing. I opened “light” apps like Instagram, Plume for Twitter, Gmail, Spotify, and at least three more system apps, and used the Recent Apps button to cycle through apps to see if any of them were killed whenever I opened another app. I managed up to 7 apps opened and running before I opened Chrome…and that’s when some apps were killed. Facebook, too, was another “trigger app” that got TouchWiz to kill several background apps.
Of course, I spend most of my smartphone time on Facebook and Chrome, but unless you’re very particular about having your apps to stay open, I didn’t really see a big issue in using the phone. There are “tests” that show the Note 5 lagging behind the LG G4 and OnePlus 2 due to the killing of background apps, but in real world usage there is little to no difference. Battery life is also markedly better than the S6, which suggests Samsung may have tweaked more backend parts of TouchWiz than just aggressively culling background apps.
One of the things I lamented most about the Galaxy S6 was the battery life. Battery drain was very noticeable even when the screen is off, and the phone rarely lasted 3/4 of a day on a single charge. It even brought about the unfortunate dependence on power banks – these should only be used for emergencies, not as a daily occurrence!
Fortunately, I did not have the same experience on the Note 5. Battery life is much better than what the 3,000mAh battery would suggest; the device easily breezed through the day on a single charge, with about 15 to 20% or so left by midnight. However, it should be noted that when I’m using the camera, the battery dwindles down quite noticeably. What is impressive is that there is very little battery drain when the screen is off – I’d wake up to a drop of anywhere between 5-8% in battery if I don’t charge the phone at night.
And why should I, when the bundled fast charger charges the phone like a champion? TouchWiz has a cool feature that lets you know what type of charger you’re charging your phone with (standard or fast), and how much time it’ll take to charge to full. With a fast charger, it never takes more than 90 minutes to fully charge the Note 5. In short spurts, it’s even more impressive – charging for about 15 minutes yields about 25% or more. On days when you’re constantly in and out of the office, this is especially useful.
Samsung also managed to introduce “fast wireless charging”, a technology that it has put into a new wireless charger. It supposedly allows a similar fast charging experience with the convenience of doing so by just placing it on the charger. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a unit for this review.
Samsung’s display technology is undeniably good. The sharp 2K Super AMOLED screen is fantastic to look at, and the processing power of the Exynos chip ensures that everything is rendered and animated as it should be. Viewing angles, as always, is excellent and colour reproduction is more saturated than on other screens. Blacks are satisfyingly deep, while colours pop out almost unnaturally.
Under bright sunlight, the display boosts the brightness to boost contrast, and works quite well when the need arises. It will result in the phone heating up and increase battery consumption, though.
If there was to be a weak point in the Note 5, it’d be in this area. The mono speaker is again located at the bottom of the phone like the S6, and while output is decent and by no means of average quality, the output rests well in the region of “good enough”. It will work very well for those Spotify sessions while driving or in your room, but cranking up the volume to fill a larger indoor space and still maintaining audio quality will be a challenge.
That’s perfectly fine, though. The quality of the mono speaker isn’t a deal-breaker when buying a phone – when have you ever heard someone say “I’m not buying this phone because the speaker sucks”? There are more important factors that make a smartphone great, and if the speaker is only good enough for personal usage on Spotify, YouTube or the odd game or two, then really, that’s good enough.
The main differentiating factor on a smartphone. Samsung has improved its cameras on its smartphones for some years now, and the Note 5 is not a disappointment in this regard.
To be frank, I will buy this phone simply for its camera. The Note 5 has the best Auto mode on any Android smartphone camera, producing reliably great shots every time. And, with the Quick Launch feature, the camera is always ready to take a shot.
The Note 5 uses the same 16MP f/1.9 camera sensor with OIS as the Galaxy S6 (and the Galaxy S6 edge and S6 edge+). There’s a reason for this, and that is because the combination of camera sensor and image processing algorithms makes these four among the best smartphone cameras you can find. Samsung also made the right approach when improving on its cameras: make the Auto mode perfect, and then start improving other areas.
So, Samsung improved on the Pro mode, offering even greater control over what you had previously. Whe reviewing the LG G4, I realised that the Pro mode on the S6 pales in comparison – I couldn’t manually set the shutter speed, while the other controls were fairly limited – ISO selection, for example, was set at 100, 200, 400 and 800.
Starting from the Note 5 and S6 edge+, Samsung is finally unleashing the full potential of its Pro mode. Everything the G4’s Manual mode had, the Note 5 now has as well. ISO 50, with smaller ISO sensitivity gaps? Check. JPEG+RAW capture? Check. Shutter speed control? Check. These all result in a really impressive photographing experience with the Note 5, and it’s why I feel Samsung now has a better camera smartphone experience than the iPhone. If the iPhone and new Galaxy phones shoot similarly well on Auto, the differentiator then lies in the “extras”: the Pro Mode and, not to forget, Wide Selfie on the 5MP front camera, which produces a fish-eye effect on your selfies.
Considering our plummeting currency value, it was actually surprising to see the Note 5 priced at RM2,699 in Malaysia. That said, many still feel that it is too expensive and other devices are a better buy. One of it is the Xiaomi Mi Note. At RM1,549, it is RM1,150 less than the Note 5. For that amount of money, you still get quite a lot for a phablet: 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801, 3GB RAM, 64GB storage, 5.7-inch Full HD display, and a decent 13MP rear camera.
For RM2,699, there’s also the LG G4. Touted as one of the best Android smartphones this year, it’s got a sharper 5.5-inch 2K IPS display, a hexa-core Snapdragon 808 with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of expandable storage, a unique leather back design, and a top-notch 16MP OIS sensor with laser AF. In my time using it, the G4 proved to be an excellent smartphone with a really good camera, though its laser AF has a tendency to focus incorrectly.
What’s very evident is how Samsung has stolen a march on its rivals by announcing – and releasing – the Note 5 faster than any of the competition. The OnePlus 2 is another interesting prospect, but the startup’s slow production of the hot smartphone is proving to be a stumbling block. Sony’s freshly-announced Xperia Z5 series feature the first new camera sensor since the Xperia Z1, and Sony seems to be supremely confident in the camera performance this time around, while maintaining a two-day battery life on all three variants. Yes, even the one with a 4K (3,140 x 2,160) screen.
The biggest rival of the Galaxy Note 5, however, is one that we will only find out more about next week. Apple is widely expected to unveil its new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, with a slew of improvements; notably, a larger and better 12MP sensor (finally!). Given Apple’s prowess in mobile imaging, you can bet that the newer sensor will be optimised to work exceptionally well and be even better than the current crop of iPhone cameras. It has to – the competition has finally caught up.
The Galaxy Note was originally meant to be a “power user” product, with uncompromising hardware and a focus on letting you do more on a smartphone. As the years passed and phablets were no longer just a niche product, the Note series can no longer be a product line that satisfied an increasingly smaller group of consumers. It had to have the same appeal as the smaller-sized devices in Samsung’s roster.
In that sense, Samsung has succeeded. The Galaxy Note 5 hits all the right notes, and is easily the best Android smartphone I’ve used this year. The combination of a best-in-class camera, good battery life and a handsome design all contribute to making the Note 5 one hell of a smartphone, while the S Pen’s new features are an added bonus that further differentiate the Note 5 from the competition.
This is the best phablet you can buy, period.