Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review: A change for the best?

Samsung completely revamped its entire Galaxy smartphone line this year, focusing on premium build materials. Its sales numbers have been dropping off in the recent past with the Galaxy line, especially in countries like China where Apple and Huawei are seeing tremendous growth. Overall Samsung still sells more smartphones than any other manufacturer by a wide margin. The days of Samsung dominating the smartphone market appear to be in threat as others steal market share.

smartphone sales figuresTo slow the declining sales numbers, Samsung shook up management in hopes that changes would start from the top and work its way down. The new management team had a clear vision of what it wanted: it took the utilitarian, do everything devices, and turned them into a superficial devices that looked great for the masses while eliminating features it deemed useless like the removable battery and microSd card slot. Ironically it still kept features most of us find useless like duplicate apps which I will delve into in the software section.

The Samsung Galaxy Note line has been my favorite over the past few years and by no small margin. The Note line typically offers the best specs and hardware of any calendar year and can handle all tasks I throw its way.

When I was given the opportunity to review the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, I was more than happy to do it. Samsung is hoping a new design and construction of one of its best selling smartphones will help turn the sales tide back in their direction. Lets check it out.

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Overall Design

Without question, the new Galaxy Note 5 put aesthetics ahead of all other features. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it really is one of the best looking phones of 2015, if not the best. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of one other device that looks as good as the Note 5. The device is framed in metal and is covered with Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back, giving it a super clean look. The Note 5 I have comes in a deep midnight blue, which Samsung calls Black Sapphire, and is absolutely stunning. It’s a nice change from simple black or silver that we have been seeing since the arrival of smartphones.

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Being glass on both sides makes the Note 5 feel incredibly fragile. Almost all of us have seen the consequence of drops as a shattered screen, either through our own devices or someone we know. I’m not someone who really likes to use cases as I feel it: 1. ruins the look of the phone 2. adds unnecessary bulk 3. adds more cost. I don’t see a point in buying a phone for its looks only to cover it up later. With that being said, I am playing Russian Roulette by not using a case on the Note 5, and because of that I am always holding it a little tighter than previous phones. Having a shattered screen AND a shattered back panel would end the desire for a great looking phone rather quickly.

Another downside to having a glass back panel, is the Note 5 is a fingerprint magnet. It looks greasy immediately and every time I would show the phone off to someone, I would have to wipe it down first so it didn’t look so dirty. This was an annoying side effect from having glossy plastic phones, but having glass just brings that problem back again.

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Another sacrifice, at the expense of design, is the lack of a microSD card slot. Samsung, once a pioneer in keeping expandable memory alive, is now forsaking it for aesthetics. Like the Apple iPhone, memory upgrades come in $100 increments, but at least the Note 5 comes in a base 32GB model in the US. This is a deal breaker for some, and I don’t understand why Samsung did away with it other than to assume it was to drive up revenue through memory upgrades. There are other metal phones like the HTC One M9 that provide memory card slots.

Overall, you can’t argue the Note 5 looks incredible. But there’s a cost to looking so good in that it attracts fingerprints and now runs the risk of having a shattered screen as well as back cover.

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Processor – Exynos 7420

Samsung decided to forego Qualcomm this year and thankfully so. Qualcomm, for the first time in years, ran into overheating and throttling issues with the Snapdragon 810 which would have held the Note 5 back from performing its best. Instead, it utilized Samsung’s own octa-core Exynos 7420. This chipset was used in the Galaxy S line and proved to be ultra speedy. Now it comes with an extra gig of RAM, for 4GB total.

Almost everything performed quickly with the occasional hiccup which could be attributed to software. Overall this is one area the Note 5 shines in and the internal hardware should perform for years to come.

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No other phone matches the hardware performance of the Note 5 in benchmark tests.

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Display

The Note 5 comes with a nearly identical 2k, 5.7″ Super AMOLED display found on the Note 4 and it is simply the best display you can get your hands on today. According to some expert reviewers, the colors aren’t perfect but I think they look stunning. The contrast ratio is unmatched by LED displays, and in full sunlight you can still read the Note 5’s display, even with sunglasses on.

The area where I enjoy the screen the most is when I review the photos. The level of detail and color is unmatched by any other phone and makes looking at photos a fun experience.

Text and movies are equally stunning on this 5.7″ inch display and since the Note 3, I really have given up on tablets as a source for media consumption as the screen size is perfect for me. I tried using the Nexus 6 this year, and had fears the larger screen would make it hard to go back to a smaller screen. Instead I found that the 6″ inch display was just a little too big for me to handle and verified my love of the 5.7″ display size.

S-Pen

The S-Pen, also known as a stylus, is the most distinctive feature about the Samsung Galaxy Note 5. It is where the Note derived its name, for it is a tool designed for taking notes. No other device does the stylus as good as the Note, and Apple saw the success of the stylus and came out with its own “Pencil”. A new design feature in the Note 5 is a spring loaded stylus which pops out at the push of a button. This does help contribute to a much cleaner look, but one big issue is if you put the stylus in upside down it will break off inside of the device causing a set of issues. So don’t put it in upside down.

The S-Pen is perfect for jotting down notes, phone numbers, drawing, or even navigating the display as it is pin-point accurate. It isn’t a feature everyone uses on a regular basis, but for those of us who do, like me, we absolutely love it. As a medicinal chemist, there aren’t many tools outside of paper notebooks that are easy to draw chemical structures in, but this note-taking method handles my needs perfectly. I can jot down chemical structures and keep them all stored on my phone without having to go through old notebooks. I love it, but for many it might not be useful as typing on a keyboard is quicker than pulling out the stylus.

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An added feature to this year’s Note is the ability to takes notes on the screen when the phone is off. Yeah, that’s right when you pull the stylus out of the phone, you can write on the unlit display in white lettering and it will auto-save to your device when you hit the power button. This makes for super quick note taking and is a very advanced feature no other phone has.

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Whether you love doodling, taking notes, editing pictures or using the stylus as a navigation tool, the S-Pen is unique and sets the Note line apart from all other phones.

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Battery Life

The Galaxy Note 5 comes with a 3000mAh battery, which is smaller than last year’s Note 4, but it also comes with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 and built-in wireless charging. The trade-off was the removable battery, which every other Note had. For some users that is a deal breaker. I would dare to guess that most people never need to change their batteries for an instant refill, but for many Note enthusiasts this is something that broke our hearts.

The Note is designed to be a powerhouse, not just a typical texting and web browsing machine. Note users adore the line because of the versatility it offers and probably use their phones more than the average user. This means they need a versatile and long-lasting battery, as the last thing they need is to be sitting next to a wall waiting for their phones to be charged. Nothing beats swapping in a fresh battery to bring the charge up to 100% within one minute. Not even Quick Charge 2.0 can beat that.

With that being said, the Note 5 does have excellent battery life and I found myself being able to make it through a full day with moderate to heavy usage. With over two solid months with the Note 5 as my daily driver, I did not see a decline in the quality of the internal battery, but there were many days while traveling when I had to pull out an external battery to keep my phone charged. Again, this feature isn’t necessary for everyone, but for me it was a heart breaker knowing I once had a feature that could get me to 100% power in one minute.

The addition of wireless charging was something I actually came to enjoy. Not having to plug in my phone when I went to sleep, or sat at my lab bench was really nice. Wireless chargers these days are really efficient and the Note 5 even charges faster than the last generation wireless chargers with a compatible device.

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Having fast wireless charging and Quick Charge 2.0 are two features most people will love. I love them too, but I just wish Samsung kept the removable battery option, which will be a deal breaker for some die-hard enthusiasts.

Camera

The camera in the Note 5 is really one of the best cameras you can get in a smartphone. Samsung knows everyone is taking more and more pictures documenting our food, pets, children, sunsets and everything else you can think of. The camera on the Note 5 really shines and is not only fast, but it is super clear and performs well on every level. It does well with action shots, still shots, close-ups, selfies, panoramic scenes, and night shots.

The specs of the camera are nothing short of impressive: 16MP, optical image stabilization, LED flash, 1/2.6′ sensor, HDR, with a 5MP wide front shooter. Check out some of my samples below to gauge for yourself. You will be hard pressed to find a better camera than what comes with the Note 5.

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Software

I have the AT&T model of the Note 5 which runs Android Lollipop 5.1.1. This is a very stable version of Android which is skinned with Samsung’s own Touchwiz. Touchwiz brings a lot of useful features like Multi-Window or S-Pen, but it also brings a ton of useless features. Installed on the Note 5 are duplicate apps of what Android already provides. Samsung forces duplicate apps onto its devices like Samsung Pay(Android Pay), S-Voice(Ok Google), Gallery(Google Photos), Galaxy App Store(Google Play Store), email, phone dialer and texting. This can be confusing for some and I have yet to find someone who actually prefers the duplicate Samsung apps over Google’s apps.

In addition to duplicate apps, Samsung also lets AT&T provide a whole host of its own apps which can only be deactivated wasting more than 1GB of precious memory. As a consumer, I don’t think it is right that we pay for an expected amount of advertised memory(32GB), only to have it wasted with apps we do not want and cannot delete. It’s this behavior from Samsung that is really causing the downfall of sales as customers don’t want to be confused with duplicate apps or apps they don’t want. If Samsung really wants to take a lesson, they need to take a hard look at iOS and see how they limit bloat on its devices.

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I’ve used stock Android on the Nexus 6 and it is normally very fast. With Samsung’s Touchwiz over-layed onto Android, I’ve seen more hiccups than I would like with a processor that beats all others in benchmark tests. The software itself is still fast by any measure, but there are times when apps lag and close on their own which I attribute to Touchwiz.

The other thing to be aware of, with Samsung, is terrible timing with updates. Other manufacturers have committed to updating their phones to the latest Android version within reasonable amounts of time, but Samsung works on its own schedule and should be a major concern to anyone who uses their phones more than six months.

Many reviewers like myself use phones for maybe three months until they get a new one. Reviews on software will usually be positive as the device they are reviewing usually comes with the software that is most up-to date. I decided to not upgrade my Samsung Galaxy Note Edge for one year, to really try to understand why so many users complain about slow updates, and boy oh boy, did I feel their pain. My Note Edge ran for six months on the buggy Android 5.0 and I could barely make it to 5pm on a single charge. My phone constantly lagged due to memory leaks and overheated on a regular basis. When I asked AT&T and Samsung when I would get an update to fix these bugs, the answer was indefinite. Samsung has yet to commit to Android 6.0 on my Note Edge which is just one year old and still costs $950 new.

So if you’re a typical user, be aware that Samsung may or may not update your version of Android and that will leave you stuck with security vulnerabilities and bugs that are addressed in the latest updates.

With that said, the Note 5 software is quick and does have nice features like themes and Multi-Window which is something yet to be found on stock Android devices. I still would prefer much less bloat and a simpler user experience.

Summary

I really think highly of the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 in more areas than not. I admire its beauty and think it has incredible hardware specs that set the bar for other manufacturers. Its camera, S-Pen and display are second to none. But Touchwiz and Samsung’s poor record of updating software make me hesitate in recommending this phone to the average consumer. Yet, most will probably prefer the new design over having a removable battery and expandable memory.

For die-hard Note fans, I can see most of them sticking with their Note 4 in hopes Samsung will get back to its utilitarian ways and put aesthetics second to function and software updates. I’ve seen more first-time users now though as they simply love the design of the Note 5 and that scares me. It might validate that Samsung was right with putting looks first and they may never get back to what made the original Note series great – complete versatility.

Regardless, if you understand the risks in software updates, and do not care about expandable memory or a replaceable battery the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is a worthy option.


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  • Bill

    Derrick, Derrick, Derrick! Great article. However, your problems with Lollipop were predictable and should have been anticipated.

    I am a proud Note 4 user rooted on Kitkat. I have been in the stratosphere ever since, while I read about everybody else’s misery. The fact that you presume that updating the OS to the latest is everyone’s preference or moral obligation is not only wrong but annoying. My watching from the sidelines with KitKat while all of you are complaining about Samsung’s slowness on updates is both sad and delightful at the same time.

    That all being said, you lay out a very well articulated report on the Note 5. Good job!
    You just confirmed what we all Note users already knew…the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is STILL the undisputed King of All Smarthones today and probably tomorrow. I rest my case!
    [email protected].

    • Derrick Miyao

      Hey Bill,

      I really appreciate your feedback. I had a difficult time writing this review as you can tell I really am a huge fan of the Note line.

      I agree with you that KitKat is a fantastic version of Android and loved it on my Note 3 and 4. We Note fans are a different breed.

      • Bill

        You know what? We all still appreciate the great read and effort you put in to this. We all love the Note. I just saw another iPhone user with a shattered glass screen. To put glass on both sides is unfathomable! I love premium materials and have to say..HTC always had an enviable build. However they put the back button on the wrong side and I won’t relearn it. I like some physical buttons too.
        I hope you write more opinions! I am waiting for the Note 6 Derrick and maybe they will listen to their customers this time!
        Bill

        • Derrick Miyao

          Thank you for your feedback Bill. I still love the Note line, I just wish Sammy would have left in expandable memory at a bare minimum.

          I’m a fan of Android and the choice it provides just like you.

          • MrsTrueGemini

            I am now a fan of the Note line also. I left apple when the Note 2 dropped. I have decided if the don’t listen and add back those important factors to the Note 6 my next upgrade will be from the Note 4 32 GB on ATT to a Note 4 128 GB unlocked so I can get rid of the bloat and so on and so on. Love your article.

          • Bill

            Let me make a suggestion to you. Yes get an unlocked international version 910F (available on Swappa) Why? Because then you are in total control. Comes with KitKat out of the box and since it is the best interface designed for the Note 4 I suggest you stay there like me. (Lollipop upgrade headaches dicumented on Tech Times) Do you like all the changes the engineers did without your permission? I hate the new Notifications drop down preferring the old ones but you are not allowed to complain or go back to familiarity. Do you like the new chilldish colors of Material Design? I don’t. Miss the dark theme? You will, I have it still. How about the new flat icons?

            Here is what you do: buy an unlocked Note 4 Have someone root it so you can keep Kitkat and enjoy what you are used to. Then you can enjoy the Note as it is designed and not be forced to upgrade when the prompt forces you to. While others are regretting their updates and frozen phones, I am loving my Note 4 every day!!
            Bill

  • Dante Antonio Apaza Garcia

    I think That the Note should have a 6.3 inches screen. I have the Note 3 and the Galaxy Mega. To me, the size of the Galaxy Mega sxreen is perfect.

    • Bill

      Are you nuts? How large of a phone do you want to hold to your head? Tablets begin at 7. You like a tablet not a phone. Besides, you cannot pocket a thing that size or you will lose it I think.

  • cooldoods

    After my Samsung Galaxy S 4G, Galaxy Note 1, and Galaxy Note 3, I’m looking forward to getting the LG V10 — which has a removable battery, microSD support and an IR blaster. If looks were my thing, I would never have gone with the Galaxy Note in the first place, as making a call with a giant slab of a device against my face made people do a double-take. Samsung, I was loyal but you weren’t so let’s just make a clean break.

    • Bill

      But a 5.7 inches gives a man’s fingers more real estate.whats wrong with that?
      Besides, a Note can do so much more like S pen! I agree with Derrick…

      • cooldoods

        What exactly did you not understand from my comment?

    • Derrick Miyao

      I understand your sentiment and have similar feelings about Samsung abandoning its most loyal fanbase. As good as LG seems on paper, I have always been disappointed with their devices as they work well for a month and then strange issues pop up. I am probably in the minority though and hope LG rocks it with the V10. With that 200GB memory card promotion going on now, it seems rather attractive.

      • cooldoods

        My boss hasn’t had problems with his LG G4 so maybe those issues are behind them.

        • Derrick Miyao

          If it doesn’t inconvenience you too much, I would love to know your take on the V10 if you get it, if you don’t mind.

          • cooldoods

            I’m still waiting for the LG V10 to become available in my part of the world so you’ll probably be able to get your hands on it before I do 🙂

  • Marecki

    Well I decided to stick with my note 3…
    Few reasons why :
    1) 10.000 mah zerolemon battery(its huge but i dont care) i can get between 2/3 days with no charge…
    2)32GB rom +128GB SD card…. Self explanatory.
    3)out if warranty so rooted with note 5 ROM ported… Still testing but seems to be working flawlessly inlc S-pen/camera etc.
    4.my pay’n go cost me 15 quid a month…

    So: none sd, non removable battery, glass back and front note 5 can kiss my OTG =)

    • Bill

      Can’t argue with your reasons. Sweet!
      Still I think the Note 4 is the pinnacle.

    • Derrick Miyao

      The Note 3 actually was my favorite phone in the last 3 years with the Note 4 in a close second. Fully agree with you that we don’t buy these huge phones for the looks.