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Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:04PM EST
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Review
Image: Zach Epstein, BGR

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Twice a year each and every year, just like clockwork, smartphone reviewers like myself used to look forward to finding new ways to phrase the same exact complaint. The [INSERT NEW GALAXY S OR NOTE MODEL NAME HERE] is a great phone with a stunning display, but the plasticky case looks bland and feels cheap. Users had the same complaint as well, of course. Can you imagine paying $640 for a phone made out of plastic that’s this thin and cheap feeling?

But Samsung’s sales kept climbing higher and higher… until they didn’t.

Following several consecutive quarters of declining sales, Samsung finally decided to step up its game. The Galaxy S6 and S6 edge were the first Samsung phones ever to be constructed out of premium materials to match their premium price tags. But in the new flagship phones’ launch quarter, Samsung’s operating profit in its mobile division plummeted 38%.

The Galaxy S6 and S6 edge simply don’t have what it takes to compete with Apple’s iPhone 6. Now, it’s time to see if the exact same strategy will fare any better against the upcoming new iPhone 6s Plus.

Meet Samsung’s new flagship phablet, the Galaxy Note 5.

Right from the start, everything about the Note 5 screams premium. The glass front and back panels are joined by a sleek aluminum frame that wraps around the edges of the phone. Like other handsets with metal around the outside border, the frame on the Galaxy Note 5 has polished, chamfered edges that add to the premium look of the phone.

Of note, the glass on the front of the phone has an oleophobic coating, but the glass on the back does not. As a result, the rear panel is a magnet for grease and grime, and it’s very difficult to clean. There’s actually no point in cleaning it anyway, because it will just pick up more grease and dirt a few moments after you finish.

As you may have noticed, the Galaxy Note 5 bears a striking resemblance to the Galaxy S6 that came before it. This is not a mistake, of course, but there are a few key differences, chief among them the glass panel on the back of the phone.

While the Galaxy S6 is flat on the front and the back, the glass rear panel on the Galaxy Note 5 is curved, just like the faces of the Galaxy S6 edge and Galaxy S6 edge+. The result is a large phone (6.03 x 3.0 x 0.3 inches) that feels much more manageable in the hand, since the tapered edge fits perfectly in your palm.

On the flip side, the Galaxy S6 edge+ features curved glass on the front rather than the back, and the result is a phone that is quite uncomfortable to hold. The edge’s curved screen works on a smaller model, but not quite on a larger phone.

The face of the Galaxy Note 5 is home to a gigantic 5.7-inch screen that features quad HD 2,560 x 1,440-pixel resolution. Interestingly, however, the Note 5 marks the first time that a flagship phone from Samsung does not have a display that outshines every phone that came before it.

Last year’s Note 4 was Samsung’s best-ever screen at the time, with quad HD resolution that was far more crisp than the Galaxy S5. Then, the Galaxy S6 squeezed that same resolution into a smaller 5.1-inch display, and the result was jaw-dropping.

The Galaxy Note 5’s display is stunning, but it spreads the same 2,560 x 1,440 resolution across a much larger canvas than the S6, and the difference is noticeable. It’s still a remarkable screen that displays vivid images and bold, bright colors, but it’s not quite as sharp as the screen on the smaller model. The screen barely has any bezel on the sides though, which looks great and helps keep the phone narrow enough to hold comfortably.

Above the Super AMOLED display, you’ll find an ear speaker, a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, sensors and a Samsung logo. Beneath the screen lies an oblong home button with an embedded fingerprint scanner. Like the Galaxy S6, the scanner in the Note 5 is reasonably fast, but it’s nowhere near as quick or reliable as the Touch ID technology used on Apple’s iPhones and iPads.

A power/sleep button sits alone on the right side of the phone, while two volume buttons are positioned near the top of the left side. The top edge holds a SIM tray and a secondary noise-canceling microphone, while the bottom is home to a loud-speaker, a micro USB port, the main mic, a standard quarter-inch audio jack and the phone’s S Pen stylus.

On the back of the Galaxy Note 5, you’ll find yet another Samsung logo beneath a large protruding camera lens. It might look huge and unsightly, but users won’t care at all when they see photos and videos captured by the Note 5.

In a word: Stunning.

Samsung’s latest phablet features the same 16-megapixel camera as the Galaxy S6 that launched earlier this year, but several tweaks have resulted in even more impressive photo quality. As we saw in a recent showdown between the Note 5 and iPhone 6 Plus, it’s the best smartphone camera in the world right now.

Image quality truly is a cut above the competition across all ranges of lighting, and clarity is beyond impressive. In tests, I had trouble finding a scenario where my iPhone 6 camera would produce better results than the Galaxy Note 5.

Until we see what Apple has in store for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus next month, Samsung’s Note 5 will undoubtedly wear the camera phone crown.

There are a number of different modes and settings in Samsung’s camera app, but the most notable new addition is the “Live broadcast” feature. Live-streaming was popular for a short period of time back in the mid-2000s, and now it’s making a comeback thanks to apps like Periscope and Meerkat. Samsung has them both beat, however, because its live-streaming solution was made in partnership with Google.

Straight out of the box, the Galaxy Note 5 can stream live, high-quality video directly to YouTube. The result is a public or private feed that can be viewed by anyone and everyone with a computer, TV, tablet or mobile phone. Anything that can be used to watch a YouTube video can also be used to watch a live broadcast from a Note 5, and streamed videos are then saved to the user’s account once a broadcast is finished.

I tested the new feature and it worked quite well. There is a delay — in my tests, the video streaming on the web was 5-8 seconds behind the video my camera was recording — but rival services have much longer delays. Live YouTube broadcasting really is a great feature that users interested in live-streaming will definitely enjoy.

The last piece of the Galaxy Note 5 hardware puzzle is the S Pen stylus. The S Pen experience has improved with each previous Note generation, and this year’s model is certainly no exception.

The look and feel of the S Pen has been updated on the Note 5, and it features a big change that users are going to love: a clickable top, similar to what you would find on any retractable pen. The button doesn’t retract the nib as it does on actual pens, but it does serve a purpose, acting as an assisted eject button when the user removes the stylus from the phone.

It’s also just really fun to click.

This is a great point to switch gears and focus on the Galaxy Note 5’s software, because some of the phone’s most appealing software features involve the S Pen stylus. The fun begins the moment you remove the S Pen from the phone. Literally.

A new feature that can be enabled or disabled from within the Note 5’s S Pen settings is called “Screen off memo,” and it allows the user to remove the pen and write a note right on the phone’s screen while it is asleep. It’s not actually asleep, of course, but it remains black and it’s much quicker than having to wake the phone to create a new note.

Air Command has always been one of my favorite S Pen features, and it has been improved on the Note 5. This feature allows the user to click the button on the S Pen stylus to open a special menu with shortcuts to things like Action Memo and S Note.

For one thing, the Air Command menu cluster no longer appears directly under your stylus when you click the button. Instead, the entire screen blurs and the menu appears halfway down the screen on either the right or left side of the phone, depending on which side you were closer to when you clicked. This way, you always know where to look for menu items instead of having their positions move each time the menu is opened.

Also cool is the fact that a shortcut to any app can now be added to the Air Command menu. So, if you often open Chrome while your S Pen is out in order to open split screen view and take notes while you’re browsing the web, you can add Chrome to the menu to open it with your stylus quickly and easily.

Split screen view, by the way, is another great feature Samsung has added to Android on Note phones. Using the app switcher, you can shrink apps so that they only occupy half of the screen, and then a second app can be opened in the remaining space. Dragging the border between the two apps resizes the windows.

You can also drag down diagonally from the top corner of any app window, and it will automatically resize as you drag. Then you can open several apps into desktop-like windows, instead of just having them side by side.

Beyond the S Pen and updated software suite, TouchWiz has been updated all around to be less intrusive. Android does shine through a bit more than it has in earlier versions of Samsung’s software, but this is quite clearly still a Samsung creation. Much of the user interface has been completely overhauled by Samsung, and all of the feature additions from the Galaxy S6 remain present on the Galaxy Note 5, which runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.

Some of Samsung’s custom features are more useful than others. There are a few things that really add value to the user experience though, such as Samsung’s gesture support. For example, if you’re reading a text message and you lift the Galaxy Note 5 to your ear, the phone will automatically call the contact whose message you were reading. If your phone is ringing and you want to silence it, simply flip it over onto its face.

Sometimes Samsung’s additions can feel a bit heavy-handed, but there is definitely far less clutter and junkware than we’ve seen on earlier Samsung phones. The Galaxy Note 5 can also handle it all in stride, of course, thanks to its cutting-edge specs.

The phone is powered by Samsung’s own octa-core Exynos 7420 processor, which couples a quad-core 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 with a quad-core 2.1 GHz Cortex-A57. Combine that chipset with 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and the Note 5 is lightning fast and smooth as silk. You’ll also enjoy the fastest available flash memory with either 32GB or 64GB of UFS 2.0 storage.

It’s worth noting that the phone does not include a memory card slot for expansion, nor does it have a user-replaceable battery. During my testing, however, the Note 5’s 3,000 mAh battery lasted well beyond 24 hours per charge, even with some pretty resource-intensive usage.

Samsung included two different kinds of fast-charging support in the Note 5 — the phone’s 3,000 mAh battery takes the same amount of time to fill as the Galaxy S6’s 2,550 mAh battery — and it supports fast wireless charging as well.

The reason I have always liked the Galaxy Note series of phones more than most other phablets is simple: Notes are gigantic, but there’s a reason for their size. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 isn’t just big for the sake of being big, it includes a wide range of features that put its size to good use.

This happens to be why I never really liked the iPhone 6 Plus. It exists solely because Apple knew it needed to release a larger iPhone if it wanted to continue to enjoy rapid sales growth. The 6 Plus includes no special features that separate it from the iPhone 6 in any meaningful way, and no special features that put its larger display to any particularly creative or worthwhile use. It’s an iPhone 6, but bigger.

Coincidentally, this is also why I dislike Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 edge+. It’s bigger to be bigger. There is no other reason for it to exist. And in this particular case, the S6 edge design did not translate well at all to a larger device. It’s very uncomfortable to hold, with sharp edges that dig into your palm and fingers.

With features like the S Pen and split screen multitasking, there is a method to the Galaxy Note 5’s madness.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 starts at $249.99 on contract, and its full retail price starts at around $700 for the 32GB model. It is currently available for preorder, and is set for release on Friday, August 21st.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.