Galaxy Note 5 review: Continuing Samsung's reign as the King of Phablets

Seriously, we didn't think that the Note series could get any better, but it did. This phone-tablet puts even the smaller Galaxy S6 to shame.

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If I could credit Samsung with anything, it’s making big phones into a fad for the rest of us. The company basically birthed the idea of a phone-tablet hybrid, and if it wasn’t for the Note series, Apple might not have even considered bumping the iPhone up to 5.5 inches. (You’re welcome, iPhone users.)

With that said, Samsung continues to improve the Note series with every new version. The Galaxy Note 5 is no different: it boasts a beautiful screen, powerful innards—including an extra gigabyte of RAM—and suite of helpful productivity apps to accompany its super precise stylus, the S Pen. If you haven’t considered a mega-sized Android phone until now, the Galaxy Note 5 is the best place to start. It’s so good at everything it does, it outshines the rest of the Galaxy family of smartphones.

A big body, a big screen

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The Galaxy Note 5 is just as sleek as its predecessors, despite its larger size. 

The Galaxy Note 5 looks like a bigger, more professional version of the Galaxy S6. It has the same metal and glass construction, rounded edges, and the barely-there bezel on the sides of the display. But it’s slightly denser and a little heavier to hold, which is especially apparent when you’re actually talking on the phone. As for the S Pen, it’s tucked away inconspicuously on the bottom near the charging port. When it’s docked, it just looks like an extra button.

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The S Pen resides in that small hold on the bottom of the Note 5.

Samsung slimmed down the Galaxy Note 5 enough so that even smaller hands like mine can have an easier time grasping it. It’s still a pretty big phone, though, so don’t expect something that easily fits in your pocket.

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I don’t feel like I have the tiniest hands in the world with the Galaxy Note 5. 

Samsung stuck with its usual button layout: a physical Home button with a fingerprint sensor built in, two capacitive navigation buttons on either side (“back” on the right and “recent apps” on the left), a volume rocker on the upper left side, and a power button on the right. If you’ve been a Samsung user for a while, you know this routine already. But if you’re a newbie, you’ll have a whopper of a time getting used to the Note 5’s reversed navigation buttons. I wish Samsung would change the placement of those buttons, or at least leave it up to the users to choose for themselves.

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Hey Samsung, why can’t ya just let me choose the placement of the navigation buttons?

The Note 5’s Quad HD Super AMOLED display is just vibrant as its siblings, and even brighter. Because of the screen’s larger size, you can actually share a video with a friend without worrying that they can’t see much. My fiancé and I spent time going through our YouTube subscriptions on the Note 5 and we were pretty comfortable watching it together on its 5.7-inch display. The only set back was that I could only hold the phone a certain way, lest I was muffling the tiny speakers on the bottom side.

The larger screen size is also great for productivity. I have a better grip for thumb typing, so emails can be penned more quickly. Editing and cropping photos and videos is much easier, and reading an ebook or digital magazine is possible without bumping up the font size. As an added bonus, Samsung optimized the display so that it doesn’t use up as much energy at a given brightness level. So, if you like to read on your phone, have at it! The Note 5 can handle it.

Phenomenal performance

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The Galaxy Note 5 smashed its precedessor in our performance benchmarks, though it’s quite on par with this year’s smaller-sized flagships. 

The US-variant of the Galaxy Note 4 came with a Snapdragon 805 processor, which was a good chip, but not as fast as Samsung’s latest Exynos. The Galaxy Note 5 runs the same 64-bit Exynos 7 Octa 7420 processor as the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. It’s fast, it’s furious, and it’s also energy efficient. I put all the benchmarks into their own article so you can see an in-depth rundown of the Note 5, including whether its 4GB of RAM actually helps performance. (Hint: it does.) Just be warned that this phone gets almost scalding on hot days—I was not thrilled benchmarking it in 109-degree California heat, and had to stop for fear of burning my hands.

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The Gaalxy Note 5 lasted almost 8 hours in our battery tests.

I published these same battery results in the aforementioned benchmarks article, but I want to reiterate that my day-to-day experience with the Galaxy Note 5 mirrors what the chart shows above. The Galaxy Note 5 lasts a really long time with varying usage, and that’s with location, Wi-Fi, and data on. Granted, if you’re using turn-by-turn directions or playing a game, you’re going to use up juice much more quickly than you would leaving the phone in your bag with the display off. But I like that I can do the latter without worrying that the phone is dying just by being on.

One of the best cameras on the market

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The Note 5’s rear-facing 16-megapixel sensor is one of the best on the market. 

Like the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the Note 5 is an Android phone with a camera that you can rely on in any situation. It features the same camera sensors, including a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera, and a 5-megapixel front facing one.

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This puppy was too cute not to snap a photo—with my finger in the corner! 

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The Galaxy Note 5 also performed on par with its predecessors in our lab camera tests. 

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The Note 5 has particularly wonderful low-llight performance, made better by the fact that the phone now features manual shutter speed controls, up to 10 seconds.

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And unlike the last generation Note 4, the Note 5 won’t drown out your subjects with the rear-facing flash.

Samsung didn’t just copy and paste the camera sensor from the Galaxy S6 and leave it at that; it tossed in some neat new tricks in the camera app, including the ability to select the shutter speed. This can lead to professional-looking night time shots, though you’re limited to a 10-second exposure.

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The stars weren’t out, but I was able to get some of that night time atmosphere light with a 10-second exposure. You can see the indoor light lighting up the top of the umbrella in the left-hand corner. Typically, this picture would have come out pitch black.

I went more in-depth with the new camera features in the Note 5 here, including its YouTube streaming functionality and all of its new manual settings. It’s convenient having the features you’d use with a third-party app baked right into the native camera app.

Can your Palm Pilot do this?

I’m going to skip over Touchwiz here because it’s exactly the same as what’s on the Galaxy S6: it’s lighter, it’s blue, and it comes preloaded with a suite of Microsoft apps that you can’t delete. You’ll notice in my photos that I loaded the Google Launcher on my review unit after a while because I like having Google Now permanently affixed to the left of the Home screen. I still have to contend with the garish Quick Settings, but it’s not that bad. Also, Samsung’s been much better about software updates in the last year, so you should be fine with timely Android updates (if your carrier doesn't hold you back). 

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The new S Pen feels more like a real pen.

I’ve always believed that it’s the included stylus that makes the Note series worthwhile. Samsung updated the S Pen with a clicky top and a nib that looks more like a ballpoint pen. It’s also a bit more dense, so it feels balanced when you hold it. I kept accidentally putting the S Pen away in my pencil pouch, thinking it was an actual pen.

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Air Command now takes up the entire screen. 

Of course, the real benefit of the S Pen is its accompanying software. Samsung overhauled the Air Command screen so that it’s an entire page of icons, rather then just a pop-up overlay like on the Note 3 and Note 4. The usual suspects are still there: Action memo, Smart select, Screen write, and S note. You can also add two of your own shortcuts for any third-party apps that take advantage of the S Pen. 

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I’ll be honest: I mostly used the S Pen to collage makeup and clothing I want to buy. Whatever!

The S Pen-specific apps have been polished up a bit, too. Now when you write on screen, you’ll hear a cute swishy sound that’s supposed to mimic the sound of a pen on paper. There’s also the ability to pop out the pen and start writing on the Lock screen, or you can capture a entire webpage in any browser app with Scroll capture. I went more in-depth with these features here. Samsung also bundled in the ability to do PDF annotations on the fly, which are way easier to do with the S Pen than with just your finger. I edited a letter for my Mom recently and didn’t immediately feel the need to run to my computer to take care of edits.

Audio tricks that aren’t gimmicky

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Samsung got a little “jealous” of its competitors’ audio-enhancing capabilities, so it made its own.

Samsung’s been pretty consistent about delivering powerful phones with fantastic displays, but you could accuse it of leaving sound quality behind. It changed its tune this year—pun intended—by introducing a suite of sound quality enhancement features to the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, including Adapt Sound, which calibrates your headphones, and SoundAlive+, which helps recreate the effect of surround sound even when it’s not present. These features work pretty well, though they’re not as significant sounding as what HTC offers with BoomSound, for instance.

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Samsung features software that calibrates the audio for you to make it sound fuller, richer.

The Galaxy Note 5 brings with it a feature called Ultra High Quality Audio (UHQA), which helps “enhance the sound resolution of music and videos.” In practice, it seems to just enhance the bass of whatever you’re listening to, and it’s not entirely apparent unless you download music or videos directly to your device. I tried it out with Chromeo’s latest album and, like I originally described in my hands-on, it just sounds like someone finally wired the smartphone “stereo” correctly. I’m bummed it doesn’t currently work with streaming apps like Spotify and Digitally Imported, though there is some more third-party support coming soon. Out of the box, Pandora and YouTube are the only apps that take advantage of this new sound-enhancing feature.

Pay with your phone—just not yet

I wanted to mention very briefly that while the Galaxy Note 5 currently support wireless payments with NFC via Google Wallet, the Samsung Pay feature is not live yet. It’ll be in beta this month, and is scheduled to launch in September. When that happens, I’ll be taking it out for a test drive in the real world. Stay tuned.

The King of Phablets

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Your new King of Phablets.

Samsung’s phone-tablet hybrid device no longer feels like it’s been made to cater to an elite group of professional smartphone users. It’s for both the business-centric user and the creatives types who want to doodle and dawdle all day with their smartphone in hand. 

I enjoyed the last two generations of Samsung’s Note phablet and I gave them both high scores, but I’m giving the Galaxy Note 5 a slightly higher score because it’s absolutely everything you want out of a smartphone: a fantastic camera, a productivity device, a sketchbook, a digital scrapbook, a boom box, and a portable gaming console. If you’re going to spend gobs of money for the most premium smartphone out there, it’s gotta be completely worth your while, and the Galaxy Note 5 is totally worth it. If Samsung would only cut back on the heavy-handed TouchWiz interface changes and bloatware, it could easily score 5 stars.

 

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At a Glance
  • Greenbot Rating

    The Note 5 boasts a beautiful screen, powerful innards, and suite of helpful productivity apps to accompany the S Pen. If you haven’t considered a mega-sized Android phone until now, the Galaxy Note 5 is the best place to start.

    Pros

    • Long-lasting battery life
    • Precise S Pen with accompany productivity apps
    • Bright, beautiful QuadHD display

    Cons

    • TouchWiz makes Android look a little garish and comes with apps you can't delete
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