Hands-on with the Galaxy Note 5: Samsung's phablet has still got it

Samsung knocked it out of the park with the Galaxy S6 earlier this year; it will prove lightning can strike twice with the Note 5.

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Whether you want to admit it or not, you can thank Samsung’s Note series for the popularity of bigger phones. They offer a larger screen for easier multitasking, room for your thumbs so you can more quickly thumb-type, and in Samsung’s case, a stylus that’s as precise as using a mouse.

The Galaxy Note 5 is another stellar example of how good Samsung is at making these particularly large phones. I spent some time with the fifth-generation phone-tablet hybrid and I liked what I briefly saw: a sleek-looking smartphone fit for the worker bee Android user. Samsung also completely revamped the S-Pen so that it feels like an actual pen. 

The prettiest Note I ever did see

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Hey there shiny phone!

I dig Samsung’s design prowess this year. Every phone it’s launched since Mobile World Congress has been worthy of its own high-fashion photo shoot. The Note 5 is no different. It’s a phablet reimagined as a fashion accessory, and this is one kind of accessory I’d love to pop into my clutch. It’s just so pretty

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Unfortunately, this doesn’t come in gold. Womp.

Inside, the Galaxy Note 5 features a 2.1GHz octa-core Exynos 7420 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 3,000 mAh battery pack. It’s just as responsive as the Galaxy S6, though you’ll get no respite from TouchWiz here. The Note 5 is all TouchWiz, all the time, and it even comes with the same suite of bundled apps as those in the Galaxy S6, including a bunch of Microsoft apps you can’t delete.  

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Side profile. Thin enough for you?

Those extra apps you can’t remove will take up precious storage space, which is an issue without a microSD card slot. It was one thing to omit it from the Galaxy S6, but the Galaxy Note 5 is positioned as a powerful “work phone” of sorts. How can you get any work done if you don’t have enough space to save all your files? You’ll have to bring home the 64GB version. 

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The Note 5, from another angle.

At least Samsung stuck with the same, wonderful 16-megapixel rear-facing camera sensor that’s on the Galaxy S6. You can still double-tap the Home button to quickly launch it. The phone also features NFC, MST (for Samsung Pay), fast charging, and wireless charging—all extra features that helped make the Galaxy S6 one of the best phones of the year.

A lifelike S-Pen

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Meet your new, clickable S-Pen.

The Galaxy Note series’ biggest selling point, aside from the sheer size, has typically been the the S-Pen stylus. It’s a powerful little gadget that might transport you back to the Palm Pilot days, but its usefulness outweighs its novelty.

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Now pop it out.

The S-pen feels like a real BIC pen this time around. It clicks! The clicking mechanism helps pop the stylus out of its little hole on the bottom side of the phone, but it’s also really satisfying to hold the pen and constantly press it up and down with your thumb as you obsess about how much work there is to be done. It’s also more comfortable to write with. I have some seriously sloppy, girly handwriting; it’s half-cursive, half-print, and I can never decide how to draw my Ys. My penmanship has kept me away from writing anything digitally, because I can’t usually read what I wrote afterwards. However, there’s something about this generation’s S-Pen on the Note 5 that makes it feel as if I’m writing on an actual piece of paper—or perhaps it’s that I’m easily fooled by the adorable swishy sounds it makes as you write on the Note 5. Swish, swish. 

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Air Command is still very useful, and now you can tack on two app shortcuts.

Air Command has long been a part of the general S-pen interface. You hover it over the screen and click the side button bring it up. The Air Command menu now lets you add two of your own application shortcuts, in addition to what Samsung’s added in, including Action Memo, Smart select, and Screen write. The apps have been updated with a few new tools, but otherwise they’re functionally the same as they were on the Note 4. Unlike most of the bloatware Samsung packs in with its phone, you’ll get actual use out of these particular applications because they’re specifically made for the S-Pen. It’s a bummer that the S-pen can’t be fully utilized inside third-party apps like Google Keep, though, which I’d rather use to store notes than Samsung’s S Note.

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Look, Ma! I can make a note on my Note without evening turning the phone on!

My favorite new feature of the Note 5 is the ability to use Screen write from the standby screen. If you’re desperate to take a note but don’t want to bother with unlocking your phone, just pop out the pen and start writing. It’s so fast! I can’t wait to use this feature to make impromptu lists. All the lists!

A feature you didn’t ask for, but you’ll appreciate

Here’s something you can brag to your friends about: The Galaxy Note 5 features Ultra High Quality Audio (UHQA), which upscales audio files and streaming music for a richer, higher quality sound, despite the actual quality of the audio file itself. It actually works really well, and I received a demo of it by way of a Jason Derulo song. When you listen to it, the increase in sound quality is obvious. I don’t know how else to explain it except that it sounds like someone finally wired your stereo correctly.

The built-in UHQA feature adjusts the equalizer and spatial effects in real-time. It works for both wired and wireless headphones, though the Bluetooth wireless support is only compatible with Samsung’s audio accessories. That’s a bummer, because it makes it seem as if Samsung is more concerned about selling headphones than actual sound quality—which is important, because I want full bass in my music on my walk to work! The UHQA abilities will at least work with third-party music apps as long as they support the codec. YouTube and Pandora will be the first fully compatible apps.

A noteworthy Note

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The glorious Note 5.

The Galaxy Note 5 is a completely reimagined phablet. It’s a stylish phone that sure to turn some heads, though I wonder if the business-centric users typically attracted to the durability of previous Note models will mind that this one is all metal and glass. It seems little more fragile this time around.

Samsung’s been particularly—what do the kids say these days?—on fleek with its phablet series these last few years. I like that Samsung didn’t bundle in a ton of features just for the sake of it, like it’s had a habit of doing in the past. It seems the company focused more on perfecting the software features it included in last year’s Note 4 rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel. I hope it sticks with this M.O. for the rest of its smartphone lineup well into the future.

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