The most anticipated phone of the summer has arrived: the new Galaxy Note 5 has landed, with a new design based on the S6 “metal and glass” design language. It represents a significant update, not only from a hardware perspective, but also from a user experience with convenient features like a quick camera launch, live video streaming, but more importantly, enormous improvement on how the integrated pen is being used. Let’s take a tour of the Note 5 and see what works, and what’s missing.
Industrial design (excellent)
The Galaxy Note 5 design is a direct descendant of the Galaxy S6 one. At first glance, it looks like a larger S6 smartphone, and upon holding it it feels surprisingly comfortable and -relatively- small for a 5.7” smartphone. In fact, it’s much more comfortable than the Galaxy Note 4 that was already a huge hit. It is also more beautiful as well.
Samsung has done a remarkable job tuning how the phone feels in the hand by reducing the thickness further, and by playing with the slightly curved back at the same time. The phone feels great in the hand, but all of this came at a cost: the battery is not removable. We’ll discuss this further in the battery life section, but it’s clear that some part of the market really likes this option – and it’s gone, probably for good.
While I’m covering the rare trade-offs of this beautiful design, it should be noted right away that there isn’t a MicroSD slot on this phone (not even on the dual-sim Note 5), so you should choose between the 32GB or the 64GB wisely.
From the back, the phone looks again like the S6 – except that the rear isn’t as flat. Since I played with a pre-production unit, it was not branded and even the phone’s name was not engraved. I think that the untainted design looks extremely neat, and although I do understand that some branding needs to appear, I also pointed out to Samsung that anyone paying $600-$700 for a phone doesn’t need/want to be reminded of what the phone’s name is, or act as an advertising billboard. Maybe the best reason to tone down the branding is that it’s just classier that way…
If you have not played with the S6 or S6 Edge yet, the Galaxy Note 5 uses the same kind of quality material, and looks much better in the real world as it does in the photos. The official photos sometime make it look more plastic than it is (all metal and glass), so see for yourself when you have a chance.
If you wonder why the Galaxy Note 5 is different from its cousin the Galaxy S6 Edge+, it comes down to the Pen. It explains why the Note 5 needed to be slightly bigger, and why there are not one and the same phone (maybe next year?).
The pen integration is very well done: Samsung has carved enough internal space to sneak the whole pen, which is pretty comfortable by the way, which makes it super-convenient and always ready. Better yet, they have added a push-click mechanism to easily extract it from the phone’s body. It’s also great if you just have a habit of clicking all your pens. More on the software aspect of the pan later…
The ports layout is similar to the one in most recent Samsung phones: Power to the right, Volume on the left, micro-USB, 3.5mm audio, speaker and pen at the bottom. So far, I’ve seen the Galaxy Note 5 in Black, White, Gold and Sapphire. It may not be available in all these colors in all locations/carriers, so stay tuned.
Display (excellent, colorful)
Coming from Samsung, it was obvious that this high-end “large-display” phone would feature the best 5.7” display they have, and it does. With a Quad HD Super AMOLED display, which features 518 PPI of sharpness, images look radically good. HD photos look amazing on this display, and if you take nature shots with the camera, looking at them again with this display is nutty.
Watching 4K videos can also be fun, especially that this phone can capture them as well. Commercial movies aren’t really available big time, but it’s possible to find specialty movies if you’re motivated to search. For my part, I just record stuff in 4K, but I stay mindful about how fast the storage can fill up.
If you are not familiar with LCD vs. AMOLED displays, you should know that OLED/AMOLED display have pixels that emit light, instead of using a backlight which is then filtered by colored pixels. This means that black is truly black and not “dark gray”, so that translates to better contrast. The level of color saturation is also higher, which leads to more eye-candy images (sometimes too much).
Note 5 vs. iPhone 6 Plus, vs Note 4
To see how the Galaxy Note 5 has progressed, let’s check some numbers. According to our product data comparing iPhone 6 Plus vs. Galaxy Note 4 vs Galaxy Note 5, the Note 5 has a screen/body ratio of 76.7% , the Note 4 has 72.5% and the iPhone 6 Plus gets a mere 68.4%. It simply mean that you get more screen and less bulk with the Galaxy Note 5. The iPhone 6+ is however thinner, but gets its low-ratio from a 5.5″ display against a 5.7″ for the Note 5.
In terms of image quality, there used to be a time where the iPhone’s IPS was tuned to look more real, and Samsung’s display were “over-saturated”, but that’s no longer true since the Galaxy Note 4. Users can go to settings>display>screen_mode to tweak the saturation levels, and the Super-AMOLED contrast and saturation are better than the iPhone’s IPS LCD display, it’s just a technological difference.
I’m not sure what kind of sorcery LG has used in their LG G4 IPS display, but that’s the best phone LCD out there.
The Galaxy Note 5 will ship with Android 5.1 (Lollipop), with Samsung’s own TouchWiz interface skin. It very much resembles the Galaxy S6, but there are a number of new features worth noting:
The pen: the extra pen hardware needs software to run, and Samsung has done a lot of work to make people’s life easier. Every pen-driven computer induced some amount of friction because you need to 1/turn the device ON 2/unlock it 3/ take the pen out 4/ launch a notepad app 5/ start writing. That’s pretty much the reason why I don’t use the pen, and I have always been upfront about it.
But Samsung has come up with a much better way, which looks like this: 1/ take the pen out 2/write. This works by allowing the user to write directly on the lock screen and I have to say, this is an extremely elegant pen solution.
Full page capture: since there is a pen, it’s much more tempting to make annotations of simply highlight stuff. Samsung has added a feature to capture a screenshot of a fully scrollable web page. At this point, I’m not sure that it would work for all apps, but I believe that it should work with most pre-loaded apps, and apps that are supporting the Samsung pen SDK.
SideSync 4.0: This feature lets you remote control your phone from your computer (PC or Mac), so that you can use Android apps, send SMS or answer phone calls from your PC. It’s great if you are going to type quite a bit on an app, or if you don’t want to pick up your phone to do a minute task.
Sidesync 4.0 also lets users drag and drop any file from the Galaxy Note 5 to a Windows Folder. This is really cool to copy photos, videos or 3rd party apps over to your PC. Sidesync has been around for a while, but I feel like this 4.0 version is finally mature enough to go from “gadget” to “productivity” status.
I tried it for a short while, and I have to admit that it can be convenient if you tend to leave your phone in places that are remote from where your computer is. For example, I tend to leave my phone in the living room, which is a bit remote from my desk at home. It’s nice to be able to remote control the phone, see SMS and pick-up calls.
The user interface is a bit slow, because SideSync seems to transfer the whole image over the network, but other than that, it’s just like having your phone on hand, with the ability to copy files.
Samsung Pay is set to make its beta debuts in the USA very soon, and of course the Galaxy Note 5 supports it out of the box. Samsung Pay has been made compatible with old credit card point of sales (the ones with which cards are swiped).
This is possible because the phone can broadcast a magnetic signal that fools the card read into thinking that a card has been swiped. The catch is that while it it won’t work with machines that requires the card to go into a slot because the signal isn’t strong enough to reach the reader.
Still, that makes Samsung Pay compatible with millions of existing, and sometime old payment locations that other forms of e-payment won’t work with. It will roll out in the USA on September 28 2015, here’s a demo:
Ultra High Quality Audio (UHQA): if you listen to music often, this may be of interest. UHQA is an audio up-scaling mechanism to convert compressed and low-definition sound signal into a higher, richer audio signal. It’s not quite like having an analog original, but just like video up-scaling can significantly improve images, audio processing can make things sound a whole lot better. The only catch is that you need to have UHQA-compatible headphones if you want to use UHQA wirelessly. The good old wired headset will be good to go.
Camera (excellent)Since the Galaxy Note 5 features pretty much the exact same camera system and software as the Galaxy S6, it is very fast and brings to bear an excellent imaging pipeline. Experts like DXO have named the S6 the best mobile camera, and our tests did confirm the data. Now that we’re going to get our Note 5 test unit, we will post real-world photos in the next couple of days, so stay tuned for an update of this article.
Digital Video Image stabilization is a feature that got dropped into the Note 5, however. The idea is to crop inside the camera frame to effectively move the image to compensate for the camera shaking as you walk around. The end result is a movie with a slightly narrower field of view, but with a much better stabilization. It is usually worth using it in any situation where you camera will shake: typically when you walk, bike, or mount your phone on a vehicle.
That said, when I tested it in a couple of situation, the difference wasn’t as noticeable as hoped. I shot videos while walking around Intel IDF and driving around San Francisco. In both cases, the side by sides aren’t convincing enough to show that viodeo stabilization makes a big difference. See for yourself:
The Live Broadcast feature is also new. From now on, you can directly stream live to a YouTube page after going through a pretty simple setup. This is great for any kind of live broadcast because people don’t need to download any software, they just need to open a YouTube video. Given that YouTube is universally supported, everyone can see your next live streaming.
The Galaxy Note 5 is built upon the same hardware platform as the S6. This means that it runs on a Samsung Exynos 7420 Octa-core 64-bit processor built with the leading 14nm semiconductor manufacturing process. As we have seen before, this platform is currently leading in most benchmarks, and we don’t expect this to change on Android until 2016 when the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 ships in handsets. The iPhone 6s and its A9 processor may steal some thunder, but we will know for sure in early September. "SAMSUNG'S EXYNOS PLATFORM DELIVERS A STELLAR PERFORMANCE"
At the moment, some well-known Android benchmarks are confirming what we’ve been saying from day-1. The Galaxy Note 5 hardware performs similarly to the Galaxy S6. Both CPU (Geekbench) and graphics benchmarks (3DMark, GFXBench, Basemark X) are excellent, and from a synthetic performance standpoint, it’s hard to complain about much of anything.
The second thing worth noting about the Note 5 is that it benefits from all the work that Samsung has done on its own software. There was a time where the Samsung interface was a bit more “laggy, but the S6 did put an end to that, and you may be surprised at how snappy things are, out of the box.
Performance for the price
Interestingly enough, even though the Note 5 was designed as a premium product, and not as a “value for the price” product, it does offer excellent “bang for the dollar” in both CPU and GPU performance, as shown here by the charts below. This goes to show that with a rapid performance evolution, even very affordable handsets like the Nexus 5 don’t always offer the best value ratio, depending on what you are looking at.
Battery life (very good)
With a battery capacity of 3000 mAh, the Galaxy Note 5 has slightly less battery as the Galaxy Note 4 (3200 mAh), and it has also lost the removable battery in the process. For sure, there is going to be a number of complaints about this. But is it truly that bad? It really depends. In any case, the chart below clearly shows that the Note 5 doesn’t have a capacity that is particularly out of the ordinary these days. Perhaps, the iPhone 6 (on the far left) has shown that this impact the overall commercial success that much.
First of all, most people don’t ever buy a second battery, and they rarely have a dead battery. Although I understand that this is a concern for some users, it looks like they will have to turn to the LG G4, which is an excellent phone with a removable battery.
Secondly, independent tests have already shown that the Galaxy Note 5 has battery life comparable to the Galaxy Note 4’s, despite the 6.25% battery capacity reduction.
Fast charging is something that Samsung is promoting in 2015, and for the most part, it works very well. As long as you have a high-capacity USB charger, you can replenish the phone very quickly: 50% of the 3000mAh battery in 30mn (or 50 mAh/mn), according to our test. Samsung supports its own fast-charge technology called Fast Adaptive Charging, but it is also compatible with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 chargers.
"THE CHARGE SPEED OF 50% IN 30MN IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE"Wireless charging is also something that is being heavily recommended by Samsung. I’ve tried using it, and once you get into the habit of putting your phone on the pad (desk, bedside, living room table), you don’t need to think much about charging your phone and before you know it, it has a full charge. I’m thinking about getting one for my car as well. The rate of charge with wireless is 17 mAh/mn.
I think that Samsung should drop the price of wireless pads as much as possible ($99 MSRP, $30 street price) to truly push the adoption of wireless charging. On the other hand, retail places like Starbucks and many others have integrated wireless charging in their locations, so that’s one more place where you can get a small charge. Some Qi chargers are as cheap as $13.
The main difference between cable-charging and wireless-charging is that it’s not very convenient to use your phone on a charging pad, which is typically out of the way and not in front of you. When the wireless charger is embedded in the table (like at Starbucks), it is easier.
The battery wrap-up is that 200 mAh won’t make much of a practical difference, so I don’t mind that much about it. I think that the design changes are worth it. If you disagree, or if you absolutely need to be able to swap batteries (a perfectly legitimate need), you will have to opt for another phone, it’s that simple. I would suggest trying the fast-charge, because 50% in 30mn is really good.
I used to think of the Galaxy Note as “the” pen-enabled, large-display, large-battery capacity phone. The Note 5 design is very neat, but it did remove the large-battery capacity of the equation. That said, the Note 5 is easily the best large-display phone on the market, and certainly the best large-display Android phone. The excellent pen user experience is really a bonus on top of that.
There’s a reason why the iPhone 6 has boosted the iPhone sales: large-display smartphones are awesomely comfortable to use, and their display is superior. Not only they display beautiful images, but many people don’t have to put on their reading glasses to use them. The Galaxy Note series has invented this category at a time when most said it was a lost cause. And it is leading this category once again.
If you like you are in the market for a top-notch, comfortable, big-screen phone, both the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy Edge 6+ must be on your short list.