Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review

Samsung's Note 5 proves the S Pen is still mightier than the edge

The Galaxy Note 5 is still one of the best phablets you can buy.
The Galaxy Note 5 is still one of the best phablets you can buy.
The Galaxy Note 5 is still one of the best phablets you can buy.

Highs

  • Stylish look and quality build
  • Cool new S-Pen features
  • Comfortable to hold
  • Great camera
  • Quick charging is super fast

Lows

  • Glass back picks up fingerprints
  • No MicroSD card slot

Now that almost every smartphone comes in a jumbo-sized package, Samsung’s Note isn’t the outlandish monster phone it once was. But it’s still one of the only phablets to truly make the most of all that screen real estate. The S Pen is what sets the Note apart from every other phablet (at least in the U.S.), and each year, Samsung perfects its stylus a little bit more.

With its slick, Galaxy S6-like body and brand-new S Pen, the Galaxy Note 5 is Samsung’s best Note yet. It introduced the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus at the same time as the Note 5, and seemed to back it with more resources. The Edge Plus offers all the same specs in a nearly identical package, minus the S Pen.

Regardless of what Samsung thinks about the S Pen, we know where we stand: The Note 5 is the best phablet you can buy with a stylus, hands down.

Editor’s Note: We’ve updated this review after many months of using the Galaxy Note 5. Be sure to also check out our list of the best plus-sized, phablet phones.

Curved glass body and metal edges feel slick

Samsung’s Note has finally grown up – It’s done playing with pleather, imitating Band-Aids, and shining cheaply in plastic. The Note 5 is a stunner – just like the Galaxy S6. Its metal frame gleams subtly, and the glass back glows like a pearl. There’s a slight curve to the glass backs edges that makes the massive 5.7-inch phablet more comfortable to hold than every other Note before it.

Only the edges curve in, though, so it’s not a fully curved back like the Moto X or LG G4. The curved edges also give the otherwise slippery phone some grip, so you don’t feel as though it’s going to slip through your fingers and shatter on the floor. Its buttons are sturdy and well placed along the metal frame as well. From the side, it is easy to mistake it for an iPhone or the Galaxy S6, and that’s a good thing.

The glass back is not without downsides. It’s slippery, so you’ll probably want a case for protection. I was nervous carrying it around for the first few days, afraid I’d drop it and shatter the back. No matter how strong the glass, it could easily crack if you’re a butterfingers. Speaking of fingers, glass also happens to be a huge fingerprint magnet. If you want your phone to be fingerprint-free, you’ll have to wipe it off every time you use it.

We tested the shimmering gold variant, which regretfully, isn’t coming to the U.S. The champagne gold looks gorgeous, and the reflective glass really shows off the metallic sheen. However, the fingerprint situation was out of control. Whenever you get a new phone, all your friends and family inevitably want to hold it, and I felt mildly embarrassed by the proliferation of fingerprints all over the device. After a few days, I stopped compulsively wiping it clean, but it made me wish I had a case.

New S-Pen features

The S-Pen stylus nestles into a cutout in the metal frame along the bottom of the Note 5. The S Pen itself has a nifty little eject button on the end, so popping it out is easy. The stylus is as sleek as the phone with a nice shiny cap (for lack of a better term) and its very own clicky button. Clicking the button doesn’t seem to actually do anything, but if you’re a notorious pen clicker, the S Pen’s new clickity clacking will give you so much pleasure.

The S Pen is a truly versatile tool that makes the Note stand out in the overcrowded sea of phablets.

As soon as you pop the stylus out, you can use it – even if the screen is off. It’s the best brand-new feature Samsung came up with for the S Pen this year. It eliminates several steps that used to impede the natural writing experience with the stylus. You no longer have to turn your screen on, unlock your phone, pull out the S Pen, wait for the app to pop up, and then start writing. You simply whip the stylus out and get writing or drawing right away on the fresh, black screen.

Personally, I love this option. Sometimes, I get an idea for a drawing or I suddenly remember something important, and it’s nice to be able to jot things down quickly without too much effort. Also, at work, I often jot things down on a notepad or take notes during interviews with pen and paper. When I’ve got the Note in my hands, there’s no need to waste paper. The S Pen writes so smoothly that you can’t even tell you’re not writing on paper.

That level of fluidity and control is even more important when I’m drawing. Using ArtFlow and the S Pen, I made several quick sketches, and a few more detailed drawings right on my phone. As an artist, I can say that the Note 5’s new S Pen is fantastic. It’s on the same level as styli from Adonit and Wacom, but it’s made for a smaller screen.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Another superb new feature is the Scroll Capture option, though it’s harder to activate. When you’re reading an article online or checking directions that you want to save for offline viewing later on, you can save it as a scroll capture. You simply use the screenshot option in the Air Command menu, and take a screen capture. The option for a scroll capture will pop up afterward, and then you can select the capture more option until everything you want has been saved. The software stitches your screen grabs together into a single continuous scrolling screenshot. I used it to read articles offline while I was on the train to work.

Other new features include the ability to mark up PDFs, write on the screen, and a new scrapbook with topical folders that should make it easier to find the clipping you’re looking for.

Samsung also improved the Air Command menu, so now it blurs out the screen to better show you your app options, which are customizable. Once you’ve made your selection, everything goes back to normal. A little bubble with a pen in it will float along the home screen while the S Pen is out, too, and a simple tap on it brings up the Air Command Menu again. You can move the bubble around or remove it if you hate it. It’s very useful for those who like to use the S Pen as much as I do.

If you haven’t guessed, the S Pen is one of my favorite things about Samsung’s Note series. It’s a genius addition to the phablet, and it turns the Note into something more than a phone. The Note can be a sketchbook, a scrapbook, a canvas, and yes, a notepad. It’s a versatile tool that makes the Note stand out in the overcrowded sea of phablets.

Meanwhile, the curved edge on the S6, the S6 Edge Plus is much less useful. If Samsung has to hedge its bets in the phablet category, we’d rather it stuck with the Note and left the curved edges to the flagship S series.

Powerful specs, questionable battery life

The Note 5 is chock full of impressive numbers, from its 5.7-inch Quad HD screen (2,560 x 1,440 pixels), to its octa-core Exynos processor and 4GB of RAM. Samsung offers both 32GB and 64GB versions of the Note 5, so you won’t have to worry too much about storage – unless you’re a real hog. A lot of people are upset about the lack of expandable storage via a MicroSD card, and it’s a fair criticism, since most Note users are power users. After almost a year of use, our 32GB, of which only around 24GB is available for use, has almost completely filled up.

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The 3,000mAh battery charges wirelessly on both of the popular standards and quickly – Samsung says it can charge just as fast wirelessly as the Galaxy S6, even though it’s a much bigger phone. We’ve tested the Qi wireless charging extensively and it works well. The Note 5 does heat up slightly, but it charges quickly, even with a thin case on. If you have a couple of hours to spare, nothing beats the convenience of wireless charging. Thankfully, for when you’re in a hurry, the Micro USB cable is incredibly fast. It’s nice to plug the phone in and see it zip up to 100 percent in no time at all.

The battery life isn’t terrible, but it sure isn’t as good as it should be. Samsung actually put a smaller battery in the Note 5 than the Note 4, which just doesn’t make sense. The Note 5 easily handled a full day of use, but it couldn’t make it through a day and a half, let alone two. It’s a shame, because that was one of the things that made older Notes different. The battery is not removable either, which will annoy many old-school users. This becomes more of an issue over time, because battery performance deteriorates. As our Note 5 approaches its first birthday, the battery already seems to be running out of juice earlier than it used to. This may be partly down to teething troubles with the update to Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, but we have concerns about how it will perform after two years.

That said, those who are used to charging their phones every night won’t be upset. The Note 5’s battery lasted me through a very busy day, which included a briefing during which the phone’s screen was on the whole time, because I was taking notes with the S Pen. I was down to 40 percent by 4 p.m. that day, but most days I lingered around 60 percent by 4 p.m., which is on the same level as the iPhone 6 Plus.

Samsung popped a fingerprint sensor on the home button for added security and mobile payments (more on that later). With a single press, you’re in the phone, which is much nicer than the swiping you used to have to do to unlock Samsung phones with fingerprint sensors before the Galaxy S6 launched. It works quickly and well, though not as well as Apple’s Touch ID. It’s a very close second, though.

Fantastic cameras

The 16-megapixel camera on the back of the Note 5 takes great photos, as it’s the same sensor that’s found on the Galaxy S6. It focuses quickly and performs well in most lighting conditions. You can more or less snap away with the Note 5 and get some great pictures in return.

Oddly, Samsung’s camera occasionally overcompensates sometimes. One day as the sun was setting, I took a few pictures around my neighborhood, and the resulting images were much more yellow and orange than they should have been. Pictures of fruits also took on a slightly over-saturated look. It doesn’t happen often, though.

Photos taken in low light looked decent enough, though the Note 5 struggles with them just as much as any other smartphone does. Sunny day shots look lovely, though, and indoor pictures during the day turn out well, too.

The 5-megapixel shooter on the front has become more or less the standard on Android phones these days, thanks to the selfie craze. Anyone coming from an older phone or an iPhone will certainly notice the difference in quality. The only funny thing is that the beauty mode is preset, so the first selfie you take may have you looking like a glowing angel. Luckily, you can tone it down to get more realistic results. Of course, if you’d rather look like Barbie or Ken, you can turn up the big eyes feature, increase your ethereal glow, and slim your face down – we won’t judge.

Built in live broadcasting via YouTube is also a fun new feature, allowing you to broadcast video without downloading an app.

Samsung Pay

One of the most intriguing things about the Galaxy Note 5 is a feature that you won’t find on flagships from other manufacturers: Samsung Pay. The mobile payment service is truly like no other. Inside the Note 5 is a special coil that mimics a magnetic strip on a credit or debit card using MST technology. This special coil allows Note 5 users to make mobile payments at almost any terminal – even if it doesn’t have NFC wireless payments built into it. Samsung boasted about the technology back at Mobile World Congress when it debuted the S6, but we finally got to see a demo of it, and came away impressed.

Samsung Pay seems almost as effortless as Apple Pay, and it has the advantage of working nearly everywhere.

Samsung Pay seems almost as effortless as Apple Pay, and it has the advantage of working nearly everywhere.

How it works: A simple swipe up from the bottom of the screen brings up your credit cards. You choose a card, pop your finger on the fingerprint sensor, hover your phone when you’d normally swipe your card, and you’ve paid. It seems almost as effortless as Apple Pay, and it has the advantage of working nearly everywhere (except your bank, ATM, and some places where you usually have to insert your card, not swipe it).

Samsung Pay is available in the U.S. on all major carriers’ networks. You can also use it in Australia, Spain, South Korea, and China, with a few more countries due to get it this year. It is a killer feature on the Note 5, the S6, the S6 Edge, and the S6 Edge Plus.

Conclusion

Samsung is still the king of phablets, but the gap is closing. When it comes to value for money, the Nexus 6P and the OnePlus 3 are tempting alternatives. The S Pen is the Note 5’s killer feature, and the main thing that sets it apart from other big phones like the LG G5 or the iPhone 6S Plus. Note-takers, power users, and artists love the S Pen for a reason: It’s truly fantastic. The Note 5 takes the stylus to the next level, making Samsung’s phablet the best phone for creatives.

The Note 5 may not have a removable battery or a MicroSD card slot, but neither does most of the competition, and it’s still a powerful phone that looks a hell of a lot nicer than its predecessors.

If you’re stuck between the S6 Edge Plus and the Note 5, think long and hard about your decision. The edges aren’t always comfortable, and they’re only rarely useful at this stage. The Note 5’s stylus is more handy than you might think, and Samsung has had five versions to perfect the experience, so you know you’re getting a quality stylus experience that’s streamlined for the phablet.

The Note is the better choice of Samsung’s two behemoths, and so it’s a real shame that the Korean company decided not to bring the Note to Europe and a few other regions. It will be interesting to see what Samsung does with the next Note in the series.

Review originally published August 20, 2015, and updated several times since.

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