So long, faux-leather backing. Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 5 is all slim, shiny, large-screened luster, with a redesigned stylus to match. It’s eye-catching all right, but there isn’t terribly much that’s new.
Inside, the Note 5 is essentially a redux of last year’s Note 4 (but with a smaller battery and no expandable storage). You could also think of the Note 5 as a larger, stylus-equipped version of this past April’s metal-and-glass Galaxy S6 (and S6 Edge), with the same processor, top-tier cameras and built-in wireless charging. The Note 5 also gets the improved fingerprint reader found on the S6 and the Edge, as well as Samsung Pay (for the US and South Korea right now). Complicating matters is a fourth phone that shares the same basic credentials, the curved-side Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+.
We’ve been spoiled these last couple of years by Note phones that represented the pinnacle of Samsung’s technical prowess, striding beyond the current Galaxy S model with stronger cameras, denser screen pixels and new software. This time, however, changes are slim. Mostly, they focus on a few more S-Pen stylus tricks.
This slowdown in the smartphone industry’s breakneck release of ever-more-powerful hardware specs doesn’t affect Samsung alone, but it does put pressure on the company to stay ahead of its biggest challengers: Apple on the high end; and much cheaper, slightly lower-end “flagship” phone-makers like Xiaomi (Xiaomi Mi Note Pro) and OnePlus (OnePlus 2). The fact that the Note 5 is now one of four top-tier Galaxy choices — alongside the S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ — introduces the additional risk of befuddling buyers.
So, apart from its admittedly good looks, there’s little that’s new in the Note 5 to elicit strong excitement, and the allure of that flashy glass back panel quickly fades as your smudgy fingerprints bloom all over its mirrored surface. Despite all that, the Note 5 is still clearly a high-end handset — so far it seems the most powerful of any stylus device — and one that first-time Note users will enjoy.
Where can you buy it, and for how much?
Along with the Galaxy S6 Edge+, the Galaxy Note 5 sells globally on August 21. The phone comes in gold, silver, black and white, though different regions may carry different colors.
Pricing will vary by region and carrier, but the Note 5 will cost you less than the S6 Edge+.
In the US, it’ll launch in black and white colors (but not gold or silver) for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular and Verizon. Expect it to eventually appear on prepaid carriers as well.
AT&T is selling the Note 5 in black and white for $0 down with its Next 24 (30 total payments), Next 18 (24 total payments) and Next 12 (20 total payments) plans. Here’s the pricing breakdown: With Next 24, it’s $24.67 monthly for 32GB and $28 for 64GB. With Next 18, it’s $30.84 every month for 32GB and $35 for 64GB. On the Next 12 plan, it’s $37 per month for 32GB and $42 for 64GB.
Sprint will sell the phone four different ways, depending on how you want to buy it. With its Lease program, it’s $0 down and $25 per month for the 32GB model and $30 per month for the 64GB option. If you opt for Easy Pay, you’ll pay $0 down and either $30 or $34 monthly for the 32GB and 64GB variants, respectively. With a new two-year service agreement, the 32GB model is $249.99 and the 64GB is $349.99. Finally, without any contract, you can buy the phone outright for $720 (32GB) and $816 (64GB).
Verizon is charging $29 per month for 24 months with zero interest for the 32GB Note 5 (full price is $696), and $33 per month for 24 months with zero interest for the 64GB model (full price is $792). You can get either model in black or white. Participating stores will have the phone on display starting August 2014.
T-Mobile is offering the Note 5 in black and white for $0 down, then $32.50 per month for 23 months and $32.49 for 24th month. The full retail price is $779.99, which you can pay in full up front if you don’t want to make monthly payments.
US Cellular is selling the Note 5 for $199 with a two-year contract. Without a contract, you can make 20 monthly installment payments of $33.42 for the 32GB model and $38.46 for 64GB, with $0 down.
Design and build
- 5.7-inch display; 2,560×1,440 pixels (518 pixels per inch)
- Metal and glass construction
- 6 by 3 by 0.3 inches (153 by 76 by 7.6mm)
- 6.03 (171 grams)
Like the Galaxy S6, this Note 5 has straight sides, a flat face and slight curves on the back of the spines (the back is still pretty flat, though). There’s no dramatic screen curvature like on the S6 Edge or Edge+. Instead, its top and bottom edges that flare out in a rounded arc, thicker than the phone’s middle. It’ll still fill your hand — this is a large screen, but the overall sensation is still of slimness, especially compared to the relatively bulky Note 4.
Although that AMOLED display still measures 5.7 inches, Samsung has shaved down the Note 5’s dimensions, making the handset feel overall sleeker and slimmer than last year’s Note 4. That’s good news for one-handed phone jockeys, who get the same screen real estate in a more streamlined package. The 2,560×1,440-pixel resolution (515 pixels per inch) holds steady from last year, lending a lot of crisp detail to the screen, possibly even more than we strictly need.
Samsung adds some new stylus functionality, like being able to jot a memo with the screen turned off.
Below the display, the usual two soft keys (Recent Apps and Back) sandwich the physical home button, which also serves as the phone’s fingerprint reader and Google Now call-up. You’ll find the power/lock button on the right and volume rocker on the left. Along the bottom are the standard Micro-USB charger, headset jacks and S-Pen holster (alas, not USB-C as we had hoped), with the SIM card tray up top.
On the back, you’ll see the 16-megapixel camera lens, flash and heart-rate reader (the 5-megapixel lens lives on the top right third of the strip above the screen). There’s no removable backplate or battery, and you won’t find an expandable storage slot anywhere.
- Click-in holster
- Slightly recessed button
The Note S-Pen changes a little bit every year. This time around, the stylus audibly clicks into place inside the Note 5’s chute like the crown of a retractable pen. It’s kind of fun, but the fit is so snug, I had to really tease it out. The plastic pen has long, flat planes to keep it from rolling away on a tabletop. Its single button slightly recesses from the surface to avoid mispresses, which I’ve found common in previous S-Pen designs.
Click! A new mechanism secures the S-Pen.
Samsung claims that its pen writes a lot better this time around, more fluidly and with decreased latency times — this is a claim we’ll clearly have to test against the Note 4.
The S-Pen continues to act as a writing implement, pointer and navigational accomplice. You can use it to pull up a menu dialog box, or a photo or video preview when you hover over it with the pen. It also works with those touch-sensitive menu buttons and the physical home button. Dragging and dropping text, and capturing the screen are two other tricks.
Redesigned shortcuts wheel: Called Air Command before, this is a floating icon you can see on any screen that opens up to reveal a circular menu of most frequently used apps, say the S-Note app, the browser or your photo gallery. You can customize this by adding up to three apps of your choice.
Screen memo: This feature lets you create a memo even when the screen is turned off (but only just after pulling out the S-Pen, not if it’s been out for a while). I like this addition; it adds to the S-Pen’s ability to really quickly jot a note. (This comes turned off by default.)
This fifth-generation S-Pen boasts better writing.
PDF writing: Yep, you can now annotate PDFs by writing all over them.
Scrolling capture: Instead of taking several screenshots of a long piece of text, the Note 5 will prompt you to capture more of the whole screen. You’ll be able to annotate right on the screenshot too, of course.
Android and apps
- Android 5.1 Lollipop
- S-Note, S-Memo
The Galaxy Note 5 will launch with Android 5.1 Lollipop, bolstered by Samsung’s own TouchWiz layer. That means the phone will be able to tie into Google’s wide array of services (like Google Now, turn-by-turn navigation and access to Drive files), while also tapping into Samsung’s own software, all of which customizes the display’s look and feel — like those quick-access toggles in the notifications shade and anything that has to do with the S-Pen.
In addition, Samsung’s apps include Note mainstays like S-Note and S-Memo, though the company has really pulled back on its preloaded apps. You’ll find the whole bushel of optional add-ons tucked away in various spots throughout the phone.
The camera situation
- 16-megapixel camera
- 5-megapixel front-facing camera
- 4K video resolution
- Live broadcasting to YouTube
If you look at the megapixel count alone, not much has changed with the Note 5’s 16-megapixel camera. However, Samsung has adopted a larger sensor (f1.9 instead of the Note 4’s f1.26). This is the same sensor that’s used in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. The main idea is bigger sensor equals more light. More light leads to better photos. The image processing capabilities make a huge difference too, of course, but the bottom line is that the overall photo quality should incrementally improve from the Note 4.
Based on how the S6 performed, I’m looking for clearer, brighter low-light photos and night shots in addition to all those juicy, saturated daytime images. The S6 did have its struggle spots, though, but on the whole, I’m expecting good things.
A peek at the native camera menu.
As with the Galaxy S6 and many other phones, the Note 5 has optical image stabilization and an array of modes and tools. There’s auto-HDR right on the screen and panorama and selective focus as separate modes within. Brand-new is a live broadcasting feature that lets you record to YouTube, Samsung’s official partner in this. There’s intentionally a 30-second delay between when you start recording and when the footage hits YouTube. I’ve only seen the demo so far, but this seems like Samsung and YouTube’s take on Twitter’s Periscope tool.
Good news for selfie-lovers is the Note 5’s front-facing camera levels up from a 3.9-megapixel jobbie to a 5-megapixel sensor. Again, this mimics the S6/Edge combo. Look for a default beauty mode to airbrush your skin, and for wide-angle selfies that you and your friends can all squeeze into.
- Samsung Exynos 7 octa-core processor
- 32GB/64GB storage options
- 4GB of RAM
- 3,000mAh battery (non-removable)
- No microSD expansion slot
- Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
The Note 5’s inner power changes a little this year, some of it for the worse.
Let’s start with the octa-core processor. Samsung sticks with its Exynos 7 chipset from the S6, a 2.1GHz quad-core chip, plus a second 1.5GHz quad-core chip for lower-powered tasks. What makes this a departure from last year’s phone is that Samsung is using this processor on global devices. A longstanding partnership with Qualcomm put a Snapdragon processor inside the Note 4. I expect the Note 4 to follow suit on the S6’s strong performance.
The 4GB of RAM (versus the Note 4’s 3GB) is going to help keep things running smoothly.
Inside the unibody Note 5 lurks a Samsung-made octa-core processor.
Unfortunately, the storage situation is a bummer. With no expandable option, you’ll have to get either the 32GB or 64GB versions and hope you have enough cloud storage if you push against your ceiling. Because the Note 5 has a lot more internal software for operating that stylus, you’ll have less available space on a device like this than you would on the lighter-weight S6.
Also keep in mind that the Note 4 started at 32GB and offered up to 128GB in extra storage through the microSD card slot, so you’re really losing out on your options if you choose the 32GB version of this phone.
You’re also losing a bit of battery capacity, and some flexibility. The Note 4’s removable 3,200mAh ticker drops down to a 3,000mAh embedded battery. It’s unclear how much a difference this will make, since Samsung may have tightened up efficiencies that wind up using fewer resources overall. We’ll have to wait for our rounds of battery testing to know for sure.
What we do know is that the Note 5 incorporates two wireless charging standards (PMA and WPC), and has two stages of power-saving modes that you can find in the settings (including the much much more austere ultra power-saving mode).
Compared to last year’s Note, right, this year’s is a glass-and-metal masterpiece.
Audio and syncing
- Audio support: UHQ 24bit/192kHz
- Automated syncing
Audiophiles will like the sound of this: improved sound quality for low bit-rate files that usually take a beating during compression. The technical spec is UHQ 24bit/192kHz, which contrasts with MP3 quality (16bit/48kHz). The idea is that this feature will make your tunes and streaming audio sound better. An enhanced Bluetooth codec to support UHQ-quality streaming will help make music sound better on your Bluetooth-connected headphones or portable speaker.
On the syncing and management side, Samsung has spruced up SideSync (version 4.0) to make sharing content with your PC, tablet or TV a little smoother with. New here is auto-connection (after the initial setup), and the ability, a like Apple’s Handoff feature, to respond to text and calls from the computer screen. You can also now drag and drop software between your desktop and phone. The software you’ll need works with Windows PCs, tablets and Macs.
Samsung has readied a stable of add-ons for the Note 5, including several cases, a faster wireless charging puck, and a power brick that charges your phone wirelessly and your other devices through a cable. The most distinctive case, the Keyboard Cover, snaps a QWERTY keyboard on the front of the screen.
Outlook and final thoughts
I spent a fair amount of time here talking about the Note 5’s radical cosmetic about-face, incremental hardware changes and disappointingly downgraded battery and storage options. Taken as a whole, the Note 5 still looks like it’s going to be a terrific device with strengths in its stylus capabilities and flashy design, though Samsung has opened the door to competitors that can offer an expansive screen with expandable storage and a larger battery capacity.
It’s true that the Galaxy Note 5 fails to take us as far as the Note 4 did over the Note 3, but this also reveals a bias that we expect each new iteration to wildly outperform its predecessor. The Note 5 seems a little bit better across the board than the Note 4, but for those upgrading from a Note 3, or joining the Note family for the first time, the 5 here has a lot to offer.
The big question in my mind is if Samsung just shot itself in the foot by offering too many concurrent phones that do too many of the same things. The 5.1-inch S6 is the Everyman phone; the S6 Edge is the specialized S6 with rounded sides; and the 5.7-inch Galaxy S6 Edge+ is the same rounded thing again, but even bigger — and pricier. Where does that leave the Note 5? Luckily for this phone, the fact that its price is lower than that of the S6 Edge+ makes it the more affordable of Samsung’s two extra-large handsets, and the one that more people will choose if they aren’t specifically seeking out the Edge+’s exotic form.