Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Review: License to thrill

Just like 007, Samsung’s latest phablet isn’t the first to carry its title, but excels at its job anyway. Our verdict is out in our Galaxy Note 5 review!

We’ve been hard at work putting the Samsung’s note-taker through its paces, and now its time to share our thoughts on the king of the phablet world. In our Galaxy Note 5 review, we’re looking to answer the question; does this device cut a bolder profile than James Bond?
The Bond analogy is one that’s close at heart with the Galaxy Note 5. This is a stately, bold and powerful device that stands a cut above its competitors, and is not only outfitted with a suit sharp enough to make pedestrians around it go weak at the knees, it’s been equipped with enough gadgetry to make its rivals think twice.
Read: Samsung unveil the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge +
The Note 5 has always been Samsung’s calling card; the device that not only pushes TouchWiz loud and hard, but comes toting premium specifications and design aimed squarely at those at the top of the food chain. This is loud, expensive and polished, and its apparent from the very first boot-up.
Galaxy Note 5 Review

Specifications

For the rough figure of R10,200 ZAR you’re expected to pay for a 32GB model of the Note 5, Samsung have much work to do to make this a valuable proposition. The Note 5 packs in a 5.7″ Super AMOLED screen with a 518 ppi pixel density, and is powered by a Exynos 7420 chipset, sports 4GB of RAM and storage options ranging from 32-128GB, as well as a 16 and 5 megapixel primary and secondary camera split.
This is certainly a hefty spec, and one that empowers the Note 5 to not only make the best of TouchWiz, but further offers great productivity performance across the board. Just like 007, the Note 5 doesn’t mince its words nor stutters – and if it could talk, I’m fairly certain it’d have a smooth retort for every line uttered to it.
Galaxy Note 5 Review

Design

More is less with Samsung’s newfound design language that we first saw with the release of the Galaxy S6, and the Note 5 is a decidedly uninspired ‘supersize me’ capitalisation on that.
The Note 5 bears a slightly more oblong design than its Galaxy S6 forebear, and despite not bearing the now iconic Galaxy S6 Edge curved screen on the front (look to the Galaxy S6 Edge + for that) the device has a chamfered back that sits comfortably in the hand despite its size.
Whereas previous entrants in the Note line promised a certain heft and reassurance, the Note 5 is refreshingly light, and the cold touch of the device’s metallic rims soothes even the most strained fingers. I’ve not the largest hands, but I sincerely never felt over-encumbered when handling the Note 5.
Similar to the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the Note 5 doesn’t offer expandable storage, which is again a drawback for South African consumers. My assumption is – and I believe this would work in first world internet climates – is that were you able to afford this, you can afford a healthy connection to cloud storage in any case.
The Note 5 boasts an integrated fingerprint scanner on its bottom panel, which thanks to the device’s size can become an awkward affair if not held properly. For this device, I almost wish Samsung could have invested in a rear fingerprint scanner, though results are taken quickly and accurately from the front.
Of course, the major draw point of the Note 5 – and the reason behind its moniker – is the S Pen. Despite the controversy Samsung had to face with customers inserting the pen the right way round, this is an equitable unit that, as always, is well-integrated into the Note 5’s feature set – something I wish LG could have taken note of (pardon the pun) with the G4 Stylus.
The S Pen is slimmer and sexier this time around, but a worry for me was the cheap feeling the unit’s sole button gave under my index finger; were I to rattle the stylus slightly, I could hear that button shaking about, which doesn’t fulfil me with confidence were I to use the Note 5 in the longer term.
Galaxy Note 5 Review
 

User interface

Love it or hate it (and I’m far more centered to the latter) TouchWiz is here to stay. While rumours have posited that Google is working with Samsung to refine the latter’s Android skin, this is, unfortunately, stock and standard. The good news (and bad news, simultaneously) is that the Note 5’s spec range is what it takes for TouchWiz to run optimally atop Android 5.1 Lollipop.
The Note 5 has oft performed as Samsung’s demo reel for what TouchWiz can do, and the skin performs arguably better when accompanied by the company’s S Pen and Air Command functionality.
Air Command offers new tweaks for Lollipop, and is re-designed not not only look better than ever, and using the device to take a quick note is still a brilliantly executed feature.
Mercifully, TouchWiz has matured under Lollipop, and the synthesis of the skin with Google’s Material Design direction produce, for once, pleasing results. There’s a certain air of civility between the two design languages, and like Bond working with his compatriot Felix Leiter, there’s a newfound synergy and teamwork to the two.
As always, Samsung’s S Pen additions define what manufacturers should be doing to better integrate the styli with their devices; Air Command and quick note functionality have set the bar once again – and apart from Microsoft’s Surface Pen which accompanies the Surface Pro and Surface Book, I can think of few better integrations.
Time for the Apple Pencil to sit up and notice.
Galaxy Note 5 Review

Stylus

Let’s break from the Note 5 itself for a moment to concentrate on the S Pen alone. Could the Note 5 position itself just as well without the unit?
Seeing that the S Pen is the Note 5’s major value proposition above and beyond its spec, the short answer is no. Without the S Pen, the Note 5 would be left an obese Galaxy S6; and while there’s nothing wrong with the idea of that pairing – as I’ve said in Bandwidth Blog On Air – the S Pen is a vibrant and well integrated addition to the device.
Apart from some of my reservations around the units construction and not design, I’m happy to see and feel a renewed focus on Samsung’s Air Command and note taking functionality. Whereas on the G4 Stylus I found myself sheathing the unit and carrying on as per normal, I felt encourage with the Note 5 to continuously make use of the unit while note-taking and file-sharing.
For someone who loves the Surface Pro and the Surface Pen, that’s a big admission.
Galaxy Note 5 Review

Performance

We could almost squeeze past this section with a Bond-style mono-syllabolic ‘good’ – at this price point, one should suffer nothing less.
TouchWiz notoriously slows down Samsung devices, and the Galaxy Note 5 is the first in the company’s recent lineup I’ve had the pleasure of avoiding that conundrum altogether with.
The Note 5 pulls no sucker punches, but suffers no dropkicks either. During my time with the unit, the only lag I encountered was while Flipboard Briefing (now an entirely optional feature) propagated its news stories. Otherwise, the Note 5 glides and dances its way through Android whether pressed under finger or stylus.
TouchWiz might still look gaudy, but great performance on the Note 5 renders the skin far more friendly than it has in the past. Screen grabs, note-taking and media playback shines on the device’s super AMOLED screen, and leaves me feeling empowered across the device.
Galaxy Note 5 Review

Battery

The Note range has, since the Note 4, toted impressive battery capabilities, and the Note 5’s standby time left me floored, lasting up until nearly a week when left on a Wi-Fi connection to its own devices. Try as I might to kil it, the Note 5 stands up each time.
I achieved an approximate 20 hour use time while using the device strenuously as a daily driver – an impressive feat considering all the unit has to manage not only on a specification front, but further with TouchWiz running atop it all and with S Pen additions to boot.

Galaxy Note 5 Review
Taken with the Note 5’s primary camera

Camera

Put succinctly, the Note 5 is my new standard for how a camera should perform on a premium smartphone in 2015 or 2016.
The impressive primary camera I first observed with the Galaxy A5 – and later through brief use of the Galaxy S6 Edge – has blossomed into something truly marvellous with the Note 5. Shots are lightning fast, detailed, and the device’s post-processing is possibly the best I’ve yet encountered on a smartphone. A person’s choice in smartphone camera is subjective – and, usually, I’d propose a Sony Xperia Z unit or iPhone were someone to ask me which smartphone camera I’d recommend – but this, personally, is my new standard.

Galaxy Note 5 Review
Taken with the Note 5’s primary camera

Things fall short, however, on the front facing camera, which I noticed offers some slight barrel distortion and doesn’t perform nearly as well in low light as the primary camera. Still, for happy-go-lucky selfies on the go, this is a perfectly good proposition that only feels out of place because the primary camera is simply so stellar.
Galaxy Note 5 Review
Taken with the Note 5’s secondary camera

Video capture on the primary camera lends itself to extraordinary results, with optical image stabilisation offering professional-feeling content in seconds. The secondary camera offers decent performance, but little thrill – perfect for capturing that New Year’s Day cheer, but little else.

Overall

While Sony might have taken the Bond franchising rights from Spectre for the release of the Xperia Z5, the Galaxy Note 5 is the closest analogy to Daniel Craig’s bond I’ve yet found.
Tough, well-equipped, ready-to-go and hard-to-kill stamina define this device, which shoots and takes notes first and has a martini second. For the price consumers are expected to pay, this is a valuable piece of tech that lives up to its promises and isn’t obtrusive while doing so.
Kitted in a subtle suit with the latest gadgetry and software to boot, this is an impressive return to form for Samsung – and my only regret about this device is its Galaxy S6 aping looks. While having a design language in this direction is a good move for Samsung, having all products resemble each other so strongly kills the uniqueness-factor of each device. What the Note 5 amounts to is a blade in the crowd, and not a stand-out icon.
Perfect for secret agents, but lacking a certain excitement factor for the everyman.
Galaxy Note 5 Review

Conclusion

Let’s wrap up. If money is no object and you’re after a hard-hitting phone with indistinct yet stately looks, that shoots first, takes notes quickly, and never, ever stutters nor fails, the Galaxy Note 5 is for you. What holds this device back is its lack of a unique visual identity amongst other new Samsung devices, an S Pen that doesn’t feel quality, and the ever-gaudy TouchWiz interface. If you’ve ever wanted to play at Bond – charming, observant, powerful and sharply spoken, the Galaxy Note 5 will give you license to thrill.
Score: 8/10
What are your thoughts on our Galaxy Note 5 review? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!