Event Coverage

Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy Note 5

By Bryan Chan & Ng Chong Seng - 13 Aug 2015

Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy Note 5

 

The best big-screen smartphones money can buy

We’ll cut to the chase. At a press event today at New York City, Samsung has announced the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 edge+, two of the best kept secrets (not!) in the smartphone industry.

More importantly (and impressively), like what we’ve deduced earlier, Samsung is changing its modus operandi with regards to retail availability this time, as the company has confirmed that both phablets will ship very, very soon. In fact, the Galaxy Note 5 will go on sale in stores starting this Saturday, August 15.

Now, if you’re here for a quick take, know that the Galaxy Note 5 is like a bigger Galaxy S6 edge, but which has swapped the curved screen for S Pen support. And the Galaxy S6 edge+ is, well, a bigger S6 edge.

Not satisfied with our executive summary? Here’s the longer story, starting with the Galaxy Note 5.

 

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

True to rumors, the Galaxy Note 5 packs a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display with a 2,560 x 1,440-pixel (Quad HD) resolution, which translates to a pixel density of 518 pixels per inch (ppi). Despite the lower pixel density versus the S6/S6 edge (the latter shares a 1440p resolution but comes with a smaller screen), graphics on the Note 5 still looks razor sharp. The Exynos 7420 octa-core SoC (four cores clocked at 2.1GHz, another four at 1.5GHz), the same one used in the S6 models, is also screaming fast; aided by 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, there was nary a stutter duringour brief hands-on time with it.

Other than the obvious difference in size, the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 models share a very similar design. This means the Note 5 retains the sturdy metal frame with chamfered edges and Gorilla Glass 4 at front and back with a color finish that shimmers under different lighting. Viewed straight on, you’ll also notice the same sensor placements, the same 5MP frontal camera, and your usual fingerprint-sensing, metal-ringed Home button, flanked once again by discrete Recent Apps and Back keys.

But Samsung did make some design tweaks. For example, unlike the S6, the Note 5's glass back is curved. This undoubtedly makes for better handling, which is critical for a phablet. (we’re looking at you, super-slippery iPhone 6.) While this tapered design is somewhat reminiscent of the aluminum-clad Galaxy A8, in the hand, the Note 5 reminded me more of the Xiaomi Mi Note, another phablet with a curved glass back.

It’s also on this glass back that we see the 16MP, f/1.9, optically-stabilized camera. While there was talk before this that Samsung would switch to a new sensor and get rid of the camera bulge, it didn’t happen; Samsung told us that the pair of cameras (the front snapper is 5MP, f/1.9) are the same as the ones on the S6 models. Still, if history is any indication, the Note 5's camera performance should be great. Pro shooters looking to squeeze every ounce of image quality will also be happy to know that there's now an option to save RAW files in Pro mode. And yes, 4K video recording and the double-press Home button action to launch the camera app remain as well, and so is the heart rate monitor (still located beside the camera, at the LED flash area) that doubles as a shutter button for selfies. If you're into sharing your videos in real-time on YouTube, there's now a live broadcasting mode in the built-in camera app. You can also create a single collage using multiple videos.

From the sides, it’s not hard to see that the Galaxy Note 5 resembles the Galaxy S6 edge more than the regular S6. We’ve the individual volume buttons on the left, the power button on the right, and the nano-SIM card slot at the top. Speaking of cellular connectivity, the phablet continues to support LTE Cat 9 and carrier aggregation, including tri-band LTE networks that use the 900MHz band. In Southeast Asia, the only telco that’s deployed a tri-band 4G network is Singtel.

With a headphone jack, Micro-USB port, and speaker holes, the bottom of the Galaxy Note 5 is yet another familiar sight. Since this is a Note, we also have the S Pen, which is tucked right at the corner. The combination of a metal-and-glass design and a non-removable rear cover means that unlike previous Notes, the Note 5 doesn’t have this little cutout at the back for your fingernail to pull out the S Pen. Samsung’s workaround is a spring-loaded S Pen tip. So a gentle push will have this tip pop out a few millimeters, enough for you to then pull out the pen. With an improved built, this is also the best-feeling S Pen to date.

If for some reason you prefer typing on a physical keyboard instead of writing, know that the keyboard case that was previously rumored for the S6 edge+ is real, and there's a version for the Note 5 too.

 

No microSD card slot, no removable battery, no 128GB version

Did we just say that the Galaxy Note 5 has a non-removable back cover? That and the SIM card slot at the top should be obvious hints that the phablet doesn’t have a user-replaceable battery and microSD card slot. For the former, we can sort of understand, as it allows for a slimmer design. Along with support for super-fast charging and built-in, dual-standard wireless charging, we suppose many users can accept it, albeit begrudgingly. Interestingly, the Note 5 comes with a 3,000mAh battery, which is slightly smaller than the 3,220mAh one found on the Note 4. We won’t jump to conclusions yet, because it’s entirely possible that the difference can be overcome by the more power-efficient Exynos SoC and Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.

The lack of a storage expansion slot however will be more sorely missed, especially for users who use their Galaxy Notes as a movie/TV show-consumption device, and therefore rely heavily on a microSD card to hold their media files. Sure, Samsung can point to the fact that the Note 5 comes in 32GB and 64GB options (yup, no 128GB model), and that the UFS 2.0-based storage is very fast, but these are moot points for users whom, as we mentioned a few sentences back, just need an affordable option to store their files.

 

Continued software refinement

Moving on to some better news, Samsung has stuck to its earlier decision to shed the weight and complexity of its TouchWiz interface. The result is a clean-looking and smooth UI for the Note 5. The Note 4’s useful Air Command function and related features like Action Memo, Smart Select, and Screen Write also stay, along with a redesigned menu that leans ever closer to Google’s Material design. Furthermore, you can now add up to three third-party app shortcuts to the Air Command menu.

Thankfully, Samsung didn’t just stop there. Other software tricks include this neat ability to screen-capture a long webpage (Samsung calls it Scroll Capture, and it’s part of the Screen Write feature), which you can then annotate on afterwards, as well as the ability to write on PDF documents. Heck, you can even start writing on the screen right after you eject the S Pen and without turning on the screen (Samsung calls this Screen Off Memo).

Now, do all these software features take up memory? Sure, the demo unit that we've been fiddling with had around 2GB of free RAM after a restart. For all intents and purposes, that’s still plenty.

In addition to a Google folder that holds the search giant’s apps and services, the Microsoft Apps folder that we first saw on the Galaxy S6/S6 edge is again found on the Note 5, and it houses the OneDrive, OneNote, Skype, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps. Like the S6 models, the Note 5 comes with free 100GB of OneDrive storage for two years. The cloud is definitely one way to solve the storage crunch - that is, until you can’t get on to the Internet due to poor cellular coverage or crappy Wi-Fi.

 

 

An upgrade or a downgrade?

we're sure the Galaxy Note 5 will be panned by many people for ditching its predecessor’s removable battery and microSD card slot. For users who buy Samsung Galaxy devices for these two features, perhaps rightly so. However, we think it’s hyperbole to call the Note 5 a downgrade. Think about it, versus the Note 4, it’s better built, has a speedier processor, more and faster RAM, a better camera, supports wireless charging with the optional cover, and UHQA (Ultra High Quality Audio) upscaling.

More critically, the Note 5 is still a productivity beast. Because the one feature that defines the Galaxy Note series, the S Pen, is still there, along with new and sensibly implemented features like Screen Off Memo and Scroll Capture. A new version of SideSync (a PC-mobile solution that enables you to share screens and data easily between your PCs and Galaxy devices) is also inbound, bringing improvements like an ultra-quick setup and call/message notifications on the PC. And lastly, like the regular S6 models, the Note 5 works with the Samsung Pay mobile payment service, which supports both NFC and MST (magnetic secure transmission) technologies for transactions.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 will be available from August 15 in Black Sapphire and Gold Platinum, with 32GB and 64GB storage options. However, local pricing remain to be confirmed at the moment. For more information, you can click here.

(Of course, if you don’t give two hoots about the S Pen, and prefer a large curved screen instead, there’s always the Galaxy S6 edge+.)