Although we have already had a chance to check out Samsung's Galaxy Note5 and write a detailed preview about it, we got another opportunity yesterday to play with one at the New York Unpacked event.
The Note5 is the successor to the Galaxy Note 4, a phone we really liked. It is the fifth phone in Samsung's series of Note devices that started the whole large-screen phablet revolution back in 2011.
This year, though, Samsung has radically transformed the Note5 into a device that perhaps doesn't honor the tenets that made the Note series of phones great. The capitulation to market (and perhaps a little media) pressure made Samsung abandon a few of the core features of its Galaxy S series of phones this year. The Galaxy S6 and S6 edge are crafted from premium materials – glass and metal – but by incorporating them, the battery became non-removable, and the microSD slot was removed.
The new Note has befallen the same fate. Its battery is fixed in place, and the microSD slot is nowhere to be seen. However, if these sacrifices were the only way to achieve what we saw today (which was a gorgeous device), perhaps we could learn to live with the omissions. We're sure, though, that some of you won't be able to.
One thing to keep in mind, even if you are unhappy with the changes, is that there are number of other improvements outside of its physical design that do make the Note5 somewhat of a worthy successor to the phablet throne.
|Samsung Galaxy Note5|
|Display||5.7-inch SAMOLED @ 2560x1440 (518 PPI)|
|SoC||Samsung Exynos 7420|
|CPU Core||ARM Cortex-A57 (4x @ 2.1GHz) + ARM Cortex-A53 (4x @ 1.5GHz) [big.LITTLE]|
|GPU Core||ARM Mali-T760MP8 @ 772 MHz|
|Memory||4 GB LPDDR4|
|Storage||32 GB, 64 GB|
|Battery||3000 mAh, non-removable|
|Front Camera||5 MP, f/1.9|
|Rear Camera||16 MP, 1/2.6" Sony IMX240 Exmor RS or Samsung S5K2P2 ISOCELL, 1.12μm, f/1.9, PDAF, OIS, automatic HDR, object tracking autofocus, LED flash|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2x2 MIMO), Bluetooth 4.2 LE, NFC, 4G LTE (Cat 9), microUSB 2.0|
|Special Features||S Pen (stylus), Multi Window, fingerprint scanner (touch), Samsung Pay, Quick Launch camera, wireless charging (WPC 1.1 & PMA 1.0), Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0|
|OS|| Android 5.1.1|
|Size||153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6 mm, 171g|
Because we've already covered in detail the specifications of the Note5, we won't go over them again here. Suffice it say that they are almost the same as the Galaxy S6's. While some may be disappointed with this news, you have to ask yourself: Is this really that big of a deal? Keep in mind that the Exynos 7420 SoC found in the S6 and Note5 is widely considered to be the best mobile chip on the market today.
Seeing that there is no better silicon available right now, what other choice did Samsung have, other than to duplicate much of the S6's internal specifications? There is no new Exynos chip coming in the near future, and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 isn't coming in 2016.
Still, the Note5 does have 1 GB or more RAM, which should help a little when multitasking with many applications open at once. Further, because the Note5's chassis is roomier, the Exynos SoC should have more thermal headroom and be able to run at higher frequencies for longer. The bigger chassis should also dissipate heat better, making for a cooler phone.
When it comes down to it, Galaxy S6 specs or not, when you compare the Note5 to its current and former competition, it should still handily outperform all of them.
The Note5's 5.7-inch Super AMOLED QHD display looks very impressive, which is to be expected because Samsung currently produces the best smartphone screens. The minimal side bezels also means the Note5 is quite compact for a phone with such a large display. What is not clear is if this is the same QHD panel as the Note 4, or if it has been upgraded to be brighter and have better color accuracy.
We do, however, continue to question the insistence that Samsung's 2016 phones don't need expandable storage. Yes, we know the internal UFS 2.0 NAND storage architecture is much better than any microSD card can offer, but at least give your users the option of adding extra storage.
What's perhaps the more egregious decision is to not equip the Note5 with a removable battery. While we do understand that to retain the S6's glass and metal design would have made adding this feature significantly challenging, surely Samsung could figure something out -- that, or just keep the new Note closer to its predecessors. (It is possible to have a back that is both made from a premium material and removable. Just ask LG.)
This decision would possibly not have been taken so badly if Samsung had given the Note5 a little more girth. We are sure most buyers wouldn't notice, and even a few millimeters would have allowed for a bigger internal battery. Prior to yesterday's event, many were expecting to see the Note5 with a 4,000 mAh battery. As it stands, the Note5's battery is bigger than the one in the S6 and S6 edge, which should translate to more battery life because there are so many similarities in hardware.
Samsung's solutions to all this battery size stress is to rely on new technologies to compensate for what are (on paper) essentially downgrades from the preceding Note.
The Note5 supports the WPC's (Wireless Power Consortium) new Qi-based 15-watt fast charging tech. Samsung claimed that the Note5 can be fully charged wirelessly in as little as two hours, but we'll have to test that ourselves when we can. Even if the preceding is true, fast charging is no substitute for the ability to swap out a dying battery and go from zero to 100 percent power in a matter of seconds.
Not only has the Galaxy Note5 adopted the same materials as the Galaxy S series, but it now also uses identical design language. Previous Note phones did stand a little more apart, having their own appearance that mirrored their name. The Note 3, for example, took design cues from paper notebooks, with its faux leather back and ridged sides that were inspired by a stack of paper.
For this year, Samsung believes there is more value in having a unified language across all its (premium, at least) phones, so the Note5 is all glass and metal. One unique touch is that the sides of its back are curved, a feature that is both aesthetically pleasing and ergonomic. Essentially, though, we are still left with the fact that the Note5 has lost part of its identity. It now looks like a giant Galaxy S6, and while this may widen its appeal, it's likely to be seen as a negative by existing Note converts.
At the top of the phone is the SIM card tray, and at the bottom the USB 2.0 charging port, headphone jack, speaker and the S Pen. On the Note5, Samsung continues only to offer a single speaker, when clearly there would be enough room on such a large phone to include front-facing stereo speakers. We continue to be baffled as to why Samsung thinks this isn't a feature that its users would find useful.
As we discussed in our preview, the Note5 uses the same camera hardware as the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge. The sensor, optics and features are identical. This also means that the camera sensor lottery issue will probably still apply to the Note5. When testing the S6s, we discovered that Samsung was including either a Sony or Samsung sensor, and the choice of sensor used wasn't made clear to the user prior to purchase. What you would get was almost random, depending on when and what factory the phone was produced in.
Samsung said that in practice, there were no differences between the sensors because they had identical specifications and features. However, our testing revealed that the Sony sensor produced slightly better images. If this issue does persist, let's hope Samsung at least perhaps identifies which sensor a given phone has on its packaging.
Despite this problem, though, the Galaxy S6 still had one of the best cameras that we've ever tested on a smartphone. You can be sure that no matter the sensor you are dealt (if this issue persists), that the Note5's camera will perform very well.
At the Unpacked event, we did hear a little more about one new feature of the Note5's phone: It has improved stabilization in video mode, called Video Digital Imaging Stabilization, which works in conjunction with the OIS to produce even smoother videos. Although we weren't able to test it at the show, the sample videos shown were impressively stable.
Software And S Pen Updates
On the software side, we didn't get enough time with the Note5 to explore what is new this time round. It is still running Android 5.1.1, but the TouchWiz launcher's appearance has been updated and features new icons with a more rounded look. We can't say we like these new icons, though their shape does match the design aesthetic of the phone's hardware. But hoping that Samsung will adopt a more muted stock Android appearance for its default UI is a fool's errand.
The main focus of the software improvements made to the Note5 has to do with its characteristic S Pen. On the Note5, the Air Command radial menu that is used to access the Pen's functions has been completely overhauled. On the Note 4, a small circular menu would pop up when you removed the S Pen from its slot, and on demand by pressing a button on the pen.
On the Note5, the Air Command menu is now a fullscreen overlay over whatever screen you are currently viewing and persists until you select an option, or close it.
A couple of other new features are the ability to scroll when doing a screen capture, allowing you to take a screenshot of a long web page or a long list of directions in Google Maps. You can now also write on the screen when the phone is sleeping, which appears as white handwriting on the blank display, and when you wake the phone, it saves this as a new note.
At the Unpacked event, Samsung had a wall of accessories on display showcasing all the first-party and third-party options for the Note5. As can be seen from the image above, there are going to be a wide variety of options to choose from. Perhaps the most bizarre accessory on display, though, is the new keyboard cover.
This mini-keyboard clips on magnetically over the front of the Note5, and turns it into essentially a BlackBerry Passport. When attached, the OS shifts everything up to accommodate the keyboard, which is a neat trick. Of course, this may play havoc with third-party apps. This accessory is certainly a novel approach to improving the typing experience on a big phone like the Note5, but we are not sure how many users would really want to use it.
We weren't able to test it out to see how well the keyboard performed, but we will say that it is definitely one of the most unattractive smartphone add-ons we've seen in recent memory. It turns your Note into a Frankenstein's monster of BlackBerry, old feature phone keyboard and phablet. Still, if it wasn't too expensive, we'd still want to own one, just to see the look on people's faces when we pull it out and attach it to our phone.
Pricing And Availability
|Carriers||U.S.: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless|
Canada: Bell, Rogers, SaskTel, Telus, Wind Mobile, and Videotron
|Colors||U.S. and Canada: Black Sapphire and White Pearl|
Rest of World: Black Sapphire, White Pearl, Gold Platinum, and Silver Titanium
It does appear that initially North America will lose out a little in the color choice department. We only get the black and white phone here. In other markets, there are also silver and gold Note5's, which can be seen below. The Note5 will be available on a wide variety of carriers in both Canada and the U.S.
In the U.S., the 32 GB Galaxy Note5 is $250 with a 2-year contract, and the 64 GB model is $350. Outright, the Note5 starts at around $700 for the 32 GB model and $800 for the 64 GB, depending on what carrier you choose.
In Canada, the Note5 jumps in price considerably. The 32 GB model is $360 with a 2-year contract, and the 64 GB model is expected to be $460. Outright, the Note5 starts at around $800 for the 32 GB model and $900 for the 64 GB, depending on what carrier you choose.
New Note, Big Disappointment?
Overall, from the time we spent with the Galaxy Note5 at last week's preview and at yesterday's Unpacked event, we came away simultaneously impressed and a little disappointed. In many ways the Note5 is the best Note yet, incorporating the most powerful mobile hardware currently available along with useful advancements in how its signature feature, the S Pen, works. It is also one of the best-looking large-screen phones on the market, exquisitely crafted from premium materials. Samsung also produces the best screens in the business, and the gorgeous 5.7-inch display fits into a body that is smaller than the last year's model -- an impressive feat.
Unfortunately, there is no getting around the fact that in order to achieve some its design goals, Samsung cut some of the features that make a Note, well, a Note. The battery is no longer removable and there is no microSD slot. For many people, these omissions are going to be unforgivable, and it seems odd that Samsung is almost turning on the fans that made the Note series of phones so popular in the first place. We also think that perhaps in Samsung's chase to offer the same level of craftsmanship and design as that fruit company's phones, it has produced devices that look perhaps a little too similar.
Still, we don't want to pass final judgement until we've been able to spend a real amount of time with the Note5, so stay tuned for more. Perhaps after using it for an extended period our concerns will dissipate.
Update, 8/16/15, 1:15 pm PT: Minor corrections made to the S Pen section.
Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware and Tom's IT Pro, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.