We're witnessing a change in direction for the Note line — and it could alienate some of its most loyal customers.
Samsung's Galaxy Note line has historically given us as a strong bump in performance, features and design over the Galaxy S device of the year, creating a six-month interval between releases of its leading devices. The latest Galaxy S usually defines Samsung's direction for the year — which tentpole features are important, what the software will look like and the how the marketing will be positioned. The Galaxy Note series follows its own parallel (but distinctly separate) path, working with its much-loved larger screen to fit in even better specs while bringing in a few design changes along the way.
Things are a little different this year. The Galaxy S6 marked a complete overhaul of the Galaxy S line, with a new hardware approach and a streamlining of the software that cut back on bloat and superfluous features. Instead of changing it all up again just six months later, Samsung is launching the Galaxy Note 5 (and the Galaxy S6 edge+) with a very similar look, feature set and software experience. The new metal construction with a glass back returns, as does that great 16-megapixel rear camera — and just like the GS6 you won't be removing the battery or adding an SD card to the Note 5, which is a big change of pace.
The changes may not be dramatic compared to the Galaxy S6, but there's a lot to wrap your head around when looking at the differences between the latest Galaxy Note and its year-old predecessor. We had a chance to use the Galaxy Note 5 and generate some initial impressions on the phone — and our preview will tell you everything you need to know.
Galaxy Note 5 hands-on video
There's a lot going on with the announcement of both the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 edge+, so we've wrapped the big points up in our hands-on preview video right here. Check out the video, then read on for our full impressions.
Well, it's a big Galaxy S6
Galaxy Note 5 hardware
Samsung clearly is happy with its handiwork on the Galaxy S6, because the Galaxy Note 5 carries over that glass and metal look almost entirely, just in a larger size. The same style of metal frame wraps around the outside of the Note 5 and runs through its center, only broken along the edges by buttons, ports and fine lines for antennas. The volume keys are high up on the left edge, with the power button lower and on the right — a standard Micro USB port is on the bottom along with a headphone jack and speaker grille. There's also a new slot to hold the S Pen flush with the bottom of the phone, retractable with a press of your finger (more on this below).
Samsung must be happy with the Galaxy S6 design, because it's here again in full force.
Front-on and from more than a few feet away you can't tell a Note 5 apart from a Galaxy S6, as both have a very similar shape and screen-to-bezel ratio. The 5.7-inch display on the Note 5 makes it bigger than the GS6, of course, but the difference isn't that dramatic thanks to an overall size that's smaller than the Note 4. Where things change is on the back — Samsung has chosen to take the curved glass technology seen on the Galaxy S6 edge and use it here to give the phone a more comfortable feel.
The otherwise flat piece of glass on the back of the Note 5 curves off on the left and right edges at the exact same radius as the front of the GS6 edge, and it makes the Note 5 easier to hold than you'd think. The curve fits your fingers and palm very nicely, and when combined with the slightly smaller dimensions it makes it just a bit easier to reach across the phone and up to the top. The curve also gives the Note 5 a bit of extra glimmer and shine when the light hits it and the color underneath.
The other side of the coin is the loss of a removable battery and SD card slot.
Speaking of color, the Note 5 comes in at least three options — black sapphire, white pearl, gold platinum — but of course availability will vary depending on your market (black and white are pegged for the U.S.). It really completes the feeling that the Note 5 is very much in the same family as the Galaxy S6, unlike the previous generations, which felt like they were on different design tracks.
As the two ranges converge, that of course means that the Note 5 has lost two of its most lauded features for power users — the removable battery and SD card slot. Just like the Galaxy S6, the Note 5 is a sealed device with no expandability. And just like with the Galaxy S6, it's going to leave more than a few people feeling left out in the cold. But Samsung is sticking to its guns — the design, materials and complete package are more important than those two features, it believes.
Stacking it up against the Note 4
Getting past my initial thoughts of "well, that just looks like a bigger Galaxy S6," I actually like how the design works in this larger size. While the Note 5's looks may not blow you away if you're familiar with the GS6, anyone using a Note 4 today will be taken aback by the dramatic design change. It's lightyears ahead of the Note 4 — which itself ushered in a sharper metallic design for the series. In terms of looks, and the combination of metal and glass just feels better than the flimsy plastic that coated the back of last year's Note.
The Note 5 appears slicker, but the curved glass and smaller dimensions make it easier to hold.
Though it may appear slicker, the Note 5 is on par ergonomically with the Note 4, with the curved glass on the back doing a lot to balance this otherwise angular phone. (I really wonder what the Galaxy S6 would've felt like had it incorporated such a curved back.) A phone with a 5.7-inch display is always going to be somewhat unwieldy, but the new design has shrunk the Note 5 in every dimension compared to the Note 4, which is just as important.
The Note 4 was no slouch in terms of performance, but it couldn't match the speed of the Galaxy S6 — and the Note 5 runs on a very similar platform as its smaller sibling. An octa-core Exynos processor is at the helm, and a healthy 4 gigabytes of RAM backs it up. The new internals are powering the same QHD resolution Super AMOLED display, simply at a larger size, and when paired up with the latest software the Note 5 seems really fast.
Not to be understated is the move to the exact same camera setup as the GS6, which is a nice upgrade from the Note 4 and has proven to be a great performer. The Note 5 also keeps the fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button, as well as the heart rate sensor next to the camera on the back.
In addition to the loss of a removable battery, the Note 5 battery capacity also has shrunk marginally to an even 3000 mAh, down about 7 percent from 3220 in the Note 4. On the upside, the Note 5 now integrates wireless charging (both Qi and Powermat) out of the box, which is something you had to add after the fact on the Note 4 with varying compromises. There's new fast charging tech in here that Samsung claims can charge up the Note 5 in the same amount of time as a Galaxy S6 (with its 2550 mAh battery), and there's also wireless fast charging, so you won't see so much of a drop-off when leaving the wires out of the equation.
With a more efficient screen and processor we could be looking at a Note 5 that gets roughly the same battery life as the Note 4 does, but of course the lack of a removable battery will be a downside for some no matter what. Every phone is a series of compromises, of course, and you have to factor in the upgrade in design, materials, camera and performance as well, which really can't be understated.
Can't ask for much more
Galaxy Note 5 specs
Previous Galaxy Note handsets have been all about the spec sheet, pushing the boundaries of what you could fit in a pocketable phone, and the Note 5 checks all of the boxes — perhaps beside the two shortcomings mentioned above — on internals. An octa-core Exynos processor runs the show, paired with 4GB of RAM and either 32 or 64GB of storage (maybe an admission that the 128GB GS6 isn't selling all that well). The exact same camera setup can be found here as on the Galaxy S6, with a 16MP sensor, OIS, phase detection auto focus and quick-launching capabilities from a double-press of the home button.
|Operating System||Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, TouchWiz|
|Display||5.7-inch QHD (2560x1440, 518 ppi) Super AMOLED|
|Processor||Exynos 7420 octa-core (2.1GHz quad + 1.5GHz quad)
|Storage||32 or 64GB, UFS 2.0
|Rear Camera||16MP, f/1.9, OIS, phase detection auto focus
4K video, slow motion video
|Front Camera||5MP, f/1.9|
(network bands vary by market)
|Connectivity||802.11ac Wifi, 2.4/5GHz, MIMO (2x2), 620Mbps
Bluetooth v4.2 LE, ANT+
NFC, Location (GPS, Glonass, Beidou)
|Sensors||Accelerometer, Proximity, RGB Light, Geo-magnetic, Gyro, Fingerprint, Barometer, Hall, HRM|
|Charging||Micro USB 2.0, Adaptive Fast Charging
Qi wireless, Powermat wireless, fast wireless charging
|Dimensions||153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6mm|
|Colors||black sapphire, white pearl, gold platinum
(colors will vary by market)
Performance improvements, subtle design changes
Galaxy Note 5 software
The general software experience of the Galaxy Note 5 matches the Galaxy S6 about as closely as the hardware between the two devices. Just as we saw with the Note 4's Lollipop update and what eventually came on the Galaxy S6, there are subtle tweaks in this latest TouchWiz — still built atop Android 5.1.1 — but nothing here will alienate any current Samsung users.
The biggest visual changes can be found in the stock icons for the entire phone, which have been spruced up, flattened down and get a little closer to Material Design concepts. Every icon is a bit smaller and has a new rounded square look — quite the opposite of LG's huge and perfectly square icon design. Aside from very small visual changes, everything else works the same as you'd expect — we haven't used the phone long enough to comment definitively on its performance, but given its similarities to the Galaxy S6 we should expect an experience along those lines.
Aside from new S Pen functionality and a couple key features, this is the same TouchWiz we know now.
One truly new software feature is YouTube live streaming, now baked right into the camera app. Right out of the box you can switch modes in the Galaxy Note 5's camera and with a few taps start streaming live to YouTube, something that's not entirely new — Sony does the same with an app and HTC's RE Camera does it — but is a big deal for both Samsung and Google. It works over both Wifi and cellular connections, and is tied to the camera software itself rather than a special version of the YouTube app.
Samsung also has a new screenshot feature that's exclusive to the Note 5 as of now, which lets you capture an entire screen — even what's not currently shown on-screen and requires scrolling — into one full screenshot. For example you could take an entire long-form article from a website or a complex set of directions in Google Maps, and capture them into a single screenshot that can then be read or annotated as a single piece, rather than a series of individual screen-sized shots.
New hardware, improved software
The new-and-improved S Pen
Samsung's Note devices are the gold standard of gadgets with stylus input, and the Galaxy Note 5 keeps pushing the envelope. The new S Pen still slots entirely into the phone, but hides itself a bit better and has a neat trick to be revealed. The S Pen now has a clicky button on the end — not unlike what you'd find on standard a ballpoint pen — that when pressed deploys the S Pen from the bottom of the phone for removal. That means the bottom of the Note 5 can be perfectly smooth with the S Pen inserted, so it won't snag on anything and won't be in the way when not in use.
The first new S Pen feature you'll find is right in front of you — removing the S Pen with the screen off, you can start writing on the black screen — and the phone it will immediately record your quick note. Another tap and you're saving that note for later or unlocking the phone for further use. With the screen unlocked you can still launch Air Command with a press of the S Pen's side button, but it has an all-new look. It now borrows styling from the edge screen on the GS6 edge+, and acts as a simple Note-related app launcher. You can customize which apps appear now, and the Air Command launcher remains on-screen and collapsed, ready to be interacted with after a simple tap with your S Pen.
The rest of the S Pen experience is as strong as ever, with a handful of pre-installed apps that offer the best experience for the peripheral and a growing stable of third-party apps that have built-in support for it. No matter what you use the S Pen for, a combination of new hardware and improved software have reduced the latency between the stroke of your S Pen and the digital ink on the screen, contributing to a more natural pen experience.
A lot to unpack with the Note 5
In my brief time with the Galaxy Note 5, I can already see how it'll simultaneously draw new consumers into the large phone category, while also turning off more than a few fans of the removable battery and SD card that have so far defined the Note series. That being said, this seems to be the direction Samsung is going with its new devices — and the unification of the Galaxy S and Note lines has its own upsides.
But looking beyond those two "missing" features, the Galaxy Note 5 adds a lot that just wasn't present in the Note 4. A full metal and glass construction, integrated wireless charging, improved camera quality, better performance and smaller dimensions with the same screen size are all really big improvements that you can't shoot down just because the battery is now sealed inside the phone.
Only so much can be taken away from the first hour or so using any new phone, and considering all that has changed in the Galaxy Note 5 when coming from its predecessor that's particularly true here. Though it's closer than ever to the Galaxy S line, there's a lot going on with the Note 5 that's worth talking (and writing) about, and you can bet we'll be doing just that as we spend more time with Samsung's latest Note.
Galaxy Note 5 cases to check out
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 may have only just been made official, but there already are a number of Note 5 cases in the works that you'll want to check out. We've taken a quick preview ofl cases from the likes of Spigen and Urban Armor — and more are definitely on the way.