It's maybe not my favorite phone, but the Note 5 definitely is the best one currently in my arsenal.
This was going to the be the year I gave Samsung a real shot. No more letting someone else review the phone. No more ignoring it just because I wasn't a huge fan of the hardware and (especially) software. Millions and millions of customers can't all be wrong, right?
So along came the Samsung Galaxy S6. Andrew reviewed it. I picked one up as soon as I could, and it became my daily driver.
The verdict? Decent phone. Good size, (though the edge model was a little weird to hold). Great camera. Very disappointing battery life. Being required to plug in by 3 p.m. every afternoon — and this in my office on Wifi most of the day — was just not going to work. And so my brief love affair with the GS6 quickly became a new romance with the LG G4.
I've never been a big fan of the phablet. I've got small hands, and I need to do a lot of one-handing of my phones, and so the Galaxy Note series had mostly been a non-starter. It was simply too big.
But here's the thing: I've changed. (Or at least I'm resigned to the fact that I'm stuck with bigger phones.) But so, too, has the Note. No longer is it an oversized smartphone amid a sea of smaller choices. And I think Samsung's changed in its thinking as well. Last year we began thinking that perhaps the Note is Samsung's most important phone. It's now pretty obvious.
The Galaxy Note 5 absolutely is Samsung's true flagship smartphone. The GS6 is the "Mini" version. While the Note 5 is imperfect, it's absolutely among the best available.
We've already reviewed the Galaxy Note 5 with a mid-East model of the phone. Here's my second look, on a Verizon model.
About this review
I'm taking a look at the Verizon Samsung Galaxy Note 5 after three weeks of use, nearly entirely on LTE in Pensacola, Fla. (With a brief stint in New York City and a week in Berlin, Germany, on a Blau SIM.) It's running Android 5.1.1 (LMY47X) out of the box, is the 64-gigabyte model and now has a broken S Pen. (Funny story on that in a minute.)
The Galaxy Note 5 hardware
I remember seeing one of Samsung's first teasers for the Galaxy S6 edge, with that curved silhouette, and wondering whether the curve was on the front or the back. I bought that phone because I thought it was a little easier to hold than the GS6 proper.
I was wrong.
Putting the curve on the back of the Note 5 was the way to go. This phone is still big. It's about the same as the LG G4, just a little thicker in overall feel. But that curve feels great. The whole thing is still glossy and a little slick, but I've found that (and I may have humidity and/or sweaty palms to thank) my fingers tend to stick to the back just fine.
The Galaxy S6 edge proved to be too small and too curvy in the wrong places. The Note 5 rectifies both.
All in all the Note 5 basically is a scaled-up GS6, flipped on its back. I'll take it.
And that display. It's gorgeous. Andrew went on a bit about pixel scaling in this new Note — you get more on the screen and it's all a little smaller — but to me it's felt natural and just like any other display. Any real change is just for comparison's sake. Blacks are black, colors are bright. The Note 5 has one hell of a display, as far as I'm concerned.
I'm still not a fan of the capacitive buttons — mostly because I hold my phone in my left hand (I'm a righty) and the back button is just on the wrong side, never mind how many of these things Samsung has sold. And I've tended to hit the multitasking button my mistake a bit.
I've also found myself hitting the S Pen spring-button on occasion, causing it to extend itself out from its silo. The S Pen doesn't actually go anywhere, it's just that the back end gets in the way when that happens.
The Galaxy Note 5 S Pen
So let's talk about the infamous Note 5 S Pen. I'm not a S Pen user. It's just not a thing I want to use — and that probably has something to do with my not being a longtime Note user in the first place. My handwriting is awful, so any notes I want to jot down I'm better off just typing in the first place. (The full-screen screenshot feature is excellent, though.) Ninety-nine percent of the time the S Pen stayed in its home.
I'm not an S Pen user, which is a good thing because I broke it being stupid.
Then I made the mistake of reading through our Note 5 forums and finding a few people who had inadvertently inserted theirs backward. (Again, don't do that!) Turns out it gets stuck if you do that, potentially breaking your $800 phone. There's been a lot of back-and-forth over whether this is Samsung's fault, or whether it's just a stupid user thing.
I think it's both. In the first weeks of using this phone I never once got anywhere close to accidentally putting the pen back the wrong way. You pull it out one way — a very obvious way — and your brain should know which way it goes back in. And I don't necessarily buy the "But someone else could do it wrong" argument. That's a serious edge case.
But I also agree with Rene Ritchie in that good design should be able to save us from ourselves. And barring that, Samsung should be prepared to deal with the consequences. It should have had a simple mechanism in place for dealing with people who put the S Pen in wrong. It should have had better warnings, both on screen and in the box before we even got to this point.
Samsung blew it. The user blew it. Something that should not happen, lo and behold, happened. It'll be interesting to see if anything changes.
And back to my S Pen. In the midst of all the furor over Samsung letting this happen and users being stupid, I did something stupid. I was in the back of a cab headed into New York City when I decided I'd see if it really was possible for the S Pen to just slip in the wrong way — that there wasn't any real friction to stop it. And then I had the bright idea of pulling out my camera in the back of that cab and recording it.
You'll never believe what happened next.
I'm also impatient, and I'm not afraid to bite down when the going gets tough. So I now have a tooth-marked S Pen that resides in my gear bag, the cap of its spring-loaded butt forever lodged in the silo of the phone. As far as I can tell the detection sensor (which lets the phone know when the pen has been removed) still works — it on occasion would start buzzing at me. So I turned it off in the software settings and am using the Note 5 exactly as I was before I was stupid — just with a little hole where the S Pen used to live. Maybe I'll manage to get the cap out at some point. Maybe I won't.
In the five years I've been doing this job, this is one of the more silly things I've seen. Let us all learn from it.
The Galaxy note 5 internals and battery life
There's also been some gnashing of teeth over the 4 gigabytes of RAM and how quick Samsung's software is to kill apps out of memory. I have no doubt that some folks are running into what they consider problems with that. But I've not experienced anything like that. Perhaps that's just a difference in the way I use my phone, or in the apps I use.
I wasn't expecting two-day battery life. So I'm not disappointed by usually getting a single full day.
But for me it's simply not been an issue. The Note 5 has handled everything I use my phone for without complaint. The Samsung Exynos processor might as well be a Qualcomm Snapdragon as far as I can tell — though there has been a noticeable difference in temperature. Whether that's because of the processor itself or the design of the phone handles heat better, I don't know. But I've barely felt the Note 5 get warm. That's a welcome change.
Also welcome is the return to decent battery life. The Note 5 isn't outstanding in that regard — you can pretty much look at the 3,000 mAh capacity and know what you're going to get. But compared to the Galaxy S6 it's a welcome improvement. I've been getting a full day's use — from about 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. on a single charge. I'll top it off on a wireless charger on my desk sometimes if I want to extend things.
Is that disappointing for a Note? I guess. But, again, look at the overall capacity of the battery, the size and resolution of the display, and you shouldn't be all that surprised at the results.
As for storage, I'm OK with a 64GB model. But that's also what I'd want to see the minimum be for an $800 phone. Out of the box, with all of the preinstalled apps updated I had about 50GB free to use. It'll be interesting to see how quickly I burn through that.
Galaxy Note 5 software
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Whomever spun the tale of Samsung scaling back on software features deserves some sort of award. Because while perhaps the sheer number of features is less than before, it's not like there's hardly anything going on here.
TouchWiz is still TouchWiz, full of features I'll never use. But overall it's seemed more stable.
Put it this way: Samsung's software is still just too much for me. It's the aggregate. It's the TouchWiz launcher that I can do without. It's the notification quick settings that take up space. It's the menu skinning that's just not necessary. That's spit and polish — I get that a manufacturer wants to differentiate itself. But I think Android's doing a perfectly fine job of that on its own, thanks.
And it's also about all these features that I just don't ever use. S Whatever. I don't want to exclusively use Samsung's any more than I want to exclusively use some other manufacturer's. A good part of that is probably because of this job and the fact that I have to switch devices so much. Fine. But then maybe Samsung's stuff should all be optional as well. (And I've yet to take my heart rate, still.)
The one exception to this for me is the camera app. Samsung's is still the best in the business, and Samsung's done well to throw plenty of features at the camera but refine the overall experience so that you're not overwhelmed. And don't forget about all the downloadable modes. Basically it's a great app for a great camera.
The Galaxy Note 5 camera
This camera. I can't say enough about it.
Let's get into the camera. I wasn't a Note 4 user, so the GS6 was my first real foray into Samsung cameras in a good while. The Note 5 continues the quality trend. (Which we pretty much knew going into this phone.)
Damn, this is a good camera. It's easily the best I've used in some time. So much so that I'm willing to put up with other things that I don't necessarily like. (See, specifically, the backwards capacitive buttons, superfluous S Pen, 5 million other software features, etc.)
Do other cameras come close? Some. For me that's really just been cameras from LG. The G4 has done well this year. The first two iterations of the Moto X were pretty disappointing. HTC just didn't manage to get it done. (And as I said earlier this year, I was going to make camera quality a big priority for me.)
But Samsung is the industry leader in quality and camera experience. Period.
The bottom line (for me)
Samsung phones still aren't my favorite. (On the other hand, do I even have a favorite? Or do I bounce around too much for that to happen?) The software is still overbearing, and I think Google has come a long way with its design in Lollipop and again in Marshmallow. There are a ton of features in the Note 5 that I will never, ever use.
There's a lot about the Note 5 I could do without. But it's currently the best overall phone I have.
But none of that changes the fact that Samsung sells a shit-ton of smartphones, and it's going to sell the Note 5 like it's sold so many of its Note phones before. And it should.
For my money — about $800 on Verizon for the 64GB model — this is the phone to get. It's easier to hold than the GS6 because of its increased size. It's maybe not as quite as easy to hold as the LG G4 for me, but it's fairly close.
What's really done it for me? The camera, of course. As I said at the outset (and numerous times this year), the camera is a deal-breaker for me in 2015. I'm not compromising. The LG G4 camera is really good. The Note 5 (and other Samsung phones this year) is better. But the Note 5 software has been running much better for me than the G4's software.
So for now, I'm a Note 5 user. That'll change at some point, for sure. But as of right now this is as good as it gets.