It's easy to be wowed by new phones right when they're announced, taking a brand new device out of its box and exploring all of its new features. The Galaxy Note 5 was no exception, and it had plenty to be excited about when it first launched — a fresh design for the Note line, new snappy internals, and a proven camera setup from the Galaxy S6.
But how well that excitement holds up after two full months of usage is another question altogether. Does the glass-backed design work in this larger size? Is the camera as great as it claimed? How is battery life? These are things you only find out after a longer time using a phone.
We've been using the Galaxy Note 5 for two full months now, so it's time to reflect.
The hardware: Design, size and materials
Samsung may not have changed much in design principles from the Galaxy S6 to the Note 5, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The metal and glass construction is for the most part a great improvement over the metal and plastic of the Note 4, offering a much better feel — and believe it or not better durability.
The metal frame of the Note 5 has held up to plenty of bumps and even a few scary drops, which I couldn't say about the weaker chamfered edges of the Note 4. The Gorilla Glass 4 covering the front and back have also held up with minimal scratching, even though it has never been in a protective case. You're bound to pick up some small scuffs, and the possibility of a crack is of course higher than the plastic back, but the Note 5's glass has held up better and hasn't gradually worn down or discolored in the same way the plastic back of the Note 4 (and other plastic devices) could over time.
It's hard to find many design flaws — it looks great, feels just as good and has minimal compromises.
Durability aside, the Note 5 just looks and feels fantastic. Whether you choose to get the dark blue model like I have or go with something a bit brighter, you get a nice bit of shimmer and change in colors when seeing it from different angles that really pop. While the flat glass back at first seemed like it'd be a detriment to usability, the curved edges make a huge difference and I haven't had any issues with it slipping out of my hand. Really, the only downside to the glass back is fingerprint collection — and I've learned to deal with that.
I'm still not super thrilled by the trend toward larger phones in general, but I have to say that the Note 5 is certainly the easiest to use and manipulate in one hand of any other 5.5-inch or larger device. The insanely small bezels around the display, paired with the curved metal on the edges and rounded glass on the back, make it easy to hold for its size. It can still get a bit awkward when reaching up to the top third of the display while one-handing it, but considering the upside of everything you can do with this big display I have to say it's a worthy trade-off on the Note 5 more than it has been on previous models.
Display and fingerprint sensor
Out of consideration of keeping the hardware section of this follow-up to a reasonable length, I wanted to give two features of the Note 5's hardware — the display and fingerprint sensor — their own space.
I try to find issues with this display, and I just can't.
Samsung is absolutely killing the competition in displays, and the Note 5 is a shining example of what it can offer in a phone screen. The 5.7-inch Super AMOLED panel at 2560x1440 resolution is super dense, has great viewing angles, deep blacks and colors that really pop. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the display is its range of brightness, which gets incredibly dark when you're using it at night — as to not assault your eyes — but can also blast to a super high brightness mode so you can actually view it in direct sunlight.
I keep trying to come up with something to be upset about with the Note 5's display, and I just can't.
Just below the display is the fingerprint sensor, which after two months of use hasn't decreased in usability one bit. It's somehow faster than the already super-quick Galaxy S6 fingerprint sensor, and after getting four digits — both thumbs, both index fingers — trained I've seen no reason to go back to a PIN or pattern lock screen. It's so quick and predictable that I don't even use Smart Lock to keep my phone unlocked via my Bluetooth headset and smartwatch anymore.
There's also the added importance of the fingerprint sensor when it comes to mobile payments. While Samsung Pay and Android Pay can both be authenticated with a PIN code, using a one-touch fingerprint sensor just makes it a seamless experience.
Software, interface and performance
Much like the hardware, we all kind of knew what we were getting into — based on our time with the Galaxy S6 — when it came to the software on the Note 5. That being said, I have to give Samsung credit for taking yet another step toward a cleaner and easier to understand version of TouchWiz here. One by one Samsung is removing unnecessary animations, drop shadows and crazy reflections — unfortunately many other questionable design choices still remain.
With the installation of a fresh launcher and keyboard of your choosing the Note 5 feels a bit less like a Samsung phone, and what remains of the TouchWiz interface isn't horrible on the eyes. I know that sounds a bit like faint praise ... but it's the truth. Samsung still has a ways to go before its software feels anywhere as cohesive as stock Lollipop or Marshmallow, or even HTC Sense. But more important to me than the looks is that the software actually works properly — you can always switch your phone's launcher, but if Samsung had made a terrible UX decision in the settings, lock screen or something of the like, it'd be much harder to fix on your own.
It may not have the best design, but that's fixable — what's important is it works, and works well.
Sure over two months I've come to find a few annoyances in the way the system works, but there aren't any issues even approaching deal-breaker status in the software for me. TouchWiz still has its quirks with how it sometimes handles default apps, and the duplication of apps like the Internet browser and Calendar that can't be disabled are a big annoyance — but I'm able to deal with them.
The main reason I'm willing to deal with a few annoyances is the blistering speed that the Note 5 offers no matter what you're doing with it. The Exynos processor and 4GB of RAM can handle anything I throw at it, and it's somehow even faster than essentially the same hardware running inside the Galaxy S6. The software has obviously been tuned just right for the Note 5, and it offers a fantastic experience. Two months in and I've had only a couple software hiccups I can recall, and I haven't seen a single freeze, reboot or app crash.
Two months of photos
After spending months with the Galaxy S6 and taking magnificent pictures, my love affair with this camera has only gotten stronger in two months with the Note 5. The camera is just so fast to launch and take pictures it's extremely accessible, and the resulting pictures aren't compromised in any way to get the speed. I simply leave the Note 5 in auto mode — usually with HDR on — and can take pictures in pretty much any situation that will blow people away.
I've rarely dabbled into the other camera modes because the automatic settings are just that good, which I think is a sign of a great camera. There are rare missteps where the Note 5 could do better in troublesome lighting conditions, but those are few and far between (and occur far less than other phones). For me the camera is one of the shining features of the Note 5, and it just wouldn't be as great na all-around phone if the imaging wasn't this good.
Here are a handful of my favorite shots with the Note 5 over the past two months:
Battery life and charging
Though there were initial concerns about the Note 5's potential longevity considering the battery is sealed in the phone and a tad smaller than the Note 4, it turns out there's been little to worry about when it comes to making it through a day. Between the 3000 mAh battery size and very efficient internals, the Note 5 can go through a full day with plenty left in the tank, or even make it late into the evening with heavy use.
And though the inclusion of quick charging and wireless charging are niceties, it's important to note that neither one of those is required for a normal day of use. I use wireless charging nightly to keep the Note 5 charged up for the morning, but I can't recall many times where I've had to resort to my mobile battery out of the house or a quick top-up on the wall charger for the evening — the Note 5 just has enough battery life to get it done on its own.
What I'd change
Taking the last two months spent with the Note 5 in consideration, is there anything I'd change about the phone? Honestly, there aren't many things I can think of. The only big area that could use some improvement is the software, where I wish Samsung would just step back its crazy colors and insistence on overly-strong design influence. Android (particularly Marshmallow) is very beautiful, intuitive and powerful, and I just don't think Samsung needs to change the OS so much to have a compelling product on its hands.
There isn't much I'd want to change here.
Beyond that, it's just the little things. I really think the Note 5 needs to have a stronger speaker, as the current one is good only for speakerphone calls and short YouTube videos. And though I don't think it's feasible, Samsung could definitely do away with the capacitive keys below the screen. On-screen keys offer more flexibility and fit in with the majority of Android phones out there today — and you could easily keep the fingerprint sensor below the screen separate from the navigation keys.
Those are pretty small issues that I think need fixing, which in themselves are nowhere near deal-breaking problems with the Note 5. I've used the phone every day since it was announced, and it has really convinced me that there's value to be had in a larger phone. Samsung has a hit on its hands here, and while many saw that coming from day one, it's good to see it stand up to this much use as well.