The time comes each year when the phone you have is thoroughly supplanted by a newer version. In the case of the Note 4, just shy of a year on we have ourselves a new Note 5 to look at — and of course the next step is questioning whether you should upgrade or not. The Note 5 isn't all that exciting to anyone who has a Galaxy S6 right now, but if you're sitting with a last-generation Note 4 you're likely looking to see if the grass is greener.
We're here to help you make that decision — read on.
Big leaps in hardware, with two caveats
Looking at the Note 5 and Note 4 together, there's no shortage of hardware differences to point out. After making a nice move to metal styling on the Note 4, Samsung blew it up and went with a different metal design in the Note 5. It then went a step further to kill off all plastic on the phone, with nicely-curved glass on the back.
The Note 5 looks nice, and more importantly feels really great as well. The curved back and rounded edges — along with the overall smaller dimensions — go a long way toward making this Note work more like a normally-sized phone, and it's great. And let's not forget that the Note 5 made the move to a one-touch fingerprint sensor in the home button, which in itself improves the usability of the phone.
You can't argue it's big step up in hardware, even with the loss of removable battery.
Of course on the other side of the coin, you're losing two big features for many Note users — both a removable battery and SD card. The 3000 mAh battery is sealed up tight in the Note 5 (more on battery life in a bit), and the only expansion slot in the phone is for your SIM card. On the upside, you now get built-in wireless (both Qi and Powermat) charging, which before required a thick replacement back plate or a cumbersome third-party wireless insert.
In terms of hardware overall, there isn't much argument that the Note 5 is a clear step above the Note 4. Having a phone that's easier to hold and use is a big plus, and the fact that it looks and feels dramatically better than the Note 4 just adds to it. The gains in usability are likely to far outweigh the loss of a removable battery and SD card for most people, and those who are really clutching to those features may even be convinced when they hold and use it.
Similar software, with a couple new features
We saw a fresh take on TouchWiz with the launch of the Galaxy S6 that was quite a bit lighter and simpler than what was available before, and that same refined experience is on offer in the Note 5. It doesn't differ dramatically from what you'll have on an updated Note 4 running Lollipop today, but there are a few subtle changes. The launcher and full suite of stock icons have been flattened out and rounded on the corners, giving the system a more cohesive look but hardly changing how the phone actually works. No matter which phone you use, you're still getting a full-on TouchWiz experience.
The only big change to the experience is in terms of display density (or DPI). The Note 5 declares on a system level a higher display density (not to be confused with pixel density, which is unchanged from Note 4 to 5), which tells apps how many virtual on-screen dots fill each physical pixel of the screen. The higher density means the Note 5 just shows more on the screen than the Note 4, rather than just making things bigger. So that larger screen is actually working for you, showing more messages in Gmail, more map in Google Maps and more tweets in your favorite Twitter app.
Software improvements are nice, but in themselves aren't enough to call for an upgrade.
The software surrounding the S Pen has changed in looks compared to the Note 4, but not dramatically in function. Air Command has received a facelift to be easier to select apps, and you can now even customize it with apps of your own, whether they fully support the S Pen or not. Once you launch any of the apps they work generally the same, though, aside from Screen Write which now has a neat "scrolling capture" screenshot method baked in. At this point it isn't clear how many of these S Pen changes will make it back to the Note 4, if any, so you may only get them with a phone upgrade.
The refreshed look and new S Pen changes are nice to have, but in themselves will not be enough to get you to jump ship from your Note 4 up to a Note 5. Only the higher software density may be enough to move the needle, but still is a relatively small part of the phone experience. There are plenty of features and improvements to be seen in other areas that make the upgrade worth while.
Oh, and, uh — don't put the new S Pen in backward.
A bump in performance, with similar battery life
Though the software may not look too dramatically different from what you have on a Note 4 with the latest Lollipop update, there's a pretty considerable change in performance. The octa-core Exynos processor and 4GB of RAM in the Note 5 have plenty of power together, and with what are surely low-level software tweaks it blazes past the Note 4 (at least our Snapdragon model) in a variety of tasks.
The phone is faster all around, and doesn't sacrifice battery life
Multitasking is quicker, apps load faster and operate smoothly, and the camera launches to taking pictures in just a few seconds. Of course if you never set the Note 4 next to something else to compare it you're likely just fine with the performance of that model — but once you get the Note 5 next to it and start to compare speeds it'll be tough to forget. Whether or not just a software update could bring such performance improvements to the Note 4 down the road is debatable, but you know when you're getting a Note 5 that it will certainly be faster than your Note 4.
And even with improved performance and a slightly smaller battery (3000 mAh versus 3220), the Note 5 isn't worrisome on the battery life side of things. As we found in our review, the Note 5 can easily make it through a full day of use with 15 or 20 percent battery left. And if you happen to have a particularly though day ahead of you, a few minutes with a compatible fast charger will be plenty to add an extra 20 to 50 percent to that battery.
Beyond the massive changes in external hardware, the performance is possibly the biggest reason to make the move from Note 4 to Note 5. It's that big of a change, and having it not come at the expense of battery life is important.
A similar camera, but that's a good thing
The Note 4's camera took a dramatic step in quality beyond what the Galaxy S5 offered just a few months earlier, and the new camera setup in the Note 5 (same as the Galaxy S6) isn't as dramatic a jump. The 16MP sensor is the same size but a new-and-improved component, and though both are optically stabilized the Note 5 is just a tad more sensitive to light. The Note 5 can take absolutely wonderful pictures in a variety of situations, and does so just as fast as any other phone — and while the Note 4 is still very capable camera-wise, the Note 5 is just a tad better.
The Note 4's camera is no slouch, but the Note 5 is leading the industry.
The other changes are in the software, where Samsung has cleaned things up a bit. The interface is simple on both cameras, but the Note 5 has the ability to quickly launch the camera at any time with two presses of the home button, and the camera launch itself is dramatically faster. The Pro mode on the Note 5 also includes the ability to switch on RAW capture, as well as manually control shutter speed between 1/24000 and 10 sec in addition to the rest of the standard Pro features. The Note 5 also includes built-in YouTube Live streaming, though that isn't quite as big a draw as it may seem at first.
Much like the software changes noted earlier, there isn't anything particular about the camera that should make you jump to the Note 5. The Note 4's camera is still very capable, and though the Note 5 is just a bit clearer in the day and more capable at night the differences aren't that dramatic.
Bottom line: If you can afford it, the Note 5 is a worthy upgrade
When you take everything into consideration, there's plenty about the Note 5 that warrants an upgrade over the Note 4. Sure people will mainly focus on the lack of a removable battery and SD card, but to do so is completely ignoring the better external hardware, boosted performance, S Pen improvements and small bumps in both software and camera.
The only thing really holding you back from moving from a Note 4 to a Note 5 is the price. Even if you bought the Note 4 on the first day of availability (and many purchased well after that point) you're not even a year into that purchase, which likely means you're still working on a contract or a payment plan for another year before you're "ready" to upgrade. At $700 or more depending on where you buy, the Note 5 isn't cheap — and you can likely only get $325 or so back for your used Note 4 at this point.
But if you can afford the difference in price and don't absolutely need a removable battery, you should absolutely consider an upgrade to the Note 5. It's a solid bump in so many areas from the Note 4 that it's tough to resist.