The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is either a game changer or deal breaker for longtime fans of the Android phablet, now that it has a premium look and feel.
Its 5.7-inch display, super-fast processor, improved camera and S Pen stylus are joined by a new, glass-and-metal design that reflects the solid construction of the Samsung Galaxy S6.
That makes it a huge leap over last year's Galaxy Note 4, which backed the phone in cheap, textured plastic. Samsung's build quality is finally fit to compete with the aluminum iPhone 6 Plus and the Huawei Ascend Mate 7.
All of this comes at a cost, however. There's no microSD card slot for expandable storage or removable battery to swap out, like on the Note 4 and LG G4, and the new sealed-shut design is slippery.
DesignThe Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has the same basic shape as the Note 4, but the construction of the two phones couldn't be any more different.
Galaxy Note 5 (left) is smaller and more refined than the Note 4 (right)
Its back glass also curves inward on the right and left sides. This smaller footprint and curved back made it easier to hold in my palm, despite its phablet size.here's a curved glass back that makes it easier to hold.
The Galaxy Note 5 colors include Sapphire Black and White Pearl in the US, with options of Titanium Silver and Gold Platinum on offer elsewhere. The aluminum frame is silver in all cases, with a color-matching power button on the right and volume rocker on the left. These buttons are thin, but feel strong when pressed and, importantly, are situated in the upper portion of the frame, exactly where fingers clutch the phone.
DisplayThe Galaxy Note 5 has already been heralded as the best smartphone display ever tested. It retains that 5.7-inch screen size and quad HD resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels. There are 518 pixels per inch behind the Gorilla Glass 4 – fewer than the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6. But don't be fooled by the on-paper specs.
S Pen stylusThe bright and colorful display packs some more neat tricks, thanks to the returning S Pen that really differentiates the Galaxy Note 5 from the Galaxy S6 Edge+. This plastic stylus now slides out from the bottom of the phone's frame after clicking it in. There's no other functionality from this clickable head, except perhaps inviting you to begin a bad OCD habit.
The new functionality comes when you enable "Screen off memo" in settings. This allows you to write on the display while it's in its "off," or at least in a nearly black state. This is really handy for jotting down everything from quick thoughts, to last-second grocery lists. It's all saved in Samsung's S Notes app, which returns with white or yellow legal pad backgrounds.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is a beast of a phone in size and performance, since it inherits the chart-topping Galaxy S6 internal specs, then tweaks them a bit for even better results.
All the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 specs
PerformanceSamsung fitting an extra 1GB of RAM in this phone – meaning it can handle more tasks at once – really shows through our best GeekBench 3 scores to date.
Samsung's Exynos 7420 processor, combined with 4GB, seems like an unstoppable force, and is a specs trend that should continue with next year's Samsung Galaxy S7. By then, Qualcomm will have launched its Snapdragon 820 processor, maybe in the Nexus 5 2015 or Nexus 6 2015. But for right now, Samsung is setting and then beating its own benchmarks.
Movies and MusicThere are two main movie apps pre-installed and two more for music, and all of them prove that the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is more of a visual titan. Its audio prowess leaves room for improvement.
This is something that the HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z3 Compact and even the new Moto G 2015 get right with front-facing speakers. With a large, cinema-friendly display, Samsung nearly has a multimedia juggernaut.
GamingWithout the hint of slowdown in benchmarking tests, I didn't find any performance issues when playing games. Battery life took a hit when running through these game apps, as expected.
CameraMegapixels don't always mean everything when it comes to the best camera phones, so some 13MP, 16MP, 20MP snappers can't compare to the 8MP iPhone 6 camera.
That's not the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 camera, because it's 16MP and actually lives up to that Apple-doubling number. With the same Sony Exmor RS IMX240 sensor that's in the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and S6 Active, it gives shooters a wide f/1.9 aperture.
All of that translates into the Note 5 camera snapping brighter photos with more on-point color accuracy compared to last year's Galaxy Note 4. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a photo come out the first time you hit the virtual shutter button.
Battery LifeThe Samsung Galaxy Note 5 battery life was controversial, even before the phone was officially announced. Rumors that it had no removable battery turned out to be true.
This is a deal breaker for power users who routinely swap out their battery at will, and carry around a spare. After all, the Note series has always appealed to enterprise clients.
Battery recharging is even less of an issue, because the Galaxy Note 5 charges faster than previous Samsung phones. The company's Fast Charging standard can fully replenish dead the battery in 1 hour and 20 minutes. Plug the same Note 5 in a normal USB charger and it takes 4 hours and 20 minutes.
Final verdictThe Galaxy Note series has never been inexpensive. And now its aesthetics match the price, thanks to a glass back that feels excellent in two hands. Be careful of what you wish for, though. There's no microSD card slot or removable battery anymore. Power users can blame everyone who complained about the company's plastic-clad phones.
As long as you can live without those two features, the Note 5 is still worth your upgrade. It has top-of-the-line specs that set new records, a 5.7-inch display that's rightfully considered the best – even outdoors – and a camera takes the best photos compared to other phones I've tested. This S Pen-compatible phablet is mightier, and is the one Google Nexus 6 2015 and iPhone 6S Plus need to beat.