It would be a lie to say that high-end smartphones haven’t been a little bit humdrum of late. Even Samsung’s striking Galaxy S5 Edge struggled to excite us earlier this year, and for a while it felt like there was no reason to upgrade any more. Then Sony announced its Z5 Premium that features a 4K screen, Apple introduced the astonishing iPhone 6S and things got interesting again.
So is Samsung’s latest refresh to its Galaxy Note range – the Note 5. Are we trending back to the mean or is it yet another bold step ahead?
Size ≠ Function
When removing the Note 5 from its packaging something becomes immediately noticeable, the Note 5 is smaller than last years Note 4. The size difference is a few millimetres but but it feels significant in the hand. In fact, it’s smaller than the LG G4 Stylus, the Apple iPhone 6S Plus and only slightly bigger than the Sony Z3 – and it’s more comfortable to hold than that phone too. In short, this is a phablet which actually feels like a phone in your hand.
It is still most definitely a phablet, though. The 5.7inch screen is whopping, just almost bezel free. It’s comfortable to use and the “one-hand” feature which shrinks the keyboard down to a third of the 5.7 inch screen size is intuitive and effective. It’s a design classic: not bold in itself, but near perfect for its function. The volume rocker on the left and unlock button on the right could stand a bit higher out of the body, but you can’t have everything.
The only thing marring the sleek design is the camera bump on the back of the Galaxy Note 5, but even this has hidden purpose. There’s a heart rate monitor just below the rear camera LED flash, and the lens lump serves as a handy phsyical landmark to direct your fingers to it without having to look at the rear of the phone.
While we’re on the topic of the camera bump, the rear snapper boasts a large 16MP sensor with optical image stabilisation, autofocus and LED flash. And it takes awesome photos.
In our experience the camera performed better than our eyes, especially in low light without sacrificing colour or contrast. You won’t need Instagram filters anymore, but you may need a new data plan to share the 5 312×2 988p images you are able to snap.
The front facing camera is, by contrast, a rather small 5MP affair, but don’t let that fool you: the pictures that it captures are great. It’s even got a usable “beauty filter”, which applies instant PhotoShop-style effects to make you look better. On many phones, like the Huawei P8 or the LG G4, this virtual botox is over-aggressive and makes your face look expressionless or just a bit smudgy.
With great power…
The big screen and big camera do draw a lot of power, however. The Galaxy Note S5 has a very large 3 000mAh battery built-in, but even that struggles with the demands of this high-end handset.
Under normal usage, with WiFi, NFC and Bluetooth switched on, screen brightness at 80% and light browsing, calls and messaging – we found that the Galaxy Note 5 lasted about a day before dying. Heavy usage – same settings as normal but more aggressive browsing, downloading and a screen brightness of 100% – got us half way through the day.
The redeeming feature is that you are able to charge the phone quickly thanks to Fast Charge support, in our tests an average charge took between an hour to an hour and a half depending how badly the battery was drained.
On the downside, this is the first Galaxy Note from Samsung not to feature a removable battery – and that’s a feature which we miss. It’s also apparently outevolved the need for upgradeable storage: there’s no microSD card slot here either.
The write stuff
So what of the main phone functions? As is increasingly the norm, the physical Home button doubles up as a fingerprint reader which we found to be very fast and very accurate. Setting it up requires placing your thumb or which ever finger you prefer (we recommend the thumb on the hand which holds the phone) at least 25 times so that the software can map your fingerprint.
Once that is done unlocking your phone requires nothing more than a press and waiting a second or two for the scanner to recognise your fingerprint. Every so often the scanner wouldn’t pick up our fingerprint but after a second attempt the phone unlocks without a worry.
And what of entering text into the phone? We’ve already mentioned that the collapsible keyboard makes one-hand typing straightforward, but Samsung’s also held on to its crown as king of the stylus. Writing notes with the S Pen is as close to writing on paper as we’ve felt with a phone, and it’s neatly stored within the body of the Galaxy Note 5 to be released with a push when you need it. We only had one instance where the Note read a number as text and proceeded to try calling 074 AAAA AAAAA.
Pay the price
We gripe about the loss of the removable battery and might wish for a bit more longevity from the one that’s built-in, but really there’s very little not to love about the Galaxy Note 5. It boards top performance, ample storage, an awesome screen, great camera and most of all a near-perfect design that hides the size cleverly enough that it’s comfortable for small hands.
The only remaining problem, then, is the price. The RRP is a hefty R14 579, which puts it right at the premium end of pricing and makes it hard to recommend over other phablets like the G4 Stylus. The good news is that there’s already some movement on that: Vodacom is offering the Note 5 for less than R12 500 on prepay already and we’ve seen online stores sell it for under R12 000 (although they’re sold out at the time of writing). That makes it much more attractive, still expensive but a good deal compared to i-options and, indeed, many regularly sized phones out there.
It’s the ultimate large screen phone/phablet, and still the one to beat.