Failed Potential: The Note5 XDA Review

Failed Potential: The Note5 XDA Review

The Note5 is one of the most highly anticipated devices of the year, and after mountains of hype behind its release, Samsung’s Next Big Thing is finally here. Opting for a new design, updated internals and some sacrifices, this new phone is sure to turn some heads..

… but at the same time, turn away a big part of the Note’s following.

In this review, we’ll take an in-depth dive into the Note5. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the specification sheet out of the way:

Android Version: 5.1.1 Lollipop Model Name: Note5 (SM-N920T)
Dimensions: 153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6 mm
(6.03 x 3.00 x 0.30 in)
Screen size
& screen ratio:
5.7 inches ~75.9% screen-to-body
Primary Camera: 16MP, OIS, F1.9 Secondary Camera: 5MP, F1.9
Screen Type & Resolution: AMOLED, 1440 x 2560, 515 ppi Chipset: Exynos 7420, 64-bit
Internal Storage: UFS 2.0
32GB/64GB
CPU: 2.1 GHz Cortex-A57 x4
1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 x4
Card Slot: None GPU: Mali-T760MP8
RAM: 4GB Battery: Li-Po 3,000mAh
NFC: Yes USB: MicroUSB

Contents

Design

The Note5’s design is, upfront, the biggest change you will find over last year’s model, and perhaps the biggest diversion Samsung phones have had year-after-year. The Note 3 marked the point where the Notes split from the S line in terms of design language, but here, Samsung opted to abandon the executive leather motif for their now tried-and-true S6 look. The result is nothing short of stunning, and while this part of the review can be said to be mostly subjective, there are some things I believe need to be pointed out as they do alter the user experience.

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The Note5’s screen-to-body ratio is the highest we’ve seen on a mainstream flagship since the LG G2.

 
The glass back of the Note5 is just like the one we saw in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. This means that you have a Gorilla Glass 4 coat that lays on top a shiny and reflective back. My Black Sapphire variant carries the torch of Samsung’s traditional blue designs, and it does so gracefully.

Simply put, the Note5 is excellently machined in the back and sides, and every detail screams quality. A concern many may have, though, is that the back is slippery, but during my weeks of testing I had no drops nor severe fear of dropping it. The glass is a fingerprint magnet, though, and you will find that the device will never look as clean (and perhaps pretty) as it does that first time you take it out of its foil. The smudges also undermine the color shifts the Note5 sees under various lighting conditions, and they can make the back look like the old Samsung glossy plastic when they get too bad.

20150821_091638The first things you will notice when looking at the front are the exquisite bezels around the sides. Samsung has done a remarkable job by shrinking this device down after the Note 4 slightly sized up its predecessor. The S6 was known for mediocre bezels, particularly on the top and bottom, but the Note5’s screen-to-body ratio is the highest we’ve seen on a mainstream flagship since the LG G2. The hype for all-screen phones might have slightly died off in the last few months, but Samsung is worth reckoning over this and the general body of the Note5. The bezels help with the handling in an easily felt way, but when it comes to handling there’s more than what meets the eye.

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This is the Note5, 90% of the time.

The device is slightly thinner than the Note 4, and in a way, it feels much thinner than it actually is. I not only attribute this to the surface area of the device, but also the curves around the sides of the back of the phone. These resemble the S6 Edge+’s screen curves, but having them on the back plus the thin profile ultimately mean your fingers get to the other side of the device with plenty of to spare. The combination allows you to actually wrap your hand around the phone, even if you have small mitts like I do. The more comfortable back and the fact that you can securely hold the phone means that your grip will be tighter, which mitigates the glass back’s slipperiness. However, the fragility of the device does mean that you have to be very conscious of how you handle the device, especially above pavement.

This is an expensive phone, and a drop can be devastating due to the build materials chosen

Gorilla Glass 4’s main strength over the previous iteration is shock resistance, but this doesn’t mean that the device is drop proof. Quite the contrary, a drop on a hard surface is almost guaranteed to have a severe impact on the phone’s integrity. This is quite a contrast from the Note 4, which proved to be very durable in my experience. On the upside, the 7000-series Aluminium  alloy of the metal edge is as sturdy as it is beautiful, and the Note 4’s chamfered metal edges were notorious for having their paint chipped off and their corners scuffed after drops. That being said, this is an expensive phone, and a drop can be devastating due to the build materials chosen. Scratches, too, are a likely reality. If you want additional safety, consider getting a skin or a case.

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The squared corners of the Note5 are one of the few design differences that remained.

The are some thoughtful touches in the exterior design that I think are worth mentioning. First of all, the buttons are now separated, which makes them individually stiffer and more tactfully pleasant. The buttons in general are all very solid and clicky, something the Note 4 couldn’t quite accomplish consistently. The heart rate monitor at the back has been placed next to the camera, and in a very natural position: your finger needs to do no additional work nor bending to get to it and leave it there. The speaker has been moved to the bottom of the device, as has the headphone jack. The latter is important, because this makes pulling this expensive and fragile phone out of one’s pocket much safer and simpler when one wants to simply manage a playlist.

Software — User Interface

The user interface of the Galaxy Note5 still remains one of the more polarizing factors of the device, but luckily, it’s less polarizing than it has ever been. Samsung’s Lollipop builds for various older devices left a lot to be desired, and their initial S6 firmware was also met with criticism. Out of the box, the Note5 delivers a UI that is strikingly similar to the S6’s albeit with some small added changes. The set-up guide of the Note5 is anything but similar to Stock Android’s, so from the get go you are eased into an Android experience unlike the AOSP many love so much.

The launcher is what you’ll first lay eyes upon, and you will notice from the get-go that this is a Samsung device. The TouchWiz launcher hasn’t evolved much from the S6 and even the Note 4, although its icons have changed and have become less skeuomorphic than before. In a way, it does feel like the revamped launcher look fits in better with the rest of the UI. Swipe to the left and you will find Flipboard, once more. It is still as slow and clunky as ever, and you will most likely find yourself disabling it early on. The same goes for the TouchWiz launcher in general, as while it is a step up from previous versions, its performance and customizability still cannot match Nova or the plethora of third-party options. But something that I believe every Note lover will like is the fact that the stock DPI is no longer 640 (the equivalent of 480 at 1080p), but rather 560. This means that the Note has much better information density by default. However, stock Samsung applications do not scale to non-stock DPIs still (when will they learn?).

Swipe down and you will find the notification panel. The default look of TouchWiz’s color combination comes back, but the functionality of the tray makes it slightly more pleasant to use than before. First of all, the wi-fi icon now displays your network’s signal strength and its name, a nice touch that is useful under certain contexts. The rest of the notification toggles plus the auto-brightness remain as usual, but this time, the expanded toggles have been replaced with an “edit” button that lets you not only activate or deactivate features, but also move them around from that very screen. It looks slightly odd, but it works. The toggles are actually slightly animated, albeit without high frame rates. Another plus is that you have the ability to disable both S Finder and Quick Connect from the panel. This is something that has bothered users for various generations, so knowing we can get rid of them without a mod is satisfying.

Many developers have made amazing make-overs for TouchWiz that fix many of its abhorrences

Screenshot_2015-08-29-17-33-44Digging into the settings, you will find that the interface has actually settled for a more convenient default organization. The stock-like list has been curated and now items are filed under sensical terms. You can add quick settings that will remain at the top for faster access, which makes going through certain categories a breeze. The beloved search button is back and now works much better (and faster) than before.

The default applications now work and look better than before as well. Early Note phones often had a few bugs in these, including slow-to-launch dialers and a delay in the gallery shortcut of the camera app. Every stock app on the Note5 works fluently and launches instantly, including the camera which I’ll get to later in the review. Most importantly, though, the multitasking menu key that was such a pain in many TouchWiz Lollipop builds, and every firmware version of the Note 4 up until 5.1.1, is dead and gone and the menu works brilliantly.

The best part about the Note 4’s UI, however, is the fact that you can put various themes on it. These are not made by Samsung alone and many developers have made amazing make-overs for TouchWiz that truly take away much of what people have been complaining about for years in terms of design. The Material Design theme, in particular, is beautiful. However, not every element of the UI can be changed, which leads to slight contradictions of design languages. For example, the Material Theme clashes with Samsung’s use of blurry glass layers and the absolutely nonsensical overuse of words over iconography. The latter is a problem that affects many languages, as functions like “search” and “edit” often have words instead of icons, and the words on toggles do not change from ON/OFF to other languages either. Some languages like Spanish still have menu entries cut out due to character length as well.

Software — Features

Samsung’s feature set seems to be shrinking with each Note iteration. This is not necessarily a bad thing for most consumers; Samsung has been slowly but surely making their features approachable, intuitive and most importantly, discoverable. This does mean, however, that the hidden feature tradition is gone for better or worse. Things such as the ability to snooze or dismiss alarms through voice commands are gone, and the same goes for the voice controls of the default music app. The hidden-but-awesome Wolfram Alpha handwriting input feature is also gone. There is also no toolbox nor side-keys. So on and so forth.

The basics remain, luckily. S Finder is a system-wide search that only got smarter which each iteration, and it can actually filter through text in certain screenshots and handwritten notes, which makes it amazing to have when combined with S Note and Scrapbook. The former is a note and memo-taking application while the latter allows you to store the contents you pick and save with various S Pen features. For an in-depth review of the S Pen and all it is capable of, head over to this separate feature which contains many of my findings on the S Pen alone.

Many features have been optimized, though, and in most use-cases they offer better experiences. A crucial part of the Note experience is multi-window, and this iteration is just as good as previous versions in general, while better in small ways. The new stock DPI allows one to get a better amount of information out of each mini-screen, and it also reduces the thickness of the blue frame around the active screen. There is also a new way to trigger multi-window apps: you hold the recents menu key (which makes more sense than “back”) and the screen splits. The bottom half then allows you to select from a quick list of your most recently-used multi-window apps. Not every app is supported, but a root app called MW Commander lets you enable whatever app you want for it.

You can still trigger multi-window from the recents menu, but a problem that I find is that the old side-menu multi-window allows you to fire up mini-windows, while this one does not. It also allowed you to choose the position of the new window, while this one is at the bottom by default. This is a small sacrifice that greatly enhances the fluidity of the system for most situations, but takes away some freedom and control in certain (infrequent) contexts. Worth noting is the fact that triggering mini-windows through the corner has been refined, as it requires slightly more precision, which greatly helps in reducing the number of misfires.

Screenshot_2015-09-04-10-48-10[1]The fingerprint scanner on the Note5 works much better than that of the Note 4. The fact that you can simply hold the button means that you can actually use it one-handed without risking the integrity of the (now fragile) phone. It’s also plenty fast, and it works at more angles. It doesn’t tend to fail, but I do often find myself reading a message stating I need to leave the finger on for longer. I also notice a slight speed increase when unlocking the phone from scratch by holding the button for just a second instead of keeping it pressed until the unlock.

The fingerprint scanner can also be used for mobile payments such as Samsung Pay, which I did not get to try just yet. Samsung Pay is in beta as of this writing, but the final product is bound to shake things up in the mobile payments realm as it can emulate credit cards instead of simply relying on NFC terminals, which will make the service readily available virtually everywhere (where there is credit card payments) once it does launch.

The stock apps have been refined and they work much better than the ones the Note 4 received on Lollipop. Most importantly, though, they are fast, smooth and have been trimmed down to the essentials. S Note, for example, has been further streamlined to work with the S Pen and Action Memo. The dialer is easy to use and works brilliantly, and the beloved floating call menu returns as well. What I do not like – and neither will you – is the amount of bloatware this device comes with, and the resulting impact it has on performance (more on this below). Not all bloatware is on the launcher, and a lot of it runs behind the scenes making it more difficult to spot.

The amount of bloatware I found on my T-Mobile Note 5 was pretty worrying indeed, taking up plenty of space, RAM and seemingly CPU cycles as well. Upon first boot I stumbled upon apps from Facebook, Microsoft, and some Samsung additions. Don’t get me wrong — some of the included services are actually useful. For example, SideSync is a great AirDroid/Pushbullet replacement that is built in and also allows for screen mirroring over both wi-fi and USB (the latter being faster). S Health is now much better than ever with a revamped design and extra sensible features… but I personally wouldn’t go running with such a fragile device. You can batch-disable apps through the TouchWiz launcher, but you will have to head to the application manager to get rid of the rest. Even then, though, you’ll need a Package Disabler or root to get rid of certain pesky processes.

Screenshot_2015-08-24-09-44-59As a final note on features, the new Smart Manager that came with the Note5 is not something you want to disable, as it is seemingly tied to many system functions. When I disabled its packages, the battery section of the settings disappeared and my device began draining rapidly on stand-by. This app allows you to quickly clean your cache if you so desire, which acts a useful shortcut.

The Smart Manager, however,  does have a more interesting function: it allows you choose which apps can run in the background. In a way, it functions as a task killer that closes the white-listed apps once you exit the activity, preventing them from waking up your device and consuming data. I am pointing out this service because of the irony one can find when Smart Manager is contrasted with the multitasking user experience of the Note5, which I’ll get to in the performance section down below.

Performance

The Note line-up has always been known for packing the best hardware of the time, but it was never renowned for the best performance. The Note 3 and Note 4 did have very good performance, but as with most Samsung phones, they didn’t have great performance all the time. The obvious elephant in the room has always been TouchWiz, and in the Note5, the story is no different. In some ways, it’s worse than ever.

Let’s start with the CPU. The octa-core (4+4 under big.LITTLE design) Exynos 7420 in the Note5 is exactly the same unit seen on the S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ down to the frequency. This is partially disappointing, given the Note series has improved upon the S line’s SoC in both the Note 3 and Note 4. The jump from the Snapdragon 600 to the Snapdragon 800, and from the 801 to the 805, were significant upgrades in terms of performance. The additional RAM that the Note 3 and Note 4 had over their S contemporaries were also welcome. The Note5 does bring an extra gigabyte of RAM to the table and upgrades the whole package to DDR4… but there is little to no benefit over the Note 4’s RAM configuration in real-world usage due to software.

CPU & System

The Note5’s Exynos 7420 performs excellently in CPU-focused tests. There is no real competition in the smartphone space, which makes the comparison kind of stale. The Snapdragon 810 does not get quite as close in terms of raw benchmark output, but it also doesn’t approach the Note5’s performance in sustained usage. The scores tell the story by themselves, really. Multi-core scores, in particular, are impressive. Samsung’s Exynos line has been refined year after year to deliver great performance through the big.LITTLE approach, which couples up the powerful A57 cores with the A53 “LITTLE” cores that are meant for less intensive tasks. The Exynos 7420 has Heterogeneous Multiprocessing under its sleeve, however, something that many Exynos chips before it lacked. This allows all 8 cores to be used at once at certain periods. Below you can find the scores for PCMark and Basemark OS II, which are two of the less abstract benchmarks out there.

The results show a surprisingly stable CPU that never gets too hot nor works too hard. Using the Note5 for heavy tasks is a pleasure because of how little heat it generates and how efficient it gets most in-app jobs done. It rarely uses the full 8 cores, and there is a lot of idle time during regular usage which helps in terms of battery. Even gaming loads show the Exynos to be efficient, and most low-intensity games hardly touch the A57 cluster while still delivering great performance. Overall, the smaller process size and refined architecture does shine in terms of pure theoretical performance, and that translates to most workloads.

overnight battery

This benchmark ran for over 6 hours, and we see the Note5 being remarkably efficient through all of it.

The split between the more theoretical and abstract tests and the holistic ones is close and somewhat isomorphic with in-app user experience, which I’ll expand on below. The high-caliber CPU opens applications faster than any other phone I have ever tested, and tasks within said applications follow quickly and smoothly. Scrolling and other operations are a different story, however. But responsiveness in itself is not a problem.

However, there is a lot more to a good UX than just fast app loading. I should also point out that I ran these tests with both bloatware enabled and disabled, multiple times, and some benchmarks like AnTuTu and GeekBench had significant variations between the minimum obtained with bloatware and the maximums obtained without. Interestingly enough, though, idle drain and holistic/real-world benchmarks didn’t see such extreme differentials.

GPU & Gaming

The Mali-T760 GPU shows its face once again, and like with the rest of the Exynos SoC, it’s pretty much what we saw in the S6. This also makes the GPU a rather boring component to look into, because as far as mobile smartphones go, this GPU reigns king. Now, many of the benchmarks shown around are somewhat misleading: the Note5 runs at 1440p, which means it has 80% more pixels to power up than the display of most Snapdragon 810 devices such as the One M9. This means that on-screen tests that render at native resolution are skewed in the 1080p devices’ favor. For this reason, when one wants to compare pure raw output, it’s wiser to look at the off-screen tests. I’ve also changed my Note5’s resolution to 1080p and ran benchmarks and games to try out the difference in results.

The benchmarks scores do translate into real-world gaming environments and high-performance graphics tasks. High-resolution (1440p) and high bitrate videos play without a hitch nor significant heat output, and gaming on the Note5 is the best I’ve had on any device. The games I tested were Modern Combat 5, GTA: San Andreas, Asphalt 8, Leo’s Fortune, and The Witcher: Battle Arena among others. One thing that makes it difficult to benchmark just how good the Note5 is at gaming is the fact that many of these games have frames-per-second locked at a maximum of 30. Using GameBench, I obtained results that show that the Note5 consistently tops that cap in most of these games exceptuating GTA San Andreas at maximum settings. However, the game does perform at 26 frames-per-second on this device compared to the 17 frames-per-second the Note 4 gets under the same settings. The OnePlus 2 gets an average of 24 frames-per-second on its 1080p screen, but not without significant instability in framerate once throttling kicks in.

The Note5 is a thermal pleasure to hold at any time and under any load.

In my 2 weeks of usage I noticed that some games (including San Andreas) and N64 ROMs had severe graphical bugs that I didn’t find on any of my other devices. This is most likely due to optimization.

The Exynos 7420 runs surprisingly cool under heavy loads in both GPU-intensive benchmarks and gaming. Even after sustained sessions of over 10 minutes, the Note5 seems to never go above 40°C, and most of the time it doesn’t get above 35°C. There is also little, if any, throttling present under most situations. The only time where I had the device heat up and throttle significantly was while hotspotting as the device was on the charger (I had no other choice), which is a rather atypical usage scenario. The combination of a bigger body to dissipate and disseminate the heat, the already excellent Exynos 7420 and all the pluses it has in terms of efficiency (A57+A53 Cortex architecture, small process size) means that the Note5 is a thermal pleasure to hold at any time and under any load.

Memory & Storage

The Note5 adopts the S6’s UFS 2.0 storage, and it brings a capacity of 32GB or 64GB. Depending on your carrier and variant, you might find yourself with more or less storage, as not only are pre-installed apps different, but certain vendors might make system modifications and additions that occupy more or less space. The Note5 does not come with microSD support, something everyone already knows by now. This is something which many Note fans, myself included, saw as a step backwars. When using the phone for real-world purposes, the lack of expandable storage does feel constricting and at points, worrying, especially given the kind of things XDA users tend to do with their phones, however, there is one place where the Note5 does not disappoint:

As seen in the benchmarks above, the UFS 2.0 storage solution is very, very fast. Not only is it relatively fast with Play Store installs and general file management, but the extra speed also comes in handy when we do what we do best — that is, flashing several ROMs and backing up or restoring our data. While a microSD card means that you can simply put whatever amount of music and media you want in a pinch, the storage speed of the Note5 makes many operations a breeze and backing up ROMs is as fast as it gets on this device. This speed also trickles down to many areas of the phone including the camera and general performance. Games, for example, load faster than on any other phone in my house, including the OnePlus 2. However, there are still some stutters when big installs or install batches take place, but we must remember that Play Store installs are generally very resource-intensive.

Multitasking does not hold a candle to my other 4GB RAM devices, and not even most 3GB RAM phones

The 4GB of DDR4 is a welcome upgrade in terms of hardware, and while one can find slight improvements in the RAM metrics of certain benchmarks, the truth is that none of that matters. In essence, the extra gigabyte of RAM might as well not be there under default software, as TouchWiz is extremely aggressive with background applications, and also inconsistent. It’s a good thing that Samsung removed the traditional “running apps counter” widget from their selection, because I have a feeling it’d only make it more noticeable. I’ll talk more about this and how it affects the user experience down below, but in general terms, it does not hold a candle to my other 4GB RAM devices, and not even most 3GB RAM phones.

Real-World UX

The Note5 packs a lot in terms of hardware, and while TouchWiz has been improving slowly and steadily, the Note5 has me absolutely disappointed in terms of practical performance. This is something that hits home given I’ve been a Note user for over two years, and that I’ve been rooting for Samsung to finally optimize their OS and get it up to speed. To put it simply and bluntly, the Note5 is a massive disappointment in terms of UI performance and resource management, and the resulting experience feels like a huge waste of potential.

Keep in mind that everything that follows does not mean that the Note5 performs horribly, but that it has moments where its performance is disappointing. Overall and during most tasks, the phone’s performance is good enough. However, I see many publications that fail to mention some of these issues that, while not completely widespread, leave a very bad taste in an enthusiast’s mouth.

The Note5 actively undermines its own multitasking

Despite packing the very best hardware in a mobile smartphone to date, the Note5 struggles to present the user with the very best software experience in terms of raw efficiency and, ironically, multitasking.

Let’s start with that: the Note series is meant to be, first and foremost, a productivity phone, and a big selling factor for this franchise has always been multitasking. It is also clear that Samsung always goes out of their way to up the RAM in the Note phones, with the Note II featuring 2GB of RAM, the Note 3 being the first phone with 3GB of RAM, and the Note5 having 4GB of RAM (the Note 4 had to stagnate because there was no 64-bit support at that point). The DDR4 RAM in the Note5 might be very power efficient and it’s certainly fast, but none of it matters in the real world. RAM is rarely a performance bottleneck for most tasks, but the Note5 actively undermines its own multitasking:

The Note5 has aggressive memory management quite like the S6 and S6 Edge did before it, and like many TouchWiz Lollipop do for various other devices. This is a shame, because the phone does not perform like a 4GB RAM phone (evident when compared side-by-side with my ZenFone 2 and OnePLus 2), but it also performs as bad as my also-crippled Note 4 and its 3GB of RAM, and it does a worse job than even 2GB RAM devices I’ve put it against. It really is that bad, but what’s more ironic is that the Note5 included a task-killer application and has a RAM clean-up function, both found under Smart Manager. Yet both are pretty much useless.

The RAM management can and will most likely be fixed through a similar build.prop edit to the one that XDA members figured out for the S6 and ported to the Note 4. But out of the box, the situation is less than favorable and it betrays the whole concept of upgrading the RAM. I also suspect part of this has to do with bloat, because the phone doesn’t skim on lending out RAM to system and background applications.

This phone has insane amounts of bloatware. Disabling them is easier than before, as you can do so quickly and painlessly for apps under the TouchWiz launcher. Various other apps can be disabled from the Application Manager, and root apps like Titanium Backup and non-root apps like Package Disabler can help you trim the phone even further. I highly suggest you disable bloatware on this phone, because at times it is more pervasive than I’ve ever seen it be. 

The most powerful smartphone processor out today should not be delivering this level of performance

The bloatware that runs in the background sucks up CPU even when you are not using it and even if you never activated the services, and at times, that amount of CPU usage is ridiculous. In one particularly frustrating instance, Samsung’s Text-to-Speech engine was using 4% of the CPU while I was playing Asphalt 8, which was using 12% of the CPU. Even when considering that complex 3D games primarily rely on the GPU, such CPU share for a service I am not actively using (and have never actively used) is ridiculous. The runner-up was the Amazon, which I never even opened, not once, not ever.

Finally, UI operations are nowhere near as fast as they should be on such impressive hardware. As previously stated, apps do fire impressively fast, and that makes loading up a game or complex service a joy. But within those applications lists tend to skip beats, particularly when scrolling fast. Even the notification panel skips frames every now and then, something I rarely saw on all Note 4 builds including 5.1.1. The default Samsung keyboard can sometimes get stuck when typing too fast, displaying multiple key presses and lagging behind (every Note5 user in the XDA office has reported this very same frustration at some point). And then there is the fact that RAM management kills your apps in the background, rarely letting you have more than 6 applications in place for a practical amount of time. Samsung’s own default homescreen widget needs to refresh frequently when going back home or swiping to its screen, and swiping to trigger the built-in Flipboard of Samsung’s Launcher is still ridiculously jerky.

Overall, the Note5’s TouchWiz brings down the phone for me more than any other version of TouchWiz brought down other Notes. The most powerful smartphone processor out today should not be delivering this level of performance. This is not to say that the phone cannot operate properly, mind you. As stated in the disclaimer, the phone has good overall performance for most day-to-day usage scenarios. But in this day and age and with this level of hardware excellence, one cannot help but feel that Samsung’s software division has a lot of learning to do. I sincerely hope much of this can be addressed through software updates and development from our forums. Until then, the easiest partial solution is disabling as much bloatware as you can. For reference, here is a list of the packaged I disabled.

Display

The Note 4 had, hands down, the best AMOLED display Samsung ever made and one of the best screens on mobile as a whole. The combination of color accuracy, contrast and brightness it offered were enough to shake off the last bad vibes and prejudice that followed AMOLED tradition. While some reviewers might still call these displays saturated, the truth is that they are simply vibrant, and this is a compliment when taking into consideration the raw brightness it is capable of outputting.

This display gets brighter than any other I ever saw and every phone screen I put it against

The Note 4 could get very bright, but the Note5’s diamond pentile display takes it up a notch and boosts the maximum brightness significantly. Indoors, the Note5 does a slightly better job than the Note 4 and proves to have better visibility in both medium light and with lights off. When outside and under direct sunlight, the Note5 can go past its maximum brightness like the Note 4 did to get much better readability and contrast, with the only downside being the colors get rather distorted and saturated. Simply put, this display gets brighter than any other I ever saw and every phone screen I put it against, and I never had a single issue with readability, not inside nor outside, nor on auto-brightness.

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As for quality, the Note5’s default Adaptive Display mode will be more than enough for most people, boasting very accurate whites that put the Note 4’s already-decent whites to shame. Blacks keep their infinite contrast due to the nature of the screen, of course, but dark greys no longer cease to show up and the spectrum is generally better on the Note5. A common problem with AMOLED screens is that overly dark media (like horror movies) is misrepresented as the AMOLED screen turns many of the darker shades of colors darker than they should be (mostly black). The Note5 improves on this front, and this is clear when in screen tests and media. Individual colors look very similar, although greens look slightly better on the Note5.

Detail is excellent due to the high pixel density, which also solves the traditionally infamous issues the diamond pixel arrangement brought for many Samsung screens. It’s also worth noting that the viewing angles, as with all AMOLED screens, are perfect, and the screen truly looks like a sticker imprinted on your screen at any angle. Keep in mind that the default Adaptive Display screen mode does put out a wider color gamut and saturate some of the colors, but if you are into image editing and drawing (with the S Pen), you’ll find that Basic Mode is stellar in terms of color accuracy and whitepoint accuracy as well.

The ability to select screen mode/profiles is typically an underrated (and rarely mentioned) feature, and it allows one to enjoy a beautiful and vibrant screen for media consumption while also having an excellently accurate screen for serious editing and work. Overall, though, the Note5 offers the best display experience I’ve had the pleasure of viewing, and you are bound to love its amazing contrast, brightness and viewing angles regardless of the color profile you think is best. The Note 4 still has an amazing screen, but when both panels are put side by side, some noticeable differences make the Note5’s incontestably superior. Given the excellent quality of the Note 4’s display, it really is impressive that in one year Samsung managed to push for an even better display.

Battery Life & Charging

At a first glance, the Note5’s 3,000mAh package may seem a problem, but to put it simply, it mostly has no issues carrying a heavy user through the day. Throughout my review, I documented almost every idle period, particularly overnight idling, and several periods of drainage through youtube, video, etc. All in all, my results are very satisfactory, but some important things must be kept in mind.

The Note 5’s display is said to be 20% more efficient than that of the Note 4, which was also more efficient than the 1080p panel of the Note 3. From this one can infer that the knee-jerk fear of the 1440p panel being a battery jog is irrational, and this shows in video playback tests where the screen acts as a main offender on the battery, yet the Note5 can actually surpass the Note 4 and Note 3 and their bigger batteries. The processor of the Note5 is also extremely power efficient, in part because it doesn’t tend to stay at high frequencies and also because it sees plenty of breathing room on idle periods. As seen below, on wi-fi the Note5 is able to drain at less than 1% per hour while idling overnight. This is by no means a stable number, and a week into the phone I had it go up, despite using the same services and less bloatware.

That is one of the oddities I found with my usage: I got my best results on my first few days, where I was able to easily hit over 5 hours of screen on time with heavy usage – that is, benchmarks, games, video streaming, and half the day on LTE. After a few days, hitting even 4 hours became more difficult. Running battery benchmarks under the same conditions with and without bloatware also yielded no significant differences, but bloatware typically offends idle drain, not screen-on time. However, when originally disabling bloatware I didn’t find a decrease in battery life during actual usage.

pcmark_battery

Battery benchmarks on the Note5 show the highest scores and best results I’ve ever seen first-hand and, for the most part, that I could even look up. PCMark, a test that runs for several hours, managed to output a median of 8 hours of work battery life on medium brightness and a maximum of 9 hours and 45 minutes at minimum brightness. As previously mentioned, bloatware seemed to have no effect on these results. Keep in mind that these do not reflect real-world usage, but should be taken as evidence of the efficiency of the hardware components. I was never able to get that much on a heavy day of use. These tests were done under Wi-Fi, though, and the Note5’s battery drain on both usage (most noticeable in video streaming) and idle is significantly higher when on LTE.

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As for charging, all the hype is absolutely true and the device has no problem charging in around 1 hour and 20 minutes. Like most phones out there, the device charges at its fastest during the first ~80% of the battery’s capacity. Depending on your use case, this means that 10 minutes of charging can net you a significant amount of uptime, and in a best case scenario, multiple hours of idling. As for wireless charging, the device does come with Fast Wireless Charging built-in, but I was not able to try out the new standard — the required charger is on sale on Samsung’s website, but on indefinite backorder. The traditional standard, though, charges like you’d expect: around 3 hours with the S6’s wireless charging disk pad.

Audio, Microphone

The Note5’s audio experience can vary, but for the most part, it is extremely satisfying. The bottom-mounted speaker is slightly louder than the Note 4’s, and also slightly crisper. It sounds better, sees less distortion at higher volumes and its output seems to have more depth. The positioning of the speaker means that it is very easy for you to cover it with your hand while gaming, and practically mute it when holding it in landscape. With the Note 4, one didn’t need to be conscious of the handling position in order to listen to the audio. However, the general improvements more than make up for it.

The Note 4 has a total of 3 microphones, and general recording and call quality was never a problem. The additional microphones allowed for a “meeting mode” feature in which you could place the device in the center of a table, record audio and then selectively listen to audio coming from up to 8 different surrounding sources and/or people. The Note5 also has a similar interview mode, but this time, only two microphones record the audio. Both microphones are adequate and people on the other side of calls said I sounded loud and clear.

Screenshot_2015-09-04-14-56-20The Note5’s best audio trick is its “Ultra High Quality Audio” when headphones are plugged in. By default, the Note5’s headphone output is phenomenal. You can read more about it on this thread by XDA Member Willyman. The sound is crystal clear, and it is one of the few phones where I can feel a slight difference when playing FLAC audio files. To make things better, the Note5 comes equipped with various sound quality settings and toggles.

The UHQ Upscaler enhances music resolution to make things clearer, Sound Alive+ adds richer surround and Tube Amp Pro simulates a tube amplifier timbre. All of these have a tangible and delightful impact on your music, and while I loved listening to music (both local and streamed) on various high-quality headphones, the earbuds that come with the Note5 are surprisingly high quality and really impressive for just a free bundled extra.

Camera

The camera of the Note5 is not a huge improvement in terms of hardware, but the end result is a welcome upgrade over the Note 4’s shooter. While the Note 4 was, at it’s time, a top player in terms of camera rankings, the S6 managed to improve upon that, and the Note5 seems to bring the camera experience some new treats and tools once again. First of all, let me say that I have never been this satisfied with a Samsung camera experience, not just because of its insane speed and the quality of the pictures, but also because Samsung managed to cut down much of the little annoyances of previous camera UIs. With that said, let’s double tap the home button and look at a pictures (it won’t take long, I promise!).

The Note5 sports the same SONY IMX240 sensor that the S6 and Note 4 have, but this time with an aperture upgrade over its direct predecessor. The image resolution is still 16MP, but the F1.9 aperture does help with getting more into your pictures, and it seems to help further by adding details, particularly in shadowy areas. The camera also supports camera 2 API features. In general, it seems more consistent in low-light situations than the Note 4 was, and this is likely due to the camera optimizations Samsung made to the S6. I also noticed that both the Note 4 and the Note5 have very similar sharpening algorithms, with various details in pictures having the same kind of distortion once zoomed in.

NOTE5

Exposure and dynamic range on the Note5 are both very good. The camera does seem to have bigger exposure differentials when focusing at the sky of a landscape and then on the ground than the Note 4 does, but the overall results are better. Dynamic range, in particular, is great, and high dynamic range on the Note series has been a pleasure to use lately, not just because the pictures turn out great, but because since the Note 4, the phone’s viewfinder shows a real-time results of what the HDR picture would end up looking like.

Video on the Note5 is not only sharp and smooth, but also fun. There are some noticeable color differences with the Note 4, shown above. As for features, it has the typical selection of 4K and 1080p including a 60FPS shooting mode which makes the video more life-like while retaining high image quality. Then you also have both fast and slow motion, the latter being much better than the Note 4’s in terms of resolution. Finally, you have a video collage mode to stitch together 4 clips, and Youtube Livestream straight from the camera app (a sort of “Periscope killer”). Keep in mind that shooting in 4K limits recording time to 5 minutes and many additional settings become unavailable, including OIS. The 5 minute limit already has a workaround on XDA, though.

As for the front-facing 5MP camera, it brings back Beauty Mode by default but now you can not only disable it completely, but tune it up to the maximum across various settings. Results vary from normal-looking skin softening to anime character. The pictures also benefit from a slightly extended range by default due to the 1.9 aperture, but panorama selfie mode is still there if you need to fit in more people. Finally, something else that you won’t find on other phones is the ability to take pictures by placing your finger on the heart-rate monitor. I use it for this reason more than for its actual function, as it works really well and, as previously mentioned, its more ergonomic position makes it easier to reach without hand gymnastics.

Development

The Note line of phones might not have been the poster child for XDA development, but it received some very notable support with amazing modifications, ROMs and general software improvements. The Note5, however, might not be able to have the developer community and ROM volume that previous Note models had.

One of the first reasons that come to mind for this is that model fragmentation is still present with the Note5’s several variants, but as of now, Europe has no official retail sales of the Note5, which greatly limits the developer and user bases of this phone. This combined with the fact that many enthusiasts simply do not want to make the jump due to the lost features and high prices means that the Note5 is not getting as much attention as other Note releases now, and it might not earn it later on.

As for development itself, the Note’s Exynos chipset is by default a big turn-off and obstacle that might cost it in terms of custom ROMs. Some Exynos variants of Samsung phones have received CyanogenMod ports, but considering the S6 is still waiting on AOSP ROMs, you should be very cautious when planning out a Note5 purchase if you intend on keeping it for long and milking the most out of it through XDA.

That being said, some Note5 variants have already achieved root through modified Kernels, and Xposed is already available for them as well. You can also find custom recoveries like TWRP, and getting all of this working is as easy as has always been through ODIN. If you are in the U.S., keep in mind that the Verizon and AT&T variants of the Note5 don’t have an easy time with root and attempting it can be dangerous to your device. However, nobody should have expected an easy root experience on these carriers. As a final note, tripping KNOX could leave you out of the Samsung Pay service, which is intended to be a big selling point.

Conclusion

The Note5 is clearly a controversial device for various reasons. I once said it “marked the decline of a power user flagship line”, and after spending two weeks with the phone, one of casual use and one of serious testing, I stand by that statement. This doesn’t mean that the Note5 is a bad phone — far from it, as Samsung probably went down this road because it realised it’s what consumers wanted. However, this does mean that the Note5 is not the savior of the Year of Compromises all of us wanted it to be.

In its own right, this device brings all sorts of quality to the table. The camera is a dream and the screen is to die for. The new design makes for the most delightful Samsung phone I’ve seen and the most comfortable one I’ve held. Its precisely-tuned details scream quality, and it’s a looker from any angle (when it’s clean). At the same time, though, its insanely powerful hardware does not prove to be enough to make up for Samsung’s terrible software decisions, and the UI in general still looks dated and archaic. Many decisions such as replacing icons with words are nonsensical in a world of Material Design and intuitive experiences — under this light, some might even consider this insulting to the user.

In terms of performance, the Note5 disappointed me in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s not a slow phone by any means, because with this hardware, it simply can’t be. It’ll load your applications and move your files faster than any other phone out there, but it’ll stutter in between tasks, if they are not dead by the time you wish to come back to them. It’s absurd that a phone with this configuration has given me and everyone else at the office trouble with the default keyboard despite the fact that the Exynos is efficient and cool, and rarely hints at throttling.

Battery life is generally good, and sometimes downright impressive, but also very unstable. What’s most surprising is that this instability didn’t seem tied to bloatware, but rather to something I couldn’t pinpoint. Some user reports claim at the T-Mobile variant of the phone (which I am using) has some of these issues. Truth be told, I had my best battery life results early on my early testing for both idle and actual usage, and on both LTE and wi-fi. Android phones typically don’t age as fast as they used to, and during my initial run there was no root and thus my ways of figuring the problem out where limited. The built-in wireless charging is great, and fast wireless charging sounds promising, but nothing beats a removable battery in terms of getting a charge quickly.

Finally, the thing that ties the Note5 together is its price, and at around $800 for the 64GB variant, it is not cheap. Moreover, the Note5 presents several upgrades on top of the Note 4, but not ones that would justify such a hefty upgrade cost unless you are on an upgrade program with a carrier. The Exynos 7420 is faster than the Note 4’s Snapdragon 805, but in real world usage, the difference is not painstakingly significant. The screen is better, but the Note 4’s remains at the top of the game as well. The rest of the improvements consists of small trade-offs that many users might not necessarily welcome, such as more built-in storage instead of microSD expansion, and more and faster charging methods instead of a big removable battery.

Final Thoughts

With “affordable flagships” becoming more and more prominent and with a sea of OEMs looming in the horizon, waiting to strike at the bigger markets with their cost-effective offerings, one must seriously consider the Note5 thoroughly before jumping in. The beautiful design and exquisite bezels might make other phones you hold feel cheap, but the performance issues could make you feel robbed of potential greatness. The trade-offs made here might be worth it to you, but if you relied on those features at all, you will miss their conveniences. If XDA shenanigans are your thing, it might be best to wait and see, because as of now the Note5’s development future is largely uncertain. You’ll have the basic needs – root, custom recovery, Xposed – covered, however, and that plus the occasional device-specific mod might be enough for you.

It all bows down to how much you individually value each component. The Note 4 was a thorough upgrade over the Note 3 on essentially every metric. The Note5, however, wins some and loses some. Letting anger loose on Samsung over this is futile, as the mobile industry as a whole – particularly the flagship scene – seems to be playing the same game. The Note5 doesn’t achieve the perfect equilibrium needed to make a deep impact, and that’s fine. The silver-lining to this is that the Note 4 can be bought for a cheaper price now, and it now packs a great bang per buck and can still trade blows with the latest of 2015. The Note line-up has changed, just as the S line has. Whether it’s for the better or for worse is up to you. Personally, I like the Note5, issues and all — but I can very well see why many wouldn’t, and I could keep on living with the Note 4 without jealousy or a worry in the world. Instead of objective improvements, Samsung made a device with subjective virtues, obvious flaws, and still managed to give it universal appeal. It didn’t meet its potential, but it can very well pay the check.

The most notable thing, though, is that despite any disappointment the Note5 might have caused, there has never been a better time to become a Note owner. With the Note5 in the wild, the Note 4’s prices have dropped and will only continue dropping before the year is over. By stripping the Note5 of many differentiating factors the Note line-up boasted, Samsung put one of their strongest flagships against competing phablets, particularly those from manufacturers that focus on affordable handsets. But in doing so, Samsung also gave the Note5 a direct and worthy nemesis, marking a precedent in the big phone space. That competitor is the Note5’s own predecessor, and its bang per buck is not only better than ever, but one of the best you will find in the market.

 

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