The Note 5 Marks the Decline of a Power User Flagship Line
The Note 3 made me fall in love with Android in a way no other phone did. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to switch back to other phones for daily usage. I’ve bought, tested and owned a few phones since then, including Google’s Nexus 5, a jewel of Android. But something kept making me coming back to the Note 3, and after that, the Note 4. What constantly drove me towards these phablets were their capabilities and potential for productivity, things no other phone has been able to replicate since.
DISCLAIMER: This is an editorial based on early impressions. I will update my thoughts once I get a hands-on look next week.
It is not just the S-pen, or the big and rich screen. It’s the whole package, from the powerful internal hardware to the software additions that the competition still has not beaten. Let’s remember that the Note 3 was one of the first phones with 3GB of RAM. Coupled with the class-leading Snapdragon 800 – an upgrade from the S4’s SD600 – the Note 3 delivered excellent in-app performance outside of a few TouchWiz stutters. The Note 4 further improved upon that with the Snapdragon 805, a powerhouse of a processor that lived a short life in the shadow of the industry’s shift to 64-bit. Many criticized the Note 4 for not being too big of an upgrade — and I did too. But then I changed my mind, and eventually bought one. I am glad I did.
Now I have placed a pre-registration for a Galaxy Note 5. Samsung’s newest phablet looks beautiful, and the new re-design is partially exciting. But I don’t feel the same enthusiasm I felt when researching every bit about the Note 3, and when reading into the potential of the Note 4. I am a power user, and I believe Samsung is increasingly distancing itself from consumers like me. Why does the Note 5 not excite me, as it does not excite so many others as well?
The Note 5’s design looks beautiful in its own right, and I am looking forward to grabbing that silver titanium variant. However, I feel like the Note line has lost part of its signature style and differentiating look. Many criticized the Note 3’s and Note 4’s design for their faux leather backs. Critics particularly hated the Note 3 due to its cheap-looking and plasticky chrome edges. I think that the Note 3 and Note 4 have a great and distinct look. The Note 5, to be quite frank, looks more like a blown-up S6 than it does a Note phone. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but when LG and Motorola brought real leather backs, I saw a huge opportunity for Samsung to bring that kind of quality to the Note line and finish what they started while still going fully “premium”.
Something else about the design that makes me worry is durability: the Note 3 and Note 4 have been extremely durable for me. I’ve dropped the Note 4 many times, but the device is still pristine at the front and mostly untouched on the sides. The Gorilla Glass 4 screen on the Note 4 might have helped, as it gives the device better shock resistance. The Note 3 is particularly durable on bending tests where it outclassed every other phone during the “bendgate” phenomenon. I don’t like cases, but I am aware that I am not the most dexterous user when it comes to phones. This might not be an issue for many, but the grippy back of the previous phones plus their durability are, to me, a stark contrast to the slippery glass body of the new design. This a more opinionated argument, of course; I’ve handled glass phones before, and I know I can adjust to this, but I do love the security my current phones give me in that regard.
Battery & Storage
This is the biggest bit everyone complains about when discussing the Note 5, and rightfully so. I think that this is more of a power-user struggle and that’s precisely why Samsung has turned on the beloved features. As an XDA user, having a removable battery and a microSD slot help tremendously when testing ROMs, backing up contents, restoring files and media, transferring or storing large packages, etc. A removable battery is useful for this too, if only for the shameful “remove battery” trick to speed up certain processes (which I don’t recommend, of course!)… But knowing that you have a full charge waiting for you in your pocket (and have that charge sitting on a plug while you are out and about) gives power users a feeling of certainty and security that is very valuable in cases of heavy usage.
Yet what I think is the biggest transgression is the regression of the battery size. The Note 5 features a 3,000mAh battery. That’s right: the Note 3 had a 3,200mAh battery, the Note 4 had a 3,220mAh package – and both removable – but the Note 5 scaled back to 3,000mAh (or rather, 3,000mEh). In a perfect world, we wouldn’t worry: it has a more optimized screen, a more efficient processor, and Samsung is known for adding software tweaks to make better use of their phones’ juice. But with Android Lollipop and the S6 in particular, we have all grown skeptical of battery and performance consistency… especially on Samsung phones and especially after the S6 made its rounds.
But the real kicker is that Samsung did not mention battery life in their Unpacked Event. They simply talked about charging times, and how much faster charging your phone is with Wireless Fast Charging and their improved Adaptive Fast Charging technology. Those things are great and all, but it’s fixing the battery issue the wrong way: we want to charge our phones less frequently, not just quicker. Samsung is not alone in this, most other OEMs that can brag about fast charging do so indiscriminately. The Note line-up is known for fantastic battery life, and if Samsung didn’t play that up in their event at all, it could very well mean that these faster charging methods are just another way of compensating.
Processor & Memory
The Note line has always brought the best in terms of hardware, especially internal hardware. The Note 5 is still doing that, but with a catch: its processor is still ahead of the competition, but only because the competition stagnated. And because Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 doomed a generation of flagships, Samsung is playing it safe by using what we know to be the same processor the S6 has. Now, the Exynos 7420 is a powerhouse, but by settling for this – when we have all sorts of rumors and leaks detailing new CPUs and GPUs underway – they are breaking another great tradition of the Note line, which is the specifications upgrade over its smaller cousin. From Snapdragon 600 to 800 in the Note 3, and Snapdragon 801 to 805 in the Note 4. One could argue that the Note 2 had the same processor as the S3 — as it did, but at least the Note 2’s Exynos 4412 was clocked 200MHz higher.
The processor has been proven to be more than enough to power up the high-res display and current apps & games, and the additional gigabyte of RAM (which is now DDR4) will sure add to the package as well. But Samsung’s software is what really makes me doubt about the package: the S6’s TouchWiz and many (but not all) of their Lollipop releases had plenty of bugs, ranging from memory leaks to RAM management issues, and many of these made performance on the Note 4 and S6 worse than it should be. I just flashed the 5.1.1 build for my Note 4 (SM-N910T) ported from another variant (SM-N910T3) and it works much better than it ever did, so hopefully these fixes mean that the Note 5 won’t have “TouchWiz lag”, a delay in the recents menu, or RAM annoyances. But if it does… will we see many options around it?
Here comes the really scary part. The Note 3 and Note 4 were thriving with development back when I regularly flashed all sorts of ROMs and mods, and they still see good developer support and following. The Exynos variants, not so much, but they still did have dedicated developers behind them despite the bad name and press associated with the processor. But then you have the S6, which is an oddity in Samsung phones as it does not have nearly the same level of development as previous phones. The S3, for example, was one of the most developed-for phones out there. The Note 2, S4, and the rest all saw great things come their way. The S6? Not so much.
It could be that the device got rid of power-user features. Or maybe the fact that it has an Exynos processor in today’s day and age. Perhaps it was just that its price was too high upon release. There are many factors to consider, but as it stands, the Galaxy S6 paved the way to a new trend for Samsung phones, and the Note 5 is going down that route as well. Not having power-user-friendly features is bad enough, but not being able to continuously upgrade and tweak a power-user phone, at least with relative ease and for various reasons, sounds dreadful. For this we’ll have to wait and see, but I won’t keep my hopes up, and I am buying into the package for what it offers without projecting forward like I did with the Note 3 and Note 4.
I’ve seen a type of comment pop-up on many threads and discussions all over the Android blogosphere lately, and I find myself increasingly agreeing: the Note 4 was the peak of no-compromise phones, and while it was not perfect, it remains one of the most thorough upgrades of all time. Almost everything in the Note 4 was upgraded: a better screen, a faster processor, a bigger battery, a much better camera, a classier design, more sensors and scanners, and software that finally exploits the virtues of big screens intuitively and fluently… It is a productivity powerhouse, and I use it for work and play every day. Things like multi-window make it really hard for me to go back to other types of phones.
I don’t think Samsung stripped the Note line of its power, but rather its potential.
The Note 5, however, does not have me as excited as I had been in previous years for older models. I think that the design is gorgeous, and that the new S-pen is terrific. The features it brings to the table – such as screen-off note-taking and full-page screenshots – are downright awesome additions that I can see myself using on a daily basis. I don’t think Samsung stripped the Note line of its power, but rather its potential. The hardware is not as future proof as other Notes’. Its puny battery will lose capacity over time, and you won’t be able to change it easily. Its processor will be bested by the next wave of Cortex A72-based CPUs, which promise substantial jumps and which Samsung will most certainly exploit in their next chipset. Development might be more complicated than ever, especially with the fragmentation of Samsung’s typical trend of offering many carrier & regional variants. Some users might not even see it soon enough.
This being said, I have already pre-registered my Note 5 purchase with T-Mobile and I will be getting one next week to write a full, in-depth and objective review as I did with the ZenFone 2. These initial feelings and impressions could be proven wrong by the time I publish my analysis — and I hope this is the case. Everything I know now makes me feel like the Note 5 might not be the perfect upgrade we all hoped it to be, the one that would redeem the year of smartphone compromises and the dying furore of flagships. Or perhaps, the Note 4 was already so close to nailing the perfect balance for me. Either way, I won’t let these impressions affect my experience and I plan on giving the device a fair trial. Until then, I will keep researching the phone in hopes of proving these feelings wrong by then.
Do you think the Note 5 is worthy of a power user? Sound off below!