Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review: Top-end specs and stylus trump big-screen rivals, but you'll pay a bundle for incremental upgrades

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has an eye-catching design and high-end hardware, and it takes great outdoor photos. Using the stylus has never felt better and battery life is terrific.

The Bad With a nonremovable battery and no external storage option, the Note 5 strips away some of last year's features. It's pricey compared with large-screen competitors like Motorola's Moto X Pure.

The Bottom Line Samsung's Galaxy Note 5 is excellent overall, and the only phone to buy if you want to write by hand. However, you'll pay a huge premium for a modest upgrade from last year's model, and less pricey competitors will satisfy many.

8.9 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 9

Fall '16 update

In August, Samsung released the Galaxy Note 7, its follow-up to the Galaxy Note 5, to favorable reviews. With its head-turning design, precise stylus and brilliant screen, it shored up the Note 5's few weaknesses, and was praised as Samsung's ultimate phone. Until the devices started overheating and, in some cases, catching fire.

After a botched recall and some very negative publicity, in September Samsung stopped production of the Galaxy Note 7. The company earlier had asked carriers around the world to suspend sales of the phone. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has gone further, saying, "Consumers should power down and stop using all Galaxy Note 7s."

Our advice: Don't buy a Galaxy Note 7, even if you can still find one. And if you already own one, you should immediately turn it off and exchange it for a phone that isn't a Note 7. All US cellular carriers and Best Buy (among others) will exchange your Note 7 for phones of equal value on the same network. Similar schemes apply in the UK and Australia.

The Galaxy Note 5, which Samsung still sells, however, remains a solid, reliable and nonexplosive phone. Though it doesn't have all of this year's hardware or software enhancements, it features a great camera, a terrific stylus and extensive battery life. And it is safe to own and use.

In fact, there is no shortage of terrific alternatives. Apple has released its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which take great photos, provide long battery life and deliver fast performance, though they lack some of the Galaxy Note 7's cutting-edge features such as an iris scanner and wireless charging. Google recently released its Pixel phone. And there is Samsung's own Galaxy S7 Edge, which is the most similar to the Note 7, just without the stylus.

Editors' note: The original Samsung Galaxy Note 5 review, first published in August 2015 and updated since, follows.

Premium phone, premium price

The Galaxy Note 5 is available in gold, silver, white and sapphire black (which looks blue in the light), though not every region carries every color. Prices vary by retailer and country; be sure to check current promotions before you buy.

There's no denying that the Note 5 costs a lot, though it varies depending on where you live and where you buy it. That noted, as of October 2015, the 64GB version costs roughly $800 and the 32GB model costs about $700, making the Note 5 more expensive than the $649 64GB iPhone 6 Plus and the $749 64GB 6S Plus. The Note 5 is cheaper than the S6 Edge+, however; you'll pay even more for that curved display.

Compared to other large-screen models, like the 5.5-inch LG G4 or 5.7-inch Moto X Pure, the Note 5 is straight-up pricey.

Behold, a Note evolution! (Top, from left to right: Note, Note 2, Note 3; bottom, from left to right: Note 4, Note Edge, Note 5). Josh Miller/CNET

In the US, the Note 5 comes in black and white (but not gold or silver) for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular and Verizon.

AT&T: Full retail: $740 (32GB) or $840 (64GB). Next 24 (30 monthly payments): $0 down plus $24.67 (32GB) or $28 (64GB). Next 18 (24 monthly payments): $0 plus $30.84 (32GB) or $35 (64GB). Next 12 (20 monthly payments): $37 (32GB) or $42 (64GB).

Sprint: Full retail: $720 (32GB) or $816 (64GB). Two-year service agreement: $250 (32GB) or $350 (64GB). Lease program (24 months): $0 down and $25 (32GB) or $30 (64GB) per month. Easy Pay (24 months): $0 down and $30 (32GB) or $34 (64GB) per month.

T-Mobile: Full retail: $700 (32GB) or $780 (64GB). 24 monthly payments: $0 down and $29.17 (32GB) or $99 down and $28.33 (64GB).

Verizon: Full retail: $696 (32GB) or $792 (64GB). 24 monthly payments: $29 (32GB) or $33 (64GB).

US Cellular: Full retail: $670 (32GB) or $770 (64GB). Two-year contract: $200 (32GB) or $300 (64GB). 20 monthly payments: $0 down and $33.45 (32GB) or $38.46 (64GB).

Design and build

  • 5.7-inch display; 2,560x1,440 pixels (518 pixels per inch)
  • Metal and glass construction
  • 6 by 3 by 0.3 inches (153 by 76 by 7.6mm)
  • 6 ounces (171 grams)

Like the Galaxy S6, the Note 5 has straight sides and a flat face but also the Edge+'s frontal curves along the back. From what I can tell holding them side by side, the curves are the same. Checking out its profile, these comfortable rear arcs cause the Note 5's top and bottom edges to flare out thicker than its middle. It'll still fill your hand -- this is a large device -- but the overall sensation is still of slimness, especially compared with the relatively bulky Note 4.

Samsung adds some new stylus functionality, like being able to jot a memo with the screen turned off. Josh Miller/CNET

Although that AMOLED display still measures 5.7 inches, Samsung has shaved down the Note 5's dimensions, making the handset feel overall sleeker and slimmer than last year's Note 4. That's good news for one-handed phone jockeys, who get the same screen real estate in a more streamlined package. The 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution (515 pixels per inch) holds steady from last year, lending a lot of crisp detail to the screen, possibly even more than we strictly need.

Below the display, the usual two soft keys (recent apps and back) sandwich the physical home button, which also serves as the phone's fingerprint reader and Google Now call-up (press and hold for Google Now, the search giant's voice-command answer to Apple's Siri). You'll find the power/lock button on the right and volume rocker on the left. Along the bottom are the standard Micro-USB charger (alas, not USB-C as we had hoped), headset jacks and S Pen holster, with the SIM card tray up top.

What makes a Note 5? Metal, glass and this stylus tucked in down under. Sarah Tew/CNET

On the flipside, you'll see the 16-megapixel camera lens, flash and heart rate reader. A unibody device, it has no removable backplate or battery and you won't find an expandable storage slot anywhere. Prepare for your smudgy fingerprints to bloom all over that mirrored surface, and keep a microfiber cloth nearby.

One last, infuriating thing I've noticed in all these years of testing: That power/lock button on the right likes to turn itself on in my purse's interior phone pocket, draining battery willy-nilly. I keep hoping Samsung will work this out, but so far no dice.

All-new S Pen stylus

  • Click-in holster
  • Slightly recessed button
  • Way smoother S Note app (with auto-save!)
  • Dimensions: 4.4 by 0.2 by 0.1 inches (111 by 5.3 by 3.6mm)

The Note S Pen stylus, which is made of polycarbonate plastic, changes a little bit every year. This time around, the stylus audibly clicks into place inside the Note 5's chute like the crown of a retractable pen. It's kind of fun, but the fit is so snug, you have to really tease it out. The plastic pen has long, flat planes to keep it from rolling away on a tabletop. Its single button slightly recesses from the surface to tone down the mispresses, which I've found common in previous S Pen designs.

Important tip: That S Pen can only be inserted in the holder pointy end first. It is not meant to holster on the non-business end. If you try that, bad things will happen, as some users report when their S Pens got stuck with the square end wedged, possibly irretrievably, deep inside the phone.

Check out all these styluses, from the original Note (far left) to the Note 5. Josh Miller/CNET

The S Pen continues to act as a writing implement, pointer and navigational accomplice. You can use it to pull up a menu dialog box, or hover to pull up photo or video preview. It also works with those touch-sensitive menu buttons and the physical home button. Dragging and dropping text, and capturing the screen are two other tricks.

Samsung claims that its pen writes a lot better this time around, more fluidly, and with decreased latency times. I didn't notice that, even writing with the same pen and ink "weight" on the Note 5 and Note 4 side by side. I did notice that the 5's S Pen feels a touch lighter, which made for slightly cleaner, easier writing, compared with the Note 4's slightly heavier pen. My handwriting is still barely legible on both.

A glimpse at the redesigned S Note app (left); and drawing with the S Pen. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The S Note app itself is greatly simplified, with extra features tucked into the More menu. You can also download a ton more tools, like a chart helper and an extension pack that includes advanced tricks like a heartier toolbar and shape recognition, handwriting "transformation" and the ability to record sketches.

In the app itself, you can customize everything from the way you select color to the way you save favorite combinations of pen tips and ink thickness. As with previous versions, the pen stays sensitive along the corners of the page, and onscreen controls will momentarily disappear so you can continue to write and draw "below" them.

New features

Compared with 2014's Galaxy Note 4, the new Note 5 has some additional tricks up its sleeve.

Redesigned shortcuts wheel: Called Air Command, this floating icon hangs out on any screen and opens up to reveal a circular menu of most frequently used apps -- say, the S Note app, the browser or your photo gallery. It's always on by default, but you can turn that off in Settings. You can also customize this by adding up to three apps of your choice.

The redesigned Air Command wheel looks a whole lot cleaner this time around. Josh Miller/CNET

Air Command responds faster these days, which means that if you accidentally click the S Pen button, you can quickly click again to dismiss it without too much interruption. The floating icon doesn't get much in the way, because it only interacts if you tap or click with the S Pen, not your finger.

Instant memo: Called "screen off memo" in the settings, this feature lets you create an "action memo" (more like a sticky note) even when the screen is turned off. One caveat: it works only just after pulling out the S Pen, not if the pen has been out for a while. I like this feature -- it adds to the S Pen's ability to really quickly jot a note. You'll need to dip into the settings to toggle it on.

Click! A new mechanism secures the S Pen in place. Josh Miller/CNET

PDF writing: Yep, you can now annotate PDFs by handwriting all over them, just as you can do with a screenshot.

Scrolling capture: Instead of taking several screenshots of a long piece of text, the Note 5 will prompt you to capture more of the whole screen. You'll be able to annotate right on the screenshot too, of course.

Android and apps

  • Android 5.1 Lollipop
  • Easy mode, Private mode
  • Two power-saving modes
  • Latest S Health app

The Galaxy Note 5 runs Android 5.1 Lollipop, bolstered by Samsung's own TouchWiz layer. That means the phone will be able to tie in to Google's wide array of services, such as Google Now, turn-by-turn navigation and access to Google Drive files. But it can also tap into Samsung's own software, all of which customizes the display's look and feel -- like those quick-access toggles in the notifications shade and anything that has to do with the S Pen. Microsoft's One Drive cloud storage app is also onboard (more on this below).

Samsung launches with Android 5.1, but expect an upgrade to Android Marshmallow 6.0 down the line. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Alas, while Android 6.0 Marshmallow is just around the corner, its due date to these new Samsung phones is anyone's guess. With the exception of promised monthly security updates, more substantive software updates are on a notoriously slow boat.

In addition, Samsung's apps include Note mainstays like S Note and S Health, though the company has really pulled back on its preloaded apps. You'll find a cornucopia of optional add-ons tucked away in various spots throughout the phone, like Galaxy Gifts and Galaxy Essentials.

A quick skip through the settings menu turns up a whole bushel of extra modes and options, like a simplified home screen (Easy mode) and a vault for photos and files you don't want anyone else to see (Private mode). There are also two levels of battery-saver, several gestures and some themes to freshen up the look and feel. You'll even find a user manual.

Likewise, pull down the notifications shade for quick-access settings, including a flashlight. You can edit to reorder these. From the home page, swipe right to reveal Flipboard, which you can use to read headline news about your pet topics.

The camera situation

  • 16-megapixel camera
  • 5-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Up to 4K video resolution
  • Double-press home button to launch
  • Live YouTube streaming

If you look at the megapixel count alone, not much has changed with the Note 5's camera. Samsung has adopted a wider aperture lens (f1.9 instead of the Note 4's f2.2), the same one that's used in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. Why is this "good"? A bigger aperture lets in more light, and more light leads to better photos, specifically low-light pictures. The image-processing capabilities make a huge difference too, of course, but the bottom line is that the overall photo quality should incrementally improve from the Note 4, and is on par with that of the S6 and S6 Edge.

What you get with the camera app

The phone also gets a few more editing and shooting modes and guides -- little things, mostly, but these are always fun to discover.

As with the Galaxy S6 and many other phones, the Note 5 here has optical image stabilization (OIS), which will help keep shaking hands from blurring shots, and an array of modes and tools. There's auto-HDR right on the screen (this helps keep photos looking true to life) and panorama and selective focus as separate modes within.

The native camera menu includes the new YouTube Live Broadcast option. Josh Miller/CNET

Brand-new is a live broadcasting feature that lets you record to YouTube. There's intentionally a 30-second delay between when you start recording and when the footage hits YouTube. This is essentially Samsung and YouTube's take on Twitter's Periscope tool. (The live broadcast feature is appearing first on the Note 5 and S6 Edge+, and is currently exclusive to those phones -- though how long that will last is anyone's guess.)

What else is new? Tap to focus and an exposure control appears that lets you slide to brighten or darken the scene. Take a photo in Pro mode, and you'll have the option to save it as a raw file, one that the phone hasn't automatically processed, say into a JPEG format, first. This option gives photographers much more post-processing control. You can record a collage of four 6-second videos, to which you can add background music and share, share away (the file saves as a 720p MP4). If you're hungry for more modes (like the rear-cam selfie shot), it's easy to download more from the camera app.

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