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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.
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 Pure, the Note 5 is straight-up pricey.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
New in the features-packed editor is a way to create an animated GIF, which can be a fun way to make use of a series of shots, like a developing look of surprise or an action sequence. The Note 5 also lets you annotate photos by writing on them (not an option on the Edge+).
So, how does the camera do? What I wanted were clearer, brighter, low-light photos and night shots in addition to all those juicy, saturated daytime images. That's mostly what I got, though the Note 5 still struggled with an automated night mode that robbed the downtown New York skyline of its high-contrast drama and turned it into low-contrast mush compared with real life. A few other indoor scenes also came out a little soft, while well-lit scenes stayed crisp.
And now for photos! Most were taken in automatic mode (which sometimes kicked on HDR or night mode), with the noted exception of a manually focused macro shot using Pro Mode (I miss the automatically focusing macros).
Good news for selfie-lovers is the Note 5's front-facing camera levels up from a 3.9-megapixel jobbie to a 5-megapixel sensor (same as in the S6 and S6 Edge). The default beauty mode you see with the front-facing camera gets a little more aggressive about airbrushing your face by surfacing a heap of tools on the screen. Go into the skin tone subsetting to turn it up or turn it off. There's also a wide-angle selfie mode that you and your friends can all squeeze into, and something called interval shot.
Video capture goes as high as 4K Ultra HD, which is 3,840x2,160-pixel resolution, though that's complete overkill for anyone but a resolution fanatic with a 4K monitor (and a tolerance for ginormous file sizes). That's why Samsung set the default to full HD, a resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels -- the same resolution as your 1080p HDTV. You can change this in the settings. Video recording was excellent, with good audio pickup of multiple subjects several feet away. Your own voice will be loudest in any exchange, but your subjects voices' shouldn't disappear.
The Note 5's inner power changes a little this year, some of it for the worse.
Let's start with the octa-core processor. Samsung sticks with its Exynos 7 chipset from the S6, a 2.1GHz quad-core chip, plus a second 1.5GHz quad-core chip for lower-powered tasks. What makes this a departure from last year's phone is that Samsung is using the same processor on all global devices, versus having one processor for the US and another one for non-US models, something that's occurred in the past. A longstanding partnership with Qualcomm put a Snapdragon processor inside the Note 4, but no longer. The 4GB of RAM (versus the Note 4's 3GB) helps keep things running smoothly.
Unfortunately, the storage situation is a bummer, especially since the Note 5 is positioned as a productivity device. With no physical expandable option, you'll have to get either the 32GB or 64GB versions and hope you have enough cloud storage if you push against your ceiling. Weirdly, Samsung teased a 128GB version of the Note 5, and then said it was a mistake.
What Samsung isn't advertising is that a previous partnership with Microsoft puts 100GB of OneDrive cloud storage within your reach; it's free for two years. After that, you'll have to pay to keep your content online. Cloud storage through Microsoft or any other service certainly helps, but it still doesn't give Note 5 owners much flexibility over how they keep their data.
Also remember that the Note 4 started at 32GB and offered up to 128GB in extra storage through the microSD card slot, so you're really cutting yourself short if you pick the 32GB model over the 64GB version.
To be sure, expandable storage has never been an option on iPhones. But its dearth in this more expensive "pro" model in Samsung's lineup stings more than its absence in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge models that debuted earlier this year. The same goes for the lack of a swappable battery (see below), which was also available in all previous Note models.
Anecdotally, performance was strong, with zippy navigation and detail-rich graphics. Using the phone felt snappy, not laggy. Hopefully that pep will hold up over time. Another piece of good news: the phone launches in about 25 seconds from the off position, which is pretty quick. Likewise, the camera launches quickly, in under a second, whether you double-tap the home button or tap the app.
Although the Note 5 and Edge+ share the same chipset as the S6 and S6 Edge, these new phones perform better in our diagnostic benchmarking tests. In real-world experience, these devices are among the world's fastest.
This is one of those times when numbers don't mean as much as you think. You lose a bit of battery capacity -- the Note 4's 3,200mAh removable ticker drops down to a 3,000mAh embedded battery -- but battery life blew us away in three looping video tests: 15 hours compared with the Note 4's 12.9 average in the same test.
A lot of things may have happened to explain the improvement. Samsung may have tightened up its software to make the phone more efficient when drawing power. The processor and greater RAM (4GB over the Note's 3GB) may have some effect as well. Just remember that battery life varies depending on how you use a device (streaming music and turn-by-turn navigation suck down your battery faster), and that it tends to degrade over time. Still, this is a very promising result.
In addition to long life, the Note 5 incorporates two wireless charging standards (PMA and WPC, which the Qi standard falls into), and has two stages of power-saving modes that you can find in the settings, including the austere ultra-powersaving mode, which essentially turns your phone into a dumb phone in order to keep it live for emergencies.
First things first, there's no great way to test audio quality all over the world, but I can test it where I live, and that's in San Francisco (with carrier T-Mobile). I held several lengthy conversations with CNET Editor Brian Bennett on his landline in CNET's Louisville, Kentucky, office, 2,300 miles away. We both thought that call quality was a little soft.
On my side, I heard a whispery echo on both the Note 5 and S6 Edge+; on his, it sounded tinny with muffly scratchiness. Both flaws persisted throughout the call, in the background. On other calls, Brian said the static faded and noted that when we switched to speakerphone, the distance seemed to improve the situation.
A problem with every Samsung phone I've tested in the last few years: Volume was weak. I had to crank it up to full volume to comfortably hear Brian -- and that was in a quiet location. Samsung knows this, too, which is why it includes an onscreen control for extra volume. A word of warning: That enhances every sound, distorted or no.
On the data side, speeds were pretty consistent with what I've seen on other phones, so that makes me feel like the Note 5 is going to perform well for your carrier in your area.
As for data speeds, the diagnostic app Speedtest.net recorded results that are consistent for T-Mobile in my area. In real-world tests, apps and websites opened fairly quickly, though slow pockets did exist.
In Sydney, we tested on the Telstra 4GX LTE network. As the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Note 5 are both Category 9 LTE capable devices, and the Telstra can support Cat 9, we were anticipating some impressive results and we weren't disappointed.
While the average download speed was 72Mbps, it was a few outliers that skewed the spread. For the most part we saw a comfortable 45-55Mbps. However, we also managed a top speed of 208.49 (on the Edge+) and a few other 140+ results. In terms of uploads, we got a dependable 20-30Mbps.
These matched our general use experience. The Edge+ loaded pages quickly and getting image files up on social media was a snap. So while the vagaries of LTE mean might not regularly get 150Mbps and above, you can definitely feel the difference a Category 9 phone makes.
Like the S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+, the Note 5 supports Samsung Pay, the company's new mobile payment system. It will only be available in the US and South Korea for now, and we've demoed the beta service in both countries. Check out our experience in South Korea here, and see it on the Note 5 in this video below.
On the syncing and management side, Samsung promises it has spruced up SideSync (version 4.0) to make sharing content with your PC, tablet or TV a little smoother. It wasn't live at the time of this review, but Samsung says it's coming soon.
One benefit is auto-connection (after the initial setup); another, the ability to respond to text and calls from the computer screen, similar to Apple's Handoff feature. You can also drag and drop software between your desktop and phone. The software you'll need works with Windows PCs, tablets and Macs -- Macs being a welcome first.
Samsung has readied a stable of add-ons for the Note 5, including several cases, a faster wireless charging puck, and a power brick that charges your phone wirelessly and your other devices through a cable. The most distinctive case, the Keyboard Cover, snaps a QWERTY keyboard on the front of the screen for a BlackBerry-like experience.
The Note 5 is a terrific device with strengths in its stylus capabilities and flashy design. By embedding the battery and whittling down storage options, however, Samsung has opened the door to competitors that can offer an expansive screen with expandable storage and/or a removable battery for a lower price.
The Note 5 seems just a little bit better across the board than the Note 4, but for those upgrading from a Note 3, or joining the Note family for the first time, the Note 5 here has a lot to offer.
The big question in my mind is if Samsung just shot itself in the foot by releasing too many concurrent phones that do too many of the same things. The 5.1-inch S6 is the Everyman phone; the S6 Edge is the specialized S6 with rounded sides; and the 5.7-inch Galaxy S6 Edge+ is the same rounded thing again, but even bigger -- and pricier. Where does that leave the Note 5? It's mostly all about the stylus.
Luckily for this phone, its lower price than the S6 Edge+ makes it the more affordable of Samsung's two extra-large handsets, and the one that more people will choose if they aren't specifically seeking out the Edge+'s exotic form.
Me, I like the Note 5 a lot. I enjoy using a pen to take pressure off constantly pounding my fingers on an onscreen keyboard. I enjoy the Air Command feature, and handwriting notes when I want. I also think it's a really good phone.
Those who don't think they'll use the stylus and want to pay less, there are probably better options out there for you -- particularly if you don't live in a region with Samsung Pay (you could use Google Wallet).
Sharing the same core hardware and software, the Note 5 is the same as the Edge+, but minus the dual-curved display (and Edge shortcuts), and plus the stylus with all its writing capabilities. Since the Edge+ is a pricier phone, people who aren't excited about the rare look of a curved screen should stick to the Note 5, even if they don't plan to do much writing.
You pay for the Note 5's larger display and S Pen. Internally, the two are almost identical (there are differences with battery capacity and RAM, for instance). Consider the pricier Note 5 if you're interested in a larger screen or the stylus.
If you've got this device already, skip this Note 5 upgrade, especially if you value your removable battery and extra hardware storage. The cameras are a little bit better, and the stylus gains are nice touches, but minimal -- the Note 4 still adeptly handles most tasks. Samsung Pay benefits you in the US and South Korea only.
As far as I'm concerned, this is still the premium big boy to beat, though midrange and entry-level large phones are better for the budget-conscious. For a lower-cost model, the LG G4 Stylus (aka LG G Stylo) comes with a stylus for handwriting and navigation. Other good, large options (without the pen) are the 5.5-inch LG G4 and Google Nexus 6 (though I'd also sit tight for the inevitable 2015 follow-up, which will launch with Android 6.0 Marshmallow).
As I mentioned before, the forthcoming high-end 5.7-inch Motorola Moto X Pure also looks promising and costs significantly less. Ditto the OnePlus 2, which also has a 5.5-inch screen, 4GB RAM (on the 64GB model), an octa-core processor and 13-megapixel camera for $390 (roughly £250 or AU$530).
You can't handwrite on the iPhone 6 or 6S Plus, each of which is more easily compared with the S6 Edge+. That noted, the iPhone 6, which remains the gold standard for smartphones and is less expensive than the Note 5, is the better value on a dollar-for-dollar basis unless you simply cannot live without a stylus.