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Galaxy Note 5 review: A big phone finally grows up

The latest Note brings some much-needed sophistication into Samsung's plus-sized phone family -- but at what cost?

A funny thing has happened over the past few years: As plus-sized smartphones have become more common, they've also started to feel less big.

It sounds almost paradoxical, I realize -- but when you stop and think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. And sure, part of it is just that we're getting used to the idea of toting around larger devices (even if rather begrudgingly, in some cases). But even more significantly, manufacturers are simply getting better at making big phones more manageable.

That's never been more evident than when using Samsung's Galaxy Note 5. The device -- available from all major carriers for $700 to $840, either upfront or spread out over a multiyear payment plan (or for $250 to $350 as part of a traditional two-year contract) -- packs the same 5.7-in. screen as its predecessor. But thanks to Samsung's ongoing efforts to refine the form, the Note feels less like a giant and more like a regular phone than ever before.

The Note's physical evolution

As I've worked with the new Note for the past several days, the theme that kept popping up in my mind was design. For the first time this year, Samsung has moved from making powerful but utilitarian phones to making true objects of desire -- devices you'd describe with words like "elegant" and "refined" instead of just "functional."

The evolution began this spring with the Galaxy S6. After years of cheap-feeling plastics and tacky imitation textures (faux-leather, faux-metal and so on), Samsung came out with a device that was as striking as anything produced by the likes of lauded design virtuosos like Apple and HTC.

That same approach carries over into the Note 5 -- so much so, that it's hard not to think of the phone as a big Galaxy S6 with a stylus tucked inside. The new Note is almost identical to the S6 in many ways -- same basic appearance, same software, same camera -- and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Like its smaller sibling, the phone sports a gorgeous glass back (in a choice of black, white or gold) surrounded by a sturdy metal frame (real metal -- not plastic posing as metal). It looks every bit as sleek and classy as the S6, and it actually feels more comfortable to hold, thanks to the addition of a subtle curve on either side of the phone's back.

Interestingly, that curved back panel is more or less the same as the curved front panel of the Galaxy S6 Edge+ -- probably no coincidence. But its purpose here is more than mere style; the sloping edges on the back make the body meaningfully less boxy and awkward to grasp. And while the glass surface is still somewhat slippery to the touch, the curves make it easier to wrap your fingers around the phone and hang onto its metal perimeter.

As for the size, make no mistake about it: This is still a big phone -- 6 x 3 x 0.3 in., to be precise. But it's actually about a tenth of an inch narrower than last year's Galaxy Note 4, which itself was a smidge slenderer than the previous year's Note 3. For perspective, this latest Note is a full quarter-inch narrower than the first-gen Galaxy Note phone -- which, despite its larger width, had a comparatively puny 5.3-in. display.

(More perspective: The Note 5 is both narrower and shorter than the iPhone 6 Plus -- by 0.06 in. and 0.22 in., respectively -- despite the fact that its screen is diagonally larger by 0.2 in.)

That ever-decreasing waistline makes a world of difference in what the device is like to use. More than anything, it's the width that makes most plus-sized phones hard to hold -- and at this point, the Note isn't that much wider than a typical standard-sized smartphone.

The main area where I continue to struggle with the larger size, personally, is in the phone's length. The Note 4 is more than a half-inch longer than the 2014 Moto X I carry as my own personal device. That not only makes it trickier for me to use in many scenarios -- like with one-handed tasks -- but also makes the phone more awkward to lug around, as it's always just slightly too tall to fit comfortably in a pocket. I'm often worried it's going to fall out -- for example, when I'm getting into my car or lying back on a bench at the gym.

But you win some, you lose some -- and with the Note's size-based usability issues come some pretty compelling perks.

That display -- and the stylus

Most notably (see what I did there?), the Galaxy Note 5's Quad HD screen is pleasingly spacious and positively stunning. Display quality doesn't get much better than this, and the ample 5.7-in. size makes using the phone feel like using a small tablet -- with plenty of room for videos, Web pages or any other kind of content.

And while previous Note devices have just made everything on the screen bigger -- thus showing you the same amount of content you'd see on a smaller smartphone -- the Note 5 keeps all of the on-screen elements the same size as they'd appear on a phone like the Galaxy S6. As a result, you end up seeing significantly more lines in a document and more areas of a Web page without having to scroll. It actually puts the extra screen space to use, which is nice.

Then there's the stylus -- or S Pen, as Samsung calls it. Unless you're an artist or someone who does a lot of freehand PDF markup (which is now natively supported for the first time, without the need for any third-party software), you probably won't use the stylus a heck of a lot once the initial novelty wears off. But it's a neat feature nevertheless -- and it does what it's meant to do extremely well. No third-party accessory comes close to the level of precision and accuracy it provides; it really is just like writing or drawing on your screen with a marker.

The S Pen has a few neat tricks, too, like the newly added ability to whip it out while the phone's screen is off and then immediately start writing a note on the darkened display. It's a cool concept, to be sure, but after a few days, I found it was faster and simpler for me to use the normal on-screen keyboard or Android voice command system to achieve the same result.

03 galaxy note 5 s pen

The S Pen lets you write a note while the phone's screen is off.  

The S Pen is also more seamlessly integrated into the Note's body than ever before -- so much that you almost don't even notice it's there if you don't look for it. So if its presence has significant value for you, great. If you use it once in a while, fine. And if you don't use it at all, no harm done. (Just be sure you put it back into the phone the right way if you ever take it out.)

Familiar qualities, with a few exceptions

From there on out, much about the Galaxy Note 5 is identical to the Galaxy S6: It has the same adequate but unexceptional single speaker on its bottom side, the same awkward but familiar combination of physical and capacitive buttons on its face and the same custom Samsung software. It's more tolerable than the company's past efforts, but still less attractive and pleasant to use than the core Android 5.1 Lollipop operating system on which it's based.

If you can deal with the interface shortcomings and oodles of superfluous services, though, you'll get some genuinely useful add-on features -- like an Easy Mode for novice users and support for the device's excellent fingerprint sensor (embedded in the Home button beneath the display).

Samsung's Multi Window system for viewing multiple apps on screen at the same time is also on board and is particularly useful with a display of this size -- for playing a YouTube video while simultaneously browsing social media, for example, or looking at a Web page while actively working on an email. (The split-screen mode works only with a limited number of approved apps, but those include titles like Chrome, Facebook, Gmail, Hangouts, Maps, Play Movies and Twitter -- so you do have a fair number of options.)

04 galaxy note 5 multi window

Samsung's Multi Window system for viewing multiple apps on screen at the same time is useful with a display of this size.

Performance was generally smooth and speedy during my time with the Note 5, with one caveat: The system has an annoying habit of refreshing apps and Web pages when I return to them after a short period of focusing elsewhere. It's something that was common with devices running the initial Android 5.0 Lollipop release but hasn't been a widespread issue since Android 5.1 came along, so it's rather baffling that the Note has this problem now (especially considering the device has a whopping 4GB of RAM).

The Note does one-up the S6 in one key area: stamina. While the S6's battery life was a bit underwhelming, the Note 5 is more than capable of making it through a full day on a single charge. Specifics are obviously going to vary based on what you're doing and what types of connections you employ, but to give you a general idea of the phone's capabilities, I've been able to rack up as much as four hours of mixed-use screen-on time while still having around a quarter of the battery charge remaining by the time I go to bed.

The Note 5 also supports both Fast Charging and wireless charging, which makes it quick and painless to top off when needed. The phone includes a new type of fast-wireless charging technology, too -- the best of both worlds -- though you'll need a special $70 Samsung charger that isn't yet available to take advantage of that. (The phone will work with regular Qi and Powermat wireless chargers as well, but only at their normal poky speeds.)

And then there's the camera, which is the same outstanding setup seen in the Galaxy S6. There's not much I can say that I didn't already describe in my Galaxy S6 review, but in short, this camera is about as good as it gets in a smartphone. No matter the lighting, environment or type of subject, it's difficult to get an image out of this thing that doesn't look incredible. The camera app is easy to access and simple to use, too, and yet still offers a slew of advanced photography options for those who want to go beyond basic pointing and shooting.

Last but not least is the elephant in the room: storage. The Note 5 has either 32GB or 64GB of internal space, depending on which model you select -- and unlike past Note devices, there is no micro SD card slot for local storage expansion. Just like the now-absent ability to access and replace the phone's battery, this is a feature that's very much becoming a niche-level need, and ditching it was likely a carefully calculated tradeoff.

And you know what? It's a move that I'd say pays off, broadly speaking. No single phone is ever going to make everyone happy, but letting go of those limited-appeal elements has allowed Samsung to introduce a level of elegance the Note line desperately needed. While that may isolate a small (though extremely vocal) group of the phone's former cheerleaders, it makes the Note feel more sophisticated and mature -- and that could help it appeal to a much larger and more mainstream group of smartphone shoppers.

Bottom line

As I mused in a blog earlier this week, it really feels like the Note 5 is the true Samsung flagship of the year -- not just a bigger model of the Galaxy S6, but a more refined and complete version of the phone.

It has all of the same high points as its smaller sibling -- the striking design and build quality, the awesome screen, the exceptional camera -- and it also introduces a more ergonomic curved-back design and a major improvement to battery life. And we can't forget about the stylus, which could range from being a massive positive to being an interesting little bonus, depending on your perspective.

As long as you're okay with its size, the Note 5 is without a doubt the top choice within the Samsung smartphone universe right now. The bigger question is whether a Samsung device is necessarily right for you. With Motorola's 2015 Moto X stepping into the plus-sized phone camp in a few weeks -- and, at a starting price of $400 unlocked, costing a lot less than the Note -- it's hard not to wonder whether the Note will be worth the hefty premium. The pricing model for top-tier smartphones is rapidly evolving, and Samsung's rates now seem sky-high compared to the competition.

If you don't mind the cost, though, the Galaxy Note 5 is a standout smartphone you're sure to enjoy. It's Samsung's best effort to date and a device that's not quite like anything else out there.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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