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Samsung Galaxy Note 5 & S6 Edge+ review - The best phablets money can buy

By Ng Chong Seng - 21 Aug 2015

Overview, Design & Features

 

More than a simple sum of their parts

If you think you’re right, no matter what others say, just press on.

This is, in a nutshell, how I feel about Samsung’s latest phablets, the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+.

For those unaware, it all started with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. And by ‘it’, I mean Samsung’s move away from making somewhat premium-looking, but cheap-feeling flagship phones. With the S6 models, we saw that Samsung is capable of tasteful design, not just at the hardware level but the software level too. More importantly, when both came together, the results - the S6 and S6 Edge - are the best phones the Korean company has ever built, far surpassing those that came before them.

 

Cut from the same cloth

I’ve talked in length about the new Galaxy Note 5 and S6 Edge+ before, so I won’t repeat all of them here. Simply put, both are cut from the same cloth as the smaller S6 models. Samsung isn’t the first to put glass (Gorilla Glass 4) on the front and the back on a phone or use a metal frame, that’s for sure; but it’s definitely one of the few capable of ensuring a fit and finish, even when manufactured at scale, that can go shoulder to shoulder with Apple’s iPhones.

The Note 5 and S6 Edge+ don’t look identical, of course. The former has a flat screen and curved back; the latter a curved screen and flat back. Either way has no bearing on my conclusion, and that is the phones look great and feel great. If I’m allowed to nitpick, it will be that camera budge at the rear. There was talk prior to launch that Samsung would switch to a new, slimmer camera module to get rid of this unsightly protrusion, but that didn’t materialize. Also, both are giant fingerprint magnets.

The 16-megapixel, optically stabilized rear camera and 5-megapixel front camera aren’t the only components that the Note 5 and S6 Edge+ are reusing from the S6 models. The fingerprint-sensing Home button, the heart rate monitor at the flash area that doubles as a shutter button for selfies, the support for not one but two wireless charging standards, the super-fast Exynos octa-core processor, the speedy UFS 2.0 storage and LPDDR4 RAM - these are the same parade of specs we mouthed off in our S6 review. If you're looking for differences, the screens are now bigger (5.7-inch, Quad HD), the charging rate is faster (so there’s no noticeable slowdown despite the bigger 3,000mAh battery), and the amount of RAM is bumped to 4GB.

The decision to stick with the S6’s design also sealed the fates of the removable battery and expandable storage. The latter’s omission is made all the more glaring because, unlike the smaller S6 models, both phablets don’t come with a 128GB version. If you can’t live without the ability to swap batteries or carry more than 54GB worth of personal files, then you may have to turn to other makers’ flagships. For example, the LG G4 still packs a user-replaceable battery, and the new Moto X Style still carries a microSD card slot.

And perhaps herein lies Samsung’s biggest challenge. Which is, do people buy Galaxy phones because they tick a particular spec checkbox? If so, I’m afraid the loyalty that these customers have for the brand is built on very weak foundations. Since hardware specs are easily replicated, it’s as easy for them to switch to a different phone. The company’s flirting with Tizen suggests to me that it understands that - unfortunately, the OS war was already over.

 

Creating unique hardware and software experiences

Let me be clear here: the S6 Edge+’s curved screen is still an eye-catching novelty. It’s a hardware trick that you don’t need, but also one that you don’t mind having. Software tricks devised for this sloping display that we first saw on the S6 Edge have all stayed on for this upsized model. For example, there’s the Information Stream, which displays information like weather, time, and notifications on the curved edges; and the People Edge, which gives you a row of five colored contacts who you can quickly call, text, or send emails to. The latter is now ‘enhanced’ with additional means to connect with your assigned contacts. After turning on Samsung's OnCircle service, you can communicate with your friends via handwritten messages, images, emoticons, and pokes. Being able to see who’s calling when the phone is face-down on the table based on the color that peeps out from the curved sides, and then reject the call and send a quick reply with a touch on the heart rate sensor continues to be my favorite dinner table trick.

There's no Air Command menu on the S6 Edge+ to put your app shortcuts, but the Apps Edge does the same thing.

Don't see the new People Edge features on your S6 Edge+? You need to enable OnCircle first.

The S Pen on the Note 5 is, however, no gimmick, and is the single most important hardware difference between it and the S6 Edge+, as well as other phablets out there. Scrolling, navigating the UI, highlighting text, taking notes, splitting screens for multitasking - the Note 5/S Pen combo is as much a productivity booster for normal humans like us as a supercharged drawing tool for artists. The spring-loaded S Pen tip is a clever way to avoid drilling an ugly hole at the glass back just so your fingernail can dig the stylus out, and I’ll file that as yet another example Samsung is beginning to understand that little details go a long way.

Probably so as not to throw users off, Screen Off Memo, which I deem the best S Pen feature on the Note 5, isn't turned on by default.

With the S6, Samsung has mostly plugged its multi-year, useless feature diarrhea. Key pen-related features on the Note 5 include Scroll Capture (part of Screen Write), which lets you screen-capture a long webpage and then annotate it afterwards; PDF writing using both pen and finger; and Screen Off Memo, which lets you start writing on the screen the moment you eject the S Pen. You can now also add up to three third-party app shortcuts to the Air Command menu. If getting things done was the message of previous years’ Notes, getting things done fast is the mantra of this year’s Note.

Scroll Capture is minor in terms of technical achievement, but huge for improving user experience. It's useful for capturing a long webpage (up to 22 screens) in a single image or a long list of Google Maps directions.

As its name suggests, Write on PDF lets you annotate a PDF document and save the result. The most obvious use case is signing digital documents.

The ability to put app shortcuts in the Air Command menu is another new, time-saving feature on the Note 5.

Otherwise, the Note 5 and S6 Edge+ share the same Android 5.1.1 core and pared down TouchWiz layer. Aided by the tested-and-proven Exynos 7420 SoC, both phablets run fast and feel extremely responsive to touches. Sure, the S Pen features eat into the RAM, but the Note 5 bulldozes its way through using the simplest method of all - by having more RAM. (Note: Both phablets have 1.8 to 2GB of free RAM out of the box.)

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