Hands on with the new Samsung Galaxy Note5

Samsung’s new Galaxy Note5 is packed with top-of-the-line productivity features and is much better-looking than the last Note smartphone. However, it's not perfect and our first look at the 'phablet 'reveals a number shortcomings.

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Credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Samsung today showed the world its latest two "phablet" devices — the Galaxy Note5 and Galaxy S6 (GS6) edge+ — at a press event in New York City. The stylus-, nay, S-Pen-equipped Note5 is the newest member of the popular Note family of phablets, and it follows the Note 4, which first hit the U.S. market last October. The curvy, sleek GS6 edge+ is an upsized evolution of the company's GS6 edge, which was released in the United States last April.

The timing of Samsung's announcement not so coincidentally comes about a month before Apple's expected new iPhone unveil — which should take place on or around Sept. 9 — and the Korean electronics king is clearly hoping to draw attention away from Apple.

Last week, I spent some time with both of the new Galaxy devices during a media event at New York's Soho Grand hotel. Though I didn't put the two phablets through all the paces, I had enough hands-on time to form some solid first impressions. A number of things — both positive and negative — stood out to me about the new Note5.

What you'll like about the Galaxy Note5

In 2011, Samsung pioneered the modern phablet craze with the first Galaxy Note smartphone. Like the large siblings that came before it, the Note5's defining features are its massive, 5.7-inch screen and the S Pen stylus. While the Note5 didn't receive any significant screen enhancements over the Note 4, the S Pen sure did.

Samsung says it dramatically improved the on-screen writing experience with the Note5, and though I didn't spend much time scribbling on its display, it did seem more responsive in my tests. It's also much easier to remove the S Pen from the device than in earlier versions. You no longer have to wedge a fingernail beneath the S Pen to yank it out; instead, you just push it inward, and a spring mechanism pops the pen out. The top of new S Pen also clicks in and out like a traditional ballpoint pen when it's removed, and though the feature doesn't do anything, it makes the stylus feel more like a real pen, which is a nice touch. 

samsung note5 s pen

The S pen itself is constructed of higher-end materials than past versions, and it feels better in hand — again, more like an actual pen. And with the Note5, you can "write" directly on PDF files, a valuable new feature that could eliminate the need to print, sign and scan documents that need signatures.

The Note5 features a new notebook function that lets you quickly jot notes on the screen as soon as you remove the S Pen — the screen automatically turns black when you eject the pen while the device is locked or asleep, and you can immediately start taking notes. (You can disable this feature if you'd rather not use it.) 

Thanks to a new on-screen shortcut that's accessible via any app or screen when you're using the S Pen, you can quickly view your "Air Command" box, which provides shortcuts to frequently used apps. Air Command isn't new, but you used to have to hover over your display and then push a button on the pen to invoke it. The new shortcut makes it easy to access favorite features and functionality, and you can move it around the edges of your display to the position that works best for you. You can also remove the shortcut if you don't want or need it.

The S Pen's new "scroll capture" feature grabs screen shots of full Web pages, instead of individual screens. You just initiate scroll capture via the settings menu, scroll with the S Pen to bottom of the page and choose the appropriate option to complete the action. The vertical page capture is saved as a .JPG file in your image gallery. Scroll capture is easy to use and it could come in handy when trying to grab an image of a long list of directions, or steps in any process or recipe, for example.

The Note5, which runs Android 5.1 Lollipop, also has a brand new "Live Broadcast" feature built into its default camera. Instead of opening up your Meerkat or Periscope app to capture and broadcast video in real time, you can now just launch the Samsung camera app (front or back), enable the new mode and send live video to directly to your YouTube channel. I watched a live demo of the feature, but I didn't get to try it out for myself, so I can't say how well it works. It is, however, a unique addition to the Galaxy camera. 

The display on the Note5 shines, as expected. Samsung established itself as the star of the smartphone-screen space during the past few years, and the Note5 screen doesn't disappoint. However, it also didn't get an upgrade over the Note 4. Both the Note 4 and Note5 have 2560 x 1440-pixel quad HD, Super AMOLED displays at 518ppi.

samsung galaxy S6 wireless charging Brian Sacco

One of the most significant additions to the Note family is support for two wireless charging standards (Qi and PMA), which means you can use the majority of charging pads and wireless power accessories on the market today to power up the Note5. I've been using various wireless charging accessories with my GS6 edge since it launched last fall, and I'm a huge fan -- plugging cords directly into mobile devices already feels like an inconvenience.

The new Note has a higher-quality, front-facing camera (5MP) than the Note 4 (3.7MP). 

Samsung also (finally) provided U.S. release date details (sort of) for its much-anticipated mobile payment service, Samsung Pay, and you will be able to use the Note5 to make contactless mobile payments at the majority of U.S. retail locations, using magnetic secure transmission (MST) or NFC, if the retailers have compatible contactless point-of-sale terminals. (Samsung should have a distinct advantage over Apple Pay, thanks to the MST support.) The new mobile payment service will be officially released in the United States in September, according to Samsung.

samsung pay boa mastercard

The Note5 has a more powerful, Exynos 7420, 64-bit octa-core (2.1GHz quad + 1.5Ghz quad) processor than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805, 2.7Ghz quad core processor in the U.S. version of the Note 4. And it also has 4GB of RAM, 1GB more than the last Note phablet.

A new Ultra High Quality Audio (UHQA) "upscaler" can be used to convert poor or average quality audio to higher bit rates. More specifically, Samsung says "any audio" MP3 files, or files from a CD, can be upscaled to a maximum of 24bit/192kHz, though not all audio players will be able to take advantage of the increase.

And finally, Samsung showed off a new case for the Note that consists of a protective shell and an add-on "physical" QWERTY keyboard, not unlike the keyboards found on traditional BlackBerry smartphones. The case snaps on and off, and when it's in use, the Note5 display adapts and shifts all of your apps into place above the keys. It's tough to say how well it will work in real-world scenarios, but I typed a few sentences and was impressed. Unfortunately, the company didn't share any price or availability details for the case. 

samsung qwerty keyboard case

These are the features and functionality that impressed during my hands-on time with the Galaxy Note5, but a number of the phablet's unfortunate shortcomings also caught my eye.

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