Galaxy Note 5: A totally subjective road-warrior test

Galaxy Note5

To the hard-working journalist, there’s something seductive in the promise of devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, just as there has been since the Apple Newton – a notebook that isn’t a notebook, one that can do other things and unite the free peoples of Middle-Earth, and so on. No one has really been able to crack the code, however.

So I decided to take the sample Note 5 provided to Network World by Samsung to CTIA’s Super Mobility 2015 conference in Las Vegas last week – I would use it, as much as possible, to the exclusion of my regular phone and my laptop, even for my own entertainment while traveling. I would wear the S Pen stylus down to a nubbin, and take as full advantage as possible of its manifold capabilities. Has Samsung finally done it?

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Broadly speaking, my experience with the Galaxy Note 5 has been much as it would have been with any other top-of-the-line Android handset – it’s great for taking care of the basics like email and social media, handles audio recording with aplomb, and its camera is more than adequate for my limited photography skills. Even its outlandish size hasn’t been an issue, and I’m one of those people who would be really interested in a flagship phone that you could use with one hand.

But that’s largely all it is – the S Pen is great, but the handwriting experience still isn’t quite the paper replacement I could have hoped for. The default “Action Memo” app that opens when you pop out the S Pen works infinitely better than I had expected, though I haven’t played around with digital stylus writing for years. My handwriting is clearly identifiable, for better or for worse, and the physical experience of writing is reasonably close to the real thing.

The problem is screen size and a lack of a default “ruled paper” background – you can fit a couple sentences on there, but then have to scroll down with your fingertips to get more room to write, which doesn’t really work for lengthy note-taking. I’m sure there are ways to fix it – the Air Command menu that pops up when the S Pen is detached is customizable, so I substituted the Squid app (formerly Papyrus) into one of the quick-access slots, giving me ruled “paper” but cutting me off from the extensive degree of integration into Samsung’s ecosystem that the default app has.

I even used the S Pen in lieu of a finger with the swipe-typing feature on SwiftKey – it worked fine, but didn’t really provide much of a speed advantage over simply using a finger. My regular old paper notebooks didn’t have that feature, but handled a lot better.

Beyond my experience with the stylus, the Note 5 was an excellent performer – my usual phone workload when I’m traveling to trade shows consists of a lot of photography, audio recordings and social media activity, and the device handled all of this without slowing down or running out of juice. (By the evening of a relatively heavy day of use, it would only be down to about 30%.) The Note 5 did once freeze when I tried to get it to start recording audio via the Splend Apps voice recorder, requiring me to use a backup device, but that was the only actual error I encountered.

The fingerprint recognition system works well but imperfectly, roughly on a par with Apple’s TouchID – generally, it unlocks on the first or second try, but it occasionally gets stubborn and refuses to recognize your thumbprint at all, requiring me to try and remember what the heck I used as the backup password.

The camera caused me a few moments of confusion, as the “capture picture” option inside social media apps didn’t work very well – to wit, the camera app would appear as requested, but then refuse to actually take a picture when the button was pressed. Simply using the camera app and sharing from there worked just fine, however.

The Galaxy Note 5 even worked passably well as a one-hander – at least, not much worse than the rest of the 5-inches-and-up fleet of present-day flagships – thanks to Samsung’s acknowledgement of the device’s somewhat ludicrous size. A particularly handy feature lets you set a certain number of home-button presses to signify “one-handed mode,” which shrinks everything on the screen down a bit and collapses it toward the bottom corner. The thing is still massive and unwieldy – and it still takes a mighty thumb to reach the back button while using it one-handed – but it’s not nearly as annoying as I’d anticipated.

The upshot

The Galaxy Note 5 is a great device – it’s powerful, prettily constructed, and performs almost as well as advertised. The stylus is genuinely impressive. The screen is freaking brilliant. If you wanted to, I’m sure you could root it and customize it and make it even better.

But is it, at long last, the all-in-one journalism tool that blends the notebook and the recorder (and Evernote and email and so on) into one seamless piece? Sadly, no – S Pen is fantastic, but it’s just not quite ready for serious professional use. I still needed analog paper and pen to get my job done.

This story, "Galaxy Note 5: A totally subjective road-warrior test" was originally published by Network World.