Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 5 for AT&T
Samsung's top-of-the-line smartphone impresses with its classy design and blistering performance. The Galaxy Note 5 is a compelling Android device with its big screen, fast processor, and capable camera. AT&T's variant is a solid smartphone. Here is Phone Scoop's full report.
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Is It Your Type?
The Samsung Galaxy Note, now in its fifth generation, is the quintessential big-screened Android phone. If you want a large, powerful, classy handset that comes with a stylus, the Note 5 is the only one to get.
Note: Since the Galaxy Note 5 is mostly identical between carriers, significant portions of this review have been carried over from our earlier review of the Galaxy Note 5 for Verizon. Of course, we did fully test this AT&T version and updated the relevant sections.
If you were surprised by the Note 5 when Samsung unveiled it in August, then you haven't been paying attention. The Note 5 adopts the design language seen on the Galaxy S6 earlier this year, which simply makes the Note 5 more of a good thing.
The Note 5 is an ultra-premium handset. The design features a metal frame sandwiched between two glass panels. The materials and build quality are second-to-none. I appreciate the attention to detail that's evident in the shape of the aluminum sides as well as the curves of the glass. The seams are fitted together flawlessly. The Note 5 exudes style and class in every way, and will be a fine companion if you're dressed up for a night on the town.
Of course, it's darned big. The Note 5's dimensions are nearly identical to those of the iPhone 6 Plus. It says something that Samsung could give the Note 5 a bigger screen (5.7 inches) than the iPhone 6 Plus, yet design a fractionally shorter and narrower phone. The Note 5 is only slightly more compact than last year's Note 4. The glass and metal mean it's a weighty handset, but it could be a lot worse. Glass is more breakable than the old plastic covers, but I'd rather take my chances with the glass than suffer through another faux-leather rear shell.
Given its size, Samsung did as well as it could to make the phone comfortable to hold and use. The rear glass panel is curved generously right where it meets the side of the phone. This helps offset the size a little bit where it joins the flesh of your palm. The entire phone is slippery as hell; the finish on the Gorilla Glass 4 panels is smooth, which means the phone will easily slip into — and out of — your pockets.
Some people may worry enough about the glass to protect it with a case. Adding a case will hide the phone's pleasing design and make the phone larger.
The front of the phone carries forward design traits we've seen on Samsung phones for years. The panel is mostly display with thin side bezels and thicker top and bottom bezels to house the usual set of components. Above the screen, for example, are two sensors, the chrome-accented speaker grille, and the user-facing camera. Below the screen, you'll see the oblong home screen button / fingerprint reader, which is flanked by capacitive multi-tasking and back keys. The home button has a chrome rim, which helps it stand out visually, and the physical profile is excellent. I found the button easy to find and use.
The volume buttons are on the left. They are two separate keys, rather than a single toggle. They have excellent profiles, travel, and feedback. The screen lock button, on the right, has similarly pleasing characteristics. I do wish the Note 5 had a dedicated camera button, especially since there's plenty of room for it.
The SIM card tray is on the top edge. The bottom edge holds the stereo headphone jack, the micro USB port, the grill for the speakerphone, and the stylus. There's no IR port, unlike last year's phone.
On the Note 5, the exposed end of the S Pen (stylus) is flush with the flat bottom edge of the phone. Press it in, and the stylus' top end will pop out. You then pull the top end to retrieve the stylus from the handset's chassis. It's not as easy to remove as the stylus on previous Note devices, but it works well enough. The stylus itself is decent. It's thin and light, and the action button is a cinch to find and use. Of course, we've learned not to insert the pen backwards. Thanks to the design, it can become stuck and damage the sensor that detects whether or not the stylus is installed. Make sure you put the pointy end in!
The camera module protrudes noticeably from the rear panel. It has not one, but two (!) chrome accents, which, oddly, draw attention to the camera bump and its size. The flash and heart rate sensor are packaged together in a separate module to the right of the camera, but they are flush with the surface.
Many Samsung fans were not happy with the company's decision to dump removable rear covers, swappable batteries, and swappable memory cards on the Galaxy S6. Unfortunately, Samsung made the same decision (mistake?) with the Note 5. The battery is sealed in tight, and there's no memory card slot. To help offset that loss a bit, the Note 5 is compatible with most wireless charging pads thanks to support for multiple wireless charging standards. What's more, it includes rapid charging and rapid wireless charging, with the proper (Samsung) pad.
The Note 5 is an incredible piece of hardware, despite its shortcomings, and stands near the top of the big-screened smartphone mountain.
What's not to love about a 5.7-inch quad-HD display? Damn, the Note 5's screen kicks butt. It's amazing in every way. Samsung uses Super AMOLED tech for its screens (as opposed to LCD), and the Note 5's display is a winner across the board. It's pixel-rich, bright, colorful, contrasty, and flat-out incredible. I was able to use it indoors and out with no problem, and viewing angles are impressive. I saw minimal brightness drop when the phone was tilted side to side, and colors remained accurate. Quite honestly, the Note 5's screen is the best available on a smartphone right now. Yes, it's that good.
I tested the Note 5 on AT&T's network throughout New Jersey and New York City. It performed on par with other handsets I've tested in the region, and identical to that of the S6 Edge+. The phone did a good job connecting to AT&T's signal. Most times, the phone showed several bars of 4G LTE coverage and only dropped to 3G (HSPA) in weak signal areas. I was able to connect calls no matter how strong or weak the signal, and the phone didn't drop or miss any calls while I reviewed it. Data speeds across AT&T's LTE service were solid. I was impressed with web page load times, app downloads, and Instagram refresh rates, which all felt speedy.
I was not particularly impressed with Note 5 as a voice phone. I had hoped the AT&T version would sound better than the Verizon version, but it didn't; they are on par. The Note 5 is just barely loud enough with everything at the maximum level. Loud environments, like busy city streets, made it rather difficult to hear calls. Holding conversations in moving cars was difficult. Quality was also lacking. Voices sounded only fractionally clearer in the Note 5 on AT&T's network when compared to Verizon's.
Switching to the speakerphone helped alleviate these problems a bit. The speakerphone on the AT&T Note 5 was noticeably louder than the Verizon model, and it delivered clearer audio, too.
Ringtones and alerts were able to get my attention the majority of the time. The vibrate alert delivered a satisfying jolt when inbound messages arrived.
Whether you use Google's Play Music app, Samsung's Milk Music app, or the stand-alone MP3 player, music sounds good when pumped through the Note 5's stereo headphone jack. I have no complaints on that front.
The Note 5's glassy design necessitated the sealed-in battery. Some may be further disappointed to learn the Note 5's 3,000 mAh power source is 220 mAh smaller than last year's Note 4. In my experience with the phone, it was able to provide a bit more than a full waking day of power consistently, but I was hoping for better. It never delivered 36 - 48 hours of uptime. The iPhone 6 Plus, in comparison, easily outlasts the Note 5. But the Note 5 does surpass the Galaxy S6 with flying colors. Bottom line: big phones should have big batteries that provide at least a day and a half of usable power. The Note 5 doesn't quite deliver on that front, although it should get people through a single day.
Samsung sort of makes up for the power-hungry nature of the phone with rapid charging and rapid wireless charging. I tested the rapid charging via USB and found the 3,000 mAh battery could ramp up from 0% charge to 100% charge in just under two hours. That's pretty quick. Of course, the more you charge it, the sooner the battery will lose its ability to hold a charge.
The Note 5 also includes Samsung's Power Saver and Ultra Power Saver modes. These do make a difference if you run into trouble. The first option tones down a few features and doesn't crimp the phone's performance too much. For example, it will limit the CPU a bit, turn down brightness, turn off the key backlights, and put the display to sleep faster. The second takes a more aggressive approach and kills off all but the basics. It strips the UI down to the bare essentials, goes grey-scale, and prioritizes only key functions, such as calling and messaging. These will definitely help you save power in a pinch.
Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi
I was very pleased with the Note 5's wireless performance all around. The Bluetooth radio did a great job as far as pairing with other devices was concerned. Call quality was not the best, especially via my car's hands-free system. I'd call the experience noisy. Music pushed to aptX-compatible Bluetooth headsets sounded fantastic.
The GPS, NFC, and WiFi radios all functioned perfectly, I didn't have any problems with them. I was impressed with the speed of the GPS radio, which pinpointed me to within 10 feet in just a couple of seconds on a consistent basis. The NFC radio allowed me to quickly pair the phone with other hardware, and the WiFI radio was speedy for use in browsing the web.
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