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Galaxy Note 5 review: A big phone finally grows up

JR Raphael | Aug. 28, 2015
The latest Note brings some much-needed sophistication into Samsung's plus-sized phone family -- but at what cost?

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.)


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