Samsung couldn't wait to announce the new Note - and we couldn't wait to get our hands on the thing. IFA, the traditional launch pad for the phearsome phablet is still a couple of weeks out, but not only is the latest iteration of the device that redefined screen size official, it's available to the public.
And it's a thing of beauty.
It's big, it's powerful and it's got a super-sized price to match. And while there were a handful of sacrifices made in this latest iteration - notably the removable battery, MHL and SD slot - there's a lot to love beneath the beautiful 5.7-inch display, all in a surprisingly easy-to-hold package.
Of course, it'll cost you.
And that's really what's most remarkable about the Note 5 - the fact that it doesn't feel like a Note. All of the apprehension around owning a 5.7-inch phone melts away the first time you hold it in your hands. It's remarkable, really, how much difference a little engineering and a few beveled corners make when it comes to hold-ability to the point where it's almost possible to forget that one is using such a massive device.
Well, almost. At 6.03 x 3.00 x 0.30-inches, the Note 5, has managed to shave a fraction of an inch off of its predecessor. In fact, it's also shorter and skinnier (if a bit thicker) than the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. It's a pretty impressive feat for a phone with a screen size that would have been almost universally regarded as absurd a few generations back.
The front of the Note looks fairly similar to the 4, a long stretched-out face with most of the bezel located above and below the display. Samsung has taken great care to strip away the side bezel, which is virtually nonexistent this time out. At top is a small Samsung logo, phone speaker, a notification light and a front-facing five-megapixel camera. At the bottom are the standard array of buttons, including a home button that doubles as finger print reader and has a few other surprises up its skinny sleeve.
In keeping with Samsung's adherence to aesthetic consistency, the Galaxy Note 5 is built around a pretty wholesale adoption of the Galaxy S6's industrial design - which is, naturally, good news for perspective buyers. The newest iteration of the company's flagship shed the plasticky build of previous generations for a glass and steel architecture more akin to what Apple offers on its device.
Those more familiar with iOS offerings will likely see hints of the latest iPhone in the Note's steel skeleton - particularly on the rounded, brushed metal bottom, which houses the mic jack, microUSB (not MHL, mind) jack and a small speaker grille inside two antenna bands, with room spare for the S-Pen slot.
Where the Note 5 isn't metal, it's glass. That includes the rear of the device. The glass backing makes for a much more solid feel than earlier plastic editions, though it doesn't offer much in the way of friction, meaning you'll want to hold on extra tight in these sweaty-palmed dog days of August.
The back also holds one of the keys to the Note's surprising hold-ability, trading the Galaxy S6 Edge+'s famous front curves for rear contours on both sides. They're not nearly as pronounced as what Motorola rocks these days, but they do fit nicely within the contours of the human hand.
One of the more notable sacrifices Samsung has made for the spiffy new glass and steel design is the loss of the removable back and battery. It's the sort of thing taken as a given for iOS users and has long been one of the Galaxy line's hardware perks. It'll likely be a moot point for most users, given the sizable battery inside, but it's a shame to see such a key piece of industrial design distinction go by the wayside.
Small sacrifices aside, the Note finally has the design it deserves - one to match that big, glorious display.
It is, indeed, a thing to behold. At 1440 x 2560 pixels, with a 518 PPI density, phone screens don't get any better. The Note removed the stigma against watching a movie on a smartphone several generations back, and the Super AMOLED, Quad HD display really drives the point home.
HD movies look terrific on the thing, and Samsung's done a fine job with the color balance and brightness here. Everything looks brilliant on what's quite probably the best display currently available on a smartphone, Android or otherwise.
Even with the same specs as the last go-round, the company appears to have made enough tweaks to improve things further. Also impressive is the phone's daylight mode, which maintains viewability in the LED kryptonite that is the Earth's yellow sun.
The speaker, a single small grille wedged between the microUSB and S-Pen slot, unsurprisingly, isn't as grand a media experience as its visual counterpart. Still, it's not too shabby. It never gets plenty loud and not too tinny or muddied at top volume. It's perfectly serviceable when listening to music, and unlike a lot of built-in phone speakers, I was able to pick out individual instruments, rather than the standard lobby wall of sound.
Ideally Samsung would have found a way to fit a front-facing speaker onto the Note, but the (fortunately) limited bezel real estate doesn't really leave that as an option. And, given phone's size, unless you're holding it in landscape mode, it's hard to obscure the grille - and even then it's easy enough to navigate your hand around it.
The Note's other - and arguably more impressive - original feat, aside from pushing the boundaries of screen, was making the stylus cool again. In fact, the greatest trick Samsung ever played was convincing us not to call it a stylus at all.
The only true hardware upgrade to the S Pen is, honestly, about as minor as it gets. Rather than just sliding it out, you push it in to pop it out. That's it, really. Sort of a quick access to that little magic wand, which, fittingly, makes a sort of unsheathing sound when you remove it.
Pull the S Pen out without waking the phone up and you'll reveal one of the Note's coolest new features: the ability to write on the phone with the screen off. The display stays black and a four options show up at top: pen, eraser, save and delete. From there you can write or draw to your heart's content, white lines on a black background, like an electronic chalkboard.
It's a handy little feature that will no doubt appeal to S Pen fans, both for ease and speed of access and the likely battery life boost that comes with taking notes on a mostly dark screen.
Samsung's made some nice tweaks for those also inclined to use the S Pen with the screen actually on. Here the Air Command auto launches, with a translucent overlay and a semi-circle of brightly colored functions: Action Memo, Smart Select, Screen Write and S Note - plus a new Add Shortcuts button, for dragging apps like Gmail that you regularly use with the pen.
A small pen icon sits on screen for easy Air Command access at all times when the S Pen is removed. It can be moved around the screen or deleted altogether. From there you can access the improved Screen Write, which now includes Scroll Capture, making it possible to take screens of full articles that extend beyond the bounds of a single page. There's also smart select, which is a bit like the Photoshop lasso tool, making it possible to grab a portion of an image by drawing around it.
With the Note 5, Samsung continues to define the S Pen's place as more than novelty or throwback. But while I still can't see myself getting all that much use out of it all these generations later, it's a handy tool for those who do - and pretty much the only game in town for modern styluses.
Beyond the requisite S Pen software, Samsung's proprietary additions to Android 5.1 are mostly out of the way. The company spent a few generations pushing for its S skins, but the lesson seems to have been learned: add some custom touches to the open source operating system, but don't force them down users' throats.
The familiar S Health, S Note and S Voice are all present, but relegated to the app menu along with the rest of the riff-raff. There's also a transparent pane on one of the desktop pages advertising "Galaxy Essentials" and "Galaxy Gifts," but you can just dump that in the trash - highly recommended, as it starts to feel a bit like Samsung is using your desktop as a billboard.
The big news here, of course, is Samsung Pay, a straight forward mobile payment system that utilizes NFC and the home button's fingerprint reader to purchase products at retail locations with a swipe. As of this writing, we're still a month out from US availability, but when it does hit the States, it will do so with do so with an impressive selection of banking and retail partners.
As with the design, Samsung just went ahead and borrowed the camera from off the Galaxy S6. And why not? The 16-megapixel sensor does a heck of a job. I took the handset out for a neighborhood street fair and captured the vibrant colors all of the Queens vendor booths have to offer.
Shooting indoors, the Auto settings did an admirable job compensating for the artificial lighting, snapping quickly and de-yellowing the white balance. Though it did, unsurprisingly, have a bit more trouble focusing on motion. The camera also does an admirable job brightening up low-light pictures, picking out objects that would otherwise be a blurry, grainy mess on lesser devices.
The camera software is decidedly minimalist, so there aren't a million options blocking the screen in standard mode - just the still/video options, an inversion button for selfies and a mode button that brings up additional settings. They're there if you want them and tucked away out of sight when you don't.
What good is a beauty new design without the inner-beauty to match? Borrowing yet again from its older, smaller sibling, the Note 5's got 4GB of memory and a beefy Exynos 7420 chipset featuring both a quadcore 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 and a Quad-core 2.1 GHz Cortex-A57. All of which is to see, it gets stuff done. It'll take a lot of effort to push the Note to the limits of its processing power.
Samsung has, surprisingly, knocked out the 128GB storage offering this time around, leaving consumers with only 32GB and 64GB options to choose from. That blow would be a bit easier to take were it not for the fact that this latest upgrade also puts the kibosh on expandable storage via an SD slot.
Speaking of disappointment for Samsung devotees, the removable battery is gone as well. Thankfully, the 3000 mAh battery is sizable and was more than capable of getting us through a day's use without a charge, no problem. Though it's hardly the hardiest combo - given the big bright screen and power under the hood, the battery does take a bit of a hit.
With its sacrifice of certain Samsung mainstays (removable battery, MHL, SD Slot) in favor of revamped aesthetics, it's easy to see the Note as a play at Apple's marketshare. And while there's probably more than a grain of truth in that sentiment, the latest Note still maintains plenty of what made the line so unique in the first place.
Aside from the cosmetic changes, most of the upgrades are fairly evolutionary - but that's really just the sign of an already matured handset. The Note 4 was the large-screened handset to beat, and with its beautiful display, handsome design, minimally invasive software and top of the line specs, the Note 5 picks up the S Pen and runs with it.
And with that $700 or so starting price for a 32GB unit, you'll have plenty of room in your pockets for a 5.7-inch device
Top of the line specs
No removable battery, MHL or expandable memory