Saturday, 12 September 2015 15:23

Samsung’s, nice, nifty, Note 5 (review)

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Samsung have done it again producing an ‘11 out of 10’, flagship class, phone/phablet with an astoundingly good S-Pen/stylus input that works whether the screen is on, or off.

These days you have a choice of iOS, Android and soon Windows 10 Mobile operating systems (OS). For now that really means it is Samsung’s Galaxy S6/Edge/Edge+ and Note 5 versus Apple 6s/Plus. The choice comes down not to money [they are in the same price bracket], or specifications [all are top draw], or quality [cannot fault either] but to the ecosystem. Do you prefer Apple’s iOS or Samsung’s TouchWiz User interface (UI) version of Android?

Let’s leave aside security issues with Android (this has Knox 2.5 and is a bit more secure) or, for that matter iOS, because while the former gets a lot of publicity about vulnerabilities, the latter has just as many that are ripe for exploitation when a cunning, despicable, criminal hacker works out how to take advantage of Apple owners complacency that iOS is safe.

So this review will not mention ‘Apple Killer’ because both brands provide flagship class handsets that are worthy contenders for the crown. Apple has no contender in its walled garden iOS world. I will for convenience compare some of the 6s Plus specifications where relevant.

The Note 5’s compelling feature is its highly accurate S-Pen stylus. On all other fronts it has worthy competitors in battery life; wireless and USB fast charging; front and rear cameras; screen sizes; screen to body ratio, IPX rating; and software user interfaces. These include LG’s very sexy, leather clad G4, Sony’s upcoming Z5, and the Moto X Style/Play … You are spoilt for choice in this world.

The only minor negative is the base model has 32GB storage and no microSD slot which can be a little limiting to a power user – but this is easily offset by Microsoft’s, 2 year free OneDrive storage.

Last comment – it is the one you should buy if (a) you have a use for the pen and (b) you do not need to ask the price!

Out of the Box

It looks like a Galaxy S6 only a little thicker to accommodate the slide in/out S-Pen. There have been many rubbish stories about the S-Pen being able to be inserted ass-end first and possibly damage the electronics. Simple answer is insert the pointy end first fool!

First thing you notice its 5.7” screen and virtually no bezel. It is 153.2 x 76.1 x 7.6mm and 171g. The iPhone 6s Plus has a smaller 5.5” screen and is 158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3 and 192g.

It goes through the usual automated Android set-up and while you can avoid providing your Google Account details these will be required later if you use any Google services. All the Google apps are in a folder on the home page and Google’s search bar and Play Store icon occupy prime mid-screen position. They are not removable.

On the second home page (swipe left), you see Microsoft’s Word, and a folder with its Android versions of Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote (S-Pen friendly) and OneDrive (100GB storage which it hopes you will use instead of Google Drive in order to give Windows 10 device compatibility).

The Samsung productivity apps including email, messages, contacts and calendar are on the front page. It also provides its version of almost all other Google apps so you do not have to use this ecosystem. This includes Internet browser, camera, gallery, S-Voice, music, video and much more.

This raises an interesting point – the debate on Pure Android (a.k.a. Google Android) as found on Nexus and Moto phones or the reasonably highly customised Samsung version. I have used the new Moto G with pure Android ‘Material’ theme and while I prefer its slightly cleaner icon designs, the Samsung Android ecosystem is flawless. What this means is that Samsung must update the OS where smartphones using pure Android can be updated by Google. You can also load a Material theme from Samsung’s theme store – try it.

Samsung supports next major version upgrade e.g. all 5.x updates and to 6.x Marshmallow. That is as good as it gets.

The Screen

S6 Galaxy screens as used in the Note 5 are amazing, immersive, vibrant and impressive using Super AMOLED*. The 5.7” screen resolution is quad HD 2560 x 1440 - 2K, 518 pixels per inch. It blows the otherwise excellent iPhone 6 Plus, 5.5”, IPS LCD Retina, 1920x1080, 401 pixels per inch screen out of the water. I have not seen the 6s Plus but the specifications are the same as its predecessor.

* Super AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode), is Samsung's term for a display with an integrated digitizer for the S-Pen. The screen comprises a thin layer of organic polymers that light up when electricity is applied making it extremely thin as no backlight is required as in LCD (IPS and TFT). Screens can produce blacker blacks, whiter whites and more vibrant colours while saving energy.

Despite the same sized screen as its predecessor the Note 4, the higher screen to body ratio and virtually no bezel makes it smaller. It is the first Note that feels ‘normal’ in my hands.

Camera – carrying around a separate camera is so yesterday

Reviewers alike have voted the 16MP S6 camera the best in class - the Note 5 has the same camera that has optical image stabilisation (OIS), digital [video] image stabilisation (DIS), auto focus, f/1.9 lens, and 4K UHD, 30 fps recording. It has live feed to broadcast videos to YouTube for you, group or public use – very handy. Make sure you have an adequate data allowance!

Test shots on automatic default settings were accurate, vivid, and noticeably free from low light noise. I tested against the Lumia 930 that shoots both a 5MP jpeg and 16MP high-res image at the same time. It is the first time I could hardly tell the difference between the 16MP shots – the Note 5 having a slight edge in low light with its f/1.8 lens. It also can save RAW files for professional use.

The camera is launched by pressing the home key twice on the lock screen - very convenient. The software has things like auto-face tracking, geo-tagging, auto-HRD, voice control, and a range of special effects. It has selective focus, panorama, slow motion, fast motion, time lapse, and more. There are enough manual controls to keep a professional happy – white balance, ISO, focus, shutter speed and more.

The iPhone 6 Plus has an 8MP, OIS, f/2.2 lens – no comparison! The 6s Plus has a 12MP, OIS, f/2.2 lens. I suspect that again there will no comparison with the Note 5 image quality (on a straight data capture basis at least) but the new iPhone result will depend on its software.

The front camera is 5MP and once it recognises your face, you can tap the rear heart rate sensor to take a selfie. It has various effects such as beautify (I have a great face for radio!), HDR, and a range of filters to change colour schemas.

I was concerned at the single LED flash compared to Apple’s dual tone flash and the Lumia 930 dual flash but it seemed to take just as good pictures in low light conditions – perhaps due to the f/1.9 lens.

Fingerprint scanner and mobile payments

The scanner is a single touch of the home key – not swipe as in the Note 4 – and is accurate, unlocking the phone in under a second. You can setup multiple fingerprints. It supports S-Pay (Samsung Pay or Tap and Pay) authentication.

Interestingly it supports both typical NFC mobile payments as well as regular swipe to pay terminals with magnetic strips. That means Samsung Pay works anywhere a credit card is accepted. This is a direct competitor to Apple Pay, Google Wallet and iTWire has details here.

The S-Pen – the main reason to buy this – it mimics the feel of pen and paper

I have never been keen on a pen input but using this has convinced me that it is not a gimmick. Use it for a few days and you will be hooked. It iof the home keyybilisation (DIS), e secure)B options.ll Samsung environment. YTou s very fine-point pen like – the only downside is that you can too easily press the erase button on its side.

Samsung have gone to town and made the S-Pen useful as both an annotation (writing) and drawing device. Above all you can pull out the S-Pen while it is off (well in a screen-off low power mode) and write on the screen – it iyeh ultimate you can pull out the S-Pen while it is off and write on the screen - its drawing device. io!)at shoots both a 5MPs the ultimate ‘bright idea in the middle of the night’ jotting pad. It is saved in S Note.

I tried it instead of a paper notebook and pen while taking notes at a press conference. Yes, it can be done, and handwriting can be converted to text – depending on the quality of your scrawl. I have not tried it with Evernote and OneNote – I suspect it would work just as well. It will also annotate web pages, select parts of images, help take screen shots, and works in all the Microsoft Office suite.

S Note also has a drawing function and you can create custom screen images and more. The pen is magnetically secured - there is little risk, if any, of it falling out.

Under the bonnet – you can’t lift it up!

Samsung's own 64-bit, octa-core (eight) Exynos 7420 chipset, with four cores at 2.1GHz and another four at 1.5GHz. It is possibly the fastest smartphone processor today.

4GB RAM and 32GB storage. 24GB is available out of the box. There is two years free Microsoft OneDrive storage. There is no microSD slot – apparently a compromise to stop the device being used to pirate movies! There are 64 and 128GB options. But wait it supports Host USB so you can plug in a USB drive!

Wi-Fi AC, Bluetooth 4.2, and all the sensors you could want.

Battery life

The 3,000 mAh, non-removable Li-Po battery regularly gave me up to two full days with location (essentially GPS) and Bluetooth turned off. Enable these and you will get 12-16 hours of typical use. Of course, you can activate power saving mode (in theory up to two days) and Ultra Power saving mode (in theory up to four days). The battery settings also detail abnormal battery usage.

It has fast USB charging via a special Samsung adaptor that supplies 5V, 2A (typical USB voltage and amperage) and a 9V, 1.67 fast charge that will go from 0-50% in 30 minutes and 100% in 90 minutes.

It also has wireless and wireless fast charging. Wireless will use any standard Qi charger – even one supplying 500mAh – it will just be a little slower. Using Samsung’s fast wireless charger will go from 0 to 100% in about 120 minutes.

The fast charger costs A$89 and uses the Note 5 USB fast charger and cable.

Other things

The heart rate sensor is OK – at least it is consistent, reasonably accurate and is more convenient that a chest strap.

The pedometer is reasonably accurate compared to GPS. It is passive in that it automatically counts steps as long as the phone is on your person. It is recorded in S-Health.

The small speaker produces tinny, low bass sound. Using the supplied buds it is much better and Bluetooth headphones are wonderful due to the 24-bit audio and MP3 upscaling.

It supports multi-tasking, resizable windows, picture in picture and recent apps replaces the old menu button.

It has more LTE bands that you will ever need and up to Cat 9 450Mb/s transfer rates if the carrier supports it.

Opinion

The Note 5 is the best Android, pen based, phablet – bar none. It is not fair to compare with iPhone or any other non-pen system – because it blows them out of the water too in terms of advantages and specifications.

Price wise the 32GB version in Silver, Gold or Black Sapphire costs A$1099 outright with free Australian delivery. I really do not know how long they can hold that price with the Aussie dollar fluctuations.

Would I buy one? The answer is a definite yes. It is the workhorse of the note/phablet class and a very full featured one at that. I love the Edge and Edge+ design – very sexy – they are the show ponies.

Regular readers will know of my fondness for Windows Phone and my fervent hopes for Windows 10 Mobile. Folks, I am sorry to admit that for now Android has won my heart with its amazing range of apps and features that my cognitive dissonance overcame with Windows Phone.

That is not to say Windows 10 Mobile is out of contention later – but Samsung’s Note 5 is right here, right now!

Paradigm review

Now to the smartphone comparison paradigm we have developed. This is definitely in the Flagship category. The second column represents typical specifications, the third is for the Note 5 and the last is a rating out of 5. Where is exceeds typical specs it get a + and vice versa.

Feature

Flagship

Minimum acceptable specification

Samsung Galaxy Note 5

Rating

+/- given for exceeding rating or vice versa

Screen

5”+

Note/Phablet 6”+

5.7”

5

Screen type and quality

AMOLED or IPS

Super AMOLED (with a pen digitiser)

5+

Pixel per Inch

500+

518

5+

Glass (equiv)

Gorilla 4

Gorilla 4 front and back

5

Res

HD to QHD (2/4K)

2560 x 1440, QHD, 2K

5+

CPU

64-bit, 8 Core, Big/Little e.g.

Qualcomm 8XX or similar

Samsung Exynos 7420, 64-bit, octa-core. Quad-core 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 & Quad-core 2.1 GHz Cortex-A57

Mali-T760MP8 GPU

5+

Memory RAM

3GB

4GB

5+

Storage

32GB

32GB (64GB and 128GB options) and 2 years free Microsoft One Drive

5

MicroSD

up to 128GB

No

N/A

LTE

Global bands. Cat 4+

4G FDD LTE

B1(2100), B2(1900), B3(1800), B4(AWS), B5(850), B7(2600), B8(900), B12(700), B17(700), B18(800), B19(800), B26(800), B28(700)

4G TDD LTE

B40(2300)

Cat 9 LTE speed support if carrier provides same

5++

Dual SIMM

If available provides 2 x 4G slots

No

N/A

Telstra Blue tick rural

Desirable

Yes

5

Wi-Fi

AC dual antenna

Wi-Fi 802.11 AC, dual-band, Wi-Di, hotspot

5

NFC

Yes

Yes

GPS

GPS, Galileo, GLONASS, BeiDou, GAGAN, IRNSS, DORIS

GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou

5

Mapping software and maps

At least one free mapping system – Google or HERE

Google Maps or down load HERE

 

5

Bluetooth

4.1+LE

4.2 LE A2DP, EDR, LE, ANT+

5+

Sensors

G-shock

Gyroscope

Ambient light

Compass

Proximity

Accelerator

All plus things like

heart rate

barometer

 

-          Accelerometer, Barometer, Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, HR Sensor, Light Sensor, Proximity Sensor, RGB Sensor

-          heart rate, SpO2 (blood oxygen)

5++

Battery

(Assumes Micro USB or Lightning)

2500mAh+

At least a day

Removable

3000 mAh. Endurance rating 85hrs.

One to two days – longer on Power Saving and even longer on Ultra Power Saving mode

USB 2.0 charge

5+

Fast charge and/or Qi

Yes/Option

Fast Charge USB

Fast charge Wireless (Qi and PMA standard)

5+

Camera Rear

16MP+ <f/2.2, OIS, A/F, Twin flash, BSI sensor, 4K record

-          16 MP, f/1.9, 5312 x 2988 pixels, optical and digital image stabilization, autofocus, LED flash

-          Dual Shot, Simultaneous HD video and image recording, 4K recording, geo-tagging, touch focus, face/smile detection, panorama, HDR

-          Very fast and responsive

5++

Camera Front

>4MP+ HD

fill flash

5MP, f/1.9, HD record,

5

Screen to body ratio (higher better as it affects dimensions) or keyboard

70%+

75.9%

5+

Thinness

7-8mm

7.6mm

5

Looks – highly subjective

Premium build and finishes

Absolutely first rate quality build and premium finish

5

Weight

>150g (or 30g per inch of screen size)

171g (under 30g per inch)

5

Operating system

Latest version with upgrades for at least 2 years e.g. 5.x and 6.x updates

Android 5.1.1

Full support for Marshmallow 6.x

Knox 2.5 (security)

5+

User Interface (UI) Bloatware

Does the UI add value, ability to customise

Touch Wiz is not intrusive yet it is a complete and full Samsung environment. You can download a ‘Material Android’ theme if you wish

5

Video, Audio codecs

Full suite

-          Active noise cancellation with dedicated mic
- MP3, M4A, 3GA, AAC, OGG, OGA, WAV, WMA, AMR, AWB, FLAC, MID, MIDI, XMF, MXMF, IMY, RTTTL, RTX, OTA

-          MP4, M4V, 3GP, 3G2, WMV, ASF, AVI, FLV, MKV, WEBM

-          Photo/video editor

-          Document editor

5+

Options

Premium head buds and mic

Premium buds and mic

5

Innovations

Curved screens, HDMI out, voice/gesture control, docking, machine learning, payment systems, something different

-          S-Voice natural language commands and dictation

-          S-Pen

-          Gesture control

-          Wireless Battery Pack – uses phone’s wireless charging facility and clips on to phone

-          optional MHL 2.0 HDTV to HDMI adaptor

-          Fingerprint security

5++

IP or ruggedized

Option

No but bumper cases are available

5

Warranty

2 years+

At least 1 year

5

Service in Australia

Yes very important

Yes

5

Price

A$800-1200+

-          A$1099 for 32GB version

-          A$149 for wireless battery pack

-          A$89 for Wireless fast charger

-          A$79 for Clearview cover

5


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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