The Stylus Still Rules The Galaxy Note 5

The concept Galaxy Note 5 is at once a thing of genius and a nod to a benighted world before the modern touchscreen. Born in the swamps of the resistive LCD, the stylus lurched onto dry land and lives on as a reminder of our history. It is, to be sure, useful but on the Galaxy Note 5 it is a vestigial tool useful in parts of the world where handwriting is easier than tapping.

But what does this mean for the modern smartphone owner? First, it means the Note is unique among the plethora of alternatives. You really have to be into stylii to even consider the note, especially when the similarly sized Galaxy 6 edge+ is far easier on the eyes. I would say this phone is for the aforementioned folks who prefer handwriting their notes, contractors/students/engineers who want to sketch out ideas, and artists who want to grab a quick image or two on the go. For everyone else you can probably ignore this phone entirely.

First, understand that this phone has a major flaw. If you insert the stylus the wrong way you will break it. And it is very easy to insert the stylus the wrong way. Because it is not contoured, the bottom slides into the hard penhole as easily as the tip of the stylus. Then you’re stuck. You can either pull the stylus out by force and break a microswitch that notifies the OS that the pen is being inserted or leave the pen where it is and live your life in shame. In short, if you have a little kid or kids or you’re particularly absent-minded you should probably not get this phone. Samsung, for their part, encourages you to read the manual before incorrectly inserting the pen. This is an interesting strategy last used by my mother when I had bronchitis and I complained of chest pain. “If it hurts to breathe,” she said. “Stop breathing.”

If you’re still with me, you’re in for a treat. The Galaxy Note 5 is one of the nicest Notes ever. Whereas the previous incarnations were slightly chintzy with their odd leatherette housings and plastic bezels, this one takes a number of cues from the current Galaxy line. There are four buttons – home, volume controls, and power on the side – and a hole for the pen on the bottom. It has an amazingly bright and readable 5.7 inch screen with a octa-core Exynos 7420 chipset with four cores running 2.1GHz and four running at 1.5GHz. It also has 4GB of RAM. This is almost the same setup as the Galaxy S6 edge+. What does that mean in practice? It means that everything about this phone flies. Whether you’re swapping from app to app or pulling out the pen to write something down, there is no discernible lag.

The phone does not have a removable battery or SD card, which will disappoint road warriors who depend on those tools to keep themselves sane. However, it does last for about 18 hours – a full day if you’re careful – and lasted for two days on standby. Heavy use will obviously drain the battery more quickly thanks to the huge screen and powerful processors but I expect you’ll get a workday out of it without trouble.

The Good

In short, the Note 5 is the “note phone” perfected. It is far nicer than the previous versions and for folks in love with the idea of a stylus this is probably the only phone worthy of attention. It has a great rear camera that took excellent shots, a nice front camera, and acceptable video recording performance. I actually came away more impressed with the camera/sensor/software solution in these new phones, something that I haven’t always been able to say for Samsung devices.

Interestingly the company has also launched something called SideSync which mimics the iPhone’s ability to transfer calls to compatible computers. SideSync lets you answer calls and send texts as well as share files with your computer. It works for PC right now and will soon be available for the Mac.

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Finally, there are the delightful pen features. While I never understood the value of the pen in previous Notes, the speed and precision that this model exhibits means that you can actually draw and write just as you would in a notebook. I’m starting to come around to the idea that a pen would be nice in some cases and because it hides out of the way when not in use you can simply use the phone as you would any other phone as you go through your day.

The Bad

The Note 5 is expensive. It costs $720 unlocked and can be found for about $350 with contract. The device also only comes in 32GB and 64GB flavors, a fact that may disappoint folks who want to stuff their phones full of movies.

Finally, there is the stylus flaw. While I understand the value of the “You’re holding it wrong” argument, in this case we are talking about damage to the phone itself due to user error. The fanboy’s reaction to this problem is obvious: just don’t stick it in wrong. However, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that when using the phone, not least when you hand it over to someone who doesn’t know which way it fits. The fact that I could quickly and easily damage the stylus sensor is a very bad thing and I hope Samsung offers a fix sooner rather than later.

The Bottom Line

Samsung is learning. Every generation of Note and Galaxy is better than the last and, barring financial difficulty, I think the company is building solid phones with a solid road map into the future. I’d definitely recommend this phone to folks who might want a bigger screen and enjoy pen and paper note taking as it adds a level of interactivity unavailable in any other phone. However, the phone is an acquired taste. If you’re a standard phone user you can probably safely head towards the Galaxy line but if you’re a Note 4 user then this is a valuable upgrade. You will definitely notice a difference in style and performance and you will come away pleased. Just don’t stick the stylus in wrong.

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