(Note: I've been testing an unlocked, international version of the Galaxy Note 5 with a "gold platinum" finish that won't be available in the US. I'll update this review with impressions of the US models as I receive them.)
Let's cut to the chase: This is the most attractive, most comfortable-feeling Galaxy Note that Samsung has ever made. Considering what the company's churned out in the past, this probably isn't a shock to hear. The Gorilla Glass-and-metal design language carried over from the rest of the Galaxy S6 line means the Galaxy Note finally has the premium feel it always deserved (and without any tacky faux-leather, either). Of course, you're going to pay for that privilege: The Note 5 is available from all five major US wireless carriers with no-contract prices starting at $720.
The generous curve of the backplate and the trimmed-down bezels surrounding the 5.7-inch, Quad HD, Super AMOLED screen make the Note 5 much easier to hold than any of the previous-gen Notes, a serious feat when you consider how beastly that screen actually is. Of course, not everyone's a fan of glass-clad phones; a banged-up metal or plastic cover doesn't look nearly as bad as a pane of shattered glass. After a week and a half of throwing the device in and out of my bag, though, the glass on my unit still looks immaculate. As for the front? Not so much. There are already a few indelible nicks on the screen and on the fingerprint sensor/home button. Thankfully, the button continues to work, even if it does look a little worse for wear.
And of course, there's the S Pen. I'll revisit this in a moment, but suffice to say, it's leaner and lighter this year, and now has a clicky end you'll use to unlock it from the garage located on the Note's bottom edge. There's plenty of fun to be had obnoxiously clicking it like your old ballpoints, but otherwise, it adds a superfluous step when you want to whip the Pen out, which sucks if you need to jot something down in a jiffy.
Under the hood, we once again have one of Samsung's own octa-core Exynos 7420 chipsets, with four cores clocked at 2.1GHz and another four thrumming away at 1.5GHz. Pair that with 4GB of RAM and you've got the makings of a serious powerhouse. If all this sounds familiar (you've been paying attention), that's because it is: These are the exact same components in the Galaxy S6 Edge+, which amounted to a pretty modest upgrade over what we got in the original S6 series. Seriously, the biggest change here is the extra RAM; the Galaxy S6 had three gigs, not four.
For some of you, though, another change might make all the difference. It's no secret that Samsung has it out for microSD, but things are made more complicated by the Note 5's lack of more spacious storage options. You can plunk down cash for a 32GB or 64GB version, but the 128GB model Samsung initially hinted at isn't coming after all. Cloud storage is useful, sure, but I still wouldn't try to squeeze my entire mobile life into a device with only 32GB of space. Oh, and the Note 5's design also means you can't touch the 3,000mAh battery inside, a blow to power users who enjoyed the ability to swap out the cells on the Note 4 and Note Edge.
Display and sound
If there's one thing Samsung really gets, it's how to make a seriously good-looking screen. The Note 5's QHD, Super AMOLED display isn't a huge leap over the Note 4's screen (which was the same size and ran at the same resolution), but there's enough of a boost in saturation and overall brightness to make the sequel a clear winner.
Colors are vivid and vibrant in that typically AMOLED-y way, so while these oversaturated colors aren't always accurate, per se, they're still a treat to look at. Whites are appropriately crisp (if a touch on the warm side); blacks are deep; and you can easily view the screen even from off-kilter angles. More importantly, the screen is an absolute champ under the sweltering summer sun. With brightness cranked up all the way, I had no trouble thumbing through some Haruki Murakami short stories and various photo sets on Flickr. Peer closely enough at the screen in direct sunlight and you might notice it sort of... pulsate (especially when you're looking at apps or websites with a white background), but it's well worth the ability to actually use the phone outdoors. Some will argue that Quad HD displays aren't necessary, and indeed, your eyes don't stand a chance of picking out the 518 pixels packed into any given linear inch. Still, it's hard to argue with the results here. Well done, Sammy.
Too bad, then, that the screen is paired with a wimpy single speaker on the phone's bottom edge. Crank it all the way up and your tunes will play forcefully enough, but with a hollow, unsatisfying sound; there's a distinct lack of oomph here that's unfortunately pretty common in high-end phones. In any case, you'd do well to save the speaker for the occasional web video. Samsung hasn't completely neglected the audio, though: It built in support for 24-bit audio and a way to "upscale" your low-res MP3s and restore detail that was lost in the compression process. I'm no acoustician and my ears have been damaged from years of blasting show tunes, but the audio software here doesn't seem to make any discernible difference. Maybe I just have bad taste? Or perhaps some of my songs just can't be saved. Either way, keep your expectations in check and you'll be fine.
If you've fiddled with a Galaxy S6, you know exactly what to expect here. The Note 5 comes with a TouchWiz-ified version of Android 5.1.1, and once again, I appreciate the lighter touch Samsung has been taking with its software. It's not my favorite skin and I still think it pales in comparison to the stock Google Now Launcher, but I'm pleasantly surprised by how much less obnoxious TouchWiz is these days.
All of Samsung's mainstay features are here, and they all work as well as you'd expect them to. If anything, the Note 5's huge screen makes a few of them feel more natural; you can see a lot more of the two apps you have running in Multi Window mode, and the Flipboard Briefing window to the left of the home screen is more spacious and satisfying when stretched out on a larger display. In the past, all that extra real estate meant earlier Notes had gigantic app icons, but here they're noticeably smaller (and slightly rounder). That will take a bit of getting used to. I'm glad, though, that Samsung finally figured out that people want room to spread out their stuff, instead of just having everything scaled up to fill the bigger screen.