Hands-on with Samsung's best phablet yet

Samsung gave birth to the phablet market back in 2011, with the original Galaxy Note.

Now, the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is taking the oversized smartphone space to new heights, pairing a new, stunning design with a trademark array of high-end specs.

In an uncharacteristic move by Samsung, however, the Note 5 hasn't chased numerical specs in the race for one-upmanship. Instead, the stylus-packing smartphone retains the same size and resolution display as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The phone's camera features the same number of megapixels as its predecessor too, and that 32GB storage starting point is also present.

That doesn't mean this is an iterative update, however. Based on first use, the Note 5 is shaping up as Samsung's most accomplished phablet to date, a device that refines rather than redefines, and one which we can't wait to get our hands on again.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Design:

Take the Samsung Galaxy S6, stretch it out, cut out a whole for an S-Pen stylus to fill and you've got the Samsung Galaxy Note 5. Sounds simple, right? Well that's what Samsung has done with the Note 5 and the result is great.

Having shunned plastic in favour of high-end materials including metal and glass, the Note 5's design finally fits with the high-end standing and lofty price tag that has always accompanied the at times ugly Note line.

At just 7.6mm thick and 171g in weight, the device is considerably larger than its 6.8mm, 138g S6 sibling, but its holds its size and shape well, making use of super skinny bezels to maximise the screen to body ratio.

Impressively, the Note 5 feels well balanced both when the stylus is stored in the phone's right-hand edge, and when out in use. What's more, Samsung claims that despite the fragile sounding nature of the phone's glass rear, the handset is actually 1.7 times stronger and 1.3 times more scratch-resistant than past models.

We've as yet been unable to test these claims, however, so we'll have to take Samsung at its word for now.

Despite the phone's larger, 5.7-inch form, the Note 5's button placement isn't an issue either. During our time with the device we never felt like we were stretching to reach the side and face-mounted controls.

As with Samsung's recent flagship phones, the Note 5's physical home button plays host to an integrated fingerprint scanner. This biometric sensor not only allows for more secure smartphone locking, but enables contactless payments through Samsung Pay – at least it will when the Apple Pay rival launches in the coming weeks.

This isn't the Note 5's design party piece, however. That honour goes to the phone's accompanying S-Pen stylus and its new locking system. Instead of simply sliding into the base of the phone, the stylus now locks into location with a comforting click.

Making use of small magnets and a recessed catch, pushing down on the pen releases the mechanism, causing it to pop out slightly and become easily accessible. It's essentially like clicking on the end of a biro. It's a very satisfying feeling and a system that, at least on early use, works well.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Screen:

Visually the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is hard to fault. Like its predecessor, the handset features a 5.7-inch QHD display with a stunningly sharp 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution. This equates to a 518 pixels-per-inch image density, or, in other words, a display capable of offering beautifully sharp images and engagingly detailed video.

QHD displays are nothing new anymore, both the Note 4 and S6 had one, but Samsung's efforts continue to wow. This Super AMOLED panel, offers stunningly bright, vibrant colours and deep, immersive blacks. There's no weak edges on text and video playback in beautifully fluid.

The phone's screen really is hard to fault. The 5.7-inch form really makes use of the QHD panel's extra detail, creating an experience that really pops. Aside from its own-brand stable mates, Samsung with the Note 5 is perhaps unrivalled on this front.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Features:

With a similar design and display, the Note 5 has taken more than a few pointers from the S6. It's not just on the surface that the phablet has a lot in common with its sibling, either. Beneath the hood things are markedly similar, too.

Powered by the same 64-bit, octa-core Exynos 7420 processor as its little brother, the Note 5 offers more than enough processing power to take you from multi-tasking stylus work to high-end 3D gaming, all via a bit of 4K video recording, with minimal fuss or fanfare.

This considerable power unit is paired with 4GB of RAM and comfortably handled all the tasks we could throw at it during our early play.

Copying the Galaxy S6 isn't all sunshine and lollipops, however, there are downsides too. Most notably, like the S6, the Note 5 has done away with expandable storage. Taking a leaf out of Apple's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus-themed book, Sammy has ditched microSD expansion, instead favouring the option of launching both 32GB and 64GB models.

A victim of the phone's closed-back design, the lack of storage expansion sits alongside a removable battery on Note 5 omissions that are likely to cause a fuss with heavy business users.

Samsung has pre-emptively combatted the missing battery switching, however, bestowing the Note 5 with improved quick charge credentials. The company claims the phone's 3,000mAh power supply – smaller than the Note 4's 3,220mAh battery – can go from zero to 100% charge after just 90 minutes connected to the mains.

Wireless charging has been boosted too, taking an hour less than the S6 to hit full charge sans-cables. Again, we were unable to put these claims to the test in our hands-on time with the device.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Software:

Although set to be Android M friendly moving forward, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has come too early for Google's latest operating system. Instead, a TouchWiz-skinned Android 5.1 Lollipop OS runs the show here, creating a familiar, but welcome user experience.

TouchWiz has been stripped back and refined in recent years and is now one of the most accomplished Android skins around. The Note 5 pushes this UI further, echoing its predecessors in adding a number of S-Pen shortcuts.

Letting you hover the button-equipped stylus over the display to launch a sub-menu, these shortcuts lets you do everything from note taking and annotations to document highlighting and quick selection cropping.

An early favourite of the S-Pen enabled software features is Lock Screen Writing. As its name suggests, this lets you use the stylus to jot down notes even when the phone is locked. There's no faffing with passcodes or biometric security, just simple, smart usage.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Camera:

Despite its distinctly business ilk, the Note 5 is certainly not a case of all work no play. The 5-megapixel front facing camera is certainly good enough for a video calling when needed, but also doubles as a decent selfie snapper.

Managing lighting conditions well, the phone captured impressive vanity shots. It's the phone's 16-megapixel, optical-image-stabilised primary camera that really impresses, however.

Following our brief time with the phone in challenging lighting conditions, the Galaxy Note 5's camera appears to have followed on where the S6 left off – as one of the best smartphone snappers in all the land.

The device handled areas of light and shade with equal aplomb, and backs up straight auto shooting with all manner of custom settings and optional pre-sets. There's even 4K video capture thrown in for good measure.

As impressive a first impression as the Note 5 camera has made, further testing is needed before final judgement can be passed.

First Impressions:

On first use, the Galaxy Note 5 feels like Samsung's most well-rounded and accomplished phablet to date. With a design worthy of a flagship device, the handset's hardware and software tweaks meld together to create a well-balanced user experience that carefully treads the line between business functionality and general consumer enjoyment.

The S-Pen might not be for everyone, but if you covet a stylus, this is shaping up as the only phone to consider. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is a masterstroke of a smartphone.