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Updated Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 5

Copyright 2015 and 2016 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.11.23, Updated 2016.09.03


All images in this entry are Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All rights reserved.
All example photos are unedited, straight out of the camera.

Introduction



The Samsung Galaxy Note 5, in my left hand.
I normally wouldn’t review a phone, and I’m not really doing that here. Like all smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is really a small tablet computer. I’m reviewing only the camera part of it. Instead of comparing it to other phones or computers, I’m comparing it to other cameras.

UPDATE, 2016.09.03: See the new Durability section for details on how this smartphone died after just nine months.


Specifications


Specifications for this device are widely available on the internet. I won’t list them all here; just a few that seem relevant. The sensor has 16 megapixels, twice that of my previous smartphone and nearly equal to that of my primary camera, the Canon EOS 60D (18 megapixels). And because it’s primarily a phone instead of a camera, the viewing screen is the largest of any camera I’ve owned, at about five inches by three inches.

I’m not sure why, but the camera was set to 6 megapixels out of the box. I didn't realize this until late in the second day.

The lens’ focal length is 4.3mm, which is roughly equivalent to 28mm on a “full-frame” camera, or 18mm on my crop-sensor cameras. Fairly wide. There’s no zoom, which is common with cameras in telephones. (“Digital zoom” is a marketing term and isn’t actually zoom; it just crops and enlarges.)


Advantages


For day-to-day usage, I’m impressed. This phone’s camera is good enough to replace any point-and-shoot camera that I’ve used, and is better than any other phone’s camera that I’ve seen in person. I doubt I’ll bring my 60D as often as I used to.

Tapping the camera icon on the screen brings up the camera immediately — no delay. Tapping the shutter button records an image instantly, a massive improvement over my previous smartphone and most compact cameras I’ve used. The speed is critical, and one reason I rarely made photos with my previous phone. This one begs to be used.


Default camera screen (left), and “pro” options (right)

In low light, the Galaxy Note 5 will select an ISO sensitivity up to 1600 and handles the noise/grain very well. It also has image stabilization built in, so hand-shake blur isn’t always an issue at slower shutter speeds.


Low light examples, lit only by porch light (left) and desk lamp (right)

Action shots in good light are impressive, more so than my previous phone or other compact cameras. So impressive that they, in many situations, rival those from my 60D.


Action examples in bright sunlight.

There are a few built-in “effects”, which I’ll probably never use, except for one. The “panorama” feature is well done. It allows me to photograph a very wide scene by slowly moving the camera sideways. I don’t know how the software works, but it has the effect of combining many side-by-side photos. In the past, with my 60D, I’ve done this by recording several side-by-side photos and then stitching them together later in “Microsoft Image Composite Editor” (ICE). For most scenes, that will no longer be necessary if I have this phone with me. (And of course, always having the phone with me is one huge advantage of this camera.)


360-degree panorama, autostitched by the phone.
View larger: 2048 x 311 (245 kb)
View original: 18240 x 2768 (19.6 MB)

The camera can focus very closely — about two inches in front of the lens — and this can be controlled manually if you wish. There is even Kelvin white balance control available. I also have full manual control over shutter speed and ISO. Increments are about 1/2 stop.

SettingMin.Max.
Focus2 inchesInfinity
White Balance2300K10,000K
Shutter10 sec.1/24,000
ISO50800
EV-2+2

Interestingly, there are exposure settings available in “Auto” mode that aren’t available in “Pro” mode. For example, in “Auto”, I have seen the ISO sensitivity as low as 40 and as high as 1600 (one photo shows an ISO sensitivity of 8,000, but I am convinced that was a mistake); and shutter speeds in “Auto” mode aren’t limited to 1/2-stop increments.


Using all available manual settings on a plastic rake in the back yard.
1/6000 sec., ISO100, 5600K, minimum focus distance


Disadvantages



Pro settings screen
There are a few downsides, of course, but not many. For a power-user like myself, I will always miss the ability to completely and easily control a camera. There are some “pro” settings available on this camera, including ISO (up to 800), shutter speed, white balance, and focus distance — everything except aperture, something fairly important to photographers. But the controls are hidden inside menus.

If the camera is already on-screen, the user must tap “Mode”, and then “Pro”, just to see the available settings. And each setting must be tapped to bring up the slider that controls it.

Due to the placement of the phone’s power button and volume buttons, it’s awkward to hold in the horizontal position. The “shutter button” is actually an on-screen icon that must be tapped, which means you can’t hold it completely steady for low-light photos or long exposures — the act of tapping vibrates the phone. I would prefer a physical button for this, which I could press. (There is a timer function, which I haven't tested yet, that might help in a few circumstances.)

The lens’ aperture is fairly wide (f/1.9), but because of the extremely short focal length (4.3mm), there is very little appearance of narrow depth of field like you would expect at f/1.9. To get anything close to “bokeh”, the subject needs to be very close and the background has to be very far away, and you need to manually focus.

I’m not entirely pleased with the color balance indoors, but this has been true of almost all my cameras, and is probably related more to the indoor lights than to the camera.

Of course, it’s a phone, so there is no tripod mount, something I use fairly often on my cameras. There is no hot foot for triggering a speedlight, and no way to trigger an off-camera flash, which I use very often. If there is some workaround for this, I haven’t figured it out yet.

To illustrate that last point, here are four images of my children jumping off the sofa in the living room. Two were made with my Canon EOS 60D, triggering off-camera flashes to freeze the action. The other two were made with this Note 5; the moving subjects are completely blurred. If I had manually set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action, the images would have been black and unusable.


My daughter, recorded with the 60D (left) and the Note 5 (right)


My son, recorded with the 60D (left) and the Note 5 (right)


SideSync



Screenshot of SideSync
One of the marquee features of this device was supposed to be the “SideSync” app, with which the user could easily transfer files back and forth from the device to any nearby device or computer, via WiFi. I had actually looked forward to this, since I planned to use the phone as a camera on occasion.

Well, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

After downloading a 45-megabyte file from Samsung’s website onto my PC and installing it (more than five minutes, which is ridiculous these days), the PC and phone quickly located each other and seemed to connect. But after transferring a few files (much more slowly than via the USB cable), the PC-side program quit working. Nothing I tried could get it to work again, including restarting both devices.
So I will have to use the tried-and-true method of transferring files from the device to my PC with a USB cable.

True, this feature is more software-related and less camera-related, but I had hoped to use it to lessen the wear-and-tear on the phone’s USB socket, which is necessary for charging the phone.


Removable Media / Battery

(Added 2015.11.24, inspired Facebook comments from my sister here.)


My sister, who owns the Galaxy Note 3, asked about a removable memory card and/or battery. My edition has neither, unlike any camera I’ve owned. At first, this was worrying, because the USB socket is the only way to either charge the Galaxy Note 5 and/or exchange files with my computer.

However, I’ve since learned that the Note 5 does support wireless charging, which would require the purchase of a wireless charging station (about $70). This means that if I ever did damage the USB socket on the phone, I could still charge it — as long as the phone’s battery still works.

And I further realized that I could email the photos to myself for processing on my PC, or simply upload them directly to Flickr or other social media from the phone (and then download them via my PC to create backup files).

So, even if the USB socket does fail at some point, the lack of a removable memory card and lack of a changeable battery wouldn’t render the Galaxy Note 5 useless.


Durability

(Added 2016.09.03)


About nine months after buying this phone, it’s completely dead.

It performed beautifully, not only as a camera, but as a mobile phone, small tablet computer and internet device, until mid-August. Problems began on the night of 2016.08.20, and I will attempt to detail them as briefly as possible.


Screenshot of error message
2016.08.20: Phone refused to charge; error message flashed on screen too quickly to see. Tried various cables and PC’s USB connection to no avail. No file transfer via USB.

2016.08.21: Ordered wireless charger. Before it arrived, three days later, the phone began to charge again the USB connection to PC, but I still couldn't transfer files. As I used the phone, while not attached to anything, the error message continued to flash quickly, never staying on screen long enough for me to read it.

2016.08.24: Wireless charging stand worked for charging phone; I quit using USB cable. Downloaded the Google Drive app for file transfer (over WiFi). Still seeing quick error message; it finally stayed long enough for me to screengrab it.

For nearly two weeks, I used the phone this way — charging wirelessly, ignoring the nonsensical error message and constant low battery warnings, transferring files via Google Drive.

2016.09.02: In the evening, while using the phone to read news online, the screen suddenly went black, and then began to flicker green/white/blue around the top and left edges. No pressing of buttons would stop it. I pressed and held the power button for about 30 seconds; this caused the flickering to stop, and a pulsing blue LED lit up. I set the phone on the charger. After about 30 minutes, the phone got hot, almost too hot to hold, so I removed it from the charger. The blue LED kept pulsing, but the phone would not respond to any stimuli. It eventually cooled down. After about two hours, the LED went out and the phone was completely dead. Now it won’t charge, won’t turn on, won’t do anything.



Conclusion

(Updated: 2016.09.03)


The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 was an impressive phone and camera until it utterly failed after less than 10 months of careful ownership. Its battery life, quick charging time, wireless charging capabilities, loads of storage, and awesome camera features were a joy to use, but no product is worth buying for this price if it’s going to fail after such a short time.

My trust in modern technology is slowly being eroded over the past few years. Two Nikon point-and-shoot cameras failed within a year’s time, and then our Canon PowerShot camera did the same. My first smartphone, a Motorola Droid 2, failed after less than two years, and now this Samsung phone lasted less than 10 months.

(Original Conclusion follows)


Overall, I’m very impressed with this camera. At the same time, my wife purchased a Motorola Droid Maxx 2, which has a larger sensor (21 MP) and is easier to hold, but the performance of the Galaxy Note 5 easily outshines that of the Droid’s camera.

For day-to-day photography, I like this one enough to carry only my phone and leave the big camera turned off. But for someone who knows a bit about photography, this device can never replace my DSLR. Before a phone could replace my DSLR, I will need the following features:


The size of the lens and sensor are a concern as well, though this one performs admirably. The lens is tiny, and the sensor isn’t much larger. If they can fit 16 million pixels onto a sensor this tiny, then a sensor the size of my 60D’s should be able to hold a hundred million at the same density. Tiny sensor size affects image quality negatively, as does the tiny lens.

For the average person, this might be the best camera they’ve ever used. For a photographer, it makes a nice backup or “easy-carry” camera. For anything serious, I’ll still need my DSLR.


Edits:


2015.11.23: Edited last paragraph of Advantages section to include shutter speed and ISO. Edited first paragraph of Disadvantages section to reflect that aperture is the only exposure setting I can’t control (I had previously believe shutter speed was uncontrollable, but discovered how.) Added plastic rake photo. Replaced static .jpg URL for panorama example.

2015.11.24: Added Additional Information section.

2015.12.03: Reworded first paragraph of Disadvantages section again to reflect that the “pro” options are hidden in layers of menus. Added a following paragraph to further explain this. Added screenshot of the pro settings screen. Added final paragraph and four images to the same section. Added table to end of Advantages section, to list available settings in “pro” mode. Added new paragraph below the table. Renamed “Additional Information” section to Removable Media / Battery.

2016.09.03: Updated introduction and conclusion to reflect the failure of this phone after less than 10 months of ownership. Added Durability section to describe the end-of-life issues this device experienced.






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