Galaxy J5 Review: Samsung needs more awesome budget smartphones like this
Samsung’s Galaxy J series of smartphones started off on the wrong foot with the Galaxy J1, an entry-level phone that was overpriced and severely under-powered. Thankfully, Samsung didn’t take too long to realize it had a dud on its hands and came out with the Galaxy J5 and Galaxy J7. The J5 and J7 are Samsung’s most feature-packed budget smartphones yet, and the Galaxy J5 (which we’re reviewing today) sports hardware like a Super AMOLED display, 13-megapixel and 5-megapixel camera pair (with an LED flash on the front), 4G LTE connectivity, and the 64-bit Snapdragon 410 processor with a price tag of roughly $185 (INR 11,999).
In addition to the good hardware specs, the Galaxy J5 also gets boasting rights for running the latest iteration of Samsung’s TouchWiz UX that debuted with the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge. The new software is very optimized, with an updated user interface that goes with the times in terms of modernness and visual appeal while keeping Samsung’s usual functionality and being easy to use.
But as tradition goes, a smartphone’s actual user experience can be rather different than what the specs would suggest. The Galaxy J5 is a result of the burgeoning budget smartphone segment that has been taken over by companies like Xiaomi and Lenovo in India and other emerging markets, and this review will find out if it has what it takes to hold its own against the competition.
A bigger version of the Galaxy J1, that is exactly what the J5 is. The design is similar to other Samsung phones save for the fact that the rim around the edges is a tad fatter than you would find on other Galaxy phones, giving it a bulkier and slightly cheap look. The back cover is soft plastic that feels somewhat nice in the hand and also helps in handling as it tends to be slightly sticky. Remove the back panel and you get access to the removable 2,600 mAh battery, two SIM slots, and a microSD slot.
On the front, you get your usual hard home button between the recent apps and back capacitive keys, though these keys are unfortunately not powered by a backlight. Above the Super AMOLED display is the earpiece; on the right of the earpiece are the front-facing camera and proximity sensor, while the left side holds the LED flash. The bottom of the phone holds the microUSB port, headphone jack, and microphone. On the left of the device are the volume buttons, while the power button is on the right side. Over on the back, you get get the camera sensor in the middle, with an LED flash and loudspeaker on either side.
The Galaxy J5 doesn’t look anything out of the ordinary, though the gold color option does give it a charm that you won’t find on many budget smartphones out there. The phone’s quite thick and bulky, and the design is one of the first signs that the device isn’t a high-end one.
Super AMOLED displays have long been revered by Samsung consumers, and the Galaxy J5 brings them to the lowest price point yet. This isn’t a high-end phone so the display quality isn’t as stunning as it is on flagship phones from Samsung, but it’s still better than a lot of the competition. Contrast levels are nice, blacks are deep, and the viewing angles are more or less impeccable. The display is of HD resolution, which doesn’t translate to the sharpest experience on a 5-inch display, but that won’t bother most users unless they’re holding the phone close to their eyes.
The only issue I had with the display was that Samsung hasn’t provided an auto-brightness option, so I was constantly having to adjust the brightness depending on the time of day and the lighting around me. Like the Galaxy J1, there is an Outdoors mode though, which jacks up the brightness a couple of notches for 15 minutes. It works pretty well in the sun but doesn’t make up for the lack of an auto-brightness option, which should be a standard on every smartphone irrespective of its price tag.
We applauded the Galaxy E5 and E7 for giving users the Super AMOLED experience at affordable prices, and we can say the same for the Galaxy J5. The markets the J5 is available in might have other smartphone options with better specs, but the J5 has the lead when it comes to the viewing experience.
The Galaxy J5 (and its larger sibling) is the first Samsung smartphone with an LED flash on the front. It’s not really a flash, however – the LED on the front simply lights up and stays on like a flashlight. That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful; it certainly does help in low-light situations, but we thought we would make it clear from the get-go that the phone doesn’t have a traditional flash on the front.
The Galaxy J5 comes with the new camera UI from the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, and it also comes with the “double-tap home button to launch camera” shortcut, which is utterly convenient and lets you quickly launch the camera when needed, no matter what you might be doing on the device. There’s also a Pro mode for shooting, but the options are limited to exposure, ISO and white balance. Even the photo effects are limited, with the J5 only offering Negative, Sepia and Grayscale effects.
When it comes to image quality, the J5’s camera is nothing special. In very good lighting photos can come out extremely detailed and noise-free, but photos taken indoors/in poor lighting come out extremely soft, though noise is still kept under control. At night, scenes with enough light come out nicely thanks to the f1.9 aperture, but lack detail or color accuracy. Video recording quality is acceptable, but once again requires bright light for the phone to be able to capture respectable detail.
The 5-megapixel front-facing camera also suffers from photos that come out too soft at times, unless there’s ample light. Outdoors it does manage to take noise-free selfies with slightly higher detail, and I would say the front camera’s performance is better than average. The LED flash does help at night; it lights up the scene without hurting your eyes, though that does depend on how far you’re keeping the phone from your face when taking a selfie.
In addition to the slightly above average image quality, the camera app itself can sometimes be a tad too laggy, which is surprising considering all other aspects of the user interface are quite smooth and fast (more on that later.) There were quite a few instances where the button to switch to the front/back camera wouldn’t respond, and opening the gallery by clicking the thumbnail would take a couple of seconds. A software update could potentially fix the app’s performance, but for now the lag can be rather irritating.
Almost all of Samsung’s phones with rear-facing loudspeakers, and that’s the case with the Galaxy J5 as well. The speaker’s volume doesn’t go very high, though it does have sufficient clarity with a focus on both the low and high frequencies (bass and treble, in layman terms). I’ve missed a couple of calls because of the low volume when the phone was in the other room, and watching media without the headphones will require you to cup your hand at the back of the device to be able to listen clearly, unless you’re in a really, really quite environment.
As is usually the case, the phone has better audio quality on the earphones, though it tends to focus on the higher frequencies and doesn’t have as much punch once you plug in the earphones. The volume can get very loud, a characteristic that is common across most Samsung phones. Sadly, there is no way to tune the sound to your liking as the J5 doesn’t have Samsung’s music player but is preloaded with Google Play Music, an app that doesn’t include an equalizer. You do get SoundAlive+ and Tube Amp toggles in the sound settings on the phone though.
When it comes to call quality, the J5 failed to impress. The second SIM slot seemed to be particularly troublesome, as I could sometimes hear noticeable disturbance even in areas where the signal was strong. The phone also had troubles with latching on to the network in areas where the signal wasn’t too strong, something other devices I had in my arsenal didn’t suffer from. I was unable to test 4G connectivity, but the general network performance was lacking.
The Galaxy J5 runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop out of the box, with the same TouchWiz UX as the Galaxy S6 lineup. That means the J5 is much faster and smoother than previous low-cost Samsung smartphones, doesn’t have as much bloat, and also comes with support for themes. To be honest, except for a few missing features (like Smart Stay), the software on offer here is pretty similar to the one on the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, so you can check out our review of the two flagships for all the details.
Theme support is very welcome, though a few options available on the S6 weren’t available on the Theme Store on the J5. But you still have a lot of good options, and I’ve barely used the default Samsung theme in the time I’ve had the J5 as my primary device. The phone also comes bundled with free in-game credits worth Rs. 3,200 ($50) for Gameloft games, which you can use for in-app purchases in any of the Gameloft games you download from the preloaded Game Zone app.
Being a dual-SIM phone, the J5 has a dedicated menu for handling your SIM cards. You can set different wallpapers and ringtones for each SIM, and also decide what SIM is used for mobile data and for calls (you can switch the default SIM for calling on the fly from the status bar.) Both SIM cards are active at the same time, but you can receive calls on one if you’re already on a call on the other, unless you enable the Smart dual SIM option. Don’t be fooled by the name – Smart dual SIM simply forwards your calls from one SIM to the other.
If you have used any of Samsung’s budget smartphones in recent years, you will know that they were extremely laggy, slow and just a pain to use in day-to-day life. The J5 finally fixes that by being very fast and very smooth. The Snapdragon 410 processor under the hood and the optimized software combine to offer a very nice experience, and rarely did I see myself longing to return to a high-end smartphone as far as general usage was concerned.
Despite 1.5GB of RAM, the Galaxy J5 was a good multitasker as it doesn’t have the RAM management issues that plague the S6 and S6 edge. At any given moment, around 300 MB of RAM was free and the phone didn’t feel the need to kill each app as soon I sent it to the background and opened another one. What it did present troubles with was the internal memory – the 8GB of built-in storage ran out quick, leaving me unable to install a high-end game like Modern Combat 5 or even update installed apps on a few occasions. The external storage is useful of course, but since you can’t move apps to the microSD card before installing it, I was left wanting for space an awful lot.
Games ran fine, though I was unable to test out graphics-heavy titles because of the aforementioned storage issues. Overall, the Galaxy J5 is a stellar performer, and it’s the first example that Samsung is finally focusing on the user experience on devices on the lower end of the price spectrum.
Brilliant. That’s what the battery life is on the Galaxy J5. This year, phones haven’t done too well with endurance, with Android 5.0 Lollipop singled out as the main reasons for the high battery drain. The J5 has none of those issues and can last really long, due in part because of the large 2,600 mAh battery underneath the mid-range hardware.
Idle drain is next to non-existent, but around 2 percent of drain over eight hours even with everything (Wi-Fi, location, etc.) left on, in addition to two active SIM cards. Getting four hours of screen time with over 24 hours of total usage was a regular thing, with usage including browsing, WhatsApp, Facebook, and a bit of imaging. On mobile data, the drain is no doubt higher, but it’s not as high as to make you worried about finding a charging point. Even navigation on Google Maps doesn’t deplete battery as much as more powerful smartphones.
The good battery life also comes in handy since the J5 doesn’t support any form of quick charging, so a charge from 0 to 100 usually takes around 2 hours. Furthermore, you get both the standard Power Saving Mode and the Ultra Power Saving Mode options for getting even more usage out of a single charge, though I never found myself actually using either of these two features.
Having used the Galaxy S6 edge as my main device, the J5 was a breath of fresh air and actually made me wonder if I should just start using a budget smartphone for basic use cases like messaging and browsing. If excellent battery life is one of the features you look for in a smartphone, the Galaxy J5 would be a great choice.
There’s no other way to say it: The Galaxy J5 is the best cheap Samsung smartphone yet. It’s got great hardware for its price tag, at least when you consider it’s a phone from a major Android manufacturer, and the overall user experience is quite great as well. That Super AMOLED display is a major draw, battery life is stellar, and so is the new version of Samsung’s TouchWiz UX. The cameras could have been better and an auto-brightness option would have been nice, but the Galaxy J5 is the Korean giant’s best attempt yet at cracking the budget smartphone market.
There’s also no way we can ignore talking about the competition from Chinese manufacturers. In terms of the price-vs-performance ratio, the Galaxy J5 still loses out to a lot of devices out there and will not have an easy time courting consumers in emerging markets like India, especially with its online-only sales model. But then again, these Chinese manufacturers can’t provide the same level of support as Samsung, so that is one area where the Galaxy J5 takes the upper hand.
All things considered, the Galaxy J5 is a great device for those that aren’t going out to buy a smartphone with deep pockets, and we can’t wait to see what Samsung will come up with in the coming months as it slowly moves to becoming relevant in the low-cost smartphone market again.
- Good display
- Smooth and fast software
- Stellar battery life
- Front-facing LED flash
- Okay camera performance
- Poor call quality
- No auto-brightness
- Low internal storage