Samsung Galaxy S5 Review Roundup: Larger, Simpler, Works When Wet
April 8, 2014 8:16 PM
It'll be available April 11, 2014
Samsung's successor to the Galaxy S4 is finally shipping this week, and according to reviewers like
, the new Galaxy S5 isn't offering anything groundbreaking, but it's certainly better than its predecessors.
There's a strong focus on three new features, including a fingerprint scanner, heart rate monitor and a waterproof body. However, it seems two out of three of these features could use major work.
Overall, reviews say the hardware design is very similar to previous generations (but a little larger -- perhaps too large), the software has been simplified for ease of use, and many features are better than ever (though new ones could use some tweaks).
5.1-inch 1080p SAMOLED HD
Android 4.4 with TouchWiz
MSM8974ACv3 2.45 GHz Snapdragon 801
2GB LPDDR3, 16/32GB NAND + microSD
142 x 72.5 x 8.1 mm, 145 grams
16MP (5132 x 2988) rear-facing camera
2MP front-facing camera
2800 mAh (10.78 Whr) battery
2G / 3G / 4G LTE (Qualcomm MDM9x25 UE Category 4 LTE)
802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 + BT 4.0, USB3.0, GPS/GNSS, MHL, DLNA, NFC
Pricing & Availability
- $199.99 with two-year contract/$649.99 full retail
- $249.99 with two-year contract (down to $199.99 after $50 mail-in rebate)/$599.99 full retail
- $199.99 with two-year contract/$649.99 full retail
- $0 down, $27.50 per month for 24-months with Simple Choice plan/$660 full retail
The Galaxy S5 will be available starting April 11, 2014.
The inspiration of the Galaxy Note 3 is also evident in the Galaxy S5’s design. Like the Note 3, the sides of the phone have the same ribbed chrome-colored plastic, which helps with gripping the phone. The front, like the Note 3, also has a subtle pattern beneath the glass. The same layout that has been used since the original Galaxy S is still mostly unchanged here.
On the back, the phone has undergone some serious changes, although it’s still quite familiar. The speaker is still present, as is the camera bump with the flash module underneath. The heart rate sensor is also next to the flash, and the single speaker is on the back as well. What’s really interesting is that the texture is no longer glossy. The back has a grid pattern of indentations in it that help with gripping the phone, and there’s a noticeable texture that seems to resemble the same pattern that the Note 3 had, but there’s no stitching to suggest a faux-leather texture.
No matter who you buy a Galaxy S5 from, you’ll get a phone that’s not a radical departure, designwise, from previous Galaxy S models. It’s slightly wider, taller and thicker than the Galaxy S4, in order to accommodate a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen, up from the 5-incher in the S4. These days, that’s a big screen but not an enormous one, and the S5 doesn’t feel like any more of a handful than the S4 did.
However, in an acknowledgement that jumbo screens have their downsides, the Galaxy S5, like the the Galaxy Note 3, includes a bizarre one-handed mode that shrinks the amount of real estate the phone actually uses, leaving a thick black border around the the top and left side. Just in case you didn’t want a big-screen phone after all...The S5 has a plasticky back cover pock-marked with hundreds of tiny dimples, leaving the white model I tried looking a little like a golf ball that got flattened by a steamroller. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ugly, but it’s a Chevy in a category full of Lexuses, Infinitis and Acuras.
I’ve been testing the new S5 for a couple of weeks, and I like it, though I didn’t find it especially exciting or novel. In every major hardware area, it’s a very good phone, with a sharp, gorgeous screen that, at 5.1 inches, is a teeny bit bigger than the five-inch display on last year’s model, the S4.
Samsung truly has improved TouchWiz. I’m happy to say that they have finally added some level of aesthetic cohesiveness and just about every major application that I tried was noticeably better than before. Previous pain points such as the horrific tab view that effectively made the settings menu impossible to navigate without frustration, the stuttery launcher, and difficult keyboard have been fixed. The keyboard is now usable, and with Swiftkey’s prediction engine, I don’t actually feel a strong need to immediately replace the keyboard, although I still prefer SwiftKey due to its rather cramped layout from the very large spaces that Samsung has put between the keys, which means the spacebar is incredibly small. The launcher is now smoother than the one I used in TouchWiz 4 on the Galaxy S2, and the settings menu has a much more tolerable grid view by default, although I still find myself preferring the list view, which is thankfully also an option. Even the simplest things have been changed dramatically for the better. The multitasking menu as seen below is much cleaner in its aesthetics, and the email application (as seen above) finally looks like it was made for Android 4.0 and newer rather than a port of an email application made for Gingerbread/Android 2.3.
However, in some ways TouchWiz takes a step back. There is still quite a bit of inconsistency with their icon design as some icons retain the old rectangular format while others gain the new circle design and the new launcher.
In the past, Samsung has had a tendency to fill its phones to the brim with its own apps—S Note, S Translate, S This, S That–which let them do a lot of stuff right out of the box, though not always all that well. This time around, the company didn’t just avoid the temptation to add even more S apps. It also chopped out some of the existing ones, offering them instead as optional free downloads. They’re there if you want them, and out of your way if you don’t.
Samsung deserves credit for burying or offloading some of the gimmicky, duplicative software that burdened the S4, and for simplifying the bewildering array of camera options, but it didn’t go far enough. Out of the box, the Galaxy S5 still has two browsers, two voice-control apps, two photo-gallery apps and two video-player apps — one each from Google and Samsung.
The GS4 and GS5 are pretty close to one another in our scaled/cropped shot. There are some differences in color handling and dynamic range between the two devices. I actually find that there's some loss in detail in the paintbrush on the GS5 compared to the GS4. I've seen a number of situations where aggressive noise reduction on the GS5 seems to mangle detail and deliver a very oil painting like effect, although that's an extreme that we're not seeing here.
The news is much better when it comes to the phone’s 16-megapixel camera and its accompanying software. The Galaxy S4 tried to stand out from the photo-snapping crowd with oddball features such as the ability to overlay a front-facing selfie on top of the picture you’re taking and the ability to erase unwanted bystanders from your landscape shots. If those kinds of effects float your boat, don’t fret—they’re still there in the S5. But rather than adding even more trickery, Samsung focused on more straightforward enhancements that can make almost any sort of photo look better.
The new-and-improved HDR (high dynamic range) mode, for instance, does a better job of bringing out detail in lighting environments that would otherwise be too bright or too dim. Rather than making you guess about how HDR will impact your photo or video, it gives you a live preview in the viewfinder–something I wish the iPhone’s camera did. Even the most gimmicky new camera feature—a pseudo-Lytro option that lets you refocus a photo after you’ve shot it—isn’t all that gimmicky by Samsung standards. Rather than accomplish the effect entirely through digital retouching, it captures multiple images with different focus points in the first place.
The camera now has fewer shooting modes, partly because Samsung says most people just use the basic auto mode. And many of the modes have been consolidated into a sort of mega-mode called Shot and More, which allows you to apply various special effects after the shot has been taken.
Samsung has also consolidated the camera settings into a 16-square illustrated grid that’s supposed to make them easier to select. But I still found it intimidating. Although the company admits that the pixels are smaller, it says it was able to improve the photo quality with a new technology that allows less light to leak out of each pixel.
The Galaxy S 5 marks the second Snapdragon 801 based device we've reviewed at AnandTech, the first being HTC's M8. I've gone through the Snapdragon 801 in depth already, but we're basically dealing with a reasonable upgrade to Snapdragon 800 on an improved 28nm HPm process. The bulk of the improvements impact GPU and ISP performance, but the SoC is just better overall. GS5 owners are lucky as all versions of the device that use Qualcomm silicon feature the MSM8974AC v3 SKU, which includes four 2.5GHz Krait 400 cores and a 578MHz Adreno 330 GPU.
Samsung gave the Galaxy S5 a fast quad-core Qualcomm processor, but it also beefed up the battery compared to the dual-core S4; in my wholly unscientific tests, I was able to get through a day of fairly heavy use without entirely draining the charge. But I’m smitten with the new Ultra Power Saving Mode, which you can switch on in case of dire emergencies such as your battery gauge dipping below 10% when you’re attending a conference and won’t be able to top it up for hours. It forces the handset into a minimalist grayscale display mode, shuts off energy-hogging apps and frills like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and takes other extreme measures to eke every possible minute out of the power you’ve got left.
I do think it's important to give Samsung some credit, as the Synaptics-provided capacitive fingerprint scanner does work. Although not perfect, the GS5 is definitely better with its fingerprint scanner than had it shipped without it.
Samsung integrated Paypal and Samsung Account verification into the fingerprint scanner software as seen below, which is neat and shows the direction that fingerprint scanners could take in terms of identification and verification. It's pretty easy to adjust to the GS5's fingerprint sensor if you give up on the hope of a one hand unlock... If you're ok with swiping with another hand, the sensor works pretty well and is a great alternative to a long password.
Based on technology from Synaptics, it promises to let you secure your phone with your fingerprint or thumbprint–you can register up to three of them–like Apple’s Touch ID does for the iPhone 5s. You can see why Samsung was itching to add this capability: Its whole Galaxy S marketing blitz revolves around its phones doing things iPhones can’t, so it would have been embarrassing if the S5 lacked an answer to one of the 5s’s flagship technologies. Besides letting you unlock your phone, the S5’s fingerprint scanner is also used for a couple of features Touch ID doesn’t support right now. There’s a privacy mode that lets you protect items such as specific photos, audio recordings and files from snoops. And though it wasn’t quite ready when I tried the phone, PayPal’s Android app will let you swipe your finger to identify yourself when you pay via PayPal at brick-and-mortar stores.
Sadly, the fingerprint scanner is nowhere near as well done as Touch ID. You need to drag your finger or thumb across the entire home button in a precise, vertical swipe; if you do it carefully, the odds that the scanner will recognize your print are high, but it’s a two-handed job. With Touch ID, you can just press the thumb of the hand you’re holding the iPhone with against the home button, a far more elegant, time-saving approach to the same idea.
The fingerprint reader failed for me most of the time. It works by swiping your finger over the home button, rather than keeping it stationary, as on the iPhone. In my tests, it either required multiple passes, or just didn’t work at all, almost every time. Samsung says my experience was unusual. (Apple’s reader worked perfectly in my initial test period last year, then began to fail too often, and now, after a software update, is working great again for me).
One Samsung app that did survive is S Health, a fitness assistant that lets you track your workouts, walks, calorie intake and the like. It’s still basic compared to the apps that come with wristbands such as Jawbone’s Up, but it does add the ability to read your heart rate, using a new hardware capability. You press your fingertip up against the camera flash for a few seconds to get a reading. As long as I kept my hand super-steady and there wasn’t too much in the way of background noise, it worked.
The heart monitor works when you rest a fingertip over a small sensor area beneath the camera lens on the rear of the phone. An app then translates signals from the sensor and displays your heart rate. In my tests, it failed for me more than half of the time, yielding no reading. So I tried it on others, with mixed results — much better than mine, but still with too many failures, which bring up a nagging instruction screen telling you you’re doing it wrong. (After four or five of these pop-ups, your heart rate will likely be elevated).
Taking off the back cover of the phone, it’s clear that the entire phone has been designed with water resistance in mind, as there’s a rubber gasket all along the back cover, and there’s an extra plastic snap in the center that helps to ensure that the gasket seals the phone properly. The GS5, like the GS4 Active, retains an IP67 (Ingress Protection) rating. The first digit (6) indicates that the design is fully sealed against dust, while the second digit indicates that the device is submergible up to 1 meter for up to 30 minutes. Another consequence of this need to waterproof the phone is that taking apart the phone for repair is no longer done by removing screws from the cover that is underneath the backplate unlike the Galaxy S4. Instead, based upon some teardowns done by others, repairing this phone must be done by removing the display first, then the midframe and the rest of the phone can be accessed for repair. In short, the assembly of this phone most closely resembles the Galaxy S4 Active, which is hardly surprising because both are IP67 certified. However, as Samsung emphasized at their launch event, this doesn’t make the Galaxy S5 waterproof in any way.
The removable plastic back does have a couple of significant virtues: You can swap in a spare battery or pop a memory card into the MicroSD slot for affordable storage expansion. And although you might think that the pop-off back would leave the S5 more vulnerable to the elements than a sealed-up phone, this is also the first Galaxy S to tout a water- and dust-resistant design. Its IP67 rating means that it’s designed to survive being submerged in up to one meter of liquid for up to half an hour.
The water-resistance feature, by contrast, was a great success. I tested it twice, and it worked perfectly both times. Samsung says the phone can withstand being in water up to a meter deep for 30 minutes. But I figured that nobody would leave a dropped phone in a toilet or sink for that long, so I submerged it in a large mixing bowl for 15 minutes, while it was powered on. I even called it when it was underwater, and it received the call just fine.
When I finally pulled it out of the drink, it worked perfectly, even before I dried it off.
Samsung does nag you now and then to make sure the removable rear cover is fastened tight; and when you open the charging port, which has a cover, it reminds you to close the cover firmly. But this is a great feature. Oh, and Samsung says it doesn’t work only in plain, clear water. The company claims that the phone will also survive in toilets containing other common fluids and solids, in chlorinated pools, in coffee cups and in other liquids.
Samsung has also made great gains in the maximum brightness department, which is especially pleasing because for the longest time, AMOLED was noticeably less bright which made it incredibly difficult to read webpages and similar content outdoors. I’m happy to say that this is no longer the case, as the Galaxy S5 now has a display that realistically reaches around 440 nits outdoors with a pure white image, although this requires auto-brightness to be on and will vary with the screen mode. The maximum that is accessible without this daytime boost mode is somewhere around 350 nits.
The screen resolution is still 1920-by-1080, but a new feature called Adapt Display automatically tweaks color saturation, sharpness and other settings in apps such as the photo album and web browser. It seems to work well: The display looked good indoors and out, and I didn’t notice the unnaturally vivid colors that OLED displays have a reputation for delivering.
The Galaxy S 5 is a healthy update to the series. With the Galaxy Note 3's release last year we saw a device that ultimately became the new flagship from Samsung. The GS5 takes the crown back for those users who want a more reasonably sized device.
Overall the Galaxy S 5 is a solid replacement to the GS4 (and definitely to any previous Samsung device). I find that pretty much all the flagships offer some set of tradeoffs that prevent any one from being the perfect device (iPhone's screen size, GS5's materials, M8's camera). It's unfortunate because I'd really like to crown a single device the king of them all, but instead we're faced with a handful of differing optimization points. Samsung got it almost perfect with the GS5. With a metal body, a rear facing camera with larger pixels (perhaps with some tweaks to camera output processing), a better NAND controller, and stereo front facing speakers, the GS5 would probably be perfect.
All in all, though, the Galaxy S5’s emphasis on everyday benefits and its streamlined software shows that Samsung has been listening to its critics, and learning. Until now, it’s always been a safe assumption that next year’s Galaxy S phone would be bigger and more bloated than the one before it. But judging from all that’s pleasing about the Galaxy S5, it doesn’t seem irrational to hope that the Galaxy S6 might follow this phone’s example of self-control. Better still if it fixes that clunky fingerprint reader.
Overall, the Galaxy 5S is a very good phone, but not one compelling enough for me to recommend that you buy it to replace last year’s Galaxy or the current iPhone. But there’s one caveat: If you drop your phone in water a lot, you want this one.
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