We first met the Samsung Galaxy S5 at MWC last month, but we've now got our hands on one back in Blighty for our full in-depth review of this flagship smartphone.
How do you improve on one of the most successful smartphones of 2013? It’s a question Samsung hopes to answer with the Samsung Galaxy S5 – a handset that offers all you’d expect and a few things you wouldn’t, rammed into one intriguing package.
Samsung Galaxy S5 design: Suited and booted
In recent years it’s been Samsung’s Note family that’s led the charge for the its newest design direction, but the Galaxy S5 breaks that trend, offering something a little different to its phablet sibling.
The ridged chrome band around the handset’s edge certainly feels reminiscent of the Galaxy Note 3, but flip the phone over and you’re presented with a pitted soft-touch back. It might not look as attractive as the smooth, polished Galaxy S4, but feels infinitely more comfortable in the hand and it’s just as distinctive.
The corners of the phone and the camera surround are heavily squared, and overall the Galaxy S5 looks more serious, more grown-up. It appears better suited to the boardroom than the beach, but that’s not to say it isn’t equipped to venture out into the wilderness. Far from it.
Last year’s Samsung Galaxy S4 Active hinted at a future of tough, powerful smartphones and with the S5, we have Samsung’s first flagship phone to incorporate proofing of the water and dust variety. The concealed microUSB port and the seal on the inside of the phone’s removable back highlight its IP67 certification, which Samsung states will let you dunk the Galaxy S5 in up to 3-feet of water, for up to 30 minutes.
At the same time, the Samsung Galaxy S5’s new toughened design hasn’t impacted on its overall form. It doesn’t look or feel like a tough phone in the same way the Active did. It’s still nice and thin at 8.1mm and for its size, is surprisingly lightweight at 145 grams. Aside from the reversal of the headphone jack and IR blaster on the phone’s top, the layout of hardware controls remains unchanged from the Galaxy S4.
The capacitive key to the left of the home button performs a variety of tasks, which takes a little getting used to, but proves its worth as most Android apps integrate an on-screen settings button anyway. Best of all, the Galaxy S5's innocuous home button now conceals a fingerprint scanner, akin to the HTC One Max, but better.
Although it certainly felt convenient swiping a finger down the scanner instead of typing in a code or a pattern, it was a hit-and-miss experience that left a smeary trail of frustration at the base of the Galaxy S5’s display from time to time. When it works, it works really well, but occasionally it simply locked up or refused to read our prints.
As an interesting side note (which we’re yet to try out), this is also the first smartphone fingerprint sensor boasting PayPal certification, adding a convenient new way to pay for goods and services online.
Samsung Galaxy S5 screen: Popping eye-candy
Nowadays most flagships opt for LCD panels, but the Galaxy S5 continues Samsung’s Super AMOLED love affair and we’re glad it has. The 5.1-inch Full HD panel is colourful, really colourful. In some instances the crystalline rainbow wallpaper and punchy iconography made our eyes water a little, but that’s OK, we liked it.
If anything this is an indication that the screen doesn’t reproduce colours accurately, but the Adapt Display feature which you’ll find in the Settings menu actually ensures that the colour temperature and contrast remain balanced on a case by case basis; whether that’s watching movies, browsing web pages or reading an eBook.
It’s easily the best AMOLED-laden smartphone right now and one of the best displays in the business, perhaps alongside the Triluminos LCD of its launch rival, the Sony Xperia Z2.
Samsung Galaxy S5 OS: Clean but crammed
The TouchWiz interface that you’ll find on the Galaxy S5 is a far departure from revisions of the UI found on older Sammys. It shares its predecessors’ focus on customisation for aspects like the lock screen, apps drawer and notifications panel, but the design team has managed to make it cleaner, tidier and faster to navigate, while at the same time packing it with more features.
First time around you’ll most likely accidentally stumble across My Magazine, which much like HTC’s BlinkFeed is accessible with a swipe right from your main home screen. Also similarly to BlinkFeed, My Magazine is a customisable story aggregator that, by default, offers up information on topics like business, politics and sports.
Dive into its settings menu and you’ll be able to add a few more predefined feeds on subjects like entertainment and art as well as the option to integrate your own social feeds, including Facebook, YouTube and more. It’s simple, informative and serves as a stripped down alternative to the likes of Flipboard.
Even the more familiar aspects of the interface have been reworked, with redrawn, flatter, more colourful icons in the apps drawer and settings menu. There are also a number of new widgets such as GeoNews, which keeps tabs on areas of potential danger, based on your phone’s location. It’s an unusual inclusion that some might appreciate, particularly if you’re worried about flooding, hurricanes or rioting in your vicinity, but hopefully these occurances are few and far between.
A huge focus of the Galaxy S5 is personal fitness. The phone launched alongside the Gear Fit smart watch at MWC, but it also works as a strong standalone activity tracker, with the new S Health 3.0 app at its core.
Once you’ve input your height, weight, age and gender into the S Health app, you can then use it track your exercise sessions, general activity and food intake with the app’s logging capabilities.
There’s a pedometer mode that can count your steps and it can track your runs, cycles, hikes or walks too. Look on the back of the S5 and you’ll find not just an LED flash for the camera, but a heart rate monitor too, which works whilst using S Health when you place your finger over the reader. Excessive? Unnecessary? Perhaps, but it could be implemented in interesting new ways going forward, so we're not taking it at face value.
Samsung Galaxy S5 performance: Booster mode
Although last year’s Galaxy S4 was a powerful beast, we did see the occasional stutter and even some serious slow-down when loading apps or zipping around the OS. The main offender seemed to be Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, which was so bogged down with gesture features and other junk running in the background that the Snapdragon 600 processor struggled to keep up.
Thankfully the meaty Snapdragon 801 packed away inside the Galaxy S5 performs admirably. It’s the first handset we’ve reviewed with this powerful new processor, and in combination with the streamlined new TouchWiz UI, the smartphone experience is smooth and extremely satisfying. You can whizz through the home screens and menus with aplomb, and the latest games run with nary a sniff of difficulty.
Unfortunately we did see some glitching in the Galaxy S5, with the phone locking up entirely on a couple of occasions. We’re hoping that these issues are limited to our pre-production review model, same as the fingerprint scanner wonkiness, and that the full retail models will function 100% perfectly.
Samsung has sped up the Galaxy S5 in other ways too, such as its clever and helpful Download Booster mode. Downloading enormous apps and media files can take an age over Wi-Fi and even 4G, so you now have the option to combine both technologies and use them simultaneously to suck down a mega-file. As long as you’ve got a decent 4G data contract, Download Booster is a well-implemented feature that you should definitely turn on.
Battery life is another highlight, matching the day-and-a-half we experienced with the Galaxy S3. We had a limited time to play with the Galaxy S5, but we were hammering the screen, processor and camera app all day, and still had a good chunk of life left before we slipped on our jammies and got tucked up with teddy.
Samsung has also introduced the dramatically titled ‘Ultra Power Saver Mode’ if you’re stuck miles from home with almost no charge left. This mode turns off a ton of features, kills your apps and limits you to a single black-and-white desktop with just a handful of basic features (although you can still browse the web at least). This greatly extends standby time, although we still noticed the battery life drop when we were using the handset.
Samsung Galaxy S5 camera: 4K wonder
Samsung has upgraded the Galaxy S5’s camera to 16-megapixels, compared with the Galaxy S4’s 13-megapixel snapper, but we didn’t notice (or particularly expect) a huge leap in picture quality. The Galaxy S5 still produces crisp, detailed photos with realistic colours, in almost all lighting conditions. Evening and low-light shots are a little less noisy now, but they still don’t hold a candle to Sony’s Xperia handsets; which are the best at snapping bright, sharp photos in gloomy conditions.
All camera samples can be viewed at full resolution here.
Where the Galaxy S5 really shines is its uber-fast shutter speed, which is almost a match for the iPhone 5s. As long as you aren’t shaking the smartphone about, you’ll find the auto-focus locks onto your subject and the shutter fires in 0.3-seconds or less, a pleasing result of that Snapdragon 801 chip.
We’re also happier with Samsung’s fresh new approach to camera features. The Galaxy S4 suffered from a heavy features menu, bogged down with all kinds of tools and tricks that you had to scroll right through to find the one you wanted. The Galaxy S5, by comparison, has just a handful of selectable modes.
Motion-based tools such as Drama and Eraser mode have now been consolidated into a single, user-friendly feature called ‘Shot And More’. It’s a much tidier approach - just shoot what you want and then select what you want to do afterwards. This is particularly useful with the likes of Eraser mode, as you don’t necessarily know you’ll need to remove photo bombers before you take a shot.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy S5’s new camera features are a bit hit-and-miss. For instance, the Selective Focus mode takes ages to process, as it’s basically taking a number of different shots and combining them, so you can choose whether to keep the foreground, background or both in sharp focus. The results aren’t always spot-on either. Quite a few times we found the background remained blurry in all of the shots, even when we tried to get it in focus.
The new Virtual Tour mode is a neat, quirky little idea, allowing you to take a series of 360-degree panoramas and string them together into an interactive ‘tour’ of a location. In reality, however, it’s far too time consuming, requiring you to take dozens of photos in each spot. If you’ve got the patience for it, then fair play. Otherwise, we can’t see this one getting much use, when you can just do a video tour instead.
Thankfully the glorious new 4k video mode charges in to save the day, capturing incredible amounts of detail thanks to the Ultra high-def resolution. Great news for when you finally buy a 4k telly, in a decade or so. You’ll need a powerful rig to play the videos in all their glory, of course - our MacBook Airs could only manage a slideshow of random frames. The other downside is the vast amounts of storage space each 4k video takes up, roughly 1GB per three minutes of footage. Thank God for that microSD card slot (which supports up to a whopping 128GB). Samsung has even limited each video clip to five minutes or less, presumably to prevent the poor Galaxy S5 from imploding under duress.
In addition to 4k mode, you can once again shoot fast and slow-motion video, same as the Galaxy S4. However, you can’t retrospectively add slow-motion to selected frames, as you can with the Z2 and the iPhone 5s.
Samsung Galaxy S5 conclusion: Through the fire and flames
If you've made it this far, you might be able to tell that from the length of the piece you've just read the Samsung Galaxy S5 packs a hell of a lot of interesting features in for a smartphone. Plaudits for reaching the conclusion - reward yourself with a tasty beverage or several.
So, after all that, is the Galaxy S5 worth a punt? Well, if you’re already rocking last year’s S4, we’d say only go for it if you’re stacked with cash - the slick performance and some of the new features are fantastic, but not quite enough to warrant an upgrade, given the premium price tag (around £600 SIM-free). For everyone else, especially movie lovers and app fans, the Galaxy S5 gets a big Recombu thumbs up.