Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: More Evolution Than Revolution Despite New Hardware Features

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Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: More Evolution Than Revolution Despite New Hardware Features

The Galaxy S5 (or S 5, if you ask Samsung) is the company’s latest flagship phone and sure to be a swift seller. The phone is, in its own way, beautifully designed and the materials, while clearly plastic, are durable and should maintain a luster over time. Is this an iPhone replacement? No, but it is a replacement for the S4 that should please shoppers already predisposed to Samsung and Android.

Video Review

Basics

  • 5.1-inch, 1920×1080, 432 ppi display
  • 16/32GB storage, 128GB expandable via microSD
  • 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, LTE
  • 16MP rear camera, 2MP front facing camera
  • Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • Fingerprint reader, optical heart rate monitor
  • MSRP: $199.99 on 2-year agreement, $650 off-contract
  • Product info page

Pros

  • Heart rate monitor is genuinely handy, especially for aging population
  • Latest TouchWiz UI is best-designed yet

Cons

  • Still feels like a plastic phone
  • More misses than hits with fingerprint scanner

Design

Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is not a revolution in industrial design. It looks like the GS4, with a bit of influence from the Note 3 that Samsung released last fall. The unit I tested had the black pebbled faux leather back, which is surprisingly pleasant to both touch and look at, and the phone is rimmed with a faux metal plastic border that reminds me of something from a 50s diner stool. It’s not the refined, all-metal design of the HTC One M8, but it is appealing in its own way. I still think Samsung would do well to join the big boys like Apple with use of high-quality materials, but if we must have plastic, then this is the plastic I’d opt to have.

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One advantage of the plastic: the back, at least, is relatively durable and drop-proof. Also, the phone is remarkably light, especially given that whopper of a display it’s packing. Plus, this is a water-resistant phone that doesn’t look like a water-resistant phone (read: it isn’t bulky) so that’s a plus. The USB flap door that ensures completely IP67 environment protection is a pain, however, given the frequency with which you’ll have to fidget with it to charge and connect to your computer.

Features

Samsung has refined TouchWiz, and the My Magazine feature on the Galaxy S5 is a nice way to get your social and news fix in one place, reminiscent of the BlinkFeed feature on HTC’s Sense UI. The built-in Samsung apps all get updates this round, but the best new features on the device are, surprisingly, the ones that sort of seemed glommed on unnecessarily.

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The heart rate monitor Samsung included on the device uses pulse oximetry to detect a person’s heart rate through their finger tip. The concept is surprisingly simple, and my veterinarian brother says they’ve been using the tech to find your pet’s heart rate for years; essentially, it shines a light through the capillaries in your finger tip, taking snapshots of the size of the blood vessels within in rapid succession, to detect how engorged they are and then translating that into a number representing beats per minute. It’s a highly accurate measurement method, and indeed in testing it returned results that made sense given my relative level of activity, caffeination, time of day and more.

The fingerprint sensor is also interesting. It works decently well, but has a higher failure rate than Apple’s Touch ID sensor, at least when used natural with a one hand grip, swiping the thumb down from the screen over the sensor pad. This makes it suboptimal for use with unlocking the device, but used as a specific security tool for unlocking sensitive data within apps, or for authorizing payments, both of which are possible since Samsung makes the hardware feature available to third-party devs, it becomes a lot more interesting.

That said, both of these features are unlikely to make a splash in your daily life. The heart rate monitor is a handy shortcut for aging users who need to keep tabs on their cardiovascular health fairly regularly and change their behavior accordingly, but for the most part, it’s little more than a neat trick to pull out at parties and then quietly forget about.

Of the software features included on the Galaxy S5, the best is probably Milk Music, which is for U.S.-customers only and offers streaming radio, ad- and subscription-free. The service works great as a replacement for terrestrial radio thanks to its auto-start, dial-based discovery interface that required minimal user input to get to the music, and it has an impressive library of tracks thanks to Samsung’s use of Slacker Radio to power the service. Milk Music is available to any recent Galaxy device, however, so it isn’t necessarily a reason to buy.

Display

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Samsung’s GS5 display is definitely a sight to behold, but it’s very hard to impress in the display world these days – or too easy. In terms of display quality related to pixel density and the crispness of text and graphics, I haven’t been able to discern a difference since Apple introduced its Retina display on the iPhone 4. The Galaxy S5′s screen size is impressive, however, and makes for a great way to watch mobile video thanks to full HD resolution and a 5.1-inch diagonal surface area, all in a phone that manages to still not feel overly large for a pocket.

Is it the best screen in the smartphone business? Very possibly. Is it a huge improvement over the GS4′s screen? For most users, no, and in fact, it actually has less pixel density than its predecessor. If screen quality is a key decision point for those considering an upgrade from last year’s model, then keep that wallet closed; the GS4 still has an excellent screen, and the GS5 hasn’t made any strides in that regard to merit an expensive upgrade. Plus, as with seemingly every Android device, auto-brightness still has major issues getting things right. Apple seems to be alone in divining the secret sauce for properly dimming and brightening your display based on ambient conditions.

Camera

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The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S5 benefits from the company’s alter-ego as a camera maker, and works very well in optimal conditions, with fast autofocus and high res 16MP captures. But it still doesn’t fare all that well in low-light situations, the bane of all mobile cameras, and some of the features new to the GS5, while impressive from a tech standpoint, leave a lot to be desired.

Specifically, the focus selection option on Samsung’s phone is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it produces great final results, letting you create portraits with background blur that look like they were taken with much more expensive cameras with fancy interchangeable, wide aperture lenses. On the other hand, they take a long time to capture, which makes getting candids with them near impossible, and taking portraits an exercise in “wait, no don’t move yet, it’s still processing.”

The trade-off for your patience is that the photos are much better in terms of overall quality than the selective focus pictures captured with the HTC One M8′s Duo Camera (which captures images much faster though). But the effect can be replicated on other devices, including the iPhone, using third-party camera apps, so it has a lot less value as a selling feature for the GS5 over other handsets.

Battery

The battery on the Galaxy S5 is removable, so that’s already a big advantage over some of the competition. It bumps up capacity over the GS4′s power house by 200mAh, which puts the total at 2,800mAh. In practice, it improved things over the GS4 and gave a full day of use under normal to high circumstances, but the HTC One M8 still outperformed it overall. The GS5 doesn’t offer any quantum leaps in battery tech, in the end, but if you like having the option to swap, it’s there with the GS5, and not with the One.

Bottom Line

The Galaxy S5 offers some genuinely useful stuff that the Galaxy S4 doesn’t, with extreme water and dust-protection (which really works, based on a brief 30-second submersion test and use in a fairly strong downpour) that should give most users a lot of extra peace of mind. It also increases the screen size even further, refines the look and feel of the all-plastic case and improves the onboard camera. You get some extra hardware widgets on this new model, both of which feel a little like kitchen sink additions.

Overall, though, the Galaxy S5 can’t help but feel like a dressed up Galaxy S4. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and new users will be very happy with their purchase. It might not be enough to convince existing device owners to upgrade, however, and if you’re on the fence between this and other devices like the HTC One M8 or the upcoming iPhone, it’s probably best to wait it out or try competing devices in person. I stand by my declaration that the One is the best Android smartphone currently available, but Samsung’s GS5 is a close contender for the crown.