What I really want out of the Samsung Galaxy S5

Fingerprint scanners and amazing feats of iris-tracking aside, it's the finer details that Samsung still needs to nail.

Samsung Galaxy S4
The update to Samsung's Galaxy S4 is just weeks away. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In just a few weeks, we'll know everything there is to know about the hotly anticipated Samsung Galaxy S5, which the company is all set to unveil at Mobile World Congress.

In the meantime, we've collected quite a list of rumored features and specs, including an ultra-HD 2,560x1,440-pixel-resolution display, a fingerprint scanner, and an optional metal finish. There's no doubt in my mind that Samsung will hoist up cutting-edge specs to give us strong mobile photography, a dazzling display, and oodles of Samsung-only software. I've said it before: Samsung excels at checking off the major boxes required to make a smartphone a hit.

Yet when I think about what I truly want out of the next marquee Samsung stunner, it isn't the bells and whistles I crave most (of course, I'd like those, too) -- it's a commitment to fix some of the finer details of craftsmanship that really make a high-end device stand out.

Design
There is absolutely nothing wrong -- and there's even lots to like -- about Samsung's Galaxy S-line designs.

As a whole, they're typically light and thin, with plenty of screen real estate and bright, saturated colors. The corners curve for comfort, and the plastic makes devices fairly durable against falls. Moreover, the designs are universal enough to be liked by almost everyone (or at least not to polarize the masses) and the plastic construction keeps phones affordable to make.

While there is nothing offensive about the Samsung Galaxy S handsets, there is equally nothing exciting in their construction, and no one feature that suggests the phones are designed with real passion. Shivers don't cascade down my spine when I look at a Samsung Galaxy S4. My eyes don't take over every detail or pause to appreciate the build the way that they do when I see the elegant HTC One and iPhone 5S, the edgy Motorola Droid Maxx, and even a color-saturated Nokia phone like the trapped-in-ice Asha 503.

I would love to see Samsung embrace a statement design, or elements that have been molded with precision and care. A slightly pricier option with aluminum accents and plates would be one way to go, or bright colors options sold right at the outset, rather than limited shades dribbled out to various markets or carriers months after the phone's initial release.

Even if Samsung doesn't achieve a novel design like the Oppo N1's ingenious camera-swivel or the Yota Phone's, er, unique e-ink display, the Galaxy S5 could still use contours and unusual materials strategically, say, or perhaps offer backplates with etched designs.

Even more practical are some things that Samsung could learn from its rivals. I'd love to see it apply a filter to the display like Nokia does to reduce glare outside. In fact, I'd love to see the Galaxy S5 depart from the ultraglossy, high-shine S3 and S4 with antireflective coatings everywhere, and let's make the backing smudge-resistant while Samsung's at it. A matte finish or soft-touch coating could easily take care of the problem.

Another small, but important change I'd like to see is a relocated power button. It typically sits on the northern end of the phone's right spine and has such a hair trigger, that even in a dedicated purse pocket, the phone sometimes turns on of its own accord, draining the battery before I know it. If Samsung can't stiffen the button enough (as Nokia can and does,) let's move it to the top.

While I'm on the topic of buttons, I'm all for a dedicated camera button that will open the shooter even when the phone is locked. Yes, you can put a shortcut button on the lock screen or implement a complex gesture, but in my mind, nothing beats the push of a button to get the camera up and running for a shot. If you want people to use their phones for a camera, give them to tools to really use it that way.

On the topic of fingerprint scanning and biometrics, here's where I stand. I do like the idea of optional biometric security, but it has to work. Fingerprint scanning needs to be easy to find with a finger and absolutely has to read accurately the first time. The same goes with any iris scanning that the company might implement. If it doesn't work correctly the majority of the time, I'd rather Samsung just leave it out.

Components
There's little doubt we're going to see a blazing processor at the top of its game as well as plenty of RAM, so givens like those don't make my wish list. What I am hopeful for, however, is extended battery life to help support the large, bright screen and users' power-hungry activity, such as streaming content, navigation, and constant Web use.

HTC One
The HTC One has some of the best built-in speakers we've heard on a mobile phone. Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung always does a good job cramming in a big ticker, which is something that's more easily done when the phone is larger. The company does differentiate itself as one of the few that consistently lets the user remove the battery, but that sometimes comes at a cost to capacity. In other words, the capacity could probably have been a little higher still if Samsung decided to embed the battery.

The sweet spot? Subtle improvements in battery tech and a highly precise relationship between the software and processor. If my Galaxy S5 is going to turn itself on in my purse against my wishes, I'd like that battery impact to be as low as possible.

Audio quality is another fringe area that can really improve the way you use your phone in ways you don't think about. I often watch video, play music, and Skype on my smartphones, without using headphones. I sometimes use the speakerphone as well. While there's nothing wrong with the Samsung Galaxy S4's speakers, they don't have the same loud, rich audio impact as the HTC One's excellent set.

Software
Samsung's TouchWiz layer on top of Android is a major topic for me, and one I'd love to see overhauled in the Galaxy S5. There are already rumors that something along these lines is happening, but let me be specific.

There are some excellent implementations in TouchWiz that I find useful every day; for instance, the extra quick-access buttons in the notifications shade, the high level of customization, and the ability to opt into gestures.

Leaked Samsung UI mock-ups
These could be mock-ups of the next mobile interface that Samsung is working on behind closed doors. Click to enlarge. evleaks

On the flipside, there are organizational and visual issues that I stumble over every time I pick up the phone. First, there's TouchWiz's look and feel, which I find tired and outdated, possibly because I've reviewed Samsung phones for years. Then there are more practical impediments, like Samsung requiring a few extra steps to make home screen folders, rather than just dragging and dropping as you can do with stock Android.

Samsung can also do better within the app tray. If you have a large collection of apps, it's hard to quickly zero in on what you want. Yes, you can dig into the settings to organize alphabetically, manually create folders, and hide unused apps. What I'd prefer is something more along the lines of what HTC and others do: give you tabs and onscreen controls you can use to quickly see your most-used or starred apps. Again, it would also help if you could create folders by simply dragging and dropping icons.

One software feature that would be a real win for the Galaxy S5 is touchless voice controls, similar to what Motorola has with its latest phones, including the Moto X. You're supposed to be able to do something like this with Samsung's own S Voice app, but the voice commands don't work for me when the phone is locked or when I haven't initiated the app.

At the very least, I'd love to see a glance screen that reveals stats like the time and message status when you double-tap the screen. Samsung already has a version of this on the Galaxy Round, as do rivals like LG and Nokia. It's immensely useful and not too hard to do.

Samsung loves packing in creative features, like extra camera presets and modes. Unfortunately, they don't all live up to their promise. Josh Miller/CNET

My final hope for the Galaxy S5's software is that all of Samsung's inevitable software extras work as promised. Too many times, I've seen Samsung roll out a differentiating "feature" that doesn't work as advertised, or that is so specific in its demands, it becomes downright impractical.

This bucket includes gestures like waving your hand over the screen to advance tracks or photos (you've got to do it just the right way) and camera modes like the one that will erase unwanted people in the background. A funny little anecdote from the Samsung Galaxy S4 launch was that even a Samsung representative tried this particular trick several times and couldn't get it going, handing me the phone back in defeat. I know how important it is to Samsung's mission to create unique software experiences, but if they don't behave as advertised, they're just as good as useless.

Camera
More than fancy filters and lighting presets, the Galaxy S5's camera module needs, needs, needs to improve low-light performance.

Right now, some high-end Samsung phones automatically detect darkness and throw you into night mode. That's intelligent, but it doesn't always result in pleasing images. Flash is one option, but it often blows out the subject and backgrounds. Food photographers and people hoping to capture some ambiance have little recourse, especially for taking fast snaps.

The time is right for Samsung to learn from Nokia and Apple, especially, and do some tuning that overcomes frankly terrible low-light shots.

I'd love to see the Samsung Galaxy S5 take after Nokia's low-light proficiency and physical camera button, like on this Lumia 1020. James Martin/CNET

The heart and soul of the matter
As I said before, many of the points that I mentioned are more minor when compared with a phone's core components, and some of them are simple fix-its that Samsung has, in my opinion, needed to address for years.

But here's why these are important: Samsung will always satisfy on the list of specs that consumers and enthusiasts look to when determining when a phone is premium and drool-worthy. We can count on Samsung to compete or even outcompete on screen resolution, daytime photography, processing speed, strong battery life, and unique software tricks. What Samsung has yet to nail down is less tangible: a sense of soul.

I look at a lot of phones, and the ones that stand out to me -- the ones I want to pick up and use time and time again -- are the handsets that offer some resonating design element or thoughtful everyday feature that goes beyond that features checklist.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Samsung Galaxy S5 will be a killer handset, even if it does turn out to be a cookie-cutter Galaxy S stuffed with impressive 2014 specs. Yet what I really truly want out of the Galaxy S5 is a smartphone that was passionately made to inspire and delight -- and not just to sell.

 

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