Here's why the Samsung Galaxy S5 should grab your attention: it looks good, it performs very well, and it has everything you need to become a fixture in nearly every aspect of your life. But, like a candidate running for reelection, the GS5 gets where it is today based on experience and wisdom, not on flashy features or massive innovation.
With the exception of a few nonessential hardware and software additions -- like the fingerprint scanner and novel heart-rate monitor -- and a few design tweaks, you're pretty much looking at the same phone Samsung released in 2013. The S5 is more of a Galaxy S4 Plus than it is a slam-the-brakes, next-generation device; it makes everything just a little smoother and faster.
The 5.1-inch, quad-core Android 4.4 KitKat machine with a terrific 16-megapixel camera is well worth snapping up, both on-contract for about $200, or off-contract for about $650 (and about £570 in the UK and €700). However, it isn't the only phone worth your time. The gorgeous, all-metal HTC One M8 has a more sophisticated design, better speakers, and greater internal storage for about the same price (32GB versus 16GB). Should you buy the GS5? If you want to go to sleep at night certain that you own the most capable, robust phone, yes.
Dimpled design an S4 redux
When it designed the Galaxy S5, Samsung didn't stray too far for inspiration. Indeed, from the front, you can barely tell the Galaxy S4 and S5 apart. The S5's rounded rectangle is stamped from the same steep-sided, silvery-trimmed mold as the S4's, but with an ever-so-slightly more capsule-shaped central home button.
The back panel motif is different, I'll give Samsung that. Tiny dimples cover a rear cover that's blessedly matte instead of coated in reflective gloop. In addition to cutting down glare, the more subdued surface masks accumulated fingerprints. The Galaxy S5 comes in black and creamy white shades, but Samsung has also shown it off in enticing copper and bright blue. Not every market or carrier will sell each color, but at least Samsung has decided to expand its palette to some livelier hues.
At the end of the day, the Galaxy flagship feels like it always has: like plastic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if Samsung is at all striving for loftier ambitions, it hasn't reached the heights of HTC's luxe brushed aluminum or even Sony's sleek style.
The GS5 is only a fraction larger than the Galaxy S4: it measures 5.59 inches tall by 2.85 inches wide by 0.32-inch deep, or 142mm by 72.5mm by 8.1mm; and it weighs 5.1 ounces, or 145 grams. Even though the extra hardware makes it a little taller and heavier than the Galaxy S4, I had no problem carting it around. Even outside my ridiculously heavy purse, which is usually home to at least two phones and a jumble of weighty items, the S5 stayed put in the back pocket of my skinny jeans, and stayed wedged in my hand during several-mile jogs. (Full disclosure: I may have also had a death grip on it.)
This new phone, too, has a 5.1-inch 1080p HD AMOLED display that's 0.1-inch bigger than the Galaxy S4's. That means that the screen's pixel density is just a breath looser, though you'll never notice the difference. Images are still extremely crisp and colorful, with high contrast and hard edges. HD photos and videos look especially lush.
Samsung does boasts about a new display panel and accompanying technology that help the phone adapt its display more accurately to different lighting scenarios. This is one of those small improvements that few will notice so long as it's working.
External controls are where you expect them on a Samsung phone: power is on the right, the headset jack is up top, next to the IR blaster that's made its triumphant return to control your TV with Samsung's matching app. On the back, the new heart rate monitor cleverly integrates with the camera's LED flash.
What is a little different is the USB housing on the bottom of the phone. Like the Galaxy Note 3, the S5 now features the elongated USB 3.0 port, which is backward-compatible with standard micro-USB cables. In other words, you can still charge the phone with legacy USB cables, but it'll really juice up quickly with the compound USB 3.0 cable Samsung supplies.
A cover that clips securely into place is one indication that the S5 has met IP67 standard for water- and dust-resistance. A rubberized gasket behind the back cover is another clue. Feedback about the waterproof Galaxy S4 Active prompted Samsung to send the Galaxy S5 down its waterproof path, which means that it can take a bath for up to 30 minutes at about 3 feet down. It also means: time to break out the supersoakers.
Navigation is one other alteration you should know about: the capacitive button to the left of the physical button no longer calls up the menu. Now, it manages multitasking. The target area is a little big if you ask me; I accidentally pressed it more times than I wanted, interrupting myself.
Spiffied-up TouchWiz interface
The GS5 runs Android 4.4 KitKat, with Samsung's latest proprietary TouchWiz interface extending the OS with extra abilities. Samsung has peppered this updated version of TouchWiz with tweaks that freshen up its look and feel. What's different is mostly subtle, like a Google services folder loaded onto the home screen, and an onscreen menu button in nearly every window, like the app tray, for instance.
If you're switching to the S5 from another Samsung phone, the new menu buttons may trip you up when it comes to customizing the home screens, since those controls you're used to for creating folders and selecting wallpapers are no longer there.
For example, it took me a few minutes to figure out how to delete an errant folder from my app tray. While we're on the topic, I wish Samsung had taken this opportunity to make folder creation in line with Google's drag-and-drop style. Here, you still have to premeditate needing a folder and clear a space for it on the home screen. I do like, however, that there's a menu button within the folder to customize its color
From the main home screen, an always-listening Google search box awaits your hands-free voice dictation. The feature is very helpful, but only seems to work from this screen -- so this isn't the same all-encompassing experience you'll find in the Motorola Moto X, for instance.
Pull down the notifications tray and you'll notice two new quick-access buttons for S Finder, which operates like universal search, and Quick Connect, which helps you share content with other devices. Swipe right from the Home screen and you'll see the customizable My Magazine newsfeed that Samsung introduced with the Galaxy Note 3.
The S5's Settings menu is one area that's clearly received a visual overhaul with this new TouchWiz. You get a black backdrop, circular icons, and a choice of layouts. You can continue to break out settings into tabs, view them as a list, or plop them into a scrolling menu organized by collapsible subcategories. I prefer the tidy tabs, myself.
Features and apps consolidate
Sometimes it's hard to tell where TouchWiz ends and Samsung's apps and features begin. Since the Galaxy S5 already folds in the Galaxy S4's gestures and capabilities and then builds on top of them, I'll just share some newer items.
Let's start with Kid's Mode, an optional, 58MB downloadable sandbox. In it, tykes play with approved apps -- even a camera, while keeping the rest of the phone's contents out of bounds. The cutesy interface won't appeal to older kids, who would probably prefer their own profiles if Mom and Dad want to keep their mischievous offspring from snooping, pranks, and unauthorized downloads.
If you're a fan of persistent shortcuts, you're going to love Toolbox, which you can toggle on in the notifications pull-down or through Settings. It's a floating circle that expands to reveal five shortcuts for apps like the camera and calculator. Everything's customizable, and you can move the circle if it gets in your way. I really like the notion, but it got in my way so often I wound up closing it for good. I'd love to be able to call it up with a triple-screen tap, perhaps.
Ultra power-saving mode is for those of you who forget your charger when you leave for a weekend trip. A quick press of a button turns off most connections and transforms your phone from technicolor to grayscale. Limiting color, apps, and activities boosts your phone's run time immensely; we're talking days, depending on how much charge you have left. Samsung says that with 10 percent battery left, you'll be able to make it another 24 hours before charging, a claim we'll test ourselves in the upcoming days.
Another new software tidbit, download booster, joins together your Wi-Fi and carrier data connections to give you faster download speeds. Since it works behind the scenes, this is another one of those features that most people won't actively notice, so long as it's doing its job.
One that you will see, and which Samsung hopes you incorporate into your daily routine, in the updated S Health app and widgets, to try to draw fitness-interest folks of all levels. A pedometer and exercise scorecard meets a built-in nutrition monitor and all-new heart-rate tracker (more on this below). The app looks more polished than before, and the home screen widget (which you can remove, of course) keeps an ongoing tally of your steps.
The new S Health is nice for casual observers, but it needs more rigorous on-screen stats if it wants to compete with sophisticated apps like Endomondo, which also tracks you on a map in real-time and makes elevation rates and pacing numbers easier to find. In S Health, you have to dig through a log for the finer details.
In a nod to criticism, Samsung has cut back on the number of its Samsung-branded preloads. You can still download the ones you want through the Samsung Apps shortcut in your apps tray, and through Galaxy Essentials, an item in your menu button. That's where you'll find apps like S Note, S Translator, a video editor, Samsung Smart Switch, and managers for Samsung's family of Gear devices -- the Gear Fit fitness band, and the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches. The Galaxy S5 will also pair with Samsung's original Galaxy Gear watch.
For more about how the Galaxy S5 and the Gear fit work together, read Scott Steins' in-depth review of the Samsung Gear Fit smart band.
Inside the fingerprint scanner
There are two high-profile features that Samsung's Galaxy S5 waves over the HTC One M8: fingerprint-swiping security and the heart-rate monitor. Both work as well as advertised, as long as you execute them correctly, but at the end of the day, neither one strikes me as important enough to tip the scale in the S5's favor.
Let's start with the fingerprint scanner. It stores profiles for only three fingers, versus five in the iPhone 5S's TouchID system. It's easy enough to set up through the Settings menu.
My biggest complaint with scanners like these -- which HTC also has on its supersize One Max, by the way -- is that they can often be inaccurate.
Over the course of all my testing, I've amassed a few tips to get swiping right. First, you've got to swipe down vertically, with your finger in the exact same position it was when you first scanned it. You can register partial prints, like the arc of your thumb, though the read was a little imperfect in my tests. Contrast this with Touch ID, with its concave button for capturing 360 degrees of readability.
A second tip is that you need to make sure you swipe the entire active area, which extends about half an inch above the home button and all the way through the home button (but don't press down). To make the motion crystal clear, I'd love to see Samsung extend the undulating on-screen indicator to the home button as well -- but that would mean (in my fantasy phone) an LED backlight on said button.
The third tip for successful fingerprint sensing: your finger should be dry. Damp and lotion-slicked digits don't seem to register well. If you time-out on unlocking attempts, you can also get in using a four-letter code; although anyone who knows this code can also use your phone, making the security measure somewhat less effective.
On top of swiping to unlock, fingerprint scanning's other (optional) function will be to authorize transactions with PayPal, a Samsung partner. Instead of typing your passcode, you swipe your fingertip. This is Samsung's answer to the iPhone's in-app purchasing, and it works with any mobile site or app that accepts PayPal.
Heart-rate monitor a smartphone first
The Galaxy S5's other trick, the heart-rate monitor, is a neat one in theory because it's cleverly integrated into the camera flash module, and because it ties so well into the health app. However, it's one of those things I wouldn't personally use every day, even though I do exercise regularly. I'm not entirely who this feature is directed toward, though, since serious fitness geeks will likely want to invest in a more fully-functioning fitness band if they don't have one already. Still, it was fun to establish a baseline by placing my finger over the sensor.
One oddity I did notice is that the heart-rate sensor couldn't seem to get a grasp on my pulse one day while I was running outside -- perhaps because my finger was too cold?
I also wasn't sure about the stats. You can follow a log to drill into a few more details about your readings, but I couldn't glean much from the numbers I've collected so far. To be fair, it takes time to build the kind of database that would become useful for fitness-philes, and Samsung does warn you away from relying on it as you would a medical device. It's meant for light-hearted tracking, not for monitoring serious health concerns.
Improved camera and video
Already on the forefront of smartphone camera tech, Samsung has bumped up the S5's camera megapixel count from 13 to 16. Images taken on automatic mode are characteristically colorful and clear, especially those taken in ample natural light. Samsung's new, co-processing power and Isocell sensor together make the camera quicker, low light images clearer, and some of the neat tricks you'll read about possible.
The camera's continuous autofocus is as eyeblink-quick as Samsung claims (0.3-second), which gives you a greater chance of nailing that action shot. Of course, most of the rushed-around world isn't going to wait for you to pull out your camera, so expect that you'll still shoot a healthy percentage of blurry dogs, babies, and unsuspecting passersby. Still, I do think fast focus raises your odds of success.
Low light has been a weak point for Samsung in the past, and the Galaxy S5 seems to have indeed improved photos taken without a flash in dim environments. They weren't quite as blurry, grainy, or dark as you'd get on the Galaxy S4.
Video captured in the phone's default 1080p HD resolution is equally beautiful and smooth. Colors pop. Video of my favorite testing subject, a BMX-style trick rider practicing outside of San Francisco's Ferry Building, faithfully reproduced his movements and the scene -- and that's the crux of what you need from smartphone video. However, if you duck into the settings, you can also turn on UHD video, or ultra-HD, which is also known as 4K video.
With the basics down, the Galaxy S5 can layer on the special effects and modes. The S5 packs in the same front-and-rear camera dual-shot feature as last year's model, and most of the same filters and modes. A new one, real-time HDR, is one of those simple additions that go a long way. With it, you can toggle this on-screen control to preview the scene with HDR before you commit to the snap.