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Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini review: Flagship Samsung style in a more comfy, but less powerful, form

Samsung's Galaxy S5 Mini matches the full-size S5 in name and looks, but its specs are disappointing for the price.

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Andrew Lanxon
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Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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Samsung released compact versions of its flagship Galaxy S3 and Galaxy S4 phones, so it was no surprise when the Galaxy S5 Mini was announced. Although those Mini phones bore the name of their flagship brother, all were in fact heavily watered-down versions of their respective top-end counterparts. The same is true of the S5 Mini.

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6.7

Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini

The Good

The Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini has the same rubberised design as its full-size brother, it's waterproof, with a vivid screen and decent camera.

The Bad

Like all of Samsung's previous smaller flagships, the S5 Mini seriously waters down the specs of the top-end phone, meaning it's just a mid-range phone with a flagship name and high price. The plastic design feels far less luxurious than the metal HTC One Mini 2 and the fingerprint sensor rarely works as it should.

The Bottom Line

If you've been hoping for a fully-fledged flagship phone with all the bells and whistles of the the other elite mobiles just in a more compact size, prepare to be disappointed. The Galaxy S5 Mini matches the regular S5 in name and looks, but not in specs. If you're after a comfortable to use phone with the Samsung name and enough power for everyday use, it'll suit well. For a true compact flagship, look towards Sony's Xperia Z3 Compact.

Its 4.5-inch screen has a 720p resolution, it has a 1.4GHz quad-core processor, an 8-megapixel camera, 4G LTE, fingerprint and heart-rate sensors and runs the older Android 4.4.2 KitKat software. The S5 meanwhile, has a 2.3GHz quad-core chip, a full HD display and a 16-megapixel camera. The Mini does look identical to its bigger brother though, and its smaller size makes it much more comfortable to use in one hand.

It would be more honest of Samsung to call it the "S5 Lite" to indicate to interested buyers that this phone is not just a small flagship, but a mid-range phone that shares the name and some design cues. Sony is currently the only mobile manufacturer that has a mini phone that actually uses the same blistering tech as the flagship, in its Xperia Z3 Compact .

The Mini does at least come with a cheaper price tag, starting at £390, SIM-free directly from Samsung here in the UK, $450 on Amazon in the US, and AU$500 in Australia, with carriers in all three countries offering it on contract too. Its mid-range specs are more forgivable at that price, but it's still not exactly cheap.

Design

Other than its size, the S5 Mini is indistinguishable from its full-size big brother. It has the same soft-touch, rubberised back panel with a dotted pattern, the chrome-effect plastic edging, the physical home button on the front and the same square camera unit on the back, with the heart rate sensor beneath.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's made from the same plastic materials, although they feel even more plasticky on the smaller model -- which isn't helped by its very light 120g weight. If you're looking for luxury in a small phone, you probably won't be too keen. Instead, look towards the HTC One Mini 2 , which has a gorgeous, all-metal design that feels much better to hold.

At 131mm long and 65mm wide, it's physically much smaller than the full-size model, which apart from helping it sit unnoticed in your trousers, also makes it far more comfortable to use in one hand. I found I was able to reach all areas of the screen with one thumb, which I struggle to do on the S5.

The back panel is removable, providing access to the microSD card slot -- allowing you to expand the 16GB of built-in storage -- as well as letting you swap the battery out for a fresh one when needed. It's available in the same colours as the S5, including white, dark blue, electric blue and gold -- the latter is exclusive to Phones 4U here in the UK, although colour availability will apparently vary depending on region.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Like its brother, the S5 Mini has an IP67 rating, meaning that it's protected from dust and can be submerged in water up to 1 metre (3.3 feet) deep for up to 30 minutes. In real terms, it means the phone won't conk out the first time you accidentally drop it in the toilet. Unlike the S5, however, the Mini doesn't require a flap to cover its micro-USB port on the bottom.

I'm really not sure how Samsung has managed to waterproof this port, particularly as it's the bit that deals with electricity, but it's certainly handy to not have to worry about clipping an awkward flap back into place. I'm especially relieved as that flap broke off my Galaxy S5, rendering it no longer water resistant.

Display

The Mini's 4.5 inch display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution, which is a fair step down from the full HD display of the flagship S5, but its smaller screen doesn't require as many pixels to remain sharp. Indeed, it has a pixel density of 326 pixels-per-inch, which is the same pixel density on the iPhone's retina display -- and you'd have to be in a really foul mood to say that's not sharp.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's plenty of detail on high-resolution images -- although higher resolution panels certainly seem more crisp -- and for everyday things like tweeting and Instagramming, the 720p display is more than adequate. It's bright too, and easily readable under London's rare midday sun, although I'm sad to say I don't know how it will fare in use while wandering around a Spanish villa.

Its colours are very vivid too, which makes cartoons like "Adventure Time" look great, and you can head into the settings to tweak the colour balance if you prefer a slightly less saturated, more natural tone.

Android software

You'll find Android 4.4.2 KitKat on the phone, which isn't the most recent version of Google's software -- that honour goes to version 4.4.4. It's still KitKat though, and with its cheaper price tag, I'm willing to let this slide. It has a nearly identical interface to the regular S5, which isn't necessarily a good thing as the S5 and the Mini are so full of tweakable settings that it can be very confusing to use, even for veteran Android fans.

It does have Private Mode, which allows you to hide certain files and folders behind a password or a fingerprint, using the fingerprint scanner built into the home button on the front. I don't recommend using the latter however, as the fingerprint scanner is extremely hit and miss. In my own use, I found it failed to recognise my print way more often than not, resulting in me having to type in my backup password after too many failed attempts -- an issue I found on the S5 as well.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

You'll find a whole slew of bundled Samsung software on board, including Samsung's own app stores, email client and Web browser, the smart remote tool for using the infrared port to control your TV and S Health, which aims to let you track your fitness progress (logging both steps taken and your heart rate, using the heart rate sensor on the back of the phone).

Processor and battery performance

A 1.4GHz quad-core processor powers the phone, which delivered a reasonably swift experience, with little lag while navigating around the interface. My experience was the same with the S5 too, but I find Samsung phones to be among the worst offenders for slowing down over time.

It's common for phones to get a little fatigued once you've filled them up with apps, music and photos, but my S5 slowed to the point of taking up to 5 seconds to even open the gallery. I remember having similar issues with the Galaxy S4. The Mini seems fine in its factory state and may remain so, but it's worth bearing in mind that you may need to do a full reset from time to time to keep it working at its best.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Instagram, Twitter, Netflix and image editing in Snapseed were all easily handled by the S5 Mini, as were more demanding games like Asphalt 8 and Riptide GP 2.

A 2,100mAh battery provides the juice for the phone and Samsung reckons you can get around 10 hours of 3G talk time from a single charge, which I'd say is about right. After 2 hours of video looping over Wi-Fi, the battery had dropped to 80 percent, which isn't too bad. If you're fairly careful with your usage -- avoiding gaming and streaming or taking lots of photos -- you should be able to get a day out of it.

Camera

As with all the rest of the key specs, the Mini's camera is also a watered-down version from what you'll find on the S5, using an 8- rather than 16-megapixel image sensor. Megapixels aren't everything though, and indeed I still found the Mini to achieve good results in my tests.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini camera test (click to see full-size image) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My first close-up shot of St Paul's Cathedral was well exposed -- both the bright brickwork and the shadowy trees below are kept under control -- with good contrast and a satisfyingly deep blue sky.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini camera test (click to see full-size image) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Moving further away, St Paul's has lost some of its contrast, but the exposure is still even and there's plenty of detail, allowing you to crop it a little.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini camera test (click to see full-size image) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This shot from the side of the bank is similarly well exposed, but the auto white balance hasn't done a great job, resulting in a slight greenish tint. The camera does allow you to take manual control of white balance, as well as other settings like exposure and ISO speeds along with providing the usual lineup of image filters.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini camera test (click to see full-size image) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This rose hasn't been captured particularly well, as the bright sun shining on the petals has caused parts of the flower to be washed out.

There are other shooting modes on board, like panorama and burst, and you can go to Samsung's store to download more. There's an HDR mode, called Rich Tone, but it doesn't provide the live HDR view that you can find on the S5, nor will it allow for HDR video.

The camera is generally a decent performer. While it doesn't have the high resolution and always-on HDR of the S5, its decent exposure, contrast and colours makes it perfectly capable of snagging some snazzy snaps for your Twitter stream.

Conclusion

As it did with the S4 Mini and S3 Mini before it, Samsung has taken its flagship phone, watered down all of its specs, but kept the name of the top model. Those of you looking for elite specs in a more comfortable form will be disappointed. Instead, I suggest waiting a few weeks for more info on Sony's just announced Xperia Z3 Compact, which packs the same top kit as its brother, only in a smaller size. We'll be reviewing it soon.

That's not to say the S5 Mini is a bad phone, though. Its screen is bright and bold, it has enough power for most things you're likely to want to do with it, its camera is decent and the water resistance will keep it safe from spilled drinks. If you want the Samsung name on a phone that's easy to use in one hand, you are well catered for with the S5 Mini. Just don't expect the same all-round performance as the full-size model.

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6.7

Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6