Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Is Samsung's 2014 Galaxy phone still worthwhile?

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The Good Samsung's Galaxy S5 excels at everything that matters -- Android 4.4 KitKat OS; a bright, beautiful display; blistering quad-core processor; and an excellent camera experience. In addition, Samsung's efforts to streamline its own custom interface and reduce pre-installed bloatware pay off.

The Bad The Galaxy S5 is a only small upgrade over the Galaxy S4. The fingerprint scanner can be confusing to use, and the heart-rate monitor is a niche feature at best. In some regions, the Galaxy S5 costs significantly more than rival top-rated handsets.

The Bottom Line Samsung's 2014 Galaxy S5 may still be worth your consideration as a bargain phone.

7.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Late 2016 update

Back in April 2014, we deemed the Samsung Galaxy S5 an incremental, nonessential upgrade of its predecessor, the Galaxy S4, a CNET Editor's Choice in its day. The Galaxy S5 remains available today, and, given its aging components and feature set, can be found at a relatively affordable price, especially compared to newer Galaxy models.

That noted, the newer Galaxy models are way, way better. The beautiful Galaxy S6, anointed by CNET the "first great smartphone of 2015," comes equipped with first-class components and wireless charging support. And its successor, the Galaxy S7, is even better, restoring the expandable storage and water-resistance found on this 2014 model, as well as adding a bigger battery and a more powerful processor. For a more detailed look at how Samsung's current top models stack up against their predecessors, check out our comparison of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge vs. the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, Note 5 and S6+.

You may have heard about one of the Galaxy S6's newer siblings, the Galaxy Note 7. Initially praised as Samsung's ultimate phone, the Galaxy Note 7 was subverted by problems with overheating and, in some cases, catching fire. After a botched recall and some very negative publicity, in September Samsung stopped production of the Galaxy Note 7. To be clear: the Galaxy S5, S6 and S7, along with their larger S6 Edge and S7 Edge brethren, were not involved in the scandal, and are terrific phones that do not explode.

And there are other phones to consider. Apple released its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and Google recently released its Pixel phone. Still, though the Galaxy S6 and its plus-sized S6 Edge sibling are solid, affordable, full-featured phones that are well worth the money, their successors -- the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge -- are the better phones to buy, by far.

Editors' note: The ratings on this phone have been reduced from their original 9.0/4.5 stars in order to keep it up to date with current competitors. The original review of the Samsung Galaxy S5, first published in April 2014, follows.

Pricing and carrier availability

Like most flagship phones, the Galaxy S5 is available on all four major US wireless carriers (see below), plus US Cellular, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and MetroPCS. It's available in black, white, blue, and gold (though some colors are specific to some carriers) with a 16GB capacity. Off-contract, the phone costs $660 to $700 in the US.

US major carrier availability is as follows:

AT&T: Starting at $200 (with a two-year contract). Buy the Galaxy S5 from AT&T

Sprint: Starting at $200 (with a two-year contract). Buy the Galaxy S5 from Sprint

T-Mobile: $0 down plus $27.50 per month with service for two years. After two years, your bill drops by $27.50; if you leave T-Mobile before two years is up, you'll owe the remaining balance. Buy the Galaxy S5 from T-Mobile

Verizon: Starting at $200 (with a two-year contract). Buy the Galaxy S5 from Verizon

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.

The Galaxy S5's matte backing rejects fingerprints like a boss. Josh Miller/CNET

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 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.

Its 1080p HD AMOLED screen is beautifully crisp and bright. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Completely close the charging port flap to keep the Galaxy S5 water- and dust-resistant. Josh Miller/CNET

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

Samsung has updated TouchWiz interface adds a menu button to most screens. You can view the phone's Settings in several layouts (R). Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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 Kids 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.

Ultra power-saving mode converts the S5 to grayscale and dramatically lengthens battery life. Josh Miller/CNET

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 optional fingerprint scanner captures three profiles, but you have to swipe precisely. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

The heart-rate monitor is the first of its type for a smartphone, but it's a fringe feature at best. Josh Miller/CNET

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?