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

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.

The Galaxy S5's 16-megapixel camera is one of the best you can find on a smartphone. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Samsung also spruced up the settings, turning a long list of toggles into a neatly arranged grid. It's here that you'll see the new selective focus setting, which lets you shift the focus of photos taken in this mode to the foreground or background.

Snap some pictures in Selective Focus mode to choose the focus point after the fact. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Toggle among focus points to see which you like best. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The GS5 doesn't do away with the traditional modes menu. In fact, you'll find the new Virtual Tour mode in there -- this one cobbles together a 360-degree scene that you can share as a video or in stills. "Shot & more" consolidates five modes into one, like best photo, drama shot, and eraser mode. You choose the mode, take the picture, and choose which eligible mode you want applied. The best thing about "Shot & more" is not having to over think who you want to take your photo; though you'll still have to know you want to do something out of the ordinary.

Although Samsung did strip away a few other modes, you can still download more through the native camera app.

I like what Samsung did to clean up the camera experience, but the Galaxy S5's expanded editing tools are my favorite. Not only do they get a spiffier look, there are a lot more of them, including the ability to resize images, tweak portraits, and decorate, even annotate, pictures.

Panning Shot is one effect now tucked into the Shot & More camera mode. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Galaxy S5's front-facing camera gets a touch-up, too. The 2-megapixel photos automatically get the airbrush treatment through the Beauty Face mode. This time, though, a slider lets you control the intensity. Crank it up to level 5 for the full mannequin effect, or turn it off entirely -- like I did -- to go au naturel. Regardless, photos are still low-resolution and as grainy or indistinct as you'd expect. Skin tone weirdly took on a blueish hue in one shot, my most of my selfless looked about the way I expected.

Samsung has made some strong strides in the camera department, but I do have one important bone to pick. When you open the camera from a secured lock screen, which I do like being able to do, options are more limited. You can't access camera modes or selective focus. It also takes 3 seconds to load the camera app, which is faster than unlocking your phone and opening the camera from the home screen.

To see how the Galaxy S5 camera compares to other phones, check out Lynn La's camera shootout with the HTC One M8 and iPhone 5S here and be sure to check out our How-To section at the end of this review as she shows you the best ways to use the Galaxy S5's camera.

The gorgeous flowers look spot-on. Josh Miller/CNET
The majestic seagull, about to take flight. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Fast focus helped me score this midair shot of a downtown San Francisco skater. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The GS5 kept this scene outside San Francisco's Exploratorium museum clearly in focus. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The Galaxy S5 keeps faces in focus and colors faithfully reproduced. CNET
These squirmy dogs were harder to capture. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The office mascot, relaxing with a cold one. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This photo may not be perfect, but the Galaxy S5's low-light capabilities have skyrocketed in the Galaxy S5. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The Samsung Galaxy S5 casts a blue hue on this standard studio shot; the use of flash is also apparent. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance: Speed, LTE, battery life

If performance clinches the deal for you, the Galaxy S5 is one mean speed demon. Its 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor is at the top of its game, which reflects in both real-world and diagnostic tests. For instance, the graphics-heavy Riptide GP2 racing game was smooth, with all the surface effects and shadow lighting that sticklers for detail may notice. Navigation felt smooth and fast. Apps opened without much delay, and content loaded quickly. After using the Galaxy S5 for a week, the S4 definitely felt a tick slower.

Diagnostically, the Quadrant benchmark returned a result of 23,707, which is very, very fast. This means that apps will load quickly and smoothly and that games and videos will play back seamlessly, showing rich detail.

gs5speeds.jpg results for T-Mobile variant (L); Quadrant result. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Compare the Galaxy S5's Quadrant score with the HTC One M8's result of 24,593 and the LG G3's 23,103 result. They should be similar -- the phones use extremely similar chipsets. Now, take these numbers with a grain of salt. Samsung (and other phone manufacturers) has been accused of manipulating popular benchmark results, receiving backlash for phones like the Galaxy Note 3, which measured 23,048 in our tests.

The phone's diagnostic and real-world LTE test results also come out high. The network's strength in your area will alter your experience. For instance, rainstorms can affect radio signal -- as it did during a San Francisco storm during my test period -- taking three or four times longer to stream and download content than when it's sunny and dry. After the clear skies returned, the Galaxy S5 blazed on both T-Mobile and AT&T networks here. Although I did hit some dead zones from time to time, speeds were consistently strong, hovering around 15-to-20Mbps down for T-Mobile on the app.

Upload speeds were also strong, something I noticed both using the app and uploading photos and status updates through social networks and emails.

Samsung Galaxy S5 performance (T-Mobile)

Install CNET mobile app (5MB) 11.8 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 6 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 15.4 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 17.5 seconds
Camera boot time 2.2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 0.3 seconds with autofocus; also has burst-mode

That said, the phone's 2,800mAh ticker took my pummeling in stride. Its reserves predictably dropped the more videos I streamed -- a lot -- but didn't drain much overnight when I left it, unplugged, as my alarm. It's always tough to tell battery-life needs when you're intensely testing a new phone, which requires constant use, even during times you may ordinarily lay your phone down. How much charge the phone holds also decreases over time, much to everyone's consternation.

3DMark Unlimited test

Apple iPhone 5S 14556
Samsung Galaxy S5 18321
HTC One M8 20795

Graphics Test 1 (GPU)

Apple iPhone 5S 104.6
Samsung Galaxy S5 108.3
HTC One M8 113.8

Graphics Test 2 (GPU)

Apple iPhone 5S 66.5
Samsung Galaxy S5 69.9
HTC One M8 81.3

Physics Test (CPU)

Apple iPhone 5S 25.6
Samsung Galaxy S5 49.5
HTC One M8 56.8

Even though the Galaxy S5 have and HTC One M8 have the same CPU and GPU clock speeds, the M8 scored a few points higher in each test. This could have to do with Samsung's aggressive throttling. When the CPU and GPU get too hot -- like when running a demanding game -- they automatically lower the clock speed to prevent the device from overheating.

This happened earlier during benchmarking tests -- the Galaxy S5 originally got a result of 14,000 in 3DMark (versus the HTC One M8's 20,795 score) -- but CNET editor Eric Franklin, who ran the tests, was forced to test it on an icepack to keep the S5 cool.

He also tried running the benchmarking test in the freezer for a few seconds. 18,000+ was the highest the phone would consistently get, but if you're not willing to play games with an icepack in your hands, you'll likely see lower performance than what's seen in the charts.

Still, 18,000 or even 14,000 are great scores compared to the majority of smartphones. In later benchmark tests for the iPhone 6, the Galaxy S5 still scored higher than Apple's flagship, with the iPhone scoring around the 17,000 mark. It's just unfortunate that Samsung doesn't have a more elegant way of dealing with heating issues. For more on how the Galaxy S5 stacks against the newer iPhone 6 and other handsets, check out the comparative benchmark tests from the iPhone 6 review.

All the specs

Apple iPhone 5S 1.3GHz dual-core Apple A7 PowerVR G6430 1GB iOS 7.1
Samsung Galaxy S5 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 Adreno 330 2GB Android 4.4
HTC One M8 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 Adreno 330 2GB Android 4.4

In CNET's video runtime test, the Galaxy S5 clocked an impressive 15 hours, 18 minutes of video playback before shutting down.

The Galaxy S5 has 16GB internal storage, though it's also on sale for 32GB; both variations have 2GB RAM and expansion slots that take up to 128GB in external storage.

FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 1.6 watts per kilogram.

Call quality

The Galaxy S5 came through on call quality when I tested the phone in San Francisco using T-Mobile's network. For the most part, audio was extremely clear, without background haze or interruptions.

Voices sounded natural, and loud enough when I increased the volume nearly all the way. I'd like a little more in volume reserve for those noisy situations. As with other Samsung phones, the Galaxy S5 has a digital sound-booster, but this routinely introduces aural imperfections, like buzzing and scratchiness, so I wouldn't recommend it.

On his end of the line, my longtime audio testing partner said the volume was so loud on his end, it was almost on the brink of being uncomfortable. It was, however, crystal clear and noise-free. Voice tones sounded warm and natural, and only a shade less lively than i do over a land line.

Speakerphone was a different story. When I tested it at hip level, volume immediately dropped for both my testing partner and me. His voice sounded distant and muffled even at full volume (my test partner used the term "mushy"), and the phone buzzed in my hands.

The buzzing motion and sound became stronger and more distracting when I turned on "extra volume." Even in a moderately noisy environment with ambient road noise, I found myself screaming into the phone and straining to make out my caller's words. He added that the speakerphone was a little echoey.

Versus the HTC One M8, Galaxy S4, and beyond

Though the Samsung Galaxy S5 has a heap of positive attributes and very few drawbacks, it still may not be the phone for you. Galaxy S3 owners should definitely upgrade to the S5, but if you already own a Galaxy S4, for example, I recommend that you wait. The S5 improves upon its predecessor in almost every way, but the changes are incremental, certainly too small to necessitate abandoning a perfectly good phone -- especially if you're still under contract.

Then there's the question of rivals. In the foreseeable future, the S5 will continue to face heat from Apple's iPhone 6. As it long has, the debate between iOS and Android continues to hinge on what you want out of your phone. If you prefer the variety that Android brings and Samsung's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to features, then the GS5 is the phone. But if you want to stay in Apple's ecosystem and favor the simplicity that iOS entails, then stick with the iPhone. Honestly, I doubt that any die-hard Apple fans will give up their iPhones for the GS5 anyway.

Side-by-side: HTC One M8 (L), Samsung Galaxy S5. Josh Miller/CNET

Rather, it's the beautiful HTC One M8 and the powerful LG G3 that are the Galaxy S5's most formidable competition. Although both companies can't outcompete Samsung's advertising behemoth, the One M8 boasts HTC's superior craftsmanship and a graphically lush Android interface of its own. HTC's phone also blasts by the Galaxy S5's external speakers. Comparing them standing up side-by-side on full volume, the M8 did indeed sound fuller, louder, richer, and far less jangly. Drop the phones on their backs and there's no comparison. Samsung's external speaker muffles itself. For another look at how the One M8 stacks against the Galaxy S5, check out Brian Tong's Prizefight video, which pits the two flagships head-to-head.

As for the G3, not only does the device look more sophisticated, but LG also pulled all the stops out when it comes to offering users a punchy, expansive display. Its larger 5.5-inch touchscreen has an ultra-crisp 2560x1,440-pixel resolution and 538ppi, while the Galaxy S5's screen hits below at 432ppi. For more on the two devices, take a look at our LG G3 vs. Samsung Galaxy S5 Prizefight episode.

Samsung reasserts its dominance when it comes to the camera. Not only do its photos look more detailed across the board, with more natural colors, Samsung's sensor has also vastly improved low-light performance. Then there's the topic of 4K video, which the Galaxy S5 and LG G3 have and the HTC One M8 does not (that phone stops at 1080p HD). Images taken on automatic mode in dimly-lit situations look truer to life on the Galaxy S5 than they do on the HTC One M8, and the M8 photos, while still pleasing, tend to blow out the background. One exception may be with indoor photos. While both phones struggled here, the Galaxy S5 quality dropped the most.

The Galaxy S5's new sensor vastly improves the phone's low-light shot. Josh Miller/CNET

On specs alone, the Galaxy S5 has more tricks, hands-down. But when you add core hardware and Android functionality, they're all evenly matched. The superphones have 128GB external storage capacity, but the HTC One M8 gives you 32GB for about the same prices the Galaxy S5's 16GB, at least in some markets. If you don't save a ton of media on your phone, or if you already have an expansion card, HTC's memory boost may not matter to you.

At the end of the day, these phones are fairly neck-and-neck, with Samsung pulling ahead in camera quality and software capabilities, the One M8 besting the Galaxy S5 on look, feel, and value, and the G3 holding its own with a solid screen.

So, do you buy it?

The Galaxy S5 absolutely is a premium, fast phone that I would buy and use every day. Its improvements over the Galaxy S4 are small, but they add up to a smoother experience. The phone's high-quality camera won't let you down, there are plenty of features to keep you occupied, and the display is bright and beautiful. And even though it is plastic, the water-resistant seals are an extra perk if you often head to the pool, hot tub, or beach.

If those things matter to you, or if you've always been a Galaxy phone fan, then by all means grab the Galaxy S5. And of course, if you've ordered a Gear Fit, Gear 2, or Gear 2 Neo, or you already own the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch, it's a no-brainer; it's one of the select Samsung phones that will work with these wearables.

I would, however, skip the Galaxy S5 if you like metal covering your smartphone, if you don't need every feature under the sun, or if you prefer a cleaner version of Android. Also move along if you're on a budget -- in some regions, the Galaxy S5 costs significantly more than other premium handsets.

After you buy it

The Samsung Galaxy GS5's camera is a wonderwork, combining the best in performance and features. Some features you probably haven't even bothered to use yet or maybe you didn't even know they existed.

Luckily, CNET's How-To team -- in this case, honorary member, Lynn La -- spent hours with the GS5's shooter, getting to know its every nook and cranny. We're passing that knowledge on to you with some handy tips to get the most out of the Galaxy S5's camera.

Lynn shows you how to configure your default settings, explains why (and when) to use HDR, and show you how different photos effects alter your shots. She also goes into why if you're not using elective focus, you're totally missing out.

Samsung Galaxy S5 variations

Samsung issued no fewer than five different models of Galaxy S4 in 2013, and although we may not see quite so many with the Galaxy S5, the company is well on its way to drawing out the S5 line.

There's the Galaxy S5 Active with its physical home buttons and camouflage, red, or grey backplate. Right now it's only being sold through US carrier AT&T, but Samsung will likely branch out and eventually offer the heartier variation more globally. In addition, Sprint released its own rugged version of the handset, called the Galaxy S5 Sport.

Although the S5 Active and Sport have the same resistance to shock, dust, and water as the standard Galaxy S5, they're toughened up just a tad with its reinforced plastic corners. They're not grippy or bouncy, but they are burlier than the S5's delicate silvery rim, and far less prone to dents and gouges. (I know a little something about this from personal experience.)

The Samsung Galaxy S5 Active, side by side with the Galaxy S5. Josh Miller/CNET

Oh yes, there is one more difference, and that's the physical convenience button on the Active's side (unfortunately, the Sport does not have this key). Tap it to call up the Activity Zone, a dashboard with a barometer, compass, flashlight module, and stopwatch. The flashlight, by the way, can also emit Morse code -- and translate it for you.

With identical pricing (at least on AT&T and Sprint, $200 with a new contract) and internal specs (OK, minus the fingerprint scanner) the title of "better" version is a toss-up. I personally like the physical buttons, but think Samsung could have done a better job making the Active and Sport grippy and easy to hold.

Beyond the Active, Samsung has also revisited the concept of point-and-shoot turned smartphone with the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom (the "K" references the word "camera" in German, "kamera"). But what you really need to know is that this hybrid, with its 20.7-megapixel sensor and 10x optical zoom is much more streamlined than last year's model.

Although more trimmed-down, it's still bulky and heavy, and awkward to use as a phone. On the phone side, the specs fall short of the Galaxy S5's top tier marks with a 720p resolution on its 4.8-inch display and 8GB of internal storage, which is rather small for a phone that takes such large images. Still, there's Android 4.4 KitKat and a total of six cores stuffed inside.

The Galaxy K Zoom sells globally, with a £400 off-contract price tag from Samsung's online store, and AU$749 in Australia, as well as sales in other regions. Don't expect it to come to the US, though.

Finally, there's the Galaxy S5 Mini, a scaled-down version of the device that waters down the specs of the original, without sacrificing too much on performance. It retains the same aesthetic and waterproof features, but its 720p screen is smaller at 4.5 inches.

At this point, it's also safe to say that the Galaxy S5 family tree will also sprout a Google Play Edition that strips the phone of Samsung's TouchWiz Android layer. The Google Play Edition is a much more niche device, and one that Google would peddle from its online Google Play store for fans of the unaltered Android OS who don't want to root their Samsung-ized phones. You tend to get more storage space to yourself that way, and the operating system updates quicker, since it doesn't have all those layers of extra software to push through.

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