Is the Samsung Galaxy S5 really worth the extra cash?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET’s Marguerite Reardon explains why the Galaxy S4 is likely a better deal than the S5.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read

Buying last year's model often pays off when you're shopping for a new car. It can also save you big bucks when you're looking for a new smartphone.


Indeed, Samsung's Galaxy line provides a good example. The company released its new Galaxy S5 on Friday on all four major wireless networks. But despite a couple of much-talked-about new features, most experts agree that the technical differences between the S5 and the S4 are minor.

Instead, the biggest difference is the price tag. The older S4 is at least $100 less expensive than the brand-new S5.

So what's a prospective smartphone buyer to do? I answer that very question in this edition of Ask Maggie.

Galaxy S4 vs. Galaxy S5

Dear Maggie,

I need a new smartphone. I know I want a Samsung Galaxy. But I'm a little torn about which one to get. I've also heard that you can get a good discount on last year's model. Is it worth it to get the newer Galaxy S5, or could I get a good deal on the Galaxy S4 and still be happy?

Undecided smartphone shopper

Dear Undecided smartphone shopper,

Samsung's Galaxy S5 is a modest improvement over the Galaxy S4. It has a faster processor, slightly better camera, improved display, and other tweaks, and, according to my CNET Reviews colleague Jessica Dolcourt, it's a "superphone that hits every mark."

But though the tweaks add up to a device that performs better than the Galaxy S4, you still have to ask yourself if the modest added features are worth the extra cash. As you noted in your question, the Galaxy S4 is at least $100 less expensive than the newer Galaxy S5 released on all four major carriers this week.

Jessica said it best:

"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."

She added that the S5 is more like a "Galaxy S4 Plus" than a revolutionary new device.

I agree. Even when it comes to the design of the phone, the two look almost identical. The S5 is slightly larger, a tad thicker, and a bit heavier than the S4. It has the same plastic casing, but the newer S5 has a dimpled back that's supposed to feel more like faux leather.

Personally, I don't think the design tweaks are enough to make me choose the S5 over the S4. And even though some of the upgrades to the processor and the software make it run a bit more smoothly than its predecessor, these are still not enhancements that change the experience drastically enough for me to choose it over a less expensive S4.

Galaxy S5

I am also completely unimpressed with the Galaxy S5's much talked about heart-rate monitor. This feature seems to me like more of a novelty than an everyday functional feature. In fact, I can't imagine anyone really using it on a regular basis. Since it's lacking compared with some of the full-functioning fitness bands on the market, my guess is that hardcore fitness buffs would still use another gadget in addition to the S5.

The Galaxy S5's good side

That said, there are a couple of features that make spending the extra money for the Galaxy S5 worthwhile.

The first is the fingerprint security sensor. The S5 is by no means the only smartphone on the market that allows you to unlock the device simply by pressing your finger to it. The Apple iPhone 5S was the first to popularize this feature last fall. And I doubt the S5 will be the last smartphone to embed this technology.

What I like about this feature is that it not only adds extra security to protect what's on your device, it also can be more convenient than typing in your PIN to unlock. It can be used to authenticate mobile payments too.

But Jessica Dolcourt points out in her CNET review that like other fingerprint scanners on other devices, the S5's can have trouble reading your print. Damp fingers or fingers with a touch of lotion can cause issues in getting an accurate read. She offers a few hints for making sure the scanner works properly.

Though I think this is a useful security feature that will one day be added to most, if not all, smartphones, it's still early days for the technology. So it may not hurt to wait until the next generation of the tech.

But remember, because this is a hardware feature built into the phone, no amount of upgrading will allow it to function in the Galaxy S4. So the only way to get access to this feature on the Galaxy products today is to buy the S5.

Extreme closeup: Samsung's Galaxy S5 (pictures)

See all photos

The other significant feature on the S5 that excites me is that the S5 is dust and water resistant. Even though the device isn't considered "waterproof," it does meet the IP67 military specifications for water resistance, which means it can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1 meter or about 3 feet. In other words, accidentally dropping your phone in the sink or spilling water on it or even dumping it in your sandy beach bag won't hurt the phone.

Personally, I love the idea of a fully water and dust resistant device. I've never bought a case for my smartphone, so having a device that's already water and dust resistant means I don't even have to put it in a plastic bag when I'm at the beach.

Even though I think this is a great feature and I hope all smartphones in the future come with this added bonus, it may not be a must-have for everyone. And the truth is that the Galaxy S4 also comes in a water and dust resistant model known as the Galaxy S4 Active. The only limitation is that the Galaxy S4 Active version of the S4 is available only on AT&T's network.

So what should you do?

As I noted above, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is an improvement over the Galaxy S4. Several features have been enhanced, such as the camera, which performs better in low-light situations. There are also at least two new features that don't come standard on the Galaxy S4 that could make it worth buying the newer device.


But as you pointed out in your question, the older Galaxy S4 will likely cost you less money. How much less depends on the carrier you intend to use and what types of deals that service provider may be offering.

In general, the S4 will cost about $100 less than the S5, whether you buy the phone outright or you buy it as part of a two-year contract. Most operators are offering the S5 for about $650 at full retail and about $200 with a two-year contract. Meanwhile, the S4 sells for about $550 and you can get it for about $100 with a two-year contract.

Some of the major carriers are offering special deals on either the Galaxy S4 or the Galaxy S5, and some are offering promotions on one or both devices. For example, Verizon is offering a buy-one-get-one-free limited-time offer on the Galaxy S5 right now. But in order to be eligible you must be a new Verizon customer. And you must sign-up for two two-year contracts.

Unless you qualify for Verizon's offer and you plan to be a Verizon customer, it looks like getting the Galaxy S4 will be a better deal for you no matter which carrier you choose. Even if you want to buy your device at full price to avoid a contract, it still looks like the Galaxy S4 is a better deal.

The bottom line

Because the Galaxy S4 can be significantly less expensive than the S5, I think it offers a better value. While it can't do everything the S5 can, it's still a top-notch phone. It shares many of the design characteristics of the S5, and many of the software features can be added with upgrades. There are a couple of notable hardware features that, if they're meaningful enough to you, could make the Galaxy S5 a better value. But that determination is really up to individual consumers.

I hope this answered your question, and good luck!

Should you still consider the Galaxy S3?

Dear Maggie,

I just read your article " Why you should still consider the Galaxy S3 to the Galaxy S4" and I was wondering if the same logical thinking can be applied today? I will be purchasing my first smartphone and I am a bit torn over the S3 and S4.

If you can help that would be appreciated.


Dear Humphrey,

Samsung just released its latest version of the Galaxy S smartphone this week: the Galaxy S5. That means the S3 is now two generations old. I still consider the S3 a very good device. But because of its age, I'm concerned it won't get software updates as quickly as the S4, which, of course, is only one generation removed from the flagship S5.

My guess is that you'll probably hang onto this device for at least another year or two, which would mean that at the end of a two-year service contract, the Galaxy S3 would be a four-year-old device. Again, my biggest concern in having a smartphone that's that outdated from the flagship is that it likely won't get software updates as frequently, or at all. For some consumers that's a really big deal, because they want to check out all the software-enabled features as soon as they can. Meanwhile, there are other people who wouldn't know how to use those features even if they got them.


The other thing to think about here is that with certain carrier promotions, you could end up getting a Galaxy S4 for free. And that's a very hard price to beat. For example, AT&T is offering the Galaxy S4 free with a two-year contract. And Verizon is offering a buy-one-get-one-free promotion for the brand-new Galaxy S5.

Having said all this, there are a few instances in which I might recommend buying the older Galaxy S3. If you plan to buy your device at full price, you'll get the Galaxy S3 or any 2-year-old device for a lot less money than either of the newer versions.

For example, according to data from eBay, in 2014 the average sales price of a Galaxy S4 is $427. The average price for a Galaxy S3 is $286. And according to sales trends over the past four years since the Galaxy S line of smartphones was first introduced, prices will continue to fall for the Galaxy S3 and all the Galaxy S devices as they age.

In 2010, the average full retail price of the Galaxy S on eBay was $410. In 2014, that price dropped to $155.

Of course, you have to remember that the Galaxy S was introduced in June 2010. The phone is now four years old. And as I mentioned above, values for these smartphones drop the longer they've been on the market. Technology has come a long way since then.

What should you do?

Unless you're on a tight budget, I'd say buy the Galaxy S4. It's more affordable than the new S5, but it's not quite as old as the Galaxy S3. It's a smart idea to consider a device that's at least one generation removed from the current phone. But you have to be careful in choosing a phone that's too old, especially if you plan to hang onto it for any length of time.

I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!