Handsets such as Nokia's Lumia 520 and the Moto G have demonstrated that you no longer need to pay top-dollar to enjoy an impressive smartphone experience. Even so, demand for high-end devices continues to thrive, and those in the market for a new mobile flagship are spoilt for choice, with a dazzling array of handsets available, each offering an astonishing list of features.
This abundance of choice is a wonderful thing, of course, but it does make selecting a phone that you’ll be happy with – perhaps for as long as two or three years before replacement – that little bit more difficult.
But what if a device came along that managed to effortlessly rise above the rabble of the smartphone market; a device that was so perfect in its execution that one felt almost compelled to own it, at any cost; a device that managed to outshine all others so completely that it made each and every one of them seem utterly irrelevant?
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is not that device – and let’s face it, if you’re seriously waiting for a handset that manages to tick those boxes, you’ll be waiting a long time. The company’s latest range-topper is not the smartphone end to all smartphones – but there is a great deal to like about it. On paper, the S5 looks like a very strong contender among its flagship rivals, with a spec sheet that will satisfy the needs and wishes of most buyers. But specs alone don’t tell the whole story, of course.
In this review, we've put the S5 to the test to consider the big questions about the device: is it as good as it looks on paper, should you buy it and, most importantly, can it swim?
After its launch last year, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 quickly became the fastest selling smartphone in the company’s history, and tens of millions of units have since been sold in over 150 markets around the world. Samsung is obviously keen to replicate that success with the latest addition to its phenomenally successful Galaxy S range, and it has been careful not to rock the boat too much with the S5.
Evolution, not revolution, is the key word here. The S5 features many improvements over its predecessor, but these are the changes one would expect of a handset released a year later. The screen has grown by a tenth of an inch; the battery sees an increase from 2600mAh to 2800mAh; the camera sensor has seen a boost from 13MP to 16MP… These are all welcome enhancements, of course, but the differences between the two generations are clearly incremental.
That’s hardly the end of the world, though. Many, if not most, of those who purchased an S4 did so on-contract, which included a free ball-and-chain from their carrier, locking them in for a couple of years before they can upgrade to a newer device. The Galaxy S5 really isn’t intended for those who bought its predecessor.
Take a step back, then, and look at the S5 on its own merits – free of comparisons with its older relative – and its appeal becomes clear. The quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC puts it up there with the latest top-of-the-range handsets from other OEMs; its 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display offers Full HD (1920x1080px) resolution and pixel density of 432ppi; and its 2GB of RAM puts it on par with many competing flagships.
Samsung has even crammed in some extra features that one might not necessarily expect, including dust- and water-resistance, a fingerprint scanner and a heart-rate monitor.
Let’s take a closer look at the Galaxy S5’s key specs:
- 142 x 72.5 x 8.1mm
- GSM / GPRS / EDGE / 3G HSPA / 4G LTE (bands vary by market)
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
- Bluetooth 4.0 LE with A2DP
- microUSB 3.0
- Mobile High-Definition Link 2.1
- Infrared port
- 3.5mm audio jack
- 5.1-inch Super AMOLED
- Full HD (1920x1080px) resolution
- 432ppi pixel density
- Corning Gorilla Glass 3
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974AC) SoC
- Quad-core 2.5GHz Krait 400 CPU
- Quad-core Adreno 330 GPU
- 16GB (as tested); 32GB option available
- microSD slot (up to 128GB)
- 16MP rear camera, up to 4K video recording at 30fps
- 2MP front-facing camera, up to 1080p video at 30fps
- 2800mAh Li-ion battery
- Android 4.4.2 'KitKat'
- Available now
If you were expecting the S5 to make a significant departure from the design language of previous Galaxy S devices, you’re out of luck. Just as with its spec sheet, the S5’s design is a gentle evolution over the previous generation, so if you weren’t a fan of the S4, its successor is unlikely to win you over.
There’s nothing especially offensive or displeasing about the S5’s design, but there’s nothing truly outstanding about it either. Samsung has once again eschewed more luxurious materials in favour of plastic, plastic and more plastic, but the S5 doesn’t feel anywhere near as cheap and nasty as the S4 did.
This is thanks in no small part to the rear cover, which actually feels rather nice when you’re holding the phone, especially compared with the horrid glossy plastic that adorned the back of the S4, and which quickly turned that device into a fingerprint smudge-o-rama. Whatever you may think of the aesthetic, the tactile experience – the feel of the device in your hand – is a massive improvement.
Some have criticised the design of the S5’s cover for looking like a ‘Band Aid’ plaster, thanks to its unusual dimple effect; I can certainly see it, and in fact, I absolutely loathed it on first sight, but that was a rather hasty reaction on my part, and I’ve since come to find it far less egregious than I did initially.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and if you’re not a fan of the dot-happy design on the back, you’ll probably despair to see a similar (albeit untextured) motif applied to the fascia around the display too.
A single physical button – the home button – adorns the front of the device…
…but it also has a secondary role, hiding the handset’s fingerprint scanner. There are two capacitive-touch buttons below the display, which are invisible when not illuminated: to the left of the home button is an app-switcher, which brings up the multitasking view; and to the right, you’ll find a back button.
Annoyingly, Samsung’s button layout differs from the stock Android user interface, and from the layout favoured by most Android manufacturers, which put the back button on the left, and the app-switcher button on the right. If you’re transferring from another Android brand to the S5, you’ll likely experience the same irritation and annoyance that I did, each time I accidentally opened the multitasking screen when I wanted to go back.
Is there any benefit to Samsung favouring this layout? Not that I can see – it seems to be little more than change for its own sake.
With a thickness of just 8.1mm, the S5 is pretty slim, especially when you consider how much tech Samsung has managed to cram inside it. It feels lighter than it is – although it’s far from heavy at just 145g – making it pretty comfortable to hold, despite its relatively large size. Its light weight is, of course, down to the extensive use of plastics; that silver edging that runs around the entire device may look vaguely metallic, but no – it’s plastic!
At the top of the device, you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, along with an infrared port for Samsung’s ‘Smart Remote’ TV interactions. The handset’s left edge is home to its volume controls.
Along the phone’s right edge, you’ll find its power button, while the bottom of the device is home to the microUSB 3.0 and Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) 2.1 ports…
…which are protected by a small cover. The cover is an integral part of the Galaxy S5’s dust- and water-resistance, and while that’s certainly a nice feature, in everyday use, it just gets in the bloody way.
An ominous message reminds you, every time you unplug your charger, of the need to ensure that the port cover is properly closed and sealed. Frankly, though, it’s a bit of a nuisance to have to dig a nail in to the tiny recess to flick open the cover every time you want to charge the phone; but it’s an even bigger headache trying to get the damned thing closed properly. Not once did I manage to simply push the port cover closed; every single attempt required jiggling and fiddling about before it finally slotted back into place.
If you buy a Galaxy S5, you may well one day drop it in the bath, and on that day, you will rejoice and clap and dance with glee, before patting yourself on the back for being so prescient in buying just the right phone. But on the hundreds of other days that you’ll use the S5, you may well find yourself muttering under your breath every time you try to close the port, asking yourself if the hassle is really worth it.
For some buyers, it will absolutely be worth it – knowing the steep cost of repairing or replacing a device like this will be all the incentive that many users need to deal with what is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty minor inconvenience, especially when compared with forking out hundreds of dollars, pounds, euros, goats etc. to purchase a new one.
Above the microUSB port, on the rear of the device, you’ll find a speaker…
…along with the 16-megapixel camera. The recessed module below the camera includes the LED flash for the camera, and the fingerprint sensor for the Galaxy S5’s heart rate monitor.
The handset isn’t the only thing you’ll get in the Galaxy S5’s box, of course. You’ll also find a basic Quick Start Guide, microUSB lead, a power adaptor for your region…
…and a headset, featuring integrated volume controls, and a bunch of different-sized buds to make your ears a little more comfortable. For reasons that my sweet and innocent mind can’t begin to fathom, one of my friends insisted on referring to the white headset as “sperm-phones”.
I suspect that that aesthetic comparison wouldn’t have been made for the Galaxy S5’s other colour options; in addition to the white model you see here, black, gold and blue versions of the device are also available.
Modern smartphones – especially those that occupy the upper echelons of the price spectrum – are crammed full of awesome technology. But even as manufacturers squeeze everything but the kitchen sink into their devices, one component remains more important than any other.
The screen is the window to the device, the means by which all interactions take place, even with the still-limited implementations of voice and gesture controls that some handsets have introduced in recent years. A poor display can ruin the whole experience of using and owning a device.
Samsung, though, is one of the greats when it comes to display technology, and the Galaxy S5 is truly a shining example of the company’s expertise in that area. In fact, the Galaxy S5 has one of the most beautiful and capable displays that I have ever seen on a mobile device.
The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel is fractionally larger than the 5-inch screen of the S4, and as a result, its pixel density is very slightly lower than that of its predecessor (432ppi versus 441ppi), although this difference is negligible in the real world.
As you would expect of an AMOLED display, colours on the S5’s screen are incredibly rich and vibrant, but not over-saturated. I found colour reproduction to be absolutely spot-on, never suffering from the kind of colour ‘excess’ that AMOLED panels can sometimes produce. Viewing angles are excellent too – easily among the best of any mobile device.
One aspect of the handset’s display that didn’t impress me so much was its auto-brightness management. In my experience, it always set the brightness at a level that was just too dark for my tastes. This was especially surprising when I was using the phone in bed before going to sleep; even in a completely dark room, I sometimes found the screen too dim to read comfortably when I allowed it to adjust its brightness settings automatically.
With high-contrast content, like black text on a white background, this wasn’t such an issue. But when colour contrasts weren’t quite so stark, such as when viewing rich web content or playing a game, it became more problematic. I soon gave up on auto-brightness entirely; for much of the time after, I found that around 25% brightness was ideal, decreasing it slightly when in a darkened room, or increasing it when outdoors. This kind of thing is very much a matter of personal taste though, and yours may differ from mine.
At full brightness, the display coped pretty well outdoors…
...but as with most handsets, throw enough direct sunlight at its screen, and it’ll be overwhelmed. Even so, the S5 does a pretty good job of coping with outdoor conditions, which is particularly nice to know for those of us in London, so we can be fully prepared for the two or three days of summer that we have to look forward to each year.
The Galaxy S5 comes with the latest version of Android pre-installed: 4.4.2 KitKat. On top of this, Samsung has added the newest update of its own user interface layer, TouchWiz, and you’ll be pleased to hear that it’s much better than it used to be.
TouchWiz has a fresh coat of paint for 2014, with a much simpler, less cluttered and more modern design. Navigation is smooth and fast, and it’s all very pretty. There are fewer pre-installed apps too, although Samsung has still loaded some of its apps on to the S5, including a notepad, S Planner calendar, and the company’s own web browser, among others. The homescreen is familiar, but swipe from left to right, and you’ll find My Magazine, described as “your personal magazine that delivers content based on your interests.”
This feature – which débuted on the Galaxy Note 3 – is little more than a rebadged and lightly customised version of Flipboard. The integration isn’t very deep; after a few taps, you’ll likely find yourself thrown out of My Magazine and into the regular Flipboard app. Frankly, the whole thing feels like a half-hearted attempt by Samsung to try to emulate HTC’s BlinkFeed.
Off to the right of the primary homescreen view, you’ll find that Samsung has left two giant ads for its own apps on your screen – Essentials is a curated list of ‘must-have’ apps, while Galaxy Gifts includes a selection of promotional features, exclusively for the S5.
Among the various ‘gifts’ on offer, you’ll find stuff like 50GB of Dropbox storage for two years, a $50 voucher to spend with PayPal merchants and a free LinkedIn Premium account for three months.
A six-month digital subscription to The Wall Street Journal – including full access to WSJ content via its apps and website – is also available, but you’ll have to hand over your credit card details, ready for the Journal to auto-charge your card as soon as your free time is up. Samsung is also offering one free book every month – from a limited selection of titles – via its own special ‘Amazon Kindle for Samsung’ app.
The value of these promotions will be determined by each individual user, of course. With around 270GB on OneDrive, I couldn’t care less about free Dropbox storage, but the WSJ subscription would be most welcome; you may not care about a twelve-month subscription to Bloomberg Businessweek, but you might love the $10 of in-game credit for Cut The Rope 2. Few people will make full use of all of these promotional goodies, but there’s a good chance that at least one or two of them will come in handy.
Rather than pre-installing a tonne of apps that many buyers will simply uninstall, these have been clustered into the Samsung Apps store, which is available in addition to the standard Google Play store. Samsung Apps includes access to those promotional ‘gifts’, including region-specific promotions, such as the six months of unlimited free music that’s available through Deezer in the UK – but as with any app store, you’ll also find a lot of useless dreck, such as freeware fonts being sold for £1 GBP ($1.70 USD / €1.20 EUR) each.
Most users will likely stick with the familiar Google Play store, particularly given that it is home not only to hundreds of thousands of apps, but also other media like music, videos and books, all in a single convenient location.
TouchWiz is certainly a lot better than it once was, but the usefulness of some of the additions that it brings to Android is debatable.
Multi Window mode is one example; push and hold on the back button, and a bar will appear along the left edge of the display, allowing you to select two apps to display concurrently. This sounds like a nice idea in theory, but there’s only so much real estate on a 5.1-inch screen; with two apps on screen at once, things get awfully cramped, even with the ability to adjust the size of the windows on the fly. Throw a keyboard into the mix while entering text in one of the two windows, and the whole thing becomes too cluttered to be truly useful.
The notifications tray sports a different design to the standard Android version, including the ability to customise the five settings buttons along the top, and a handy slider to adjust display brightness without having to go to a separate screen. I found this particularly useful, given that I switched off the auto-brightness setting.
But too many of the alterations that Samsung made in its UI seem gratuitous; changes made not in the pursuit of genuine improvement for the user, but solely for the purpose of appearing different. Take the main Storage settings view, for example – Samsung has played around with the labels, but otherwise, it’s just a re-coloured version of its counterpart in stock Android KitKat.
Samsung’s changes to the main Settings centre were much more significant. Now you get a breakdown of categories, populated with dozens of icons, listed in no particular order, and with apparently random colours assigned to each one. Why, despite being in separate categories, are ‘Battery’ and ‘Call’ both green? Why is ‘Security’ listed after ‘Storage’, and why is its colour the same as ‘Help’?
The standard Settings screen in stock Android 4.4.2 (shown above in a screenshot from the Nexus 7) is hardly a paragon of logic and usability, but it’s at least clear and uncluttered. Scanning through the list of Settings categories on a Nexus device is relatively quick and painless; now compare that with Samsung’s disorderly scattering of category trays, icons and random colours – is this supposed to be an improvement?
The most pitiful example of Samsung’s software customisations in my experience, though, was the keyboard auto-correct. It is, without a doubt, the very worst such system that I have encountered on any device, including the iPhone.
One simple example was its correction of the name ‘Dermot’ – the anglicised form of the Irish name Diarmaid. Dermot is a name that virtually everyone in the United Kingdom knows, thanks in no small part to celebrities such as popular TV presenter Dermot O’Leary, the late, great Dermot Morgan (aka Father Ted) and newscaster Dermot Murnaghan. In short, this is a name that a British dictionary should understand.
But when I attempted to text my friend Dermot, the S5 changed his name as I typed the message to ‘Demo’ instead. When I then tried to mention this to another friend in a text message, the S5 corrected ‘Irish’ to ‘I Rishton’. What?
More nonsense ensued when trying to use punctuation in sentences. Any attempt to use a possessive apostrophe (’s) was shut down; writing Sarah’s cat became instead Sarah ’ cat – no S, and a random space inserted after her name. Likewise, whenever I hyphenated words, the S5 decided to split everything apart and add extra spaces for no obvious reason; thus, long-awaited became long – awaited. There was no respite even in Twitter, where adding random spaces was especially unhelpful given the character limit there.
Of course, the useless auto-correct can be switched off in the keyboard settings, but if I have to turn off a software feature because it’s not fit for purpose, why have it in there at all?
The overwhelming majority of Samsung’s software efforts on the Galaxy S5 are nowhere near as wretched as the auto-correct is though. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that, much of the time, TouchWiz and Samsung’s other homemade software elements just get out of the way and let you get on with things.
But there are quite a few examples of half-baked implementations and curious UI choices, and for a device that costs as much as the Galaxy S5 does, that’s disappointing. But for many users – perhaps even most of those that buy the S5 – that won’t really matter.
For a great many buyers, the Galaxy S5 will be good enough, because they won’t spend their time poring through the Samsung Apps store, but on Google Play instead; they won’t care that My Magazine is just a portal to Flipboard, because they probably won’t use it at all after a few days of owning the device; they won’t even care that the Settings centre is so haphazardly designed, because the chances are they won’t know any better.
And in all honesty, despite the examples cited above, much of what Samsung offers on the software side really is good enough. Not terrible, not wonderful, just good enough.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 features a front-facing 2-megapixel selfie-cam and, around the back, a 16-megapixel camera – a modest but welcome increase over the S4’s 13MP shooter. The S5 is the first handset to feature Samsung’s ISOCELL image sensor, which the company claims is capable of capturing more detail and clearer images, and for the most part, it does a good job.
Expectations are often very high when it comes to smartphone cameras, but the reality of course is that most users simply want a device that they can pull out of their pocket or bag, and quickly take a decent quality image that captures the moment. Many photos will only ever be viewed on smartphone screens, and those that are seen on larger displays will often have been compressed when uploaded to Facebook or Twitter, or distorted heavily with Instagram filters and the like.
As with the overwhelming majority of handsets, the camera in the Galaxy S5 won’t give your DSLR any sleepless nights, but it is still capable of snapping some excellent shots. That said, the results aren’t always perfect.
Take the image above as an example. The sun is shining – indeed, it was warm enough to sit outside and enjoy a beer by the river that afternoon – and you can see solid shadows cast by the sunlight. Nonetheless, the whole image appears a bit dull, very much lacking the richer and more vibrant colours of the actual scene.
Compare that with this photo, which captured the scene perfectly, with a beautiful glow of sunlight off the leaves of the tree, contrasting nicely with the deeper greens of the lawn below. You’ll have to take my word for it, of course, but the colour reproduction in this image couldn’t have been any more perfect, and there’s an impressive amount of detail captured too.
The photo above is another lovely example of the Galaxy S5’s camera at its best. The colours are absolutely spot-on – indeed I was so impressed by how well the image turned out that I tweeted about it, and shared it with friends on Facebook. But can you spot the bee in the shot?
Don’t worry if you missed it – you have to zoom in a fair bit to be able to see it clearly. But even zoomed in this far, there’s still a fantastic level of detail visible. There were no special effects or modes used here either – just the standard camera settings; point-and-click. Lovely.
But in less optimal lighting conditions, results become more mixed. In the above image, lighting in the bar wasn’t especially dim, but it was uneven, with numerous sources of different coloured lights. The S5’s camera did a good job of capturing the scene, but colours ended up rather over-saturated. And no, those drinks weren’t all mine. Honestly.
Here, though, the results were far less successful. Taken late at night, the image has managed to capture a decent amount of localised detail – look at the window frames silhouetted in the distance, for example – but that clarity has come at the expense of the wider scene. With insufficient light being captured by the sensor, the camera had to make the best of what it could see, leaving an ocean of black in the foreground.
Compare that shot with the one above, captured by the Nokia Lumia 1520’s 20MP PureView camera, to get a sense of what’s missing from the Samsung’s photo of the same scene. The 1520's snap is far from perfect, but the ocean of black in the foreground is more visible as a lawn; cars are more clearly visible both near the camera and further away; more colour can be seen in the trees and the brickwork; and in the distance, far more detail is visible on the buildings.
Interestingly, Samsung chose to offer 4K video recording on the Galaxy S5, making it one of the first handsets to include this feature. Curiously, video stabilisation features are disabled during 4K video capture; the option remains listed in the camera settings, but is greyed out when 4K (UHD) resolution is chosen for video recording.
While the option to record at this resolution is a nice addition, it’s also fairly superfluous since there are so few TVs and computer screens capable of displaying 4K video, and until prices fall, that’s unlikely to change.
It’s hard to imagine that 4K-resolution displays will be ubiquitous within the next couple of years, so while some might argue that Samsung is ‘future-proofing’ its device, ensuring that it’s ready for when we all have 4K TVs, I suspect that the Galaxy S5 will have been replaced by newer models long before then, which would make the inclusion of this feature on the S5 rather pointless.
Nice, yes, but still pointless.
Still, never let it be said that we at Neowin let pointlessness get in our way. For the three or four of you out there who own displays with 4K resolution, the video below – in which I briefly get startled by a big fish – is just for you (although everyone else can watch it too, albeit at sub-4K resolutions).
Key points to note from the video: without image stabilisation, it’s all rather shaky and juddery; however, the sound quality is really rather nice, picking up plenty of ambient outdoor noise, including a notable amount of quacking. I suspect those ducks are plotting something again.
When the Galaxy S5’s camera is good, it’s very, very good. It’s possible to get some stunning results without even trying particularly hard, albeit in decent lighting conditions. For the majority of users, even those images that may appear less than optimal to the discerning eye will still be good enough to post on social networks or to enjoy browsing through with friends on the handset.
Like many devices – even those at the top of the range – the S5’s camera isn’t exactly mind-blowing in low light; in that respect, the likes of Nokia’s PureView cameras still outclass the Galaxy.
But there is much to like about the S5’s camera, and while it isn’t exactly perfect, most users will find that it does the job quite nicely.
A folder containing the original, uncompressed photos from the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Nokia Lumia 1520 shown above is available here.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 features one of the most powerful chipsets available in any handset today, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801. Clocked at 2.5GHz, the quad-core CPU is matched with an Adreno 330 GPU to turn the S5 into a mobile powerhouse in your pocket.
Now, given the complete mockery that companies like HTC, LG, Asus and, yes, even Samsung have made of independent benchmarks – manipulating certain capabilities of their devices with the specific intention of artificially boosting their scores in these tests – I see no value whatsoever in using these scores as a means of judging the handset’s abilities. So, if you were expecting to pore over lots of benchmarking results, tough.
Instead, I’d prefer to relate to you just how well the Galaxy S5 performs in the real world – and as you would expect of a device with such a mighty chipset, paired with a generous 2GB of RAM, the Galaxy S5 is no slouch.
Navigating through the handset’s interface is smooth and fluid, with none of the lag that plagued earlier versions of Samsung’s TouchWiz UI. The heavy duty hardware obviously helps considerably in that regard, but the company deserves credit too for the improvements it has made on the software side to ensure that everything runs more smoothly, although I imagine it would run even faster if it were freed from the shackles of TouchWiz and allowed to run stock Android KitKat instead.
The S5 really starts to impress when you’re running lots of apps concurrently. It was almost mind-boggling to see the device switch effortlessly from Real Racing 3 to BBC iPlayer, Dots, Twitter, FIFA 14 and Skype, before recording a 4K video clip and streaming a Full HD video from YouTube over 4G – all in quick succession, with barely a gasp of breath between each switch.
This thing was made for multitasking, and while the Multi Window mode mentioned earlier in this review isn’t quite the best solution for this, the S5 can easily handle jumping from one app to another, from one task to another, without a struggle.
Watching Full HD video on a device as powerful as this, and with a display as beautiful and capable as this one, is truly a delight. Whether playing local 1080p content stored on the device or on a microSD card, or streaming it from Vimeo, watching Full HD video at its native resolution on the Galaxy S5 is absolutely wonderful, with not a hint of stuttering or flickering, but plenty of rich and vibrant colours, and stunning contrasts.
You won’t be able to store much HD content on the entry-level 16GB model that I tested here, but that’s why the microSD card slot is such a useful feature. Apps, games, photos, TV shows and movies quickly fill up the onboard storage; recording video at 4K resolution will also eat up your storage with alarming speed – the 1m12s video shown earlier in this review took up a massive 412MB of space!
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that audio quality from the speaker is pretty weak for watching video or listening to music. The tiny speakers that manufacturers squeeze into devices that are becoming thinner than ever simply don’t have what it takes to output audio with any kind of decent fidelity, resulting in tinny, scratchy trebles and weak, muffled bass. That said, if you’re listening to music or watching movies with the audio blaring out of the speaker, you’re doing it wrong.
sperm-phones headset that comes with the Galaxy S5 is a much better choice for audio. It’s pretty comfortable in use (and includes a selection of different-sized buds that you can swap out to adjust to your comfort), and helpfully includes integrated volume controls.
The audio quality through the ‘phones is pretty good, but – to my ears at least – not quite as good as those bundled with HTC’s One M8. I certainly wouldn’t mark Samsung down for that though – most buyers will be more than happy with the quality of the S5’s headset, and those that aren’t will probably prefer to use their own headphones anyway.
Call quality – both through the headset, and in ordinary handset mode – was on par with other high-end handsets. Both VoIP calls and those over the EE 4G network came through loud and clear at my end, and I never received any complaints about my clarity or audibility from those that I called.
I made extensive use of both Wi-Fi and 4G LTE connections while testing the Galaxy S5. Curiously, for the first few days, I found that 4G signal indoors was pretty poor, with indicated signal strength considerably lower, and download speeds up to 60% slower, than other devices on the same network, including the Nokia Lumia 625 and 1520, and Sony Xperia T.
But then, suddenly, and without any changes on my part, the S5 seemed to give itself a kick in the pants, and indicated signal strength subsequently matched or exceeded those of the other devices. I still have no idea what could have caused the issue, or what eventually resolved it, but given the massive difference between the early days and its later mysterious improvement, it would have been remiss of me not to at least mention it for your consideration.
The S5 had no problems at all with Wi-Fi; manually connecting to networks was always a quick and efficient process, and an integrated ‘Smart Network Switch’ feature did a great job of alternating between my cellular network and Wi-Fi networks, whenever they were available. This was especially handy when travelling on the London Overground and Underground rail networks, allowing me to enjoy a relatively uninterrupted web experience while travelling around town.
Given the immense power under the Galaxy S5’s hood, and its big, bright 1080p display, you would be forgiven for expecting the device to suffer from terrible battery life. But you would be wrong.
Even with fairly intense usage – frequently browsing the web, tweeting, texting, reading and writing emails, a couple of hours of streaming music over 4G, an hour or two of calls, snapping the occasional photo, and playing 10-15 minutes of games here and there – the S5’s 2800mAh battery never failed to get me through the day.
If you’re the kind of person who spanks their battery even harder than I do – perhaps streaming video throughout the day or constantly playing graphics-heavy games like Asphalt 8: Airborne or Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour – the Galaxy S5 has a couple of features that you’ll probably appreciate.
First of all, it has a removable battery – something of a rarity these days among flagship devices. But it also has another trick up its sleeve.
The S5 offers a Power Saving Mode, which restricts background data usage and kills the button backlights and multi-colour indicator LED. This will no doubt invite comparisons with the Battery Saver mode on Windows Phone, but there is a secondary mode that goes much further on the Galaxy S5 than Microsoft’s version does on its mobile OS.
Ultra Power Saving (UPS) Mode dramatically reduces the available apps that can be accessed to just a handful of essentials, including phone and SMS; it kills the handset’s data connection whenever the screen is turned off; deactivates non-essential connectivity, such as NFC and Bluetooth; and, best of all, implements a greyscale user interface that banishes all colour from the display.
The latter makes excellent use of the Super AMOLED display. AMOLED technology differs from the LCD screens found in many handsets, in that each individual pixel can be independently illuminated; on an LCD, all of the pixels on the screen are constantly active, which uses more of the battery’s precious juice.
On an LCD, even a completely black screen is using a good deal of power; this isn’t the case on an AMOLED screen, so by switching to a black-heavy UI when your battery is gasping for its last few breaths, the amount of power being used by the device can be dramatically reduced.
Samsung claims that you can potentially squeeze a full 24 hours of extra life out of the battery with UPS Mode after the remaining power level has fallen to 10%. I managed to eke out an extra 11 hours of battery life from 8%, which included sending two text messages and making a three-minute phone call - not quite as good as Samsung’s claim, admittedly, but still pretty impressive.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is crammed full of features and capabilities, but not all of them are equal. Some are hidden away in menus, like the very useful Ultra Power Saving Mode, while others form a key part of the company’s marketing for the device. Some of these features are invaluable; others will leave you scratching your head and wondering why Samsung bothered to introduce them at all.
This would be a very, very long review if I were to cover each and every one of them, so instead, I’d like to highlight three of the most significant features of the Galaxy S5.
S Health, pedometer + heart-rate monitor
Tech companies across the globe have embraced healthcare as a new frontier ripe for exploration. Specialist wearable devices like the brilliant FitBit range have soared in popularity, thanks in no small part to features like smartphone synchronisation and social network integration.
As smart watches, smart glasses, smart bras and smart everything-elses slowly creep into our lives, handset manufacturers are also looking at ways to integrate health-focused features into devices that we’re already familiar with, and Samsung is no exception. The Galaxy S5 incorporates an entire hub of features designed for the health-conscious.
S Health offers a suite of tools and features, which includes stuff like weight loss planning, food intake logs, and exercise management. But beyond these basics, Samsung has also integrated a couple of tools that use the phone’s hardware to collect data to help you on your journey to better health.
First up is the heart rate monitor – although that’s perhaps a misnomer, since it doesn’t actually monitor your heart rate on an ongoing basis, but rather provides a heart rate reading on demand.
Samsung claims that its integrated heart rate sensor is a world-first in a smartphone, and while it may look like nothing more than a red light shining out of the back of the device, the Galaxy S5 actually has an optical sensor that can measure your pulse when your index finger is positioned over it, using some form of witchcraft and magic that I don’t really understand.
Just tap on the ‘Heart Rate’ button in S Health, and follow the guide to get a reading; it’s a bit fiddly at first, since you need to position your finger in quite a precise position to get a successful result.
When I tried it out a couple of weeks back, the results of my resting heart rate varied between 64 and 69 beats per minute (bpm), according to the app, over the course of four consecutive mornings. Having checked my pulse manually each time, I found that the app was remarkably accurate, never off by more than a couple of bpm.
Good stuff, although that resting heart rate is a little higher than I’d like – time to get on my bike and cut down on the cake. Mmm cake.
However, while the heart rate monitor proved itself well, the same cannot be said of the integrated pedometer function in S Health.
The problem with the pedometer feature is one of accuracy. When I put the phone in my pocket, and then put on my socks or tie my shoelaces, I am not walking. I may be jiggling about a bit while sitting on the edge of my bed and struggling to pull my socks while I’m still half-asleep, or as I’m kneeling down to sort my shoes out, but none of these actions involves walking. And yet, according to the S5, I apparently managed to walk hundreds of steps by performing these actions.
Worse still, while actually walking, the handset often failed to register my steps. On one occasion, a walk of half a mile or so to and from the shops to buy a newspaper somehow managed to log only a handful of steps.
It seems, from my observations, that the pedometer relies on the light sensor (located on the front of the handset near to the ear speaker and camera) to determine when it should engage, presumably on the basis that it should only record steps when placed in a pocket or a bag. This supposition appears to be supported by my successful attempt to flummox the device into counting steps by covering the light sensor with my fingers and then shaking the phone up and down repeatedly.
But if I’m looking at my phone as I walk – with the handset in my hand, and the light sensor uncovered – I’m still walking. Shouldn’t those steps count?
This, unfortunately, exposes the underlying problem with this kind of feature set – the results that you eventually see from a collection of tools like S Health will always be limited by the accuracy of the data that is collected, and in my experience, that accuracy is lacking in some ways on the Galaxy S5. I applaud the effort, but the execution isn’t quite there yet.
Realistically, if this kind of thing matters to you, you’d be better off buying a dedicated device like a FitBit Flex, the Fitbug Orb, or Samsung’s own Gear Fit – both of which will play nicely with the Galaxy S5 – for more accurate results.
The Galaxy S5’s home button incorporates a fingerprint sensor, and I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that Samsung chose to introduce this feature to its flagship just a few months after Apple introduced its own version in the iPhone 5s.
Samsung’s version actually does a bit more than Apple’s TouchID; in addition to permitting access to the handset, fingerprint authentication can also be used on the Galaxy S5 to protect files and folders on the device, and also to authorise purchases via PayPal.
You can register three separate fingerprints with the system. Where Apple’s system scans your finger with a long press on the home button, the Galaxy S5 requires you to swipe your digits down over the sensor. Unfortunately, this input method is deeply flawed on a device like this
During my first couple of days with the device, it all worked very well. But when I began to use the S5 as my primary device for my remaining time with it, using the fingerprint sensor more often, I grew more and more frustrated by it.
The system is very particular; it insists that you swipe down in a very specific way, so if your finger isn’t precisely aligned as you swipe…
…or if you don’t swipe quite as far as it wants you to…
…then you’ll have to keep repeating the process until you get it right, or until – after five consecutive attempts – you’re prompted instead to enter your “alternative password”. This password has to be fully alphanumeric, so simply entering a four-digit PIN won’t suffice.
What’s most annoying about Samsung’s implementation of this system is that it’s impossible to get access to the device with one hand. There’s simply no practical way to be holding the phone while swiping a digit to be able to unlock it, so if you’re carrying some shopping or holding the baby while you need to make a call, you’ll have to chuck whatever’s in your hands to one side so that you can use one hand to hold the phone, while you swipe a finger from the other hand.
It’s just about possible to swipe the reader with one hand while the phone is lying flat on a table, but it’s extremely difficult, because even the slightest movement of the device interrupts the swipe, and you have to start again.
Suffice it to say the whole fingerprint authentication system quickly becomes extremely annoying when you’re using the phone every day. Thankfully, this feature isn’t mandatory and can be switched off before it drives you completely mad and you end up beating the phone to death with a frying pan.
Dust- and water-resistance
A key selling point of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is its protection against dust and water which might otherwise damage the phone. The device has earned itself an IP67 rating from the International Electrotechnical Commission: this means that it is certified as “dust tight”, with complete protection against dust ingress; and it is protected against water ingress at depths of up to one metre, for up to thirty minutes.
Naturally, we had to put this to the test. However, you can’t just chuck the phone into the toilet and hope for the best.
Whenever you unplug the device from its charger, a message will pop up reminding you of the need to properly check that the port cover is properly and firmly closed and sealed, before you continue to use the phone as normal. Similarly, Samsung recommends (albeit without annoying pop-ups) to ensure that the rear cover is firmly emplaced at all times, with each edge properly sealed against the main body of the phone.
Ensuring that these two caveats are carefully and routinely heeded will be important for all owners who wish to maintain protection for their handsets – after all, there won’t be time to carry out those final checks before you accidentally drop the phone into a puddle or spill a drink on it, so keeping the phone properly sealed at all times is essential. The 3.5mm headphone jack, though, needs no such protections, remaining open to the elements.
Having established a habit – verging on an obsession, by the end of the review period – of always ensuring that the Galaxy S5 had been properly sealed from all angles, I went against my every instinct and plopped the handset into a conveniently placed vase full of water.
To my great delight (and immense relief), I found that the Galaxy S5 seemed quite happy with its little swim.
The touchscreen, by the way, is completely useless underwater – but it’s not designed to be used while submerged anyway. You should also keep it away from swimming pools and saltwater; Samsung’s advisory notes point out that its water-resistance offers protection against freshwater, but other liquids and chemicals may cause damage to the device that it was never intended to withstand.
So the Galaxy S5 seemed quite content with its underwater adventure, such as it was, but just how much protection did its water-resistant case offer?
After submersion, the first thing that must be done is to dry the phone off thoroughly, taking care to remove any droplets that may be lingering on the exterior. Only when the handset has been properly dried off should you even think about opening it up.
When removing the rear cover, you may be horrified to see some ingress of water onto the handset’s innards.
You can see above, too, that water has made its way under the cover through the speaker cut-out, with further moisture visible at its base. However, you may be surprised to read that this is all quite normal.
The edges of the external cover don’t completely protect what lies underneath; rather, it acts as a first line of defence. But on the inside of the cover – which you can see to the left of the phone in the image above – there is a second defence against water ingress, in the form of a tight rubber seal that protects the most critical areas of the phone, including the battery, SIM and microSD card slot.
Below, you can see the unusual shape of the inner seal more clearly.
The Galaxy S5 worked as well as it ever did after its submersion – from the touchscreen to the camera, from charging its battery to pushing its buttons, it behaved as if it had never taken its little dip at all.
It’s hugely impressive that Samsung has managed to make the Galaxy S5 water-resistant, and seeing how well it coped with this final test was very compelling. But I still wish that Samsung could have made it happen without the awkwardness of that little flappy cover over the charging port.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a flagship device, and is priced accordingly, but there are times when it doesn’t feel like one. The company’s continued reliance on unimpressive plastics over more premium materials isn’t exactly helping, although the S5 does feel much nicer to hold than the cheap- and nasty-feeling Galaxy S4, and the texture of the rear cover is largely to thank for that, although its aesthetic is certainly an acquired taste.
The software side of things also contributes to the perception that this device isn’t quite the flagship that Samsung would like you to believe it is. The company has made considerable revisions to its TouchWiz UI, but some of the software ‘enhancements’ feel more like gratuitous changes rather than genuine measures to improve things for end users.
The auto-correct system for text entry is appalling and truly not fit for purpose. Samsung deserves some flak too for the fingerprint scanner, which has been thoughtlessly implemented as an obvious knee-jerk reaction to Apple’s TouchID system. Thankfully, both of these features can be disabled.
But while these are valid criticisms, let’s not get carried away. Despite its flaws, the Galaxy S5 is still a pretty good handset, and the pros far outweigh the cons.
Its performance is outstanding; it capably handled every task I could throw at it with aplomb. It’s a multitasking beast, thanks to that powerful Snapdragon 801 chipset and 2GB of RAM, allowing you to jump from one app to another, one game to another, one video to another with no drop in performance.
The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display is breathtakingly beautiful too, with fantastic colour reproduction and superb viewing angles, and none of the over-saturation that often plagues AMOLED screens. Samsung has a well-earned reputation for producing excellent displays, and it has lived up to that reputation completely with the Galaxy S5.
Battery life is also surprisingly good for a device with so much raw power, and such a bright, vibrant display. You’ll have to work the S5 pretty hard to exhaust its battery completely, but even if you find yourself caught short, the very handy Ultra Power Saving Mode will help you to squeeze every last drop of juice out of the battery before it finally gives out.
Add to this the genuinely useful dust- and water-resistance, and the S5 makes a seriously strong case for itself.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and many will look to the more premium materials of the HTC One M8, the superior one-handed operation of the iPhone 5s, or the more consistent across-the-board camera performance of Nokia’s Lumia flagships.
But don’t discount the S5 completely. It may not be perfect, but it is a surprisingly capable all-rounder, and as with many high-end handsets, the range and depth of its abilities will be far more than most smartphone buyers will ever make full use of.
If you’re considering buying a top-of-the-range Android phone, I would encourage you to seriously consider the Galaxy S5 before making your final decision. It certainly has its flaws, but it won’t let you down.
You may also find these links useful: