About a year ago, Samsung launched one of the most hyped smartphones, the Galaxy S4. It had a lengthy list of special features, but failed to impress critics because it was too confusing and difficult to use.
This year, Samsung took a step back with its newest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5, and refined the experience to focus on the stuff people care about the most like screen size, camera and battery life. The Galaxy S5 isn’t as beautiful as rival devices like the HTC One and iPhone 5S, but it is much more user friendly and inviting than previous Samsung phones. And in many ways, it trumps its competitors thanks to a superior screen and excellent camera performance.
The Galaxy S5 launches on April 11 and costs about $US200 with a two-year contract, but the price may vary by carrier.
What It Does
With the Galaxy S5, a lot of the Galaxy S4 features people found annoying like touchless controls and eye tracking are either turned off by default or available as an optional download from Samsung. It’s a smart move. I don’t need a bunch of unnecessary whiz-bang features gunking up my phone. All that stuff gets out of the way in the Galaxy S5 and lets you do what you want to do.
The Galaxy S5 has a 5.1-inch screen, which is much larger and more striking than the 4-inch display on the iPhone 5S, and just a tad bigger than the 5-inch screen on the S4. It’s not just about size, either. The screen has a lot of built-in tech like a sensor that can adjust the display for better viewing in direct sunlight and another one that can alter the colours based on the lighting in the room when reading an e-book. None of this is noticeable unless you’re looking for it, but the screen always seems to be working to make sure you have the best viewing experience. It’s the best screen I’ve ever seen on a phone.
The camera is spectacular, easily on par with the iPhone 5S camera and the Nokia Lumia 1020 camera, two of the best on the market. The camera shoots at 16 megapixels, but the real treat is something called live HDR, which lets you get a preview of what your photo will look like in HDR mode before you snap it. It results in some really nice photos, especially if lighting conditions aren’t very good.
Like the iPhone 5S, the Galaxy S5 has a fingerprint sensor embedded in the home button so you can unlock the device without punching in a passcode. You can also sync the sensor with your PayPal account and pay for stuff online with your fingerprint instead of logging in the old-fashioned way. But Samsung’s fingerprint sensor isn’t as elegant as Apple’s. It only works if you swipe your finger across the button, and you have to do so just right or you’ll get an error message. While the iPhone’s fingerprint sensor doesn’t care which way you place your finger on the button, the Galaxy S5 makes you swipe your finger perfectly perpendicular to the sensor. Again, it works, but it’s not as easy to use as the fingerprint sensor on the iPhone.
There’s one feature that baffles me, though. Samsung added a heart rate monitor to the back of the phone, next to the camera flash. It syncs with S Health, a fitness tracking app that comes installed on the phone and measures your steps and other basic health stuff, and works by placing your finger on top of it for a few seconds. Samsung says it added the sensor so developers can create apps that use it, but I still don’t see the point. If you want to track heart rate, I think it’s better to have something that’s always in contact with your body like Samsung’s new Gear Fit fitness tracker/smartwatch. We’ll have to see if developers make some clever apps for the sensor.
The Galaxy S5 gets pretty good battery life, too. In my tests, it lasted a full work day of normal use, but if you plan to be away from a charger much longer than that, you’ll be out of luck. Samsung did add a new feature to help you squeeze even more time out of your battery called Ultra Power Saving Mode. When you switch the feature on, the screen goes black and white and you’re blocked from doing anything but sending and receiving texts, making and receiving calls, browsing the Internet, and using a few apps of your choice like Facebook or Twitter. Samsung says Ultra Power Saving Mode can get you several extra hours of use even if your battery is as low as 5%.
Design, Look And Feel
Design snoots like me constantly criticise Samsung for making its premium devices out of cheap-feeling plastic versus metal or a denser material like the thick plastic used on Nokia’s phones or the iPhone 5C. It’s the same story with the Galaxy S5. The phone is covered in the same bendy plastic as before, but this time Samsung added a textured backing that makes the phone feel a little better when you hold it. The back cover doesn’t look very good on the blue and gold versions of the Galaxy S5 (the gold version looks kind of like a Band-Aid), but I didn’t really mind it on the black and white models.
My ideal material choice would still be metal, but there are plenty of people who enjoy plastic phones even if they don’t feel as nice. Samsung thinks it’s more important to be able to remove the plastic cover and replace the battery than build a unibody phone like its competitors. So that means lots and lots of plastic. However, many people prefer plastic phones because they’re less likely to attract dings and scratches.
There’s another advantage to Samsung’s design choice. The Galaxy S5 is dust and water resistant under a standard called IP67, meaning it can survive for up to 30 minutes under 1 meter of water. That doesn’t mean you should take the phone swimming or in the shower with you, but you won’t have to worry if you accidentally drop it in a puddle or toilet. But the drawback to the waterproofing is the USB charger on the bottom has a cover over it that hangs from a flimsy plastic thread. You have to fiddle it open every time you want to charge.
Samsung paid more attention to the software design in the Galaxy S5, too. The phone runs the latest version of Google’s Android operating system, but Samsung modified the interface a bit to highlight its own features. Overall, the design has a similar “flat” look to what you see in Windows phones and iOS 7, the latest operating system for the iPhone and iPad. Menus and other options are easier to navigate, too, arguably more so than the basic version of Android that comes straight from Google. It’s the first time I’ve felt like Samsung took usability just as seriously as it normally takes hardware specs and other internal features.
As you can probably tell, my only major problem with the Galaxy S5 is the physical design. I still prefer metal phones or phones made out of a solid plastic unibody. It’s not awful, but it’s not ideal, either. But if you don’t mind plastic, you’re really going to like the Galaxy S5.
That said, the Galaxy S5 is simpler, more refined and more enjoyable to use than any Samsung device I’ve tested so far. Between the camera, that brilliant 5.1-inch display, and the smoother software, the Galaxy S5 is one of the best phones you can buy.