The Samsung Galaxy S5 is the latest challenger from the South Korean brand to launch into an ever more crowded market, but at least this time the phone has focused on what users might actually want rather than useless gimmicks.
The Galaxy S4 was a strong phone in spite of the insistence that being able to wave your hands over a phone or scroll with your eyes was a good thing.
The Galaxy S5 takes the DNA of that handset and improves on it in most areas. It’s a quiet improvement though, which may disappoint a lot of people looking to see the world’s highest-res display and an all new metal chassis, but it’s one that at least delivers where consumers need it.
If you’re looking for a phone that reinvents the smartphone again, in the same way the Samsung Galaxy S2, HTC Desire or iPhone 4 managed, you’re going to be rather disappointed with what’s on offer from South Korea.
However, if you’re after a better camera, a brighter screen, a faster processor and a more solid design, then the Galaxy S5 will mostly deliver all you’d be looking for.
The company explained to me what it considered to be the core tenets it stuck to when creating the Galaxy S5, and they show a renewed focus over the predecessor: a better camera, faster connectivity for web browsing, personal fitness tracking, protection, and a ‘modern and glam’ look (its words, not mine).
It’s actually a little redundant to talk about all the technology inside a phone before dealing with the key question: does it look attractive?
Yes and no. You can’t call it ugly, because Samsung does know how to put a phone together well. But at the same time it’s the same tired story on the design front: taking some elements from the predecessor, adding in some bits from the current Note and calling it all new.
The ‘metal’ surround is almost identical to the Note 3, to the point I was looking for an S Pen to start poking out. But the back is the main change, and I’d go as far as saying it’s lovely.
No more shiny plastic or laughable attempts to make it look like a leather notebook – while it is still plastic, it’s a lot more grippable and feels a lot, lot nicer in the hand.
The overall construction is again more solid, but the device is markedly bigger compared to the Galaxy S3 and S4. There’s a lot more Note DNA in the Galaxy S5 than ever before, that’s for sure.
In fact, the design of the Galaxy S5 is one that evokes the S2 more than anything else, as it’s more rectangular in shape. It’s certainly a departure from the ‘inspired by a blade of grass’ creation of the S3.
It’s actually pretty disappointing on the design front, as I kept thinking I was looking at the first two Galaxy models when taking pictures of the larger device – if you held the first model from 2010 and then picked this one up, you’d think Samsung had done very little with its evolution in that time.
But the main thing to answer is how it feels in the hand – and the good news is it feels solid, well made and less cheap than ever. Samsung will have disappointed many by not releasing a full metal version, and it’s true that this isn’t what I was hoping to see, but it’s more than adequate.
The other big deal is that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is waterproof and dustproof to an IP67 rating, which means it’s almost completely resistant to dust and waterproof to a depth of 1m for 30 minutes – more than enough time to fish it out when thrown down a toilet.
Yes, it’s not a new trick, but the only port cover on show is the one holding the USB 3.0 socket closed – it’s got a nice lip to it as well so it’s very easy to open.
What’s more impressive is that this phone still packs a removable cover and battery – while yes, it is a really fiddly cover to clip back on, to be able to access the power pack and microSD card slot is a really good move.
The only worry I’ve got, and it’s a fairly big one here, is that the cover will show small gaps if you’ve not got it absolutely flush to the back and totally clipped in. It’s very easy to miss a clip, which could make things a trifle wet if you throw it in a pint to impress friends.
With the screen on the Galaxy S5, once again Samsung was a victim of its own hype. We were all expecting a grand step forward, the first manufacturer to bring a 2K screen to the masses.
But it’s just a Full HD Super AMOLED version, one that’s actually a little less sharp in theory than before as it’s now 5.1- rather than 5-inches, meaning it’s down from a 441ppi to 432ppi on the new version.
It’s not massive, but it is a drop when we were expecting something higher-res.
Ever since the Galaxy S2, Samsung has been faced with an impossible task: make its smartphones so great that they blow the world’s collective mind time and again.
Since that phone, one of the handsets that like the HTC Desire and the iPhone 4 changed the expectation levels of the phone buying public, it’s hard to say that it’s come close to managing the same feat again.
The display shouldn’t be sniffed at though. It’s sharp, clear, and when placed next to the S4 is clearly a step forward in terms of Super AMOLED technology. Although Samsung wouldn’t confirm it to me, I’d guess that there are more full pixels stuck in there – the colour reproduction was a step forward again, and movies looked so much better again.
Like the 2K display we were expecting big things from the new UI on the Samsung Galaxy S5, and there has at least been a bigger jump forward here.
The notifications bar is the biggest change that I could see, with the whole area looking a lot different to the standard version Samsung has employed with TouchWiz over the years.
There are now quick links to the likes of S Finder and Quick Connect, which allow you to theoretically move through the phone at greater speed.
The former is the same thing as Google Search, it seems, with more information drawn in from the web. It’s the kind of thing you’d need to spend more time with to see if it fits in with your lifestyle, as it could either be a really quick way of flicking around or a waste of valuable screen space.
Quick Connect seems to make a little more sense, as it takes the best of things like AirDrop and AirPlay from Apple and moves them all into one place. You can also DLNA stream from here, and makes the Galaxy S5 a really connected hub of the home.
The settings button seems to have gone a bit mad though – now there’s a massive long list of all the settings options (under the guise of being quick) but there appeared to be a number of repeated items here – definitely one to dig into further with the full review.
TouchWiz’s update seemed to be more in keeping with what we’ve seen from the Tizen leaks, but with a much glossier sheen – where before the Galaxy S3 and S4 were all about nature, the S5 works around geometric shapes.
I didn’t get a chance to dig in too deeply into the setting menu, but it looks like the quick launcher icons of the lock screen have disappeared to be replaced by a simple camera icon, which obviously swipes up to let you start snapping.
There’s more information on the lock screen than ever before though, with weather and health notes sprung right into you eyes the second you tap the power key.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting Samsung to bring a fingerprint scanner to the mix for the Galaxy S5, as there were few signs that it had nailed the technology just yet.
In terms of what we’ve actually been given, it’s a middling effort. On the one hand, the scanner is actually pretty accurate and gives an added level of security. On the other, you still have to wake the phone by pressing the home or power button before you can scan, which adds an extra step that Apple doesn’t make you go through.
The action can be misinterpreted, as it’s a straight scan down from the screen to the bottom of the home key, although I noticed its accuracy was pretty good right from the start.
Couple that with the work Samsung has done to sign a deal with PayPal to offer payment security, and you can see why I’m pretty excited about this option.
The TouchID payment security extends only to iTunes purchases, so being able to shop the web and pay for stuff with your digit is truly forward-thinking.
I just hope it’s not a subset of shops that can recognise you’re on a Galaxy S5 with the ability to perform this task.
The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is probably one of the most improved elements of the handset, and that’s not because it’s leapt forward to a 16MP sensor.
The megapixel count these days is largely irrelevant, but the hardware’s ability to process and take pictures should be considered a much larger part, and Samsung has managed that well.
On the Galaxy S5 you’ve got a super fast autofocus that Samsung reckons can capture a photo in around 0.3second. We didn’t have any fast running dogs to test this with, but every photo we took whirling the phone around seemed to come out largely blur free.
The other big news is real time HDR, which can give you a visual representation of what your picture will look like when high dynamic range is applied before pressing the shutter button. It works really well, and while there’s a relatively high amount of graining present, the end result compared to the setting being turned off is huge.
Oh, and of course there’s Selective Focus, which allows you to alter the focus of the shot after it’s taken.
This looks like it’s going to be big news in smartphones this year, but it looks a lot like a gimmick to me if the S5 is anything to go by, which is a shame when it’s such a tough task for the phone to process.
You have to activate the mode specially, and then hope for a scene with movement in the background and a static object to focus on. Only then will you be able to press the shutter button and wait up to ten seconds for the Galaxy S5 to give you the option to move between different levels of focus in the shot.
It’s something that could be an amazing feature if it was there as standard, but it’s too convoluted to be anything other than an interesting feature to show friends down the pub.
Will it be a success?
Of course it will. This is Samsung we’re talking about, and the unstoppable marketing machine means it could rebadge a carrot with a shiny screen and it would still get modest sales.
But that would do a disservice to this phone. The Galaxy S5 is the result of a company going back to the drawing board, scrapping the pointless gimmicks that so infuriated on the Galaxy S4 and bringing out a smartphone based on the tenets it reckons users really want.
And, to a degree, it’s succeeded. The camera is much better, although refocus is something of a gimmick, and the overall construction is improved. There’s part of me that’s sorely disappointed that it doesn’t have a 2K screen, but that would have killed battery life and been a marketing tool only.
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The battery life looks to be pretty good – the 2800mAh battery is a little on the low side, but if the extra features work to extend the life by turning off unnecessary elements, then that will at least get you through the day comfortably.
What Samsung has produced is a phone that’s devoid of any standout feature, an incremental update that’s played it safe in order to make the the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; nearly every part of the phone, from the UI to the camera to the battery life, has been enhanced in some way, making it a much better phone than the S4, but definitely not one you’d break your contract to upgrade to.
The problem perhaps isn’t Samsung’s, more the wider smartphone world: I’ve heard the word plateau bandied about a few times when discussing how phone power and innovation is increasing, and it’s hard to point to where Samsung should have improved dramatically and hasn’t.
But when a company with the scale and resources of Samsung makes a new phone, it should make a huge splash, and for the last couple of years it hasn’t managed that.
If you read the few paragraphs above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is a boring phone. It very much isn’t – it’s got lots of elements that users can dig into – but if you were hoping for something that provides a bar for the rest of the competition to aspire to, you’ll be left wanting.
The Galaxy S5 has a great camera, strong screen, impressive packaging, a waterproof casing and a blazingly fast engine pumping things along.
But it doesn’t have an amazing camera, incredible battery life, stunning design or genuinely innovative feature, and that cause a few people to wait and see what the competition brings before deciding that this (likely pretty pricey) handset is for them.