Samsung Galaxy S5
7th Mar 2014 | 12:02
Can Samsung reinvent the wheel... again?
Introduction and design
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.
Screen and interface
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.
Fingerprint scanner and camera
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.
Fitness tech and download booster
One of the key pillars of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is the fitness technology that's contained within it - and while it's going to be a big part of the phone's marketing, as well as a popular topic for all technology firms in the next year, it's not a standout feature.
S Health was something of damp squib on the Galaxy S4, and while S Health 3.0 on the S5 is a much better app, there's still not enough there to influence the buying decision.
The Galaxy S5 has a heart rate sensor, but that's under the flash of the camera and requires you to hold your finger on it for a few seconds to get a reading of your pulse.
Once that's logged you can see how your health is improving over time as your resting heart rate drops, but because it requires you to place your finger in a certain way each day it's not a passive system, which these things need to be.
The ability to track your calories in and out is also cool and helpful, but only if it's used properly. The only way to make this a successful system is to be completely devoted to it, and in reality things like the Gear Fit are a much better idea as they're always tracking for you.
There's a new trick on the Samsung Galaxy S5 - well, a new trick on the South Korean's smartphone range, anyway. The Download Booster combines the power of Wi-Fi with either 3G or 4G download speeds to give even better opportunities to get your massive files on the go.
This means that when you're at home on fibre optic broadband but have a decent 4G connection you can get a huge boost to files over 30MB in size, and have them on your device in seconds.
Even better, the annoying apps that won't let you download over anything but Wi-Fi can't see the trick in use, in case you were worried that this would block that for some on demand services.
In our tests we saw Wi-Fi that could handle up to 37Mbps (probably higher, but that was the highest noted speed) and LTE that went up to around 25Mbps. Interestingly both connectivity options didn't go full speed at any point though, taking a little bit of speed from one side and a great chunk from the other.
In case you're wondering how you'll know when this is happening, it's pretty overt. An icon appears in the notification bar, and a whole download progress meter appears when you slide your finger down from the top of the screen - it's very fluid and we genuinely saw a 300MB file download in seconds.
Obvioulsy the caveat here is you'll need to be on a generous data plan to make it work without being charged a fortune... leave Download Booster on accidentally and you'll be munching through your allowance much more quickly than you'd like.
Video, kids mode and battery booster
What do Samsung phones generally have in common? A great video player, that's what, so thankfully that hasn't been lost in the Galaxy S5 shakeup.
The larger screen, while technically not as sharp, is a much improved affair from its predecessor in terms of brightness and colour management.
The action looked pin sharp, and it's hard to imagine anything that could have been improved by throwing a 2K display in there to 'improve' the performance.
It didn't have the same impressive clarity as the LG G2, but it's only fair to note that phone was running a specifically optimised movie to make the IPS screen look brilliant.
However, Samsung could have done the same here, but it somehow just missed out on looking as impressive.
There's still the same picture in picture trick of Pop Up Play that we saw in the Galaxy S3, and it's still as useless as ever. At least the processor is more capable of managing the trick now so will have less of an effect on your battery life if you accidentally leave it running.
Samsung has now packed on a rudimentary kid mode, which basically means a sandbox area of the phone that you'll probably get locked into and struggle to get out unless you've efficiently read the instruction manual.
I managed to do just that, but only fortune saved my bacon (a swipe down from the top and the tried-and-tested 0000 PIN worked in terms of letting me back into the main area of the handset.
However, it's a pretty good option if you've got a rugrat sprinting around - you can set it to play games and draw all manner of things on the fairly large screen.
I would have guessed that this would be a little complex for a smaller child to navigate around, but then again I'm creeping into that group of people that are becoming more and more amazed at what a toddler can do with a smartphone.
When I first read about this, I assumed it was going to be a copy (well, 'taking inspiration from'...) of Sony's Stamina mode on its Xperia range of devices, where it strips down the connectivity to just the absolutely necessary apps to preserve battery life (and does it pretty well).
But no, Samsung had to take things one step further and allow you to make 10% of your battery juice last for 24 hours. I cannot believe that a normal smartphone user could ever make it that far with so little power, but I'm itching to try it out in our in-depth final review.
Activate Ultra Power Saving Mode (are you sure you couldn't have upped the hyperbole in there Samsung? Maybe thrown in a 'Turbo' or 'Hyper' for good measure?) and the screen will go black and white with a lower resolution.
You can then choose six apps to activate from the massively stripped down home screen, which do include some data services like Gmail and the internet browser, so you're not completely locked to calling and texting.
The list of apps you can choose is quite low, but may increase as further third party apps are vetted - the stand model we played with was poorly stocked on that front.
The 3G connection is shut off when the phone is put into sleep mode, which means you won't receive updates for the likes of ChatON or Gmail, rather you'll need to boot the display back up to check in manually.
That said, combined with turning off things like GPS and making the screen greyscale, this will help if you're on a night out and just need to hang on to a few percent of the battery life to just get you through when you're trying to find buddies in a crowded bar.
However if you're out on town alone and want to fire up Tinder to find some companionship, this isn't going to help much.
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.
- Samsung Galaxy S5: What it means for business
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.