Samsung Galaxy S5

8th Apr 2014 | 14:04

Samsung Galaxy S5

Samsung goes for evolution over revolution... again.

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

Powerful, competent and with a whole new UI, it's a shame that Samsung hasn't progressed further with the look of its new challenger.

Like:

Amazing screen; Great battery life; Hugely powerful;

Dislike:

Creaky design; Unnecessary heart rate monitor; Slow background de-focus;

The end of an era?

Ratings in depth

Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The Samsung Galaxy S5 can be defined by one word: evolution.

The camera has evolved to give clearer, faster snaps. The fitness-tracking abilities of the S5 are enhanced over the Galaxy S4 by packing in a more powerful S Health app and a dedicated heart rate monitor on the rear. A fingerprint scanner adds to the most secure Galaxy phone ever made.

The battery is larger, the screen bigger and brighter, the processor quicker and the design altered.

The spec sheet certainly doesn't let it down: a 2.5GHz quad-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 2800mAh (removable) battery, 16 / 32GB of memory (with up to 128GB extra through microSD), one of the world's most vibrant screens that's been extended to 5.1-inches and added biometrics.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

However, it's hard to point to one stand out feature that will grab the prospective user when they handle the Galaxy S5 for the first time.

To many, that won't matter, as Samsung's built a fan-base that only Apple can rival, and a number will be picking up the new Galaxy without a second thought over whether it competes adequately with its rivals.

Price-wise, if you're shocked by the cost of the Samsung Galaxy S5 then you've not really been paying attention to the previous flagship models. It's actually a little cheaper than previous years in some territories, coming in at around £550-£600 SIM free in the UK, $650+ in the US and AU$900.

As you can imagine contract offers are flying all over the place at the moment, but the Galaxy S5 is being offered for a near identical price to the HTC One M8 and the iPhone 5S give or take a few dollarpounds.

The messaging around the launch of the Galaxy S5 was that Samsung had listened to the consumers and dialled down the gimmicks, focusing instead on what makes a phone special to the consumer.

It promised a 'fashionable' and 'glam' design, a camera that works in the way you'd want it to and strength through being water resistant.

So let's look at one of the key questions that Samsung needed to answer with the Galaxy S5: is it good enough in market that's becoming saturated with decent high-end handsets?

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The simple answer, from the second you hold it in the hand, is no – because the design simply isn't up to the same level as the likes of Apple and HTC. That's only a small part of the story though, and underneath the hood Samsung has continued its play of stuffing all the latest specs in and optimising them in a way that doesn't suck down oodles of battery.

Is this phone good enough to keep Samsung fighting with Apple at the top of the sales charts? Yes, but that's mostly through the impressive marketing machine that rolls out in every territory. Samsung needs this to be the last phone that rolls with such design language - the Galaxy S6 needs to be the dawn of a new age for the South Korean company, something to give consumers real lust for the way it looks.

Critically, it feels like there's very little to shout about with the Galaxy S5 – but perhaps that's no bad thing for a brand that was accused of bringing pointless innovation with last year's model.

Design

I've always played it safe when talking about the design of a Samsung phone. The Galaxy S2, the brand's first big hitter, was made mostly of plastic and still was one of our very few five star phones, after all.

That said, year after year, Samsung has failed to bring out something that wows where the rest of the competition has seen this as a key battleground.

HTC is the frontrunner here with the metal unibody design of the One M8, and Apple has maintained its position at the sharp end of design ever since the launch of the iPhone 4.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Sony's efforts with its Z range have culminated in the industrially designed Xperia Z2, and even Nokia has been toying with aluminium to make things feel a little more premium.

All of this makes me curious: why is Samsung refusing to give the consumers what they want… namely, a metal chassis?

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

There are a few possible reasons: cost of manufacture could be too high, especially at the volume Samsung spits them out at, Samsung likes to keep things lighter, waterproofing with a metal shell could have been trickier.

However, none of these arguments really holds water, given Apple does the same with a metallic phone, balanced handsets are better than lighter ones and Sony's Xperia Z range has combined metal and water without a problem.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a more solid phone than the Galaxy S4, that's for sure, and looks more well-packaged thanks to the wider back and the grippier, pock-marked battery cover.

However, it doesn't look like a cutting edge smartphone. It seems more akin to the product of a Galaxy Note 3 and the S4, with the metal-effect band around the outside subconsciously making me search for an S Pen.

The rear of the phone isn't something that wows either. While I think the comparisons to a sticking plaster are a little cruel, it does share a more 'medical' feel, especially in the white colour.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The blue and copper options are more attractive, but still don't have anywhere near the appeal of the likes of the HTC One M8.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

With the larger screen on board, Samsung's still managed to keep things well in proportion. Although the chassis is larger, it's not unmanageably so, although if you're coming from an iPhone, you might find it a little tricky to move up.

Those that have previously been fans of the Samsung Galaxy range before will find a lot to like here though. The home button – which now houses the fingerprint scanner, remember – is solid and easy to press, and the power key remains on the right-hand side of the phone, raised slightly and very easy to hit.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The same can be said of the volume key on the right, although as the handset has increased in height I found it a little harder to get to this area when I wanted to change the level on music when walking along.

One of the key changes to the Galaxy S5 is the fact that it's now water-resistant, with IP67 rating meaning you can dunk it water for a short while, although going swimming with it isn't advised.

It's also dust resistant too, which makes the uncovered headphone port all the more impressive as it makes the S5 much easier to use without having to pull open a flap to listen to some tunes.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The USB 3.0 connection – which will look odd to some, but is the same used in the Galaxy Note 3 to give more power quickly while still allowing standard microUSB cables to be used – is covered to facilitate this IP rating, and it's a little stiff to get off.

The groove to get your nail in to open it is quite small, and might be the only thing that irks those looking to get their hands on the best Galaxy phone and don't care much about it being waterproof.

The capacitive buttons still flank the home key as before, but are slightly different now. Gone is the menu key, replaced by the multi-tasking button that seems to be Google's new favourite in Android 4.4.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

You can still use this as the menu key with a long press, but it doesn't work intuitively and the distance from the right-hand side, where the right-handed will predominantly have their digits, is a little too far.

It's not a bad system though, and the presence of a physical home button, while less necessary than before, still provides welcome tactility.

The other big design win Samsung still maintains with the Galaxy S5 is a removable battery. This is mostly for peace of mind nowadays, given that the battery life is so good on the S5, but if you're worried about failure then this is a good option.

It also means the ugly FCC regulation stamp can be hidden from view, and you won't need a SIM tool to get your card out – plus it's easier to pop in a microSD card too.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The cover does give me slight cause for concern when you consider it from a water-resistant point of view, as it can be hard to make sure all the clips are securely fastened when snapping it back on.

A warning message does come up on the screen to remind you of this, but it can take a couple of passes to make sure it's completely fixed on.

If you look under the battery cover, you'll see that the battery is protected by a tight ring of rubber - if you've just dunked it in water, it's a little disconcerting to see how much fluid is in the phone already... but this seems to be fine.

I did worryingly notice some grit got into the home key, but after an hour or two it seemed to dislodge itself, although it doesn't make me think this phone is really that dustproof.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Overall, the design of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is likely to be the area that receives the most criticism, and for good reason.

It doesn't command a premium feel in the hand like so many other high-end phones on the market, and while some will point to how strong and high-quality the polycarbonate used is, it still pales in comparison to the competition.

Yes, it's lighter and probably more hard-wearing (you're much less likely to need a case with the Galaxy S5, for instance) but this is the biggest pain point for Samsung and it's one that it needs to improve with the Galaxy S6.

Key features

Last year it was quite tricky to talk about all the new elements that the Galaxy S4 offered, as most brought very little to the table other than technological gimmicks.

Things like Air Browse are still there, quietly nestled in the settings, and it's to Samsung's credit that it hasn't just removed them completely.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

With the Galaxy S5 though the effort is more on making the phone more usable, more in keeping with what consumers actually need day to day – so let's see if the new features actually offer enough:

S Health

One of the most obvious things about the Samsung Galaxy S5 is the heart rate monitor stuck on the back under the camera.

It's designed to be something that allows you to get the most out of your day to day activity by moving forward into the 'quantified self' - namely, seeing all the data on your daily activities.

S Health 3.0 is a good upgrade, and fills in a lot of the blanks that a lot of other apps miss. You can get better apps for each element that S Health offers - for instance, My Calorie Counter does a better job of managing your calorie intake - but for convenience with one central app, this is a pretty good offering.

The pedometer is, like on most phones, largely useless as it gives you an arbitrary number of steps to follow each day, which you can only hit if you're going to glue the Galaxy S5 to your thigh.

It's also not as accurate as something that's wrist or shoe based, and given Samsung has put a lot of effort into the Gear wearables, this seems to be something that's more novelty than helpful.

You can track exercise from the phone better though, which is a neat feature as it adds that data into the centralised pot. Again, there are much better apps out there for tracking your runs - Adidas MiCoach, Runkeeper or Endomondo are nice alternatives - but this is a good place to start for the novice runner, albeit without much structure on the kind of runs to aim for.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The big hitter for S Health this year on the Galaxy S5 is the new heart rate monitor on the back of the phone, just under the camera and giving you easy access to your pulse rate whenever you fancy it.

But that's the thing: why would you fancy it? It's one of those elements that seem to be there for the sake of it, like Samsung was trying to think about what it could add into the S5 mix to make it seem shiny and new.

And, to its credit, it mostly works. It's nowhere near as robust as something that's wrist or chest based (I found that it couldn't find my pulse one in every three or four tries) and there's also the issue of when you'd use it.

Ideally, you'd remember to take your pulse the second you wake up, when you're relaxed and able to easily access your resting heart rate.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

And maybe at key points of exertion throughout the day would be helpful too, so you can track your increasing fitness over time, assuming you're using the app properly.

But it's really had to remember to perform this action at the right times, meaning your average can be largely skewed depending on what you're doing each day.

Someone I know is currently recovering from heart failure, so I asked her how she felt about having such a function, and for those that need to take a heart rate throughout the day, or just to check if it's gone up from exertion, it's a really handy thing to have (although this isn't exact enough for medical readings).

So S Health is a great app for those that have a medical condition and require non-exact read outs (the monitor on the Galaxy S5 isn't intended to replace proper medical equipment) but for those that don't have such a condition I can see this quickly falling into the 'show people at the pub and see who has the lowest heart rate' category.

Ultra Power Saving Mode

Samsung, like many of the other big phone manufacturers, is going hard on the notion of making it easier to get your phone battery to last when things are getting a bit critical towards the end of the day.

As you'll see in the battery section, the Galaxy S5 is an excellent choice if you want to spend some time away from the charger every so often, but this new tool allows you to feel more secure when things are getting dicey.

Galaxy S5 review

It works by activating when you decide to turn it on, rather than at a pre-defined level. The screen will go black and white, the power will ramp down massively and the apps you're able to use are limited to just six that you choose.

The selection isn't that wide (to ensure you don't run down the battery when you need it most) but does include the likes of Twitter and internet browser, which surprised me somewhat.

When in UPSM, the phone will keep data consumption down to only when you've got the screen fired up, which means you won't get background notifications or similar. It's also not a good idea to use the browser or any other data-hungry apps in this mode, as they seem to completely negate the point.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

For instance, at 7% I activated UPSM, and it told me I had 21 hours of standby remaining. One hour later, I pulled it out my pocket to see the same readout. However, I then spent three or four minutes browsing the web and then checking a couple of things on Twitter, and it had inexplicably fallen to 2% battery life.

However, on the plus side, if you've got a full battery and want to use this as a festival phone, you're laughing as it can last days in this mode if you're efficient with use.

In reality, I'd suggest that you use this mode wisely. Don't do anything data-driven, just have it as a method of sending and receiving calls and texts when you're on a night out and need to preserve precious battery juice.

I was quick to decry this mode as relatively pointless when I first played with it in Barcelona, stating that you might as well just switch the phone off, but in reality it's a good idea and one that works better than that found on the likes of the HTC One M8, which is an almost identical system but doesn't add in that handy grayscale screen mode.

It does take nearly 15 seconds to switch from the normal mode into this hyper power saving option, which is odd and irritating – so get ready to just activate it and dump the phone in your pocket. If it was quicker, I'd probably turn it on and off when I knew I wouldn't need the phone - sadly that's not really an option.

Camera and Selective Focus

I'll dig through the camera's power in more depth later in this review, but there are some top-end features that it's worth talking about here as they're some of Samsung's big hitters.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Selective focus (or background de-focus, depending on how you want to term it) is the Big Thing for smartphones manufacturers this year, with the likes of Sony, LG and HTC all joining Samsung in making it possible to take a photo and then give it a 'pro-effect' by defocusing the background with bokeh and keeping the subject in place - something Nokia started offering back in 2013.

HTC has by far the best implementation of this, thanks to adding in dedicated sensor to give the depth information needed to properly make this trick work.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Sadly, Samsung seems to be the worst of the bunch at doing the same thing, as the method used here is excruciating at times.

Once you've fired up the camera, you then have to toggle 'Selective Focus' on the left-hand side. Then hope that the subject you want to look all nifty conforms to the S5's stringent parameters of what it can see, as too often I found a message telling me that it couldn't work out what was in the foreground.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The phone then takes a few pictures and processes them - again, not a swift task. From there it's a trip into the gallery and a tag on the icon to start processing the image, which is another few seconds. And if that all falls into place, you can choose to have the foreground or background blurred - with no option to save both styles.

Normally this would be dismissed as a gimmicky feature, and it is in some respects, but given Samsung made a big deal about it at launch and HTC has done it so well on the One M8, it seems a real shame that the South Korean brand made it feel like such an afterthought.

Thankfully, the rest of the camera is slightly better implemented, with a powerful sensor and swift autofocus the main things that will engage the user.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

It seems that the brand hasn't quite worked out the kinks in its software here though, as firstly, the camera is very slow to fire up, especially from sleep mode. I also noted that while autofocus was swift, it didn't always sharpen the image enough, so Samsung's claim that this phone is great for capturing the image you want doesn't really hold water.

If you've got a bright, well-lit scene and you know what you want to capture (and therefore have the camera ready) it's a good system... but that's not what we use camera phones for most of the time.

Fingerprint Scanner

The addition of biometrics in phones is a topic that can be infuriating - namely because so many brands try to do it for the sake of it.

Apple managed to get it right first time with TouchID (slight accuracy issues at times aside) and the rest of the industry seems to have been quietly playing catch-up.

HTC's One Max had the scanner on the back of the massive phone, but it was impossible to hit. Samsung has at least placed it on the home key, which is a more intuitive place, but the accuracy isn't as high as Apple's version.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

It's not bad, and it's definitely the second best on the market from Samsung, but the Galaxy S5 wants you to swipe your digit down vertically in line with the phone - not a natural gesture.

The good news is that you can swipe a thumb sideways across and still have things work, but the accuracy is lower. Only about one in seven or eight attempts would see me able to open the phone first time, and if your hand is slightly askew then you'll hit the maximum of five attempts pretty easily.

I found that it began to degrade even over only a few days, but as you can add in up to three prints, I deleted my first effort and tried using my thumb both straight down and at an angle. This seemed to satisfy the sensor a lot more, leading to a much greater accuracy when unlocking the phone.

I'd usually have deleted the last section when I found a way around the issue, but I'm going to keep an eye out for further degradation and most users wouldn't think to retry their print. As I said, by having the same thumb print in two different ways it seems to have made a world of difference to the accuracy, but that shouldn't need to be the case.

The notion of PayPal support seems to have completely missed this initial launch of the Galaxy S5. Upon entering the fingerprint settings you'll be asked to download a couple of apps (including PayPal) to get things started.

However, once you've done all that and linked your fingerprint, the app doesn't seem to want to let you use that method of verification again, nor have I found it as an option online.

This seems like a glitch in the initial retail software from Samsung and needs to be rectified ASAP, as it's meant to be one of the top features of the phone.

Download Booster

Download Booster – one of the best ways to destroy your data allowance if you leave it turned on. I'm joking, as it's not going to harm you that much unless you've got a tiny 4GB data cap.

The premise is simple and it works: you have 4G but are connected to Wi-Fi and you want to download a file from the magically cloud-based world of the internet. Instead of just using the speed of one, their powers are combined to create a super speed.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

If one fails, the other will pick up the slack and keep the download rocking, which means as long as you're nabbing things over 30MB, you'll be speedier than ever.

I don't know why 30MB is the limit – given a lot of things are smaller than that but can still take a minute or two to download, it would have been brilliant to use the upgraded speed as I saw fit.

One confusion from Samsung is whether or not you can use the Download Booster when not connected to LTE / 4G. The app says only the superfast next-gen mobile speeds are allowed, but the icon at the top of the screen will still appear when 3G is on offer.

However, it doesn't fire to speed up downloads, so one has to assume this is another glitch from Samsung.

Screen

The screen on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the best on the market, and easily the best feature of the phone. You can talk about the extra innovation all you like, but if a phone has a good battery, strong camera and great screen then it's on to a winner.

The thing I like is the range it offers – it's brighter than some LCD panels, looks more vivid at full power than the likes of the HTC One M8, can go darker than the rest (as Samsung acknowledges that a lot of us like reading in bed) and is still pin sharp throughout.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The Full HD Super AMOLED screen delivers 22 percent higher brightness than the Galaxy S4 without munching down any more power, according to DisplayMate. You can head over there now to see the full, detailed run down of just what makes this a brilliant screen in superb detail.

But here's the upshot: the days of the Super AMOLED screen being a colourful mess are over. Samsung has plied the Galaxy S5 with all manner of settings to let you find the exact balance you want, and features like Adapt Display are excellent at making sure that even in bright light, the screen is clear.

Annoyingly this latter mode can't be used with all apps, but it still makes the main ones, like internet browser and gallery, look a lot better even outside.

Samsung Galaxy S5

The high brightness, exquisite sharpness and better colour reproduction (catering to most tastes) will impress all but the most exacting of standards, and if you're someone who will spend a high chunk of time looking at your phone screen for movies, internet browsing or just flicking through photos, this 5.1-inch 1920x1080 option is the best out there right now.

Interface and performance

The interface on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is improved quite a lot over the S4 and previous iterations of the Galaxy family.

This is mostly do with the new circular icons and geometric layout allowing everything to look a bit more premium and fluid - you could argue that it's relying a little less on skeumorphism, but then that would insinuate that it's trying to look like Apple again, which I don't think Samsung is trying to do here.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

At least, I hope not. I don't want to write about any more court cases.

The lock screen is the first place to get an overhaul, with the weather and pedometer steps now part of the furniture. There's a camera swiper in the corner as well, allowing easy access to snapping without having to open the phone (although it's very hard to work out if this has been hit correctly or not). When it works, this is particularly helpful when you've got the fingerprint scanner as the lock.

One of the best parts of the new homescreen is the increased snappiness in Touchwiz - I've never been one to really notice the lag in an interface, more preferring a stable feel under the finger, but those that tried the S5 said that it was speedier.

The animation transitions between homescreens is a little slow still, as the pages stack on top of one another, but it's a negligible wait.

The notifications area is one of the places that have been tweaked quite heavily, as it's now got that circular font that I mentioned, and looks a lot nicer.

The settings menu is the same, and has been divided up into better sections to get to where you want more easily, although this does take some getting used to if you're already familiar with Android.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Samsung has clearly noted the trend towards news aggregation on other handsets and has continued its own integration with Flipboard with 'My Magazine', which lives to the left of the main home screen.

It's basically taking the Flipboard topics and methods of integration and showing them in categories - and it's really not a great implementation at all.

Once you've opened it up, you're asked to choose topics that might interest you... but what is 'New and Noteworthy'? Which 'Sports' are being covered? There's no way to drill down, and instantly I'm greeted with a glut of content I don't care about.

If you drill in a little further, you'll confusingly find that Flipboard's Magazine interface is right there under the surface, allowing you to set custom feeds etc - and it's much better.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Samsung has really confused things here, and My Magazine needs an awful, awful lot of work to be considered a plus point - or let me turn it off.

It's a shame, as news aggregation from most parties isn't great or intuitive enough yet - but I can see a time in the not-too-distant future where it does find content I care about, so it would have been nice to see Samsung push that message on.

But that's not to say Samsung doesn't have some other new features to like: for instance, the Toolbox icon, which is a little floating circle on your front screen, allows you to choose five applications that can be accessed by tapping wherever you are in the phone.

I didn't want this activated all the time, but you can see situations where you need quick access in and out of things like the calculator or voice recorder, and this is a great way to offer such a thing.

Multi-Window still is kicking around, but I'd suggest you turn it off generally in the options. The reason is that if you're trying to watch a video, the main app won't let you... you can only have some of the videos previewed and the one you're trying to watch taking up the other half of the screen.

The same trick is repeated through the internet browser and apps, and is really rather annoying when you don't want it.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Overall, I'm a bit confused about the interface of the Galaxy S5. The power is there: a 2.5GHz CPU from the excellent Qualcomm 801 chip should be market leading, and yet I found a lot of slowdown in places.

The camera takes an age to start up, playing a graphically intensive game like Real Racing 3 has a slower frame rate when many cars are in shot (although a reboot did reduce this problem somewhat) and opening the gallery when you've got cloud storage activated takes a long time too.

This smacks of Samsung not having optimised its software for these areas, as oddly things like RR3 will actually warm up as the game goes on, which hints of a phone that can't rouse itself from sleep mode effectively.

This confusion is compounded by the fact that in the GeekBench 3 tests, the phone manages to get a respectable 2909, which is slightly better than the HTC One M8. It should be noted that the HTC has admitted to adding in a 'High Power Mode' that will allow these apps to get the best out of the performance, a practice Samsung has said it has ceased.

There was very little to choose between these two phones in terms of general speed, but that issue with the slowdown in gaming was odd. The gallery speed has been a problem for Samsung over a number of models, so I doubt that's going to change - but for a phone that's meant to have a speedy camera I hope things get altered soon.

I wanted to put out a special mention of the storage, given Samsung came under such fire for the weight of its OS with the Samsung Galaxy S4. Of the 16GB of internal space, you get to use over 11GB, which is comparable with the best on the market having been the worst.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

This is slightly helped by the fact Samsung has stripped out some of the less essential apps and made them available instantly for download from its own app store – meaning you've got more control over the internal space.

Battery and the essentials

I'm just going to come out and say it: battery life on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is excellent. If you don't want to read on, I won't blame you.

The reasons that it has improved are two-fold: one, you've now got a larger 2800mAh battery pack, which obviously extends the life of the device day to day. Two, you've also got the snappy Snapdragon 801 processor kicking things along under the hood, making everything more efficient and keeping your battery life from draining away.

On top of that, the screen is also much more efficient at the same brightness as the Samsung Galaxy S4 - which was itself no slouch when it came to keeping your power locked away tightly.

Let's give this some context: in our battery video run down test, looping the same video for 90 minutes at full brightness, the Galaxy S5 managed only a 16% drop in life, which is comparable to the iPhone 5S, which has a slower processor, smaller screen and fewer pixels to drive.

It far outclasses the 23% drop of the HTC One M8, which, if you've read that review, is a great device for battery life too, so you can see how happy I am to see these improved results.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

In fact, only LG (of the big manufacturers) seems more adept at optimising the battery life of its devices, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what's on offer with the LG G3.

The Samsung Galaxy S5's battery was so good that I found myself having to think of all the things that drain the power quick enough so I could re-test the Ultra Power Saving Mode - which means that it can handle an hour or two of photography, Real Racing 3 (a real power sucker) and 2 hours of video before dropping to 25%.

That's among the best we've seen from a phone, and should give you all the confidence you need that this is a handset that's able to last all day.

The two power saving modes (Ultra and normal) both work well enough - with normal power saving mode coming with the ability to turn your screen black and white too, meaning you won't need to worry as much about the drain (nor will you want to look at your phone as much, thus saving power again).

There's no way to order these apps to fire at a specific point of battery drain, which is odd, but perhaps that's something Samsung will add in at a later date.

The essentials

It's worth remembering that at its heart the Samsung Galaxy S5 is still a phone, and comes with some of the best performances on the market in a number of ways.

For instance, it still has strongly integrated social networking with its contacts, comes with a host of decent apps and widgets from the off (we're still glad that the torch / flashlight widget is only one icon wide) and generally knows how to get the best out of its phone-based credentials.

Calling

Calling on the Samsung Galaxy S5, like most of its Galaxy brethren, is a great experience, with clean and crisp sound going in and coming out of the device. The reason we've relegated this category to 'the essentials' is simply that most phones can do this well, but Samsung still comes out top of the pile in this respect.

There are still the old familiar touches on show, such as being able to see the last message you exchanged with someone when you give them a call, and the ability to phone back or message when hanging up, which gives the option to perform some of the most oft-used functions.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The network coverage of the Galaxy S5 is more than acceptable, although not the best I've seen around, which is something of a shame as I'd have expected something clad in polycarbonate to be a really clear experience when it comes to connecting to the cell towers around.

But still, it's a phone with great powers of calling other people, and if that's what you're into then (apart from possibly wasting money on such a high end smartphone) you could do a lot worse.

Messaging

The notion of messaging on a phone has come a long way in recent years, with the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger providing a real challenge to the incumbent SMS.

Thankfully Samsung has stuck with its own messaging app rather than forcing you to use Hangouts on Android 4.4, which I think is something Google is keen to have more people do, such is its insistence that you use the app for texting when you download it for the first time.

In keeping with the new Touchwiz UI Samsung has added in another clever feature in the shape of priority senders at the top of your inbox. This means that the people you talk to the most will be never more than a tap away when you open the app, making it very easy to get around.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The keyboard on the Galaxy S5 is something of a mixed bag though. I always test it by working out whether or not I want to download SwiftKey straight away (one of the better keyboard apps on the Android Play Store) or if I can soldier on with the incumbent.

In this case, I think you could probably just get away with keeping hold of what Samsung's offering, providing you don't use a lot of commas. There's only a full stop key visible with the letters, meaning a frustrating tap over and over again.

The keyboard is also supposed to learn your style as it goes along, but there were times when it refused to let me enter the word I'd tapped out as it wasn't in the dictionary.

I almost feel like praising this keyboard as Samsung used to make some really awful options, but you'll probably still be happier trying out some other options.

Browser

Like most smartphones today, Samsung still has the dual threat of its own browser and Google Chrome. If you're using the latter as a desktop browser, then you'll probably be loathe to change as it will have all your history and passwords saved right away.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

That would be something of a shame, as Samsung has put together a really nice option that's designed to look as good as it is fast.

The interface is clean, with the URL and navigation keys getting out of the way when you start scrolling through the webpages. It has all the standard tricks of Chrome, such as incognito mode and Desktop View, so you won't miss out on much by switching between the two.

The bookmarking system is intuitive, and saved pages work well in a Pocket-style way.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

As you can guess, most smartphones running Android have a top end browser these days, but Samsung's implementation, including the loading bar hitting the top of the page, is nice.

Kids' mode

You can argue whether this is an essential, but for anyone looking to keep their children entertained with a smartphone, the Kids Mode on the Galaxy S5 is a useful too.

It's standard fare in some ways: you turn it on, enter a pin, show a picture of your child and give it an age range so your boy or girl knows that this is something that's special to them.

Then you can select the apps they can use (which are shown rather nicely as presents on the home screen top be unwrapped... "Daddy, look, it's Escape Zombie Land! Thank you!" "Er... sorry, give me the phone. That's not for kids.") and you can also set the amount of time they're allowed to play.

From being able to tap the landscape and find hidden treasure to being able to doodle, record your voice or watch pre-approved media, it's a nice app to look at and can be added to with other apps as well.

I'm trying to pretend that I didn't accidentally end up playing with this mode for half an hour during testing. I can't. There's an app that lets you record your own voice and have it play back as a robot.

Camera

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the more powerful on the market, featuring an Isocell unit that offers up 16MP snaps.

There are a whole host of other features here as well that a lot of people will like: real time HDR mode lets you see how your photo can be enhanced before shooting, for instance.

But the big thing that Samsung's touting is the speedy autofocus, which can manage to work out the image sharpness in up to 0.3seconds.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

It's fast, and there's no doubt that it can indeed focus that quickly. However, I've got a couple of gripes before we get into that.

I've mentioned it already, but for some reason it can take a few seconds to boot up the camera, which is way longer than the competition. If you're trying to use the 'quick swipe' from the lock screen, it can take even longer as it's very easy to think you've hit this icon when in fact you haven't swiped far enough.

The camera then takes around 3 seconds to even be ready to start firing, which means if you trying to capture a moment that has come upon you suddenly, you'll likely have missed it.

The autofocus, as I mentioned, is indeed fast and will often get what you're trying to shoot - especially if it's on a well-framed scene. However there were a few occasions when I was waiting to capture something and the autofocus went green, despite the subject clearly still being blurry.

It's an odd situation - I kept finding myself cleaning the lens or flicking through the settings to see if there was something amiss, but there was nothing to be seen.

At least the HDR mode works well, and it's nice to have it alongside Selective Focus as one of the main options. You really do get some better snaps with real time HDR, and it doesn't take very long to process at all, which is a plus.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Selective focus is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it can work in macro mode, which means you can take some close up shots and have the background blur out, which is what you'd want (and can't be done on some competitors).

On the other hand, too often it would tell me that it couldn't work out what I was taking a picture of, so the picture couldn't be altered after the snap.

The output wasn't blurry enough for me either - if you compare it to the HTC One M8, which has a weaker sensor but faster shutter speed, better defocus and all round better chops in the low light scenarios, you'll realise that this is something of an afterthought for Samsung... or at least that's how it feels.

But if it sounds like I'm railing against the camera in the Samsung Galaxy S5, then apologies – I'm certainly not. It's a competent and powerful sensor, but one that needs more effort to unlock the stunning pictures than the rivals.

The larger sensor needs a little longer to process pictures (we're talking nanoseconds for the main pictures in automatic mode) and the autofocus isn't as sharp as I'd like, but line up your shot and you'll definitely get a better image.

If you're trying to take a picture of something in candlelight, the S5 is the better option. If you've got a glorious landscape, you'll get better colour reproduction with the S5.

However, the modes are a little redundant as before – GIF-creating animated shot aside, I can't see ever wanting to use any of the modes.

Samsung has dialled these down massively since the over-complicated S4, and it really helps. Touch Up beauty mode will never cease to scare me, and as much as a like Virtual Tour, I can't ever envisage a time when I'll ever want to share a walk-through of my house.

It's one of only a few devices on the market to offer 4K video recording as well - however, I think we're at least a year or two off needing such a capability, and it will certainly require more storage to shoot in this high-res format for now, regardless of how it looks.

The camera in the Galaxy S5 is as competent as it is powerful – it's nowhere near as good as the Nokia Lumia Pureview sensor, but then again, it's more adept than the HTC One M8 if you're willing to put the time in.

However, the One M8 is the better option for day to day point and shooting – the sharpness is actually comparable as too many S5 pictures didn't quite come out as pleasant as I thought they had when viewing on the screen.

Camera samples

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review

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Vs One M8 camera

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Media

I've reviewed a huge number of Samsung phones over the years, and they've all had one thing in common: an excellent ability to play back your media.

It's almost getting to the point where there's very little point in making a big deal about what can be done with the phone in terms of playing back music, watching video and playing games.

However, ever the professional, I'll do my best.

Music

Samsung's not got the same hardware as HTC or Apple in terms of dedicated amplification of the sound output, meaning your headphones have to work less hard to output noise to your ears.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

That said, the volume on the Galaxy S5 is such that I'd be surprised if there's not something similar, even on the software side, working hard to compensate.

The output, especially when combined with a decent pair of headphones, is excellent. I could make out every note and bass was punchy enough without being overbearing.

The music player interface is simple and easy to understand - the ability to see all the music the S5 can gather throughout the handset. You can select by album, track and playlist - plus the music mood square makes a welcome return.

It's never been something that I've used properly - nobody ever wants a playlist that goes from 'moody' to 'energetic' - but it's a nice way to get a random look through your tunes with a semblance of progression.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The sound output from the single speaker on the back of the phone isn't as powerful, obviously, as the Boomsound speakers from HTC, nor the front-facing options on the Xperia Z2, but it's acceptable for most things when placed down on the table to let the sound spread out.

In short, the music output of the Galaxy S5, whether it be through a streaming service or the inbuilt music player, is great, and the ability to slip through tracks in the notification bar or lock screen never fails to be a decent trick.

Video

The Samsung Galaxy range has historically always been one of the best for watching movies on. Every year the Note comes out, makes things even better, and the following S version appears to make that a more mainstream technology.

Samsung Galaxy S5

I used to have to apologise for the higher colour saturation of the S range, as it was something that I personally enjoyed but others found intolerable (not all, but some).

Since the S3, things have been a lot better, and DisplayMate has found that in cinema mode, the S5 is almost perfect in its colour and white balance - and I'm inclined to agree.

Thanks to the infinite contrast ratio of the Super AMOLED Full HD screen everything looks deep and rich, and if you're into watching Netflix on the train to work, the bright mornings won't ruin your daily cinema fix as there's no washout even in direct light.

Given OLED screens used to be terrible for this, it's a tremendous experience from Samsung and should be applauded.

The video player is simplicity itself: showing your videos in small thumbnails that play automatically to show you what's on offer before tapping to get the full experience.

The only issue is if you've got Multi-Window enabled, as I mentioned earlier: the split screen is annoying and can't be removed unless you take the option away.

Also make sure you only show local content - if you add in Dropbox you'll be given access to far too many movies that can be hard to sort through if you've uploaded all your content.

It would be nice to see a social element here, something that aggregates all the video your friends post to Twitter and Facebook - anything to see more content on this screen.

Gaming

The gaming experience on the Galaxy S5 should be excellent, but as I said earlier (starting to worry I'm repeating myself a little) the higher-power games seem to struggle at times.

Clearing out the cache by restarting the phone seems to remove the problem somewhat, and if you're only going to be a casual gamer, the S5 has that lovely large screen is the best place to check it out on.

But beware of pushing the GPU, especially just out of sleep mode, as the experience can be marred by low frame rates.

Gallery

Samsung's continued with its trick of letting you see content from Picasa / Google+, Facebook and Dropbox from the gallery, and this sadly seems to slow things down badly as well as filling up the internal storage.

Samsung Galaxy S5

Opening the gallery with more than a modicum of content already in there or a microSD card inserted will slow things down terribly, to the point where you're waiting seconds just to see the snap you just took.

This is something that I've been mentioning for a couple of years now, and Samsung's still not nailed it. It might not sound like a big thing, but not being able to see your photos with ease really irks.

The competition

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a phone to be reckoned with, that's for sure - but how does it stack up with the competition? Remember, you're going to be paying a pretty penny to own it, so does it have the power to match the best of the rest?

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

The obvious threat to the Samsung Galaxy S5 is the HTC One M8 - critically, at least. The two are locked together in terms of specs, with both having the same Snapdragon 801 CPU, a microSD slot, 2GB of RAM, a Full HD screen and rocking Android 4.4.2.

However, there are a couple of key differences: the Samsung Galaxy S5 has a much more powerful camera, albeit one that doesn't perform as well as you'd expect it to in day to day snapping.

The One M8 takes photos more snappily, and more in focus, but offers lower quality if you're sharing to a larger screen.

HTC's effort is packing a much, much nicer design though - it's almost bewildering how the aluminium chassis can feel so nice in the hand and yet Samsung continues with the same boring plastic. Even the fact that it's water-resistant doesn't make up for the fact that I feel a little unimpressed each time I pick it up.

iPhone 5S

iPhone 5S

The iPhone 5S. Samsung's current nemesis, showing consumers that you don't need a Full HD 5-inch screen to be a world-beater - plus it's got a 64-bit chip as well.

OK, that spec's a little moot as it doesn't really add much at this point in time, but it is somewhere that Apple's a little more advanced. The colour reproduction on both phones is excellent, and the price is pretty comparable.

Apple's interface is simpler and more stable, with little lag anywhere throughout the phone, and while the camera has a lower megapixel count, there's no doubt it still can take some stunning pictures.

But Samsung brings a lot more to the table, not least that water-resistant nature, a larger capacity and the ability to take better pictures overall - plus 4K video recording, if you're desperate to look for other improvements.

In reality, there's very little point comparing these two phones, as most users are still stuck in the Apple or Samsung camp and it doesn't matter how the specs measure up.

The iPhone is too small these days, in a world dominated by larger screens, and the cramped conditions don't add much in terms of innovation. It does have a slightly better fingerprint scanner though.

Sony Xperia Z2

Sony Xperia Z2

Sony's been doing well in the smartphone world: from the Xperia Arc (admittedly from the +Ericsson era) to the current Xperia Z2, there's been a strong upward trajectory.

The same Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU is on offer, a microSD slot pervades, and it's also water-resistant. If you wanted to split hairs, the Z2 can last longer in the water, but the Galaxy S5 likes rolling around in the dust a little more, but both will survive a trip into the toilet with aplomb.

Both can also record in 4K, which is still a mostly useless feature, and both have a large and vibrant screen. The design, once again, splits the two, with the industrial chassis of the Xperia Z2 covered in solid metal where Samsung's opted for plastic.

But both have a strong battery, great screen and cost roughly the same on contract - so it really depends on whether you like Sony's thicker styling or not.

Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4

True to form, Samsung's still selling its older model for another year at least - and it's not a bad buy, especially as it's being offered at some really low price points and packs the same Android 4.4.2 OS.

It's almost a shame that it doesn't have the same funky overlay as the Galaxy S5, as that would be a real win for the brand.

In terms of raw power and specs, it obviously falls behind in nearly every way compared to its bigger brother: no heart rate monitor, an older camera, smaller battery with higher screen power, a slower CPU and more of a dependence on air-waving gimmicks.

It does have a more compact chassis though, and shares a lot of the same strong DNA - so if you want to save money (and can get it on a 12 month deal or SIM free) you'll have a decent phone for a year at least... after that the software updates might dry up, so be ready for that.

Verdict

The one thing that writing this review has left me thinking is this: Samsung HAS to be making another premium model to show us later in the year.

I've been hearing a number of underground rumblings that the upgraded model is in the works (or is at least being tested), and will come with a metallic chassis and high-res 2K display (yes, I know that the current screen is technically 2K, but I mean the iteration below 4K).

Samsung's mobile head, JK Shin, has said such a thing isn't going to happen, but the very fact that people are so excited by the prospect should tell you all you need to know about this phone.

We liked

The Samsung staples are still here, and that's excellent. That means that the screen is powerful, bright and a joy to watch movies on, be they HD or SD quality.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The sound output is also excellent, bringing you the best from your tunes and making it easy to follow dialogue and hear effects even when on noisy public transport. While I wouldn't recommend whacking up the volume all the time, in certain instances it's excellent.

The 16MP Isocell camera is a step forward for the brand - maybe not offering stunning pictures each time, but on the whole delivering very attractive snaps, especially when you take the time to set the scene.

I'll never tire of highlighting the microSD slot and removable battery as good things to have, if nothing else for peace of mind, and I'm impressed by Samsung for sticking to its guns there.

The battery life is also, once again, excellent, and if you're after something that will keep chugging along no matter what, this is a top smartphone to check out.

We disliked

Despite the fact Samsung is probably going to sell a record number of Galaxy S5 units, I can't help but think it's missed a massive trick by popping out another phone clad in plastic. Spin it however you want, the S5 feels cheap and if it came from a no-mark smartphone brand would be dismissed as uninspiring - it's only because the adverts everywhere ram it down our throat do we discuss it.

There's got to be something better here - when, for the same price, HTC and Sony are able to bring out appreciably superior designs, Samsung needs to step up.

I wasn't always impressed by the speed of the phone either - the camera could take a while to load, games sometimes showed lag and opening the gallery will always be a sticking point for me.

There's not a lot that's particularly wrong with the Samsung Galaxy S5, but it feels like the Galaxy S3-S-S... another iterative design and power boost when it needed a reboot after the S4 didn't add much to the Galaxy mix.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a great phone - the problem is we're now in a world where stunning smartphones are becoming the norm.

Samsung seems to banking on the fact it knows there will be some people out there who will buy its devices no matter what, else it would have jumped to a more premium design.

Some might think I'm overstating my disappointment in how the S5 looks, but this is a critical part of the buying cycle. You can't rely on brand recognition and loyalty for long if competitors are making something that can cause design envy.

And there's the divide in terms of how to deliver a verdict on the best Samsung phone ever: if you're excited about what Samsung does, you'll love this phone. The brand has definitely done a lot to make it more useable and deliver things you'll actually use, such as a better, faster camera and health info.

But if you're on the fence, or in the iPhone camp, it would be easy to decry this as a mere update to what came before, offering uninspiring design and a feature set that doesn't mark it out well enough from the competition.

Samsung has done enough with the Galaxy S5 to still be one of the top smartphones of 2014, and I would still recommend it as a solid, if unspectacular, smartphone that ticks the boxes it needs to and very little more. it just squeaks in as a 4.5-star phone, largely due to the fact that it's got an excellent screen, great battery and high-end specs combined with a strong camera - and that spells a decent smartphone to me.

If you're a Samsung fan, this is the phone you should buy without question. If you're more agnostic, there's better out there.

First reviewed: April 2014

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