Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

Reviews Paul Briden 16:56, 23 Jul 2014

Samsung has a reputation to maintain - has it succeeded with its latest flagship, the Galaxy S5?

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£579.00
Pros: 
Excellent screen, Capable camera, Great battery life becomes excellent with Ultra Power Saving mode, Plenty of power and storage,Water resistant, S Health suite
Cons: 
Ugly design, Mediocre speaker, Poor fingerprint scanner implementation
Verdict: 
A wolf in sheep's clothing if ever there was one - the Galaxy S5 might not look the part but it's got clout where it counts

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is official and – not to dampen the mood too much – it looks quite a lot like its predecessor, the Galaxy S4. The handset itself is bigger and has a 5.1in Super AMOLED1920 x 1080 pixel display, placing it right between the S4 and Note 3, with regards to overall size and weight. Despite plenty of claims to contrary, the Galaxy S5 is – surprise, surprise – constructed almost entirely out of plastic. The only big change with regards to visuals is the dimple effect back panel, which we presume was added to aid grip.

Inside you have plenty of new technology and sensors, tallying nicely with the myriad rumours we heard about biometrics playing a big part in the next Galaxy handset. True to the rumours, there’s a fingerprint scanner located inside the Home button, and a heart rate monitor on the back just under the camera port. The handset is also water and dust resistant with IP67 certification. 

But Samsung has maintained a lead in the Android space for several years now, and there's a reason for this - the overall experience is cohesive and rewarding for users. Has Samsung managed to maintain this winning combination with the Galaxy S5? Let's have a look.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Design & Build

Physical build and style are some of the areas where many were anticipating the biggest changes for the handset, but sadly the rumours and hype proved untrue. The Galaxy S5 is not particularly far removed from its predecessor design wise.

The overall shape is virtually identical to the Galaxy S4, but the Galaxy S5 handset is a bit larger to accommodate an expanded display and a bigger battery cell. Proportions wise, it’s also a similar story with a relatively narrow bezel, but nothing extreme. The silver surround is similar to the Galaxy Note 3’s with ridges to aid grip.

While we don’t exactly do stress testing at Know Your Mobile, by this point there’s little reason to doubt Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is relatively durable – Samsung has established that it knows how to make a phone which can take a few knocks. However, anyone hoping for a more premium-feel finish is going to be left sorely disappointed. If anything, Samsung has taken some steps back here – I’m a fan of matte finish plastics over glossy ones, so you’d think I’d be the first to sing Samsung’s praises for ditching its old shiny ways.

But, what we have in exchange is something as bad, if not worse. The silver surround and other components are still glossy plastic but the back panel is this weird matte plastic with a very odd feel to it. It has a slight softness while still being solid and almost feels like some kind of hardened polystyrene, which is not great to touch and looks cheap and tacky. On top of that you have this ugly dimpled texture across the entire panel, making the phone look like it’s been clad in some kind of grotesque synthetic chicken skin.

It doesn’t concern me that the Galaxy S5’s build is not metal as per earlier rumours, indeed, I’m really not too bothered what it’s made out of. But the point is if you’re going to go with plastic (or any other material) you can either have stuff which feels nice or stuff which feels gross. Quite simply, Samsung has changed which type of gross it has chosen. I realise beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, but personally I think Samsung has now got a firm track record of having pretty poor taste in material finishes – its designers just do not know what feels or looks good, or rather, what they think feels and looks good is entirely unattractive to me. So far I’m yet to encounter anyone else who actually likes the Galaxy S5’s back panel material, even amongst fans of the Galaxy S4 or earlier iterations.

I’ll also add that although KYM’s review unit was a white model, I’ve seen the gold version in the flesh and it’s pretty damn hideous, being a particularly bling-bling implementation of the metallic tone, rather than some of the more tastefully subdued stuff we’ve seen from the likes of HTC and Apple, to name but a few.

While the phone has become slightly larger than its predecessor it’s by no means difficult to handle and operate, being a comfortable size in the hand. It’s nice and lightweight, while also being fairly well balanced. One-handed use did not pose a problem for me, although those with smaller paws may find things a bit trickier.

Samsung has also added to the phone’s durability with an IP67 water and dust resistance certification. This is supposed to handle being submersed in up to a metre of water for up to 30 minutes, however, some tests on the web have showed it to endure an hour or more.

This also means the microUSB port at the base of the device now sports a flappy port cover for the microUSB/MHL port similar to those found on Sony’s Xperia Z2 – while the flappy cover didn’t come off during my time with the device, as with Sony’s implementation, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for long-term durability.

Despite this change, many may be pleased to hear that the Galaxy S5 retains a removable back panel and removable battery cell, along with internal slots for the microSD and Micro-SIM cards.

I put the Galaxy S5 under a running tap and it coped very well indeed, though I should note the pressure of the water actually activated the touchscreen.

Other physical features remain very similar to Samsung’s previous models; the power key is towards the top of the right-hand side and the volume rocker at the top left. The headphone jack is at the top, microUSB at the bottom, and just beneath the screen is a large physical Home key flanked by two capacitive controls which only light up during use – multitasking is on the left and “Back” is on the right.

Overall the Galaxy S5’s exterior is fairly mundane looking and uninspiring to handle, but it does have good durability features.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Display

I’ve come to expect good things from Samsung’s display division and the Galaxy S5 doesn’t fail to deliver. The display is a wee bit larger than its predecessor measuring 5.1-inches on the diagonal. It has a full HD 1080p resolution giving a pixel density of 432 pixels-per-inch (ppi). Some may have been expecting a QHD setup and could be disappointed at the lower resolution, but I actually think Samsung’s choice here is a good one.

The 1080p resolution still looks fantastic in terms of image clarity while being friendlier to the battery. Colour is vibrant and brightness is excellent; it handles use in direct sunlight quite well and viewing angles are seriously wide.

Text is nice and sharp, whites have plenty of pop and, being a Super AMOLED, contrast is robust with deep blacks and dark tones. In my opinion this screen is a good deal better than the HTC One M8’s and is easily one of the best flagship displays on the current market.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Processor

The Galaxy S5 was a little too early to the party to get a next-gen Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chip, but instead gets a decent enough upgrade from the original Galaxy S4 (if you don’t count the Snapdragon 800-equipped Galaxy S4 variant, that is) with a Snapdragon 801.

This chip (the MSM8974AC) is a quad-core model using four Krait 400 cores clocked at 2.5GHz, with an Adreno 330 GPU. The GPU and onboard memory are both clocked faster at 578MHz and 933 MHz (14.9GB/s) respectively, compared to the older Snapdragon 800’s 450MHz and 800MHz (12.8 GB/s) with a lower chip clockspeed of 2.3GHz. Needless to say it’s a good deal quicker than the Snapdragon 600 aboard the original Galaxy S4 launch model too.

Number crunching aside, the important thing is that the Galaxy S5 offers excellent performance as we’ve come to expect from this chip. It’s easily on a par with similarly equipped rivals such as the Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One M8. Interface operation, browsing, multimedia and gaming all function smoothly and with no lag to speak of.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Software & UI

Android 4.4 KitKat might not be a massive leap forward for Google from the previous build, but Samsung has implemented the software impressively in the Galaxy S5. Partly this is due to the new TouchWiz UI design embracing Google’s “flat” design ethos more than ever before. But another key element is that Samsung has added some interesting Google Now and voice control features previously seen on Google’s Nexus devices. There’s also a selection of new health related features, but more on that later.

But first, that UI.

I’ve always thought TouchWiz was a bit too garish and busy, but with the latest iteration it seems Samsung has decided to keep things in-line with Google’s vision for a clean and simple OS.

For starters, as per pretty much every other flagship Android handset running KitKat, the heavy black box design has gone in favour of transparent UI elements – most notably the app drawer, notifications bar at the top and navigation/apps bar at the bottom.

As with previous Samsung UI builds, the drop-down notifications centre and Quick Settings menus are quite different from stock Android, however, once again Samsung has simplified and flattened these menus more than before and has kept its bright green highlight colour.

The drop down menu features a scrollable bar of quick setting toggles, a brightness bar and auto brightness toggle, and shortcuts to both a full panel of quick setting keys and the full Settings menu. You can also customise what controls appear in the notification panel.

The full Settings menu is one area where Samsung’s flatter approach is most visible – all of the icons are plain coloured discs with white icons in the middle. Current Samsung Galaxy users may at first be a bit surprised to find the tabbed settings menu has gone, but this is actually just the default setting on the device – once again, Samsung has embraced customisation options here and you can choose from a number of different layouts for your Settings page, including the old tabbed style.

Samsung’s app shortcuts also seem less jazzy than they used to be and are all the better for it. Generally the UI is nice and simple, which is a massive plus point for Samsung as this isn’t where TouchWiz started. You can also customise the fonts and homescreen transition effects.

Samsung’s Multiscreen feature makes a welcome return and appears much the same as it was before; you

Software Updates Galore

The software on the Samsung Galaxy S5 has been buggy to say the least but a number of updates have arrived to improve it. An update coming to the international version of the handset from May 13 will bring a much faster camera start up speed.

SamMobile already got the update on a handset and says both the fingerprint recognition time and the responsiveness on the gallery app have also been improved. The update should also bring about some better performance on the handset as well as stronger RAM management.

To download the software update you’ll need to head over to Samsung’s Kies Software and see if the version called G900FXXU1ANE2 is available.

can select two apps from an extensive list of compatible ones and divide the screen between them. It’s handy for checking emails and web browsing at the same time and adds an additional layer of multitasking on top of Android’s standard carousel.

Another thing worth noting is the phone comes with a “My Magazine” page enabled by default – this is effectively an HTC Blinkfeed style setup which aggregates Flipboard feeds and social networking. You choose what goes here by picking sources, and if it’s not to your taste you can disable it entirely. Win. Win.

By the way, if you do want to know how to disable the My Magazine feature, check out our guide:

“OK Google”

The Galaxy S4, as a contemporary Android phone, features Google Now, but Samsung has gone one further and incorporated Google’s “OK Google” voice commands. This works with the Google search widget when the phone is awake and unlocked, but it’s not like the Moto X or OnePlus One which are “always on” and can activate voice commands even if asleep. It won’t work if you’re in another app or on a screen which doesn’t have the search widget – just like the Nexus 5.

Despite such restrictions, it’s a highly useful feature for a variety of actions, including searching the web or using location-based services, setting alarms or reminders, and calling contacts. The voice recognition works well and doesn’t require any training, although I did find it struggled with composing text messages.

In terms of other useful apps Samsung has bundled onboard you’ve got DropBox, a “Memo” app for note taking, and a dedicated “My Files” file browser. This last one is particularly cool with a nice, simple UI and quick filtering categories for things like recent files, downloads, or specific multimedia types (audio, images, documents, video). You can also access your entire file directory under Device Storage and Dropbox direct from this screen. Handy.

S Health

Then there’s S Health. For some users this is going to be a gimmick, while for others it could well be the most-used app aboard the handset, it really depends on whether you’re into your fitness or not...obviously. Well, that’s not entirely true, the app does also have some stuff for stress management and sleep habits via the “Coach” section which could be beneficial to anyone. But apart from this it’s all about the exercise, weight, heart rate and food – ie: getting in shape.

The S Health app allows access to the handset’s onboard pedometer and lets you monitor your heart rate through the fingerprint sensor, which sits next to the camera flash on the rear panel. These components aren’t just in isolation though; the app prompts you to set up a profile which will allow you to track health over time. You can also set yourself goals and unlock achievements, such as a specific weight or a number of steps per day.

You’re also able to view statistics, charts and logs collating this data. It’s possible to put exercise and training regimes in place, including audio prompts, location-based training and music playlists for running, walking, cycling and hiking. You can track your food consumption and calories per day, including pictures. Naturally a whole heap of this information is shareable via a range of avenues, including social networking, all from within the app.

On top of all this, S Health has been designed specifically to pair with Samsung’s wearable range – the Gear 2 and Gear Fit are both able to offer more accurate heart rate and pedometer readings which can be synced to the phone. You can also get notifications through the smartwatch devices.

In short, Samsung has produced a really very comprehensive health and fitness suite which is well worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing. I’d hesitate to say it’s the best, as some dedicated standalone apps appear to go into more detail, but even so it’s up there as one of the better options and is built right into the phone.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Hardware, Storage & Connectivity

The Samsung Galaxy S5 comes in either 16GB or 32GB internal storage variants with microSD support for cards up to 128GB. Some power users might hanker after a 64GB model but aside from this I reckon the needs of most people are probably well covered here.

Another hardware feature is the fingerprint scanner embedded in the Home key. You can register up to three fingerprints (which could feasibly be between different people if you like), but notably Samsung’s tech recognises the differences between, say, two index fingers on the same person (unlike the HTC One Max), so you could instead register multiple digits from yourself to make things easier. The scanner pretty much only has two functions though: paying for stuff with PayPal and unlocking the phone.

As it requires a specific, gentle swiping gesture rather than a hold press (which quite often doesn’t register properly) there seems little point to this latter function when a pattern, PIN, or password lock will serve just as well and seems like it takes a similar amount of time (or less) to input. Basically, the scanner’s unreliability is its undoing, it’s far less frustrating to go down the conventional route.

As usual for a flagship, connectivity includes 4G LTE, Bluetooth, microUSB and dual-band Wi-Fi, as well as DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi Hotspot, NFC, infrared, GPS and MHL TV-Out.

There’s also a specialised Download Booster mode which uses both Wi-Fi connectivity and your mobile data to increase download speeds. This makes a noticeable difference when using 4G but using a 3G SIM it didn’t seem much quicker than just Wi-Fi alone. Of course, this will still eat your data allowance so should be used sparingly unless you have an unlimited data plan.

Samsung hasn’t opted for a particularly fancy speaker setup. It’s a single rear-facing speaker which delivers quite loud volume with little in the way of distortion, but it lacks the punch we’ve seen on other high-end models as well as the obvious lack of any stereo capability for a better listening experience. Sound quality can be a little tinny in places and you can pretty much forget about a decent range for treble and bass. Still, this is far from the worst speaker setup I’ve seen and it is adequate, just not thrilling compared to recent offerings from the likes of Sony and HTC.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Battery

The removable battery pack is rated at 2,800mAh, just shy of that 3,000mAh we’re used to seeing on many flagship models these days. With light-to-moderate use I found this typically lasted me a couple of days on a single charge with data and Wi-Fi on, and full brightness.

In our video test from 100% charge running Django Unchained for 2.45 hours (with full brightness, Wi-Fi and mobile data on) the Galaxy S5 finished with 61% charge remaining. This is not too shabby at all and should mean you can get more than five and a half hours of continuous video playback. Gaming is more intensive, as usual, and will really eat into the battery much quicker.

Ultra Power Saving Mode

The Galaxy S5 also has an Ultra Power Saving mode which can be toggled via the quick settings menu. Toggling this on or off takes about 10 seconds or so, but when it’s activated you’re presented with a simplified homescreen in black and white. The homescreen features six app slots – by default you have Phone, Messages and Internet – while the remaining three show plus icons allowing you to add more apps from a limited selection. You can also replace the pre-selected apps if you wish.

The screen also presents you with the battery percentage and an estimated standby time in days. On maximum charge this is around 12 days, but as you can see from the photo below at 37% it will still last 4.6 days, while at 50% it said 6.2 days. At 10% or less you’re still looking at a couple of days in this mode.

As a feature this is basically essential, and it’s weird we haven’t seen something similar added to a smartphone before. You can still call and text – and even use data if you wish – but your phone’s battery life will be extended dramatically. Case in point: from 4% I was told my S5 would last another 21 hours once Ultra Power Saver was activated. That is beyond impressive and, if your phone has ever left you high and dry before, it’s a real blessing to know you have something like this at your disposal. 

In my time with the device I found these predicted lifespans were pretty accurate if you use the phone in the way this mode intends – primarily for calls and texts. The app choices allow you to use Facebook, Google+ or the web browser, which are nice to have for limited use, but both will use mobile data and eat into your battery at a fairly normal consumption rate.

Essentially, if you do use this mode, use these other apps very sparingly or you’ll nullify the usefulness of Ultra Power Saving altogether.

Samsung Galaxy S5: Camera

With a number of Samsung’s recent smartphones I’ve been rather enamoured with the imaging capabilities. With devices such as the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 3, Samsung hit a good balance point between visual quality and ease-of-use, and I found that consistently, Samsung offered a very rewarding experience in terms of easy “point and shoot” operation with excellent picture results.

The Galaxy S5 debuts Samsung’s own ISOCELL sensor technology, featuring a larger 1.2.5” sensor than the Galaxy S4/Note 3’s 1/3.06” setup, meanwhile the aperture remains Samsung’s rather balanced choice of f/2.2. The ISOCELL sensor is rated at 16-megapixels, up from the 13-megapixel rating on the aforementioned models. It features an LED flash and video recording from 720p up to 1080p and 2160p (4K).

Many other camera specs and features are things we’ve seen repeated on several Galaxy models: dualcapture (front and back cameras at the same time – including video and video calls), HDR (now with live preview), simultaneous video and still capture, digital stabilisation, auto focus, touch focus, face and smile detection, burst mode, tap to capture, a range of filters, timer, geo-tagging, panoramic capture, beauty face, and voice control.

“Shot & more” also lets you capture a series of images and pick Best Photo, Best Face, “Drama Shot” (time laps motion capture), Eraser (remove unwanted elements from a shot) and Panning Shot.

A prominent new addition is “Selective Focus”. This has been described as being rather like a Lytro camera or the HTC One M8’s “U Focus” in that it allows you to re-select the focal point of an image after capture. However, it functions a little differently here. For one thing, you need to select the specific Selective Focus mode in order for it to become active (where on the HTC One M8 it’s an option for most captured shots).

For another, as you’ll see when the mode is selected, it requires some very specific circumstances to function properly – a message will appear saying you can “Make objects stand out from the background,” but that “They must be less than 50cm away from you, and at least three times this distance from the background”. Upon capturing said object the phone will go through a quick processing procedure much as you’ll commonly see with HDR modes or similar.

The phone effectively captures the foreground and background data in one go and then separates them out. This information is stored in the image file, so whenever you bring it up on the phone you have the option of editing the focus between foreground (Near focus), background (Far focus) or both (Pan focus).

Oddly enough I found this more effective than HTC’s fancier U Focus on the One M8 (which uses a dedicated depth sensor above the camera lens), which in practice simply served to blur out anything but the selected area. It’s much easier with the Galaxy S5 to get a usable image from this arrangement. HTC’s offering did do better in one regard though: you were able to save your edited images as separate files, where the Samsung Galaxy S5 simply overwrites the existing image – it keeps the stored data, however, so you can still re-select the focus as much as you like.

Samsung’s camera UI is great, it’s nice and simple with clear icons, and menu controls which are easy to find and use. It’s also unobtrusive, with much of the screen giving way to the viewfinder and many controls being semi-transparent overlays on top of this.

The picture quality is excellent – a noticeable improvement on its predecessor and plenty capable for a current flagship. Detail is nice and crisp and there’s no noticeable noise or fuzz to complain about. Colour reproduction is also nice and natural, and both contrast and dynamic range are robust – generally I’d say the images captured were fairly accurate to how things looked to the eye at the time.

The handset performed quite well in low-light conditions, although with the flash on it was somewhat overzealous it did still manage to capture plenty of detail.

All of this comes once again without much fuss. It’s a rewardingly simple affair to capture fantastic images on the Galaxy S5 – just aim at what you’re after, tap to focus if needs be, and hit the capture button. It must be said it’s not always so care-free on rival devices.

You can check out how the Galaxy S5's imaging compares to competing handsets in our cameraphone shootout, follow the link below:

Want to capture professional shots on your Galaxy S5? Check out our top tips:

Samsung Galaxy S5: Conclusion

The Galaxy S5 is most definitely a mixed bag. On the one hand, the disgruntlement regarding the exterior design is entirely understandable; not only is it not the advancement many expected, it’s actually a bit of a step back with that revolting back cover.

But when you boil it all down that’s one of only a small number of bad things I have to say about it. On the whole this is actually a pretty great smartphone. It’s fast and powerful with stacks of storage space and connectivity options, and the screen is gorgeous. The waterproofing is a real boon too, as you don’t have to worry about Tweeting from your bathtub. 

I think a big improvement for Samsung which hasn’t been mentioned much elsewhere is that the TouchWiz interface has really matured into something rather special – it’s very much more in keeping with Google’s modern Android ideal, being simpler and more understated, but with plenty of user customisation options. It may have taken a scolding from Google for this to happen, if rumours are true, but it’s still a step forward nonetheless.

Samsung’s camera offerings continue to go from strength-to-strength. It may not be the best on the market in image quality alongside such titans as the Xperia Z2 and Lumia 1020, but it definitely holds its own in this regard all the same, as the image quality is still certainly more than adequate (excellent, in fact), but also offers one of the most effortlessly usable configurations I’ve seen to date.

Then there’s the battery. The phone’s normal battery life is easily on a par with similar flagship rivals such as the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2, while also sitting in a similar position to the impressive Galaxy Note 3. However, Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving mode is one of the better battery saving modes I’ve seen so far and really does extend the phone’s lifespan significantly when you need to keep it alive. The Galaxy S5 also has the admirable trait of a removable battery cell, meaning you can carry spares or replace a faulty unit.

The S Health features are very much “take it or leave it” but if you do take it you will likely find it a rewarding experience. The speaker is a bit of a disappointment and the fingerprint scanner is pretty much a waste of time as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see the point of it, but if you do have one at least make it work reliably and easily – the Galaxy S5’s falls on both counts.

As with previous Galaxy S flagships, case makers will likely produce plenty of replacement back panels for the Galaxy S5 in every material, finish and colour you can possibly imagine, so the Galaxy S5’s squiffy design ideas should be relatively easy to overcome. Apart from that, it’s one top-notch smartphone in more or less every other regard.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Latest News & Info

Samsung Rolls Out Update

Never one to rest on its laurels for long, Samsung has started pushing another update for some Galaxy S5 models - this new patch reportedly improves the handset's performance.

As usual, the update will roll out over time and may hit you sooner or later depending on region, and stuff like carrier approval. If you have an unlocked handset you should be receiving the 195MB patch ove the air fairly soon though and it's reportedly already made its way to UK devices.

According to Btekt, users who already have the update have reported a slight improvement in running speeds, although it's not a massive boost. Still, better than a kick in the teeth.

Specifications

Length 142mm
Width 72.5mm
Thickness 8.1mm
Weight 145g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 5.1-inches
UK Launch April 2014
Phone Style Touchscreen
Typical Price £579
Website http://www.samsung.com/uk/consumer/mobile-devices/smartphones/android/SM-G900FZBABTU?cid=uk_ppc_google_coreexact-brandproductsamsunggalaxys5-1559134832-promob_20140221
Camera Resolution 16-megapixels
Video Resolution 1080p, 2160p (4K)
Flash LED
Music Formats MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Yes
Radio No

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