As expected, Samsung today introduced the Galaxy S5 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. But what was unexpected was the company’s approach in designing its latest flagship Android phone.
Given Samsung’s eagerness to get a leg up on the competition, you can’t blame a gal (or guy) for thinking that the company would pull out all the stops for its next-generation Galaxy S phone.
In fact, before today’s Unpacked event, there was talk that the Galaxy S5 would have an iris scanner to unlock the phone. Another rumor said it would have an Ultra HD display, while others speculated that there would be multiple models. But truth is, the company kept it relatively simple.
“We learned from our Galaxy S users that they really want basic, everyday life features. They weren’t looking for the eye-popping, disruptive technology that everybody else was looking for,” said Young-Hee Lee, executive vice president of Samsung’s mobile division, in an interview with Re/code. “Of course, we are keen on preparing for the next big thing with very disruptive innovation. But at the same time, we realized how important it is to listen to our customers. We’re going back to basics.”
As a result, the company chose to make improvements in five key areas based on customer feedback: The design, camera, network, health and fitness, and security.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s new in each category:
In general, the Galaxy S5 looks similar to previous models and is made from polycarbonate plastic. Samsung did try to “glam” it up by adding a perforated pattern to the back cover and offering the phone in electric blue and copper gold, in addition to black and white. Glam isn’t exactly the word I’d use, but it does make the phone feel less plasticky. The texture is similar to the faux leather used on the Galaxy Note 3. Also, the Galaxy S5 is now dust and water resistant.
The Galaxy S5’s display is slightly bigger at 5.1 inches (versus five inches), but the resolution is still full HD (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) and not ultra HD (2,560 by 1,440 pixels). That said, it now incorporates technology that can adapt the colors on the screen to be more representative of what we see in real life depending on the subject. The screen’s outdoor visibility has also been improved on the Galaxy S5.
On the user interface side, Samsung has cleaned up the Galaxy S5 a lot by removing many of its proprietary apps and services. For example, Samsung Hub is no longer on the phone, though you can still download it from the app store. The only Samsung services that come preloaded on the Galaxy S5 are ChatOn, S Health, S Voice and Samsung apps.
Samsung told me that this was at the request of its customers, which I can believe because I hate bloatware (the company is also working with carriers to reduce the number of installed apps). But whether they like to admit it or not, Google also had a part in it after the search giant pressured Samsung to scale back some of its homegrown efforts to customize its Android devices.
The Galaxy S5 now has a 16-megapixel camera compared to the Galaxy S4’s 13-megapixel camera. But more than the pixel count, the company has focused on improving performance and simplifying the user experience of the camera app.
This includes reducing the time it takes the camera to autofocus, so you don’t miss any shots. Samsung said a typical smartphone camera takes anywhere between 0.6 seconds and one second to focus, but the Galaxy S5’s camera now does so in 0.3 seconds, thanks to a new face detection autofocus feature. Another addition is Selective Focus, which keeps the subject in focus while blurring the background if you desire such an effect.
The Samsung Galaxy S5′s (right) real-time HDR feature lets you preview the image with and without HDR before snapping the photo.
Also new to the Galaxy S5 is real-time HDR. With this function, you can toggle HDR on and off before taking a photo to see which one yields the best photo. This is a timesaver compared to how it works on smartphones today, where the camera takes two photos (one with and one without HDR) and then you have to choose after the fact. The Galaxy S5 also does HDR video, as well as 4K video.
To simplify the interface, Samsung has consolidated a lot of its photo editing features, such as eraser, drama shot and best face, into a single function called Shots & More.
I have to say the enhancements to the camera might be my favorite part of the Galaxy S5 (that and the cleaned up interface). I love posting photos to Instagram and Facebook, and the Galaxy S5 brings some fun options in a simplified experience.
The Galaxy S5 will be the first smartphone to introduce 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2X2 MIMO (which stands for multiple-input and multiple-output). I know what you’re thinking: What the heck does that mean?
Without getting too technical, it’s a wireless technology that allows the device to transfer more data at the same time. For the consumer, that should mean faster downloads — three times faster than the Galaxy S4, according to Samsung. In addition, the Galaxy S5 has a feature called Download Booster that lets you use LTE and Wi-Fi simultaneously to achieve faster download speeds.
Again without getting too geeky, the handset supports a wireless standard that allows U.S. consumers to travel to many countries in Europe and South America with 4G LTE roaming, and not just 3G as it is now.
Health and Fitness
When going through customer feedback, Samsung said it found that a lot of its users were using its S Health app to track their food consumption and steps taken. So, to expand the functionality, the Galaxy S5 now has a heart-rate sensor built into the camera’s flash. Users can simply touch their index finger to the sensor to monitor their heart rate.
The company is also making the S Health API available to third-party companies, so they can develop apps that can work with S Health and the Galaxy S5’s new capabilities.
Finally, to provide extra protection to your smartphone, the Galaxy S5 now has a fingerprint scanner. It’s not built into the Home button like the iPhone 5s. Rather you swipe your finger on the bottom of the screen. I got a demo of it, but it seemed a little temperamental and took a couple of tries to work. You can use the feature to unlock your phone, log into your Samsung account and pay online using PayPal.
While Samsung primarily focused on these five areas for improvement, there are other enhancements. The company claims that the Galaxy S5 has 20 percent better battery life than the Galaxy GS4.
There’s also a new power-saving mode that will kick in when your battery is running low. When this happens, the smartphone will make the display black and white and only allow you to use six apps — the phone, messages, browser and then three apps of your choosing. By doing so, it can extend the battery life by two times.
Other information you might be interested in: The Galaxy S5 ships running Android 4.4.2 KitKat, the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, and features a Qualcomm quad-core processor. It will come in a 16-gigabyte model and a 32GB version, both with microSD expansion slots.
There will certainly be those disappointed by the lack of any groundbreaking features, but I also think it’s okay to focus on improving existing features to enhance the functionality and usability of the device. I’ll need more time with the smartphone to see if that’s true of the Galaxy S5.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 will be available worldwide (except in Japan) in April. In the U.S., the smartphone will be sold through AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular, as well as retailers like Best Buy, Amazon, Target and Walmart. Though the company didn’t announce pricing today, I’d imagine it would fall in the usual $200 range on contract.