Samsung is back once again with a new flagship Android smartphone, so here's our full review of the Galaxy S5.
The Korean giant has been hugely successful with its flagship Galaxy S range of smartphones but can the latest edition hold its own against stiff competition. ThePhone 5S remains a great handset and HTC has impressed with the new HTC One M8.
The Galaxy S5 retains that recognisable Samsung look which means not much has changed compared to previous generations and, for that matter, other Galaxy devices. The S5 looks a lot like the Galaxy Note 3 which is a shame because it really requires its own style as a flagship device. Unfortunately it's bigger, squarer and more boring than the Galaxy S4. Read: Galaxy S5 price and where to buy in the UK.
It also doesn't feel like a premium smartphone in the hand. A 'perforated' rear cover supposedly makes it feel more natural but we just don't see the benefit here. It does feel nice and soft to the touch and has a nice grip to it but reminds us of that 3D style wallpaper you can get for your walls (that's bad).
A huge design change is that Samsung has added dust and water resistant credentials. That's something which Sony has been offering for a while now in its Xperia range. The Galaxy S5 has an IP67 rating which means it will happily get wet, even submersed in water, without frazzling inside and is completely sealed from dust particles.
However, you'll need to make doubly sure that the microUSB port cover is on and the rear cover is perfectly clipped into place. I'm sure a number of users will get an unwanted surprise when the gaps aren't completely covered since it needs to clip in properly in a total of nearly 20 places around the edge.
Samsung has decided to go against the trend of on-screen navigations buttons and stuck with its physical home button with a touch-sensitive counterparts either side. Instead of the previously used menu, we now have recent apps. The physical button is fine and houses the fingerprint scanner (see hardware) but the other two, particularly the back button, are hard to reach.
The Galaxy S5 comes in four colours at launch – black, white (as you might expect) plus blue and something called 'copper gold'. At launch Vodafone has the network exclusive on the gold model.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Hardware and performance
Inside the Galaxy S5 is the kind of high-end specs you'd want to find in a flagship. Like rival devices, the handset has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor which is quad-core but clocked a little higher at 2.5GHz. This is accompanied by a now standard 2GB of RAM, although a handful of devices do have more.
We've hit a point where flagship smartphone offer excellent performance – it almost goes without saying. They're all running of powerful and efficient processors so we're not surprised to find the Galaxy S5 nippy in day-to-day performance but it's not flawless.
For starters, there is a slight delay between pressing the power or home button and the lockscreen appearing and the same is true when hitting the recent apps button. There's also the fact that the camera app takes a good few seconds to launch and quitting to the homescreen from apps doesn't happen straight away. These are minor gripes but the Galaxy S5 seems slow in these areas compares to rivals which can do these tasks seemingly instantaneously.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Storage
The Galaxy S5 is available in either 16- or 32GB capacities, although it seems to be a classic situation where the larger of the two is like a super rare Pokémon. A microSD card supporting up to 64GB is almost a given nowadays but the Galaxy S5 can take double that at 128GB. Like other Samsung smartphones, the Galaxy S5 also offers 50GB of free Dropbox cloud storage.
It's a good job there is plenty of storage options because like the Galaxy S4, a lot of the Galaxy S5's internal storage is used up before you've even downloaded an app. Our 16GB has just under 10GB available which is less than average.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Screen
Despite numerous rumours of a 5.25in screen, the Galaxy S5's display is only marginally larger than the Galaxy S4's. It's 5.1in and if you were hoping for a new crazy high resolution then you might be disappointed to find out that the Galaxy S5 has a now very standard Full HD display - we were expecting the next generation of technology so can't help but feel a little disappointed.
Nevertheless, the display does look brilliant on a number of levels. Of course, it's still Super AMOLED as you would expect from Samsung so colours are vivid and pop out at you and contrast is good, too. As you might presume, the Galaxy S5 offers excellent viewing angles.
The Galaxy S5's display performs better than most outdoors and we found we rarely need to up the brightness to gain visibility. Maximum brightness is good and about level with what we're using to seeing but it's worth noting that the display goes exceptionally dark which could be handy for saving battery or situations like reading in the dark. A handy brightness slider resides in the notification bar but it can be switched off if you prefer.
Smart stay is carried over from the Galaxy S4 and keeps the screen from switching off as long as you're looking at it. By default, the screen is set 'adapt display' which automatically adjust elements like colour gamut, white tone and contrast but you can use other modes which tweak the settings if you prefer: Dynamic, Standard, Professional photo and Cinema.
Flagship smartphones are generally large these days so we're talking 5in and above. This makes them difficult to use one-handed but Samsung has included a special mode which you can enable in the settings menu. A quick swipe into the middle of the screen and back out will launch the one-handed mode. Here you can adjust the size of the interface so it's easy to reach. It's a bit strange but we can see it being helpful to some users.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Fingerprint scanner
A key hardware addition is a fingerprint scanner. It's keeping up with the Jones' here since the iPhone 5s has one. The Galaxy S5's is also built into the home button but you have to swipe your finger across it. You can register up to three fingerprints and need to set a backup password because there's a five attempt limit on using your paws to unlock the device.
In general, the fingerprint scanner is accurate at reading your print but swiping your digits across it in the correct manner is awkward to do one-handed which is quite annoying. Unless you hold it with one hand and use your other hand to swipe, you'll quickly hit the attempt limit. Messages like 'swipe over the centre' and 'swipe the entire pad' are a little too common.
As well as unlocking the Galaxy S5 with your finger, you can use your precious print to authorise you Samsung account instead of typing in a password. The same is true of PayPal payments so this does make things quicker and more secure. Furthermore, it can be used to launch a private mode (see software).
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Heart rate monitor
Samsung has successfully added new features to the Galaxy S5, but this is one which might sound cool but isn't something most users will find to be an actual benefit.
Below the camera is a flash but also a heart rate monitor, making the Galaxy S5 the first smartphone to come with the feature. Place your finger on the sensor and it can read your heart rate in a matter of seconds. It's integrated into the S Health app and while it's a novelty to check your pulse a few times, realistically it's something only enthusiasts are going to use regularly.
We feel it's the kind of tech which is better reserved for smartwatches and fitness trackers. It seems more like Samsung has added it just to tick a 'new feature' box on a check list.
It's also worth noting that the S Health app also keeps track of your daily step count without a wrist band or similar additional gadget, so the Galaxy S5 is keeping up with rivals on this front – namely the iPhone 5s and HTC One M8.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Wireless connectivity
Wireless connectivity is all pretty up-to-date with 11ac Wi-Fi (MIMO), NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, an infrared transmitter, and the latest 4G technology. Samsung has fitted the Galaxy S5 with Cat 4 LTE supporting eight bands and a download booster which uses your Wi-Fi connection combine with mobile data to give you a theoretical max download speed of 400Mbps.
Unfortunately wireless charging is not something which is built-in – look to Nokia's high end devices and Google's Nexus 5 for this. However, a charging cover will be available to add this facility.
Next page: cameras, software and battery life -->
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Cameras
The rear camera has a decent 16Mp sensor (3Mp more than the Galaxy S4) and it has a few new features to boot. Super-fast auto focus means you can take a photo in 0.3 seconds, according to Samsung. We can't time this precisely but it does seem to be very nippy indeed. The problem is that the camera app takes a good few seconds to load in the first place – strange considering this is in no way a slow phone. Rivals all manage to start up their camera apps quicker, so you may well miss the moment when whipping out your S5.
A selective focus mode allows you to choose from three different focal points after you've taken a photo – near, far and pan. This is fun to play around with but is hit and miss – HTC's Duo Camera takes this a step further with the ability to focus anywhere on the image.
Image quality from the 16Mp sensor is good, and the extra resolution compared to the myriad of 8Mp smartphone cameras is certainly noticeable once you start cropping photos. In other words, you shouldn’t be left with a blurry, blocky mess.
Photos are generally nice and sharp, and the 0.3 second claimed focusing speed seems to make a difference when trying to capture the moment. We did end up with a few blurry shots, but if you take your time and hold the phone still, you can get great results.
Here's an automatic shot, which has been cropped down to 1500 pixels wide (click to view this larger version):
Here's the same scene but with HDR enabled - it makes a big difference:
Here's a 100 percent crop of the above image, showing the level of detail you can expect:
Videos are also decent. We haven’t tested the 4K mode yet, but Full HD videos were sharp and fairly detailed. Some people might say footage is over-sharpened and over-saturated, but we think it looks good: (don't forget to watch full screen, and select 1080p resolution)
You can use the HDR mode in both photos and videos, and results are good. It’s nice that the live preview shows what a photo will look like in HDR mode instead of having to review the shot after taking it.
Overall, the S5’s camera is impressive and certainly one of the best available on a smartphone.
At the front is a 2Mp camera which provides a clear and detailed picture for selfies and video calling. It can record video in up to 1080p resolution.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Software
At first glance and going by the main homescreen, Samsung hasn't done much to the software despite it being Android 4.4 KitKat. However, things have tweaked here and there. Round icons grace the drop down notification bar and settings menu which by the way is huge but you can hide and expand each section.See also: Samsung Galaxy S5: new features and software.
As we mentioned earlier, the notification bar has an optional brightness slider and you can customise which quick settings are displayed. You can also switch on app recommendations which will suggest apps when you, for example, plug headphones in.
It's nice to see only a small amount of pre-loaded apps with Dropbox and Flipboard making up the only non-Google or Samsung apps.
Similar to HTC's BlinkFeed, Samsung's Magazine interface is placed to the left of the main homescreen and gives an aggregated personalised news feed – you can choose which news subjects and social networks are included. We prefer BlinkFeed but if you don't like this kind of feature then luckily you can switch it off in the homescreen settings.
New features include a Kid's mode which allows the own to restrict the content and play time of a younger users. The interface is fun, colourful and the child can't exit back to the main phone without knowing the PIN number.
There's also a private mode which we mentioned earlier when talking about the fingerprint scanner. This allows you to, surprisingly, store private content such as photos and videos which you don't want anyone to be able to access.
Despite having KitKat, the lock screen is frustratingly simple. You can only launch the camera app and optionally view addition information in the form of weather and pedometer. This means the Galaxy S5 says no to adding lockscreen widgets and accessing the notification bar.
While Samsung's TouchWiz interface has got better, it's still a bit too busy for our liking and doesn't match up to HTC's Sense in the style stakes. Sections such as the messaging and contact look dated, too.
Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Battery life
Samsung continues to offer a removable battery which will please some users and the battery capacity has increased compared to the Galaxy S4. It's now a 2,800mAh battery inside and although that's certainly not the biggest we've seen, it's about how you use and manage that power which matters.
We're impressed with the battery life of the Galaxy S5. After a full working day or regular use and testing we've got a little over two thirds of the battery remaining. The smartphone should last most users two days which is a good result even if we do want more from battery technology.
The Galaxy S5 has an Ultra Power Saving mode which helps to avoid the handset dying and stretches the battery life. When the battery level hits a low percentage this will kick in, switching the screen into a greyscale interface and switching off all unnecessary functions, leaving you with just the basics like SMS messaging and calls. Samsung says that in this mode, the Galaxy S5 can last for 24 hours in standby on 10 percent. At 80 percent the Galaxy S5 suggests that it will be able to continue on for a whopping 10 days – it's like getting into a time machine back to the 90s.
Buying Advice Things haven't changed much from the Galaxy S4 but Samsung, as usual, has packed the Galaxy S5 with features but a lot are somewhat unnecessary. The heart rate monitor is a prime example and while the fingerprint scanner is cool, it's difficult to use. There is some top end hardware here, particularly the screen, but nothing which stands out in a busy and competitive market. A key element is that the design of the Galaxy S5 falls short. It's plastic, looks like every other Samsung handset and doesn't feel premium. Galaxy S4 users needn’t upgrade and anyone looking for a flagship smartphone can get better elsewhere.