Samsung Galaxy S 5 review: Sticking with what already works

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It’s hard to believe we are already on the 5th generation of the Galaxy S phone. The Galaxy S series is by far the most popular line of Android smartphones, and the reason is simple – marketing, marketing, and did I say marketing? It’s hard to watch anything on television without seeing some sort of Samsung commercial. The “Galaxy” name has become a household name much like the iPhone has. Samsung is also famous for its consistency. Their smartphones and tablets look and operate very similarly from year to year. Hardcore fanboys don’t go for that, but Samsung didn’t get to the top of the mountain selling hardcore fanboys, they did it by catering to the mainstream audience. These are the folks that when they buy a new phone, they want it to operate just like their previous one. Samsung does that better than anyone. Last year’s Galaxy S 4 didn’t change much in terms of design, so most people thought the Galaxy S 5 would bring a radical change, but that didn’t happen. Much like last year’s Galaxy S 4, the Galaxy S 5 appears to be a slight upgrade. Some will say this is a lack of innovation, but Samsung feels the Galaxy S 5 is very innovative. Will the Galaxy S 5 keep the Samsung faithful happy? Well hit the break to get started.

Design

Unless you have a really keen eye, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Galaxy S 5 and the Galaxy S 4 or the Galaxy S III (other than size). While many hoped that Samsung would give a new refreshed look for the Galaxy S 5, that simply did not happen. Samsung chose instead to keep the overall look the same, but change a few things that they feel are for the better.

The most notable change is the back cover, which sports a perforated pattern of little holes. Some might say it looks a lot like a band-aid, and I agree. Samsung went with this texture to give you a better grip. However, in comparing it to the Galaxy S 4, I think it’s actually more slippery. The Galaxy S 4 had a glossy finish, but the grip wasn’t all that bad. The Galaxy S 5 back almost feels like styrofoam, but overall, it’s not as slippery as past Samsung offerings.

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Another change, and not as noticeable, is that the Galaxy S 5 is waterproof / dustproof and is probably the most underrated feature of the phone. It has an IP67 rating, which means it can be submerged in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. This additional feature adds a cover to the USB port to obviously protect it. I have never been a fan of these covers since they generally break off at some point. For now, the GS5 implementation seems pretty good, but we won’t know for sure until several months has passed.

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Just like last year’s GS4, there is faux metal trim around the sides of the device. The front is nearly identical to last year’s model, but there is a change in the capacitive buttons. You still get the same old Home button, but the left Menu button has been ditched in favor of a Recent Apps button. The back key remains to the right of the Home button.

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The GS5 is slightly thicker than the GS4 (8.1mm vs 7.9mm) and it’s a little larger. The GS5 measures 5.59 x 2.85, while the G4 measures 5.38 x 2.75. This extra size does give it a slight weight boost as it comes in at 145 grams as compared to 130 grams for the GS4.

As far as buttons and ports go, there is very little change from last year, which is just another example of Samsung’s commitment to consistency. The microphone jack and IR blaster gets flipflopped. This year, you will find the microphone jack at the top right and the IR blaster at the top left. The left side has the volume rocker towards the top, and the right side has the power button, also towards the top. The USB port is at the bottom middle, but they opted for a USB 3.0 port instead of USB 2.0. The good news is that you can still use your old chargers if you wish, but Samsung obviously provides an updated charger. The back has the 16MP camera lens at the top center, and just below that is the LED flash and something brand new for this year. A heart rate monitor sits to the right of the LED flash. Just like previous renditions, the back cover comes off to reveal a removable battery. You will also find the SIM and microSD slots under the back cover, just above the battery.

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The Galaxy S 5 isn’t going to impress anyone in terms of design like the HTC One (M8) will, but it does appeal to mainstream consumers. I have put both phones side-by-side on a table and asked people which phone they prefer (forgetting about size and the brand). The majority of people went with the GS5, and many of them were iPhone users. Since a lot of people slap a case on their phone, they really don’t care if it’s metal or plastic. Samsung knows this, and that is why they continue to stick with what has already been working for them.

Hardware

The Galaxy S 5 features a 5.1-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) Super AMOLED display (432 ppi), a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor (international variant has an octa-core Eynos 5422 which consists of a 2.1 GHz quad-core Cortex-A15 and 1.5 GHz quad-core Cortex-A7), Adreno 330 (international variant has an ARM Mali T628MP6 GPU), 2GB of RAM, 16 or 32GB of internal storage, microSD slot for up to an additional 128GB of extra storage, 16MP rear camera, 2MP front-facing camera, 2,800 mAh battery, Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac VHT80, MIMO(2×2), Download Booster (LTE + Wi-Fi simultaneous reception), NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 BLE / ANT+, LTE Cat.4 (150/50Mbps), USB 3.0, and IR blaster (IrLED).

Performance

Just like the HTC One (M8), the Galaxy S 5 sports the latest and greatest from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 801. Clocked at 2.50 GHz, this quad-core can eat up anything you throw at it. These newer processors are obviously faster, but most people won’t notice. The biggest difference lies in better battery performance and being able to perform a lot of the background stuff like the newer camera features. The GS5 feels a little slower than the HTC One (M8), but that is more because of how the software is tweaked. Samsung has a lot of extra bloat, which can affect the performance. I did run the obligatory AnTuTu benchmark which came in at 36,103.

At first glance you would think that GS5’s display is the same as the GS4, other than the extra 0.1-inches. Sure, the Super AMOLED display is still at 1080p (1920 x 1080), but this is not the same display. We recently posted about it being picked as the “best performing display ever tested.There is a lot more than resolution when it comes to displays. For starters, the GS5 display is 22% brighter than the GS4 and 13% brighter than the Note 3. The GS5 display uses a lot less power as well, and it has more brightness when viewing at 30 degree angles. It also has a new feature in that you can dim it down to 2 nits for dark environments, which makes it much easier on the eyes. Samsung also offers 5 different modes to appeal to everyone. They include Adapt, Cinema, Dynamic, Professional Photo, and Standard. The bottomline is the display is absolutely stunning. Is it the best in the industry? When it gets this good, it is really hard to tell with the naked eye, but I have zero complaints with it.

Battery

The Galaxy S 5 gets a slightly larger battery than last year’s Galaxy S 4 (2,800 mAh vs 2,600 mAh). That’s only an 8% increase, but in terms of battery life, our tests showed an increase of roughly 32% over last year. This is probably due to the fact that both the display and the Snapdragon 801 are more efficient. I ran my usual video rundown test in which I play continuous video while the phone is connected to 4G LTE and Wi-Fi (not connected), Bluetooth (not connected), and the GPS turned on. I also set the display at about 2/3 brightness. I was able to get 11 hours and 51 minutes versus the Galaxy S 4’s roughly 9 hours. It’s also slightly better than what we saw on the HTC One (M8). Now we know your basic day doesn’t consist of running video all day, but the performance on this test is indicative of what you can expect from normal usage. With moderate to heavy use, you should have no problem making it from wake up to bedtime with some spare change.

I should also note that the Galaxy S 5 features an Ultra Power Saving Mode, which will allow you to run your phone for at least one full day even when the battery has only 10% life left. I will explain more about it in the software section.

Software

We made note in our Galaxy S 4 review that Samsung is all about the software features. It is these software features that sell the phone even if people never use them. Without these software features, Samsung wouldn’t have nearly as much to tout in their marketing campaigns. Some people like to refer to it as bloat, and understandably so, but that bloat hasn’t hindered Samsung in anyway. It’s basically the “throw as much stuff as you can” approach and Samsung does it better than any other manufacturer. The bottomline is that if users don’t want to bother with it, they don’t have to, but if they find something useful, then it’s there for them. I have seen people use and get excited about S Voice even though Google offers a better alternative. I have also seen people getting totally annoyed with things like “Smart Scroll” as they ask me how to turn it off. If you find that you don’t use most of these features, the downside is a loss of storage space, but thankfully, you can add up to an additional 128 GB with a microSD card.

TouchWiz (Samsung’s UI) is the same old same old here. It looks no different than what we have seen in the past. That is a very good thing for mainstreamers. The mainstream audience doesn’t like change, even if it’s for the better, so Samsung has always kept their UI consistent. It’s not for me, but I’m not the target buyer.

Android isn’t the focal point here, but it does sport 4.4.2 KitKat, so you will get some of the newer stock Android features like wireless printing and such.

Now let’s go into more detail about what new stuff (and some old) Samsung has on the GS5.

Fingerprint Scanner

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Now that Apple has included a fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5S, it’s no surprise that Samsung has followed suit. However this version is a little different. Samsung opted for an on-display version, rather than a hardware version like Apple’s Touch ID. This had fail written all over it, but Samsung’s offering isn’t all that bad. The only issue I have is that you have to swipe your finger and it’s not easy to do with one hand. It’s not that I am lazy folks, it’s more that you have to swipe it correctly. The entire top of your finger needs to be touching the display for the entire swipe. Now it’s not all that hard either. Once you figure it out, you will be able to swipe and unlock your phone with a 95% plus success rate. Samsung also allows you to record up to three fingers so you can choose at least one finger from both of your hands as well as someone else such as a spouse. Of course, if all else fails, you will have a password that you can enter to access the phone.

Samsung also offers the ability to use the fingerprint scanner for other things such as to make Paypal payments. They have opened up their APIs so that other developers can implement it in their apps too. LastPass is probably the most recent app to include support for the GS5 fingerprint scanner.

For a better look at how the fingerprint scanner works, check out my two videos below.

 

My Magazine

My Magazine was first introduced on the Galaxy Note 3, and it also made its way onto the Galaxy TabPRO line of tablets. The GS5 version isn’t as “in your face” as the TabPRO version, which is probably a good thing. My Magazine is basically an entrance into Flipboard. Unfortunately it’s not as polished as HTC’s BlinkFeed, but for casual users, it will get the job done. The problem is that you can’t see all your news on the main screen, you have to enter the next screen in order to see more stories. This is where it becomes Flipboard. Flipboard already offers an app for Android so it makes no sense to offer it in this manner. BlinkFeed is HTC’s own proprietary feature and it shows more information on the main screen. Plus if you don’t like it, you can easily remove it. Now you can remove My Magazine, but it’s done in an unorthodox way.

Here’s a quick video showing you how My Magazine works and how you can remove it.

 

S Health

S Health isn’t new, but it has been updated with new features for the Galaxy S 5. If you’re not familiar with S Health, it is your complete fitness and wellness app. There are a number of apps on Google Play that will serve the same purpose, but the fact that S Health is pre-installed and ready to go makes it easy for the average consumer. It’s just another example of Samsung creating their own ecosystem. If someone really likes S Health, they might have a hard time buying another manufacturer’s phone the next time around.

This year’s S Health offers a heart rate monitor through the built-in sensor on the back of the device. This certainly isn’t a big selling factor to me, but hey, it’s there and it doesn’t bother you if you never use it. If you do, S Health can track your heart rate over time. You simply touch your finger to the sensor on the back of the device and a “beats per minute” will appear a few seconds later.

By far the biggest edition is a “personal coach” to help you achieve your goals. Whether it’s losing weight, working out more, sleeping more, or cutting stress, the “personal coach” will assist you.

S Health has a built in pedometer so you will easily see how many steps you have taken throughout the day. This info is shown within the app and on your lock screen. If you like running and/or cycling instead, S Health can track all your workouts. For those that are really serious about their diets, you can track everything you eat using the included database of millions of different foods. All cool stuff, but you have to have time on your hands to get a lot of use out of it.

Those that own a Gear Fit or one of the Gear smartwatches get another added benefit in that either device will sync with S Health, but you don’t need either of those devices to enjoy the benefits of S Health.

I put together a video showing you how S Health works, check it out below.

 

Private Mode

This one is actually quite useful, but the majority of people won’t even know it exists unless they happen to see something about it online. Private Mode allows you to hide photos, documents, music, videos, etc. from prying eyes. You simply apply a PIN, Password, Pattern, or fingerprint to unlock everything that is Private. You then have to remember to toggle it back to private, but since you get a notification reminder, it shouldn’t be a problem. It works very well, but it’s not all that intuitive at times.

Here’s a video showing you how it works.

 

Kids Mode

This is brand new for the GS5, and you guessed it, it’s a mode just for your kids. Anyone with kids knows that the little ones are going to need to play with your phone from time to time. This is where Kids Mode comes in. It’s basically a launcher in that once you run it, your kid(s) will only see what you want them to see. They get a nice easy to use interface and you get to choose what apps they can play with. You can even set the time limit if you wish. Again, there are apps in the Play Store that do the the same thing, but it’s built-in and ready to go.

Here’s a video showing you Kids Mode.

 

Smart Remote and WatchON

The Galaxy S 5 sports an IR blaster just like the Galaxy S 4 did, so you will be able to control your home theater system. Last year, Samsung offered the WatchON app, but for whatever reason, a similar app, called Smart Control, is pre-installed on the device. You can still use WatchON, but you will have to download it from the Play Store. The version in the Play Store appears to only be for the Galaxy S 5.

Both apps are powered by Peel and serve the same purpose. WatchON appears to be the better offering in terms of aesthetics though, and it’s also a tunnel into Samsung’s own TV and Movies store. With either app, you will be able to control your TV, cable/satellite box, AV Receiver, Blu-ray player, and so on. You can even setup multiple rooms in your house. You will also get a guide so you can see what is on TV and get recommendations based on your favorites.

Here’s a look at both apps in action.

 

Ultra Power Saving Mode

This new feature allows your Galaxy S 5 to run for an extended period of time even if you only have 10% battery life. This is possible because most of the essentials will be turned off, but you will still be able to receive phone calls and/or texts. When this mode is enabled, the color of the screen will change to greyscale, apps will be restricted to those that are essential (or those selected by you), mobile data is turned off when the display is turned off, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off. You will also get a more simplified interface. Unfortunately there is no way to set it to turn on automatically when a certain amount of battery life is left, but you can easily toggle it from the quick menu icons. You will be able to get over a full day of use in Ultra Power Saving Mode even when you only have 10% battery life.

Here’s a quick look at how Ultra Power Saving Mode works

 

Samsung still offers all the “goodies” from last year such as Air View, Smart Stay, Smart Pause, Multi Window, etc, but they are off by default. So unless you’re a fan of them, they won’t be in your face. They can be found in the quick menu icons, which appears when you swipe down from the notification area with two fingers. Tapping on the appropriate one will toggle them on or off.

Camera

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Samsung has done a pretty good job with their cameras despite not offering optical image stabilization (OIS). The Galaxy S 5 features a 16MP lens with a f/2.2 aperture and a 4.8mm focal length. The size of the pixels is rather small (1.12 microns), which can hamper low light performance. Samsung’s new ISOCELL technology is supposed to make up for that by forming minute barriers between neighboring pixels to increase light sensitivity and control electron collection. It works pretty well, but I found the HTC One (M8) to be better in low light conditions.

The camera interface is cleaner this year as well. The biggest change is the “Mode” button is no longer a wheel of what feels like a million different camera modes. Instead, you will only find five or six different modes at the bottom. Samsung really didn’t decrease the number of modes, they actually combined Best Shot, Best Face, Drama Shot, Eraser, and Panning Shot (new for this year) into one mode called Shot & More. They also decided to de-clutter things a little by not pre-installing some modes like Sports, Sound & Shot, etc. If you think you will make use of them, you can tap on “Download” and go to Samsung Apps to download whichever ones you want.

The main camera software lets you tweak various settings like exposure and white balance, but the HTC One (M8) offers a lot more control. One very cool new feature is the ability to see how your HDR photos will look in real-time as in before you press the shutter button. It works for video as well. Speaking of video, you can record 4K video, but probably the coolest feature is the ability to pause your recording rather than just stopping it. This way you won’t have as many video files to sift through.

Here’s a look at the camera software.

 

Selective Focus and Out of Focus

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The Bokeh effect, in which you de-focus certain areas of a photo, has become quite popular as of late. Samsung implemented what they are calling “Selective Focus” that will do just that. It does work, but the downside is that you have to know beforehand that you want to do such an image. It is however a quick toggle. If you decide after the fact that you would like to blur out the background, there is still hope with the “Out of Focus” option. Unfortunately both options weren’t all that consistent. The HTC One (M8) does a much better job, but it does sport two lenses specifically for this reason.

Here’s a video showing you how “Selective Focus” and “Out of Focus” work

 

Shot & More

As I mentioned previously, Shot & More combines Best Photo, Best Face, Drama Shot, Eraser, and Panning Shot into this category. When you hit the shutter button, it will take a series of burst shots and then let you know which editing effects you can use with the particular photo. Just like “Selective Focus,” you need to know beforehand if you think you want to use one of the features. The good news is that you can make your edits after the fact. On last year’s GS4, you had to make your edits before you could shoot more pictures, which was a pain. With the GS5, you can go back to the photo in the gallery, and you will see an icon representing it was a Shot & More. Now you can apply whatever effects you want and save the new image to the Studio folder. You can still go back and apply a different adjustment at a later date as well.

You can see how Shot & More works in my video below.

 

So how does the Galaxy S 5 perform at taking pictures? Pretty good. It has an extremely fast focus (0.3 seconds), but my results for action shots were a little disappointing. Performance in bright light was great, but low light shots weren’t as good as the HTC One (M8). Here’s a variety of shots to judge for yourself.

Outdoors – HDR Off

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Outdoors – HDR On

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Action

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Indoors – Low Light

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Indoors – Extreme Low Light

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Closing

The Galaxy S 5 isn’t what a lot of people were hoping for. Most of the hardcores were hoping for a metal design, but it has been proven that metal doesn’t sell phones. Samsung went the conservative route by “not fixing what ain’t broken.” The design won’t get any praise, but it never stopped Samsung from selling phones. As far as pure specs, the Galaxy S 5 is a better phone than the Galaxy S 4, but it doesn’t feel as dramatic as the Galaxy S 4 vs the Galaxy S III. One huge difference though, is the fact that it’s waterproof and dustproof, and is probably the most underrated feature of the phone.

The fact that the GS5 is somewhat a rugged phone that doesn’t sport mid-level specs will be very intriguing for most people. If you already own a Galaxy S 4, you should probably stay put, but if you’re in the market for a new phone, the GS5 is a solid option. In my opinion, the HTC One (M8) is a much better phone, but the Galaxy S 5 is a damn good phone for the mainstream audience, which is the majority of consumers. Plain and simple…..it’s the iPhone of Android.

 

 


About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.


  • schlanz

    m8 a better phone? sure, I can understand that, but much better? bit of a stretch. they are about on par imo but for me the display, camera, battery, and screen to size ratio makes the s5 more attractive.

    the g3 will poop on them both, however.

    • http://1 Robert Nazarian

      It’s not all about the specs schlanz. I think the HTC One is better because of the design and the user experience. If LG got rid of their crappy UI, they just might poop on everybody.

    • lisa

      i had s 3 and i loved it until i did the update for it and it would turn it self off and on and then it over heated and shut off never shut back on . i was so sad when i take to spirit and said i think i need a new battery and they tech said no hun you need to get whole new phone i cried cause they didnt have any more s 3 so i have the s 5 which was given to me free cause i had the insurance on my s 3 i love the s 5 and i cant wait for the s 6 to come out

  • Sharifullah kamawal

    Samsong