New Samsung Galaxy S5 phone put to the test (April 23rd, 2014)
Product Manufacturer: Samsung
Price: $199 under contract
- Battery life/power options
- Camera/camera options
- Case feels cheap
- Bad fingerprint sensor
- Health gimmicks
The Samsung Galaxy S5 might be the phone that Android users have been craving for some time. Information coming out of Mobile World Congress painted the phone to be the next leap in innovation spearheaded by Samsung to breathe life back into their smartphones. From changes in the camera and adding pieces of technology to aid a healthy lifestyle, on top of a powerful set of internals, the phone has been set up by Samsung marketing to be the next must have phone for consumers at all levels. But is Samsung creating a phone that will indeed work for everyone, or are they stretching themselves too thin to cover so many ideas?
Design cues for the Samsung Galaxy S5 aren't that much different from the previous generations. The phone features a polycarbonate design, with Gorilla Glass 3 covering the screen. Our review unit was the black on its base with silver accents on the sides and bezels. The cover on the back makes use of a dimpled design that looks sort of awkward at first, but is actually comfortable to grip. The matte finish makes it less likely to attract fingerprints, smudges or streaks.
Other color options are also available, including a white unit in the United States. The UK also has an electric blue version available, as well as a copper gold color that is only available through European carrier Vodafone for the time being. Outside of the back covers, the two UK color options aren't any different from the black version according to previews. The face of the white version is changed from black to white to match the back of the phone.
"Slimmed down and somewhat plain" are simple descriptions of the look of the Galaxy S5. Nothing about the design stands out as special -- Samsung was clearly going to for a minimalist design approach. Not much was added in any sort of design improvement or flair from the Galaxy S4, but the outer edges of the phone now features a ribbed design over flat in previous generations. It shares the rounded corners of the previous generations, but somehow they feel more refined -- as if the angle they take to the back of the phone is a better contour for the hand to conform to.
The buttons on the phone are all in the expected areas for a Samsung device. Volume controls are on the left side of the phone towards the top. The power button sites on the right side about a quarter of the way down from the top. On the top of the phone there is a 3.5mm jack on the right and an IR blaster on the right. The physical button on the Galaxy S5 is more pronounced that previous models. The silver bezel makes the button sit slightly above the display, which also contains a fingerprint scanner for security usage.
Using the physical button feels sturdy and tactile, but the finger scanner is very hit and miss. Unlike the iPhone, the S5 uses a swipe method over the scanner instead of pressing the finger to it. Only one finger can be used, which means the user will often have to use two hands (one to hold, one to swipe) to use it. This becomes a headache when using it as a security measure for unlocking the phone. During our time spent with the phone, only one in four swipes would register properly on the phone. The alternative password became preferable to use, since the scanner never wanted to work properly.
The most visible improvement for the Galaxy S5 over previous generations is the display. Samsung went with a 1920x1080 5.1-inch AMOLED screen in the device. The screen is incredibly crisp, and can run a range of colors without issue. Clarity isn't a concern with the phone, as the display runs to about an eighth of an inch from the edge of the device without any bleeds or vignetting effects. Colors are easily defined, and seldom bleed into one another (outside of streaming video or closeup inspection of photos).
Another bonus to the display is that it automatically adjusts the brightness of the screen depending on the light of the room or the content of the screen. A small sensor sits next to the ear speaker to measure the light in the room. Holding an object over the sensor can manipulate the brightness of the screen. Remove it and the screen quickly adjusts to an appropriate level.
Though the display offers a wide array of crisp colors, it can be a little over saturated at times. While Samsung says that the Galaxy S5 avoids any kind of saturation of skin tones, our reviewer found the opposite to be the case. Comparing the same photos on the phone and on a sRGB-calibrated monitor showed that skin tones often contained too much of a red hue. It isn't a large difference, but someone with a trained eye will be able to notice it. Since the display leans to saturated colors in general, the overall color palette feel is noticeable when looking only at the device.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a fairly big phone, but not too large by any means. The trends in smartphones is skewing bigger and bigger, so it is no surprise that the S5 is larger than the S4. The screen has only grown to 5.1-inch over the previous year's five-inch, but seems noticeably bigger. The S5 has a footprint of 5.60 x 2.85 x 0.32 inches, but can still fit in a man's pocket comfortably. The size is larger than the previous-generation iPhone as well, measuring significantly larger than the iPhone 4S by over an inch in height and half an inch in width, but only about the same size (though wider) than the iPhone 5. TheGalaxy is a smidge thinner than the iPhone (0.37 of the iPhone 5 versus 0.32 of the Galaxy).
Weight of the device is still somewhat of an issue, as the Galaxy S5 still feels extremely light. In fact, the feel of it doesn't change that much from the Galaxy S4, which shared a lightweight feel. This is most likely because of the plastic construction of the device. The lightness of the unit (at 0.32 pounds) means the phone can easily launch out of one's hand if one isn't paying attention. It isn't that momentum carries it, but rather than it doesn't require as strong a grip to hold onto securely. This means that during vigorous gesturing, the phone could easily slip from the hand and possibly end up damaged.
Drops from three and five feet on carpeted surfaces had no visible effect on the phone. Our reviewer didn't think that it would be likely that the phone would fare as well if dropped on asphalt or concrete, mostly due to the lightweight nature of the phone. The screen is protected with Gorilla Glass, so it should hold up to most instances for a fall onto the face of the phone. Dropping it a few times on softer surfaces isn't likely to do any damage to the Galaxy S5. The test unit we tried was dropped from the aforementioned distances onto carpet ten times each. A consumer that is careful with their phone shouldn't expect to do any damage in normal situations.
Even though it survived drops in a fairly optimal situation, it is hard to get past the cheap feeling of the phone. The phone feels like it is made out of plastic no matter how you go about it -- because it is. Even though the Galaxy S5 is technically five grams heavier than the iPhone 4S, the iPhone feels like it is heavier since has a more solid feel to it. The stainless steel band around the edges of the iPhone help in this area too, compared to Samsung's silver coated plastic. We'd recommend that if you do pick up a Galaxy S5 in the future that you consider a case to protect your investment as they become available.
Charging the phone led to a slight surprise when it first came time to renew the battery in the Galaxy S5. The port isn't immediately visible, as it sits beneath a cover on the bottom of the phone. When the cover was opened, there was an initial shock that Samsung had gone with a new, proprietary plug. The trick was that the plug is actually two different plugs that look to be one. This is because Samsung included a thin USB 3.0 port right next to the Micro USB port. A small ridge sits between the ports that becomes more visible when the cable the phone comes with is examined. Thankfully, the phone can still be charged with regular Micro USB chargers, so those old chargers aren't obsolete just yet. The supplied cable is a snug fit, and somewhat difficult to align and plug in swiftly though.
The cover over the charging port brings to light a factor that addresses some everyday needs of the consumer. The Galaxy S5 is officially designated with an IP67 rating, which means that the device is dust tight and is water resistant to 3.28 feet for 30 minutes. On the back cover and plug cover there are rubber grommets that keep unwanted liquid and dust out. Tossing the phone on a dry pile of dirt didn't appear to allow any dust get into the protected areas of the phone.
Since the back comes off so easily, it was easy to clean off as well. Setting the phone out in a light rain for 30 minutes didn't affect it, nor did having it sit in spilt water on a desktop. Dust and water can and will get into the 3.5mm port, so it is advised to get a case that will plug that hole if it is of concern to the user.
Photos proved that the image processing system is the best yet from a Galaxy phone, as the S5 features a 16-megapixel sensor. Increased size of the sensor and resolutions aren't what makes the photos better, but rather the focusing ability and the software for it are what bring about the change. The camera uses a process called "Phase Detection Autofocus," which is commonly found in DSLR cameras. According to Samsung, the camera can focus in on an object in as little as 0.3 seconds. Our tests confirm this more or less, but focusing definitely happens faster in daylight. The sensor has also moved slightly from its placement on the Galaxy S4, but does nothing to hinder or help take photos.
Taking photos is done in a familiar fashion by tapping the designated area on the screen. Refocusing is done by just setting the focus point on the screen with a quick tap, and the camera does the rest of the work. A neat option that the Galaxy S5 brings to smartphone cameras is the ability for real-time HDR previews. Rather than render HDR photos in post, the phone allows users to preview the simulated effect live as you shoot it in a single shot. There is also an addition to editing on the phone with selective focus which allows users to change the focus point of a photo. However, this ability has to be triggered before the initial photo is taken, by pressing on the two head icon in the camera window.
Software for the camera gives users a slew of different operational abilities. The phone is closer to bridging the gap between the DSLR and a smartphone by incorporating options for things like metering modes, white balance, burst mode shooting, face detection and video stabilization. The settings for the camera are robust, but still not what a person with a dedicated camera would choose to use in most cases. That said, the flexibility of the camera would appeal to those consumers who want to be able to tune their photos in a manner closer to what they are used to. Live effects can also been seen on-the-fly rather than after the photo is taken. An option to use the phone as a remote viewfinder is also available.
Even though the camera is praised as bringing a welcome number of new features to the Galaxy phones, the photos it takes are still not that great. The camera operates the best in bright, sunny weather. Anything less than that, and the photos start to become grainy. Phone cameras still cannot compete with DSLRs or many prosumer-level cameras. We would have liked the pictures to be a little better, given how flexible the camera settings are, but Samsung didn't rise to the challenge.
Health features have made it into the Galaxy S5, via software from Samsung, which could either be a perk or something unnecessary depending on the person using the phone. Within the software, users will have the ability to count calories, set workout goals or track other things like steps taken per day. The phone can be used as a pedometer, tracking the steps taking on one of the nine screens, and on the starting screen for quick access. It isn't very accurate, but it makes for one less device to carry around per day.
There is another health feature which takes the whole health from something somewhat useful to being an outright gimmick when the back of the phone is observed. Next to the LED flash, there is a small sensor that users put their finger on to monitor their heart rate. Within the same health software, there is an option to pull up a heart rate monitor which prompts users to be still and remain quiet when in use. It works about as well as the fingerprint scanner. Perhaps only one in four times does it work without problem, either from what it considers improper placement of the finger or if there is too much noise in the background. When our reviewer had music playing six inches from the phone on a laptop, the monitor wouldn't provide a reading until the music was turned off.
Between the limited functionality of the health software and the heart rate monitor that doesn't really work, it feels like there was wasted development on the Galaxy S5. It feels like they are a gimmick meant to capitalize on other gadgets on the market without the polish those have acquired over the years. If someone was considering only buying the phone for these health features, the customer would be far better served by something like a FitBit. The health features can tie into a Samsung smart watch as well, which makes the options on the phone seem even more pointless.
Under the hood, the Galaxy S5 has a lot of power. The phone features a quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip to drive it, that's capable of up to 2.5 GHz per core thanks to the Krait 400 CPU. The chip makes use of the Adreno 330 GPU, which supports OpenGL ES 3.0, OpenCL and DirectX. It has 2GB of system memory, as well as 16GB of internal storage. Additional storage can be added via a MicroSD card on top of the SIM card, but no card is provided with the phone. The phone is powered by the latest version of Android, KitKat 4.4.2, pre-installed.
The phone feels snappy and quick to respond, though some have complained about lag times due to Samsung's TouchWiz. Our reviewer didn't feel that it got in the way of the phone, and felt that it was still quicker than a 2011-era iPhone 4S. There is a noticeable delay in some navigation aspects, but it doesn't interfere with the overall use of the phone. Menu transitions feel quick. No issues with navigation in terms of stuttered or freezing appeared. Transitions were smooth.
One minor change that may catch users by surprise is the change in the menu button that usually sits to the left of the physical home button. In the S5, this button has changed its function to a "recent apps used" button. This function allows for quicker swaps between applications rather than having to try to find icons or mess with the status bar.
Connectivity for the phone was adequate given the testing area of the device. The 4G connection remained at a constant level, never hiccuping or dropping to a lower radio setting unless prompted. Voice was clear, if not a little shallow. Switching to the 3G radio provided a few hiccups in a highly-saturated area, with few overlaps in towers. No calls were dropped, but there was a good deal of cutting out during conversations. Bluetooth operates as intended, as did NFC options. Pairing with a speaker went smoothly in both instances.
Wi-Fi functioned properly, but seemed to operate slower to the network than other phones used in the same testing environment -- from two to three seconds slower upon entering the Wi-Fi range. Samsung does boast that the S5 has dual Wi-Fi antennas using MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) technology to double up on connection. Also, the S5 features a download booster which makes use of both LTE and Wi-Fi at the same time. This will probably only be used sparingly when something is needed in a rush by many consumers, as one will often opt to use either LTE or Wi-Fi depending on their location and data plan.
Sound is something the device really needs to work on because of the rear facing speaker. When the phone is set down with music playing or using the speakerphone, the sound doesn't disperse correctly. It ends up creating a really shallow sound that doesn't project well, and doesn't feel as if it has any power behind it. Because of this, music didn't feel like it had the presence it should have. The internal audio isn't outstanding either, but simply feels like it outputting without any equalization. The sound quality overall leans towards tinny, most likely because of the position and size of the speaker.
Batteries have seen an improvement of the previous generation, bring the total capacity to 2800 mAh up from 2600mAh in the Galaxy S4. This results in up to 21 hours of talk time in a single charge. Charge time with the provided charger goes from 10 percent to 100 percent in 103 minutes, by our testing.
To help conserve the battery in times of dire need, the Galaxy comes with an "Ultra Power-Saving Mode" that pulls the phone down to bare functionality levels. The entire phone is put into a grayscale mode, and connectivity is limited to 3G or less, with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi deactivated. The phone is locked down to only phone calls, manual email retrieval and limited access to apps. At 100 percent battery charge, putting the phone into this mode enables it to last 12.5 days on standby. Even at just 10 percent battery, the Ultra Power-Saving Mode provides upwards of 24 hours of standby.
The features the Samsung Galaxy S5 listed had us convinced that the phone was going to be the next big thing for Android phones. It had a little something for everyone from the tech-obsessed to the everyday person -- but in doing all that, it missed the mark in a few important areas. A number of improvements were made, but that appeared to end up sacrificing the quality in others. The health features are nothing more than a gimmick. The fingerprint scanner never works right. The design feels cheap and lacking inspiration.
The saving grace of the phone comes in largely with the beautiful display, touted improvements to the camera, and battery life. Overall the Galaxy G5 is a good, easy-to-use phone with many features that might keep it competitive, but given the strength of the competition from Apple, HTC, and others, it isn't enough. It isn't that the Galaxy S5 is a bad phone. It just isn't as good as it could have been, had Samsung focused on the right aspects instead of trying to appeal to everyone.