Samsung is the most popular phone manufacturer in the world by some distance. In 2013 alone, one billion smartphones were shipped, around a third of which were made by Samsung — nearly twice that of its closest competitor, Apple. Samsung makes about half of all Android handsets sold, more than 50 million of which are the phone fans’ favourite, the Galaxy S4. So expectations were sky high for the Samsung Galaxy S5.
Yet rather than rapturous applause at its unveiling in March, Samsung’s new device was met with a resounding “is that it?” The S4 had been such a popular device that many commentators felt not enough had been done to build on its success.
This is the problem with the Galaxy S5: Samsung has only done as much as it needed to to stay ahead of the field. This handset is one of the best around but it could have been so much more.
Let’s get the downsides out of the way, because it would be unfair to leave you with a negative impression of what is truly an excellent device. And there is no greater downside to the Galaxy S5 than its appearance.
Like the Galaxy S handsets before it, the S5 is made entirely of plastic. Its rivals — notably the iPhone 5S, the HTC One M8 and the Sony Xperia Z2 — are constructed from glass and metal. Plastic feels cheap because it is cheap. When you pay top dollar, you expect a certain build quality, which the S5 fails to deliver. It’s not much to look at either.
This is yet another handset from the ‘boring Android slab’ school of design. Its rear casing is made from a rubberised plastic with a dimpled texture that gives it a little more traction. The effect distinguishes it slightly from other generic-looking handsets. That said, the Galaxy S5 looks largely the same as the S4.
Fortunately, the choice of plastic does have an upside. The S5 is remarkably light at 145g, compared with the 160g of the HTC One M8.
It might not sound like much but you do notice the difference when you hold it. The light weight can give the S5 a toy-like feel, but if you favour portability, you should be pleased.
The rear is an interchangeable plastic cover, which means the battery can be swapped out. A replaceable battery is an increasingly rare feature on flagship smartphones.
[alert type=alert-blue]Software & apps[/alert]
TouchWiz UI is Samsung’s take on Google’s Android operating system, and comes pre-installed on the S5, as with all Galaxy smartphones before it. It still looks awful.
After spending time using the HTC One M8 and its equivalent user interface, Sense UI, the difference is like night and day. HTC Sense is sophisticated and sleek. TouchWiz feels juvenile and unintuitive. There might still be a Google Play Edition of the Galaxy S5, as there was for the S4, which stripped away Samsung’s operating system modifications. This would go a long way to remedying some of its user experience issues.
A large part of the problem with Samsung’s meddling is the number of pre-installed apps that are very difficulty to remove. This ‘bloatware’ is often considered unnecessary or unwanted. Here we have many Samsung-branded apps that offer little of real worth. For example, does anyone use the Samsung App Store instead of the Google Play Store? Or ChatON instead of WhatsApp? Or Messages instead of Google Hangouts? The list goes on, to the tune of roughly 4GB. This is how much space is rendered unusable on your brandnew handset. If you buy the 16GB S5, you will have roughly 12GB of usable space, while the 32GB model gives you around 28GB of space. In fairness to Samsung, you can expand the memory with a microSD card up to 128GB.
Not all of Samsung’s pre-loaded apps are a nuisance, though. Gear Manager, which allows Samsung Gear or Gear 2 smartwatch owners to connect their handset to their wearable device, is handy.
There’s also the S Health app, which turns the S5 into a pedometer, workout tracker and diet manager. Most interesting is that the flash on the back camera doubles as a heartbeat monitor. Cover it with your finger and it will read your pulse, although it can be erratic in its readings. Take two pulse readings seconds apart and it can show a discrepancy of more than 20bpm. Although the heart rate monitor is a nice feature, its inaccuracy makes it all but useless.
The S5 also has a fingerprint scanner similar to that of the iPhone 5S, only less effective. You swipe down from the base of the screen and over the home key to unlock your device, but recognising your fingerprint is hit and miss.
These S5 features often come off as mere gimmicks due to their half-hearted implementation, and this is where disappointment with the Galaxy S5 stems from. Why did Samsung not work on making the S5 the most technically impressive, most polished handset possible? Gimmicks detract from its greatness.
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One feature that certainly works is the S5’s waterproofing. The Galaxy S5 is IP65 certified, meaning you can dunk it to a depth of 1 metre for an hour, which is undeniably useful. If you drop your Galaxy S5 in your pint at the pub or put it through the washing machine, it should emerge fully functional.
Don’t be surprised if you start to see all leading smartphones from this point on sporting an IP65 rating.
Combine the S5’s ruggedness with an excellent camera and you have two areas in which the S5 beats the HTC One M8.
The S5’s 16-megapixel rear shooter is incredibly sharp, with a huge array of editing effects and options for creating the perfect image. These tweaks, including image stabilisation, face detection, selective focus, burst shots, HDR and post-editing options work together to create one of the best photographic experiences on Android.
[alert type=alert-blue]Screen & performance[/alert]
A top camera requires a quality screen to show it off, and the Galaxy S5’s display is the best we’ve seen. With a 5.1-inch size diagonally and a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, it packs in 432 pixels per inch. This figure might sound fairly standard, but the display uses Super AMOLED technology rather than LCD, which generates superb brightness and contrast, putting it ahead of all other smartphones.
The display is also power efficient, with a very low minimum brightness level. Combine this with the handset’s ultra-power saving mode and its battery can last for hours on a small charge. Even without engaging this mode, the S5 will comfortably continue for days on standby, and it will see you through a working day’s heavy use without needing a charge before bedtime.
The processor is a top-spec 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, the fastest you’ll find in any current smartphone. It’s only a small improvement over the S4, which boasted a 2.3GHz chipset, but it’s enough to put the Galaxy S5 at the top of the pile. The S5 flies, excelling with resource- intensive apps. There’s no game too strenuous to slow it down, and there shouldn’t be for quite some time yet.
Samsung is a victim of its own success. The Galaxy S5 is an outstanding, class-topping handset, but it still feels like a missed opportunity for Samsung to put some distance between itself and its rivals.
As it stands, the S5 has only two true competitors, the What Mobile Editor’s Choice-awarded HTC One M8 and the Sony Xperia Z2 (see review next month). Even the iPhone 5S pales from a technical standpoint. But had Samsung really put its full technical focus behind it, the S5 could have been in a league of its own.
You shouldn’t let that, or the bloatware, deter you though. Whether or not the S5 is the best smartphone yet is a matter of personal preference. If you’re a Samsung Galaxy fan, then you’ll adore the S5. But if you’re still undecided about which phone to go for, then you’ve got a seriously tough choice on your hands.
The thing about Galaxy handsets is that their flaws are often matters of personal opinion. If you don’t mind the samey design, plasticky build and irksome user interface, then the Galaxy S5 could be the best smartphone yet. But this is a device that should have been even better.