Samsung Galaxy S5 Preview

Samsung Galaxy S5 Preview

A walk on the Dark Side

To date, I've effectively ignored Samsung's smart phones. But they are the market leader and with Android improving demonstrably over the past year, it's time to rethink that. And today at Mobile World Congress, the firm announced a new flagship model, the Galaxy S5. Let's see what all the excitement is about.

Generally speaking, I prefer the so-called Nexus experience that Google provides on its own—and now select third party—devices. This represents a "pure" Android experience, one that is devoid of the often comically bad additions that hardware makers, including Samsung, add to their own Android-based handsets. The recently released Google Nexus 5, for example, is a terrific smart phone.

And Samsung's devices aren't just full of unnecessary and strange software. They're usually big and the cheap kind of plastic. Ugly even. Granted, my wife really likes her current phablet, a Samsung Note 2, and I wouldn't be surprised if she considered whatever the current Samsung hero phone is when her contract is up.

Certainly, the S5 seems to follow the standard Samsung playbook. It features 2.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 microprocessor, 2 GB of RAM and a 5.1-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) adaptive AMOLED display that is just a hair bigger than that of its predecessor. It has a 16 MP main camera which is just a bit more ... um, pixelier ... than its 13 MP predecessor. It looks an awful lot like the S4, with a "modern glam look" courtesy of its back cover, and not a high-quality metallic exterior as some expected. That is vaguely disappointing. But it's OK looking, aside from the ugly camera bump.

It will come in 16 GB and 32 GB options, and you can bump up the storage to 128 GB with micro-SD. It has all the expected wireless support, and it comes in four "vivid" colors: White, black, copper and electric blue.

But a few things do differentiate it more meaningfully. It has a built-in fingerprint sensor in the Home button, shades of the excellent Touch ID sensor on the iPhone 5S, that integrates with Google Wallet and PayPal.

Health monitoring functionality with a heart rate sensor (next to the flash on the back) and an improved S-Health app that can help you tracks meals, heart rate, and workouts.

The camera is greatly improved with a better user experience, always-on HDR (for more vibrant photos), and fast autofocus. And the S5 is dust- and waterproof. (And since I'll cop to having actually dropped a smart phone in a toilet, I get why this is important.) It has a USB cover to help achieve these goals.

It also integrates with a second round of Gear watches, the Gear 2, Gear 2 Fit and Gear 2 Neo. Like most people, I skipped out on the first-gen versions, which shipped just a scant six months ago or so. But the Gear 2 Fit in particular looks interesting, it's sort of a FitBit/Nike FuelBand-type device. (The other two are gigantic watches.)

And like some of their previous high-end handsets, you can get an optional S View Cover that provides a window so you can see some on-screen notifications, and the time, when the cover is closed. That's a cool addition.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about the S5 is the Samsung software and services. I won't spend too much time on that here, since I want to actually experience it first-hand, but in the same way that I may prefer the Android "Nexus" experience, the Samsung user experience is, for many, how they experience their smart phone. The difference this time around, apparently, is that Samsung has responded to complaints that its software features were "bloated" and "gimmicky," and now it's trying to mend its ways. We'll see.

There's no word yet on availability or pricing, but think "April" and "around the same as the S4," respectively.

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