Samsung Galaxy S5 Review

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review

By dialing back the crazy, Samsung turns it up a notch

For the past month, I've been traveling around the country with two smart phones, the Windows Phone-based Nokia Lumia 1020 I've been using since last July and a new Android flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy S5. The two devices don't share much in common, frankly, but they're both excellent in their own right. And if I were forced to choose a non-Windows Phone smart phone the Galaxy S5 would be the obvious choice. Despite a few issues, it's the best Android device I've ever used.

It starts as it must with the screen: The 5.1-inch unit in the S5 isn't the biggest smart phone screen I've used—the ludicrously big 6-inch screen on the Nokia Lumia 1520 wins that prize—but it does fall in the upper bounds of the range I find to be ideal these days. It is, put simply, at the upper end of what we might acceptably term a smart phone rather than a phablet.

The S5's screen isn't just big, it's also beautiful. And crisp, and clear, and bright, and 1080p, an AMOLED unit, with deep blacks and rich colors. But it gets washed out easily in the sun, much more so than the Lumia 1020. The default display mode is supposed to minimize this effect, but it doesn't. And looking at the same apps side by side in the sun on both devices—Facebook and Audible, for example—the differences are striking: I can't see what the S5 is displaying at all, but I can read the 1020 just fine. (And that device is set to low brightness.)

From a form factor perspective, the S5 will get mixed reviews from some, but I've warmed to it. It's a big device, but it ships with a grippable (and removable) dimpled back that I find makes the device pleasant to hold. It's not particularly heavy, given its size, though the overall size/weight balance of the device will likely necessitate two-handed use for some. I found myself bobbling it occasionally in my large mitts, while trying to keep it upright.

That the S5 is "unapologetically plastic" will rankle some. I do feel like the design is somewhat cheap, and I'm not a huge fan of the terrible ribbed aluminum-colored edging at all. The Lumia 1020, by comparison, is a solid hunk of polycarbonate that could accept a level of abuse that would shatter the S5 into several pieces. But then that's the point: The S5's dimpled back can pop-off, to be replaced by various cases and covers, including one that adds wireless charging capabilities. I bought an impressive S-View Flip Cover that adds a book-like cover with a peek-a-boo window through which the S5 displays a custom notification screen with time, date, weather, camera and notifications. It's an excellent accessory though it makes taking photos with the device a bit more difficult.

That pop-off back cover also means that you can replace the battery, something that is increasingly uncommon these days, especially with high-end devices. That's a huge convenience, and I like that the microSD and SIM card slots are hidden under there as well.

I never reviewed last year's Galaxy S4, but a friend has one, so we were both interested to see the differences. From a form factor perspective, they're very close: The S5 is just a hair taller than the S4, as is the screen (5.1 inches vs. 5.0), but the overall look and feel is basically identical, right down to the odd button placement. (On the Samsung devices, the Back button is the right of the Home button, which is just strange.) The S5 changes from the S4's Menu button to a Recent Apps button, since Android is switching over to software-based menu access. And the S4 lacks the ribbed edging of the S5, which I'd prefer. But they're similarly thin.

Samsung Galaxy S4 (left) and S5 (right)

One of the selling points of the S5, curiously, is water resistance. Not so you can swim or shower with the device per se—no one is judging—but so that the device can withstand an accidental fall into a toilet or sink. This is a laudable goal. But to fully achieve it, Samsung attached an annoying cover on the USB charging port.

This cover gets in the way, always, is difficult to pry off, and is particularly problematic when you try to unplug the huge charging cable—it's a weird USB 3.0 Micro-B plug that's starting to pop-up on tablets now too, though this is the first time I've seen it on a phone—because the way one grasps the plug to pull it off ensures that you're also tugging on the cover too. As shown here:

Argh! I pull on that stupid cover every time I try to unplug the giant USB cable

That's just bad design. And if this was my only phone, one that I may or may not eventually sell to someone else, I'd pull it off in a second. I'm sure it will come off regardless.

On the back, the S5 has a small but noticeable and oddly squared off camera bump (though the S-View Flip Cover is thick enough that it removes the bump).

This bump contains the S5's improved 16 megapixel camera, which I've found to be excellent overall. Not Lumia 1020/1520/Icon excellent, but it's better than the camera in the iPhone 5S—which is also excellent—and would be perfectly acceptable in both day to day use and as a point and click camera replacement on trips and at personal events.

Jonas crabs, by Samsung Galaxy S5

Ultimately, the S5 is curiously unexciting from a design standpoint. It lacks the high-quality materials of, say, the iPhone 5, or the unique design elements of the typical Nokia Lumia. But there is a part of me that appreciates the S5's non-splashy, utilitarian design. It seems to exhibit a sense of maturity, and lack of pretense. This isn't an exhibitionist device. That may frankly be a problem for some.

There are a few more hardware bits to consider. Another big selling point of the S5 is its new integrated fingerprint reader which is supposed to work like the excellent Touch ID sensor on the iPhone 5S. (I wrote about this in Through the Cracks: Tech Products I'm Not Reviewing last fall.) While the S5's fingerprint reader is built into its home button, as is Touch ID on iPhone 5S, it is ostensibly superior because it works with third party services like PayPal. In use, the fingerprint sensor on the S5 is a joke. I never got it to work correctly and simply disabled it.

The built-in speaker is surprisingly good, about as good as the one in the Lumia 1520 (which I'm using these days as a media player). With the volume set to 50 percent, both devices delivered clear, comparatively rich sound at roughly the same volume, and with no distortion. I often use such a device to listen to podcasts, audiobooks and music on the road, and in instances where the built-in speaker is important—while getting ready in the mornings, for example—the S5 rises nicely to the challenge.

Inside the S5 beats the heart of a champion: A quad-core 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 processor with dedicated GPU and 2 GB of RAM. The S5 I purchased came with 16 GB of internal storage, but as noted you can upgrade that with microSD. As you might expect, the device works well. And while this is likely not entirely credited to the chipset, the speed of the camera is notable. You can take shots repeatedly, one after the other, something that is impossible on a Lumia 1520 or 1020. This, combined with the quality of the camera, is a big selling point.

Looking at the software, we see a modified Android 4.4.2, which I find mostly non-objectionable. The major exception is Settings, where Samsung has gone to silly lengths in what I assume was a bid to make the system easier to use, but had the opposite effect. The default view in Settings is a weird segregated grid view of colored icons, and while you can switch it to a more normal looking list view, I still found things hard to find.

The home screen will be familiar to Android users, with a combination of icons, folders of icons and widgets spread out across multiple screens. I find it to be pretty bland, and some of the widgets are silly big, like Weather, and non-resizable. Samsung also wastes screen real estate—to the tune of an entire row of icons—by providing an empty row with a non-selectable Home icon and dots representing each screen.

All of the Google Play stuff is up front and center, and of course Samsung supplies its own often-strange apps, like S Health (which makes more sense if you have a Galaxy Gear device, though the one I tested was terrible and was returned), S Voice, Smart Remote, and Samsung Apps, which lets you install a boatload of other Samsung junk. I steered clear of that.

S Health works with a sensor that's built into the camera flash on the back to provide what I consider to be one of the S5's most useless features: A heartbeat monitor. It's slow, error prone and awkward to use. And now I know that my pulse is a consistent and middle of the road 80 bpm.

Since my device came from AT&T, that firm also had a hand in gumming up the works with its own junk. You can't permanently remove carrier- and phone maker-installed apps on subsidized Android devices, but the S5 did let me hide the ones I didn't want, and that is good enough. Doing so requires a weird series of steps, though: From the all apps view, Tap and hold on the crapware icon, drag it up to App Info, and then choose Turn Off.

While it's now possible to get Google's excellent (Nexus) Camera app, the Camera app that Samsung supplies is excellent.

You can choose between auto focus and a selective focus mode that is a new take on the effect that's popular these days (and automatic on higher-end Lumias). The take here is that you can change which elements are in focus in a photo after you've taken them, and choose between near focus, far focus and pan focus (where everything is basically in the focus). The downside is that this requires about 5 seconds of processing after each shot, so you lose that picture taking performance. You also lose the real time HDR, which makes for rich, colorful and contrasty shots.

The Samsung Camera app also includes some cool modes like Beauty face (for that properly lighted, almost airbrushed look), Shot & more (with multiple effects), Panorama, Virtual tour, Dual camera (a silly way to get the picture taker into the shot), and so on. If you love taking pictures, this phone is a fine choice. You could spend days just exploring these options.

The S5 virtual keyboard is excellent and includes a feature I'd love to see on Windows Phone: The number keys are always available, in this case in a thin strip on top of the rest of the keyboard. The size of the device makes typing particularly accurate, as does the built-in SwifKey capabilities, which works like Swype or the "shape typing" in Windows Phone 8.1. I'm still trying to adapt to this, but my wife and many others swear by it, and it's clearly faster—once you get the hang of it—than hunt and peck.

I don't really test battery life, but the S5 ran all day and then some. It routinely holds out much longer than the Lumia 1020 or 1520, though it's not clear if part of those issues are due to the recent Windows Phone 8.1 upgrade, which is rumored to impact battery life. The device ships with that crazy-big USB 3.0 cable, but you can use a normal microUSB cable if that's what you have with you. It plugs into part of the big port.

Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is an excellent smart phone and the best Android handset I've ever used. I think the form factor and screen size are just about perfect. And while I'm mixed on the cheap-feeling plastic materials, the utility of this design, where you can swap out the back with various cases and covers, not to mention replace the battery, is unmatched. Android is what it is, and Samsung doesn't screw it up in a horrible fashion as I've heard (and as it apparently did to a greater degree with some previous devices). And the camera is simply excellent. As I noted previously, I'll be sticking with Windows Phone. But the S5 is a fantastic choice, a far cry from the "more is better" approach of the S4, and is highly recommended.

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