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Galaxy S5 REVIEW – Can Samsung Keep the Crown?

by Todd Haselton | April 23, 2014April 23, 2014 1:00 pm PDT

Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S5 during the 2014 Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona earlier this year, and just a few months later it’s available all around the globe, and from major carriers in the United States for $199 with a new two-year contract.

The device offers brand new hardware components, including a faster processor, and is also equipped with unique parts like a heart rate sensor. Last year’s Galaxy S4 was extremely popular, and Samsung sold millions of units within months of its release.

Is the Galaxy S5 the best smartphone you can pick up right now? Is its camera going to rock your world? Can you really dunk it in the sink? Is the heart rate monitor all it’s cracked up to be?

We’ve been using it for a bit now and we’re ready to bring you our full review.

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Galaxy S5 Video Review

Hardware

At first glance, the Galaxy S5 looks super similar to the Galaxy S4, and that’s kind of a bummer since we really wanted something a bit more fresh. Yes, it has the new dimpled back cover that has the “Band-Aid” look, a new heart rate monitor on the back, and the bottom USB port is now covered for added protection against dust and water, but it still looks basically the same, with a similar faux-metal border running around the display.

Samsung upped the screen size to 5.1-inches this year, and the 1920 x 1080p screen is colorful and crisp. It’s a Super AMOLED display, which usually struggles under direct sunlight, though it actually looked really good in our tests. No wonder it was dubbed the best smartphone display on the market recently.

Moving around the device, the volume controls are in easy reach on the top-left of the phone, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack sitting across from an IR blaster up top, and a power button sits on the right-side of the device. The home button below the display looks like last year’s but it’s drastically different thanks to included fingerprint reader.

On the back of the phone is where things change a bit. There’s a new 16-megapixel camera with a single LED flash and sensors that help monitor your heart rate. We’ll address that later in the review, but it’s relatively unique — even though there are apps on other platforms that basically let you do the same thing with an existing LED flash.

The back cover is flimsy plastic — same as always — but has a nice soft touch feel to it and looks rather premium. We tested the white model in addition to the svelte black option,and particularly liked the pearly white finish of the former. Under the hood, there’s a 2,800mAh battery, a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage (or 32GB), and a slot for adding up to a 128GB microSD card.

Since the Galaxy S5 is IP67 rated for resistance against water and dust, it’s also capable of being submerged in up to 1 meter of water for a half hour, which means it can technically survive in the shower, or if it’s dropped in the pool or a toilet. The aforementioned hatch on the microUSB port helps prevent water damage, as does a rubber ring that runs underneath the back panel.

Silly as it sounds, we still like to address the actual phone function of a smartphone — even if we don’t give it its own section. The Galaxy S5 sounded great during our tests and calls were clear, as expected. Likewise, the speaker was loud enough and should work well while playing back music or during conference calls. Data was on a par with other AT&T devices we’ve tested in our Irvine offices.

Overall, the hardware reminds us a bit too much of the Galaxy S4, and it kind of takes the excitement away from feeling like you’re holding a brand new and more powerful device. I wish there were more distinguishing industrial design changes. Reviewers have been clamoring for the South Korean-based company to use more premium materials for years now but, so long as its devices keep selling like hotcakes, Samsung has been reluctant to do so. Ultimately, I understand the decision to use plastic, too, since IP67 resistance is probably harder to promise with metal instead of plastic — and the water resistance worked well in our brief test.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review 5

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review 4

Galaxy S5 headphone

Software

The Galaxy S5 runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat out of the box and also includes Samsung’s new iteration of TouchWiz (or Nature UX). TouchWiz is just as colorful and intrusive as it has been, but it’s also been cleaned up in a lot of ways. The top quick navigation bar is flatter and a lot easier on the eyes. It’s also much quicker in general, though that could be thanks to the Snapdragon 801 chip under the hood.

I really like that the S5 supports audio commands anytime the screen is on and the Google Search bar is nearby — so I can say “Ok Google”  and ask the weather without tapping the icon, for example. It’s not as good as the always-on Moto X, but it’s an improvement over the One (M8) that doesn’t offer the feature.

Samsung’s S Health 3.0 application can be used to help track steps, calories burned, calories eaten, your heart rate and more. You can set goals for how many steps you want to hit each day, or how many calories you hope to burn, and then view all of your data in a log. It’s not accurate at all, though. In 10 minutes sitting at my desk the pedometer said I had already taken 18 steps. You’re better of looking into fitness bands for more accurate readings on that kind of information.

If you swipe to the far left of the display, you’ll enter Samsung’s “My Magazine” interface, which is basically just like Flipboard and seemingly a copy-cat iteration of HTC’s BlinkFeed news interface. You can add social networks that will populate in the feed, including 500px, Flickr, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube, and also subscribe to different news sections such as arts & culture, science and technology, music, food & dining and more. Unlike BlinkFeed, however, you can’t add custom topics for RSS. I didn’t really find myself wanting to use My Magazine very much, mainly because I like granular control of the news outlets that I want to read.

I usually install a third-party launcher on Android devices because I don’t really like what the manufacturer offers. I stopped that trend with the HTC One (M8), because I really dig everything that phone provides right out of the gate. With the S5, though, all i want to do is get rid of TouchWiz. Worse, it still has the water-drop noises on by default. You can turn them off, and I quickly did, but I struggle to understand why Samsung has stuck with the look/sound of TouchWiz overall.

In general, we’re tired of TouchWiz, even if Samsung did clean it up just a bit. It’s time for the company to try something new, hopefully with fewer colors.

Heart Rate Monitor

I felt that this deserved its own section of the review because it’s probably one of the big stand-out features on the Galaxy S5. The heart rate monitor rests on the back of the phone and can be accessed inside S Health 3.0. Simply tap the heart rate button, place your index finger on the back of the device, and let it do it’s thing. One day I had a resting heart rate of 82 beats per minute, and as I write this right now I have a resting rate of 72 beats per minute. I’m not sure how healthy that is, and I kind of wish the phone told me.

Also – it tells you to sit still and quiet, which means this feature can’t really be used when you need it most, like when you’re running and trying to figure out if you should push harder or slow down. In other words, unless I fear that I’m about to have a heart attack, I’m not really sure why I need this on my phone.

Also of note: there are third-party apps available for iOS, like Instant Heart Rate, that do the same thing. I tested Instant Heart Rate at the same time I tested the Galaxy S5 and it told me I had a resting heart rate of 73, so either both are coincidentally terribly wrong or they’re rather accurate. Either way – the heart rate monitor isn’t useful and it isn’t as unique as Samsung may make it seem.

Galaxy S5 Heart Rate Monitor Demonstration

Galaxy S5-iPhone 5s-HTC One M8-Heart Rate Monitor-2

Galaxy S5 back camera 2

Camera Samples

We took the Galaxy S5 and its 16-megapixel camera for a night on the town around Orange County, California to test its camera. As we left the office, with the sun still high in the sky, we snapped photos of palm trees, the moon far above the earth, a food truck and more. The shots taken during the day look really great, details are super sharp around the edges of the palm tree leaves and the photos don’t look too over exposed.

 Shots at night without a flash of a ferris wheel and a carousel at the Irvine Spectrum looked just as impressive, though the night sky in some areas was more gray than black. Also, shots with any ambient street lighting were a bit overexposed.

 The Galaxy S5 also records 4K video and we were really impressed with its quality, too. We shot a quick 1-minute sample clip while getting lunch one day and everything looked really crisp when we played it back in our office. There’s a bit of an issue with shakiness, but otherwise audio came in really nicely and focusing worked really well.

We also did a comparison post that shows the image quality of the Galaxy S5 versus the HTC One (M8), so you’ll want to check that out.

Battery

The Galaxy S5 is equipped with a 2,800mAh battery, but you really shouldn’t worry about it running out of juice. We unplugged the phone when we woke up at about 7 a.m. and when we hit the sack at around 11 p.m. at night it still had about 35 percent of its charge left. That’s excellent.

Like the HTC One (M8), the Galaxy S5 has its own “ultra power saving” mode that gives you incredible standby time when the power runs really low.

 With the mode activated, your screen will turn into grayscale mode and you’ll only have access to basic apps like your phone, text messages, calculator, manually pulling email and a web browser (among some others). The idea is that, in this mode, your phone will last for much, much longer than with everyone running and active.

 When our device was down to about 15 percent battery we turned on ultra power saving mode and it estimated we could leave the device powered on and idle for another 4.5 days. At 100 percent, you’ll get 12.5 days of standby. Ultra power saver mode does take about 23 seconds to turn on, which just seemed overly long.

 Obviously your mileage will vary if you’re using it, but this means you should have more than enough time to get home when your battery is dying on the commute, for example, without worrying that your phone will become completely dead.

 

BUY

“We’re just not totally blown away.”

The Galaxy S5 isn’t as impressive as a device as we were hoping to find from Samsung. Earlier Galaxy devices have wowed us, especially phones like the Galaxy Note 3, but the Galaxy S5 feels so much like an iteration. Sure, the hardware is much better — but the body reminds us way too much of last year’s model, and it’s still flimsy and cheap feeling. That chrome-colored plastic border will rub off in a matter of weeks, just like it always has.

Also, the fingerprint reader doesn’t work very well — especially not well enough for us to recommend buying this phone to anyone who wants to use the feature. Same goes for the heart rate monitor, which most phones with a camera, flash and a third-party application are capable of.

That said, we do really love the camera. It takes fantastic photos in both low and bright light. Similarly, the 4K video recording works really well. The battery is more than enough to get you through a full day of use, and the ultra power saving mode will provide enough juice to keep you going in emergency situations.

Ultimately, we’re just not totally blown away by anything else — Samsung’s design is starting to feel stale, we’re tired of TouchWiz and there’s not a whole lot here that has us dropping our jaws. If you own a Galaxy S4, you might want to wait and see what the Galaxy S6 offers instead. It’s a great phone, no doubt, but it’s not the most compelling option on the market right now.

Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo purchased one Galaxy S5 unit to review before receiving an AT&T unit from Samsung. Jon used an International unit phone for about 2 days before writing his review and then an AT&T unit for 6 days, while Todd used the Galaxy S5 for four days.

PROS

  • Great Camera
  • Solid Battery Life
  • IP67 Resistant against Dust and Water

CONS

  • TouchWiz Needs to Go
  • Heart Rate Monitor is Gimmicky
  • Not as premium looking or feeling as other flagships

Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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