“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Samsung has very much been living by that mentality with its Galaxy line-up. The company’s Galaxy phone series has outsold its competitors globally, mostly thanks to Samsung’s laughably large marketing budget. They bought an entire airport terminal in London just to showcase the Galaxy line. Yet, Samsung wanted the Galaxy S5 to be about moving forward. There’s much about the Galaxy S5 that’s different than its predecessors, but the Samsung influence still remains strong.
I’ve spent the last 4 weeks using the Galaxy S5. It’s a slightly longer review process than I’ve put recent phones through, and I know this review is extremely late. It’s mostly due to personal time constraints, but I’ve also wanted to see how someone would feel about Samsung’s refinements after using the new device for an extended period of time and just how well those refinements would stay glued together once the device is put through the duration of a normal use cycle.
How does the Samsung Galaxy S5 fit in a daily routine? Should you sign a two-year contract or upgrade agreement to purchase it? Read on and decide for yourself.
Our friends at Verizon Wireless hooked us up with this review unit.
When you take the phone out of the packaging and have a quick glance, the design bears a striking congruity to its predecessor in the Galaxy S 4. The design changes aren’t eye opening and they aren’t necessarily for the better, either. The phone’s siding is still covered in a plasticky faux-metal, which somehow feels less premium than the S 4’s siding, despite Samsung urging that it went for a premium feel with this device. Unsurprisingly, the poor design choices don’t stop there. Samsung needs to be given credit for doing away with the horrible glossy plastic backing materials it used on previous Galaxy S devices. While the new dimpled plastic backing might feel better, it’s by and large one of the worst design choices Samsung has ever made. Seriously, it’s ugly. I might personally rate it as one of the most visually unappealing phones of the year. That’s subjective, though. I’ve never been a fan of Samsung’s hardware design, and your opinion may differ. With Android manufacturers like HTC and LG finally stepping into killer industrial hardware design, Samsung needs to take a giant leap forward with the next Galaxy device or I fear their customers will start to move on to other phones that don’t feel like baby toys.
The rest of the phone’s design and hardware placement follows the same structure we’re used to with Samsung devices by now. The power button is placed conveniently on the right hand side of the device, with volume buttons opposite. The headphone jack and IR blaster are placed on the top of the phone and the bottom houses the phone’s proprietary power connector that’s encased behind a waterproof seal that needs to be taken out prior to every charge. That gets slightly annoying after a while, but it’s a solid trade-off for water-and-dust-proof hardware. The rear of the phone features a protruding camera lens with an LED-flash that doubles as a heart rate monitor, which I’ll get into later, as well as a laughably bad speaker. Don’t try to listen to music through the speaker of this device. Just don’t.
I tested the S5 alongside an HTC One for most of my review process and I prefer the in-hand feel of the S5. For a 5.1-inch phone, it fits into my medium-sized hands comfortably. I still have to readjust to reach some of the display’s higher points, but Samsung did a good job crafting the feel of this phone.
The phone’s home button doubles as a fingerprint scanner for added security. While I’d like to write an entire section about the usefulness of such a feature, I’m just not going to waste my time, as you shouldn’t by using this awfully implemented feature. If I were a hardware executive at Samsung, I would be embarrassed that something so broken made it onto the production line. If I were an even higher executive, I would fire the person responsible for signing off on its shipment.
The Galaxy S5 is IP67 rated for water and dust resistance; so, you’ll be able to submerge the device in up to 1 meter of water for a half hour. I wasn’t comfortable dunking my test unit in a meter of water, but I did splash it a bit with some sink water without any harm. I’ve seen other reviewers go all in with their water tests and the results are consistent with what you’d expect from a waterproofed phone. Of course, submerging your gadgets in water should be done with caution and you should never try to push the water resistance further than its rating.
USB 2.0. A USB 2.0 compatible cable is included in the package. A USB 3.0
compatible cable is not included in the package, and may be purchased separately.
I’m saving the best for last and rounding out the hardware portion of this review with a bit about the display. I’m a sucker for a good display and the Galaxy S5’s 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display really hits it out of the park. The display’s colors are reproduced wonderfully; they’re gorgeous and vibrant, and blacks are some of the deepest blacks I’ve seen on a smartphone display yet. The display isn’t the best in direct sunlight, but it’s certainly better than some of its competition.
Our test device was running Android KitKat v4.4.2 for the duration of this review, as well as the latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface overlay. I’ve long been critical of TouchWiz, but the refinements Samsung has made to the latest version have me hopeful that they’re reigning in the obnoxious design gimmicks in exchange of clean design. The new version of TouchWiz isn’t a complete overhaul of the experience, but Samsung is obviously taking steps to improve its user experience through software and that was, and still is, a much needed change. I’d like to see the ‘Settings’ menus organized a bit more, because that’s a very messy experience. I’ve never seen more settings options than on a Samsung device, and too many settings make mainstream customers anxious.
I thought that Samsung might actually change the in-call interface, but it still looks blocky and cartoonish. If Samsung is trying to pull away from the cartoonish feel, it needs to redesign those crucial areas of the OS.
Some experiences are still questionable. For instance, Samsung still can’t figure out the easy way to create folders. In order to create one, you need to tap and hold an app, drag it to a “create folder” icon that pops into the top of the display, name the folder, and then drag more apps into the new folder. That extra step is unnecessary and frustrating when other devices let you just drag an icon on top of another one to create a folder.
One of my favorite features is the Peel Smart Remote. Paired with the IR blaster we mentioned earlier, the Smart Remote app will let you control your home entertainment system with your Galaxy S5. Within 2 minutes, I had all of my entertainment pieces responding to my S5’s commands. It sounds like a gimmick, but once you use it, you realize just how convenient it is to have an entire entertainment portal and controller in your hand at the same time.
Samsung is still the king of smartphone multitasking with Multi-Window, which allows you to use two apps at the same time. It really is a great way to multitask, and on smartphones and tablets with bigger screens, the utility of this feature only gets better. I found myself using it to check Twitter while streaming a video, or to control a music playlist or podcast while reading news from a news reader. The options are endless. I once thought it was a gimmicky feature, but I’ve come around to its usefulness.
I should make mention of the Galaxy S5’s health app offering, S Health. Samsung wants you to use the app to track your steps, burned calories, calories eaten, your heart rate, and more. Like any other fitness app, it lets you set goals for calorie consumption and daily activity. The problem with S Health is that it’s incredibly inaccurate and anyone who wants a real grasp on their fitness statistics would be better off buying a dedicated fitness wristband or wearable. There were times that the phone would be sitting completely untouched on my desk, and would register 10-15 steps when I picked it up. I did find the heart rate reading that is measured with the LED-flash to be surprisingly accurate, though.
Overall, the software running on the S5 isn’t without its faults. It’s typical Samsung TouchWiz that’s going to get jittery and bogged down after a few weeks of use. Towards the end of my review period, applications were slowing down, my keyboard input was lagging, and the phone just felt old. That was after about a month of usage and people sign two-year contracts for these devices. Faults aside, Samsung is making progress. TouchWiz has looked the best it has since its inception. This version feels like the company ran out of time and needed to ship whatever it had, which is ironic considering the state of the hardware itself. It all feels rushed, but I get the sense that Samsung is finally heading in the right direction.
I was relatively pleased with the call quality of the S5. It wasn’t the greatest, but it wasn’t the worst, either. The earpiece speaker was loud enough and callers seemed clear, for the most part. I feel like most phones have calling down pat these days, because I’m almost never disappointed with the calling experience on smartphones.
I tested the S5 on Verizon Wireless. Their 4G LTE data network in Philadelphia isn’t anything to write home about these days, but during our test period, the carrier turned on its faster and less congested XLTE network. We used the S5 as a hotspot during some coffee shop sessions and had the device running during sporting events at the sports complex and the S5 performed as well as or better than the iPhone 5s or HTC One M8 we were pitting it against.
There isn’t a task the S5 and its Snapdragon 801 CPU can’t cut through, really. The S5 stood up to the test of the hardest hitting games and rendering applications. Any of the slowdowns we experienced during our review duration were exclusive to software inefficiency and not due to a lack of processing power. This phone will be able to handle anything you’ll throw at it for the next year or so.
The S5’s battery life was pretty great in my testing. The phone is stocked with a 2,800mAh battery and it got through the day with ease, and even made it past lunch time of a second day. We used the device to check social media, read news, watch videos, listen to music (streaming and local), and act as a personal hotspot for up to 4 devices. It’s definitely possible to kill the device in one day, but even an above average user will be able to leave their house and get back to home from work without worrying about needing a charge. The S5 has an “ultra power saving” feature, which is marketing speak for “we’ll turn off all of your phone’s features and you can let the phone sit on standby.” The power saving mode will push your phone through an extra few hours, but at the cost of almost every function.
The S5 houses a 16-megapixel camera that’s capable of snapping some appreciable shots. It performs pretty well in low-light, though I’d take a device like the iPhone 5s or HTC One M8 if I was relying heavily on low-light performance. Shots in good lighting come out very sharp and detailed, and images don’t often suffer from overexposure, which is something I was happy to see. Older Samsung cameras would often overexpose, but I tend to blame that more on Samsung’s camera processing algorithms than the hardware they use for their shooters.
Speaking of Samsung’s camera app…I was less than enthused with it. It’s full of features and settings that most people aren’t going to bother using. Often times, the device would take upwards of 10 seconds to take the shot. I really don’t know if this was a hardware issue, because I haven’t seen it mentioned much in other reviews. I would take the shot and the phone would tell me to “hold steady” while it finished capturing it. I checked every setting I could think of to try and turn this off and even did a factory reset to try and correct the issue, but nothing worked. It’s something to be wary of if you’re the kind of person who needs a phone that takes quick shots. This may not be for you.
If you’re in the market for a cell phone, don’t mind Android, and want something with the ability to capture great photos, the Galaxy S5 will likely be a great fit for you. Most people aren’t as peeved by software stuttering and camera issues like I am. That being said, if you’re signing for this phone on a 2-year agreement, you may want to consider something that will stand the test of time better, that has more usable storage, and a design that can outlast the duration of the contract. The S5 doesn’t feel sturdy, which is somewhat of a regression from the S 4. If you’re the kind of person that keeps their phone for a year or less, you absolutely should take a shot at the S5.
Questions or comments? Let me know below. If I missed something, I’ll gladly touch on it for you.