Samsung’s fifth Galaxy model is here, and poised to take on whatever Apple has next, as well as anything else from the other manufacturers. For the new model, Samsung has revised the look, the hardware, and so much more. Is this Samsung’s best phone yet?
The smartphone race is heating up, and as Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, and even Nokia all have founds ways to show that they too can make award winning smartphones that appeal to customers more than just the humble Apple iPhone, it’s time for Samsung to show the world what it can do in the new year with a new phone.
New to the Galaxy range, it’s the fifth model of the flagship handset, though it’s certainly not the fifth Galaxy altogether. Ever since Samsung started pushing more than just the flagship models, the Galaxy phones have really taken off, and there are models in the budget category, mid-range, camera-specific, phablet-size, and of course, the high-end flagship.
Taking over from last year’s Galaxy S4 is the aptly named S5, with new specs, a refined design, better camera, and a few more things added for good measure.
Let’s start with the specs, because that’s where most of the change is, with last year’s quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor jumping to a top of the line Snapdragon 801 chip, a slight variant on the model out in the Galaxy Note 3 last year with improved performance and faster clock-speed, rated at 2.5GHz and working alongside the Adreno 330 graphics chip.
This new processor works alongside 2GB RAM and 16GB storage, though the latter of these can be expanded to support as much as 128GB of microSD extra storage if you have it.
Google’s latest version of Android runs here, with version 4.4.2, also known as “KitKat” and making it truly up to date. Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay runs atop this, providing a newer look, and access to all of Samsung’s extra features. Those extra features include a heart rate monitor, TV remote, air gestures, multi-window, fingerprint reading, and more.
Cameras are part and parcel of smartphones these days, and the Galaxy S5 is no different, with a new 16 megapixel shooter on the back capable of quick HDR shooting, low-light images, 4K UHD video capture, and taking advantage of Samsung’s new ISOCELL technology (more on that later).
The front-facing camera sits at 2 megapixels, capable of recording 1080p Full HD videos too, which the rear camera can also do.
Connecting this phone up to the world are some pretty high end standards, with Category 4 4G LTE, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 with support for LE (Low Energy), Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, and infrared, with wired support handled through a microUSB 3.0 port at the bottom for faster transfers.
This sits under a new 5.1 inch Full HD (1920×1080) screen, capable of showing 432 pixels per inch, and protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 strengthened glass.
Buttons are relatively standard for Samsung phones, with the front centre home button here, flanked on either side by the new multitask button (which replaces the menu button) and the back button. The power button and volume rocker occupy identical spaces, with the volume on the left edge and power on the right.
The 3.5mm headphone jack sits at the top as per usual, though it’s now on the right side, compared with the left side it was in on the Galaxy S4.
Samsung has kept removable backs part of the equation in the S5, and you’ll find the back can be taken off, revealing the battery, and microSIM and microSD slots.
The battery is rated at 2800 mAh.
Every April, we’ve come to expect as new phone from Samsung, and 2014 is no different.
Last year, the Galaxy S4 greeted the world, bringing with it a whole host of neat new features inspiring customers to ditch their old product and buy something new. And the Galaxy S4 was an excellent product, bringing with it a lot of performance in a slim and slick package, resulting in one of last year’s better phones.
But that was a year ago, and now Samsung has something ready for consumption in the form of the Galaxy S5.
Are you ready?
From a design point of view, there are minor refinements though it’s pretty much more of the same. If you like the look of the Galaxy S4 and even the GS3 before it, prepared to be happy because it’s more of that design.
The front is simple and inoffensive, with a plastic silver trim, while the back receives a different treatment from either the slick glossy plastic of the S3, and a totally different look from the fake leather stitching of late last year’s Galaxy Note 3.
That difference is a plastic dotted rubberised back, which manages to not just feel better than the fake leather Note 3, but also makes it really hard to slip and fall out of your hands.
We can’t fault Samsung for constantly choosing plastic, either: we may prefer the feel of HTC’s metal bodies and Sony’s choice of glass and aluminium, but Nokia and LG haver both produced superb plastic smartphones, and Samsung is no different in this way.
The buttons haven’t changed location, though, so that should be perfect for people who like the location of the volume on the left edge with power on the right, and to Samsung’s credit, at least the power is easy to get to, unlike the top power button on the HTC One (both the 2013 and 2014 models use the top for the power button).
Likewise, there’s still a physical home button flanked on each side by soft buttons, though menu isn’t here anymore, replaced with a multitasking button, a decision which makes sense given most Android phones have dropped the menu button and are using an option built into the apps.
Switch the phone on and you’ll be greeted by the next generation of Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay, and what a change it is, with a flatter design and less translucency, while the display shows things beautifully, with close to perfect clarity.
We’ll talk about the screen first, because it’s easily one of the best areas of the Galaxy S5, with the 5.1 inch Full HD display showing gorgeous visuals. There has been a minor drop in pixel clarity, though technically our eyes can’t tell the difference, and outside of reading the numbers on the page (432ppi versus last year’s 441ppi), yours won’t either.
Technically, the pixel clarity argument is a futile contest between hardware manufacturers, and beyond 300ppi, the human eye can’t really tell the difference.
In fact, the loss of a few pixels per inch means nothing on the Galaxy S5, with the screen looking perfect from nearly ever angle.
It would be fair and accurate to say Samsung has made one of the best screens we’ve ever seen in the Galaxy S5, and it even works in direct sunlight, pumping out so much brightness that you’ll laugh at all the other phones and their attempts to deal with the outside world.
Back indoors, the screen can be overwhelmingly bright, but the automatic sensor does a great job of working out what you need, and you can even tweak this part to provide up to 5 levels of minor brightness both up and down the scale, depending if you think Samsung is getting it right.
Over to performance, and this is a mixed area.
For the most part, the system handles its own, providing near instantaneous app loads and multitasking, but there are some catches here and there. Even though Samsung is reliant on the same uber-impressive Snapdragon 801 chip as the HTC One M8 has — hell, Samsung actually has a faster model — we did notice the occasional lag that reared its ugly head when the battery dropped to around 30 percent. For some reason, when you’re there, you may find that apps stall, lag, and even crash, causing your phone to become unresponsive for a good minute or so.
It’s frustrating, and the times we noticed it, the problem seemed to occur when the battery was depleting, which also seems to happen relatively quickly, especially if you’ve bought one of Samsung’s new Gear smartwatches.
Battery life isn’t one of those things that will have you screaming “yes, I’m so glad I bought this over an iPhone,” because on the Galaxy S5, it’s not far off that device.
We’ve measured around a day-ish max for the iPhone 5S, and Samsung has more or less nailed the same for everyday use. For us, that consisted of making phone calls, surfing the web, reading and writing emails, doing some social networking, taking pictures, and watching the odd video here and there.
That resulted in a day of use in our tests, and that was pretty consistent across the few days of testing that we did, which is a little startling. Use your phone less and a day and a half to two days is possible, though power users will eat through the battery in the space of a day with no problems.
To Samsung’s credit, there is a very cool power saving option that can deliver up to 24 hours of not doing anything when you have a very small amount of battery left.
This special mode can be switched on whenever you want, and will switch off mobile data and the pushing of information when the screen goes off, change the apps you can run, switch the colour screen to greyscale, and turn off wireless networking and Bluetooth.
Basically, this means you can still use your phone, but for less, with the net result being more battery life appearing out of nothing. Screenshots can’t even be captured here.
But hey, your phone will last longer when the battery really counts, so that’s good, and given how quickly life seems to be extinguished from the Galaxy S5, you might find yourself using this more often.
Mobile performance, at least, will have you cheering, and not just because the Category 4 LTE speeds are decent across the board. Our tests yielded results between 25 and 80Mbps down, and that was with Telstra’s Category 3 LTE network.
Those of you with access to a Category 4 could see speeds over the 100 mark, and that’s pretty bloody good if you ask us.
There are also the little things, and these are really the bits that make the Galaxy S5 special, as otherwise it would just be another phone with another Snapdragon processor.
For instance, there’s an emphasis on security in this handset, with Samsung including a fingerprint scanner, similar to what Apple did with the iPhone 5S.
Like that handset, you can use the fingerprint scanner under the home button to unlock the phone, which means there’s a touch more security than just your regular password, though if the scanner doesn’t read your print properly, you’ll have to enter a several character password, and not just a simple PIN.
The technology is also being employed by PayPal on the S5, and really this just serves as another way of bypassing security with an easier and harder to break security solution. Sure, you could type in your PayPal password or PIN code, but why do that when you can just swipe a finger?
Samsung’s use of the fingerprint technology can store up to three fingers, and it does a decent job of reading — much better than the biometrics used on the HTC One Max, that’s for sure — but it can fail, and we found that it would miss your finger about 50 percent of the time. It’s also next to impossible to swipe with the hand your holding the phone in, so don’t even try. We can only imagine the length of digits you’d need to make this happen, and it never worked in our tests.
But the fingerprint security is just one side of the security, and in the Australian Galaxy S5 handsets, locals will be able to connect to their banks and use their phone as a PayWave device, so you won’t even need a credit card. We didn’t get to test this feature, and our bank doesn’t yet support this, with only Commonwealth Bank and Westpac signed up for this as far as we had heard, but because of the security technologies Australian banks use, you can only get this with an Australian Galaxy S5 model, so if this is an important feature for you, don’t even consider buying a phone from out of this country.
Health is also a big part of the package nowadays, and that’s hardly a shock given how many health-related gadgets we’re seeing. Samsung was pushing a bit of the health concept in the Galaxy S4 too with “S-Health,” and it’s back in the S5, still monitoring your steps, but now adding in a heart rate monitor at the back of the phone.
This piece of tech is next to the camera (which we’ll get to shortly), and sits inside the slot where the camera flash is, shining a red light against your finger and looking for your pulse, measuring it, and then reporting it back.
And does it work? Well, it seems to, though Samsung does warn that the technology isn’t for “clinical or medical use,” and won’t work if the room is particularly loud, so while it’s not exactly a gimmick, we’d also suggest to go see a health professional or use a proper heart rate monitoring device if you need to check your heart regularly.
Finally, some of the favourites are still here, such as being able to use multiple Galaxy products to play music through “Group Play,” and even control your TV through the infrared port at the top of handset.
This last one was popular last year, though in this model, we’ve noticed that not all brands are available, and unlike some of the competing smartphones supporting this technology, Samsung’s implementation won’t learn from unknown remotes, meaning if your TV brand isn’t supported, you can’t train the remote app to recognise the functions, and you merely have to wait until Samsung’s people add the brand to its database.
There’s also a “Samsung Wallet” sitting around now, waiting for you to take advantage of coupons, tickets, and more, though few places in Australia seemed ready for this at the time of testing.
You can even take your phone in the drink, with IP67 certification applied here, making it water and dust-resistant, provided the bottom USB cab is plugged in and the back casing is snapped on tight.
The bottom cap is actually one of the more irritating requirements of the water-resistant design, and it means that every time you want to charge the phone, you need to pull the cap off, which hangs there with a bit of plastic. It’s a little annoying, but you’ll get used to it, and the one time you decide to accidentally drop the phone in the pool, well, consider it an issue easily forgotten.
One last thing is the “My Magazine” screen, which moves past the Flipboard screen the Galaxy Note 3 had installed, providing a screen of constantly refreshing news to the left of your homescreen.
You can turn this off if you like, and you can even customise what loads, but even though this is linked to Flipboard, it for some reason won’t load any of your own Flipboard settings.
This means that Samsung has essentially made it more awkward for customisation than even HTC’s Blinkfeed, which too lacks the ability to add your own websites and is totally reliant on a different service. Indeed, with the Galaxy S5’s My Magazine, we could select categories to have it pull information from, but not grab the websites we would read regularly, making it less of a thing we were likely to use.
And that leaves the camera, and while the increase from 13 megapixels to 16 seems pretty marginal, it’s the interface and the underlying technology where Samsung appears to really have spent some time.
For starters, the sensor size has increased and works across the widescreen size for the full 16 megapixels, which is new to us. Furthermore, the bigger sensor is a move that puts Samsung in-line with much of what the industry is doing, and Samsung has improved the technology considerably, adding its own ISOCELL concept inside.
More than just a neat name listed in caps, the technology relies on tiny barriers on the edge of each pixel that makes up the sensor, which Samsung says aids in the collection of electrons.
While that might sound like a heap of mumbo jumbo, the concept is basically like making each pixel more important and better suited for capturing light, increasing the amount of range that is possible and producing better quality images across the board.
In practice, the images in both daylight and at night appear to be better controlled, with more light seen in those shot at darker times. Detail isn’t as strong when there’s less light, and the 16 megapixel images can appear a little soft, but the lighting does feel better, even if the shots do need to go through a bit of sharpening after the fact.
Helping this is the camera interface, which seems to have been made simpler over the past year.
Rather than let you select from a variety of settings, the auto mode will take care of most things for you, with your favourite controls available to you in a user configurable side bar. And when we say “configurable,” we mean it, as you just drag out your favourite most used three settings into the bar and these will be here ready for you to use.
Some of the more playful settings from last year are still here, such as best shot — which fires lots of smaller images and lets you choose from the best one — and the object removal mode, though these are all sitting under “Shot & more,” which is a little odd, and kind of unhelpful given that you’ll probably only realise you wanted to use these features after you shot the photo to begin with.
Also not helping is the fact that you can’t seem to default which mode you automatically load the camera into, with “auto” seeming to be the only thing that will load every single time.
In the video camera department, give a big cheer because just like the Galaxy Note 3, Samsung has provided 4K camera support, making it possible to shoot videos for that 4K TV you were considering buying. They’re not going to be the most amazing quality, that said, but given how few 4K video cameras there are in general, we’re sure having one in your pocket is most appreciated.
Over on the front, you’ll find a 2 megapixel camera, which is just enough for the selfie that so many people love to take, and even a dash of video conferencing here and there. People still do that, right?
Oh, and there’s a phone.
Yes, smartphones will work like that, and Samsung is no different, making it possible to use the 5.1 inch Galaxy S5 with either one hand or two, and even providing some sound boosts for those who want their speakerphone to be a little louder.
Make no mistake, this is one of the most volume heavy smartphones you’re likely to see, and it’s clear Samsung has been working on that side of the technology in this phone, providing an easily found booster button if the speaker just isn’t loud enough.
The speaker on the back will boom it out, as will the one on the front, and while neither appear quite as good as HTC’s dual front-facing BoomSound speakers, they’re a lot better than previous Samsung smartphone speakers have been.
Keeping it simple… a little too simple.
Not all Android overlays are created equal, and while the Google Nexus devices show Android the way Google intended it, the overlays afford manufacturers the chance to customise Android for their customers, making it at once easier to use and more befitting of a brand.
For instance, Sony’s Xperia overlay is like blending the look of the PlayStation and Bravia Xrossbar with that of Android, while HTC’s evolves Google’s look to be a little clearer and easier to operate for newbies, and LG’s is insanely customisable while still stickng close to what Google envisioned.
And then there’s Samsung’s TouchWiz. Where do we begin with this.
Many have thought for a while that TouchWiz was an Android interpretation of how an iPhone should be done, with an easy to understand menu system, soft icons, and no real reason to touch the settings unless you were a pro.
For many people, that’s perfect, and with an “easy mode” (below) built into this handset, that could be made even better, as you’ll just need to switch it on and start using your phone, adding the apps you want but forgetting about all the extra layers that Android can offer.
But if you like complexity, and you’re escaping another phone because of the control you want here, you’ll be sorely disappointed when you realise that Australian Galaxy S5 owners don’t get to see to much of this. Overseas it’s different, and we hear people from other nations can change their devices in ways we cant, but Aussies, well, we’re an unlucky bunch.
As an example, you can’t change the shortcut dock at the bottom of the screen. At all. Not one bit. Nada.
Which is a shame, because the first thing this reviewer does when he gets an Android (or iPhone) to review is fix the dock so it matches his life, removing the apps he’d never use and replacing them with ones he would.
And that makes sense, right? A phone serves you, not the other way around.
It didn’t always used to be this way, either, but ever since a firmware change happened midway through the life of the Galaxy S3 — oh, we remember Samsung — the Australian shortcut dock has been locked for Samsung devices made available locally. It was locked on the S4, which we complained about in our review, and it’s locked on the S5 too.
But that’s not all.
You also can’t open apps from the lockscreen. We could on the S3, and the S4 brought in lockscreen widgets (which we suspect nobody used), but on the S5, there’s nothing. There’s a slide to open, or a fingerprint unlock, or another security measure, but that’s it. No camera access from the lockscreen, no drag to open an app like the web browser or phone call… nothing.
It’s strange, because you can actually customise the interface of the camera, though you can’t seem to decide what mode the camera opens up in first.
And you can change the order of the items in the “My Magazine” page, but even though it’s based on Flipboard, not all of your settings from Flipboard seem to work here. In fact, just like HTC’s BlinkFeed, you can’t add your favourite webpages and RSS feeds, so once again, you’re stuck with what Samsung suggests.
From what we gather, though, this lack of customisation might extend from making the Galaxy S5 as easy to use as possible, while still providing a modicum of room to move.
In a way, that’s similar to what Apple provides in its iPhone: a complicated product that removes the layers of complexity, resulting in something that is simple and just works.
That’s what it feels like Samsung is trying to achieve in the S5, keeping the homescreens, the widgets, the menus and dropdown bars, but doing everything the company can to appeal to iPhone users curious about the big screens and Samsung style by simplifying Android so that it’s less fussy and easier to adopt quickly.
But in some ways, the company has done too much.
Not being able to change the dock will frustrate customers, especially those who don’t want the stock internet browser, and want to change the shortcuts to something more beneficial for them.
Samsung can argue that it has provided a solution for these customers in the “Toolbox,” a new option that stays on the screen when it’s switched on and provides user upgradeable shortcuts in any location. Think of it as your favourite five programs that can appear at a moment’s notice from a small circle you can keep on screen at all times.
That’s nice, and we’re delighted to see some customisation here, but seriously, it doesn’t make up for a dock you can’t change. It really doesn’t. And a more secure fingerprint unlock doesn’t make up for the ability to open your camera from the lockscreen. Sorry, but it doesn’t.
Moving items around on the homescreen is a little different, too. It could be that we’re seeing the result of the ongoing lawsuits through these steps, but if you hold down on an icon on the homescreen and try to move it, you’ll be instead asked to hit the edit icon on the screen, which is a little pencil that, when pressed, actually lets you move icons and widgets around. Strangely, you can still remove icons and send them to trash by holding them down, but changing where things sit can’t be done this way.
Unfortunately, what it results in is a phone that has the control gradually being shifted away from the user.
Do you want to make the phone look and control the way you want? Too bad, if you leave the phone running stock, because Samsung doesn’t want to let you.
Ultimately, you can always replace the Android overlay with one of your own choice, and if you’re against some of these choices Samsung has made, that’s what we’d recommend, as it can make a phone with excellent hardware perform just as it should: excellently.
But with TouchWiz working the way it is on Samsung’s Australian Galaxy S5, this is, more or less, a phone made for people who don’t care about customisation or change, which given the nature of smartphones, totally confuses us.
There’s no doubt that the S5 is an excellent handset, but it won’t be the same level of excellence for everyone, namely people who like to change things. The hardware is top notch, the screen is mesmerising, and outside of the battery, the performance is bloody good and will last you until the next model or two pops up, without a doubt.
Add to this the awesome concept of being able to pay at the supermarket with our phone and we’re delightfully intrigued with what the Galaxy S5 has to offer.
But then there’s the lack of customisation, an issue which can be dodged by installing workarounds to get around the way Samsung has compromised the phone for Australia. It’s a shame, too, as these flaws mean the phone is never truly yours, which is such a terrible concept.
In fact, every time someone asks us what’s wrong with the S5 and we tell them, we get told that these issues would stop them from buying it.
We asked at the beginning of this review of the Galaxy S5 was Samsung’s best handset yet, and honestly, we’re not sure.
There are things about the S5 that are marvellous, there really are, and then there are things that just drive us away, and make us think Australians are getting the dodgy end of the stick.
Fortunately, you can get around these issues — we’ve even written a guide on it — but you shouldn’t have to. You really shouldn’t have to, especially since tweakers will do it by default, but regular people expecting a phone just as good if not better than their current model will be anticipating something extraordinary in this handset.
So basically, if you don’t mind dancing around Samsung’s flawed Australian version of Android, the Galaxy S5 is a great handset, providing decent specs and cool features, just remember to charge it daily, because it needs it. And if you don’t mind not being able to customise your phone, you’ll love this handset more than anyone else.