Disclaimer: Review was conducted with a marketing unit of the device and not the consumer model. All aspects of this unit is the same as the consumer model, with the exception of the IP67 rating where it was not tested.
February 25th. After week after week of intense speculation and rumours, the time for the grand unveiling was finally upon us at Unpacked 2014 Episode 1 in Barcelona. When the curtain finally was lifted and the Galaxy S5 was finally shown to the world, the murmurs on the Internet were as divided as the country that the phone originated from. The S5 was a different creature than its predecessors – it kept to Samsung’s methodology of small design tweaks paired with hardware upgrades – yet somehow it was different, a certain “je ne sais quoi”. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time but when I held the device in my hands for the first time after inserting my sim card, it all finally became clear as day.
A close friend of mine recently commented that Samsung’s flagship was best in even numbers. Looking back, I had to agree. The original Galaxy S was one of the first Android phones I reviewed and I was in love with it. When the S II came along, it was an upgrade, sure, but nothing compared to when the S III came out. If you’ve been reading Lowyat.NET for a while, you’ll know the disdain I had for the S4, wanting desperately for HTC to beat them to oblivion with the One after such a keen battle between the S3 and the One X. This brings us to present day and the device that may actually restore my faith in Samsung phones again.
The Age Of Rapid Smartphone Iterations
Look at the S5 when you first take it out and you may very well be disappointed. This is no iPhone 3GS to 4 or even the HTC One X to One. But flip it around and it’s a whole different ballgame. The derriere of the Galaxy S5 has received much scorn from everyone who saw it online after Unpacked and has been the butt of jokes and memes everywhere, comparing it to band-aids, golf balls and even in an instance a colander (?!). The one thing I can say is that everyone who I’ve let hold and fool around with the phone has renounced that.
The rear is rather reminiscent of the original Google Nexus 7 in that the dimples are pronounced but not distracting. The matte rubber finish is certainly a far cry from the pathetic attempts at “Faux Leather” on the Note 3 and horrible plastic covers of the S II through to S4; a backside fit for a flagship smartphone king/queen. Samsung says it helps with the ergonomics of the device and while that may be true, the rear helps in more ways than that. All in all, I like the band-aid back and I can not lie.
All’s not unicorns and rainbows with the rear however: the biggest gripe about it is that like its predecessor, the camera module is protruding out like a pimple on prom night, ever so precarious to bursting and in this case, scratching when you put the phone down on the table. If you thought the S4 was bad, the S5’s protrusion looks in dire need of a good lancing. Granted, the camera has received amazing improvements (which we will get into later), but the placement and hump is rather slipshod to say the least; something flush with the rest of the case would be perfect.
The Easiest Way To A Man’s Heart Is Not Via Useless Niche Features
This brings me to the biggest gripe of all with the Samsung Galaxy S5: the addition of a heartbeat sensor to the rear of the device. I am notoriously unforgiving for useless tech trying to be passed off as innovation and this, Samsung, is definitely one. I know that you want to make S Health a bigger part of our daily lives and you may want me to lead that healthier life, but putting a heartbeat sensor below the camera is not the way to do it. Here is a piece of hardware that will contribute to the overall cost of the product but not return nearly enough to warrant an inclusion on your flagship smartphone.
You know what? If Samsung kept it out of the S5, they may have just sold more Gear Fits! When it comes down to it, the heartbeat sensor is an extremely niche feature that won’t appeal to most of the general public.
The overall build quality of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is a slight step above the previous models, with the power button and the volume rocker not feeling as if they will fall off any moment and the waterproof flap covering the USB charging port feeling a lot more snug than that of the Sony Xperia Z1. It retains some of the plastic skirting of the Note 3 which in my opinion could have been changed if they had not been spending so long on the heartbeat sensor! On the front it retains the signature Galaxy S series’ physical home button which I’ve come to appreciate. It does still feel rather plastic with an odd clicky sensation when depressed, not smooth like say a regular physical phone button – but this is perhaps due to the IP67 sealing that has been employed underneath.
The phone comes with a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display running at a full HD (1080 x 1920), giving a pixel density of 431ppi. This is encased in a body which is just 142 x 72.5 x 8.1 mm and a mere 145g. The Galaxy S5 makes me feel like all the phones I’ve used before this were not the right size at all. The S5 feels incredibly suited for my hand: it’s light and fits into the pocket effortlessly, sliding in and out with ease. Pictures do NOT do this phone justice at all: the look and feel may be subjective but I urge you to go pick one up at a Samsung retailer for yourself and test it out.
Same-Same But Different
In the age where every manufacturer is “pulling an Apple” by doing minor tweaks to an already successful flagship – the Sony Xperia Z1 to the Z2, HTC One to the ALL NEW HTC One – there has to be something that sets their device apart in the sea of minor updates. While one of the S5’s unique selling points is a terrible attempt at innovation (guess which one), I believe the tweaks on the S5’s camera system is a step in the right direction and is pulling further away from the UltraPixel menace that is the old HTC One. From what we’ve heard about the new One, this may just be no competition again this round.
The Samsung Galaxy S5’s camera has been rebuilt with a new 16MP sensor, brand new lens as well as the addition of a brand new Phase Detect Autofocus module, similar to that of a regular DSLR camera and is the first of its kind in a smartphone. The first obvious change is the improvement of the autofocus and Samsung says that it will focus on your subject as quickly as 0.3s. Gone are the days of the perpetual focus hunting and the annoying red circle/box indicating that no matter how much it’s trying, the camera doesn’t know what on earth you’re on about. The snappiness of the focus is pretty apparent when you’ve used a camera like the BlackBerry Q10 or Nexus 4.
Of course a faster, more accurate autofocus does not make a good camera. Samsung has also tweaked a couple of things, making the device a lot more fully featured on the imaging front. One of the features that really amazed me was the new and improved Rich Tone (HDR) mode. Rich tone is essentially HDR mode that is able to be seen in real time on the screen as you take the photo. On top of that, there is virtually no lag when taking the photo and processing it, which is amazing.
Here’s a sample of HDR on and off:
It seems that after Lytro and Nokia’s Refocus app, the rest of the market is scrambling together solutions of their own and Samsung is no different. The thing is however with anything scrambled together, it will definitely feel that way: unpolished and an afterthought. Selective Focus is the latest addition to the Samsung bag of tricks and while a great idea in theory, it is executed rather poorly in comparison with its competition (including the upcoming HTC One).
The problem with Selective Focus on the S5 is that it works only in certain controlled circumstances, i.e. the subject in focus has to be selected and be less than 50cm away from the camera. On top of this, if the camera doesn’t detect enough difference in distance between the main subject and the background or other objects, it will not work.
On top of that, after a decent amount of processing time, it will only give you three options: Near Focus, Far Focus or Pan Focus (all in focus).
Compare this to the abilities of the Refocus app; Granted, while its not any faster in terms of processing, it take a series of pictures across all focal ranges and then allows you to tap on the area you would like to focus on instead of just two options. On top of this the colour pop module within it is quite a decent feature as well. Let’s not even begin talking about the new HTC One’s rumoured dual camera setup.
All in all, the camera is a major improvement over the S4 and in my opinion one of the best I’ve used in the market today among powerhouses like the Xperia Z1 and iPhone 5s. This is not a battle fought on the megapixel front nor is it on how many cameras but rather how the functionality, interface, key features AND megapixels intertwine in an intricate smartphone camera tango.
Sample images can be found at the bottom of this article.
Bigger Is Not Always Better
One of the biggest problems with modern smartphones is that given our selfie taking, social media consuming Internet habits, batteries don’t last as long as they should. This is a great thing for power bank companies, but not so for smartphone manufacturers. The logical approach to improve this is to slap a bigger battery in the device. We’ve seen this with manufacturers like Oppo with the N1 and its 3,610mAh battery as well as the larger phablets with more space for a larger battery. Larger capacities require a larger battery size which in turn requires a larger (or thicker) device. While other manufacturers like Sony has made headway into an alternate solution with its Battery Stamina Mode on the Z1, Samsung takes it one step further with the inclusion of a second power saving mode: the aptly named Ultra Power Saving Mode.
What Ultra Power Saving Mode does is it converts your display into a monochrome screen and disables non-critical functionality, only enabling key system features and 6 selected apps. You can still surf the net via your data connection, access WhatsApp and make calls; perfectly reasonable for that last push at the end of the night when you have 10% battery left, lost your friends at Zouk and need to find your ride home.
To put things into perspective, at 27% battery life, Power Saving mode estimates 6h 31mins of battery life while Ultra Power Saving mode reports 15hrs 7mins – about two and a half times longer. Even without the deployment of the drastic Ultra Power Saving mode, the 2,800mAh battery is just 200mAh up from its predecessor but somehow can last me the whole day comfortably, perhaps thanks to a less TouchWizzy TouchWiz.
But Sometimes Less Is Definitely More
The biggest gripe I had with Samsung phones is and always will be the TouchWiz skin of Android they insist on using. I’m not a huge fan of the colourful, candy interface that litters the place and limits you to such huge icons and wasted screen space. To be fair, I’m not a fan of other Android skins either: most of my phones will be converted with Nova Launcher and a custom lockscreen to preserve my sanity.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 has made a couple of small tweaks to TouchWiz but nothing notable enough for me to denounce my TouchWiz hating nature. In fact, what Samsung have done is throw in just about every feature they could think of into the mix. Just looking at the Settings menu is an incredibly long list of possible branches to customize your phone and enable/disable features that you may or may not know how to use. For instance, there is a My Magazine home screen which is permanently fixated to your leftmost side of the home screen. It emulates HTC’s Blinkfeed, but it’s less customizable and not as pretty to look at. Another feature is in the drop-down notification bar that has buttons to bring up S Finder and Quick Connect, two features that may or may not get used.
On this front, it’s as if Samsung is just intent on trying to adapt its handset carpet-bomb strategy into the features on their flagship as well starting with the S4 and I’m not too sure how I feel about this. While we probably think it’s better to have more features than less, I can’t help feel that it’s much too complicated for a first-time user to grasp, even as a seasoned tech journalist, I was having a little trouble with the vast array of options I could use.
The challenge now is how do we refine the experience to make it simpler, yet still as fully featured as we’d like. There is nothing elegant and streamlined about TouchWiz to begin with and with this, it’s just made it a whole lot bulkier.
If No One Is Looking, What Are We Hiding?
It seems like fingerprint sensors are all the rage these days, with Apple having TouchID, HTC having one on their One max and now Samsung with the Galaxy S5. While it is a great extra level of security for those who hate tracing unintuitive patterns or are too lazy to type a sequence of numbers on a lock screen. However, this is not the big selling point for the fingerprint sensor. The fingerprint sensor is tied to a feature called Private Mode which unlocks an entire new side of the phone memory dedicated to items that are encrypted and not able to be viewed when not authenticated by fingerprint.
This begs the question, on a device as personal as a mobile phone, is there a need to hide files? Who are we even hiding the files from? And more importantly, what kind of files do we need to hide? This is yet another feature that is too niche to be globally appealing and not a great application for the fingerprint sensor. In all honesty I still find the best execution to be the password autofill for the App Store on the Apple iPhone 5S. If you’re a man who has a bevy of beauties constantly at his beck and call yet unbeknownst to your significant other, firstly shame on you and secondly just get a different “mistress phone”.
The Smallest Changes Can Make The Biggest Differences
The Galaxy S5 is not a huge groundbreaking change from its predecessor, but that’s not to say they are two peas in a pod. Despite only having changes below the surface, I feel it’s the small changes that make a huge impact on this device. From the new and improved rear cover shying away from the flexible, fingerprint magnet plastic, to the incredible camera and even the software changes brought to make best use of the phone; the Samsung Galaxy S5 represents Samsung’s most thought-about phone in a world where Samsung are overthinkers.
On the other hand, there are so many superficial features on this phone that if omitted could make for a much cleaner, polished experience. However I will liken the S5 to the result when you try to polish brass with a polishing cloth. It’s at the stage before the final do-over with a clean, soft cloth; covered in a mixture of polish and muck with a brilliantly shining surface peeking through, just needing that extra buff to truly shine. Laugh all you want but this band-aid of a phone certainly fixed the hole in my heart that Samsung left after its shenanigans post S3.
TL;DR: This is Samsung’s best and most important phone to date. Despite the heartbeat sensor being a total bust, this is still a high yardstick to surpass.
|Display||5.1” FHD Super AMOLED (1920 x 1080), 432 ppi|
|OS||Android 4.4.2 KitKat|
|Processor||Quad-Core Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz Krait 400|
|Storage||16/32GB Expandable 128GB microSD|
|Main camera||16MP (1/2.6”, Phase Detection AF)|
|Front camera||2.0MP (1920 x 1080, Wide-angle lens )|
LTE: LTE Cat.4 (150/50Mbps)
|Dimension||142.0 x 72.5 x 8.1mm|
|Additional Features||IP67 certificated Dust & Water Resistant,
Ultra Power Saving Mode,