With the much-discussed Galaxy Alpha just around the corner, we take another look at Samsung’s current top dog, the S5, to see if it’s still a worthy contender half a year on. Is this the best Galaxy in the universe, or will the Alpha leave it feeling like a beta release?
With thanks to Vodafone for the handset.
The Galaxy S5 has received all kinds of criticism for its polycarbonate back panel, beset with ‘dimples’ if you’re feeling generous, or ‘pockmarks’ if you’re not. It’s been accused of looking like a plaster, a cigarette package, even the vinyl seats at airports. The dotted design appears far worse in some colours than others, with Charcoal Black and Electric Blue coming out considerably better than Shimmer White and Copper Gold. The latter looks very Del Boy.
While it’s true that the back and faux-metal sides don’t exactly scream ‘premium’, they do make it a much lighter phone to carry around than its competitors, and I came to appreciate that a lot during testing. The S5 weighs just 145g – the same as the £99 EE Kestrel – despite having some major hardware packed in. You might think you don’t really care how much your phone weighs, but after carrying this in hand, pocket and clutch bag for a week, picking up my HTC One felt like trying to lift Thor’s hammer.
The dimples and ridged plastic edges make it “the grippiest Galaxy yet”, and definitely easier to keep hold of than smoother, curvier metal handsets – most of which can’t be opened up by the user. The polycarbonate panel is easy to prise off, revealing a micro-SIM and microSD slot, plus a removable battery – a huge benefit over other flagship phones, which are almost universally non-replaceable. This is smart and a good point of difference for Samsung.
Unfortunately, the thin back panel does vibrate a lot when you’re playing music or movies through the (sigh) rear-facing speaker on higher volume settings. Samsung mentions this in the manual as a side-effect of the phone’s water resistance, but the Sony Xperia Z2 – marketed as ‘waterproof’ – doesn’t have this problem.
The difference between the waterproofing on the two phones is interesting. The Galaxy S5 says it’s “resistant to sweat, rain, sand and dust,” and the manual advises not immersing the phone in water more than 1 metre deep for more than 30 minutes. The Xperia Z2 says not more than 1.5 metres deep for more than 30 minutes. So apparently half a metre is the difference between water-resistant and waterproof, but as someone whose baths are usually only a foot or two, I’m happy with either. It does mean a fiddly flap over the charging port, though.
The Galaxy S5’s water-resistance got an unexpected road test when my little brother dumped a glass of water over me in revenge for not taking the Ice Bucket Challenge (I donated, jeez!). The phone was in my hands and got a pretty thorough soaking, but threw it off like a champ. My little brother fared less well.
Having had a previous-generation Samsung phone and promptly returned it, it’s a relief to see that the Galaxy S5 isn’t stuffed with ugly bloatware and questionable design decisions like some of its forebears. Yes, there are quite a lot of apps called S-Something, but they can be disabled, and for the most part the S5 functions like any high-end KitKat phone. This is a huge relief, as it’s something that’s turned many people off the Galaxy range.
The included S Health app works with the Galaxy S5’s heart rate sensor, positioned on the back below the camera. This is a stab at the trendy health tech market, and includes features like step-counting, food logging and sleep tracking. I didn’t find the food logging function particularly helpful – the interface is simple and pleasant to use, but the nutritional information database is lacking quite a few of the foods I can easily put into MyFitnessPal. This will probably improve over time, as MyFitnessPal and similar longer-established apps have the benefit of a huge user-submitted food database. I definitely missed being able to scan barcodes to add foods to my list, though.
The heart rate sensor feels like a huge, unnecessary gimmick and a misguided attempt to give the S5 a point of difference. Surely anyone who cared enough to use it would be better off with a proper, dedicated device? It’s a cute trick, but fails to work more than half the time – and when I had my heart rate measured by a nurse and the S5 simultaneously, the S5 came up with an alarming figure of 157 beats per minute instead of the actual 77.
The fingerprint scanning feature is another gimmicky inclusion in this handset, albeit a much more useful one. Unlocking your phone with a fingerprint feels safer and cooler than using a code, and when you fail to swipe properly, the phone tells you what you did wrong rather than just saying “Nope”. You can use fingerprints to send PayPal payments, buy apps and view protected files, too.
The Siri-esque S Voice function, activated by double-tapping the Home button, is a bit of fun but not something I can imagine using regularly. And this is coming from someone who does “OK Google…” searches all the time. It’s pretty painful to dictate a text message and then correct all the punctuation, and generally I found it was faster to just do what I wanted to do rather than asking S Voice to do it.
The S5 includes an app called Geo News that promises to let you know what’s going on near you, using your GPS location. What it actually does is permanently tell you that “Your region is OK” unless you happen to be embroiled in an earthquake. This is both useless and oddly reassuring.
The Galaxy S5 comes with yet another custom Flipboard-style news hub (although at least theirs is actually made by Flipboard). Why is this a thing now? Every phone manufacturer seems to have one: HTC’s BlinkFeed, Sony’s Socialife News, and this. Maybe there’s a huge contingent of users having a whale of a time adding all their favourite blogs and sites to these apps, but equally maybe those people should just get Flipboard.
Using the Galaxy S5 is, on the whole, very enjoyable. It’s quick, responsive and smooth, with next to no lag or stuttering (although S Voice crashed a few times), which is down to the extremely capable quad-core 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM. The two capacitive buttons below the screen are a welcome addition, though they seem the wrong way round – who puts the Back button on the right?!
Visually, the experience is much closer to stock Android than on previous Samsung phones, where fake leather, stitching and beige abounded. Everything looks much cleaner and, frankly, better. There are some handy software features built in, too – like the ability to download files faster by using WiFi and mobile data at the same time, and the magical motion gestures Samsung debuted with the S4. These are ridiculously fun and include pausing a video by looking away, and scrolling hands-free by wafting your arms around. Watch the video review for a demo:
It’s interesting that Samsung chose to ever-so-slightly bump up the screen size of the Galaxy S5 from the S4’s 5.0 inches to 5.1, while leaving the resolution at full HD (1920×1080). This means that while the S5 has a bigger screen, it actually has slightly fewer pixels per inch: 432 instead of 441. Admittedly, no one with human eyeballs would ever notice the difference, but it’s one area where the S5 is a tiny bit inferior to its predecessor.
As with the S4, it’s a Super AMOLED display with fantastic viewing angles. Colours are a little oversaturated (I feel like I write this in every flagship review), which is slightly noticeable when transferring photos from the phone to a computer, but videos look amazing and the screen is very readable in bright sunlight. Again, it’s Gorilla Glass 3, so reassuringly tough.
Screen resolution is one of the major differences between the S5 and the Galaxy Alpha, with the newcomer having been rumoured to have a QHD (quad-HD, or 4x HD resolution) display but actually sporting a downgraded 720p panel. It’s still Super AMOLED, but even with the smaller 4.7 inch display, you’re losing a good quarter of the pixels per inch if you choose the new guy over the S5.
The phones the S5 is competing with have some pretty major camera hardware: the Xperia Z2 and Lumia 930 have 20-megapixel cameras, the HTC One M8’s UltraPixel sensor is famously talented at low-light photos, and manufacturers are bundling in a whole load of extra features to try and set themselves apart (see, for example, the One M8’s photo refocus mode and the Xperia Z2’s… erm… dinosaur mode).
So, how have Samsung chosen to compete? With a 16MP main camera and a 2MP front-facing, neither of which have set the world on fire. Given the extraneous nonsense built into this handset, I expected better. Still, the main camera does at least outrank the LG G3, which only offers 13MP.
Samsung have helpfully included a software camera button on the lock screen, which you can drag to unlock straight to the camera app. I used this a lot. They’ve also built one of the fastest autofocuses I’ve seen, with the camera locked-on and ready to shoot in a matter of milliseconds. HDR mode is similarly blistering, with pictures processed and saved almost instantly.
Frustratingly, you can’t turn the shutter sound off on the Galaxy S5, at least in the UK. You can put the phone on silent, but taking photos while listening to music caused the shutter noise to constantly pause Spotify, which drove me absolutely bonkers. You can make some arguments for surreptitious photos being a bad thing (and indeed the manual reminds you to get people’s permission before you snap them – thanks for that), but if you can work around it by silencing the phone, why not just include the option to turn off shutter sound entirely? Annoying.
The photos themselves came out very well: detailed, colourful and accurate. Several people commented that the photo I’d just taken looked great, and while some of that was due to screen saturation, they still look striking on other devices:
Low-light performance is average – no match for the HTC One M8, but more than good enough for most people. Predictably, there’s a raft of near-useless features included, two of which specialise in letting you lighten the skin on your face. I realise this is a cultural thing in Korea, but it should perhaps have been removed before the phone launched abroad. ‘Beauty Face’ mode lets you “Take a photo with lightened faces for gentler images” (and over-smoothed skin), and ‘Brighten face’ in Portrait editing mode gives you a slider to decide how dark or light your face should be. Seriously.
More useful camera features include 4K video (called UHD on the phone), dual camera mode (not to be confused with HTC One M8’s Duo Camera – this takes a photo on front and rear cameras simultaneously), even a virtual tour creator. And there are even more features available for free download within the app.
The 2MP selfie cam is good in strong lighting, but predictably struggles indoors. It’s fine, just grainy – although you can take your mind off this by sliding the Airbrush setting to max and making yourself look like a mechanoid:
Personally, I’d swap the heart sensor for a good front-facing camera in a… um… heartbeat.
The Galaxy S5’s battery already has one major point over its rivals in that it’s replaceable, so if you like to carry a spare or want the option of swapping a faulty battery yourself rather than paying over the odds to have the whole handset serviced, this phone will suit you.
It sits comfortably in the middle of the high-end handset battery league with 2800mAh – not quite as muscular as the LG G3’s 3000 or the Sony Xperia Z2’s 3200mAh, but a step up from the HTC One M8’s 2600 and Nokia Lumia 930’s 2420. Unsurprisingly, then, the battery lasts well during everyday use, but drops into the twenties by bedtime.
Running the standard battery test of streaming a fullscreen film over Wi-Fi with GPS enabled and screen brightness set to max, the battery depleted from 100% to 77%, which is very, very good. More than three-quarters of your battery left after an entire movie is impressive, and compares favourably with the HTC One’s score of 66%. In fact, the Sony Xperia Z2 only managed one more percentage point, and that has an extra 400mAh to play with.
In addition to the usual power saving mode, Ultra Power Saving cuts functionality down to a few core features to preserve power for as long as possible. It strongly resembles HTC Sense 6’s Extreme Power Saving, except that it turns the display black and white, and you can add some apps to the allowed list (it’s not free choice, but Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are all there – no Gmail, though). That extra flexibility definitely gives it the edge on HTC’s version.
All things considered, the Galaxy S5 is still a strong contender, even with its part-metal competitor on the way. It struggles against other manufacturers’ flagships in that it doesn’t have an attractive point of difference – fingerprint scanners and heart sensors are cool, but feel like one-use wonders next to the HTC One’s Dot View case or the Xperia Z2’s killer camera. But if you want all the functionality of a top-end Android without the weight, the S5 is still your golden boy. It even has dimples.
- Removable battery
- Very light for its size
- Ugly plastic back
- Gimmicky heart rate sensor
- Weak front-facing camera