Design & Build Quality
The Galaxy S5 copped a lot of flak at launch for being the Band-Aid Samsung and some of this criticism is deserved. The device itself is not much of a departure from the same design recipe that Samsung has been using for years which is in need of a bit of a refresh. Having said that, Sony never changes so it's all relative, and if you like the established Samsung aesthetic you'll be happy with the S5's design.
The build quality is excellent though and everything is quite well considered. The dimpled plastic on the back feels much better than previous Galaxy devices and the built in finger scanner in the home button is a nice touch even if it is not a feature that will be useful for every user. Samsung are sticking with plastic but the benefit of this is that the IP67-rated water-resistant and dustproof rear panel is removable, providing access to a microSD card slot and replaceable battery. There's also a heart rate monitor embedded alongside the LED flash and the S5 also has an IR blaster and LED notification.
The Galaxy S5 has a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display that won't pop your eyes with pixel density but it will will colors and saturation. As usual Samsung has opted for a super rich, high contrast display that is wonderful to look at even if it is not exactly lifelike. The AMOLED technology means the device shows pitch blacks and good contrast but it won't do so well outdoors because it lacks backlighting.
As mentioned above, the S5 has a few special features tacked on that may not be essentials for everyone but they do make the S5 stand out. The heart rate monitor on the back below the camera lens is linked to the S Health app, so you can track your activity and keep an eye on your heart rate on the go. The physical home button doubles as a finger scanner that is not always reliable, but that has been improved with some software updates. These features have been widely criticized as useless gimmicks, but I tend to disagree. Samsung has made an effort to focus on core components like security, health, camera and battery in the S5 and their efforts, while not perfect, are a step in the right direction compared to some of the more blatant Samsung gimmicks over the years. The S5 is also IP67 certified water-resistant and dustproof.
- Check out our video showing how the Galaxy S5 finger scanner works.
The Galaxy S5 saw a bit of a reworking of Samsung's heavy TouchWiz user interface and while it is lighter and flatter than previous versions it seems a little unfinished. Some parts are quite nicely done but the experience is not consistent throughout. The settings menu has a few viewing options, including a large round colorful icon based view, a tabulated view and a list view. The notifications shade and Quick Settings take on another look that is less colorful but nicely put together. This part of the redesign carries over to the recent apps, which now has a dedicated softkey which has finally replaced the menu key on previous Samsung devices, even if it's on the wrong side compared to other Android devices.
- See our TouchWiz vs stock Android comparison for more differences in interfaces.
The S5 ran Android 4.4.2 KitKat at launch and has received a few performance updates but has not yet made the jump to Android 4.4.4. KitKat runs well on the S5, even if TouchWiz slows it down and all the usual kitKat software options like cloud printing, Chromecast support, immersive mode (the S5 is a great device for reading or playing games on), screen mirroring, NFC and Google Now integration. While Samsung reproduces a lot of Google's core apps, Google's offerings all work fine on the S5 too and you can disable the Samsung apps you don't like. TouchWiz and pre-installed apps do take up a significant amount of the internal storage though.
As for specific software features, the S5 features Samsung Knox security platform, which sandboxes apps for personal and business use, making the Galaxy S5 a perfect device for work and private use. There's a nice little floating menu called Toolbox too, where you can keep a shortcut list for your most frequently used apps and Samsung has introduced the Magazine dedicated home screen which is kind of like a mixture of Flipboard and HTC's BlinkFeed. In typical Samsung fashion, there's a lot, and I mean a lot, of features on the Galaxy S5. For some it's too much, for others it covers all bases. I'm somewhere in the middle.
The usual array of Samsung Smart features are present, with Air View (hovering content preview like on a PC mouse), gesture based controls, cloud backup, blocking and private mode, Easy Mode and S Voice adding value where you may or may not want it. Other useful features include Multi-Window, one-handed operation and a fantastic Download Booster that utilizes both your Wi-Fi and data connection to create download speeds of 1 gigabyte in 30 seconds. The availability of this feature is carrier-dependant.
As I already mentioned, the S5 is not as super fast as its specs sheet might suggest. The interface slows things down a bit and there's noticeable lag when launching some apps and switching tasks or accessing the My Magazine screen. In almost all other respects though, the S5 performs as you would want it to, but interface speed is a problem that can't be overlooked. Nevertheless, the S5 has some solid processing power and sufficient RAM to power you through your everyday Android needs.
The S5 camera is a very respectable offering and it holds up quite well against other cameras out there. It shoots very quickly with lightning fast auto-focus (0.3 seconds) and the images are typically great. The S5 ships with a 16 MP ISOCELL sensor which offers real-time HDR and 4K video capture. Some of the less popular preset modes have been scrapped from the S5's camera, but these can be downloaded from the Play Store if you really want them.
- Read our breakdown of the best Galaxy S5 camera features.
The S5 camera is still jam-packed with options, settings and modes though so you won't be lacking for choice. There's image stabilization, burst shooting, Beauty Face, dual camera, panorama, some limited manual settings and a rather unimpressive selective focus option that lets you refocus an image after it's taken. The camera may be a bit bloated still but the basics are covered well and you're unlikely to be let down by the S5 camera except in low-light.
- Check out our comparison between the Galaxy S5 and LG G3 cameras.
This is one of the biggest issues for smartphones right now and the Galaxy S5 is a star performer in this category. Samsung integrated Lucid Logix technology into the S5 to manage battery performance at optimum levels. This works an absolute treat and the S5 has close to the best battery life of any smartphone I've seen this year. Add to this the fact that the S5 also has the regular power saving mode we've seen on other Samsung devices, but also the fantastic Ultra Power Saving Mode, and you've got an impressive device as far as battery goes.
Activating UPSM will implement a limited grayscale user interface and only offer limited functionality, but you can add your own essential apps like WhatsApp, Facebook and Google+, as well as browse the web in grayscale. While Samsung's advertizing shows it is possible to do a 7-day road trip from coast to coast on a single charge that's not exactly how you're likely to use it. It's more of an in-a-pinch battery extension than something you should completely rely on as a daily driver. It's easily the best power saving mode I've seen.
The Galaxy S5 may not have quite lived up to expectations, but it is still a very solid smartphone. It’s the kind of phone where every software angle is covered. Some choices may not be for everyone, like design, the new interface, the heart rate monitor and finger scanner, but the basics of camera, battery and screen are done very well. If you're not a Samsung fan it's unlikely the S5 is going to win you over, and if you are a Samsung fan then perhaps the S5 isn't quite enough to make you want to upgrade your Galaxy S4, or even your S3, as some readers have told us. In my opinion, there are several better phones out there this year, but if you do take the plunge on the Galaxy S5 you will still be getting a solid phone with lots of potential even if it’s not exactly out of this world.