When Samsung first announced the Galaxy S5, the company made a lot of noise about going back to the basics. The gimmick-laden Galaxy S4 had given way to a renewed focus on delivering the capabilities that matter most to consumers.
The South Korean tech giant touted the ‘modern glam’ design that was ‘fashionable’ but strong with a water and dust resistant build. It doubled down on the camera, promising sharper shots and video with its new in-house developed ISOCELL image sensor.
The added features also generated plenty of buzz -- a fingerprint scanner for a more secure and convenient means of unlocking the phone and transacting online, a heart rate monitor to keep up with modern fitness tracking trends, a larger and brighter display in addition to longer battery life. It also claimed that their custom Android skin, TouchWiz UI, had been dialled down and redesigned for a better user experience.
So does Samsung actually deliver on the promise and is it enough to compete in a saturated market?
Lost in translation
Producing a premium feeling smartphone has never been Samsung’s forte. The company’s plastic infused design language has been part and parcel of every Galaxy smartphone and it’s a trend that, disappointingly, continues with the Galaxy S5.
In fact, aside from the dimpled design on the back, the Galaxy S5 closely resembles a slightly taller and wider version of its predecessor. It even has the same tinny mono speaker on the back while the competition has moved on to better quality front firing stereo speakers.
The phone is made up entirely of plastic right down to the fake metal trims that don the edges. This is a problem for a handset that is going up against the gorgeous metal build of the HTC One M8 (read the full review here), the industrial design of the Sony Xperia Z2 and the signature aluminium feel of the iPhone. The design is dull, uninspired and frankly looks out of place in the high-end smartphone market.
Despite the plastic exterior, Samsung has at least made the phone more durable against the elements with an IP67 rating, allowing the device to be submerged in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. Aside from serving as a fun party trick, it means that you can use the S5 in the pouring rain or even spill coffee onto it and it’ll walk away unscathed.
The one thing Samsung has nailed is the display. The 5.1-inch Full HD Super AMOLED offering on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is easily the best feature of the phone.
Gorgeous display, better battery life
AMOLED displays have always had the edge over the IPS LCD displays (used in competing smartphones) when it comes to producing deep blacks and rich colour saturation but it came at the cost of colour accuracy and a brightness that was noticeably dimmer in comparison.
But with all of the top-end smartphone manufacturers effectively reaching the resolution and pixels per inch (PPI) ceiling, the attention has now shifted to other important factors that make up a good display such as maximum brightness, screen reflectance, colour accuracy, viewing angles, performance in high ambient light and the overall power efficiency of displays.
Samsung has made a rapid improvement in all these crucial areas to edge out the competition in the display department. Not only is the Galaxy S5 one of the brightest mobile displays we have ever seen, the colour reproduction is noticeably more accurate and vibrant when compared side-by-side with the iPhone 5s and HTC One M8.
In practical terms, it means that the Galaxy S5 holds up better in bright sunlight and is the ideal mobile display for viewing movies, photos and browsing the web.
You can now enjoy the display much longer too with a much improved battery life that will easily get you through a full day and well into the next before having to finally reach for the charger. Like the HTC One M8, the Galaxy S5 benefits from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 processor that keeps everything ticking along at a fair clip with minimal impact on battery.
There’s also a larger 2,800mAh battery onboard and an ‘Ultra Power Saving Mode’ that effectively turns the screen into black and white and limits the device to calls and text messages for extending battery life even further.
Fingerprints and heartbeats
Similar to Apple’s TouchID on the iPhone 5s, Samsung has included a fingerprint scanner on the home button of the Galaxy S5 for phone unlocking and purchases made in the Samsung App Store.
With a swipe of the fingerprint scanner, users can also login into their PayPal accounts and transact online with any website that supports PayPal. Samsung is intent on making the fingerprint scanner central to the Galaxy S5 with the company opening up access to third party app developers as well.
Unfortunately, the fingerprint scanner is woefully inconsistent, often failing to register our finger swipes correctly. It’s also worth noting that we found a security hole that bypasses the automatic password request after five failed swipes, which we achieved by simply turning the screen off and back on again. This work-around effectively gives potential thieves an unlimited number of swipe attempts.
Another problem is that unlike Apple’s TouchID, the S5’s fingerprint security demands the use of two hands; one to hold the phone and the other to perform the rather awkward vertical swipe gesture with your finger.
Meanwhile, the heart rate monitor works quite well and is reasonably accurate. Resting your index finger on the sensor and firing up S Health will display the reading without much delay. That said, it’s hard to understand Samsung’s rationale to include such a feature on a smartphone. Fitness-conscious users would either already own a dedicated fitness wearable for proper activity tracking or at least plan on buying one. How many are likely to use their phone instead?
Presumably, the inclusion of the feature has more to do with Samsung trying to better incorporate its wearable offerings – the Gear Fit and the Galaxy Gear 2.
The Galaxy S5 comes with a new 16-megapixel camera that is driven by Samsung’s own ISOCELL image sensor technology for improved image quality. In ideal lighting conditions, the S5 is capable of taking some gorgeous shots with plenty of detail. The Real Time HDR mode also worked particularly well in evening out scenes with a lot of contrast between a dark subject and a bright background.
Low light shots on the other hand weren’t particularly impressive and the HTC One M8 produced better looking pictures in comparison. We also found the M8 to have a faster shutter speed and better defocus capabilities than the Galaxy S5.
Samsung’s latest version of TouchWiz has undergone a much needed facelift, making it a lot more cohesive in appearance than before. But despite the fresh coat of paint, TouchWiz’s fundamental problems remain - namely a bloated feature set and a user interface that simply isn’t up to scratch.
A mixed bag
Samsung made all the right pre-launch noises with the focus on the features that consumers actually care about but the Galaxy S5 is a mixed bag. To Samsung’s credit, the S5 sports a brilliant display, excellent battery life and a reasonable boost in camera performance, in addition to a water resistant and dust proof design.
But there are some glaring missteps as well. The fingerprint scanner seems half-baked and the heart rate monitor looks like an unnecessary feature that barely anyone will use.
Crucially, Samsung has failed to realise that people care about how the phone looks and feels in the hand, how it sounds and the software experience - areas where the competition like the HTC One M8, the iPhone 5s and the Sony Xperia Z2 really deliver for the same price.