A strange thing happened the other day, something which I don’t remember happening before. I was waiting for a train when a girl in front of me pulled out her Galaxy S4 to check a message, and I looked at her phone and thought, “yeah, the old one definitely looks better than the new one”.
Samsung has shifted, in a small way, away from the design of the Galaxy S3 and S4, and for the first time in the five years Galaxy S phones have been in stores, I think I like the old one better than the new one.
It’s also the first time Samsung has taken design cues from its Galaxy Note range for its flagship Galaxy S phone series. The Galaxy S5 is quite a lot like a mini-Note, with a similar feeling textured battery cover, ribbed stainless steel trim and a squarer shape. In contrast, the Galaxy S4 had softer corners and a glossier finish; something I feel gave it more personality.
The handset is only slightly larger than its predecessor, but noticeably heavier. The battery cover is removable, giving you access to the battery and a microSD card slot.
The only controversial decision in this design is that Samsung has replaced the ‘Menu’ button, present on all previous models, with a ‘multi-tasking’ button. Samsung faithful will find this a bit annoying to begin with, but should be fine once they know that you can still access the Menu command with a long-press on the same key.
Chances are you’ve already heard quite a bit about the bits and pieces Samsung have included in this year’s Galaxy S; water-resistance, a heart rate monitor, a fingerprint scanner — and we’ll get to these bits in a moment. But it’s important to take a step back and remember what you are really buying if you make the investment in this phone.
At the end of the day, the screen is the most important element in the smartphone recipe, and by that logic, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is among the best phones we’ve ever seen. The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display is superb, with more than enough pixels in the full-HD panel for clear, crisp images and text, and astounding colour.
What has impressed us so much is how well Samsung’s Adaptive Display technology works in this iteration. You will see the screen changing in brightness as you use the Galaxy S5 throughout a day, and in truth this isn’t a new feature. But more often than not, Samsung’s adaptive settings find the right levels for the screen, even under difficult circumstances, like when it is bright outdoors.
This is certainly what Samsung does best, and when you consider all of the third-party software you can install on this phone, the ay you end up using your smartphone could be significantly different to the way the manufacturer had planned - but the display is a constant element.
Ah, Samsung’s Touchwiz — how we have loved to hate you over the years. No matter how many new features Samsung packs into its new phones, there is always boring old Touchwiz there to give us snarky, old phone reviewers something to complain about.
But you know, this year, we might give Touchwiz a bit of a break. Because, while there is a half-dozen or more better smartphone user interfaces out there, at least Touchwiz is better this year than it has ever been before.
Samsung’s system is essentially the same as we’ve seen it before, but with just enough tweaks to keep us happy. We love how you can neatly arrange the time, the weather and our step-count (from the built-in pedometer) all on the lock screen. We like the new round-shaped icons littered around the UI, especially in the Quick Settings. We like that the ever-growing list of system settings can now be re-ordered as a colourful grid or as a list with sub-category tabs; and that you can now keyword search the system settings to find exactly what you’re looking for.
As with HTC’s Sense, we’re not sure whether we need a poorly aggregated news feed (called My Magazine on the S5) cluttering up our home screens and it would be nice to be able to launch frequently used apps from the lock screen, but all in all, Touchwiz is heading in the right direction.
There's still a few annoying old quibbles here, too. For example, you can't rearrange your Home screens without first entering a special 'Edit' mode.
S-apps, Fingerprint Scanner, Heart Rate monitor
Wait, you ask, what’s this? You’re lumping the new fingerprint scanner and heart-rate monitor under the same sub-heading as Samsung’s in-house apps that we all hate so much? Yes. Yes, I am.
If you’ve owned a Samsung phone in the past, you may have realised that you never, ever use the Samsung apps that come pre-installed on the phone. Samsung Music Hub? S Voice? S Note? Group Play? Group Camcorder? ChatON? WatchON? And, the worst offender: the Samsung App store. With each new Galaxy S phone, you can expect the S family of apps to grow by one or two new additions.
The Fingerprint Scanner and Heart Rate monitor fall under the same banner of usual tools which you’ll be glad to have, but that you’ll probably never use. The fingerprint scanner seems to have the best chance of becoming an everyday accessory, and we’ll wager that you’ll set it up as your new phone security as soon as you unwrap the S5. We’ll also bet that you’ll have deactivated it as the security method on the phone within a couple of days.
It’s not so much that it doesn’t work well as that it a tad too slow and awkward to be a useful security method for each and every time you take your phone out of your pocket. You need to swipe your finger at pretty much exactly the same angle that you programmed your fingerprint into the system at, and you have to swipe it over the Home button at the right speed — not too slow, and not too quickly.
For one-off instances, like making a purchase with PayPal, the fingerprint scanner is far more welcome. Making a purchase with this phone at a PayPal partner store was one of our favourite moments of this review process — a real glimpse into the near future.
The heart-rate monitor is a far more niche component, we think. There are some people who will use it everyday, maybe several times a day, but for couch potatoes like us, this is definitely overkill. That said, it is a very easy feature to use, you just place a finger over the sensor which is positioned on the camera module on the back of the phone.
It would be easy to look at the 16-megapixel count and make the mistake of thinking that Samsung has re-hashed the same camera we saw last year in the Galaxy S4. This new shooter may capture images the same size as last year, but it feels like an entirely new camera otherwise.
This camera is lightning fast to load up and take photos, but a lot of the effort this year has been put in to what happens after you’ve taken your shot. Did you want to apply a selective focus filter so that the background looks out of focus? Were you taking a Beauty Shot which gives subjects an airbrushed look? Often you’ll take a photo in a heart-beat but then have to wait for several moments to see the final result.
Important to this approach is a new ‘Mode’ selector on the viewfinder. Modes are more than just filters, they define how the camera is to work. You’ll find ‘Dual Camera’ under Modes, which gives you the ability to put the photographers face into the shot with their friends. Or Virtual Tour, which lets you create a panorama-style photo as you walk through a space. You can even download additional photography modes via the Samsung App Store, suggesting there could be more new modes released over time.
The photos taken by the camera are a bit of a mixed-bag. You get the same ratio of good-to-dodgy photos as you might expect from a smartphone camera, but there's something else. Something unusually digital about the end result that makes the photos look flat, like all of the fine detail has been smoothed out. You can see it in our examples below, especially the photos taken indoors.
If anything, the performance of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is evidence that manufacturers like Samsung are in trouble. Not because the Galaxy S5 doesn’t work well, but because it works so well. Phone makers are really pressing up against the ceiling of performance, with the Galaxy S5 able to do everything you need it to do without breaking a sweat.
But, if we think about it, so could the Galaxy S4. We could show you numerous benchmark tests which will suggest that the Galaxy S5 is definitely a faster phone, but side-by-side, in everyday use, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the difference.
Frustratingly, the same can be said about the battery life of the Galaxy S5. Samsung has increased the battery capacity in the newer model, but essentially you still get the same single-day of use between charges. We found the S5 would last uncharged over a weekend of low-use, but we charged it in the evening of most, regular business days.
Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is a solid, if unsurprising smartphone. It’s fast, powerful, feature-packed and in no way would you say it is a step-back for Samsung. It’s just that it feels like a small step forward.
The amazing Super AMOLED display is the exception. As it is with the camera, you don’t get more pixels here, but you do get a major smartphone component which is probably the best in the market. Samsung’s adaptive display technology assures that it always looks its best, regardless of whether you’re under harsh sunlight or sneaking a glance at your phone in a darkened cinema.
The real danger in such an incremental update to the Galaxy family is that Samsung gives competitors Sony and HTC their best chance to make an impression in fluctuating smartphone market. We’ve already seen the HTC One M8 and we loved it, and there is every chance the Sony Xperia Z2 will make a strong impression too. Samsung owns the mind-share in this category, but it doesn’t do it necessarily with the best products.
Samsung doesn’t differentiate its Galaxy flagship this year as well as it has in the past, but this does not belie the fact that the Galaxy S5 is a well-built smartphone that absolutely gets the basics right.