In just a few days, the Samsung Galaxy S5 will be unveiled. Across the world you’ll see hundreds of headlines dedicated to the thing. Some will declare it to be the best phone ever, others will say it shows Samsung has lost its touch.
However, there are a few ways Samsung could ruin the S5 if it doesn't make the right decisions. But rather than just shouting the phone down, we’re going to look a bit deeper into the issues that will make or break the Galaxy S5.
#1 - By messing up the Galaxy S5’s waterproofing
One of the most eye-catching rumoured design changes in the Galaxy S5 is waterproofing. The Galaxy S4 wasn’t, the Galaxy S5 might be. The tip off came along with a bunch of camera leaks that suggested the phone will have an ‘aqua’ mode, and then in an official Samsung teaser.
However, waterproofing is tricky to get right. Most mobile phone water resistance relies on rubber seals that act as physical barriers between the inside and outside of the phone. This means ports have to be sealed with rubber flaps – which are ungainly and awkward – and such things aren’t hugely reliable.
Tiny bits of rubber are easy to damage, especially if they are to be manually fiddled with regularly. Sony is the company that has pioneered this in Android phones – they’re used in high-end mobiles like the Xperia Z1 Compact and the Xperia Z1. They do work, but we’ve heard many reports of them failing after a few months thanks to everyday wear.
It’s the power socket that’s the worry, as there’s no getting around how often its flap will have to be opened and closed. Wireless charging is a possibility, but given its repeated failure to take off, it seems unlikely it'll be included in the Galaxy S5 - or used by many people if it is.
Waterproof phones are almost universally chunkier than their direct non-waterproof alternatives too. The Galaxy S4 Active is a good example – Samsung followed-up the Galaxy S4 with this waterproof (slightly lower-end) alternative last year. Adding a bit of chunk to Samsung's already slightly dubious-at-times design would do the Galaxy S5 no favours.
#2 - Using too small a sensor and too many megapixels
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is highly likely to have a higher-resolution camera than its predecessor the Galaxy S4. Rumours indicate that’ll mean a 16-megapixel sensor, up from the 13-megapixel one in the S4.
A focus on increasing the megapixel count for conspicuous improvement in photo detail can have negative knock-on effects. If, like every Galaxy S camera to date, the Galaxy S5 has a 1/3.2-inch sensor, more megapixels mean smaller pixels in the camera sensor. And smaller pixels result in worse low-light performance.
Samsung has managed to hide this pretty well over the last four years – processing can dramatically reduce noise in photos. However, fitting 16 megapixels into such a small sensor is pushing it.
There is a mitigator – ISOCELL. This is a new sensor type that Samsung announced in September 2013. It is pitched as an evolution of the BSI cameras sensors used in most phones these days.
We’re yet to try out an ISOCELL camera, but Samsung claims it offers better low-light performance, and greater colour fidelity than BSI or FSI sensors. It makes barriers between the pixels and increases the sensitivity of the sensor pixels to help them reap more light even though they’re absolutely tiny.
Hopefully it’ll help to minimise the pixel size issue, but there’s a reason to have doubts. Sony is the king of the mobile phone camera sensor, not Samsung. It makes the sensors for the LG G2, the Nexus 5, for Sony’s phones and even for the older Samsung S-series phones. Even some S4s use Sony sensors – the load is split between Sony and Samsung’s Semiconductor division, which produced Samsung’s CMOS mobile sensors.
And, at best, ISOCELL is an apology, a compensating factor.
#3 - By adding more (or not removing enough) software bloat
Samsung has a real problem. It doesn’t know how not to overdo things. The principle of ‘less is more’ seems to be completely alien to it – in its phone division at least.
The Galaxy S4 was already saturated with features and extra content, and it seems like Samsung is going to go even further next week with the S5. The company has already stated its intent in its new tablets, like the 2014 version of the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
We’re likely to see Samsung add the Magazine UX to the Galaxy S5. It’s a bit like a turbo-driven version of the BlinkFeed interface we saw in the HTC One.
However, in usual Samsung fashion, it over complicated the interface. It gives you another bunch of home screens in addition to the normal Android ones. The premise is sound, but it feels like something that should be covered by a separate app, not a core part of the Galaxy S5’s interface.
In recent times the Samsung approach to software has also had serious effects on performance. The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is a good example. It had all the power in the world to work with, but it still devolves into a stuttery mess at times.
#4 - By not fixing the issues with its OLED screens
There’s a lot of talk about the sort of screen the Galaxy S5 will have. Most sources agree that the phone will have a 5.25-inch display using AMOLED screen technology.
However, we’re not sure whether it’ll be a 1080p display or a ‘2K’ one. We’re not hugely fussed about an even further increase in resolution over last year’s models, but the Galaxy series is the one out of all high-end ranges that could do with the upgrade. It’s down to the PenTile subpixel screens Samsung seems to be obsessed with.
The Galaxy S4 uses a 'diamond' PenTile arrangement, while its latest tablets have screen pixels with an extra white subpixel – to help make them brighter and more efficient. In each case sharpness suffers. And while the effect is extremely minor in the Galaxy S4, it could still be improved.
These PenTile screen types are often a symptom of Samsung’s obsessive need to offer something over its competitors in every field, and when it affects basic performance, it’s not healthy. Still, in Samsung’s top phones it’s a minor issue.
What Samsung could do with improving a little in the Galaxy S5 is colour accuracy. In the early Galaxy S phones, colours were severely oversaturated – it was particularly noticeable in the Galaxy S3. Samsung made serious improvements in the Galaxy S4, but for us to prefer the Galaxy S5 display over the top-quality LCDs we’ll see in phones like the HTC One 2.
For a bit of proof that there’s further to go, we only need to look at some colour gamut results Extremetech found in 2013. 100 per cent of sRGB is technically ‘correct’, where the Galaxy S3 is 139 per cent and the Galaxy S4 132 per cent.
In order to shed the ‘trying too hard’ image Samsung has, it needs to step back and put a bit more emphasis on quality standards, not just the sort of standards that’ll make people produce coo’ing noises on first seeing the phone.
#5 - If its rumoured fingerprint sensor isn't as good as Touch ID
One of the brand new rumoured features of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is a fingerprint sensor. Rumours indicate it’ll live where the central select button is – whether it’s a virtual soft panel or an actual clicky one. At this point we’re not sure as, unusually, there have been hardly any S5 hardware/shell leaks.
However, we believe it’s more likely to be closer in operation to the HTC One Max to TouchID sensor of the iPhone 5S. The core difference is whether you simply place your finger over the sensor, or swipe it. Apple’s way requires just placing your finger, where the Galaxy S5 is likely to require a swipe.
Swiping a finger across a phone that is large enough to require two-handed use at times is not going to be easy. Or at least not easy enough to be a convenience feature that really hits the bullseye. As usual, Samsung’s approach will revolve around letting you do more with the sensor, rather than making it simple and easy.
It’ll reportedly let you use a bunch of different fingers to do all sorts of things – most obviously run specific apps. While other systems let you ‘train’ the sensor to recognise multiple fingers, we fully expect Samsung to go to the next level. And take it that bit too far.
What are the make or break issues?
Samsung’s priorities aren’t always in the right order and we’re starting to see the benefits of spec improvements slow down to a near-halt. However, even if Samsung was to fall into all the traps mentioned above, there's no way the Samsung Galaxy S5 won't do very well indeed.
The two issues that stick out to us, though, are the fingerprint sensor and the phone’s waterproofing. They’re quite obvious, conspicuous new hardware features that are tricky to get right, and that rivals have failed to ace in the past. Stay tuned for the Galaxy S5’s launch on the evening of Monday 24 February to see how the phone really turns out.
Next, see the phones the Galaxy S5 needs to beat in our 10 best smartphones round-up.