- Fantastic screen
- Versatile, high-quality camera
- Excellent battery life
- Not the prettiest of 2014 phones
- Finicky fingerprint sensor
What is the Samsung Galaxy S5?The Galaxy S5 is Samsung's flagship phone for 2014 and more than 10 million units were shifted in its first month on sale. Is it a success? Certainly in terms of sales figures it's right up there.
Should we get carried away by sales numbers alone? A phone should stand on its merits and the Galaxy S5 has made some important improvements to certain key areas over the Galaxy S4. The screen and camera are significantly better than those on last year's model.
In the months it's been on sale the Galaxy S5 has also had some price drops. These days you can get a SIM-free Galaxy S5 for around £460. That's still a fair wodge of cash, but is a lot less than the £600 RRP the Galaxy S5 first retailed for. It’s a little cheaper than its biggest rivals, the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2, although you can get the similarly specced LG G3 for the same money.
The Galaxy S5 now comes with waterproofing and a fingerprint scanner, although both have their downsides. The fingerprint scanner, for example, is nowhere near as easy to use as Apples TouchID on the iPhone 5S.
There's no question that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the best phones of the year, but competition is a lot stiffer these days. We start the review by comparing to the best of the rest.
Samsung Galaxy S5 Video ReviewWatch the Galaxy S5 video review for a quick overview of Samsung's phone.
MORE: Best Samsung Galaxy S5 cases 2014
The latest phone to join the exclusive best phones of 2014 is the LG G3 and it certainly gives the Galaxy S5 some serious competition.
Just like the Galaxy S5 this is a plastic phone but a thin metallic film on the back cover makes it look and feel a lot slicker than the Samsung. LG have thought a lot about the design and ergonomics of the phone which has led to the power and volume buttons being situated at the back. It might sound mad but you quickly get used to it and it trumps the button locations of the S5 in terms of ease of use.
Both phones pack almost identical specs in terms of processors but the LG G3 has a higher resolution screen than the Galaxy S5. You shouldn't be influenced by that too much, though. The Galaxy S5's display is still super-sharp and has much better black levels.
It's pretty even when it comes to cameras too. The Galaxy S5 captures more detail, but the laser focusing on the LG means it's a lot quicker at snapping in low-light conditions.
Final things to consider is that the Galaxy S5 has marginally better battery life and is water resistant.
Read more: Samsung Galaxy S5 vs LG G3
There can be no argument that the HTC One M8 looks and feels a lot better than the Galaxy S5. The metal body and attractive design meand there little contest. Parts of the M8's interface also look and feel a bit better, particularly since not every part of the S5’s TouchWiz interface is that well designed.
The Galaxy S5 might lose out in the looks and design department but it wins in other core elements of the phone – the screen and camera. The OLED display is better in virtually every respect, thanks to Samsung’s fine-tuning of the tech behind it. The HTC One M8 screen isn’t bad, but the S5 really has a best-in-class display.
We also think the S5 camera is better. It’s more reliable and produces far more detailed photos. That said, while both phones have a blurring out effect for portraits and the like, the HTC One M8’s version of it is loads better.
Read more: Galaxy S5 vs HTC One M8
The Xperia Z2 is a little more stylish than the Galaxy S5, but the gap in design isn't quite as wide as it is with the HTC.
Its glass-on-metal look is a bit less attention grabbing, and much closer in look to its predecessor than the S5, but that slim and severe Xperia look is pretty strong.
The Xperia also offers a bigger battery and slightly better waterproofing. It is certified to withstand water jets and being submerged in water for longer than the S5. However, for most people that’s not really an effective upgrade – who deliberately dunks their phone in water for more than half an hour?
These phones use the same core processor too – but the S5 is clocked a little faster – and the Xperia Z2 has more RAM, 3GB to the Samsung's 2GB. This should in theory make it slightly better at multitasking. The Xperia also has a higher-resolution camera, and DXOMark rates it as the highest-quality sensor in a mobile although the S5 more than holds its own in this department. However, the Galaxy S5 screen still has the edge for pure image quality.
Read more: Galaxy S5 vs Xperia Z2
Samsung Galaxy S5: DesignSamsung has done its best to make the Galaxy S5 look quite different from the S4. It has a dimpled back, while the Galaxy S4 is smooth and glossy. There is one thing that brings the two phones together, though.
Where the Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One M8 try to use expensive feeling, or looking, materials throughout, the Galaxy S5 is almost entirely plastic. And it is not plastic that's happy to look like what it is. The sides of the phone are trimmed with metallic plastic that an onlooker might mistake for metal. But the feel of plastic is unmistakeable in-hand.
The new-design sides are ribbed too, which looks worse than the flat style of the S4. The look is not a wholesale improvement.
The in-hand feel is better, though. It has a rather unusual, slightly soft-touch textured and pitted finish. This ensures you won't mistake the Galaxy S5 for any other phone one the market (unless another phone maker nicks this style), but the phone is nowhere near as good-looking as the HTC One M8.
Functionally this back cover style is perfectly fine, though. It won't leave your purring at the expensive feel of the expensive phone you just bought, but it is grippy and has a soft-touch finish that feels a bit better than Samsung's old glossy plastic mobiles. The finish is not consistent across the phone's colours, though - the white Galaxy S5 feels a lot cheaper and less 'soft' than the black version, for example.
Samsung is likely to offer the Galaxy S5 in a whole rainbow of colours before the phone slips into obsolescence in 2015-2016, but at launch there are four shades to choose from. We're looking at the black version, which is actually a very dark grey, and the other options are blue, gold and white.
Picking a colour is naturally a personal preference, but having seen them all close-up, gold seems to be the dud. Where Apple and HTC have successfully judged their recent gold models, using a fairly muted 'Champagne' shade, Samsung's has the bling'y vibrance of a £10 plastic handbag.
The dimensions of the Galaxy S5 are, as is common for Samsung flagships, impressive. It's just 8.1mm thick and despite having a slightly larger screen and a load more tech inside, it's just a couple of millimeters wider than the Galaxy S4. The screen bezel isn't quite as skinny as the LG G2's, but Samsung has put some effort into making such a large screen reasonably easy to use.
To see quite how much bigger the S5 is, check out our Galaxy S5 vs S4 comparison
The Galaxy S5's power button sits on its right side, in reach of your thumb, and the combo of thin body and reasonable phone width play their part in making the phone easy to deal with. However, as with every 5-inch screen phone, reaching from one end of the screen to the other with a thumb just isn't going to happen. If you're thinking of upgrading from an iPhone, you must have a feel first-hand before buying.
There's also an unfortunate knock-on effect of Samsung's dedication to making slim phones. The camera lens housing sticks out from the rest of the back by around 0.5-1mm, making it more prone to scratches than a flush one. The Galaxy S4 has this kind of lens arrangement roo. In this case it's a practical issue caused by having to fit in a 6-element lens camera system into a 8.1mm body, and that's behind a screen and top glass layer too.
Like the previous Galaxy S phones, the Galaxy S5 uses an ultra-thin removable plastic back cover that hides a microSD memory card slot supporting cards up to 128GB. There are 16GB and 32GB versions of the phone, and the 16GB edition will be by far the most common in the UK.
Samsung has also packed a bunch of new hardware features into the Galaxy S5. The ones we'll deal with in this section of the review are the water resistance, the fingerprint scanner and the heart rate sensor.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Water ResistanceThe Galaxy S5's water resistance works just as it does on other recent water resistant phones. There are rubber seals on the plastic cover and on the flap that sits over the USB port on the bottom. This is one of the few phones to use an oversized micro USB 3.0 socket, also seen in a few other Samsung phones including the Galaxy Note 3, and it makes the bottom flap fairly large.
Crucial to the convenience of the water resistant design, the headphone jack doesn't need a flap as it's coated internally to avoid letting any water in,
Samsung has managed to add water resistance without any obvious increase in the bulk of phone, and after charging the phone throws up a reminder to close the flap – which is handy (but not dismissable as far as we can tell, and therefore sure to become annoying).
However, there are some slight concerns about the longevity of these ultra-slimline waterproofing systems. The waterproof rubber border is less than a millimeter thick, and feels very slight. It may not last for ever. We like to think of these phones' waterpoofing as a form of insurance, not an excuse to drop your phone in your pint at every opportunity.
The actual specification of the Galaxy S5's water resistance is IP67. This means the phone is impervious to dust and can be submerged in water for up to half an hour. This is not quite as good as the IP55 and IP58 ratings of the waterproof Xperia Z2. That phone is certified to stay underwater for longer and withstand water jets. The difference won't matter for most people, but the key point is that the Galaxy S5 is 'water resistant' while the Z2 is genuinely waterproof. Our feature, 'Waterproof Phones: IP Ratings Explained', goes into a great deal more detail on the topic.
Samsung's new fingerprint scanner is more interesting. We've seen a few different fingerprint scanners in mobiles over the last 12 months. The iPhone 5S's TouchID is a great success, the HTC One Max's rear scanner a flop.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Fingerprint Scanner
The Galaxy S5 sits in a similar position to the iPhone scanner, but in use feels a little more like the HTC One Max one.
Rather than resting your finger over the button, as with an iPhone 5S, you swipe a finger over it. The sensor sits under the central select button, but you need to swipe over the very bottom of the touchscreen too as there's an element under the screen that activates the scanner.
You can teach the Galaxy S5 up to three fingers, letting multiple people get on-board.
The Trusted team has had mixed experiences with the fingerprint sensor, but I didn't find it particularly easy to use. A swipe-based mechanism like this requires quite an exact, smooth movement, and this is at odds with the casual, care-free way most of us use our phones. Compared with the iPhone 5S TouchID sensor, it's a bit of a pain.
To call upon a metaphor, where the TouchID sensor asks you to stand still, the S5 scanner demands you walk in a dead straight line. And that's fine at times, but not when you're in a rush, have just woken up or are inebriated and desperate to find out when the last train home leaves.
After the Galaxy S5 has failed to recognise your fingerprint three times, you're booted out to a more traditional password. And I had to use this password more often than not for the first few days. The performance boosted a little after the scanner was recalibrated a few times, but at best the hit rate was about 50 per cent.
If you want to do more research on the fingerprint sensor, it's based on Synaptics Natural ID technology. For more detail, read our Galaxy S5 Fingerprint Scanner vs iPhone 5S Touch ID comparison.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Heart Rate SensorPerhaps the most conspicuous of the new hardware elements is the dedicated heart rate sensor, because it adds new sensors to the LED flash area on the back of the phone. The camera area on the pack looks positively gadget-packed now.
This is the first phone to use a dedicated heart rate sensor, but it uses fairly familiar technology. It lights-up your finger with a red/IR light, and monitors the visual changes caused by the circulation of your blood.
It works well, and takes about eight seconds, but there are two obvious questions – is it actually useful, and can you get this functionality elsewhere? At present, you can only use the Galaxy S5's heart rate sensor in the S Health app (although it appears to be part of the Samsung Bluetooth LE SDK, so should be able to be used in third-party apps), where it makes a graph of your previous results.
It will come in handy for measuring your resting heart rate, which is a reasonable indicator of general fitness levels. But it's not much cop for mid-exercise readings, where it would be of more use. Quite simply, holding your finger on the back of the Galaxy S5 while running is not a good idea. For that you really want a wrist-worm device like the Galaxy Fit.
In truth, you can already get a very similar experience with most other Android phones (and iPhones) too. Apps like Runtastic Heart Rate use your phone's LED flash and camera sensor in much the same way. And with the HTC One M8, our tests showed they provide similar results in a similar time frame.
The Galaxy S5 heart rate sensor is less interesting than it initially appears.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Why all the extras?We're not huge fans of the heart rate sensor or the fingerprint scanner. The waterproofing deserves a nod, but why has Samsung put such a focus on these hardware 'extras' this year?
It becomes obvious when you look at the phone's other specs. Smartphones have plateau'd technologically – it might be temporary, but it affects all the early 2014 flagships. Samsung can't fit in a much larger screen without affecting how it feels to use, the screen is still at 1080p resolution and the Snapdragon 801 processor used here isn't that much more powerful or advanced than the Snapdragon 800 used in some of last year's phones.
Samsung clearly felt the need to put conspicuously 'new' hardware in the Galaxy S5. And some of it is not that good. Yet. This need to separate the Galaxy S5 from the Galaxy S4 in obvious ways also helps to explain slightly odd pitted finish.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Internal SpeakerWe would gladly trade away most of these supposed hardware innovations for a better internal speaker. But this is something that – once more – has been relatively neglected by Samsung.
Sound pipes out of a single grille under the backplate, and uses the limited internal area between the outer parts of the cover and the zone blocked off by the rubber seals to somewhat reinforce the sound (to act as a speaker enclosure of sorts).
We have heard worse speakers, and the Galaxy S5 can handle its own top volume without distorting significantly. But the sound is pretty tinny and bass-free. Coming from reviewing the HTC One M8 – which has relatively chunky-sounding stereo speakers – it's a depressing step down. And we'd wager only those with health-themed OCD would prefer a very limited-use heart rate sensor to a decent set of speakers.
The speaker also causes fairly severe vibration in the lower part of the phone's rear. It's the result of essentially using the outer casing as a speaker enclosure, and it is a bit annoying.
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