Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is not a revolution in industrial design. It looks like the GS4, with a bit of influence from the Note 3 that Samsung released last fall. The unit I tested had the black pebbled faux leather back, which is surprisingly pleasant to both touch and look at, and the phone is rimmed with a faux metal plastic border that reminds me of something from a 50s diner stool. It’s not the refined, all-metal design of the HTC One M8, but it is appealing in its own way. I still think Samsung would do well to join the big boys like Apple with use of high-quality materials, but if we must have plastic, then this is the plastic I’d opt to have.One advantage of the plastic: the back, at least, is relatively durable and drop-proof. Also, the phone is remarkably light, especially given that whopper of a display it’s packing. Plus, this is a water-resistant phone that doesn’t look like a water-resistant phone (read: it isn’t bulky) so that’s a plus. The USB flap door that ensures completely IP67 environment protection is a pain, however, given the frequency with which you’ll have to fidget with it to charge and connect to your computer.
There are two high-profile features that Samsung’s Galaxy S5 waves over the HTC One M8: fingerprint-swiping security and the heart-rate monitor. Both work as well as advertised, as long as you execute them correctly, but at the end of the day, neither one strikes me as important enough to tip the scale in the S5’s favor.Over the course of all my testing, I’ve amassed a few tips to get swiping right. First, you’ve got to swipe down vertically, with your finger in the exact same position it was when you first scanned it. You can register partial prints, like the arc of your thumb, though the read was a little imperfect in my tests. Contrast this with Touch ID, with its concave button for capturing 360 degrees of readability. A second tip is that you need to make sure you swipe the entire active area, which extends about half an inch above the home button and all the way through the home button (but don’t press down). To make the motion crystal clear, I’d love to see Samsung extend the undulating on-screen indicator to the home button as well — but that would mean (in my fantasy phone) an LED back-light on said button.The third tip for successful fingerprint sensing: your finger should be dry. Damp and lotion-slicked digits don’t seem to register well. If you time-out on unlocking attempts, you can also get in using a four-letter code; although anyone who knows this code can also use your phone, making the security measure somewhat less effective.On top of swiping to unlock, fingerprint scanning other (optional) function will be to authorize transactions with PayPal, a Samsung partner. Instead of typing your pass-code, you swipe your fingertip. This is Samsung’s answer to the iPhone’s in-app purchasing, and it works with any mobile site or app that accepts PayPal.
Benchmarks and Performance
At launch the Samsung Galaxy S5 is among the most powerful phones ever made. It uses the Snapdragon 801 processor, which is the upgraded version of the Snapdragon 800 chipset we saw in top-end phones of late 2013 like the LG G2. The Galaxy S5’s particular iteration is a 2.5GHz quad-core model, clocked 200MHz faster than the Snapdragon 801 version we’ll see in the UK versions of the Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One M8. As king of the Android castle, it’s no great surprise that Samsung has done its best to keep onto its title with this bit of tech Top Trumpery. In practice this won’t make a great deal of difference, though, and the Sony Xperia Z2 has another hardware advantage anyway. The Z2 has 3GB of RAM, the Galaxy S5 2GB. After Samsung plugged 3GB into the Galaxy Note 3, this was a little surprising. But we imagine it was a result of fairly intensive research into the real-world benefits versus the additional hardware cost. Well, hopefully. After seeing relatively good day-to-day performance – for a Touch-Wiz phone – we gave the Galaxy S5 some more objective tests. In this time of benchmark duping by just about every phone-maker out there, exact benchmark results should be viewed with slight asceticism. But they can tell us whether a phone is performing as it should.In 3DMark with the Unlimited Ice Storm test, the Galaxy S5 scores 18,600. That’s a little below the HTC One M8’s score, but with HTC already having admitted to fiddling benchmarks with the phone, we’re loath to come to any damning conclusions with this data.In Geekbench 3, the phone scores 2,908 points. This is slightly higher than the HTC One M8’s score (2,840). This makes sense as it is a largely CPU-based benchmark, and the Galaxy S5 is after all 200MHz faster than the UK version of the M8.If we were to do down the Galaxy S5’s abilities, it would only be because a more impressive CPU upgrade is already around the corner. Snapdragon 801 is a stop-gap upgrade between Snapdragon 800 and Snapdragon 805, due later in 2014.The Snapdragon 801 is merely a supercharged 800. It has the same battery efficiency techniques and the same core components, but they are clocked a bit higher. As such, the 2014 flagships aren’t really much more powerful than the LG G2, which currently sells for a good £150-250 less. But then hardly any normal people know that phone exists, it seems, though it’s relative the Nexus 5 is wildely popular.For a few more real-world tests, we tried the Galaxy S5 out with some top-end games. Real Racing 3 shows the same minor frame rate drops we saw with the HTC One M8, seemingly confirming it’s down to lacking optimisation on EA’s part. Using a ‘top-end’ phone also makes us naturally keen-eyed for these sorts of things – the game still runs extremely well.A few other games we tried include Riptide 2 and Dead Trigger 2. The latter is a particularly good way to show off powerful phone hardware, with graphical elements like proper real-time shadows, complex water effects and reflections and real-time lighting effects. The Galaxy S5 handles it with relative ease.It’s the screen – as much as the powerful processor – that makes the Galaxy S5 such a great gaming phone, though. The deep blacks, rich colours and large expanse of screen space make the phone hard to beat.
Samsung’s GS5 display is definitely a sight to behold, but it’s very hard to impress in the display world these days – or too easy. In terms of display quality related to pixel density and the crispness of text and graphics, I haven’t been able to discern a difference since Apple introduced its Retina display on the iPhone 4. The Galaxy S5′s screen size is impressive, however, and makes for a great way to watch mobile video thanks to full HD resolution and a 5.1-inch diagonal surface area, all in a phone that manages to still not feel overly large for a pocket.Is it the best screen in the smartphone business? Very possibly. Is it a huge improvement over the GS4′s screen? For most users, no, and in fact, it actually has less pixel density than its predecessor. If screen quality is a key decision point for those considering an upgrade from last year’s model, then keep that wallet closed; the GS4 still has an excellent screen, and the GS5 hasn’t made any strides in that regard to merit an expensive upgrade. Plus, as with seemingly every Android device, auto-brightness still has major issues getting things right. Apple seems to be alone in divining the secret sauce for properly dimming and brightening your display based on ambient conditions.
The Galaxy S5 came through on call quality when I tested the phone in San Francisco using T-Mobile’s network. For the most part, audio was extremely clear, without background haze or interruptions.Voices sounded natural, and loud enough when I increased the volume nearly all the way. I’d like a little more in volume reserve for those noisy situations. As with other Samsung phones, the Galaxy S5 has a digital sound-booster, but this routinely introduces aural imperfections, like buzzing and scratchiness, so I wouldn’t recommend it.On his end of the line, my longtime audio testing partner said the volume was so loud on his end, it was almost on the brink of being uncomfortable. It was, however, crystal clear and noise-free. Voice tones sounded warm and natural, and only a shade less lively than i do over a land line.Speakerphone was a different story. When I tested it at hip level, volume immediately dropped for both my testing partner and me. His voice sounded distant and muffled even at full volume (my test partner used the term “mushy”), and the phone buzzed in my hands.The buzzing motion and sound became stronger and more distracting when I turned on “extra volume.” Even in a moderately noisy environment with ambient road noise, I found myself screaming into the phone and straining to make out my caller’s words. He added that the speakerphone was a little echoey.
It is often said that megapixels are meaningless in mobile phones. However, give a high-resolution phone like the Galaxy S5 a bright and sunny day and it will generally be able to resolve more detail than a lower-resolution phone. As our standard view of London test shows below, the Galaxy S5 is capable of producing much, much more detailed photos than the HTC One M8 – one of its key rivals. The difference between the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S4 is less marked, but it is there. By increasing sensor resolution without reducing the size of the photo sensor pixels, it doesn’t lose out to its predecessor in any way.
If you passed on reading the last page on camera hardware, the Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel sensor of ½.6-inch size. It’s a mite smaller than the Xperia Z2‘s sensor, but crucially the camera pixels are of the same size. In daylight conditions, sharpness in photos is excellent. It falls off a bit in the extreme corners, but not to a severe extent. With fine, pixel-level details such as the branches of far-away trees you can see the evidence of the Galaxy S5’s image engine doing a bit of sharpening, but nothing that should stop you from being able to crop into pictures should you wish.When focusing, the phone uses a mix of contrast detection and phase detection, and it is indeed a good deal faster than a plain contrast detection system in many situations. A/B testing with the contrast-based HTC One M8, the Galaxy S5 is much quicker at switching between fairly close objects. Samsung’s claim of 0.3 second focusing naturally depends on the lighting and the subject, but the Galaxy is roughly twice as fast as the HTC. You’re less likely to notice these focus benefits when shooting far-away subjects, though, where the focusing element only needs to move a fraction to alter focus. Still, any speed improvement is handy.We did notice the odd glitch when using face detection, though. The Galaxy S5 would occasionally focus on the near background behind the subject, suggesting the camera may have been favouring a PDAF focus point that wasn’t actually sat on the subject. But we’re speculating at this point.
The situation changes completely when the lights go down, though. The Samsung Galaxy S5 small pixel pitch camera sensor means without drastic measures the phone will struggle with low lighting compared with an iPhone 5S or HTC One M8.Samsung has provided the necessary drastic measures, though. When shooting with the Auto mode, the Picture Stabilization feature kicks in once the light dims to a certain level.Picture stabilization isn’t traditional optical image stabilization, which uses a motor to tilt lens elements in line with your movements in order to allow longer exposure times. Instead, the Galaxy S5’s software stabilization appears to take a whole series of photos using different settings, and then merges them together to create a single image. A kind of turbo HDR mode, it’s likely these settings include sensitivity (ISO) and exposure compensation.It is remarkably effective, but also really quite slow. The time it takes to produce the photo depends on how rubbish the lighting is, but it can get on for 5-6 seconds. Given standard HDRs take about a second, the Galaxy S5 could be experimenting with a dozen or more exposures here.Picture Stabilization is smart, though. The phone asks you to stay still while using picture stabilisation, but if you move half-way thru, the Galaxy S5 seems to discard any shots that don’t fit the scene rather than producing a blurry mess.Night-time shots are still not going to look anywhere near as good as your daylight ones, but stabilisation and the new ISOCELL sensor do bridge the gap between this phone and ‘low light specialist’ mobiles like the HTC One M8 in image quality terms. Noise levels are quite impressive, and fine details aren’t wiped away as a result – detail is actually slightly better in the stabilised shots than the non-stabilised ones.As the Galaxy S5 doesn’t have any big problems with overeposure, our tests show that it can at times produce better-looking shots of stationary objects at night than an HTC One M8. What’s particularly impressive is the level and fidelity of colour offered by these low-light shots, and this is largely present whether you use stabilisation or not. Colour performance is something that Samsung says is improved by the new ISOCELL sensor, so we’ll give it the credit.For shots of people at night, though, the Galaxy S5’s stabilisation mode is a little slow (people get bored when asked to pose). Weirdly enough, the blurring caused by the composition of various images is actually quite similar to the blurring effect of moving objects we saw in the Lumia-series stabilisation, which uses longer exposures for better
The Galaxy S5 shoots video at up to 4K resolution, but in this mode you lose some of the video modes you can use when shooting at 1080p. These include video stabilisation, HDR and stills capture during video.The phone defaults to 1080p, and we recommend you stick with it for this reason. You can also shoot at various speeds. It maxes out and 8x slower (120fps capture) and 8x faster. However, when shooting in slow motion capture quality is limited to 720p resolution, and owing to the lesser light retrieval per frame, image quality takes a significant hit too.
Last of all in the camera section we come to the front-facing camera. It is nothing special.It uses a 2-megapixel sensor, and it does not seem much of an upgrade – if an upgrade at all – over the Galaxy S4’s front camera. It’s pretty noisy with anything but perfect light conditions, and produces much worse selfies (and video calls) than the HTC One M8. The new HTC phone has a much better 5-megapixel front camera, offering better detail, less noise and much better colour reproduction.
Heart Rate Sensor
The Galaxy S5’s other trick, the heart-rate monitor, is a neat one in theory because it’s cleverly integrated into the camera flash module, and because it ties so well into the health app. However, it’s one of those things I wouldn’t personally use every day, even though I do exercise regularly. I’m not entirely who this feature is directed toward, though, since serious fitness geeks will likely want to invest in a more fully-functioning fitness band if they don’t have one already. Still, it was fun to establish a baseline by placing my finger over the sensor.One oddity I did notice is that the heart-rate sensor couldn’t seem to get a grasp on my pulse one day while I was running outside — perhaps because my finger was too cold?I also wasn’t sure about the stats. You can follow a log to drill into a few more details about your readings, but I couldn’t glean much from the numbers I’ve collected so far. To be fair, it takes time to build the kind of database that would become useful for fitness-philes, and Samsung does warn you away from relying on it as you would a medical device. It’s meant for light-hearted tracking, not for monitoring serious health concerns.
The 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.
The battery on the Galaxy S5 is removable, so that’s already a big advantage over some of the competition. It bumps up capacity over the GS4′s power house by 200mAh, which puts the total at 2,800mAh. In practice, it improved things over the GS4 and gave a full day of use under normal to high circumstances, but the HTC One M8 still outperformed it overall. The GS5 doesn’t offer any quantum leaps in battery tech, in the end, but if you like having the option to swap, it’s there with the GS5, and not with the One.
Samsung has done a good job with the Galaxy S5, which starts from $549 to $849. The software bloat has been pared down and a few useful new features added, while the technical specifications are superb and battery life is good. Design purists may bemoan the plastic chassis, but the Galaxy S5 is still a worthy successor to last year’s model.