Samsung Galaxy S5: Evolution, not revolution, but still packs a powerful punch (review)

Summary:For Samsung's latest flagship smartphone, it's more about what's beneath the surface than its outer design. But there are a few innovations we haven't seen in a Galaxy device before, notably a fingerprint scanner, a heart-rate sensor, and a beefier 16-megapixel camera.

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Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

NEW YORK — What might be normally reserved for an iPhone launch, the hype surrounding Samsung's next-generation smartphone has been almost unbearable for Galaxy fans.

On Monday, we finally saw the long-awaited device in person — almost a year since its nearest predecessor was first launched.

The Galaxy S5, announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, was also up-for-grabs at an event in New York City. Landing with a slightly larger 5.1-inch high-definition 1080p display, a powerful Snapdragon 800 2.5GHz quad-core processor, and a beefier 16-megapixel camera, it is as you might expect a smidge heavier than the Galaxy S4. But that's expected considering it's packing a great deal more punch than the previous model.

Design

The device itself lands in much the same physical design shell as its predecessor, the Galaxy S4, so those hoping for a more mature metal backing may be disappointed. With its plastic backing and the same rounded corners, it feels a little too similar to the Galaxy S4 than it probably should do. 

There is a subtle change to the back of the handset, featuring a discreet rubberized, indented dotted case that makes it certainly feel interesting to hold. It makes it easier to hold than the HTC One or the iPhone 5s (without a case), but it's a feeling that will probably take some getting used to — at least for new users.

As with previous versions, you can remove the case and replace it, which is handy because the material feels as though it could be marked or scratched over long use. Samsung will provide four color cases: black, blue, white, and bronze.

It doesn't feel as though it's particularly new or exciting, but reading the specification sheet will make any seasoned Galaxy user giddy to their core.

Flagship features

The two top-line new features will no doubt help the Korean electronics giant keep the pace in the tight race it currently stands in with its competitors — Apple.

The smartphone's flagship features don't exactly come hand-in-hand but match and one-up Apple's current rumored effort with a focus on health. Landing with a fingerprint scanner integrated in the home button, à la iPhone 5s, it also features a heart-rate sensor seamlessly and surreptitiously next to the rear camera's flash — a feature never seen before in a modern smartphone. 

Fingerprint scanner

Apple may have been the first to dish out a fingerprint scanner for its iPhone, but it certainly wouldn't be the last. Samsung's included the fingerprint scanner not least to further woo its growing enterprise user base.

It not only unlocks the phone, but can also be used to make mobile payments — something Apple has come close to with its App Store integration, but not much further. In partnership with PayPal, Galaxy S5 users can authorize mobile payments with a touch of an enrolled finger.

Heart-rate sensor

It's so small and unnoticeable, you would be forgiven for not giving it a second thought. Next to the flash is a heart-rate sensor that can — prepare yourself for a hearty dose of real-life sci-fi — see the blood pumping through your finger. 

It works when you gently push your finger over the flash on the rear of the handset. This ties in with the smartphone's pre-installed health apps, such as the S Health, which includes a fitness tracker and pedometer.

The inclusion of a heart-rate sensor will probably have Samsung's arch-rival Apple engineers kicking themselves for not adding the technology sooner. Rumors point to a "Healthbook" feature in Apple's next iPhone and iOS software, as the race to bridge the gap between wearable tech and smartphones over conscientious health nuts reaches a peak.

In-built software helps connect the smartphone to Samsung's recently announced Tizen-powered Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches.

Battery, storage, data transfers

In true Samsung style, the Galaxy S5 has a removable case and 2,800mAh battery, allowing you to swap out and in a new battery if you're running down on charge. That's probably not as likely as you might think with this model, thanks to its new in-built power saving mode that is said to increase battery life by near-double when the device is low on charge. 

All in all, Samsung says it will squeeze out 21 hours of talk time, and more than two weeks on standby on a single full charge.

The Galaxy S5 also lands with a USB 3.0 on the underside of the device allowing for significantly faster data transfer and sync speeds. That's certainly helpful if you're expanding your storage beyond the 16GB and 32GB options to have an extra 64GB from a plugged-in micro-SD card.

Software

Other than that, the most notable change of all is the software. Running the latest version of Android 4.4.2 KitKat, while the interface hasn't changed significantly it builds the wider Samsung ecosystem within, enticing users to expand their gadget line-up with technology they didn't even realize they wanted.

For the business and enterprise user, the Galaxy S5 lands with the latest version of Knox, which installs a virtual barrier between personal and work data.

The Galaxy S5 will land in the wider public's hands in early April, but there's no pricing details for the time being. Keep your eyes open for more news in the coming days and weeks.

Topics: Samsung, Smartphones

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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