Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Top-notch specs, less software bloat

Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Top-notch specs, less software bloat

Summary: Samsung has done a good job with the Galaxy S5. 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.

SHARE:
  • Editors' rating:
    8.8
  • User rating:
    7.0
  • RRP:
    £482.50

Pros

  • Good battery life
  • Software bloat has been reduced
  • Nice usability features

Cons

  • Plastic chassis
  • Fingerprint scanner is tricky to use
  • Average-quality sound from speaker

Samsung is the global leader in the smartphone market, with 31.2 percent in Q1 2014 according to analyst firm Strategy Analytics (down from 32.4% in Q1 2013). Although Samsung's 2013 flagship Galaxy S4 won multiple awards, it also received criticism for having too much software on-board, too many user interface tweaks and too much plastic in its construction. So how, if at all, has this year's model, the Galaxy S5, addressed these criticisms?

Design

If Samsung is concerned about criticism of the Galaxy S4's build materials, there's no evidence in the S5: it's plastic all the way again — even down to the silvered fake-metal banding around the handset's edges, which has a shaped rather than a flat finish. A plastic body clearly doesn't harm sales, and does help to keep the weight down, but it doesn't win Samsung many design plaudits.

galaxy-s5-thumb
The Galaxy S5 looks similar to 2013's S4, but has a slightly larger 5.1-inch screen, a fingerprint scanner built into the home button and a textured backplate. The new heart rate scanner is beneath the camera lens. Image: Samsung

The back of the handset has a pricked, indented design and a soft-touch finish. It ties in with the faux leather look-and-feel that's used on recent Samsung tablets such as the Galaxy NotePRO 12.2. It makes for a nicer feel in the hand than the slippery back of the Galaxy S4.

Beneath the screen is the familiar physical home button, which helps to identify this as a Samsung handset. For the first time, this button incorporates a fingerprint scanner, although this is not evident at first glance.

On its own, the Galaxy S5 looks fine. But sat next to its two main rivals, the HTC One (M8) and the Sony Xperia Z2, the choice of premium-grade materials in the competing devices gives them a far more upmarket feel.

galaxy-s5-usb
The Galaxy S5 has an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance, hence the cover over the Micro-USB 3.0 port on the bottom edge. Image: Samsung

The button arrangement is sensible, with the power button on the right side and volume on the left. The headset slot is on the top, along with an IR zapper, while the bottom edge houses a long MicroUSB 3.0 port (which also supports standard USB 2.0 cables).

Like Sony's Xperia Z2, the Galaxy S5 has waterproofing and dust resistance to IP67 standard ('6' signifies complete dust protection; '7' signifies the ability to withstand immersion in up to 1m of water for 30 minutes). Pop-up reminders to check the backplate and close the USB cover can be an irritation, but we found that securing the backplate all around after inserting a Micro-SIM or swapping a MicroSD card was fiddly, so the reminder is actually useful. Rather a mildly annoying reminder than a dead handset that's been dropped in the bath.

The screen measures 5.1 inches across the diagonal and delivers a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, giving an excellent pixel density of 432ppi. The Super AMOLED panel is superbly sharp and bright, with good viewing angles and rich colours. You can alter the colour saturation manually or allow the handset to select the best setting depending on what you're doing — reading books or watching video, for example.

Because it can be difficult to reach right across the 5.1-inch screen with one hand, Samsung has implemented a One-Handed Operation mode. This is easily invoked by sweeping a thumb from the screen's edge to its centre and back again (you revert to the full-sized screen using the same gesture).

galaxy-s5-onehanded
In one-handed operation mode, the display shrinks and moves to one side of the 5.1-inch screen for easier access. Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

In one-handed mode, you get a smaller virtual display moved to one side of the physical screen (you choose which side, depending on whether you're right- or left-handed). It's a clever solution that provides quick access to a system that functions in every application. We used it a lot while standing on public transport, quickly flicking back to full-screen mode as required.

You can register up to three fingers to work with the fingerprint scanner on the home button. You use it by sweeping a finger downwards across it, starting at the bottom of the touchscreen, which also has a role to play here. After three failures you're left with the traditional option of entering a password — and, of course, you can ignore the scanner and just take the password route as your first choice.

galaxy-s5-shealth
The heart rate monitor integrates with Samsung's S Health app. Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Samsung has an eye on the wellness market, as we saw with the S Health app on the Samsung Galaxy S4. S Health is here again, and includes a pedometer and food logger. It also keeps a record of your heart rate via a sensor on the back of the handset, beneath the camera lens. Rest a finger on this sensor and it will provide an accurate measure in just a few seconds. It's no substitute for the kind of heart rate monitoring that's available during exercise, but could be useful. No other smartphone currently incorporates this feature natively.

Sound quality through the Galaxy S5's single speaker is not great — in fact, compared to the superb audio quality from the HTC One (M8), it's verging on the embarrassing for Samsung.

Features

Samsung's flagship handset naturally has a top-notch set of internal specifications. It runs a 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC supported by 2GB of RAM and is blisteringly fast. There is 16GB of internal storage, of which we found 11.2GB available to the user out of the box.

The Galaxy S5 is GSM/3G (UMTS)/4G (LTE) handset with dual-band (2.4GHz/5GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0. As noted above, the handset has a MicroUSB 3.0 port, which supports USB On The Go (OTG) and Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL). Infrared and NFC are also supported, while there are sensors for gestures, fingerprints, heart rate, hall effect, accelerometer, geomagnetism, gyroscope, light intensity, barometer and proximity.

A 16-megapixel rear camera with flash complements a 2-megapixel front camera. The main rear camera supports 4K video capture (3,840-by-2,160 pixels) at 30 frames per second, while the secondary front camera will do full-HD video (1080p) at 30fps.

To help with downloading there's a feature called Download Booster that combines the LTE and wi-fi connections to accelerate large file downloads. How much this will benefit people in practice is debatable — we tend to stick to wi-fi for large file downloads, for example, to avoid racking up data charges on the mobile broadband network.

We've already mentioned some of Samsung's many software additions to the Galaxy S5. Both the TouchWiz skin sitting on top of Android 4.4 (KitKat) and the extra apps are a key part of the Samsung brand. Criticised in the past for too much software bloat, we're pleased to note that Samsung does seem to have reined in its everthying-but-the-kitchen-sink tendency.

S Translator, for example, is gone. You can easily download Samsung apps from its own app store, and the absence of clutter out of the box is a welcome relief. Samsung has included some of its own-branded apps, though: S Health is joined by S Planner, S Voice and a good note-taking app called Memo.

The gesture- and motion-based features that many Samsung handset users like are still here. Smart Stay keeps the screen on while you're looking at it, for example, while Air View lets you preview content by hovering your finger over it; you can also call a contact displayed on-screen simply by bringing the phone to your ear, and there's plenty more gesture-based functionality. Multi Window — the facility to view two apps on-screen at once — is also retained, and works quite well on the relatively large 5.1-inch screen.

galaxy-s5-settings-notifications
Samsung's new-look settings and notifications screens. Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Samsung has skinned and reorganised the settings area, making items easier to find using a neat design based around circular icons. This look is echoed in the extensive range of settings and services accessible via the notifications area.

galaxy-s5-easyui
If the Galaxy S5's feature set is overwhelming, you can use the simplified Easy Mode interface. Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet UK

Despite the obvious attempt to trim back the software offering there's still a lot going on here. So for those who are easily overwhelmed, there's an Easy Mode that uses a simplified screen layout and larger font size. My Magazine, Samsung's news aggregator, occupies a home screen in standard mode, but isn't present in Easy Mode.

Anecdotally, we found the Galaxy S5's battery life to be good, with the 2,800mAh battery keeping us going for a day between charges. For the record, Samsung claims up to 12 hours of internet usage time on wi-fi (11h on 3G, 10h on LTE), 13h of video playback time, 21h of talk time and 67h of music playback time.

Conclusion

Samsung has done a good job with the Galaxy S5, which costs £579 (inc. VAT; £482.50 ex. VAT) on Samsung's UK website. 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.

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 72.5x8.1x142 mm
Weight 145 g
OS & software
Software included Android 4.4, TouchWiz
Processor & memory
Clock speed 2.5 GHz
Processor model Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
RAM 2048 MB
Storage
Internal 16000 MB
Display
Display technology OLED
Display size 5.1 in
Native resolution 1080x1920 pixels
Connections
Ports Micro-USB 3.0, with OTG, MHL support
Slots MicroSD
Networks
2.xG GPRS, EDGE
2G GSM 850, GSM 900, GSM 1800, GSM 1900
3.xG UMTS
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac
Short range Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
GPS technology
GPS receiver yes, with GLONASS, Beidou support
Input devices
Touchscreen Yes
Camera
2nd camera front
Flash Yes
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 2 megapixels
Main camera resolution 16 megapixels
Power
Removable battery Yes
Battery capacity 2800 mAh
Claimed battery life 12 h
Number of batteries 1
Talk time 21 h
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter
Expand

Prices

Price
Price GBP 482.5

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Mobility, Reviews, Samsung

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

22 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I'm sure it's not true...

    10.0

    ...but gosh, if ZDNet were paid to offer positive articles on Samsung and negative ones on Apple, they couldn't do a better job than they are doing now.
    rfoto
    • just bashing without a single proof

      To sum up, SGS5:
      Water resistant - iPhone has icons
      Useful widgets - iPhone has icons
      4k video - iPhone has icons
      IR remote - iPhone has icons
      Replaceable battery - iPhone has icons
      MicroSD - iPhone has icons
      MicroUSB - iPhone has icons
      Free default browser choice - iPhone has icons
      Amazing display - iPhone has icons
      Etc etc etc

      Sorry, but iphone looks like a joke from 1990
      anywherehome
    • Bich please...

      ZDNet is one of the most pro-Apple sites on the internet. Seeing an article NOT promote Apple is like seeing a golden unicorn that poops Skittles...
      ExploreMN
  • Internet while calling

    Only thing I don't like about this phone is that when on a phone call not use the internet and look at other things I was not aware you could not get on internet while on the phone call don't like it
    boomer78
    • Depends...

      I think that depends on the network. I'm pretty sure that if you're in an area with LTE coverge you should be able to talk and surf at the same time. But if you're on 3G, that's not possible. That's one of the reasons I have a wireless hotspot in addition to my phone. If I need to be on my computer and on my phone at the same time in a 3G only area, I can do so.
      dsf3g
    • re: inernet while calling

      4.0

      what's with this new rating data field??
      I think ATT phones are the only ones that'll do both simultaneously. I remember that being a talking point / selling point for ATT commercials a few years ago.
      Crashin Chris
      • Nope...

        Not only AT&T any more, T-Mobile can also do internet while on a phone call and yes, even on the Samsung Galaxy phones.

        The ones (in the U.S.) that can't are those that are on CDMA networks, such as Sprint and Verizon.
        cmwade1977
    • Not a limitation of the phone...

      All providers at this point allow you to browse while talking on the phone. You should be able to do this whenever you're connected to Wifi or a 4G LTE connection. If you're on a 3G connection, I don't believe any carrier (even AT&T anymore) let you do both at the same time. It's a network issue not a phone issue.
      intechpc (GPEN, CISM, CEH, ECSA)
      • FYI

        Just want to point out that I still use an old iPhone 3G* on AT&T and I'm able to browse while talking on the phone; whether on WiFi or 3G.

        *Yes, I know I'm waaaay out-of-date but I am going to upgrade this month. Gonna switch to T-Mobile but can't decide between the HTC One M8 and Samsung S5. Too bad I can't find the video of the S5 with the speakers of the M8 on any phone.
        cxnyc
  • Poor Quality Speakers

    4.0

    Is this another way of stating "the phone sounds are too soft" even though all volume modes and rocker is all the way up?
    That's my experience with my old phone, a Galaxy - no numbers after the name...
    other than that, I had no issues with that phone.
    Crashin Chris
  • Metal phones

    8.0

    I cannot for the life of me think why anyone wants or needs a metal phone? I have had several Galaxy's and I love the fact that I don't walkdown the street looking like I have a brick in my pocket. I have always used the standard (psuedo)leather smart-case that came with my S4, and even after dropping the phone lots of times, there is no decernable damage. I am sure that this is purely a matter of taste and fashion, otherwise I don't care what the phone is made of.
    I personally dislike the IOS front-screen layout as the icons are too-big and packed too-closely, whereas the IPad has acres of blank-space between them?
    Other than that both phones seem to work OK so I don't really much beyond that because my phone is a business tool like my laptop or car.
    techietubby
  • High light viewing

    I have a Galaxy S3 and my dughters have S4's and neither sceen can be viewed in moderate light. This is very annoying and I cannot understand why Samsung cannot correct this problem. Is this inherent in the S5 also? If so, I will not upgrade until this is corrected.
    docplaster
    • Screen brightness set to auto?

      I've noticed this issue on my S3. Inevitably when I have trouble viewing the screen in moderate light it's due to the automatic brightness setting having been turned off - one of many gripes about my S3. The buttons on the side are a real pain as they are always being inadvertently pushed when you naturally hold the phone by the sides, either changing the volume or locking the phone. Wearing it in a holster on my belt, I'll be leaning to work on my car and the volume goes up uncomfortably while wearing earphones. Settings on the phone mysteriously get turned off or on, etc. I'd like to think the S5 addresses all of that but my guess would be no.
      ejhonda
      • Screen Brightness set to auto?

        Look at a program named persist. Lets you lock various settings, including volumes.
        doctordirt11
  • Plastic vs metal

    9.0

    I'm no mechanical engineer, but I would suspect that plastic absorbs shock.
    What do the people with metal phones do? They buy a plastic case to protect it!
    Battery life is excellent on the S5.
    I had super-sized my battery on my S3. So far I see no need to with my S5.
    sfaid
  • BlackBerry Z30 has happiest owners

    5.0

    The Z30 has better battery life, is not cheap plastic and never had "Android bloat"
    HenselM
    • Added benefit

      Plus you aren't subject to choices when it comes to picking from all those dozens of apps available for it.
      ejhonda
    • Android Bloat?

      It was NEVER android bloat, it was SAMSUNG bloat. Stock android is no more bloated than any other mobile OS, including BB. And what's the back of most BB's made of? Mine is plastic, nicely wrapped up in an otterbox, just like my S3 is, and just like 95% of the phones out there are. Who gives a crap what the back cover is made of, seriously? The poly back on a Galaxy takes less damage and scratches than other types anyway.
      waterhzrd
  • Great but boring

    7.0

    The S5 is awesome, I just think it's the most boring update yet.
    Switching from the S3 to the S4 actually made sense. Bigger screen, better resolution, vastly faster CPU. This time we have the same resolution, 0.1 inches bigger screen and just 0.3Ghz more power.
    Switching from the S4 to the S5 just doesn't seem like a good move to me...
    mathiasappel@...
  • Where is the 32gb Samsung Galaxy S5?????

    8.0

    Great review of the Galaxy S5. However I find it unconscionable that I can't "buy" a 32gb version of the S5. Two points: 1. At the World Mobile Congress in Spain in February Samsung announced both the 16gb AND the 32gb versions of the S5. 2. I realize that I can store up tp 128gb on an SD card. So please don't respond that I "don't need" the 32gb version. I want it now. I know that I will have to pay additional $s for the 32gb version. My choice and personal preference; choice is good. The rumors of the Galaxy S5 Prime or the S5 Active just might solve that issue for me as long as they both have: 32 gb of memory, a replaceable/removable battery and Samsung keeps the SD card slot for external storage. So here I wait for my 32gb Samsung Galaxy S5/Prime/Active.....
    The bottom line is that
    Altoid666