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

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.
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Written by Sandra Vogel on
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8.8/10

Samsung Galaxy S5 - Charcoal Black

Outstanding
$69.99 at Amazon
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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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