April 17, 2014, 2:32 PM — Odds are, you've heard of Samsung's Galaxy phones. How could you not? The company spends billions marketing its brand and making sure it's as synonymous with smartphones as Domino's is with pizza.
Samsung Galaxy S5
But advertising alone isn't a reason to buy a mobile device (or a pizza, for that matter); beyond all the carefully crafted hype, what really matters is what the product is like to use in the real world. And by that measure, Samsung's Galaxy line isn't very far ahead of the competition. In fact, in many ways, the company's products are falling increasingly behind.
I've been living with Samsung's latest device, the Galaxy S5, for the past several days. The phone is available now for $200 with two-year contracts from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon or for $660 spread out over a two-year payment plan from T-Mobile.
So is the Galaxy S5 the right device for you? Read on, and let's find out.
Getting to know the Galaxy S5
If you've seen any of Samsung's past Galaxy S phones, you've pretty much seen the Galaxy S5. The device follows the same basic aesthetic as its predecessor, which results in a phone that comes across as rather chintzy, particularly compared to the premium build of a handset like the recent HTC One (M8).
Like last year's Galaxy S4, the GS5 has a faux-metal plastic trim around its edges and a thin plastic panel on its back. The back panel now has a matte finish with tiny dots all over it -- evidently the key to a "modern glam" look, according to Samsung's marketing. Wedge your fingernail in the right place and you can peel the panel off to reveal the phone's battery compartment. All in all, the phone's design revolves around basic functionality and lacks the attention to detail and quality of construction other smartphones possess.
You can peel the back panel off to reveal the phone's battery compartment.
At 5.6 x 2.9 x 0.32 in. and 5.1 oz., the Galaxy S5 is meaningfully bigger than its predecessor -- almost a quarter of an inch taller, a bit wider and half an ounce heavier. Consequently, the phone feels surprisingly bulky for its class; it's almost as tall as the One (M8) and a touch wider, too, despite not having the front-facing stereo speakers that take up a significant part of the One's surface.
I wouldn't go as far as to say the GS5 is unmanageable, but it's definitely pushing the limits of comfortable ergonomics -- especially for one-handed use. The bump up in size actually feels like a bit of a regression, with no new benefit as a result of the added heft.
The GS5 does have a slightly larger display than last year's model -- 5.1 in. compared to 5 in. on the GS4 -- but the difference in screen space isn't terribly significant. The phone's 1080p Super AMOLED screen is fantastic, though, with bold, brilliant colors and crisp detail. It's bright, too, and easy to see even in glary outdoor conditions (though you'll want to disable Samsung's always-wonky auto-brightness mode to get optimal performance).
As is typical of phones with AMOLED displays, blacks on the Galaxy S5 look deeper than what you'll see on devices with LCD screens while whites look noticeably grayer. You win some, you lose some.
Samsung says the Galaxy S5 has a new system that dynamically adjusts colors based on the lighting in your environment, but it's hard to detect much of a difference. The phone also includes a series of new configurable display modes, but the effects from those are equally subtle.
The Galaxy S5 has a few new bells and whistles on its body: First of all, the phone is water-resistant (rated up to one meter deep for 30 minutes), which could be a nice bit of added protection if you ever find yourself in a storm and/or swimming pool with your phone in your pocket. Like we've seen with Sony's waterproof phones, the downside to that setup is that charging the device is a minor hassle, as you have to remove a protective flap every time you want to plug it in (and the GS5 doesn't support wireless charging unless you opt to buy a separate and yet-to-be-released special case).
Next, the GS5 has a heart-rate monitor on its back, which seems to be addressing a problem that doesn't exist -- honestly, how many people are going to use that with any regularity? But hey, it's there if you want it. Just note that it's far from scientific; its results have been pretty scattered in my experience. And you can actually set up a similar feature on any Android phone by downloading a free app -- no special hardware required.
Once you set it up, the fingerprint scanner will prompt you to slide your finger down the lower part of the screen and over the Home button to unlock it.
Last, but not least, the Galaxy S5 has a fingerprint scanner built into its face. Once you set it up, the device will prompt you to slide your finger down the lower part of the screen and over the Home button to unlock it. It's been fairly accurate for me -- not a single false positive so far -- but the sliding process is finicky and often takes a few tries to get right. I suspect it'll be annoying enough that the vast majority of folks will give up and stop using it after a few days.
Speaking of the Home button, Samsung sticks with its usual hybrid button configuration on the Galaxy S5, providing a physical Home key flanked by two capacitive buttons. The setup remains awkward and unnatural compared to the virtual on-screen buttons that have been standard on Android since 2011 (and are now used on most other manufacturers' devices). Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and unexpected. Beyond that, the capacitive keys are frequently not lit up and thus impossible to see.
On the plus side, Samsung has finally let go of the Gingerbread-level Android Menu button and provides the standard Android Recent Apps button in its place, which makes an enormous difference in the usability of the phone. With the old-fashioned Menu button gone, all options now appear on-screen throughout the system instead of frequently being hidden with no visual cues as they were on past Samsung devices.
The Galaxy S5 has one small speaker on the bottom-left of its back. The audio is reasonably loud but very tinny and hollow-sounding. You'd expect it to be inferior to the bass-heavy stereo speakers on HTC's One (M8), but it sounds bad even next to other phones with similar single-speaker setups, like Motorola's Moto X.
The GS5 has a small LED notifier above the display to alert you of any missed calls, messages or other pending notifications.
Under the hood
Despite having impressive-sounding specs, Samsung's Galaxy devices have suffered from imperfect performance in the past. I'm happy to report that with the Galaxy S5, the company has finally ironed out the kinks and delivered a phone that's free from any overt jerkiness or lag-laden behavior.
That said, even with its 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Galaxy S5 feels noticeably less snappy than other high-end devices. Loading apps isn't quite as instantaneous as it should be, for instance, nor is the act of opening a system tool like the Recent Apps switcher. To be clear, I'm talking about an extra second of delay here and there, but it all adds up to make the phone feel less zippy and responsive than what I've come to expect from flagship devices today.
One area where the Galaxy S5 doesn't disappoint is in the realm of stamina: With its 2800mAh removable battery, the phone has consistently gotten me from morning to night without coming close to hitting empty. Even with relatively heavy usage -- three or four hours of screen-on time with a mix of phone calls, Web browsing, camera activity and social media use -- I've yet to worry about running out of juice before going to bed.
The GS5 comes with 16GB of internal storage, which leaves you with about 10GB of usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. Luckily, the phone has a micro SD card slot -- hidden under its removable back panel -- so you can pop in your own external card and add more space if you need it.
In terms of connectivity, you'll be able to get 4G-level data on the GS5 -- either LTE or HSPA+, depending on your carrier and what's available in your area. Data speeds have been A-OK on the AT&T model of the phone I've been testing, with nothing out of the ordinary to report. Samsung has touted a new "Download Booster" feature that's supposed to combine Wi-Fi and LTE to make data transfers extra speedy, but that feature isn't available on most U.S. models of the phone (including the one I've been using).
Voice calls over AT&T's network have been peachy keen for me; folks with whom I've spoken have sounded loud and clear, and everyone's reported being able to hear me with zero distortion as well.
The Galaxy S5 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. The phone also has an IR blaster, which lets you use it as a remote for your TV and other home entertainment components.
Samsung's Galaxy S5 features a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera that's capable of taking some great-looking photos. Like most smartphone shooters, it can be hit and miss -- some shots end up overexposed and washed out, while others look dark or have unnatural coloring -- but all in all, it's a solid setup that should be more than sufficient for most photo-taking purposes.
Even without optical image stabilization, the Galaxy S5 does respectably well in low-light conditions -- an area where many smartphone cameras struggle. It's not quite at the level of the HTC One (M8) in that domain, but it holds its own and manages to deliver usable images even in fairly dark environments.
(You don't have to take my word for it: I put together a detailed gallery of Galaxy S5 and One (M8) comparison photos so you can see how both phones perform for yourself.)
Samsung claims the Galaxy S5 has "the world's fastest auto-focus speeds," but the One (M8) is significantly snappier at focusing and capturing photos. As I noted in my comparison gallery, the GS5 is by no means slow, but the One is practically instantaneous. When you use the phones side by side, it's a noticeable difference.
The GS5 also occasionally does a strange thing where it shows a progress ring on the screen after you press the shutter icon and then takes a full three to five seconds to finish capturing the image. As you can imagine, that's anything but ideal when you're in the midst of a photogenic moment.
The Galaxy S5's camera interface is rather cluttered and confusing compared to what's present on other phones, but it does have a decent array of shooting modes and options available for those who want them -- including a burst mode, where you can hold down the shutter icon to capture multiple images in a rapid-fire style, and an HDR mode that can help improve the look of outdoor shots.
The phone also has a new Selective Focus mode that aims to emulate the type of background-blurring effect provided by the One (M8)'s dual camera setup. Here, though, you have to think ahead and enable the mode in advance for it to work -- and even then, it's unreliable. I tried using it in numerous shots where an object was clearly in the foreground and the phone was rarely able to detect the object and process the image properly.
The Galaxy S5 can capture both 1080p and 4K-quality video. It offers several options for improving the quality of your videos, too, including a video stabilization setting and a video-specific HDR mode.
The GS5's front-facing camera, meanwhile, can capture 1080p-quality HD video along with 2-megapixel photos.
The menu is so complex that the only reasonable way to find what you need is to use the newly implemented search function.
While early speculation suggested Samsung might scale back and simplify its software with the GS5, the actual evolution is far less dramatic than many were anticipating. There are changes here and there, most notably within Samsung's suite of preloaded apps, but overall, the software is the same garish mishmash of conflicting styles and overwhelming elements we've grown accustomed to seeing from the company. As I opined in an editorial earlier this week, focus, taste and restraint just don't seem to be in Samsung's DNA.
The GS5's revamped settings section pretty much says it all: Samsung has created an interface that's so visually overwhelming, it's almost comical. The menu is so complex that the only reasonable way to find what you need is to use the newly implemented search function. (Hint: If your settings are complicated enough that you need a search function for users to be able to navigate them, you might be doing something wrong.)
Ironically, Samsung's marketing tagline for the Galaxy S5 is "back to the basics." In reality, the only thing basic about the GS5's software is the fact that not many new circus tricks have been added into the mix. Most of the old, rather silly stuff -- wave here to do this, roll your eyes four times to do that and so forth -- is still there, as are many of the superfluous Samsung services like S Voice, the Samsung app store and the Samsung Web browser.
All of those services overlap with their also-present (and universally superior) native Android equivalents. In all, the phone ships with two app stores, two Web browsers, two voice assistant services, two photo galleries, three music-playing services and four messaging services (!). I can't even imagine how a novice user would make heads or tails of any of it.
Samsung has also added its My Magazine feature into the home screen, which feels like a half-baked and hastily implemented response to HTC's BlinkFeed news-reading service. The feature lives on the left-most panel of the home screen and shows you a small handful of news headlines; when you tap on any headline, you're taken into the regular Flipboard app. The whole thing is pretty pointless, but it's at least easy enough to disable.
Amidst all the clutter are a few genuinely useful features that have been carried over from past Samsung products. The company's Multi Window option is in place, for instance, if you ever want to view two apps side by side on your screen at the same time. It still works only with a handful of apps, but the selection includes quite a few commonly used programs like YouTube, Gmail and Facebook. The phone's pedometer feature, which works with varying accuracy, is also still present.
The problem is that, like past Samsung devices, the Galaxy S5 feels like a bloated and incohesive mess. Samsung may be saying it's going "back to the basics," but it needs to actually do that soon if it wants to stop falling behind other Android manufacturers when it comes to user experience.
No question: The Galaxy S5 has some good things going for it. The phone boasts an excellent display, superb battery life and a respectable camera. It's water-resistant, too, which is a relatively unusual trait in smartphones today.
But Samsung's weaknesses hold the GS5 back in some meaningful ways -- ways in which other manufacturers are currently thriving. The phone feels cheaply made, it's unnecessarily large with no accompanying benefit to the bulk and its software is cluttered and visually inconsistent. Beyond all of that, there's just nothing about the device that sets it apart or makes it feel particularly special.
If the Galaxy S5 existed in a world of its own, it'd look pretty darn impressive. The problem is that the real world isn't so one-dimensional -- and when you start making comparisons, Samsung's "next big thing" looks a lot less grand.
This article, Galaxy S5 deep-dive review: Better, but not up to the hype, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
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