Samsung Galaxy S5 review

4.5 out of 5
£579

For

Great display, good camera performance, fast connectivity, software makes good use of larger display, reasonable battery life

Against

Plastic build, navigation of the user interface feels slower than it should be

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is likely to be one of the best selling devices of 2014. It is the successor to the incredibly successful Galaxy S4 that, despite the attempts of HTC, Sony Mobile and LG, sold by the truckload.

But the launch of the SGS5 was overshadowed by rumour and hype that made it difficult for Samsung to match expectations. Talk of a metal body and higher-resolution display weren't to prove true, with Samsung's big play instead being focused towards health.

But the Samsung Galaxy S5 matches if not betters its contemporaries in many areas. Is it the smartphone to take the Android crown this year, or is this just more of the same from Samsung?

Design

Samsung seems to have adopted a similar design approach to mobile devices as Porsche has to cars. New models closely resemble the last and the Samsung Galaxy S5 doesn't bring many surprises. From the front it's similar to the Galaxy S4 and Note 3, with the only real change being the dimpled texture of the rear.

The SGS5 follows previous devices in offering a mainly plastic construction, a far cry from the luxuriant feeling of the new HTC One's metal body, or the glass sandwich of the Sony Xperia Z2.

READ: HTC One (M8) review

However, with Samsung selling plenty of handsets across its Galaxy line-up, there isn't a huge impetus to change. Furthermore, sticking to plastic has some advantages: this phone weighs 145g, which is lighter than both those rivals.

In terms of measurements, the S5 is 142 x 72.5 x 8.1mm and the curves of that dimpled back sit comfortably in the hand. The slightly tactile finish makes it feel secure and grippy, more so than some rivals.

There's another advantage to plastic, a perpetual advantage that Samsung is known for: you can still pull the back off to change the battery, which is always popular with power users.

This time around, however, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is IP67 rated, meaning it's proofed against water and dust ingress. That means there's a flap over the bottom charging port, but, like the Sony Xperia Z2, if you drop the phone in the toilet or spill a drink on it, it will survive. Yes, to plug the phone in to charge you're going to have to undo that flap, so you might want to opt for the S Charger cover for wireless charging instead.

Of the trio of new flagship launches, the SGS5 doesn't feel quite as premium as its rivals in the HTC One (M8) or Xperia Z2. Samsung is playing the practicality card, forsaking build materials in favour of the most compact, lightweight design with the ability to swap the battery.

Control and navigation

Samsung has retained the physical home button, keeping the main navigation controls off the display and flanking that home button. The button now incorporates a fingerprint scanner for security - more on that later - but there's been a change in button configuration.

Previously, Samsung devices have had a menu button on this navigation bar along with a back button. The menu button is gone, now replaced with a "recent apps" button. In this sense, it's moving closer to the rest of the Android family, using familiar in-app menus, rather than button menus. The same was true of the Galaxy TabPro we recently reviewed.

READ: Samsung Galaxy TabPro 10.1 review

We much prefer this, as it gives better consistency across Android devices. If you have a Nexus 7 tablet, for example, you'll now have consistency across apps and menus when jumping between different devices.

A double press on the home button launches S Voice, while a long press accesses Google Now. A long press on the recent apps button enters the home screen customisation settings, so Samsung isn't missing the chance to pack in additional actions on these controls.

As we've previously noted with Samsung phones, sticking to off-screen controls, rather than Android's growing trend towards on-screen, means that on many occasions the SGS5 has that extra screen space to give to content. Where other manufacturers are offering controls, with the SGS5 you get an extra few lines of text on that website you're reading or extra space in those apps that haven't been optimised for hiding on-screen controls. Again, the same is true of the recent TabPro and NotePro lines.

Fingerprint finesse?

Fingerprint scanners are something of a mixed bag on phones. The Apple iPhone 5S got it right, because it's a single click unlock mechanism. It's seamless, so the fact it's reading your finger doesn't intrude.

You can wake the SGS5 with the home button, then scan, which is only one additional step, making it better than the HTC One max which needs waking with a separate button then swiping down the back.

At first we didn't get on with the Galaxy S5's fingerprint scanner because much of the device assumes you're using it two handed. We rarely are. We're standing on a train, queuing with shopping, hanging onto a tantrumming child, ingesting curry, and so on. Rarely do we have the luxury of having two free hands to interact with a phone.

The point is that the Samsung's fingerprint scanner suggests a full straight swipe with a finger or thumb in setup. In reality you'll be gripping your phone and swiping your thumb sideways down it in an attempt to unlock it. Fortunately, that works. The orientation of the unlocking finger doesn't matter, as long as you register that print in the same way then you'll actually unlock the phone.

The fingerprint scanner can be used in PayPal for authentication, as well as Samsung account verification. As fingerprint scanners are just starting this renaissance in smartphones, we're yet to see if there's going to be a huge advantage - outside of device security - in future products and services.

Dizzying display

Samsung has always favoured an AMOLED display for its Galaxy S smartphones. That's true here, with a 5.1-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution display, equating to a pixel density of 432ppi. It's a sharp display packed full of detail but the most remarkable thing about it is the punchy colour palette.

That's typical of AMOLED, which gives you nice deep blacks and vibrant colours, although it has a tendency to oversaturate: reds become a little too vibrant, faces look a little too flushed, and therefore realism can be lost.

When you sit it next to the LCD panel of the HTC One (M8), you'll find that whites look a little bluer, but the deeper blacks may well compensate for that. There are a range of display modes if you want to change things a little yourself to suit your preference.

Viewing angles are very good and there's plenty of brightness on offer. The brightness settings, as common to Samsung devices, are easily accessible in the notifications area. We found the default auto-brightness a little lacklustre, but this can be easily bumped up or down on the slider to suit your tastes, remembering, however, that the display is one of the biggest battery users on your device.

Overall we love this display: there's so much vibrancy that it's engrossing to use. Games are rich and detailed, photos are striking, so we can overlook the slightly off whites. And as we mentioned before, keeping the controls off the display often gives you a little more space to play, which is a significant benefit.

It's not the 2K resolution screen that many thought it was going to be though. That's fallen to Chinese maker Oppo to fly that flag with the Find 7 - a handset we anticipate to get in our hands in coming months.

Power user

Sitting under the hood of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is a 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with 2GB of RAM. That gives the Samsung plenty of power, no matter what you're asking it to do.

Like a number of other devices with Snapdragon 800 generation chipsets, the SGS5 gets warm around the back under intensive use. This is most likely noticeable because of the plastic construction, but we found that initial setup and the downloading of apps caused it, as did watching movies and playing intensive games.

The 0.2GHz the Samsung device has over the likes of the HTC One (M8) doesn't really manifest itself as a huge advantage as, for example, there's little difference in side-by-side performance when it comes to loading heavy games.

The SGS5 is fast to load webpages and apps, but the TouchWiz interface seems to be slightly slower than you might expect. This isn't down to hardware, as other devices on the platform fly, but opening a home screen folder, waking from standby, or swiping over to My Magazine doesn't have the immediacy you might expect.

It feels like it's been designed to be slightly sedate. And we think it needs speeding up. When you open a game like Real Racing 3, it makes no difference as it plays wonderfully, but once back in the home screens we want more pace.

One of the headline features that the SGS5 offers is Download Booster. This will allow you use 4G and Wi-Fi to help you download files over 30MB faster. To get this to work, you really need a good cellular connection, as well as a data plan that you don't mind using. In our tests, Download Booster rarely got used, because Wi-Fi was typically the fastest method due to not having a hugely strong cellular connection where we connected to Wi-Fi networks. Nice concept, though.

There's 16 or 32GB of internal storage, depending on which model you opt for, of which you'll have about 12GB for storage available from the 16GB device. There is a microSD card slot for expansion up to 128GB, however, as well as a Dropbox allocation of 50GB for two years.

All day battery, power saving modes

There's a 2800mAh battery lying under the skin of the SGS5 and Samsung claims it's good for 21 hours of talk time. We managed to get a full day of moderate use out of it without a problem, so you can be fairly confident that on a typical day your SGS5 will see you from dawn till dusk, and probably beyond.

However, there are various levels of power saving on offer too. With so many features crammed into the SGS5 there's plenty you can turn off to preserve power, but there's a regular power saving mode. This restricts power and can restrict background data use to prolong the battery.

There's also the option to switch to greyscale, temporarily killing the colour display. Strangely, we quite like it in black and white because you can still see everything in perfectly clear detail, which on a busy day doesn't really matter.

But power saving now goes a stage beyond this, with the ultra power saving mode. This switches the phone to a simple state, essentially making it a dumbphone, changing the user interface to only offer the essentials, similar to HTC's extreme power saver in the new HTC One.

However, Samsung offers a range of customisations so you can add your own apps - like Twitter or WhatsApp - if you want to take it just to your very core apps. You can then tinker with the settings too, so if you feel you want to keep Wi-Fi on, or enable location, then you can do so. There will also be an estimate of the battery endurance given on the bottom of the display.

However, it does not appear possible to set a level at which these power saving modes engage.

Sound and call quality

Callers we spoke to reported that the call quality from the Samsung Galaxy S5 was very good. We found calls were clear with plenty of volume through the ear speaker.

The external speaker is positioned on the rear of the SGS5 and it isn't anything to get excited about. It works well enough when placed on the surface like a table, which adds resonance and depth, but it's no match for the BoomSound speakers of the HTC One.

One of the problems the Samsung speaker suffers from is that at louder volumes it will make the rear casing of the handset vibrate, which isn't a particularly nice sensation.

Through headphones it's a much better experience, with Samsung piling plenty of adjustment options on so you can get the sort of sound you prefer, including a range of effects or EQ controls. Previously this was handled by an ugly list, now it's much more graphic and attractive.

Lighter Samsung software

With the Galaxy S5, Samsung is rolling out an updated version of its TouchWiz user interface, incorporating the Flipboard-powered My Magazine over the top of the stock Android operating system. The experience is close in execution to the Galaxy TabPro we reviewed recently, although there's no option to set My Magazine as your default homepage on the smartphone.

My Magazine sits to the left of the home page, so just a swipe away gives you an effect that's close to that of HTC's BlinkFeed, although BlinkFeed feels a little more customisable. If you don't want My Magazine, you can turn it off.

Across the rest of the TouchWiz user interface there's been a nip and a tuck here and there, although the home screen experience is very much as it was before in appearance.

The settings menu, however, has had a change to round icons, rather than the tabbed lists of previous generations of devices. The new menu feels more immediate than it has done previously and the advantage of offering labelled icons is you can have three on each row, rather than having an increasingly long list.

That's an important point, given that the SGS5 is jam-packed full of features and options that you get to control. Things have been moved around a bit, but for the most part the same options as previous Samsung smartphones exist - they're just not as overt, so it looks like a conscious decision on Samsung's part to make things visually cleaner.

Elsewhere the swipe-down notifications bar has the same access to hardware toggles (customisable) as it had before which is really convenient, and the two finger swipe to access the full list of shortcuts is really handy, especially as there are so many options available in the S5 - certainly far more than the rather restrictive default Android option.

The apps tray is customisable, allowing you to create folders to group apps together, but it's not as simple as dragging one app on top of the other. Instead you have to create the folder, then add the content, but it works well enough. Having these folders means you can bundle together anything you don't want and keep the apps tray clear.

That said, Samsung hasn't filled the SGS5 with bloatware. There's the normal switch to S Planner instead of the regular calendar, its own browser, S Voice and ChatOn services, but many of the other Samsung apps you're now prompted to download if you want them. It's here you'll find the likes of WatchOn, SideSync, Samsung Wallet, Samsung Gear apps and even the video editor. You do get Smart Remote preinstalled, however, enabling you to control devices using the IR blaster that's embedded in the top of the handset.

The result is that the SGS5 feels as though it has moved forward a step, recognising that although these additional services are useful, not everyone wants them from the off. When it comes to locating things we like the device-wide searching of S Finder. This is better than Google Search which can be rather limited, so if you're looking for a particular thing then S Finder is useful in rooting it out.

What hasn't changed, however, is the bright and slightly cartoony approach that Samsung has in TouchWiz in some places. The messages app - which you can easily switch to Hangouts thanks to this being an Android 4.4 KitKat device - is still a bit over-the-top and we're not so taken with the smiley face you get if a contact doesn't have a picture. But this is personal preference. If you've been happy with TouchWiz in the past - and many millions of customers have - then the SGS5 will feel familiar.

A nod to phabletness

We've long been saying that Samsung knows the phablet space better than others: the Note family offer a great big screen experience because Samsung includes software features that acknowledge the larger display.

One of the nice features of the SGS5 is the one-handed operation mode. This will allow you to shrink the display content so you can easily reach it with one thumb. It's activated via a swipe from the edge to the centre of the display and back, and from here you can pop-out shortcuts to other apps or contacts and easily return to full size if you prefer. It's really handy for those moments when you can't afford to use two hands: trains/tantrums/tikka masala, you get the picture.

There's also a clever Toolbox shortcut feature. This gives you a perpetual button that floats on the display, housing five apps that you choose. This means you can tap it and head into your top apps, like Facebook, Chrome or Maps. That saves having to return home first, as it's all there ready for you. Again, a good and mature recognition of the multi-tasking needs of smartphone users by Samsung.

Then there is Multi window. This really puts that display to use, enabling up to two apps to be open at the same time. You can have Twitter and Maps open, so you can catch-up while walking down the street, with the ability to choose how much you see of each. However, we've noticed that this feature causes some slowdown in operation.

A focus on health

The health features are one of the headlines for the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the inclusion of the heart rate sensor on the back makes the phone unique from other devices out there.

The heart rate sensor works well enough and we've found that the results are comparable to those we've measured on other devices. You will need to have your finger well placed on the sensor, however, or it will fail.

You can feed that information into S Health 3.0, as well as have the app record your steps or other types of exercise, with the ability to set targets or goals (time, distance) and then do those workouts. You can also log your food intake and monitor your profile, with aims to draw your attention to a healthier lifestyle.

This isn't about building a fitness programme however. There's little structure: it won't tell you what to do, you can't sign-up for a 10km training programme or anything else. S Health is a straight logging system in its current guise, although there's plenty of scope for that to change in the future.

Samsung wants to build its own health community through the apps and, on one level, such philanthropic aims are commendable. The flipside is that it might only last as long as you're using a Samsung device and the cynic will say that's exactly the point, to tie you in to Samsung's system, whereas universal sportsband and apps won't tie you down.

Admittedly, we like the built-in pedometer functions and the thing we like the most is the inclusion of your steps on the lock screen of your phone. Setting everything else aside, this is one small but mighty detail. Every time you look at your phone, you'll be reminded of just how active you've been.

We think S Health will have a bigger role to play in the future, combined with Samsung's wearable strategy with the Gear Fit for example, but aside from the inclusion of a heart rate sensor, there are plenty of other apps that offer these functions.

We currently have the Gear Fit and Gear 2 in for review and we'll update this review when we have a better feeling for the role these companion devices play in the ecosystem.

Cameras

We've often said that the frontline of smartphone war is the camera. Everything else melts into the background as the focus shifts to photography. The Samsung Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel rear camera, with optional stabilisation, supported by an LED flash.

If you're riding the selfie wave, then the S5 isn't the best device for you. The front-facing 2-megapixel camera is reasonable but lacks the detail of some recent rivals, so the results are typical rather than outstanding.

Most of the interest, however, will be in the action around the back. And it's good news here: the camera is fast to focus and packed full of options. We like the new camera app as it puts some of the most powerful options at your fingertips. HDR (high dynamic range) is right there, and the settings menu has lots of toggles which are quick to select. The prominence of HDR mode means it's easy to select, and it produces some well balanced results, where some rivals can look a little too ethereal. It's "live" HDR too, so you see the results on the display before you press the capture button.

In short the Galaxy S5 is a great performer. There's plenty of resolution for closer cropping if you need it. In good lighting conditions, the SGS5 will give you great results. Colours are punchy, there's plenty of detail captured and we found images brighter than some rivals would produce in dull conditions.

In low-light conditions image noise rapidly becomes visible as the ISO sensitivity rises. By the time you hit ISO 400, you have obvious mottling across the image, although the Samsung, just like other smartphones, will drive the sensitivity much higher if it needs to in an attempt to capture that dim-lit image and then the results aren't anything to get excited about.

There are some interesting features however. HTC might have stolen a few headlines with its Ufocus Duo Camera feature, but Samsung is also offering a Selective focus mode. The difference is that on the HTC One (M8) you can apply the effect to any photo, whereas with Samsung - just like Nokia - you have to select that shooting mode before taking the shot.

Both are effectively applying digital blurring to reproduce a bokeh effect, but when used right it can give you some nice results. The advantage that Samsung offers is that you can use it on close-range shots, whereas HTC doesn't like that.

Looking to the future, the SGS5 also offers UHD video capture (3840 x 2160 pixels) in addition to Full HD and a number of slow motion options. The results are lovely and crisp, with fast focusing, so you'll be able to capture all that UHD footage ready for your new TV. Just remember to find somewhere to store it, as a few minutes of UHD video will need GBs of storage.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a fantastic handset. The design could be seen as playing it safe, although the addition of waterproofing and presenting a compact and lightweight device has much merit, as does continued access to the battery.

The software updates don't make huge changes compared to its predecessor, although things feel a little more advanced and a little less cluttered than previous Samsung handsets. This is still Samsung doing what Samsung does best, however, and as much as we're ambivalent about the sometimes cartoony looks in some areas, we love the interlinking connectivity and the breadth of customisation and features on offer.

But the unique point really comes down to the combination of fingerprint scanner and the heart rate sensor. The wider play to promoting a healthy lifestyle is commendable, and although it ties together Samsung's wearable and mobile devices, we're wondering whether it will gain traction over existing systems. If nothing else, we love the at-a-glance step counter if you're using your phone as a pedometer.

However, we just want daily things to be a little faster: we want the screen to blink on the instant we hit the standby button, we want folders to pop open slightly faster and those user interface transitions to be slightly slicker.

But all that aside, the Samsung Galaxy S5 hits all the important spec points: the camera is a great performer, the display is excellent, and hardcore games play fast and fluid thanks to the onboard power. Yes it might be a handset playing it safe, but there's a huge amount of scope for the S5 to deliver beyond its current worth with ever-advancing apps. As it stands, with what we've got right now, this is still one excellent smartphone.